Multiple friends on separate occasions mentioned the news that a collection of William McGonagal‘s poems had been auctioned for £6,600. He was, apparently, to poetry what Florence Foster Jenkins was to classical song: an unintentional laughing-stock. Unfortunately, this is the poetry news that reaches my non-poet friends: that old bad poems get sold for lots of money.
New bad poems, unfortunately, won’t fare so well. Like classical song, nineteenth-century verse requires certain talents. Reading through samples of McGonagal’s poems, his lack of talent, particularly with regard to scansion, is evident. He hurls headlong with great effort toward each end-rhyme and, in the process, makes statements and observations so obvious and banal as to be surprising, almost childlike, in how unremarkable they are. In fact, many of his poems read like children’s attempts at formal verse. Furthermore, such “innocent” poetry stumbles in to unintentional humor.
Contemporary poetry is irrevocably different than nineteenth-century verse. This semester, Marvin Bell has been been encouraging me to attempt to write “bad” poetry, to “fall on my face” linguistically, to get myself into situations where I am “hopelessly lost but still typing.” It has been an invigorating antidote to my tendency to write neat, short poems. But it is precisely because contemporary poetry seeks to break rules (and thereby discover more interesting territory) that we will never again see a single, definitive “worst poet” in our time. In the absence of a centralized governing aesthetic, we no longer have a stick by which to measure “worst.”
Believe me, I am not saying there aren’t a lot of bad poems out there–genuinely bad poems, written by poets equally lacking in self-awareness as McGonagal. People are still writing awkward verse. Others are trying to pass off prose as poetry. Still others will try to convince you that their cerebral and wholly unmoving twelve-line exercise in linguistics can be justified by a several-hundred-page dissertation. But audiences no longer feel sufficient confidence to hurl rotten eggs or fruit. They hesitate. This may be due to a certain mystique in which contemporary poetry has managed to defensively enshroud itself. But also, the line between “bad” and “great” (not good, but great) seems thinner than ever in this iconoclast medium.
Even, for example, in Flarf, the deliberate attempt to write indisputably bad poetry, interesting nuggets often emerge which, taken up in the hands of a talented writer, can lead to remarkable poems. As Marvin says in this video, “sometimes the worst part of a poem contains the seeds of something that will be terrific if the person would just push it further.” In this sense, the creative, generative act of writing a contemporary poem is one in which “best” and “worst” must cease to exist for awhile, in service to a kind of exploration I call spelunking in consciousness.
In order to write, we must be willing to explore, and we must be willing to fail. We must be willing to write our McGonagal lines–what Ellen Bass calls “platforms”–because without the McGonagals in our creative process, we end up settling for good instead of great or, worse, being gagged by the inner critic and ceasing to write at all. In this sense, while there may never be another McGonagal per se in post-postmodern literature, there is, perhaps now more than ever, a little McGonagal in us all.