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The Value of Bad Poetry

One of my favorite blogs, Fine Books Magazine, has  just brought it to my attention that an unpublished work from William McGonagall is going to auction and is expected to raise somewhere in the vicinity of £3,000.  Now, an unpublished Victorian poem fetching four figures isn’t exactly groundbreaking – the truly remarkable part of this valuation is that McGonagall is considered by many to be one of the worst poets in the history of the English language.  This may beg the question: why on God’s green earth would someone pay serious money for admittedly bad poetry?

Most people, and it seems the folks at Fine Books would fall into this category, would say that  while McGonagall was notoriously bad, he at least had notoriety (albeit for ineptitude) and that any notoriety has to be more collectible than mediocrity.  I get this.  Sometimes I read campy science fiction, enjoy b-rate cinema, and fall to the crutch of a pulp mystery; so I understand the allure of art which is so bad it’s good.  However – and I may get strung up for saying this here – but the real reason I find this story fascinating is that I dislike most poetry, and the idea of “bad” poetry being auctioned off for four figures somehow vindicates my stance in my own tiny mind.

Call me uncouth, but (to me) so much poetry is just awkwardly written, misaligned prose.  Unless it has a Dr. Seuss approved rhyme scheme I just lose interest by the third stanza.  Highbrow literature may be challenging but at least I can see the beauty within it. But poetry just gets reduced to limericks in my head.  I don’t say this to belittle poets or poetry; I realize that I have the poetic equivalent of being tone-deaf. All I mean to say is there’s no accounting for taste.  Perhaps the purchase of McGonagall poem will simply be done in mockery, a haughty laugh at history’s worst poet, or maybe the high bidder will see the inner beauty McGonagall saw in these lines when he wrote them:

God bless, the lovely, and sweet Princess May, Also, the Duke of York, so handsome and gay.
Long life, and happiness to them, in married life.
May they always, be prosperous and free from strife.
May their hearts, always be full of glee. And, be kind, to each other, and ne’er disagree.
And, may the demon, discontent, never mar their happiness.
And, my God, be their comforter, in time of distress…
And, if they have children, may they grow grace.
And, be an honour, to the royal race. Of the empress of India, and Great Britain’s Queen. Who is faithful to her subjects, and ever has been.

Besides, we all know the worst poet in history was Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex:

Posted by on February 19, 2013.

Categories: poetry

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