The World’s Worst Poet
. . . is not an Illinoisan but only just
May 1, 1981
The published subtitle read, “William McGonagall was mighty bad, of course. But an Illinoisan wrote ‘To the Appaloosa Horse.’” A review of a sort, and an appreciation. The title is misleading. My topic here was in fact all the world’s great bad poets, or at least all the great bad poets in my world, which included Illinois.
I wondered as I ambled amused through the stanzas of William McGonagall's "An Address to the New Tay Bridge"—where is Illinois's McGonagall?" McGonagall was the Scots poet who died in 1902 and left behind him a body of work so striking in its originality that Thai scholars while away the monsoon seasons studying it. Even Bulgarians read McGonagall, and while it is true that there isn't much else to do in Bulgaria, it is also true that there is a lot to do in California, and Californians read him too.
McGonagall was a great poet. He was not, however, an especially good one. His greatness is in the fact that he was so much less good than anyone else. There are many times in the history of Art when earnestness and incompetence combine with results so singular that encountering them is like walking unawares into a glass door. Middle-aged female church choristers who sing like cats which a prudent person would never have let out of the bag often have this effect on their listeners. So does the statue of Everett McKinley Dirksen on the Statehouse grounds in Springfield, which is proof that the impulses that animate the artist's breast do not beat inside ordinary mortals.
McGonagall's breast was far from ordinary in the matter of impulses. His heart was perennially full of glee. He was inspired not by love or the seasons but by fires, disasters, railway bridges, even public improvements such as the much-admired Glasgow Water Works. His best work memorializes resorts in terms that would bring tears to the eyes of any industrial development council. "Bonnie Kilmay, in the County of Fife," he once wrote, "Is a healthy spot to reside in to lengthen one's life."
To say that his poems did not fall lightly upon the ear is to not say enough. Publicans used to throw peas at him. A waiter once slapped him in the face with a wet towel to force his silence. Like our Vachel Lindsay, he traded rhymes for bread; he died a hungry man. He fancied himself Poet to the Queen, but since his death readers have bestowed a different title upon him: The World's Worst Poet.
I am told that McGonagall outsells Tennyson in Great Britain. Until recently, however, McGonagall was a closed book to most Illinoisans, indeed to most Americans. Then, in 1979, Templegate Publishers of Springfield published a book of selections from the Master. Entitled, The World's Worst Poet (paperback, $4.95). The book offers forty-one of McGonagall's best (er, worst), along with a reminiscence by the poet and an appreciation by James Jackson, foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.
Random quotation cannot convey McGonagall's inspired awfulness any more than listening to only one speech by a legislator can convey the scope of his mediocrity. To be bad occasionally is commonplace. To be consistently and perfectly bad is Art. McGonagall had an utter lack of pretension of the sort that makes most poor verse not bad as much as boring. The more I read of McGonagall, the more I realized how unique he was, and why it has been so hard to find his equal; a contest in Great Britain to find a poet as bad as McG. had been declared no contest.
Reading McGonagall forces one to reconsider one’s notions about what makes a poem a poem, or, more accurately, what makes a good poem. According to the usual standards, McGonagall is pretty bad, but testing the limits of their media and their audience's assumptions is what great artists have always sought to do. McGonagall could not write like Tennyson, true. But it is also true—and the significance of this truth hit me like a brick—that Tennyson could not write like McGonagall!
So who is Illinois's McGonagall? I began turning over every stone in my files, hoping to find beneath one of them the equal of McG.'s poetic gems. The pickings were anything but slim. Many candidates were flawed by either pretentions to Art (see "The Bannerstone," written by Charles C. Thomas about the Wright-designed Dana House) or pretensions to Profundity (which sank the Rev. D. G. Carson's 1910 ode to the first airplane to land in Springfield when he began babbling about angel wings and the Wright brothers).
I was gratified and surprised to find so many works, however, which were flawed by neither. For example, Jim Enright, a Chicago sportswriter who authored the 1977 book March Madness: The Story of High School Basketball in Illinois, wrote a poem titled, "The Modern Ides of March." It takes as its subject the state basketball tournament, and reads in part:
Repressions die, and partisans vie
in a goal acclaiming roar.
On Championship Trail toward holy grail,
All fans are birds of a feather.
It's fiesta night and cares lie light
When the air is full of leather.
I like to think that old McGonagall's ghost smiles whenever these lines are sung. But alas, Enright apparently has tethered his muse to sports, so while he is the Scotsman's equal in other ways he lacks the Master's scope. "If only," I thought, "Enright had been there when the Rosemont Civic Center collapsed."
As "Casey at the Bat" proved, sports and poetry do not mix well. Two Springfield lawyers tried it in 1974 in a verse tribute to Henry Aaron's record-setting 715th home run, a poem which was endorsed in the form of a resolution by the city council. It passes the test in one respect, in that it slips in a patriotic reference to a local hero, Springfield's big league Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, who faced Aaron many times. "Our own Robin Roberts helped you along," it read, "With nine juicy pitches ripe for your brawn/ We think you are super, Hammerin' Hank/ So accept our salute and greatest of thanks."
Commerce has been the inspiration of much bad architecture and more worse prose, so it should surprise no one that it occasionally inspires equally bad verse. McGonagall himself, an honest and thus a poor man, rose to dizzy heights of eloquence in describing Beecham's Pills and Hudson Soap. In 1900 an unknown Springfield author penned a piece called "The Leland 'Hotel Mineral Spring" which described the iron spring which then bubbled in Springfield's Washington Park, water from which "You get . . . free at the hotel/ It cures the sick and makes them well."
They took the water to a college,
Unto a chemist of great knowledge;
"I will see what it contains," said he,
"If you will pay a liberal fee."
He took his time and made the test;
Said he, "Your water is the best
And purest that I ever saw;
It far excels the Waukesha."
So now the guests they are all glad;
They drink no water that is bad,
And say that Leland is the man
Who does them all the good he can.
I put it to my readers: Doesn't this belong on a plaque someplace?
As long as we're putting up plaques, we might as well save a bit of brass for this 1974 work by Melba Eichen of Raymond, published in a local newspaper. "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm/ When the farmer loses his shirt and the farm its charms?" she asks. And before you can say, "Damned if I know," she's off again with a warning:
If the farmer would strike bringing
production to a standstill
His food would make your mouth water,
whatever the bill.
Count your blessings lest the horn of plenty
runs [sic] dry.
You can't spell agriculture without u or i.
Fine stuff, this. But I suspect that Ms. Eichen, like Jim Enright, is a one-subject bard. Where, I demanded, was the poet who looked at the world with an eye for subject matter as accommodating as McGonagall? Who shared McG.'s passion for the prosaic? Who, like McG., would let neither meter nor meaning interfere with a rhyme?
Finally I found my man. He is V. Y. Dallman, who for decades was the editor of the old Illinois State Register. Dallman was a man erect in principle as well as bearing, an avid walker and reformer who died in a car crash in 1964 at the age of ninety-one, and who for years published verse in his column in the Register. I recognized an artist the instant I scanned this opening couplet from Dallman's "To the Appaloosa Horse," which reads, "Here's to the Appaloosa Horse, In World affairs a happy force!" Here was my man at last. Dallman clearly was inspired by the Appaloosa; another part of the same poem reads, "His limbs excite deep admiration/ They are this world's best transportation!"
Like McGonagall, Dallman also was inspired by public improvements. About the decorative fountains in front of Springfield's Municipal Building, which were donated by the local Roman Cultural Society, Dallman wrote (somewhat mystifyingly),
The Roman Cultural Society
By striving to keep loveliness in flower
With brilliant fountain lights prompts us to see
The challenge of World Crises of this hour!"
This, I thought as I read, is what separates an artist from a mere mortal. Blake saw the world in a grain of sand; Dallman saw world crises in dancing water. All I've ever seen in those fountains is candy wrappers and the odd penny tossed in with a wish by unemployed precinct committeemen. And also like McGonagall, Dallman was not averse to making plugs. In "Toast to Circus Fans," he nodded to one of the city's best-known photographers when he wrote,' 'Herb Georg with pictures old and new/Makes Circus scenes pass in review."
Dallman was a past potentate of the Ansar Temple, and it was on the occasion of The Potentate's Ball in 1964 that he rose to make a toast to a Mr. Bell, the new potentate, and Bell's wife. “In you such previous virtues blend/ Your honeymoon should never end!" he sang. "True love—YOU—can depend on/ And have more Bells than a Carillon!" He concluded the toast with these lines: "Let ice cubes tinkle great GOOD WILL”/Hail to the Bells of Chandlerville!!!”
I'm not old enough to remember Dallman, but I miss him just the same. The closest thing to poetry in the Copley paper these days is Ken Watson's Statehouse column. And think of the grist for Dallman's mill that has fallen wasted on the ground since 1964! What would Dallman have given us, I wonder, on the subject of White Oaks Mall? How much more uplifting would the Redbirds' pennant-winning 1980 season have been if Dallman had been there to memorialize it? Think of the department store openings, the new sewer lines, the parking ramps that went up without commemoration. A light went out when Dallman died, and Springfield is still in the dark. ●
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