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The insider's guide to the `world's worst poet'

By Alison Daniels for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- He is already acknowledged as the world's worst poet, Scotland's other national bard (Robert Burns being the pretender) is now set to claim a new title, the world's worst playwright. Literary aficionados will be horrified to learn that a long forgotten play by William McGonagall will be published next month.

Who is he?

As every Scottish school child knows, William Topaz McGonagall, is a 19th century poet whose literary efforts are held up in classrooms as examples of how never, ever, to write. McGonagall was born in the Scottish capital Edinburgh in 1825 and left school at the age of seven. His family moved to the city of Dundee where he worked as a competent handloom weaver. Unfortunately, at the age of 52, he decided to forgo the loom for the pen and turn professional poet.

Tell me about his work.

The descriptions, "atrocious," "unintentionally hilarious" and "completely talentless" are almost always attached to his efforts. In Scotland he is hailed as the World's Best Bad Poet. McGonagall was tone deaf, his poetry doesn't scan, and he relies heavily on cliches. However, his poems do rhyme.

Give me some examples.

Here is how the poet attempted to capture the spirit of New York in his poem, "Jottings of New York:"

Oh, mighty city of New York
You are wonderful to behold
Your buildings are magnificent -- the truth be it told
They were the only thing that seemed to arrest my eye
Because many of them are thirteen stories high.

Or take, "The Tay Bridge Disaster", which attempts to chronicle one of Britain's worst rail disasters:

Beautiful railway bridge of the Silv'ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remembered for a very long time.

Oh, I see what you mean. Are they all that bad?

Yes. His public readings left audiences roaring with laughter. He was banned from performing when one of his readings sparked a riot.

So why on earth does anyone read his work?

Because he's so bad. According to Dr Gerard Carruthers, senior lecturer in Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow, reading McGonagall is like "watching a car crash;" you simply can't take your eyes off something appalling. Since 1890 McGonagall's "Poetic Gems" has been reprinted every year.

So what's the new play about?

"Jack o'the Cudgel, or the Hero of a Hundred Flights" is a meant to be an epic tale set in the court of England's King Edward II. However, although it has five acts, it only takes a brief 25 minutes to perform.

It features a lad called Jack and his rise from pauper to royal knight. In summary Jack vanquishes his enemies by clubbing them over the head with a cudgel.

It was once staged in the 1960s and everyone hoped that was the end of it. But now it will be published for the first time in a new collected works.

What do the experts think of it?

Dr Carruthers, of the University of Glasgow told CNN: "The play is basically a pantomime. There's something a bit cruel about the repeated reprinting of McGonagall's work."

Chris Hunt, editor of a new collection of McGonagall's work told The Times: "The play is funny, but not in the way McGonagall intended, and the best I can say is that it adds to the gaiety of nations."

So does he have any fans?

Oh yes. The writer has something of a cult following. An episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus featured a McGonagall-esque poet called Ewan MacTeagle. J.K. Rowling named a teacher in her bestselling Harry Potter series Professor McGonagall in tribute.


The world's worst poet? William McGonagall

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