Alas, for the South! Her
books have grown fewer—
She never was much given to literature.”

. . . Thus, South Carolina’s J. Gordon Coogler—“the last bard of Dixie, at least in the legitimate line,” as H.L. Mencken put it in his scathing essay “Sahara of the Bozart.” Mencken’s essay has by now introduced several generations of readers to the Songbird of Dixie. No doubt many of those readers have assumed that Mencken made him up, but he did not: the Bard of the Congaree was all too real, the author of Purely Original Verse (1897), nearly all of it every bit as lame as his immortal couplet on Southern belles lettres.

Coogler is a splendid example of what we might call a primitive poet, the verbal equivalent of the folk artists whose paintings have lately come to command critical acclaim and inflated prices.

My region boasts many others. Heck, my state does. I place in evidence Nematodes in My Garden of Verse, subtitled A Little Book of Tar Heel Poems and edited in 1959 by Richard Walser. Walser culled a number of these things from turn-of-the-century North Carolina newspapers which often printed their readers’ verse, dealing with Presidential assassinations, train wrecks, the coming of spring, and other subjects of civic or personal interest. But the centerpiece of Nematodes is six poems from a little book called Little Pansy (1890), by the Poetissima Laureatissima [sic] of Bladen County, North Carolina, Miss Mattie J. Peterson, in whose masterwork “I Kissed Pa Twice After His Death” are found the priceless lines:

I saw him coming, stepping high.

Which was of his walk the way.


I don’t know why—or even whether—the South has produced more than its share of primitive poets. Even if we do have a quantitative edge, however, this bardic tradition is not a Southern monopoly. In fact, the all-time record for sustained badness without surcease, year in and year out, a record unsurpassed and unsurpassable, must belong to a 19th-century Dundee weaver. The inimitable William McGonagall retired the cup.

A short account of McGonagall’s career may have some inspirational value for those not familiar with it. In 1877, by his own account, McGonagall was seized by a “strange kind of feeling [that] seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry.” He promptly penned a testimonial to a local clergyman, in verse which concluded:

My blessing on his noble form.

And on his lofty head.

May all good angels guard him while living.

And hereafter when he’s dead.

The reverend gentleman responded tactfully that “Shakespeare never wrote anything like this,” and it was onward and downward thereafter for McGonagall.

There was no stopping him. He didn’t take hints. When he stepped up to recite his verse in pubs, people jeered him, threw peas at him, dumped flour on him. His persistence amounted to a species of heroism, diminished only slightly by the fact that he seemed not to recognize ridicule and abuse for what it was. After the publication of his first book, Poetic Gems, for instance, some students wrote him a hoaxing letter from the “King of Burma” proclaiming him a “Knight of the Order of the White Elephant of Burma”; thereafter he signed himself, in perfect faith, “Sir William.”

It is simply impossible to convey the effect produced by an entire book of McGonagall’s verse. It is all dreadful. I swear to you that I have just now opened at random to this stanza, from a lengthy account of the Johnstown flood:

The pillaging of the houses in

Johnstown is fearful to describe,

By the Hungarians and ghouls,
and woe betide

Any person or party that
interfered with them,

Because they were mad with
drink, and yelling like tigers in a den.

There are pages and pages of this stuff.

It is estimated that a half-million copies of Poetic Gems have been sold since McGonagall’s day—not, alas, to the profit of the author and his longsuffering wife and children. (Most recently, Templegate Publishers of Springfield, Illinois, issued a volume of selections, with an appreciative introduction by James O. Jackson.) In 1965 the BBC held a competition to find a worthy successor to McGonagall, but the judges called it off: none of the entries, they said, were in the same league.

And of course they couldn’t have been. The BBC’s contest was like asking people to do primitive paintings. People who paint the apotheosis of Hank Williams do not think of their work as folk art. This kind of thing can’t be done tongue-in-cheek. It must be turned out in dead earnest. (And by people who ought to know better: children can write like this, and sometimes do, but the effect isn’t the same at all.)

So I propose a different competition. I suggest instead that we seek McGonagallisms in the work of poets who are, or at one time were, well-regarded. Even Homer nods, and isolated passages almost as bad as the ones I’ve quoted have been written by people who made better livings off their verse than poor Sir William ever did.

Send me your favorites; I’ll print the most awful specimens, and we’ll think of a prize.

My candidate, to get things started, is from John Greenleaf Whittier’s eulogy, “Randolph of Roanoke”:

Too honest or too proud to feign

A love he never cherished.

Beyond Virginia’s border line

His patriotism perished.

True, it scans, and the rhymes aren’t bad. But you must admit that it has that Coogleresque quality, that Petersonian je ne sais quoi. William McGonagall would not have been ashamed of it.