It was a Sunday evening, the 28th of December in the year 1879. A dire storm was hitting Scotland hard—in Glasgow, the wind speed was measured at 71 mph. In Dundee, the wind was pummeling the bridge over the Firth of Tay, the Tay Rail Bridge, blowing at a speed of 80 mph and at a right angle. The wind, along with questionable design and craftsmanship of the bridge, was blamed when the the bridge collapsed that night, taking with it a train that was passing over it and the lives of everyone aboard. The event was later dubbed the “Tay Bridge disaster,” and there were at least two poems written about it.
One of them was “Die Brück’ am Tay” by the German poet Theodor Fontane. The other was “The Tay Bridge Disaster” by the Scottish poet William McGonagall, who was considered to be a particularly bad poet during his lifetime. Over a century later “The Tay Bridge Disaster” is still one of the top contenders for the title of Worst Poem Ever.
What Makes a Poem Bad?
There are those who believe that there’s no such thing as a good poem. Plato was one of them—he believed that all poetry was bad. The ancient Greek philosopher had three objections to poetry. He considered it to be unethical because it promoted passions he deemed undesirable. He did not find poetry to be philosophical, because it didn’t provide any true knowledge. He also found it less worthy than more practical arts, which diminished poetry’s educational value. These views, of course, had their opponents—most notably Aristotle, who defended poetry, saying that it provided the valuable experience of catharsis, among other things.
Plato’s objections and Aristotle’s valiant defense dealt with the very essence of poetry. Both men were philosophers, after all. But Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a.k.a. Horace, was a Roman poet who, in his work Ars Poetica gave the world a set of guidelines for what makes poetry—or any other kind of writing, for that matter—good. Horace was an adversary of purple prose, which was the term he coined for flowery language. He advocated for unity and proper use of meter and style. He set standards for the traits a poet should possess, including a superior intellect, common sense, and adherence to higher ideals. By setting standards for good poetry, Horace also set standards for poetry that’s not good.
What Would Quintus Horatius Flaccus Say Today?
Horace’s ideas proved to be very influential—he was an inspiration behind the thirteenth century Poetria nova by Geoffrey of Vinsauf, which aimed to replace Horace’s work. Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, written in the early eighteenth century, gives what we call today best practices for poets, but also draws on Horace, among other classical sources, for inspiration.
Over time, of course, the perception of what is good and what is bad in poetry has changed a lot. It would be interesting to see what Horace would say about Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” or Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” But what was set up so long ago remains true to this day—there are those who think that all poetry is bad. There are also those who think that only certain types of poetry are good and that everything else is bad.
The unfortunate William McGonagall had rotten fish thrown at him when he read his poems in front of audiences. Today, he is still considered one of the worst poets in the world, but if you read any of his works, you might think it’s so bad it’s actually good—there is such a thing today. The same might be said for Theophilus Marzials, whose poem “A Tragedy” might just match the badness of anything McGonagall ever did. Or you can look up Margaret Cavendish or Edgar A. Guest, who are also often cited as very bad poets. Or maybe hunt down the poetry of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings. But maybe, just maybe, you might take Bad Poetry Day as an opportunity to write your own bad poetry. And remember—the worse it gets, the more fun it will be to laugh at it.