The worst and best of poets
"The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse" gives William McGonagall barely a mention -- just 2 pages out of 521 -- while Naxos Audio, for Poetry Month, devotes an entire CD to the 19th century poet’s work. The Penguin edition is somewhat diplomatic about the quality of the poetry, characterizing it as having "distinctively wayward metrics and tortured rhymes" while the Naxos notes come right out and declare: McGonagall is "seen as the worst poet in the language, a writer whose ambition and self-belief was only matched by his incompetence." (Uh, if you're going to criticize someone, shouldn't you be careful: it's "were," not "was.")
As read -- performed -- by actor Gregor Fisher, you may definitely wince at the bland language and vast sense of the obvious that McGonagall’s verse displays (though I think Fisher does play it up a little too much at times). You can listen and judge for yourself at the Naxos website, which provides audio samples of Fisher reading McGonagall.
Do we really need another book of John Donne’s poetry with notes? How could I dare to ask such a question: Of course we do. Theodore Redpath’s "The Songs and Sonets of John Donne" (Harvard University Press) comes with a rich commentary for every courtly lyric that Donne wrote that still draws sighs from readers today. Perhaps the book was designed for the high school or college English teacher seeking some fresh insights as they run through “A Valediction: forbidding mourning” for the thousandth time. On the other hand, it is a book for anyone who feels Donne is still news, for anyone who just wants to celebrate Donne's laments over an inconstant mistress or the alchemy of love by posting a verse without any explanation except the verse itself.
Why do we enjoy these poems so much? As Redpath explains, we return to them because of their "electro-magnetizing of whole fields of experience in their subtle details."
-- Nick Owchar