Posts Tagged ‘Bliss Carnochan’

Bliss Carnochan names the worst poet evah.

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

A cult figure now.

The world has exploded into violence, everywhere you turn this month. Where else to turn for a few moments’ respite from the news but … Scotland?

A few months ago, Bliss Carnochan gave a talk on his book Scotland the Brave during the Company of Authors event – I wrote about his book earlier here.  I meant to write about his talk that day, too – but, well, time ran away with me, and I forgot the details of what he said, so must refer to his book for the part I remember best: Bliss’s nomination for the worst poet evah. He’s not alone, apparently, in his assessment.

Where, he asks, should we begin in the extraordinary career of William McGonagall (1825–1902), who has become something of a cult figure? “He specialized in dramatic events: shipwrecks, battles and, in his best-known poem, the disastrous failure of the Tay Bridge, spanning the Firth of Tay near Dundee, in December, 1879. Only a year after it was built, the bridge collapsed in a storm under the weight of a passing train, killing all aboard when the train plunged into the water below.” Here’s the poem, then, with Bliss’s words to walk us through:

When the bridge had opened, McGonagall was bursting with Scottish pride.

Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array.
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou are the greatest railway bridge of the present day.

Lest passengers worry about the bridge’s strength, McGonagall assures them:

carnochanAnd I think nobody need have the least dismay
To cross o’er thee by night or by day.
Because thy strength is visible to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.
So long, so splendid is the Tay Bridge that it rivals a famous bridge across the sea:
The New Yorkers boast about their Brooklyn Bridge,
But in comparison to thee it seems like a midge,
Because thou spannest the silvery Tay
A mile and more longer I venture to say
Besides the railway carriages are pulled across by a rope,
Therefore Brooklyn Bridge cannot with thee cope…
But then the bridge collapsed in December,1879:
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 remember’d for a very long time.

McGonagall offers an engineering analysis of the disaster, quite at odds with his earlier raptures, and a homespun moral:

I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Bliss concludes that “the niceties of critical exegesis are probably lost on this poet’s oeuvre. Macro-poetics, not micro-poetics, are the issue here.” Is this the worst poem ever written? No! McGonagall falls from that to this, written at the request of bereaved parents in Scotland to honor their daughter who died young, and mercifully confines himself in one short quatrain:

Here lies little Mary Jane,
She neither cries nor hollers,
She lived but one and twenty days,
And cost us forty dollars.


Connoisseur of sorts…

Bliss Carnochan is a connoisseur of badness. “This may be uniquely bad, perhaps the worst poem ever written,” he mulls. “But its badness differs from that of McGonagall’s usual fare. Here he can only be read as sporting with a child’s death. As an expression of feeling in the face of tragedy, it is utterly perverse. That is not the case with poems like “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” in which the hypnotic monotony of expression—Hugh MacDiarmid calls it a ‘dead levelness of utterance’—flattens rather than perverts normal feelings. I think that is one reason why McGonagall’s poetry, in all its dreadfulness, has been able to attract an audience as devoted almost as that of Robert Burns.”

The legendary McGonagall has been remembered Spike Milligan’s film The Great McGonagall (1974), with Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria. McGonagall inspired a series of books, concluding with William McGonagall Meets George Gershwin (1988). “A William Topaz McGonagall Appreciation Society keeps his memory warm in his hometown of Dundee where, until his born-again life as a poet and performer, he was an impoverished hand-loom weaver. And a capacious website, McGonagall-Online, filled with information, provides a McGonagall poetic ‘gem’ each day, inviting readers to register if they would like to receive it by e-mail.”

According to the website here: “His audiences threw rotten fish at him, the authorities banned his performances, and he died a pauper over a century ago. But his books remain in print to this day, and he’s remembered and quoted long after more talented contemporaries have been forgotten.”

How did such an extraordinary writing career begin?  Bliss takes us to the roots. McGonagall writes: “I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was in the year of 1877, and in the month of June . . . when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears, ‘WRITE! WRITE!’” And so he did.

“Did he fabricate the whole thing? Almost certainly not. For better or worse, William McGonagall was born to write.”

Spike Milligan below as McGonagall. Not quite my thing, but it gives you a feel… In any case, Peter Sellers does an interesting turn as Queen Victoria.

Join us for the 11th annual “Company of Authors” on Saturday!

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

carnochanWe’ve written annually about Stanford’s “A Company of Authors” – here and here and here and here. The unusual event offers a chance to meet top Stanford authors, all published in the last year – plus a chance to buy their books without waiting for an Amazon delivery to your doorstep. But the April 19th event next week is special for another reason: Humble Moi will be one of the moderators, on the session featuring “The Power of Poetry.” Well, not entirely special, actually. I chaired a panel with the same title last year. The charming George Orwell biographer, Peter Stansky, who chairs the event, recycled the title for the panel this year. But what better title could we have picked? What would match the power of poetry?

Casper at the conference, Robert Harrison in the background (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Casper on Arendt, with Robert Harrison. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I met with one of my panelists last week for lunch over at the Stanford Humanities Center. Benjamin Paloff is a Slavic scholar deeply immersed in the work of Russian and Polish poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz, among others, so we had lots to talk about. He’s also  the excellent translator of Krzysztof Michalski‘s The Flame of Eternity, which we’ve discussed on these pages here. But he’s on my panel for the book I haven’t seen – his latest collection of poems, Politics. Benjamin is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, visiting from my own alma mater, the University of Michigan – Tung-Hui Hu, also on my panel, is an assistant professor of English in Ann Arbor. So three of us are used to cold weather. Tung-Hui wrote me this morning from the foggy cliffs of Djerassi Ranch. Well, we’ve written about Carl Djerassi‘s philanthropic venture here, and the terrors of driving to the place here. As for Rodney Koeneke, the final member of my panel, the Stanford alum and poet is visiting us from Portland. He appears to have no Michigan connection, nor anything that’s not on the Pacific. Quite wise of him.

michalski2At least one of the other books has been on these pages: Bliss Carnochan‘s Scotland the Brave.  We’ve also written about Ian Morris, Gavin Jones, Peter Carroll, and others. We haven’t written about former Stanford president Gerhard Casper (except to discuss his friendship with Hannah Arendt  here and here), but we should. His new book, The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University, has been getting some buzz.

Peter Stansky, as always, is the master of ceremonies. We can’t do much better than give you the elegant playbill below, and urge you to come to the Stanford Humanities Center next Saturday at 1 p.m. Oh, and it’s free. How many things can you say that about nowadays?


How Scots invented golf … and some pretty fine single malts, too

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

carnochan“Even those who know little of Scotland know that the Scots invented golf,” writes Bliss Carnochan in his new book, Scotland the Bravean eminently readable book that slipped into publication so quietly this summer that I didn’t notice.

But golf?  Actually, I didn’t know.  Chalk it up to my pure and untainted ignorance of sports.  (Why get all sweaty when you could be reading?) Fortunately, Bliss gets me off the hook with the next sentence:

Of course it may not be true: a Chinese scholar has claimed that the game originated in China and was brought to Scotland by Mongolian travelers. The Netherlands also have a claim. But golf’s association with Scotland is documented since the fifteenth century. Mary, Queen of Scots, is thought to have played. Golf is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its oddity. In other ball games that depend on guiding a ball into a particular target—like soccer or hockey or lacrosse or basketball—a goalkeeper or defender usually tries to prevent the other team from scoring. Billiards, a game older than golf and also played by Mary, Queen of Scots, is one instance of another game requiring the player to guide a ball into a small cavity without interference. Perhaps golf began as an outdoor imitation of billiards. But players in only a few competitive sports are so entirely on their own and so little affected by what other competitors do (except in rare cases of a stymie, under rules now revised out of existence). The psychic loneliness of the golfer and the long-distance runner are a match. Even so, and paradoxically, golf is sociable. In what other sport do players chat with competitors over a walking distance of several miles? The dialectic of private suffering and public good humor is seldom so pronounced. Nicola Barker, author of the golf novel, The Yips (2012), calls golf “a hawk gently wrapping its wing around the shoulders of a rabbit.”


Was she a “player”?

As every duffer knows, golf is also intolerably difficult. Hitting a very small stationary ball with a very long club may not be intrinsically harder than, as in baseball, hitting a medium-sized fast-moving ball with a medium-sized bat, but the stakes, per swing, are higher, statistically and psychologically. Swing and miss in baseball and you still have two chances; swing and miss in golf—or swing and hit the ball into an undesirable spot—and you not only lose a stroke but court humiliation. For the anxiety-prone, nothing in sport is more intimidating than standing on the first tee while others watch, prepared to stifle a laugh should you miss, or to stifle a groan should you hit a slice deep into the woods. And yet, when a ball goes far astray, sociability is called for: you and your partner go hunting in the rough, or in the brush, or amidst the leaves, whacking away in an attempt to locate the missing ball and wondering how soon those playing behind will grow impatient and want to play through. What is one to think of a people who invented so masochistic and yet so sociable a sport? Though fancying myself a Scot, I decided early on that enough masochism was enough. I’ve not picked up a club in years. For the Scots, however, golf is a national treasure.

The passage gives some idea of Bliss’s amiable ruminations.  In the short book, he ambles among his own Scottish roots, the extravagant claims made for Scotland, its curious history, and a few exalted achievements.

laphroaigHere’s where Bliss a man after my own heart: he lingers over the impressive taxonomies of whisky, including how Jim Murray’s description of “Ballantine’s 17 Years Old,” winner of his Whisky Bible award for 2011, “runs categorically amok: ‘deft grain and honey plus teasing salty peat’; ‘bourbon and pear drops offering the thrust’; ‘gooseberry juice offering a touch of sharpness muted by watered golden syrup’; ‘maltier tones clambering over the graceful cocoa-enriched grain’; ‘hints of smoke here and there’; ‘lashings of vanilla and cocoa on the fade’; ‘a faint spicey, vaguely smoky buzz’; ‘the most subtle oiliness imaginable.'”  I’ll settle for my own favorite, in simpler language: “The famous Laphroaig single malt from Islay is rated eight for smokiness, as high a number as that for any flavor of any whisky; anyone who has tasted it knows that it is like drinking liquid peat.”  Perhaps I’ll go fill a glass right now, and raise a toast to Queen Mary.


Postscript: I wasn’t aware of Robin Williams‘s take on the Scots and golf,  until David Palumbo-Liu alerted me to it.  Many thanks, David!

Lazy winter hours with the TLS

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

carnochanAhhhhhh, the long winter break.  One of its underrated luxuries: the opportunity to slog through piles of the magazines, newspapers, and journals that accumulate, unread, on one’s sidetable, or chair, or bed.  So I discovered in the December 4  Times Literary Supplement a review of Bliss Carnochan‘s new book, with the unlikely title, Golden Legends: Images of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson to Bob Marley.

Reviewer Felipe Fernández-Armesto found it a “capricious little book,” and “jolly reading.”  Though he chides Carnochan blissfor overlooking works in Latin and Portuguese that had an English-speaking audience before the publication of Job Ludolf’s 1681 History of Ethiopia, he is intrigued by Carnochan’s account of those early travel writers “escaping reality, creating or burnishing golden legends of a land almost as isolated or enclosed as Johnson’s imaginary Abyssinian valley…”

“Against this background, the Rastafarian project of ‘return’ to an Ethiopia that never existed, ‘thou land of our fathers’, where Haile Selassie was a god ‘who liveth and reigneth I-tinually’, seems hardly more mad than those of the white pilgrims who preceded it.”


The TLS also features — in an issue that has yet to reach California mailboxes — an article about the latest book of Timothy Garton Ash, “the scholar of velvet revolutions.” George Brock’s review of  Facts Are Subversive is online here.

ash2Particularly cheering words for those of us in the word trade:  Ash has “placed himself at the intersection of journalism, history and literature … If not quite no-man’s-land, this frontier territory is sparsely populated; few writers succeed in the delicate balancing acts involved in working there. Quite apart from the unusual talents required for what he calls this ‘mongrel craft’, employers with patience and resources are vital; the longer pieces in this collection appeared in the New York Review of Books. Those anxious about the businesses that sustain journalism in print should pray for the continued health of the small band of periodicals that fund such long-form reportage.”