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Advanced Study in Metrical Verse with William McGonagall

March 24, 2010

Vancouver has what is known as a VLC (vibrant literary community). I’ve heard locals claim that the city lacks culture, but having lived in Calgary for eight years and in a useless right-wing church-infested hamlet for nine fucking years before that, I can’t help but suspect that some Vancouverites just don’t know how good they’ve got it. From creative writing courses to slam poetry competitions to public readings by major authors, the Big V is getting it “write.” (How much did you like that pun? How much did you appreciate the totally unnecessary emphasis provided by the quotation marks? A lot? Yeah, that’s what I thought.)

Given Vancouver’s commitment to culture, I was hardly surprised to learn that Scottish literary phenom William McGonagall is on his way to town to teach a three-day advanced poetry seminar. Needless to say, I signed up immediately. Metre and rhyme are out of style these days, I’ve heard, but I plan to keep using both, mainly because I can’t help it, but also because I’m a rebel and I don’t let the establishment tell me how to live my life. And who better to help me to refine and polish my craft than William McGonagall? A self-described “poet,” McGonagall has composed hundreds of memorable lines on subjects ranging from the Tay Bridge disaster to minor historical figures (And when life’s prospects may at times appear dreary to ye, / Remember Alois Senefelder, the discoverer of Lithography).

Writing is about community, and I just wanted to take this opportunity to introduce Mr. McGonagall to any Daily Beardsters and Beardstresses who may not be familiar with his work. I hope you’ll indulge me. He really is one of the most memorable writers out there and he deserves some publicity!

McGonagall’s trilogy on the construction, collapse, and reconstruction of the Tay Bridge is arguably his most beloved contribution to English literature. The first of the poems, The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay, begins unforgettably:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array,
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.

The originality of the metre is only slightly less striking than the creativity of the punctuation and grammar. It is immediately apparent that one is in the presence of a craftsman. The architectural details hauntingly foreshadow the subject matter of the second poem in the trilogy: The Tay Bridge Disaster. In that masterpiece, McGonagall laments that ninety lives have been taken away / On the last Sabbath day of 1879, / Which will be remembered for a very long time. At the conclusion of the poem he returns to the now familiar theme of a design flaw in the bridge:

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.

This tour-de-force is a wonder to behold. Where to begin? Notice the rhyming quartet: McGonagall is an envelope-pusher, rarely content to limit himself to common structural devices as the rhyming couplet. Here as in the previous poem, the poet addresses the bridge directly, bringing the concept of apostrophe to a whole new level. McGonagall clearly knows his classics; the unconventional word order of the penultimate line echoes the subject-object-verb construction so common to the inflected languages from which English was born. Marvellous.

When the bridge was rebuilt, the Muse visited McGonagall again, and in this final installment of the Tay Bridge series, we find the poet in good spirits once more:

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.

Employing the classical poetic technique known as “ring composition,” McGonagall echoes the first line of the first poem of the trilogy and draws the reader’s attention once more to the buttresses and central girders which anchor the new Tay Bridge no less than they anchor the very trilogy itself. In this passage as in the previous excerpt, the poet showcases his willingness to emphasize an important point through the use of classical word order.

William McGonagall is a man of philanthropic spirit, and upon the recent passing of Sir John Ogilvy, our poet turned bitter grief into sweet lyricism:

He was a public benefactor in many ways,
Especially in erecting an asylum for imbecile children to spend their days…

A noble, unforgettable tribute to a departed townsman. I can only hope to acquire some of the tools with which McGonagall so expertly shapes and crafts his lines. I fear that I will be too nervous and beplagued by inferiority to rise to the occasion and complete the seminar assignments in such a manner as to make the teacher proud. What should I wear? Maybe I should buy a new outfit… And hair up, or down? Augh, so many decisions to make by next weekend! This is so stressful!!

Have I mentioned McGonagall’s philosophical acumen? If not, I’m sure it will have become apparent by now, but I don’t want to undersell the genius of the man. In The Clepington Catastrophe, McGonagall offers some truly thought-provoking musings on psychology and predestination:

Accidents will happen by land and by sea,
Therefore to save ourselves from accidents, we needn’t try to flee,
For whatsoever God ordained will come to pass.
For instance, ye may be killed by a stone or a piece of glass.

I don’t consider it overstatement to proclaim that McGonagall’s handling of the notion of human destiny is a thousand times more potent and masterful than Sophocles’ treatment of the topic in Oedipus Tyrannus. He accomplishes more in four lines than the great Titan of Tragedy Sophocles manages to accomplish in over a thousand.

Next weekend is going to change my life. I can’t wait!

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