In praise of Scotland's 'worst poet.'

March 2, 2017

This is 'Thought for the Day' - my latest contribution to BBC Radio Scotland

 

Good morning. I’ve got a soft spot for the great city of Dundee, and for good reasons. Firstly, it’s the birthplace of ‘The Dandy. the comic of my boyhood: they’ve even put up a statue to the one-and-only Desperate Dan. Secondly it was the home of the great Mary Slessor, whose work in Nigeria did so much so much to liberate women and girls. And lastly because Dundee is famous for the work of the great William McGonagall. whose best- known bad poem commemorates the collapse of the Tay Bridge – ‘On the last Sabbath Day of 1879.’

 

That’s just one of the items included in a new collection called ‘Poets of the People’s Journal’, presenting work published in a Dundee newspaper over twenty five years. Their writing opens a window into a fascinating past – but what, I wonder, have they got to say to US in the present? Poets can sometimes put into words what the rest of us feel but can’t express. For me, great lines in the Biblical Psalms speak eternal truth across the centuries - and the little-known poets of Dundee have something lasting to say too. While campaigning against the slave trade one writer begs us not to forget ‘the Scottish servant maid’ - the exploited worker nearer home. It’s old style versifying, but the message is up to date, because human trafficking – at home and abroad – is still very much with us. International disasters come so thick and fast nowadays that our responses may be battered into indifference. And here even the much- mocked McGonagall has a word to say. He’s - writing a poem about a dreadful shipwreck – that’s the Victorian equivalent of a disaster movie –

 

‘A young lady did madly cry and rave

Three hundred pounds my life to save.’

 

He’s not indifferent. McGonagall clearly sees many suffering faces in the midst of the general mayhem. And so ‘Thanks to him, and to long forgotten writers of Dundee’ – whose poetry says: ‘In God’s name, don’t switch off your sympathy.’

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