Who was the all-time worst poet of the English language?

This may belong in Great Debates or maybe even the Pit, so if the mods choose to move it I won’t be surprised or disappointed.

I’m not asking about pop poets like Rod McKuen or some Ed Woods Jr. type of utterly untalented poseur whose verse was never taken seriously.

I’m asking about figures who are or have been considered major poets by the literati for at least thirty or forty years. I want the kind who routinely turn up in the pages of college lit courses, the sort that hardly anybody dares to question. I want you to name someone whose beatification among the literary greats utterly baffles and/or enrages you, and then tell us exactly why this cheap little hack ought to be run out of town on a rail together with anybody who ever praised him. I want someone you consider so bad that it’s a marvel he’s even remembered, let alone revered. Tell me about the major poet whose verse makes your skin crawl. Tell me about the versifier who makes you wonder if bookburning just might be a good idea. Tell me about the dead white guy who made you want to leap up in the middle of your English lit class and beat your professor stoutly about the head and shoulders with your textbook. It it Whitman? Is it Yeats? Eliot? Cummings? Ginsberg? I’m only an occasional reader of poetry myself, so I don’t feel I know enough about it to offer a reasonably informed opinion. (I do happen to consider Allen Ginsberg vastly overrated, but he probably doesn’t qualify as the worst of all time and space.)

So come on. Drag that miserable little phony out to the public square and pillory the jerk so we can all throw rotten tomatoes at him.

Aren’t you rather contradicting the title of your thread by suggesting the census be confined to poets who are canonical? I can easily tell you the name of the worst poet in the English language, by general consensus: it’s the 19th-c. Scottish poet William MacGonagall, author of the “Tay Bridge Disaster”.

If one is looking for recentish poets who received a measure of acclaim in their time & may be found in ordinary anthologies (as opposed to specialist “bad verse” anthologies like that of D B Wyndham Lewis), I think there are probably plenty of candidates for consistent mediocrity. In English verse, C. Day Lewis & Stephen Spender, for instance, the first in particular.

Holy cow, he’s terrible.

My lord. That’s terrible. Help. I was going to try to think of a nomination, and then i followed Might Maximino’s link. I give up. Gah. :eek:

I am unfazed. I hereby nominate William Carlos Williams.

I’m sure you remember
as using nonsensical line
with inane pathetically short

I was going to nominate myself, having turned out some really dismal work in High School. Not merely bland, trite peoms, no, but poems with line and syllable counts derived from the Fibbonaci series (truth be told, I didn’t like my English teacher very much).

Then I saw that the OP only wanted famous poets, and I contemplated nominating myself anyway, since as far as I know my old English teacher still does read some of my poems aloud to his class, as object lessons.

Then I followed Mighty Maximino’s link, and discovered that, no matter how many Fibbonaci poems I write, I’ll always be second-worst. I am honored and amazed to have seen such tremendous lack of talent, even at this remove. Were I wearing a hat, I’d take it off.

Wow, Maximo. I’m giggling like a hyena, helplessly and in falsetto, after reading those poems. How could anyone else possibly win?


When I opened this thread, I wondered, “How long will it take before someone mentions William MacGonagall?” One post…well done, Dopers.

William Carlos Williams still stands up for me less as “poetry” and more as elegant and contemplative koans about the nature of life and moments of memory and experience. But that’s just me.

Apparently, this appears in the background of a segment of the televised BBC version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This poem is (fictionally) that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, the fictional author whom the poetry of Vogons is compared to. (The name was originally “Paul Neil Milne Johnstone,” who was a real person, but a quick sex change and an apology changed that.)

I take it you’ve not actually read more Williams than “The Red Wheelbarrow” & “This Is Just to Say”.

MacGonagall is of course unbeatably bad, but I should mention also James MacIntyre, the Cheese Poet. He was one of the subjects of William Arthur Deacon’s marvellous book The Four Jameses, a classic of deadpan humour. The book is a biographical/critical account of four comically incompetent 19th-century Canadian writers whose first name was James. The humour of the book is that not once in the book does Deacon lift the veil of mock-seriousness, & the one James who was still alive at the time of publication actually thought that the book was a serious critical study of his work & wrote Deacon to compliment him on the book & express his pleasure in discovering the work of the 3 other authors in its pages. One can find some MacIntyre online at http://www.inforamp.net/~ihooker/cheese.htm including the classic “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese”.

Ranging further afield into the realm of unintentionally bad literature, I should mention Amanda McKittrick Ros, candidate for the title of worst-ever novelist (she also wrote bad poetry). Her particular sin was alliteration, which begins in the book’s title & continues for its duration. There’s a fan site I discovered online (here)–there’s also a selection of her work published I think it was by Penguin. Aldous Huxley was a fan of her work.

Incidentally, in terms of disparity of poetic talent & eminence, probably the current British poet laureate Andrew Motion is one of the best living examples. The poet laureateship has a centuries-old history of shameful incompetence, but Motion has got to rank among the worst. There’s a panel of comments on him on this page: some of them are rather more polite than they ought to be given the sample poems at the end…

How about,

George Wither(1588-1667), when he was serving Cromwells army he was captured by Royalist troops and would have been executed but for the intervention of the poet laureate Sir John Denham who said that as long as Wither lived he could not be accounted “the worst poet in England”

Ok, so he was not really a truly bad poet at all.

And yet nobody’s mentioned Julia Moore, aka “the Sweet Singer of Michigan”… :smiley:

OK, but the OP was asking for bad poets whom the literary establishment takes seriously. I’m not sure either MacGonagall or Moore counts, but one possible contender is Margaret Cavendish, mostly notable as the author of one of the few fart jokes in the Norton Anthology:

Feminist critics have been trying to rehabilitate her for years, but it’s an uphill battle.

A brief hijack, but the William Carlos Williams bashing brings to memory the “This Is Just To Say” parody thread that was sadly wiped out by the Great Message Board Purge of 2002. I was planning on sending that to my thesis advisor, who’s written numerous articles on Williams.

But sweet Mary, that MacGonagall tripe is inexplicably awful. I’ve never been partial to Matthew Arnold’s poetry (more eloquent as a social commentator than a poet, in my estimation), but he’s Milton compared to that Tay Bridge spittle.

For those who might like to read more of MacGonagall’s verse, here is a link to the William Topaz MacGonagall Appreciation Society ( yes, really)

I was under the impression that critics mainly adored him for those short, choppy, and meaningless verses. Some of his longer and more rhythmic poems are decent, but none of them qualify as great literature. Perhaps my distaste for him results partly from the fact that in my 12th grade English class, the guy who sat next to me was constantly trying to explain to me that “Red Wheelbarrow” was the work of a literary grandmaster, that it put Shakespeare to shame, etc…

I have a classmate who’s doing just that for her MA thesis, actually. She’s focusing on Cavendish’s prose, though, not her poetry. (We’re actually in the same workshop group. Now that I’ve read that poem you linked to, it’ll be hard not to ask her, at our next meeting, what on earth she’s doing… :eek: )

There’s at least one other fart joke in the Norton Anthology, though – the Miller’s Tale is in there, too.

OK, poets taken seriously – I have to say, a lot of what I’ve read by John Dryden makes me cringe…

I can’t stand Tennyson, but I seem to be just about the only one with such a low opinion of the whiny angstburger overblown bastard.

(It is better to have bought Idylls of the King and lost it than to ever have read it at all)