A Brief Respite
April 15, 2021
William McGonagall has the dubious honor of being widely considered the worst poet of all time. Having read a poem or two of his, I consider this reputation richly deserved. If you haven’t read any of his work, I highly recommend you do–especially if you need a good laugh.
Around Christmas my sophomore year, I was badly in need of a good laugh.
My mom had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few months before. A routine visit in early December had unexpectedly turned into an overnight hospital stay, which turned into a few days, which turned into a few weeks. I started spending my afternoons and weekends in a small white room on the seventh floor of Massachusetts General Hospital.
My dad was always there, too. He came to the hospital practically every day. He talked to my mom almost constantly, trying to distract her from the pain. When she wanted to take a walk through the hallway, he came along and pushed her IV pole. I came when he asked me to, but most of the time I sat against the radiator in the corner, doing homework or staring at my phone. I was trying to distract myself, I guess. The first night I saw her there, I cried in the visitors’ bathroom until my eyes were red and stinging, but cleaned myself up before I returned. I had to stay strong–for my mom, my dad, and for myself.
As the weeks dragged on, our patience was tested. She was making progress–slow, painful progress–but it seemed like it would be an eternity before she came home. And even when she did, would she ever be the same? She looked so fragile, especially when she was asleep.
And it was while she was asleep that my dad came across a Tweet about William McGonagall. Somebody he followed had mentioned how hilariously terrible his poems were, and my dad brought it up, thinking it would be something I would enjoy. He was absolutely right: I Googled McGonagall and found one of his poems, The Tay Bridge Disaster, and began to read it aloud.
“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.”
That’s the first stanza. It only gets worse from there.
I could barely get through a few lines before I burst out laughing. Seeing that I was incapacitated, my dad found the poem online and took over for me. We took turns reading aloud until the (quite long) poem was finished, by which time my mom had woken up and was wondering why on earth we were being so loud. She heard the tail end and made us start from the beginning, but neither of us were in any condition to speak clearly. It took us a few minutes to calm down, and then we decided to read it in as sad and serious a voice as possible–a resolution that lasted us about three seconds. My poor mom, who had not yet heard more than a few stanzas, decided to look it up herself, and was soon laughing so hard a nurse had to come in and tell us to stop because it was messing with her heart rate.
I don’t know what it was that made us all react like that. Maybe we had been struggling to hold ourselves together for so long that, as soon as there was an opportunity to fall apart, we took it. Maybe all our bottled-up emotions needed to escape in the form of laughter. Maybe the poem was just funny. Regardless, for a moment there, we weren’t in a hospital and nobody was sick and nobody was wondering what they would do if their mom never got out. We were just a family, laughing together at a silly old poem.
There will forever be a soft spot in my heart for William McGonagall.
(Published April 2021)