James McIntyre was a Canadian poet who has in recent times been acclaimed as one of the worst writers in the history of the world.
McIntyre was born in Scotland in 1827 and moved to Ingersoll, Ontario at 14. He worked as a furniture maker; as a bad poet he was wholly self-taught. Unlike modern bad poets, who sometimes hold three English degrees and have government support, McIntyre wrote some of the English language's worst poetry in his spare time. Like many great men, he is claimed both by the land of his birth and of his work.
The question of how James McIntyre has come to be considered for the title of history's worst poet is an interesting one. It's not a simple matter of bad writing; there is certainly technically worse poetry being written somewhere at this very moment. I could write some for you right now. It's not enough to write bad verse: One's bad verse must be read. For this we have to thank McIntyre's first apostle, William Arthur Deacon, who anthologized him in 1927 in a work called The Four Jameses, and his many modern rediscoverers such as Nick Page and Kathryn and Ross Petras.
But what is McIntyre's appeal? What makes a McIntyre poem singularly bad? The quality of poetry is very subjective. It's possible to take a McIntyre on its own and argue that it's an exquisite work of postmodern irony. Badness is contextual. We need to judge confidently that we know what the author was trying to do; that he was failing at it; and that he was failing really, really badly. From the evidence of the poems themselves, we know this to be true. McIntyre really thought he could rhyme "one" with "span" and that balloon/noon/moon/soon was a good set of line endings.
Further, the really great bad poets are minimally competent. What we see in our Alphabet cereal in the morning isn't bad poetry, it's nothing. A really nonsensical poem will go unread and unremarked. McIntyre's poems do everything recognizably, sometimes even competently. Their rhyme schemes are classifiable; their models are identifiable; their metre sometimes almost works out. Many of his poems are things you would read without laughing, even with appreciation, in a small-town paper or a high school yearbook. In his most famous work (see below), McIntyre even seems to have become too ambitious, with some metrical changes that just don't quite work out. The last verse was probably intended as playful but gives the impression that the poet had a stroke between lines 22 and 23.
It is McIntyre's themes that are the source of his fame. "To write a great book, you must have a great theme". James McIntyre was a mature poet who, like Pindar, composed poems on great events and on famous personages; and, like Wordsworth, on moments of everyday life. Most importantly, though, James McIntyre wrote about cheese. His whole modern reputation rests on his body of work on this one subject.
For McIntyre, cheese was subject, hero, even setting. Several of his better-known poems are actually addressed to cheese. McIntyre makes a bid for the admission of cheese to the sisterhood of chemical muses -- alcohol, coffee, opium, benzedrine, absinthe, heroin, mescaline, cheese. It's hard not to wonder if his great Ode (see further below) breaks off where it does -- just as things begin to get really odd -- not because the writer had said all he had to say or because he feared that adding a lesser line would tarnish the work, but because the whole thing had come to him in a wonderful dream after a heavy cheese fondue and an interfering neighbour had broken his concentration as he recorded it.
This isn't to say that McIntyre was in any sense obsessive. Because his most famous works are about cheese, the centrality of dairy in the McIntyre canon has sometimes been exaggerated. It has suited the purposes of many of McIntyre's popularizers to emphasize the cheese motif, and many of his poems not about cheese have been overlooked. The truth is that the man wrote with almost equal passion about milk, dairymen, milkmaids, cattle, and cheesemaking machinery.
Here are four representative works of James McIntyre. The first is his ode to a giant cheese of local manufacture. This is justly McIntyre's best-known work. It could be argued that its last verse, four short lines, is responsible for the better part of his modern renown. The second is his short and practical "Hints to Cheese Makers". The third is an untitled epigram not about cheese. The last is his gentle and romantic "Lines Read at a Dairymaids' Social, 1887".
* * *
Ode on the Mammoth Cheese Weighing Over 7,000 Pounds
We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed soon you'll go
To the great Provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
Cows as numerous as a swarm of bees
Or as the leaves upon the trees,
It did require to make thee please,
And stand unrivalled, queen of cheese.
May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to send you off as far as
The great world's show at Paris.
Of the youth beware of these,
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek, then songs or glees
We could not sing, oh! queen of cheese.
We'rt thou suspended from balloon,
You'd cast a shade even at noon,
Folks would think it was the moon,
About to fall and crush them soon.
* * *
Hints to Cheese Makers
Addressed to Jonathan Wingle, Esq.
All those who quality do prize
Must study color, taste and size
And keep their dishes clean and sweet,
And all things round their factories neat,
For dairymen insist that these
Are all important points in cheese.
Grant has here a famous work
Devoted to the cause of pork.
For dairymen find that it doth pay
To fatten pigs upon the whey,
For there is money raising grease
As well as in the making cheese.
* * *
Will you please to let me go, Ma,
To McIntyre's, to buy a Sofa.
* * *
Lines Read at a Dairymaids' Social, 1887
Where the young lady waiters were dressed as dairymaids.
Throughout the world they do extol
The fame of our town Ingersoll,
The capital of dairyland,
To-night it seems like fairy land,
The youth and beauty here arrayed,
So sweet and neat each dairymaid.
And worthy of a poet's theme,
Sweet and smooth flows milk and cream,
For song or glee what is fitter
In this land of cheese and butter,
But no young man should be afraid
To court a pretty dairymaid.
And far abroad he should not roam
But find a charmer here at home,
Find some one now your heart to chear,
Thus celebrate the jubilee year,
Remember long this ladies' aid
And each bewitching dairymaid.
* * *
For James McIntyre, the wages of bad poetry was success of all important kinds. He died in 1906 at the age of 79; he got to write many poems about cheese, which he demonstrably liked doing; and, unlike a thousand Victorian poetasters and minor novelists, James McIntyre is still read and appreciated a hundred years after his death.
James McIntyre Poetry Contest: http://www.ocl.net/projects/poetrycontest/faqjames.shtml
Some poems and biographical information from the University of Toronto:
PoemHunter.com has fourteen of McIntyre's poems on-line: http://www.poemhunter.com/p/t/poet.asp?poet=6599