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No one can say Florence Foster Jenkins didn't sing

Posted September 12

I have yet to see “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the biopic about a rich heiress who sang at Carnegie Hall despite being an atrocious singer. Recordings of Jenkins are available on YouTube, and she really was as bad as everyone says. And yet, I take great inspiration from her famous rejoinder to her critics.

“People may say I can't sing," she said, "but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

I think about that when I remember the process of writing my first play, which wasn’t very good. (It still isn’t.)

I gave it to an accomplished playwright friend of mine to read, and he gave me a piece of advice that I’ll always remember:

“Keep in mind,” he told me, “that it’s just as hard to write a bad play as it is to write a good one.”

That’s stuck with me, partially because, in the strictest sense, it isn’t exactly true. If I were to set out to write a bad play, I could do it fairly easily. I’d use some kind of random text generator and produce an incomprehensible piece of dramatic nonsense within minutes. The reality is that it’s just as hard to write a bad play as a good one if, all along, you’re trying to write a good play. I tried to write a masterpiece. Instead, I wrote a piece of junk, but not for lack of effort.

Which brings me to William Topaz McGonagall. You may recognize his surname from the Harry Potter books, as J.K. Rowling gave it to a Hogwarts professor. What you may not know is that he is widely regarded as the worst poet in history.

McGonagall was a 19th-century Scottish weaver who, sometime around his 52nd birthday, had an epiphany. According to mcgonagall-online.org.uk, McGonagall described his experience as: "I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me. … A flame … seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry … I imagined that the pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, 'Write! Write!'"

And write he did. Witness this stanza from the epitaph he composed for Sir John Ogilvy: "Alas! Sir John Ogilvy is dead, aged eighty-seven, But I hope his soul is now in heaven … He was a public benefactor in many ways, Especially in erecting an asylum for imbecile children to spend their days."

It’s bad poetry, yes. It’s also delightful. The total contempt for meter and pace, along with the ridiculously inappropriate mention of imbecile children in asylums, give this bit of dreck a color and flavor that you can’t find in most literary detritus. McGonagall was trying very hard to write good poetry, which makes his spectacular failure to do so even more compelling.

Like Jenkins, he didn’t care what others thought of him, and he pressed onward. You can find plenty of samples of his deliberate doggerel when his more lettered — and more talented — peers have been long forgotten.

What’s the moral of the story? There are several. I love that McGonagall didn’t discover his “gift” until he had passed 50, proving it’s never too late to start churning out garbage. I love that McGonagall refused to accept criticism and willed himself into history through tenacity and grit, not talent. I also think he proves that it does take as much effort to write bad stuff as good stuff, and that effort, in itself, is worth something.

I’m not saying that everyone should quit their day jobs when they have no discernible talent. I’d just like to live in a world where more awful poets were willing to write without regard to what others think, and more bad singers had the courage to sing anyway.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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