WRITERS PRIZE: 20 / JUL / 2023
by Jimi Cullen
The Scottish poet William McGonagall died in 1902, but is celebrated to this day, with dinners and events held in his memory well into the 21st century.
Yet by every formal standard, McGonagall was a terrible poet. His work doesn’t scan, with lines of wildly varying rhythm and length, and he sacrificed imagery, metaphor, and meaning in service of painfully simple rhymes. These lines from his poem The Death of Prince Leopold are typical:
He was of a delicate constitution all his life,
And he was his mother's favourite, and very kind to his wife,
And he had also a particular liking for his child,
And in his behaviour he was very mild.
So why is McGonagall’s poetry treasured today, when many of his more talented contemporaries are long forgotten? It certainly isn’t good, but it has lots going for it. For one thing, it’s funny. It can be educational: sometimes studying what makes some poems bad can be just as illuminating as trying to understand what makes other poetry worthy of prizes.
I recently joined a Facebook group dedicated to members sharing their "crap bird photography". If you have ever tried to take a picture of a bird, you probably can imagine the sort of thing - poor autofocus leaving the rare bird of prey in the background a vague blob; a pair of talons in the top of the frame after the bird took off in the exact moment you pressed the shutter; the first swallow of spring a dark dot in the sky because you didn’t bring a telephoto lens.
With over 100,000 members and several posts every day, there is clearly something appealing about having a space to bare our inner photographic McGonagalls. Most photographers know the feeling of spending a day pressing the shutter button without a single ‘good photo’ to show for it, and it is cathartic to mine our SD cards for the worst of the worst. It’s also accessible - sharing our flops and laughing at them together is a way to be active in a photographic community no matter what our skill level. Sharing a picture we are proud of can be risky. What if people don’t like it? But a photo failing at being ‘bad’ means it has some merit. You can’t lose.
In his 2019 essay collection Bad Writing, Travis Jeppesen discusses Flarf poetry, a movement which began with the submission of a deliberately bad poem to a scam poetry competition. Crucially, the poem needed to seem like a genuine submission - Jeppesen describes this as "a play of deliberate deception: one must be fairly good in order to be bad". This raises the question, can we become better photographers by taking deliberately bad photos?
As in the case of Flarf poetry, they shouldn’t be bad in such an obvious way that nobody would believe that you might be proud of the photos. Poor focus, too-low shutter speeds, and blown-out highlights won’t cut it. Can you take a photo with good exposure but truly terrible composition? Then take that photo and think, how can I make this composition even uglier? How can I make this not just boring or dissatisfying to look at, but frustrating for the viewer? Or simply, how can I egregiously break the rules of photographic accepted wisdom?
By flexing our Bad muscles, we may find ourselves discovering ideas of composition which will improve our Good work as well. Furthermore, we might find something exciting in the Bad work itself. The late Mark Fisher wrote that "the reason focus groups and capitalist feedback systems fail is that people do not know what they want. This is not only because people’s desire is concealed from them... Rather, the most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird". Maybe by seeking the bad, by breaking the rules, we will discover the strange, the unexpected, the weird. Or maybe we’ll just give our friends a good laugh.
If you ask me, that’s a win-win.