As far as titles go, this is surely looking for trouble. I mean, I don’t even have to answer the question in the title to succeed in offending the entire population of Scotland and half¹ the population of Hungary. (That would add up to ten million, give or take a few hundred thousand; if you’re pedantic, you can look up the population statistics.)
As you guessed from the title, this post is going to introduce you to some awful poetry. You might be wondering why I want to write about awful poetry, even if this is a literature blog – well, ladies and gentlemen, I suffered Burns’ poetry while reading English at university and Petőfi’s poetry throughout my entire educational career (starting in kindergarten). Now it’s your turn.
What Makes a National Poet?
It’s popular tradition, more or less, that makes the national poet. If you aspire to this status, don’t go in for the shrinking violet act; you need a larger than life character or at least a large mouth. Top this with gushing patriotism expressed in a simple and rousing manner – a national poet wouldn’t recognise complex philosophical thought if it bit him in the… er, posterior. In your patriotic poem, make abundant use of clichés such as death or victory, chains and freedom, heroes vs cowards, and you’re rolling. Finally, to clinch the matter, die young, preferably fighting heroically for your country’s freedom (barring that, try disappearing without a trace).
In view of this, let’s examine our two candidates:
Robert Burns, the National Poet of Scotland
The national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns (1759-1796), hardly needs an introduction even if you’re not Scottish. He’s famous for Auld Lang Syne and he earned his ‘national’ epithet with Scots Wha Hae:
Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome tae yer gory bed,
Or tae victorie.
(Excuse his Scottish accent.)
Sándor Petőfi, the National Poet of Hungary
The national poet of Hungary, Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849), is a lot less known worldwide but he immediately trumps Burns in the national poet stakes with regards to his death. While Burns did manage to die young, he did so in the comfort of his own bed – as opposed to Petőfi who went ‘missing in action’, that’s to say, disappeared in battle, fighting for his country’s freedom. Sipping gruel vs gunpowder and naked blades? No contest.
Petőfi’s popularity can demonstrated by the example of a certain old man who, whenever he has taken too much red wine, falls to quoting his poem about the Great Hungarian Plain and crying into his glass, despite of the fact that he himself is from hilly Transdanubia.
Finally, Petőfi too obliged with a National Song:
On your feet now, Hungary calls you!
Now is the moment, nothing stalls you,
Shall we be slaves or men set free,
That is the question, answer me!
By all the gods of Hungary
We hereby swear,
That we the yoke of slavery
No more shall wear.
(Translated by George Szirtes)
(I swear it’s much better in the original. Well, it chants well, right?!… And it started a revolution.)
What Makes a S**t Poet?
Well, the above takes care of the national poet bit. We have now arrived to the s**t poet bit (although some of you will argue that we already have been treading ankle deep as it is).
The following poem by Burns is highly thought of in literary and educational circles:
Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crowlan ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gawze and lace;
Tho’ faith, I fear ye dine but sparely,
On sic a place.
Ye ugly, creepan, blastet wonner,
Detested, shunn’d, by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her,
Sae fine a Lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner,
On some poor body.
(To a Louse by Robert Burns)
You might feel that ye ugly, creepan, blastet wonner, / detested, shunn’d, by saunt an’ sinner has its merits; I admit it quite gets my attention. I just wish Burns contented himself with addressing the louse. Unfortunately, he felt the need to talk To a Mouse as well:
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murdering pattle!
You can overdo these things. I rest my case regarding Burns, which brings us to the Hungarian contender for the worst national poet title.
If you’re still with me at this point, you are probably dreading what will I serve up from Petőfi. Do not fear. To your luck, Petőfi needs to be served up in translation and translators seem to be strangely reticent when it comes to translating him. (I wonder why?)
An intrepid soul, however, obliged with this classic poem (compulsory to memorise in Hungarian primary schools):
Oh my, what´s that!? A hen not a chick
who lives in this house that´s so chic?
Look at that! Awarded by God
What a fancy life you have got!
(My Mother’s Hen by Sándor Petőfi, translated by Andrea)
Whose National Poet Is More S**t?
My verdict: Petőfi wins hands down. What do you think?
This is a sort of ‘the world’s tallest dwarf’ competition: Whose national poet is more s**t? There are approximately 6500 living languages out there, not to mention all the dead ones. I hazard the guess that awful poetry had been written (sang, muttered, yelped) in every single one of them. Some of these awful poets would have managed to rise to the rank of ‘national’. Nominations, please!
Notes: ¹ The other half agrees with me about the lack of Petőfi's literary merit, although it's not something they dare to voice in mixed company. Links: The poems on this page are only excerpts. For the full texts follow the links. ⇒ Scots Wha Hae ⇒ To a Louse ⇒ To a Mouse ⇒ National Song ⇒ My Mother's Hen (scroll down the page to the post by Andrea)