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Spectator competition winners: ‘O Poor deceasèd Robbie Burns – or should we call you Rabbie?’: William McGonagall’s elegy on Robert Burns

28 April 2019

8:43 AM

28 April 2019

8:43 AM

The prompt for this challenge – to submit an elegy by a poet on another poet – was ‘Adonais’, Shelley’s celebrated 55-stanza tribute to Keats. Frank McDonald imagined Keats responding in kind:

My heart aches for you, brother Percy Bysshe,
Who wept for me although my name was writ
In water. Dearest friend, it was my wish
We two romantics might some autumn sit…

Robert Schechter, meanwhile, channelled Auden, who also wrote a famous elegy to a fellow poet. Here he is on Ogden Nash:

Earth, receive an honoured guest.
Ogden Nash is laid to rest.
Let the Yankee vessel sink
Emptied of its light-heartedly whimsical yet
somehow undeniably indelible ink.

In a modestly sized but distinguished entry, David Shields earns an honourable mention. The winners pocket £30 apiece.

David Silverman (McGonagall on Burns)
O Poor deceasèd Robbie Burns — or should we call you Rabbie?
Some say you should have been interred ‘neath old Westminster Abbey,
Instead of in Dumfries, where your barely cold body they did bury.
O! Gone, but surely not forgotten, especially on the 25th of January!
Wonderful wordsmith from the pretty provincial town of Alloway!
Alas! It makes me very sorry to say
That your life was so cruelly taken away
At the very tender age of only 37:
And surely now you entertain the very angels in Heaven
With your inimitable Scottish bonhomie and banter.
Your Scots Wha Hae, your Tam O’Shanter
Will live in the memories of your admirers for a very long time,
Not forgetting your Mouse, your Louse, your Red, Red Rose and Auld Lang Syne —
When friends and relatives do gather round and twelve o’clock does chime,
How strangely poignant it is, as the calendar turns,
To drink, snog, link arms and sing the words of poor, dead Robbie Burns!


Chris O’Carroll (Ginsberg on Plath)
I saw her best mind maddened by and maddening its generation,
an electroshocked Electra thrusting her hysterical head
into a gas oven of starry dynamo deathwish Daddy issues,
improvising her way into the dead-by-thirthyish crowd,
hallucinating Keats, Shelley, Byron,
perpetually searching for the angry fix of suicide,
huddled in supernatural darkness with Crane, Teasdale, someday Sexton,
high on blood, motherhood, despair,
Ted Hughes and the fierce solidity of her frail self.
Ariel, creature of magic enslaved,
Ariel, the poet’s mount at full gallop,
Ariel, bare as Godiva every morning in mourning,
Ariel, triumphant in death, though Esther Greenwood failed and lived,
Ariel breathes no more under her own bell jar,
No more confession, confession, confession without absolution.

Bill Greenwell (Manley Hopkins on Larkin)
Glory be to God, for each bottling bifocal,
All dudgeon-curmudgeonly, your swift wit yet pounces,
Though blear-drear, though weary, and half pronounces
On the grim-gay world, still, restraining, unvocal
Almost! Such lip-buttoning, such a cloak’d bloke, all
Merry asperity, O never to mind what the clown says,
With your hearse-horse hissing, as out flounces
The humming undertaker, like a straw-mouth’d yokel!

And the misery clots, sclerotic and atrabilious —
ah! how Spartan-spare, dry of eye, how drolly —
See your face fussing, pure paterfamilias,
As you smirch church, and a wed-bed’s barcarolle,
Yet work, walk, wake, pinched, punctilious —
For we swear by you, perhaps, perhaps, half-holy!

W.J. Webster (Larkin on Betjeman)
Not built for combat, still he fought
To stop the vandals at the gate
Before they could eliminate
The High Victorian style for being
Not architecture of the sort
A modernist could be caught seeing.

He loved the redolence of names,
Made memories fresh, and had the wit
To make his poignant feelings fit
The crafted grooves of form and rhyme
To celebrate what verse reclaims
From out the teeth of times and time.

Basil Ransome-Davies (Kipling on Rimbaud)
’E was a nipper from Lorraine.
You’d ’ave to call ’im odd.
For some ’e wasn’t hardly sane,
For others ’e was God.

A poet ain’t like you and me,
’Oo live from meal to meal.
’E’ll likely want ’is fantasy
Before what we call real.

’E was a funny kid to be
A figure of renown.
They say ’e took French poetry
And turned it upside down.

I don’t get ’alf of what ’e wrote,
Seems like ’e’s on the drink,
But Arthur Rimbaud gets my goat.
’E makes my noodle think.

Your next challenge is to submit a poem that can be read both forwards and backwards. Email entries of up to 16 lines to lucy@spectator.co.uk by midday on 8 May.


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