Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Who's Averse To Lightness?

George Szirtes' blog often kickstarts little meditations or ideas for essays, as with his recent entry on Light Verse. He begins by quoting a nice one by Harry Graham which immediately reminded me of Ogden Nash's:

The Purist

I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist.
Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!”
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
“You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”

Like Szirtes, I often enjoy 'sheer word play, sheer silliness' of all kinds, provided I myself am clever enough to play ball. Much 'silly' poetry is inclined to what Heaney called 'cleverality', and I'm not a particularly clever person; I'm hopeless at crosswords, and any poem which resembles one, be it 'post-avant' or merely deeply up its own posterior.

Some people seem to confuse light with humorous verse, even if the latter has an ironic or serious undertone. Is Carol Ann Duffy's 'The World's Wife' light or comic or both? What about Wendy Cope? She can be laugh-out-loud funny, as in her Gilbert & Sullivan/Ted Hughes parody:

'No, the imagination of a writer (of a writer)
Is not the sort of beat a chap would choose (chap would choose)
And they've assigned me a prolific blighter ('lific blighter) —
Patrolling the unconscious of Ted Hughes.'

But poems like 'Bloody Men' and 'Flowers', although they begin jauntily enough, end on a seriously rueful note. As with the last example, much of the best light verse is overtly musical: droll, smart and snappy as a Cole Porter song, like the following by Guy W. Longchamps:

Mrs. Sullivan
"Function follows form,"
Said Louis Sullivan one warm
Evening in Chicago drinking beer.
His wife said, "Dear,
I'm sure that what you meant
Is that form should represent
Function. So it's function that should be followed."
Sullivan swallowed
And looked dimly far away
And said, "Okay,
Form follows function, then."
He said it again,
A three-word spark
Of modern arch-
Itectural brilliance
That would dazzle millions.
"Think I should write it down?"
He asked with a frown.
"Oh yes," she said, "and here's a pencil."
He did and soon was influential.

Wikipedia is not terribly helpful on what it calls 'Light Poetry', as it begins with the rather misleading sentence:'Light poetry, or light verse, is poetry that attempts to be humorous.' It proceeds:'Poems considered "light" are usually brief, and can be on a frivolous or serious subject, and often feature wordplay, including puns, adventurous rhyme and heavy alliteration. Typically, light verse in English is formal verse, although a few free verse poets, such as Billy Collins, have excelled at light verse outside the formal verse tradition. [ ] While light poetry is sometimes condemned as doggerel, or thought of as poetry composed casually, humor often makes a serious point in a subtle or subversive way. Many of the most renowned "serious" poets, such as Horace, Swift, Pope and Auden, have also excelled at light verse.'

This is fine as far as it goes, except that it needs to acknowledge that humorous poetry can be anything but light. And I would not describe the best of Billy Collins's poetry as light verse. Rather, his mode is the laconic, the off-kilter-elegiac. In fact, Collins can be at his weakest when he attempts frivolity, as with his unfunny parody of Heaney (like a lame stage-Oirish impersonation).

The Princeton is far more thorough (exhaustively so). Its first sentence gives a better summary than Wiki's: 'Light Verse. A name rather loosely given to a wide variety of types or forms of metrical composition, worldly in character and most often witty, humorous, ingenious, or satirical.' Good to acknowledge that 'loosely'. It proceeds to list: 'Vers de Société, occasional verse, satire, burlesque, the mock-heroic, nonsense poetry; such brief forms as the epigram, the comic or ironic epitaph, the limerick, the clerihew; and all types of tricky or ingenious verse as acrostics, shaped and emblematic poems, alliterative or rhyming tours de force, riddles, puns and other forms of versified trivia.'

That last one seems rather dismissive. Trivia? Sounds more like 'verse lite'. And are all epigrams light (and therefore trivial)? Greek epigrams can certainly be very witty, and light I suppose, as in the following (which doesn't seem trivial to me):

'If blocked, a fart can kill a man.
If let escape a fart can sing
health-giving songs.
Farts kill and save.
A fart is powerful as a king.'

Nicarchus, The Greek Anthology (Penguin)

And here's my (VERY free and loose) version of an old Irish epigram:

Payment In Kind

He’ll never trade you a horse
for a beautiful, thoroughbred verse.

He will offer you something hollow
as his heart: an old cow.

Princeton's mention of 'Vers de Société' reminds me of Larkin's brilliantly vicious poem, about loneliness/aloneness/art versus 'society': 'I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted, / Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted / Over to catch the drivel of some bitch / Who's read nothing but Which.' Not at all light. Unlike, perhaps, Larkin's little sketch of Alfred Tennyson 'doing his poetic business' while Mrs Alfred Tennyson got on with running the house and answering all the letters.

Derek Mahon has written some clerihews. Interesting that he once told George Szirtes that he didn't like light verse. I am almost sure that I read an essay by Mahon in praise of Ogden Nash's poetry (though it doesn't seem to be in Mahon's collected 'Journalism', so perhaps I am wrong). People can have different ideas about what constitutes 'light' verse. Edward Mendleson edited a selection of Auden's poetry for Faber, entitled 'As I Walked Out One Evening: Songs, ballads, lullabies, limericks and other light verse'. Some of these, such as the limericks, certainly qualify as light verse:

The bishop-Elect of Hong Kong
Has a cock which is ten inches long.
He thinks the spectators
Are admiring his gaiters
When he goes to the Gents - he is wrong.

But the ballad 'As I Walked Out' and the cherishing, loving 'Lullaby' ('Lay your sleeping head my love...') are not what I would call light.

Mahon's poetry is worlds away from 'light', but, though it can often be darkly comic, it invariably treads lightly enough:

‘Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man’
Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge
And grasped the principle of the watering can.

Another brilliant, more bitterly comic poem, 'Matthew 5 v. 29-30', was excluded from Mahon's Gallery 'Collected', though it had been in the earlier Oxford 'Selected', edited by Edna Longley:

Lord, mine eye offended, so I plucked it out.
Imagine my chagrin
when the offense continued.
So I plucked out
the other; but the offense continued.

In the dark now, and working by touch,
I shaved my head.
(The offense continued.)
Removed an ear,
another, dispatched the nose.

The offense continued.
Imagine my chagrin. [etc.]

My friend Anthony wrote a two-liner in praise of DM, which can safely be regarded as light:

'Wonders are many and none
Is more wonderful than Mahon.'

Short and sweet. And my favourite kind of light verse is usually just as brief, like Thom Gunn's:

Barren Leaves

Spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling:
Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing.

Which reminds me of Gavin Ewart's even briefer:


The clanking and wanking of Her Majesty's Prisons.

Or his lovely little erotic:

The Sexual Sigh

The small buttocks of men, that excite the women...
but ah! the beautiful, feminine broadness!

I think that at least some of my own stuff might be described as light (though hopefully not trivial) verse. Perhaps the following examples:

Advice To Adolescents

Rave to the slackly made and woefully sung
(the worse the better); be moody, unstrung

for days, in love with drum-rolls of doom.
Never tidy your room.

Airborne (2001)


Ever clever
in all weathers
Paul Klee's Twittering
Machine's perched
on a hurdy-gurdy
tickling tree
in the forest
of feathers