National Poetry Month, day 30: Wrapping up with light verse

‘Tis the final day of National Poetry Month for 2022! I always enjoy Poetry Month a great deal and come out of it resolving to read more poetry throughout the year, and even though I do read quite a bit of it, somehow I always feel that it’s not enough. I do plan to post more about poetry, moving forward. Maybe I’ll even make poetry a regular feature in the newsletter I’m planning to launch this summer. [makes note about that] [also makes note to write about the newsletter I’m planning to launch this summer]

We’ll close out the month with a bit of a lightening of the mood. But first, a shot is needed across the bow of the continually dark-and-grim tone in our collective approach to Art. I’ve written about these matters before and will doubtless do so again, but here now is a non-poetic excerpt from the collection The Norton Book of Light Verse, by the book’s editor, Russell Baker:

The point of all this is that light verse really needs no introduction because we have known it from the cradle and should be at ease with it. Most of us, indeed, probably are at ease with it and can even recite a limerick or two from memory. What is easily enjoyed, however, must often defend itself against charges of low aspirations.

The very term “light verse” suggests inferiority, for in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, lightness is considered contemptible, except in the female figure. Such terms as “light-hearted”, “lightweight”, and “light entertainment” are little sneers meant to caution us against people and things that are, well, not quite…worthy.

We are dealing with the ancient prejudice against comedy, which is part of the residue of Puritanism, a doctrine defined by H.L. Mencken as the terrible suspicion that somebody somewhere may be having a good time. Thus the term “light verse” is universally accepted, even by poets who should know better, as poetry’s equivalent to the surgeon-general’s warning about cigarettes:

“Caution: These verses may be hazardous to your solemnity.”

You will note that there are no collections of “heavy verse” or of “ponderous verse”, though there is more than enough around to past up a dozen volumes. Nor will you ever see an “Anthology of Serious Verse” or “A Compendium of Solemn Verse”.

The explanation is that the public today expects poetry to be heavy, ponderous, serious, or solemn. Why confirm their worst fears? The public’s position on this, let me hasten to say, is badly outdated. Anticipating that most poetry will be worse than carrying heavy luggage through O’Hare Airport, the public, to its loss, reads very little of it.

I speak here with some humility, because I gave up on new poetry myself thirty years ago when most of it began to read like coded messages passing between lonely aliens in a hostile world. Assembling this collection, though, introduced me to dozens of contemporary poets whose work is full of wonders. Most of them are not much read. That’s a pity because it seems to me that, contrary to popular supposition, this is a good age for poetry in America.

Most of these contemporary poets do not write verse that asks to be classified as “serious” or “light”. When doing their work they obviously find it unnecessary, perhaps impossible, to distinguish between light and heavy. Perhaps this is what makes them feel so in touch; the world we have made here at the end of the twentieth century is simultaneously light and serious, grave and absurd. Our terrible tragedy is also our low comedy, and vice versa.

Some of this new poetry is very serious indeed, yet makes me smile; some of it reads light enough, but turns weighty in the digestive system.

Oh, how I could not possibly agree with that more! I’m always thrilled to find someone stating my position, in more eloquent terms than I can muster, about the American tendency nowadays to consistently value darkness over light in our art. I know people who, when asked to name their favorite books or movies or teevee series, will rattle off a list of very dark and grim works without a single comedy among the lot. Comedy films almost never win Best Picture, and even in genre circles the prejudice stands: ask a Star Wars fan why they think The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the saga, I flat-out guarantee that the first words out of their mouth will be something along the lines of “It’s darker….”

Darkness is fine. I like darkness, and I’ve written some of it. In fact, just this week I was struggling with a very dark scene that traumatizes a couple of my characters. But darkness is just a quality that we use once in a while. It’s a tool in the shed, a spice in the cabinet, a color on the palette, whichever metaphor you wish. Our error is to conflate darkness with quality, and that does harm to our art and to ourselves.

And I suppose, given Mr. Baker’s words quoted above, that I should revise my estimations for how recent a phenomenon this is, because The Norton Book of Light Verse came out in 1986. Those words, which apply perfectly well to our popular culture here in 2022, are almost forty years old.

(By the way, I just looked up Mr. Baker, and it turns out he died in 2019, at the age of 93. On the basis of this introduction, I’m suddenly interested in looking up his other work, even moreso after reading him described as “like some fourth century citizen of Rome who is amused and intrigued by the Empire’s collapse but who still cares enough to mock the stupidities that are hastening its end.” Oh, how I relate to that….)

And now, some actual verse. I’m basically thumbing through Mr. Baker’s anthology and choosing poems almost at random. Enjoy!

“Advice”, by Langston Hughes

Folks I’m telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean–
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.

“The Star System”, by Richard Wilbur

When you’re a white-hot youth, emit the rays
Which, now unmarked, shall dazzle future days.
Burn for the joy of it, and waste no juice
On hopes of prompt discovery. Produce!

Then, white with years, live wisely and survive,
Thus you may be on hand when you arrive,
And, like Antares, rosily dilate,
And for a time be gaseous and great.

“New Jersey Turnpike”, by Richard Cumbie

It’s been this way for some time:

  misguided through the middle
  to view the worst of it

  a dime for my waste at the
  Walt Whitman service station

  Howard Johnson’s over light
    (the flavor of America)
  no truckers in sight

I paid graciously to be allowed Delaware.

“From a London Bookshop”, anonymous

Holy Scripture, Write Divine,
Leather bound, at one and nine,
Satan trembles when he sees
Bibles sold as cheap as these.

“Against Broccoli”, by Roy Blount, Jr.

The local groceries are all out of broccoli,

“Local Note”, by Arthur Guiterman

In Sparkhill buried lies that man of mark
  Who brought the Obelisk to Central Park,
Redoubtable Commander H.H. Gorringe,
  Whose name supplies to long-sought rhyme
  for ‘orange’.

“Inventory”, by Dorothy Parker

Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.

Four be the things I’d be better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.

“On Tomato Ketchup”, anonymous

If you do not shake the bottle,
None’ll come, and then a lot’ll.

“Reflections on Ice-Breaking”, by Ogden Nash

is dandy
But liquor
is quicker.

“The Fool and the Poet”, by Alexander Pope

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

That’ll do it. Keep reading poetry, folks–your literary world will be better for it!


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One Response to National Poetry Month, day 30: Wrapping up with light verse

  1. Roger says:

    “Candy is dandy But liquor is quicker. You can drink all the whisky down in Costa Ricka”
    It’s a line from some bluesy pop song i can’t recall. Also from the Willie Wonka movie.

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