Tag Archives: light verse

Review: ‘Old and Bookish’ by George Simmers

George Simmers has chosen a title for his latest collection of poems that describes it very well: “Old and Bookish”; and also–if being merely in our 70s isn’t premature–self-deprecatingly describes himself. But though he writes with understanding about oldness and bookishness, he makes it clear that he is not being autobiographical: The first section is called “from The songs of the Old Man”, the title immediately followed by: “Note: The Old Man is not me, but I know how he feels.”

The Old Man Walks his Dog; The Old Man Visits a Very Old Woman; even The Old Man’s Song About the Crematorium… poems about the kind of thoughts the Old Man has:
Both the slutty and the proper,
Both the crooked and the copper,
Those who decorate interiors,
And the very very serious,
Both the fervent Corbynista
And her fashionista sister
Who’s obsessed by the length of a hem –
They’ll all end up at the crem crem crem
They’ll all end up at the crem.

That gives a sense of Simmers’ work–smooth and amused in rhythm and rhyme, in tone and in message. Or take The Old Man’s Heaven–how would a music lover imagine eternity in the afterlife? Discounting the “hoity-toity… operatic… Bayreuth-y” and the alternative punk “one long mosh pit”, the Old Man with gentle amusement envisages an older blonde in a piano bar:
With a voice of smoky yearning,
A lady who has seen too much,
But she keeps the old torch burning.

She sings that life is made for love,
And time will kill the pain.
She sings that though your love’s gone bad
You still should love again.
She sings that there is always hope
And those who love are wise.
Yes, I could spend eternity
Hearing those lovely lies.

The second section of the book moves away from the internal view of the Old Man to the external view of Some Oldies. It begins with Rachel, the most energised:
Old Rachel’s fierce and heavy-browed
Her views are strong; her voice is loud.
She says the councillors are crooks;
She says the mayor cooks the books.
She says the government’s a mess –
Don’t start her on the NHS –
While London, which survived the Blitz,
Is being bought by foreign shits,
By criminals and sheiks and sharks,
And kleptocrats and oligarchs…

and ends with Christopher, aware of his life winding down, dozing off with a smile
For he is entering a dream –
A joyous dream where he’s pursued
By several plump and laughing women
In the pink bumgorgeous nude.

The third, final, and largest section of the book is where we get to Bookish. Here are poems on poetry, on poets, on words, on English. There is a 26-line Elsinore Alphabet that starts at the beginning of Hamlet:
A is for armour, which kingly ghosts wear.
B is for battlements, where the guards stare.

and works its way through to the very end:
Y, they’re all dead as Yorick, once such a great hoot.
Z’s for zero plot left. Bid the soldier-chaps shoot.

There is two-page book review in limericks of a book of limericks. And there is my favourite poem of the book, ‘Poets in Residence’. Simmers having been a schoolteacher, he takes obvious delight in his tale of a headmaster who invites all the best English poets to the school. Here are eight of the 33 couplets:
Geoffrey Chaucer came first, on an equable horse,
And Spenser, and Marlowe, and Shakespeare, of course…
Keats arrived coughing, Kipling marched vigorously;
Matthew Arnold began to inspect the school rigorously…
Vaughan was ecstatic, though Clough was more sceptical.
Ernest Dowson puked up in a litter receptacle.
Coleridge sneaked off to discover the rates
Of an unshaven person outside the school gates…

Unfortunately for the Headmaster, there is a Romantic Revolt:
Shelley’d gathered the students out in the main quad,
And roused them to rise against school, Head, and God…
The bards of the thirties were equally Red,
And Milton explained how to chop off a head…
Soon the School was destroyed. Eliot paced through the waste,
And reflected with sorrow and learning and taste,
Which he fused in a poem, an excellent thing,
Though rather obscure and a little right-wing…

And the Head is left amidst the rubble, cursing all poets and poetry.

It all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the many aspects of ageing, viewed both internally and externally; and the consolations and disconsolations of poetry itself. It is an easy read, the ease belying the breadth and depth of Simmers’ thought, his lifetime of experience including the 25 years he has spent editing and publishing that excellent monthly online poetry magazine, Snakeskin.

Old and Bookish is an excellent and memorable collection of verse.

Even the cover illustration gets a little write-up at the end of the book, including a last poem by Simmers:

“I am very grateful to Bruce Bentzman for permission to use again his ‘Raven’ drawing, which made an earlier appearance in our Animals Like Reading collaboration. I approve of this bird, both for his obvious appetite for reading, and for his air of scepticism, which once inspired this rhyme:
‘Human nature? Bloody chronic!’ Raven caws in tones sardonic,
And adds: ‘I’ve read some rubbish as I’ve studied human lore,
But I’ve read no book that’s dopier than Sir Thomas More’s Utopia,
Which imagines human harmony and man (that carnivore!)
Being so nice to his neighbour he abjures all thoughts of war.’
Quoth the raven: ‘Never, More.’

And as for that Raven’s comment about warfare: it should be noted finally that George Simmers also authors a blog called Great War Fiction plus which focuses on fiction of the First World War, but also goes off on whatever tangents seem interesting.

Odd Poems: Thomas M. Disch, ‘A Child’s Garden of Grammar’

Thomas M. Disch (1940-2008) was a New Wave Science Fiction author, poet, theater critic, computer game designer, and much else. Not surprising, then, that his Grammar is a strange book. Sadly, it’s not really informative for either the grammar-beginner (it’s too obscure) or the grammar-expert (there’s nothing new). It has odd poems, some nice and simple like ‘Either/Or’:

Either and Or came to a door.
Either would enter, but not before Or,
So still they stand outside that door,
But now their names are Neither and Nor.

Some playing little games, as in the explanation of ‘The Indirect Object’:

I have to hand it to you, dear:
You’re the indirect object here–
Along with Thelma, Hank and Hugh.
I tip my hat to all of you.
You’ve set a fine example to me–
But I don’t get it, and I’m gloomy.

OK, so “to you” is the indirect object… and “I” can’t be an indirect object, it can only be a subject… Cute, but rather spoiled for me by the rhyme of “to me” (which I unthinkingly stress on the last syllable, as with all the previous lines of the poem) but then, having to rhyme it with the next line’s “gloomy”, have to go back and reread to get the rhyme…

And every poem is illustrated with simple cartoons by Dave Morice. If you’re addicted to strange, by all means buy it. To me it’s just an oddity, and without either the visual or verbal charm of other cartoon-illustrated short poetry collections such as Piet Hein’s Grooks. But after all, Disch is best-known for his SF, not his verse.

Odd Poem: ‘The Skipping Rope’, by Tennyson

Sure never yet was antelope
Could skip so lightly by.
Stand off, or else my skipping-rope
Will hit you in the eye.

How lightly whirls the skipping-rope !
How fairy-like you fly !
Go, get you gone, you muse and mope —
I hate that silly sigh.

Nay, dearest, teach me how to hope,
Or tell me how to die.
There, take it, take my skipping-rope,
And hang yourself thereby.

This odd little poem appeared in the 1842 ‘Poems by Alfred Tennyson’, and was reprinted in every edition until 1851 when it was suppressed. I’ve italicised one of the two speakers in order to make the poem easier to understand on first reading. There is no visual indication, otherwise, that this is a conversation between an admirer and the irritated rope-skipper.

The very simple structure, very regular iambics, and very repetitive rhyme scheme are perfectly in keeping with the monotonous activity of skipping. I’ve always found the poem charming and amusing in its bizarre way.

(The photograph is “Girl with skipping rope, Albert Lomer studio, Sydney” by Blue Mountains Library, Local Studies.)

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Edmund Conti, “My Son the Critic”

Edmund Conti

Edmund Conti

Read me a bedtime poem, said my son.
So I read him this:

We say hippopotami
But not rhinoceri
A strange dichotomy
In nature’s glossary.

But we do say rhinoceri, he said.  Look it up.
So I read him this:

Life is unfair
For most of us, therefore
Let’s have a fanfare
For those that it’s fair for.

I smell a slant rhyme, he said, sniffing.
So I read him this:

While trying to grapple
With gravity, Newton
Was helped by an apple
He didn’t compute on.

My teacher says that’s not poetry, he said.
So I read him this:

René Descartes, he thought
And therefore knew he was.
And since he was, he sought
To make us think.  He does.

That made me think, he said.  But not feel.
So I read him this:

My hair has a wonderful sheen.
My toenails, clipped, have regality.
It’s just all those things in between
That give me a sense of mortality.

Did the earth move?  I asked.  Anything?
Nothing moved.  He was asleep.

Ed Conti writes: “I sent the following quatrain to John Mella at Light and he accepted it (those were the good old days).

We say hippopotami
But not rhinoceri
A strange dichotomy
In nature’s glossary.

I don’t remember what the title was but I’m sure it didn’t hurt the poem.  A few weeks later dis-accepted the poem.  He had consulted with a fellow editor (I didn’t know they did that!) and found out you do say ‘rhinoceri.’  Now what?  I didn’t want to trash the quatrain, not with ‘t those felicitous rhymes.  So how to keep the verse and note the error. That was it, link a whole bunch of poems with their shortcomings (and I have a lot of those) and do a learned dissertation on what their problems were.  And who better to do that than one of my two sons.  Which one? It wouldn’t matter, I wouldn’t name him.  That way if one of them said he didn’t remember that happening, I would say it was the other son. Besides they were too young to worry about personas (personae?) And I wasn’t sure if I actually knew what they were.

So what does the reader get out of this poem?  Probably nothing. I write for myself because it’s fun.  If the reader chooses to enjoy this poem, that’s his problem.”

Edmund Conti has recent poems published in Light, Lighten-Up Online, The Lyric, The Asses of Parnassus, newversenews, Verse-Virtual and Open Arts Forum. His book of poems, Just So You Know has been recently released by Kelsay Books.
https://www.amazon.com/Just-You-Know-Edmund-Conti/dp/1947465899/

http://www.short-humour.org.uk/10writersshowcase/10writersshowcase.htm#EDCO

https://www.facebook.com/edmund.conti/

Review: “The Funny Side – 101 Humorous Poems” ed. Wendy Cope

Funny Side

Wendy Cope dislikes the term “light verse” because she feels it implies the included poetry can never be serious. Presumably she doesn’t take the matter lightly, given that she is considered (or dismissed as) a brilliant (but) light verse poet, with works such as Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis to her credit. Flippant is fine with her, but that shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of “humorous” poems. Her choices for this anthology range from the frivolous to the suicidal; light or dark in subject, they are all amusing in their expression.

The poems are strung together in unobtrusive clumps of themes. The anthology kicks off with Richard Armour’s Money:

That money talks
I won’t deny.
I heard it once,
It said goodbye.

followed by Hilaire Belloc’s Fatigue:

I’m tired of Love: I’m still more tired of Rhyme.
But Money gives me pleasure all the time.

And so you leap in – you’ve just read the first two pages of the book. But in case you think that all the pieces are going to be so short, the next is the anonymous Strike among the Poets:

In his chamber, weak and dying,
While the Norman baron lay,
Loud, without, his men were crying
‘Shorter hours and better pay.’

and so on for seven stanzas of young Lochinvar and the boy on the burning deck and other worthies all demanding shorter hours and better pay.

Segue to the next poem, Harry Graham’s two full pages of Poetical Economy:, this being an example:

When I’ve a syllable de trop,
I cut it off without apol.:
This verbal sacrifice, I know,
May irritate the schol.;
But all must praise my dev’lish cunn.
Who realize that Time is Mon.

Most of the poems will be known to aficionados of, yes, light verse – the older pieces by Thomas Hood and Lewis Carroll and so on are relatively well known. But I found several delightful surprises: the excerpts from D. J. Enright’s Paradise Illustrated: A Sequence:

‘Why didn’t we think of clothes before?’
Asked Adam,
Removing Eve’s.

‘Why did we ever think of clothes?’
Asked Eve,
Laundering Adam’s.

Kit Wright’s (lengthy) The Orbison Consolations:

Only the lonely
Know the way you feel tonight?
Surely the poorly
Have some insight?
Oddly, the godly
Also might,
And slowly the lowly
Will learn to read you right.

And then there’s Edwin Morgan’s The Mummy, on the arrival of Ramses II at Orly airport in 1976… but that one’s too complicated for this post. You’ll have to find it yourself.

It seems that Faber put out other books in this series in the late 1990s: By Heart – 101 Poems to Remember, edited by Ted Hughes, and Sounds Good – 101 Poems to be Heard, edited by Christopher Reid. I need to get them as well.

Poem: “Any Tourist Island”

When the deep darkness dulls the dirty land
Before the moon meanders through the stars,
Invisibly the sea creeps up the sand
As night-blind drinkers lose keys to their cars.

Ah, the winter, with its delights and hazards! Escape it when you can, and explore fresh delights and hazards! That’s life, isn’t it.

This little poem was published in Lighten-Up Online, aka LUPO, the UK’s top light verse online magazine. Editor Jerome Betts carries on the work begun 12 years ago by Martin Parker: a quarterly issue of some 30 full-length poems, and as many again of the 4-to-8-line variety. Contributors include every current poet you have heard of who can write light engaging verse that rhymes and scans – unless, that is, they expect to be paid for their poems!

 

Review: “Verse” by John Updike

This paperback, Verse, is comprised of two earlier hardcover volumes of poems from John Updike, The Carpentered Hen from Harper & Row and Telephone Poles from Knopf. The poems date from the 1950s and early 1960s, and in the words of Phyllis McGinley, “His is what poetry of this sort ought to be: playful, but elegant, sharp-eyed, witty.”

Here are the beginnings of some of his poems. Some of them are pure wordplay, as in “Player Piano”:

“My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.”

Several of them start with a quote from a newspaper story and then run wild with it, as in “The Descent of Mr. Aldez”:

Mr. Aldez, a cloud physicist, came down last year to study airborne ice crystals.
– Dispatch from Antarctica in the Times
That cloud–ambiguous, not
a horse, or a whale, but what?–
comes down through the crystalline mist.
It is a physicist!”

And some are meditative, as with “B.W.I.” (the old British West Indies of the 20th century):

“Under a priceless sun,
Shanties and guava.
Beside an emerald sea,
Lumps of lava.

On the white dirt road,
A blind man tapping.
On dark Edwardian sofas,
White men napping.”

A largely enjoyable collection, but not up to the standard of those similar 20th century poets, Phyllis McGinley and Dorothy Parker. But then again, Updike’s many American awards (Pulitzer, National Book Award, etc etc) were for his fiction. His poetry can be considered a remarkable bonus.

Poem: “The Fig Tree”

 

The fig leaf symbol’s one of History’s greats
As, inter alia,
It hides, discloses and exaggerates
Male genitalia.
The fruit itself suggests the female form —
Dripping with honey
The little hole breaks open, pink and warm . . .
The Bible’s funny.

First published in The Asses of Parnassus, this poem has just been republished in Better Than Starbucks, which earned a “Kudos on your brilliant ‘The Fig Tree'” from Melissa Balmain, editor of Light. That’s a trifecta of editorial acceptance – it makes me proud, and I have to erase my lingering suspicion that the poem would be thought too rude for publication. Now I rate the poem more highly, as being not just a personal favourite but also acceptable to a wider audience.

It sometimes feels that all I write is iambic pentameter. It is always reassuring when a poem presents itself with half the lines being something else, and the result is a lighter, less sonorous verse. The rhymes are good; the poem’s succinct and easy to memorise. I’m happy with it.

Poem: Limerick: “Monomiscommunication”

This poem was published in Light, August 2017

MONOMISCOMMUNICATION

To be true to myself and quite clear
I whispered into my own ear;
I nodded, replied;
But, suspecting I lied,
I’m pretending I just didn’t hear.

About the use of form: pfft, it’s just a limerick. Limericks are designed with a bouncy, sassy meter and rhyme scheme. If ever there was a form that demonstrated how the use of rhyme and meter is part (and, I argue, an essential part) of the creation of the mood of the poem, it is the limerick. Perfect for puns, satire, rudeness and general frivolity, it is impossible to have any emotion of great seriousness when reading thoughts written in this form.

Therefore if you want to maximise the seriousness, for example, with which your verse is read, realise that an appropriate form is one of the requirements. And if you want your thoughts to be memorable word for word, then rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and assonance will be among the tools you use.

Poetry Resources: The Norton Book of Light Verse

The single best anthology of light verse that I know. Over 500 poems selected by Pulitzer Prize winning commentator Russell Baker (and with an excellent introduction by him). Everything from ‘Summer is y-comen in’ and its modern parodies, to Shakespeare and Marlowe, Noel Coward and Cole Porter, Don Marquis and Phyllis McGinley, Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon.

126147

Light verse lends itself to the use of form, and most of the poems are formal. Rhyme and meter make it easier to remember verse word for word, but there are bits that I remember, have known since my school days, that don’t share those attributes. For example, Cummings’ ‘Nobody loses all the time’

(and down went
my Uncle
Sol

and started a worm farm).

But such pieces are the exception. By the far the majority of light verse is going to rhyme and scan, and that is part of its charm.

As most poets only get one or two poems in this anthology, there are a couple of hundred poets represented. The book is therefore an excellent way to broaden your awareness of English-language poets – though if there are any outside the British-Irish-American area, I’m not aware of it. This limitation, and the fact that the compilation dates from 1986, are the only negative things to say about a superb and memorable collection.