Tag Archives: light verse

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.

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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.

 

Poetry Resources: Better Than Starbucks

BTS logoBetter Than Starbucks (BTS) is a literary magazine that all poets should be aware of because of its enormous and well-structured diversity. Apart from several types of poetry, it also has some short fiction and creative non-fiction.

It has (currently) eight separate poetry sections with a variety of editors, covering such areas as Free Verse, Haiku, African Poetry and, of most interest to me, Formal & Rhyming Poetry edited by Vera Ignatowitsch.

The poets who show up in the formal section vary from issue to issue, but the range of poetry is always impressive: you can expect to find a couple of lighthearted limericks, a couple of serious sonnets, and a few lyrical poems in nonce forms.

Of particular interest to active poets is that BTS will take previously published as well as fresh work. This allows the poet to republish their strongest individual pieces and gain a wider audience for them; and the magazine gets to publish the best of the poet’s work, not necessarily their most recent (or hardest to place). For the reader, too, it means that the standard of work is higher than usual.

My own work has been published or republished in BTS several times, and I was lucky enough with the current (November 2018) edition to have two poems in the Formal & Rhyming section, and one in Free Verse, and two in International Poetry. (I haven’t achieved such a trifecta before, and don’t expect to again. So now is obviously the right time for this blog post… even if I am confessing to writing Free Verse. Sort of.)

Better Than Starbucks is a very good-looking magazine. It now comes out every two months in both hard and soft copy. Strongly recommended.