Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

Dr. Robert Darling

 Light verse need not be light.
It only must appear
not to bear too much weight
to an unwitting ear.
                       --   Bruce Bennett

Clair Wells, who has written extensively on Paul  Muldoon, begins a recent (September 17) review  in the TLS of the Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa  Szymborska as follows:

Such is the modern and post-modern distrust of  the seemingly simple, a bankrupt view passed  down from Ez Po and Old Possum.  If the  fashionable critical establishment has such  suspicion of accessible verse, it would seem  that light verse would be unworthy of the  critic's time.  Indeed, considering the  disastrous separation of poetry and verse, light  verse might not be considered poetry at all.   Yet the epigram with which I began this essay  makes a claim that light verse can carry weight.

I assume here for this audience that light verse  is poetry; I am also aware that such an  assumption would be like asserting inalienable  rights before a convention of skinheads were I  writing in the American Poetry Review, a fate  from which I have thus far blissfully been  spared.  The question I would like to explore is  how much weight a poem can hold and still be  considered light.  Perhaps this may also prove  to be attempting a definition by coming through  the back door.

Since the death of Gavin Ewart, Wendy Cope is  the leading practitioner of light verse in  England.  A much less prolific poet than Ewart,  Cope is far more consistent than he.  Her two  collections, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis and  Serious Concerns, both published by Faber, are  among the best-selling poetry books in the UK  over the past fifteen years.  (Of course,  "best selling" has more baggage to carry than  "light" to our post modern sensibilities.)

Certainly the humorous has always been  considered a staple of light verse, and Cope can  be very funny indeed.  But what is surprising,  considering how wide her audience is, is that  she is highly literary when humor is involved.   Her usual targets are other poets, critics and  academics.  "A Policeman's Lot" parodies a  critical remark of Ted Hughes strung on the  trellis of a Gilbert and Sullivan melody.  She  has written nursery rhymes as if they had been  composed by Wordsworth (consisting of an  encounter with a sheep: "And oft, now years have  passed, and I am old, / I recollect with joy  that inky pelt") and Eliot (his version of  "Hickory Dickory Dock": "In the last minute of  the first hour / I saw the mouse ascend the  ancient timepiece, / Claws whispering like wind  in dry hyacinths").  Indeed, Eliot is a frequent  target of Cope's; she summarizes "The Waste  Land" in five limericks; here, for example, is  her synopsis of Part III:

Eliot also comes in handy when she lampoons  poet-academics, as in "Poem Composed in Santa  Barbara":

Cope has invented the poet Jason Strugnell, who  embodies much of what bothers Cope about male  poets in general.  Some of the Strugnell pieces  become tiring, but many have more than their  share of wonderful moments.  Strugnell imitates  everybody and impresses no one, except himself.   He attempts versions of Eliot, Geoffrey Hill,  Fitzgerald, even Shakespeare.  Perhaps the best  example of the derivative and fawning Strugnell  is seen in "God and the Jolly Bored Bog-Mouse,"  an entry for a poetry competition judged by  Hughes, Larkin, Heaney and Charles Causley.   Here Strugnell out-Strugnells Strugnell, pray  you avoid it:

Strugnell knows no anxiety of influence; his  anxieties are about getting laid and having  enough money to get smashed at a pub.  Perhaps  sensing that too much of Strugnell would tire  all but Strugnell, she has him appear much less  in her second volume, Serious Concerns.

Men, especially the self-centered, are also a  target of Cope's, but she rarely descends into  male-bashing; the men she describes are indeed  not likable.  At her best, Cope envisions both  sides of the romantic farce, as in the opening  of "Rondeau Redoublé":

She commits a wonderful parody of Christopher  Smart's tribute to his cat in "My Lover" and  combines her thematic concerns of the literary  with unrequited love in poems such as "Another  Unfortunate Choice":

And there is the bittersweet humor of "Another Christmas Poem":

And with this poem, we see a couple concerns  emerging beyond humor.  There is an edge to  comments about the male of the species that are  evident in such poems as "Tumps," which stands  for "typically useless male poet."  Another is  entitled "Men and Their Boring Arguments" while  "Faint Praise" concludes with the speaker  informing her lover "Now and then, my pet, /  You're almost human.  You could make it yet."   And a poem such as "Bloody Men" is a real tour  de force--a poem clearly influenced by Larkin  which turns Larkin's usual male perspective  around on him:

This is vintage Larkin, with a twist.  Is it light verse?

Certainly, there are moments in Cope's work  where joy is expressed without humor.  A  charming piece such as "The Orange" in which the  speaker's being in love brings "peace and  contentment" and makes the humdrum delightful  ("I did all the jobs on my list / And enjoyed  them and had some time over. / I love you. I'm  glad I exist") must be contrasted with a work  such as "A Christmas Poem" which makes the  predictable, happy rhyme betray the darkness of  the season: "At Christmas little children sing  and merry bells jingle, / The cold winter air  makes our hands and faces tingle / And happy  families go to church and cheerily they mingle /  And the whole business is unbelievable dreadful,  if you're single."  Here the turn in the final  line implicates us all.

And Cope's opus is filled with many other  examples of the bittersweet if not the  sorrowful, from "At 3 a.m." where "beside you  there's a woman / who is crying quietly / so you  won't awake" to "Tich Miller," dead at twelve.   There is a breadth of material and mood here.   Is this still light verse or does this "bear too  much weight / to an unwitting ear"?

Cope comes close to addressing these matters in  "Serious Concerns," the title poem of her second  collection.  In an epigraph, she quotes Robert  O'Brien writing in the Spectator:  "She is witty  and unpretentious, which is both her strength  and her limitation."  Cope responds, "I'm going  to try and overcome my limitation-- / Away with  sloth! / Now should I work at being less witty?  Or more pretentious? / Or both?"  O'Brien is  also quoted as writing "They [Roger McGough and  Brian Patten] have something in common with her,  in that they all write to amuse."  Cope answers  this insightful bit of critical acumen with  "Write to amuse? What an appalling suggestion! /  I write to make people anxious and miserable and  to worsen their indigestion."  What Cope offers  as an absurd response here unfortunately does  seem to square with much contemporary poetry,  whether intended by the poet or not.  But it  does seem that lack of pretense and a deft  touch, an awareness of pain but a disinclination  to disgust, are necessary ingredients of light  verse.

If one wants to be confused by a definition, one  can do no better than to consult a prestigious  source.  The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry  and Poetics begins its definition of light verse  thus: "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."   Ogden Nash and Gavin Ewart were often  non metrical, so this definition is already in  question.  What is interesting, however, is the  phrase "worldly in character."  It is not  altogether apparent what one is to make of  this -- should light verse be vers de société?   Was Pope then a writer of light verse?  He was  definitely not a lightweight.  Perhaps light  verse should not be defined; like pornography,  we know what it is when we see it.  Unlike  pornography, light verse is something that is  life-affirming, something which can carry  weight, especially the weight of delight.  The  title poem of Cope's Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis occupies the third and final section of the  book by itself.  Here's the poem in full:

>From whimsy to sorrow, light verse, whatever it  is, adds something to the human condition.   Unpopular in academe because it needs no  professor to dazzle students with ingenious and  ironic readings, light verse remains popular  with readers who can still delight in life and  words.  Perhaps light verse is poetry that can  bear, and bare, an essential lightness of being,  the joyful sorrows and the sorrowful joys of  daily life that too much of our poetry ignores.   As such it is invaluable, and poets like Wendy  Cope are to be treasured.

                                                        Robert Darling

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