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:
Stone-numb, Mouse watched the ice-bright stars,
Decided they were boring.
Cradled in roots and sodden turf,
Soon he was jolly snoring.
Mouse dreamed a Universe of Blood,
He dreamed a shabby room,
He dreamed a dank hole in the earth,
(Back to the jolly womb).
Mouse tried to vomit up his guts
Then got up for a pee.
A comet pulsed across the sky--
He didn't jolly see.
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
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:
Bloody men are like bloody buses--
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.
You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You're trying to read their destinations,
You haven't much time to decide.
If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you'll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.
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