Light Verse

February 7, 2009

There is a nice article by John Whitworth in the current issue of the online magazine Chimaera about so-called, but rarely self-styled ‘light verse’. I have to declare an interest. I’m interested. (And I should add that I have a poem in it, so there is some undercover self-promotional work going on here.) As JW (a great practitioner of the dark art of rhyme) says, there is a degree of snobbery still existing about poems which rhyme, and which are intended to amuse. The assumption in some quarters is that if a poem rhymes, it cannot be serious: it must be ‘light’, as in possessing no weight (or should that be specific gravity?).

Now it’s not true that rhyming verse is dead: in fact, it has staged a major revival over the last ten years, and for some writers (say, Tony Harrison), it is the natural way of things. Harrison isn’t a good comic poet (his squibs, translated from Martial, for example, are a little forced), and no-one would call v. or A Cold Coming light. And poets like Sean O’Brien are expert and relentless rhymers. And you only have to watch Bill Herbert (W.N. Herbert to you and me) performing ‘Bad Shaman Blues’ on Bloodaxe’s In Person DVD to see that there is a strong tradition of form being upheld: Paul Muldoon’s brilliant subversions are further examples. And show me a contemporary collection that doesn’t have a bash at any one of a villanelle, a sonnet, a ghazal, a pantoum or a sestina – harder to find one that doesn’t than one that does. (Note: pantoums don’t have to rhyme, and sestinas ditto.)

Of course, the problem with light verse is the term itself. It’s a bit of a paradox that Chimaera has had to publish a light verse special to argue that light verse is an artificial division of poetry – as JW points out, Kingsley Amis argued, in his introduction to the Faber Book of Light Verse, that, before 1800, there wasn’t much of a distinction. Think Herrick, think Cowper, think Thomas Hood (if you don’t know Thomas Hood, Google him or try here, at Poemhunter – apologies in advance, it’s one of those sites that flashes up an invitation to buy into the ‘new generation of smileys – now with sound’ – for eff’s sake, WHY?). Hood was a contemporary of the Romantics (1789-1845), and is much under-rated.

But it is true that being light-hearted (a better use of ‘light’) is not the same thing as being ‘unserious’. Still, I’m going to follow Chimaera’s lead: I’ll use ‘light verse’ as a shorthand, and, after all, I have headed today’s entry with the dreaded two words. The thing about light verse is that it has to have some satirical substance – something to do with ideas – if it is going to be worth it, and perhaps the best way of signalling this is by using complex patterns of rhyming (without exclamation marks, which are the way to ruin a poem by pointing at the ‘funny bits’).  Equally, there is another kind of verse which might be dismissed as ‘light’ which is understated, and uses rhyme to help it along. ‘Rhymers’ like D.A.Prince, whom I know and like, are part of an overground movement (as it were) of poets who have their feet in so many camps that they don’t care what they try (i.e. they don’t feel obliged to rhyme).

Confusing, isn’t it? I’m arguing for amusing poetry as well as formal verse, however subverted, at the same time, and maybe I should separate out the lines of my argument. What I’m not arguing is for more poems about cats, for more doggerel, or indeed for more rap (I’ve had enough of it, honestly). I’m arguing that Roger McGough should be taken seriously, just as seriously as Geoffrey Hill – I saw that McGough argued, in defiance of Wendy Cope, that a poet laureate had a role. Give him the job if Ian McMillan won’t take it. Try Muldoon’s humour (you can hear him read on his website here. Or try Martin Parker’s online magazine Lighten Up Online – once again, I’m implicated. But hey, it’s my blog.