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.

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Poetry 2008 (uncut)

November 28, 2008

Space considerations led to my article today in The Independent on the best poetry of the year being cut: five poets were omitted. So here’s the full piece:

Choosing a baker’s dozen of the year’s poetry collections begs the question ‘What were you looking for?’ Answer: poems to make me look out at the world, and think, repeatedly, ‘I’ll never see it the same way.’ Good poetry takes the familiar, makes it strange, and, doing so, makes even the mundane memorable.

For magic, read Pauline Stainer’s Crossing the Snowline (Bloodaxe, £8.95). Stainer’s language has a frozen, exacting piety; she re-invents the world as myth, even religion: ‘the river/ writing its monograph/ on mosses’, ‘a daylight moon/ suspended on gimbals.’ Her bizarre takes on nature have the quality of polished gems. Equally magical, but madcap too, is Selima Hill’s The Hat (Bloodaxe, £7.95), a sequence as dark as Bunny, and using the same, elliptical glimpses and startling analogies. The Hat captures how a woman is crushed: ‘Look at those heavy bags of hers!/ They huddle at her feet like ducks and geese/ waiting dimly for their new home.’ Hill writes with instant, mock-flippant precision. Harder, but worth the work, is Peter Bennet’s The Glass Swarm (Flambard, £7.50), a selection of peculiar parables, eccentric but demanding legends – as if assembled by an English Scheherazade. The language grabs: ‘It is too late, with sunshine in my eyes,/ to care which insect air force is commencing/ a mass-attack of lullabies.’

The best poems strike up conversations. Try Sandra Tappenden’s Speed (Salt, £12.99, hardback), whose drollery persists, testing ideas, strolling along fantastic tangents: ‘Etiquette is a load of stupid nonsense;/ anyone can move into your dreams/ without making an appointment/ or even bothering to get dressed.’ Similarly, Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw (Carcanet, £9.95) looks around, half-suspiciously, funny or moody: ‘Locked in a jail of ribs, the passionate heart/ judders/ the way a cranked car used to do,/ the whole system/ suddenly coughing.’ Against these laconics, set cheeky Catherine Smith, whose Lip (Smith/Doorstop, £7.95) delights in the absurdity of love, sex, separation, and everyday erotica: ‘Send me your bed, but please, don’t change the sheets./ Pay two strong men to load it on a van,/ and drive it through the rain at one a.m./ I’ll be awake, I need to search for stains.’ Perfect put-downs; perfect pick-me-ups. The same applies to Kathryn Simmonds’ flint-hard whimsy in Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren, £7.99). Great images here (Jesus ‘transfigured’ as a contemporary ‘Dave’; elderly women dancing), and killer phrasing, as when trying to fix a broken TV: ‘With two hands on its shoulders/ I try rocking it to sense,/ like a priest conducting an exorcism/ gone badly wrong.’

Four gimlet-eyed, understated collections: Leontia Flynn’s Drives (Cape, £9), Allison McVety’s The Night Trotsky Came To Stay (Smith/Doorstop, £7.95), D.A. Prince’s Nearly the Happy Hour (HappenStance, £8), and Michael Laskey’s The Man Alone (Smith/Doorstop, £9.95). Flynn’s poems include recreations of the famous (Hitchcock, Fitzgerald, Bishop), tender personal elegies, and also real or imaginary journeys. Her poem ‘Airports’ nails them all: ‘Airports are their own peculiar weather./ Their lucid hallways ring like swimming pools./ … the planes, like a child’s mobile, hang at random.’ McVety manages the rare feat of trawling her family history, wittily shaping its stories, making her experiences ours: ‘On a side ward/ my father is trying his death for size./ It’s off-the-peg, but even so,/ consultants attend to the tailoring,/ consider a final tuck.’ Prince explores similar territory, but adds beautifully composed snapshots, as here, of cormorants: ‘a sandbar black with solid sound/ screaming a goal for the home team,/ the fans gone wild, winging their yah-yah-yah …’ Laskey is a meditative writer. Wry, curious, mischievous: his writing seizes on incidents and turns them quietly inside out, as at the end of ‘Lesson’, about having his wallet swiped – ‘Apparently it’s always happening/ with backpacks, but after the shock/ and the hassle, it’s the deftness/ I’m left with, how I didn’t feel a thing,/ how you need to keep practising.’ A mini-master-class in echo.

Earlier this year, I doubted any collection would match Ciaran Carson’s astonishing sequence For All We Know (Gallery Press, £10.95), in which a fugue of fourteen-line, fourteen-syllable, but six-beat sonnets conducts a mystery tour through love and political intrigue. It’s like Graham Greene crossed with a passionate Bach. But suddenly Carol Rumens’ Blind Spots (Seren, £8.99) arrives, her best work ever. Philosophical, playful, formal – umpteen forms expertly managed – free or experimental, Rumens opens with pieces inspired by Eugenio Montale, before exploring further her fusion of the personal and political. There is no word out of place – even in her delightful poem about allowing poets to wander off the subject – but my favourite is a sequence (‘Suite: Minus Ten’) about her deteriorating eyesight. ‘The smart in the eyes is grief-like;/ the urge to lie down on blank metal/ where the books that no-one borrowed/ lived their last years, and sleep,/ becomes almost uncontrollable.’ This collection will still be read decades from now: it must already be installed as a certain prize-winner.

Thirteen’s unlucky, so here’s a bonus track, as Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley would say, admitting he’s studied how music is marketed. His In Person (Bloodaxe, £12) is 2008’s must-have anthology – or rather, its two DVDs are, offering six hours with thirty poets (the anthology’s their script). From Adcock to Zepahaniah, 163 poems are filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce without flash, with fluffs, stumbles and noises off. Celebrating Bloodaxe’s thirtieth year, it introduces unfamiliar voices (in this country) like C.D.Wright and Naomi Shihab Nye. It makes you wonder if every collection should attach a DVD. And it captures terrific readings, most notably David Constantine’s ‘Common and Particular’, which you might reckon poem of the decade after seeing him speak it.