MARCH 25, 2019
IT’S AMUSING TO THINK of light verse as the gateway drug to poetry, something to sample before moving on to the hard stuff. As readers and writers, children favor rhymes, sing-song rhythms, and silliness. No kid asks for Charles Olson at bedtime.
Some of us never outgrow our childhood pleasures, guilty or otherwise. But only in the last half-century or so has light verse become less than respectable among readers, poets, and critics, and less ubiquitous in popular culture. The New Yorker featured it for decades, making Ogden Nash a household name. Millions of non-poetry readers can still quote him: “Candy / Is dandy, / But liquor / Is quicker.” Phyllis McGinley, one of the best-known light verse writers of her day, published in Ladies Home Journal (and The New Yorker), and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1961. Kingsley Amis, himself an enthusiast and practitioner of the form, described the highest aspirations of light verse as “genial, memorable, enlivening and funny.”
Still, some readers and critics maintain that light verse isn’t real poetry. It’s kids’ stuff, doggerel, greeting-card fodder, unhappy echoes of Richard Armour, whose whimsical riffs appeared in Sunday newspaper supplements starting in the Great Depression. Definitions of light verse are notoriously slippery. Connoisseurs and detractors alike defer to US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s threshold test for obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” As to the charge of frivolity, the poet Bruce Bennett notes that the best writers of light verse “not only verge on seriousness; at times they embrace it.”
Take X. J. Kennedy, for example, the éminence grise of American light verse. In his introduction to Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008, Kennedy takes a stab at defining the genre: “[Light verse] suggests negligible froth, like the pitiful head you get on light beer. For the sake of clarity, I call funny things that rhyme and scan ‘comic verse.’ Maybe some are heavy enough to call poems. I hope that’s all right with you.” Kennedy’s cocky taunt says it all. In “Jews,” Kennedy, an Irish-American and a lapsed Roman Catholic, writes:
Excluding me from Talmud, Yom Kippur,
Uncircumcised as I’m, born far from folks
Who struggled in a ghetto. Different strokes,
That’s us. But meat a rabbi’s blade makes pure,
Chopped chicken liver, challah, macaroons
Nest in my hungry mouth like home sweet home.
They have one up on me. More centuries past
Remain their heritage. My lucky kind
Haven’t been herded, shipped to death camps, gassed.
Can verse address the Holocaust and similar weighty matters and still retain its light credentials? Tom Disch, who titled one of his volumes Dark Verses and Light (1991), thought so, as do other light versifiers. A. M. Juster, a poet and translator of poetry from Latin, takes the comic seriously. When starting out as a poet in the 1980s, Juster decided to “no longer be solemn all the time,” while also resolving not to descend into nonsense or “cheap political jokes.” According to him, “Light verse has to deal with the timeless issues the way that Martial, Horace, Swift, Byron, Dorothy Parker at her best, and Wendy Cope do, to have any longevity at all. Just wordplay and/or inside jokes on the issues of the day doesn’t last. Dialect poems, which were also popular in the first half of the 20th century, went almost immediately from funny to the elite to offensive to everyone.” (Which brings to mind the recent brouhaha over Anders Carlson-Wee’s dialect poem, which is certainly not light verse, in The Nation.) Light verse must judge itself and be judged as poetry, not as some second-rate imitation.
For more than a quarter-century, light verse has found a sympathetic home in Light, the biannual journal founded by a retired Chicago postal worker named John Mella. When he started the journal in 1992, one of Mella’s goals was to salvage verse from what he called the “cheerless, obscure, and finally forgettable muck” of poetry written by and for academics. Mella gives autodidacts a good name. A Roman Catholic seminary dropout, he published Transformations (1975), an alternate-history sci-fi novel about a crossdressing actor that one reviewer described as “proto-steampunk” and another praised for its erudition and “dazzling prose.” His favorite book was Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, about which he once wrote, “Although not chiefly somber, the brightly amusing parodic exaggerations are nibbled at by incursions of inky sorrows,” which sounds a lot like light verse. Among those who contributed to Light during Mella’s tenure were Richard Wilbur, John Updike, Dana Gioia, Tom Disch, Dick Davis, Wendy Cope, and Timothy Steele. The journal also boasted a small but devoted following. As Mella told the Chicago Reader in 2004, “My subscribers are very faithful. There are about 750 to 850 of them. That’s not great, but not bad for a literary magazine with absolutely no funding but my retirement check from the post office.”
The poet R. S. Gwynn says that Light “filled a gap in American poetry, for there was almost nowhere that light verse could be published, then and now.” He notes that The New Yorker was the country’s leading venue for light verse until the 1960s, when the magazine began to disavow it in favor of more self-consciously “serious” poetry. “It’s a shame the sophisticated humor in its cartoons can no longer be found in its poetry, which is fairly dreary and has been for years,” Gwynn says. “Maybe the magazine is too high-minded to think that poetry can entertain.” Gwynn’s poem “Carpe Diem,” from the winter 1999 issue of Light, is an example of how light verse can address a weighty subject — in this case, time’s passage and the vanity of human wishes:
Don’t sweat it if your tresses gray
Or if Time’s sands have shifted.
Whatever starts to sag today
Tomorrow can get lifted.
A. E. Stallings, a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and a translator of Lucretius and Hesiod, published early poems in Light, some of which later appeared in her first collection, Archaic Smile (1999). “Mella was a very gracious and warm editor, and always sent nice little notes,” she says. “Often, they were rejections, but always with something like ‘not quite’ or ‘I liked x best.’” Stallings, born in 1968, was also the youngest poet to receive a full feature in the journal (in 1998), a dossier consisting of poems and an essay. She says the honor “felt like an important promotion.” In 2005, she published “Lullaby for a Colicky Baby” in Light:
For crying out loud,
It’s only spilt milk.
The way your sharp cries rend
The air’s thin silk,
The way your blue skies cloud
And take away our sun,
You’d think the world about to end
Instead of just begun.
Stallings recalls that Mella’s taste for mordant humor moved her to examine her own assumptions about the differences between light verse and other kinds of poetry. “I was often less successful in placing poems I truly considered ‘light’ verse with Light,” she says. “Rather, [Mella] seemed to like darker things with music to them. It was often a place where I would send in things that were quite polished, but perhaps didn’t have the scope or gravitas for a ‘serious’ magazine. But light verse requires a great deal of polish. It can be harder to turn out a perfect squib than a publishable page-and-a-halfer, the typical form around the millennium.”
When Mella died in 2012, at age 70, editorship of the journal fell to Melissa Balmain, an English instructor at the University of Rochester who had contributed to Light since 1999. “It quickly became clear that if no one volunteered to edit Light, it would fold,” she says. “The journal was running out of money, and the remaining staff couldn’t afford to work without a salary. John himself never took a penny.” The board of the Foundation for Light Verse, the nonprofit that publishes Light, as well as an advisory panel including Kennedy, Gwynn, and others, approved the choice of Balmain. (Before his death, Mella had asked her to be the next editor.)
As with most small literary journals in the digital age, Light operates with a skeleton crew staff and almost no budget. There are eight volunteer staffers, counting Balmain, and contributors are unpaid. To economize, Light became an exclusively online publication in 2013, a few years after it had switched from a quarterly to a biannual publication schedule.
Balmain estimates that she spends about 12 hours a week promoting Light on social media and corresponding with poets via email, on top of her family responsibilities and her job as an adjunct instructor. “That’s about 600 hours per year,” she adds, “including the scramble leading up to publication of a new issue.” For her, editing the journal is both labor and love.
Poems submitted by unknown writers are given the same attention and judged by the same criteria as those from established poets. Though better known as a novelist, John Updike’s first book, The Carpentered Hen (1958), is a volume of mostly light verse. About Updike’s dealings with Mella and Light, Balmain says: “He didn’t earn his spot easily. When he submitted a poem, [Mella] rejected it. His letter to Updike explained that he didn’t print poems that contained swear words. Then he said something like, ‘Just because you’re a famous and talented writer doesn’t mean we can make exceptions for you.’ Updike, I’m told, was amused. He resubmitted the poem, without the swear words, and [Mella] published it.”
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Balmain saw a growing interest in topical verse. “I hadn’t seen any journals that regularly published funny topical poems, so last spring we launched Poems of the Week,” she says. “Each week since, we’ve received a pile of poems inspired by the news.” The deadline for submissions is Friday, and every Monday the journal’s staff publishes their favorites. While most of the entries are about US politics, Balmain says she’s also “gotten poems on everything from Brexit to the Vatican’s refusal to recognize gluten-free communion wafers.” Mae Scanlan’s “Donald Trump Goes to the Grocery Store” is a recent representative example. The first stanza:
“I’d like to buy some applesauce.”
“You need to show me your IDs.”
“I left them home.” “You may be the boss,
But I need proofs. Produce them, please.”
Several publications have since started running their own news-inspired poems. Some, such as The New Verse News and Poets Reading the News, are entirely devoted to topical poetry. For others — Rattle’s “Poets Respond” feature, for instance — newsy poems are just a sideline. “Poets themselves, galvanized by current events, have helped drive that change,” Balmain says. “This is true for both light and non-light poets. The Washington Post’s Style Invitational, a weekly humor contest that often runs light verse, is inundated with topical stuff. The same is true for Light, which is part of why I launched Poems of the Week.”
Balmain says that Poems of the Week has encouraged longtime contributors to write more, often with “a real sense of urgency.” For them, topical verse is a way to resist or support government policies, or simply an entertaining way to share their views. Light receives three to four dozen submissions a week. And while verse about Trump has tapered off, Balmain says that at least half of the submissions involve the president in some way, “including poems about people he’s fired or allegedly had affairs with.” Cody Walker’s “A Mad Gardener’s Lament,” a riff on Lewis Carroll’s “The Mad Gardener’s Song,” ends with this downbeat quip:
He thought he saw his Country’s Fortunes
Crumble — wait a minute:
He looked again, and found there was
Another way to spin it
“In eighty years we’ll be cadavers.
Kinda funny, innit?”
The digital world, technology, and social media are also recurrent topics for contemporary writers of light verse. Balmain’s “Nightmare,” for instance, was published in Light and appears in her collection Walking in on People (2014):
Your TV cable’s on the fritz.
Your Xbox is corroded.
Your iPod sits in useless bits.
Your Game Boy just imploded.
Your cell phone? Static’s off the scale.
Your land line? Disconnected.
You’ve got no mail — E, junk or snail.
Your hard drive is infected.
So here you idle, dumb and blue,
with children, spouse and mother —
and wish you knew what people do
to entertain each other.
By encouraging the submission of political and otherwise topical poems, Balmain believes Light is remaining true to Mella’s original vision to help “restore humor, clarity, and pleasure to the reading of poems.” Today, though, the journal has embraced this secondary mission of delivering witty takes on the news of the day. Whatever one’s politics, the world since 2016 has been good for light verse. As Balmain says, “Every day brings the kinds of over-the-top, did-that-really-happen? stories that are catnip to funny people.”
Light verse overlaps with the New Formalism school of poets that emerged in the 1980s with the work of Gioia, Kennedy, Brad Leithauser, and Marilyn Hacker, among others. The third issue of Light, published in 1992, includes “An Attempt at Unrhymed Verse” by Wendy Cope, which pokes fun at the free verse triumph among poets:
People tell you all the time,
Poems do not have to rhyme.
It’s often better if they don’t
And I’m determined this one won’t.
Never mind, I’ll start again.
Busy, busy with my pen…cil.
I can do it if I try —
Easy, peasy, pudding and gherkins.
Writing verse is so much fun,
Cheering as the summer weather,
Makes you feel alert and bright,
’Specially when you get it more or less the
way you want it.
In her introduction to The Funny Side: 101 Humorous Poems (1998), Cope writes about the label light verse:
I don’t believe it is useful any more, and I wish we could scrap it. The word “light” seems to imply that a poem can’t be funny and serious (weighty) at the same time. Some people do believe that a humourous poem can’t be deeply felt, or deal with anything that matters very much. In fact, much humourous writing arises from despair and misery.
Barbara Loots, of Kansas City, Missouri, takes bemused offense at the way some critics denigrate light verse by likening it to greeting card verse. For 41 years, she wrote greeting card sentiments for Hallmark. “According to most literary publishers, this is the cesspit of poetry,” she says. “I got over it, since most writers end up writing something other than immortal poetry for a lot less financial security. I continued to write for Hallmark and pursued my literary ambitions with credible publishing success in magazines and anthologies over the years.” Loots describes her latest collection, Windshift (2018), as “a living, breathing expression of how light verse and serious intentions cross over.” A poem from the collection, “Colonoscopy: A Love Poem,” originally appeared in Light:
My love is like a red, red rose.
I know because I’ve seen
the photographs inside of him
projected on a screen:
the petal-like appearance of
his proximal transverse,
his mid-ascending colon
like a rose’s opening purse,
a bud not yet unfurled —
Oh, what a pleasing garden is
my true love’s inner world!
How very like a red, red rose
his clean and healthy gut.
I love my laddie all the more
since looking up his butt.
Deflation — reducing human vanity to its ridiculous or distasteful essentials — is a frequent strategy of light verse. Loots’s poem starts as the 10-thousandth Robert Burns parody and quickly turns Swiftian and more substantial. Critics risk killing the patient when dissecting light verse (or dissecting any kind of humor), but one can’t imagine Loots’s poem written as free verse. The rhymes are amusing — “proximal transverse/purse,” “gut/butt” — and the brevity and metrical regularity, albeit with variations, lend the poem its mock-formality.
“As a greeting card writer, I had to say something sweet, and invariably positive, in a highly restricted form,” Loots says. “Limited vocabulary, limited rhyme choices, limited ideas. Over the years, we began to push the limits of idea, while still retaining the strict form. How many different ways can you rhyme the word ‘you’? I got plenty of practice with meter and rhyme, which are the most important characteristics of the light verse genre. The point of humorous verse is not only to say something funny, but also to say it in a funny or clever way.”
Gail White of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, is a contributing editor at Light. She has published numerous chapbooks and four volumes of poetry, and in 2012 she received the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. “I’ve been writing poems ever since I could pick up a pen and print in block letters,” she says. “I wrote rhymed and metrical verse from the beginning, but it was other people who told me I was writing light verse. I just called it poetry. However, I don’t mind occupying this niche at all. Light verse is accessible and readily understood, and I’ve never aspired to obscurity.”
White doesn’t remember how her association with Light began. “I started sending them poetry when I learned of its existence,” she says. “Like other magazines such as Measure, Raintown Review, and The Formalist (now deceased), Light was of immense help to my career and identity. I was stuck in a midlife morass in which no one wanted anything of mine until the New Formalism came along, and suddenly there were markets for me. I associate light verse with formal verse because I have seldom read a light poem in free verse that I thought was a success.”
White’s work is tartly satirical and deftly crafted. There’s little happy talk or striving after the inspirational or therapeutic, and she prides herself on concision. Almost any subject, from domestic to cosmic, is fair game. Here is her epigram “On Louisiana Politics”: “The politician, like the tabby’s young, / Attempts to clean his backside with his tongue.”
Asked if her work has grown more political of late, White replies: “You bet it has. There has never been a subject for creative ridicule so ready to hand as the current administration. And laughing is better than constantly screaming in rage.” She isn’t worried about the demand for light verse ever petering out. “There will always be an audience for it. The question is whether there will be publishers for it. I hope there will always be journals open to light verse — and publishers for anthologies of it.”
As to the enduring appeal of light verse, Juster calls it “primal”: “Most offices, of course, have somebody who serves as the office poet.” In an age of entitlement and political strife, when memes and snark ad hominem assaults go viral, perhaps light verse is recapturing some of its broader appeal. “[Light verse] was not considered artsy or highfalutin,” Juster says, “and it certainly isn’t academic. It used to be a significant part of the popular culture. But it’s important to remember that a lot of it was God-awful.”