Once Recited, Now Benighted

One theory has it that “Candy / Is dandy / But liquor / Is quicker” was a literary summit from which there was nowhere to go but down.

Ogden Nash, who constructed these immortal lines, written in 1931, has been dead for 30-some years. Not quite as dead is light verse. John Mella has been publishing Light: A Quarterly of Light Verse in Chicago since 1992. But Light, however worthy, is a greenhouse exercise, and light verse belongs in the wild. The perfect contemporary setting for Nash’s quatrain, for example, would be a box interrupting a New Yorker disquisition on third-wave feminism.

Billy Collins tells me that Nash “in a way killed light verse by perfecting it, taking it to new heights and depths of badness and goodness. Just as the Elizabethan sonnet ended with Shakespeare, Nash is a very hard act to follow.”

Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate, is one of the more celebrated poets of our day and one of the wittiest. But Mella doesn’t see him as a writer of light verse. To Mella, light verse is poetry you both want to memorize and can. It probably rhymes. In his view, there was a “silver age” of light verse that began around the turn of the last century, and English poets such as Chesterton and Belloc and Americans such as Nash and Dorothy Parker figured prominently in it. In 1961 a light poet, Phyllis McGinley, actually won a Pulitzer Prize for the collection Times Three.

But light verse went out of fashion. High- and middlebrow magazines dropped it. Newspapers that used to print ditties on their editorial pages got self-conscious and stopped. But as a covert vice, light verse carried on, and during the 80s a professor at Case Western named Robert Wallace was able to publish a “Light Year” series of anthologies. Mella sees himself as Wallace’s successor.

“Check out the New Yorker,” he says. “Their short stories are pretty good. Their articles are great. Their cartoons hold up. But their poetry stinks. It’s the style. As Bob Wallace pointed out, it all goes back to Matthew Arnold and high seriousness. If it’s fun it can’t be good.”

Light verse is still around if you know where to look. Charles Osgood does it on CBS, Calvin Trillin in the Nation. Light regularly publishes X.J. Kennedy, a well-known poet who likes to be a wise guy, and John Updike, William Stafford, John Frederick Nims, and W.D. Snodgrass have shown up in its pages. On its Web site Light claims that it “discards what is obscure and dreary, and restores lightness, understandability, and pleasure to the reading of poems. It seeks, in short, to resurrect the literary milieu (if not the time) of”–and goes on to list Nash, Parker, James Thurber, E.B. White, Peter De Vries, and others.

“Milieu” is a tony word that here evokes round tables, booze, nicotine, one-upmanship, and an air of madcap wickedness. Light does not.

Says Collins of Mella’s journal, “It keeps light verse alive, but it also creates a kind of mausoleum for it.”

“My subscribers are very faithful,” says Mella. “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.”

I mention those circulation figures to X.J. Kennedy. “Oh, is that all?” he says. “That’s not setting the world on fire. It’s just keeping the flame alive.”

Was it perverse of journalism to abandon light verse? I think so. Every editor tries to produce a magazine that can be navigated at more than one speed. Skimmers can flip through the New Yorker for the froth, spotting the heavy cream they’ll return to when they’ve got time. Readers in second gear can dawdle over the casuals and reviews. A sprinkling of light verse would perfectly suit this editorial strategy, but New Yorker poetry is as easy to swallow in a gulp as a persimmon.

“The New Yorker made Nash famous by printing him every week,” says Kennedy, “but 30 years ago the new poetry editor at the New Yorker, Howard Moss, made a vow he wouldn’t publish any more light verse. He made a vow of solemnity.”

Solemnity has a lot to answer for.

“Most poets, who are the ones who read and buy poetry, tend to be terribly serious,” says Kennedy, “and they think that unless poetry is solemn it’s inferior–at least that’s my sense.”

Collins: “Humor was put in the doghouse because of a new seriousness brought to poetry by modernism, by poets like Pound, Eliot, Stevens. If you look back further, I think humor was banished by the Romantic poets. Something happened with the Romantic poets. They basically got rid of sex and humor, and in their place they substituted landscape–a pretty bad trade.”

Steve Young is program director for the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. “I think writing got professionalized in this country with the rise of MFA programs,” he says. “That’s sort of a serious business, and it may be a lot of writers feel humor isn’t a luxury they can afford. Many are trying to get publishing credentials to get ahead. And some of the social upheaval of the 60s had some effect. Part of it may be that there are some formal aspects to poetry that are less prominent than they were–meter and rhyme.”

Kennedy: “Light verse, come to think of it, used to depend on readers who were familiar with verse in the traditional forms. Because they’d read Tennyson and Keats and Edgar Allan Poe, they had these rhythms in the back of their heads, so they could appreciate poets who wrote in rhyme and meter who were doing something frivolously. And the old rhymed and metrical forms are very much in the doghouse.”

“People blame T.S. Eliot,” says Mella. “What I like in Eliot is not what he liked in himself–some portentous expression of modern angst. It was his poems of atmosphere. The yellow fog. It’s marvelous stuff. His cat poems are wonderful.”

Alice Quinn is Moss’s successor as poetry editor of the New Yorker. “I’m wondering if it’s really a light-verse moment,” she says. “Every poetry has its moment. If there were exceptional poems of the caliber of Phyllis McGinley’s and Dorothy Parker’s we’d probably be running them.” She asks if in my research I’ve run across anyone writing light verse at their level–raising the question of what equal wits these days are doing instead.

“I don’t think people turn to light verse,” Quinn says. But, she continues, “there’s definitely a very happy response to Billy Collins, who has restored a place for humor in poetry. I think Billy is a serious artist. But I think light-verse artists like Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker were very serious about what they did.”

Douglas Parker just finished writing a biography of Ogden Nash that Chicago publisher Ivan R. Dee will bring out in May. “Poetry has changed,” Parker says, “and one of the things that is too bad is that it is not as accessible to as many people as it used to be. A huge amount of poetry is written today, but much of it is written and read in little journals read by other poets. Nash made his living writing for magazines–the New Yorker, but also the Saturday Evening Post, the Atlantic, Redbook, the Hearst papers. In the 60s Nash found outlets for verse were drying up. Even his favorite, the New Yorker–he had a lot more trouble than he once had getting his verse published there. William Shawn was the editor–the magazine took itself more seriously.”

Mella says, “I blame a whole generation or two of academics and the grist they produced–the cheerless, obscure, and finally forgettable muck that serves no other purpose except to oil the engines of their pointless professions.”

Poetry finally began shaking off that muck, but a renaissance of light verse isn’t what did it. “Poetry slams simulate Light Verse in their utter rejection of academic obscurantism,” Mella allows via e-mail. “The difference comes in the way each worships the Goddess Claritas. Light Verse does it through polished lenses, and through a kind of delicate approach that would be destroyed by the smoke, cymbals, war dances, of slams.”

The oral poetry of slams and hip-hop has dug deep roots in the popular culture. Light verse has Mella’s plucky little journal to anchor it. But by plucky I don’t mean simply that it chugs along; like oral poetry, it can curl its lip and stick its tongue out. Its contributors read headlines. Terrence Bennett wrote for a recent issue:

Our hearts brim with love for Kuwait,

We love Saudis too, in the main;

But for France we have nothing but hate,

Because cars cannot run on champagne.

Dan Campion wrote in the same issue:

Daily sport, war, sacrament,

Sometimes an execution;

Equipped with these, what government

Need fear a revolution?

Light verse is down but not out. And the most hallowed of the classic light verse forms has stood up against the fiercest gales academicism could mount against it. I confirm this with Kennedy.

“Yeah,” he says. “I think the limerick has never gone away.”

Rejected and Dejected

“Here’s the real story,” said A.E. Eyre.

I was telling my friend about this week’s column. He leaned forward so vehemently I thought he’d slip off his bar stool and land in a cushion of peanut shells. “It was always my intent to set light verse back on course,” he said.

Eyre is a man of formidable intellectual qualities, and at the forefront is the gift–dear to any writer–of construing failure as triumph ahead of its time.

“I was young and at the top of my game,” he remembered. “The torches had been passed. There was one from Ogden Nash, another from Siegfried Sassoon.”

Lucky is the writer worthy of a single torch.

“Seeing my duty,” Eyre went on, “I decided to compose a lighthearted verse that would lay bare the madness of the Vietnam war. But Nixon got wind of my plan and knew I had to be stopped. He turned the full force of the federal government against me.”

Eyre quickly penetrated the scheme. “It wasn’t exactly hard to figure out,” he said. “When rejection slip follows rejection slip and the phrasing is always identical, it’s obvious a conspiracy has been hatched. ‘Does not meet our present needs’ was a dead giveaway. More than one magazine returned the envelope unopened–even though I’d written across the front of it in Magic Marker, ‘Priority poem enclosed! Urgent attention required!'”

When I told Eyre I wouldn’t mind hearing the opus that didn’t change the course of history, he promptly cleared his throat. He paused to allow a crowd to gather, and when it didn’t he intoned:

The new troops were all smartly reviewed.

Swelled with pride, off to ‘Nam they were shooed.

Where as soon as they saw

This was no Bien Hoa

Muttered, “I think we’ve all Dien Bien Phued.”

That says it all, I agreed.

“They muzzled me,” Eyre said mournfully, “and light verse never recovered.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.