Monday, 23 November 2009

Light Verse

When I was but a young poet of thirty-two or so I met with one my heroes, Derek Mahon, who was then reviews or literary editor of the New Statesman. It would have been 1982. He took me for lunch (I do not mean he mistook me for his lunch) and invited me to review for the magazine. I don't remember much of the occasion, except that I was given (praise be!) Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Ronald Duncan. What sticks in my mind is the subject of light verse, having mentioned which I asked his opinion and he turned and glared at me, as a sabre-toothed tiger might at a relatively small feral cat, and snarled, 'I HATE light verse!'

I suspect that has changed with him. It hasn't with me. I have always loved light verse and do still. There is a kind of pleased-with-itself smug rhyme dropped in the ear of a gentleman at a plush club which seems a little superior, but it does guy itself with some proper jokes, such as those by Harry Graham of 'Ruthless Rhymes' eg:

Mr Jones

'There's been an accident,' they said,
'Your servant's cut in half; he's dead!'
'Indeed!' said Mr Jones, 'and please
Send me the half that's got my keys.'

I also mean sheer word play, sheer silliness, such as Samuel Foote's The Great Panjandrum (1755):

So she went into the garden
to cut a cabbage-leaf
to make an apple-pie;
and at the same time
a great she-bear, coming down the street,
pops its head into the shop.
What! no soap?
So he died,
and she very imprudently married the Barber:
and there were present
the Picninnies,
and the Joblillies,
and the Garyulies,
and the great Panjandrum himself,
with the little round button at top;
and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can,
till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

Though that is really early Nonsense verse.

Very well then - I like W.S. Gilbert and Ogden Nash and Thomas Hood and C.S. Calverley and Dorothy Parker, and, gorgeously light, Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802-1839):

A Letter of Advice

You tell me you're promised a lover,
My own Araminta, next week;
Why cannot my fancy discover
The hue of his coat, and his cheek?
Alas! if he look like another,
A vicar, a banker, a beau,
Be deaf to your father and mother,
My own Araminta, say "No!"

Miss Lane, at her Temple of Fashion,
Taught us both how to sing and to speak,
And we loved one another with passion,
Before we had been there a week:
You gave me a ring for a token;
I wear it wherever I go;
I gave you a chain, - it is broken?
My own Araminta, say "No!"

O think of our favorite cottage,
And think of our dear Lalla Rookh!
How we shared with the milkmaids their pottage,
And drank of the stream from the brook;
How fondly our loving lips faltered,
"What further can grandeur bestow?"
My heart is the same; - is yours altered?
My own Araminta, say "No!"

Remember the thrilling romances
We read on the bank in the glen;
Remember the suitors our fancies
Would picture for both of us then;
They wore the red cross on their shoulder,
They had vanquished and pardoned their foe -
Sweet friend, are you wiser or colder?
My own Araminta, say "No!"

All these are play, and I love word play, much as - I suppose - most poets must, except in their most solemn moods, such as a New Statesman lunch for instance.

Then there's the sadness of it, the Edward Lear's The Yonghi-Bonghi Bo and this by Don Marquis:

one of the most
pathetic things i
have seen recently
was in intoxicated person
trying to fall
down a moving stairway
it was the escalator at
the thirty-fourth street
side of
pennsylvania station
he could not fall down as
fast as it
carried him up again but
he was game he kept on
trying he was
stubborn about it
evidently it was part of
his tradition habit and
he did not intend to
be defeated this time i
watched him for an hour
and moved sadly away thinking
how much sorrow
drink is responsible for the
buns* by great men
reached and kept
are not attained
by sudden flight but they
while their companions slept
were falling upwards
through the night

So bug archie writes to mehitabel, the cat. Delights.

*buns: drunken sprees (US, of the time)

1 comment:

Mark Granier said...

Thanks for this George, interesting. I began to write a comment, but (as with my response to your piece on Hirst), it became so long I decided I'd better do my own post on it. Not there yet, but shortly.