Poetry Journal

Latest writing / 16 Jul, 2014

Lose Weight Now, Ask Me How: On Light Verse

Peter Kirkpatrick

On the radio the other day I caught Marilyn Monroe’s version of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’. I’d forgotten – if I ever knew – that the introduction went:

  The French are glad to die for love,
  They delight in fighting duels.
  But I prefer a man who lives
  And gives expensive jewels.

One of my darkest secrets is a fondness for musicals, but this isn’t the sort of thing that causes me to catch my breath. As a song lyric, it’s not even ‘poetic’ in the sense that most people with literary investments would begin to argue about that term today. Still, I was captivated. How clever are the internal rhymes, and especially the neat sequencing of ‘lives’, ‘gives’ and ‘expensive’. The rest of Leo Robin’s lyrics are just as witty and even more colloquial:

  He’s your guy when stocks are high
  But beware when they start to descend.
  It’s then that those louses go back to their spouses:
  Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

OK, it may not be to everyone’s taste. In any case, as a song, much of the wit is naturally imparted in performance rather than on the page. But why should I take specific pleasure in Robin’s words? Philip Furia included him in his survey of what he called The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, so I’m not alone in finding something poetic about ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’.

Can we make a distinction in kind between ‘real’ poetry and something that is poetic, but in a slighter, less ambitious way: a difference in class, you might say? Probably not, without returning to that once-upon-a-time critical malarky which insisted on a clear separation of high art from popular culture, and what TS Eliot, in an influential essay on Kipling (1941, p. 20), called ‘verse’ as distinct from poetry.1 Which brings me to the nub of these remarks: the status of light verse. Does such a term still have any meaning within present-day literary nomenclature, or does it belong to the past – like foundation garments and detachable collars, or the critical opinions of TS Eliot? In our less corseted, relatively unbuttoned, allegedly postmodern era, do we – should we – continue to discriminate in this way? Intrinsic to this is the place of humour in poetry, for light verse is typically taken as somehow comic. Last year I chuckled for weeks over the opening to Michael Farrell’s ‘whats the matter’: ‘remember when scotland was called the scotland./what was that all about…’2 Does that make it light?

At one level the present status of light verse is quickly resolved because, as a publishing category, it has largely disappeared. A hundred years ago just about every newspaper and magazine printed poems on topical and humorous subjects, even the august Sydney Morning Herald, whose verse offerings seem designed more to instruct than to delight. In the late 1960s I recall my parents buying a gardening magazine that published epigrams on horticultural themes. One that rhymed succulent with truculent made me look up the meaning of the latter word, so poetry can indeed instruct. Alongside her other duties as reporter, columnist and editor, Dorothy Drain’s light verse was a feature of The Australian Women’s Weekly over many years, from the 1930s to the 1970s:3

  Such lovely unrelated rhymes
  Come into my head at times,
  Like Harrogate and prevaricate,
  Or icicle and bicycle;
  Syntax, which matches up with tintacks,
  Or haystack, which is cute with facepack.
  It makes me curse
  That in this verse
  My only excuse for mentioning ‘zircon’
  Is because I haven’t a theme to work on.

But the Australian journal most identified with light verse was the Bulletin. At its foundation in 1880 Victorian journals were expanding exponentially in the wake of growing mass literacy, new printing technologies, and faster modes of transport and distribution. Les Murray has suggested that the newspaper poetry of this period constructed a ‘narrow-columned middle ground’4 between everyday life and high culture, before modernism alienated the general reader. Certainly poetry has never been more popular in this country than it was between the second half of the nineteenth century and the First World War. We tend to think of the Bulletin at this time as the spiritual home of the bush ballad, but poets such as ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson are only part of the story. Many of its contributors wrote promiscuously in a range of registers. Irish-born Victor Daley, for instance, wrote perfumed fin de siècle lyrics under his own name and political verse under the pseudonym ‘Creeve Roe’ (Irish Gaelic for ‘Red Branch’). Most prolific of all was another Irishman, David McKee Wright, who became the Bulletin’s literary editor, and who wrote under a swag of pen-names.5

Andrée Hayward, who joined the Bulletin in 1922 and wrote as ‘T. the R.’ (‘Thomas the Rhymer’), subsequently became the journal’s chief writer of topical verse. His best-remembered – because most anthologised – piece is an epigram on King George V:6

  He did his duty both by peers and peasants
  In council chambers, gilded halls and camps;
  And in his leisure moments potted pheasants
  And perseveringly collected stamps. 

On Hayward’s death in 1950 his job fell to Ronald McCuaig, who became the Bulletin’s last appointed light versifier. AustLit lists 580 poems written under his pseudonym of ‘Swilliam’ (a corruption of ‘Sweet William’) between 1949 and 1961, something unimaginable today. In 1990 McCuaig told me that he became so adept that he could produce a poem in three-quarters of an hour; he even wrote one in the form of a cryptic crossword puzzle.

Drain and McCuaig were the end of a long line of journalists who wrote poetry as part of their professional duties. Best-known of them today is Kenneth Slessor, whose reputation was already well-established when his Darlinghurst Nights poems, written for Smith’s Weekly between the late 1920s and early 1930s, were recuperated thirty years ago. Like TS Eliot, Slessor kept his more serious work well apart from his light verse, and after 1933 it was never republished during his lifetime, a move which did his reputation as a ‘real’ poet no harm at all. The only poem rescued for his literary oeuvre from the oblivion of his newspaper work is the curious ‘Wild Grapes’, first published in 1929 with the following, slightly different, final verse:7

  Isabella grapes, outlaws of a strange bough,
  That in their harsh sweetness remind me somehow
  Of dark hair swinging and silver ear-rings,
  A girl half-fierce, half-smiling, as these grapes,
  Kissed here and killed here – but who remembers now?  

Evidently Slessor thought this a cut above his usual Smith’s Weekly exercises. The melodramatic implied narrative fits with the paper’s sensational style, but it also begs the question, Does light verse have to be funny?

Although poets continue to produce volumes of self-styled ‘light verse’, a search of the British Library catalogue under that term produces no anthologies less than a quarter of a century old, confirming my sense that it has lost its taxonomic purchase. The same extinction date applies to Australian compendiums. RF Brissenden and Philip Grundy’s Oxford Book of Australian Light Verse offered an historical selection but, because Brissenden had solicited many of them by letter, the emphasis was on the contemporary and, from the list of authors, the convivial. Geoffrey Lehmann in his The Flight of the Emu offers no account of his selection process but, as a collection dedicated solely to Contemporary Light Verse, it is correspondingly thinner, no doubt the sign of a diminished age. Both books equate light with witty or comic, although Grundy’s foreword prevaricates on this point, asserting that ‘light verse does not have to be funny, either in intention or execution’, only to declare over the page that the ‘hallmark’ of lightness ‘must be that of wit’.8 And yet he largely excludes satire because it dates too quickly. What does that leave? Can you be witty in verse about cancer or the civil war in Syria?

Grundy takes his cue from Kingsley Amis in his New Oxford Book of Light Verse, who wrote that ‘Light verse need not be funny, but what no verse [one assumes he means light verse] can afford to be is unfunny’. The contradictory nature of this statement is symptomatic of Amis’s introduction as a whole, which aims to establish a technical definition but falls back a relational one – ‘light verse is unimaginable in the absence of high verse’ (p. vii) – hedging it round with exclusions. Light verse doesn’t include anyone earlier than Shakespeare (not counting Anon.), satire (it died in the eighteenth century), nonsense verse (and, by implication, poetry for children), vers de société (too coterie-based or topical, and so inclined to date), most limericks and epigrams (too many bad ones), and comic song lyrics (they’re dead on the page). And, of course, anything in free verse: ‘when what is presumably aspiring to be high verse abandons form, a mortal blow is dealt to light verse, to which form has always been of the essence.’9 So, for Amis, the writer of light verse will always need prosodic stays or collar-studs – or perhaps both, depending on where along the gender spectrum they identify.

As well as consolidating the association of light with humorous, Amis insists on the virtuosic, traditional quality of light verse – a point re-emphasised by Frances Teague in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics10, and by the specialist American journal Light: ‘We are looking for funny, well-crafted poems. Most of the time, this will mean work that rhymes and/or scans – but we are also open to comic free verse.’11 I wonder what Amis or the editors of Light would make of Laurie Duggan’s ‘South Coast Haiku’, which appeared in The Flight of the Emu:12

  Rain drips through
  the tin roof
  missing the stereo  

The haiku is now a bone fide poetic form in English, but I take ‘South Coast Haiku’ as a parody of the traditional haiku’s syllable count and content, including the seasonal reference or kigo. But behind it is a whole alternative 1970s lifestyle, and that’s, presumably, what’s really funny since, along with the mandatory stereo, it included the writing of lame haiku. So light verse – if that’s what this is – doesn’t have to rhyme and scan but, to rephrase an earlier question, Can it ever not be funny?

Amis was keen to break with WH Auden’s conception in his ground-breaking 1937 Oxford Book of Light Verse. Like Amis, Auden made a modernist distinction between light verse and ‘high’ poetry; unlike Amis, he set these things apart in terms of audience and content rather than humour and technique. He famously included some of those genres Amis would dismiss – nursery rhymes, nonsense verse, song lyrics, folk and popular ballads – arguing:

When the things in which the poet is interested, the things which he sees about him, are much the same as those of his audience, and that audience is a fairly general one, he will not be conscious of himself as an unusual person, and his language will be straightforward and close to ordinary speech. When, on the other hand, his interests and perceptions are not readily acceptable to society, or his audience is a highly specialized one, perhaps of fellow poets, he will be acutely aware of himself as the poet, and his method of expression may depart very widely from the normal social language. 13

There’s a self-serving element here as there is in Murray’s ‘narrow-columned middle-ground’, based on wishful thinking about the demotic that serves the poet’s own, in this case leftist, ambitions. Subject to the pains of late-life Toryism, Amis certainly thought Auden was justifying a political rather than aesthetic selection. And yet I think that Auden has hit a nail on the head. He just shouldn’t have called it light verse.

Auden is describing the kind of ‘poetry’ that by and large is rarely canonised, but is segregated in specialist books of nursery rhymes, nonsense verse, song lyrics, folk and popular ballads – and, yes, comic verse. Broadly speaking, this is popular poetry. Its uncertain status as ‘poetry’ explains the uneasy place that authors such as Mary Gilmore and the bush balladists occupy in academic histories of Australian poetry. Dorothy Drain and Andrée Hayward don’t even get guernseys, and Ron McCuaig, when mentioned at all, is typically damned with faint praise. It also explains the back-handed compliments that Eliot accorded Kipling’s poetry. For all his good intentions, Auden’s hiving off of popular poetry from the specialised stuff erected a wall across the middle of the narrow-columned middle ground. If light verse can nowadays only really be a synonym for humorous or comic verse, it’s time to abandon the term altogether and call a spade a tool for digging.

David McCooey echoes Auden’s distinction between specialist and general audiences when he says that ‘To move beyond the “poetic” contexts of books, journals, poetry slams, and poetry readings is to find traces of poetry as a form of public speech’.14 His problem is that he can’t find many such traces in contemporary life – but maybe he’s looking in the wrong places. ‘Postmodern’ is rapidly becoming an historical term, and will probably end up as a descriptor for particular modes of late twentieth-century modernism. But it did remind us that absolute distinctions between elite and mass culture were always a bit of a put-on by special interest groups – not least among whom were certain early modernist poets. Literary ecologies are more diverse and complex than the principle of survival of the fittest, or the Linnaean critical urge to impose genera, and the intersections between poetry and popular culture are everywhere. They’re in song lyrics and hiphop, but they’re also in advertisements and greeting cards. McCooey even discovered poetry in the versicles of Michael Leunig. Not that we have to celebrate everything that touches the poetic. Too often we make taste equal taxonomy.

Then there are phenomena such as the verse novels of Dorothy Porter which might, by Auden’s criteria, be called ‘light’ verse. At the time The Monkey’s Mask was published in 1994 Porter said: ‘poetry doesn’t have to be obscure, dusty, academic and boring. Poetry can tell stories, it can confront taboos. It can be passionate, exciting dangerous’.15 So light verse doesn’t have to be funny. It doesn’t even have to be light: Porter’s novels can all happily be read through the prism of high theory. As can Pi O’s epic 24 Hours, which demonstrated how multifarious the demotic truly is.

Reacting to what often seemed like the high moral seriousness of the previous generation (are there any jokes in Judith Wright?), many of those poets whom John Tranter styled ‘the Generation of ’68’ might also be read in terms of resistance to the institution of capital-P Poetry itself, and hence in terms of ‘lightness’, rather than through a genealogy of local post/modernism. The speaking subject of Tranter’s own Alphabet Murders is a wiseacre coherent enough to gag about romanticism and W.B. Yeats as if they once mattered, and John Forbes took the allusive one-liner to a new level of discontinuous wit. JS Harry rescued her hero Peter Henry Lepus from the world of children’s literature, and we’re not a million miles from Paranormal Activity in Jennifer Maiden’s recent work when Hilary Clinton converses with Eleanor Roosevelt, and Kevin Rudd with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Anthologists of light verse have had a difficult relationship with parodies. Strictly speaking, they’re not original, they’re inclined to date and, as Philip Grundy wrote, ‘Poems written as essentially private jokes among a small group of acquaintances or colleagues do not seem to suit an anthology designed for the general public’.16 (In that sense, at least, they’re maybe too much like ‘real’ poetry.) But parody is also a way of reading. Surely one of the abiding attractions of the collected works of Ern Malley is their humour as parodies, which can be read outside, or alongside, their meaning within literary history. After all, those ‘moment[s] when the pelvis/Explodes like a grenade’17 occur only too frequently. In the end, the status of light verse is more a function of how we choose to read rather than what gets written. Since translation is also a mode of reading, I leave you with a quatrain from the eleventh of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus in Chris Edwards’ extraordinary homophonic version:18

  It’s not so, decreed the jangly gang-band leader.
  Do you think perhaps Nature is a Sign? Whacked or unwhacked?
  Duck, there’s a duck approaching! Very understanding, no way.
  Then, once upon a time, a quack rhyme. 

Works cited

  1. See TS Eliot, ‘Rudyard Kipling’, A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, ed. Eliot, Faber & Faber, London, 1941; for instance, ‘There is poetry in it; but when he writes verse that is not poetry it is not because he has tried to write poetry and failed’, p. 20. 

  2. Michael Farrell, ‘whats the matter’, thempark, BookThug, Toronto, 2010, p. 15. 

  3. Dorothy Drain, ‘Frustration’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 September 1946, p. 26. 

  4. See Les Murray, ‘The Narrow-Columned Middle Ground’ A Working Forest: Selected Prose, Duffy & Snellgrove, Potts Point, 1997. 

  5. See the excellent biography Apollo in George Street: The Life of David McKee Wright, Puncher & Wattmann, Sydney 2012, by the editor of this journal. 

  6. Andrée Hayward, ‘King George V’, The Penguin Book of Australian Satirical Verse , ed. Philip Neilsen, Penguin, Ringwood, 1986, p. 125. 

  7. Kenneth Slessor, ‘Wild Grapes’, Smith’s Weekly, 16 March 1929, p. 9. 

  8. Philip Grundy, foreword, The Oxford Book of Australian Light Verse, ed. RF Brissenden & Philip Grundy, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 1991, pp. vi-vii. 

  9. Kingsley Amis, introduction, The New Oxford Book of Light Verse, ed. Amis, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978, pp. x, vii, xxi. 

  10. ‘One of the few points on which most critics agree is that light verse requires the formal confines of verse form’: Frances Teague, ‘Light Verse’, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed Roland Greene et al, 4th ed. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2012, p. 800. 

  11. ‘Submit’, Light: A Journal of Light Verse Since 1992, 

  12. Laurie Duggan, ‘South Coast Haiku’, The Flight of the Emu: Contemporary Light Verse, ed. Geoffrey Lehmann, Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, 1990, p. 61. 

  13. WH Auden, introduction, The Oxford Book of Light Verse, ed. Auden, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1938, p. ix. 

  14. David McCooey, ‘Poetry and Public Speech: Three Traces’, JASAL 9, 2009, 

  15. Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend, 19 November 1994, p. 56. 

  16. Grundy, p. xiii. 

  17. Ern Malley, ‘Petit Testament’, The Poems of Ern Malley: Comprising the Complete Poems and Commentaries by Max Harris and Joanna Murray-Smith, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1988, p. 92. 

  18. Chris Edwards, ‘Some Notes (or Not) on Orpheus: Rilke Renditions 1-11’, People of Earth, Vagabond, Sydney, 2011, p. 161.