Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Light Metre

Perfectly respectable in this context, puns, visual as well as verbal, I should think.  All in good fun.  Good fun being my subject, and rather a lost art in the age of kitten videos vs shots to the balls as the standard of general amusement to hilarity for the overstimulated generation.  Not to go all grumpy at the outset, as I too enjoy the unexpected fun of watching a porcupine eating corn.  In fact, I would go so far as to say we are living in something very like the new golden age of under-two-minute-entertainment.  I begrudge us nothing in the way of the harmless goof.  (I draw the line at actual injury: boys breaking balls, boys breaking wrists in misguided skateboard-daredevilry, boys breaking necks.  I'm of a parental age, if blessedly never a parent.  Something instinctive and adult I should think, not being tickled by broken bones.  Beyond an unsympathetic incredulity at the self-inflicted injury, I can only too easily estimate the deductible on juvenile stupidity.) That said however, I do mean to bellyache a little about what passes now for wit, or better, lament the evaporation of light verse from the literary landscape.   I do this even as I mean to promote our own somewhat rearguard celebration of same, this coming month at the bookstore.  It'll be National Poetry Month.  Why not a party this year, instead of a wake?  Good fun.  Good here meaning a better class of fun, literally speaking, than reprinted entries from "I Can Has Cheezburgher?"

In fact, I'm already committed -- at least in theory --  to a whole new series of "Light Readings" this year at the bookstore.  My hope is to remind our friends and customers of the very real pleasures of letting in a little light, in lieu of just what's either "hawt," or -- deadly word -- important.  I can't say that such efforts will go very far in reviving the the light verse form -- practised now on a national stage only so far as I can tell by Calvin Trillin in the election-cycle.  I do think we might at least mark National Poetry Month this time with something funny rather than the more usual darksome samplings of the classics and or contemporary lines on, say, a walk in the spiritually charged back garden.  My plan is to book at least three or four evenings of light verse, over the course of the year.  To date, we've got Ogden Nash penciled in for August, and the aforementioned evening in April, about which more anon.

Considering the paucity of present practise, I suppose it behooves me to remind us all just here that light verse, while not entirely confined to the funny in either form or purpose, is most generally understood to be more fun, and more for fun than not.   The fun most usually coming from not just the nutty or the naughty subject, or the joke, as it were, but also from the lexical and the literary play of puns and parody, skewed rhymes, alliterations and like wit.  Terribly serious writers, from Shakespeare to Auden, have allowed for the occasional lapse into the light.  (Nothing so endears the latter to me as his pleasure in dirty limericks, for instance.  Very humanizing, that urge to giggle in the locker-room and or the faculty lounge.) There was also once, and for a long time in the tradition, a cadet branch of the Great Names; the puîné poets, those masters of the minor and makers of amusing rhymes, the bright lights of light verse.  From the anonymous scurrility of the broadsheet and street-song to the more refined nonsense of Carroll & Lear, there's always been at least a three-legged stool in the corner of the Pantheon for the comedian.  What's more, the popular press, until very recently when that became something of an oxymoron, always provided a space in which to make poetically merry.   The endless possibilities for parody provided by Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," for example, became almost as much an annual event in magazines like the New Yorker as recitations of the poem proper.  (Now that some pundits of popular culture unashamedly claim to be "post-print," what will the parodist do?  Mock "Tweets"?)

Some of the best light verse, by simply surviving, has made the jump from the merely popular to the important.  Not all, but some.  I see Dorothy Parker has gone from being just that amusing lady in the New Yorker anthologies to being, by the blurb on her latest Penguin, a woman "whose legend continues to fascinate."  Doesn't take too close a reading of her work to guess at what the lady herself might have made of that kind of puffery.  Likewise, Stevie Smith would doubtlessly have relished the idea of being darkly taught in the same classroom as the equally late Sylvia Plath.

Another accomplished lady of light verse, Phyllis McGinley, despite a Pulitzer Prize and an introduction by no less a personage than W. H. Auden for her collected poems, has on the other hand all but disappeared from the memory, save for the continued affection of a few elderly suburban matrons, I should think, and enthusiasts of the form, like me.  Great shame.  She is, need I mention?  Good fun.

One of the problems with making book events from scratch is the very real fear of parading one's personal enthusiasms down an empty street.  And why should anyone come out of an evening to hear a clutch of booksellers reading poems out loud?  The trick of it, I'm thinking, may be in reminding folks that not every such evening need be either a lecture or sermon.  As Stevie says in her poem "The Friend":

Shall we,
Trailing tired wing of happier flights,
Hemmed in by lower presents mourn past heights

Or shall we just see if there aren't some laughs in the old girls yet?  That's our thought, anyway.  So, come April 16th, at 7PM, we're going to read our way, three or more of us, through some light verse by three of it's greatest practitioners of the last century; Dorothy Parker, Phyllis McGinley and Stevie Smith, maybe throw in a song with lyrics by the great Dorothy Field, and see if we can't light it up, one more time.  See if we can move the meter.

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