Published in Parnassus 32, Vols 1 & 2 (2011)
Ogden Nash. The Best of Ogden Nash. Edited by Linell Nash Smith. Ivan R. Dee 2007. 465 pp. $28.95.
American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse. Edited by John Hollander. Library of America 2003. 194 pp. $20.00
The Norton Book of Light Verse. Edited by Russell Baker. W. W. Norton 1986. 447 pp. $17.95.
The Oxford Book of Comic Verse. Edited by John Gross. Oxford University Press 1994. 512 pp. $19.95 (paper).
Andrew Hudgins. Shut Up, Youâ€™re Fine: Poems for Very, Very Bad Children. Drawings by Barry Moser. Overlook Press 2009. 113 pp. $14.95.
Ben Milder. Whatâ€™s So Funny About the Golden Years. Time Being Books 2008. 88 pp. $15.95 (paper).
Edward Lear. So Much Nonsense. Introduction by Quentin Blake. Bodleian Library 2007. Unpaginated. $25.00
In my wayward teens I took it for gospel that real poetry had to be rhymed and metrical. I even wrote a scattering of such poems, until a high school teacher, taking undue advantage of his authority, told me brutally how bad he thought they were. This put me off writing poetry but, luckily, not off reading it. In this constellation of formal poetry, light verse was the fun part, the slightly Victorian stuff I relished most, but I also loved the work of Ogden Nash, who took spectacular liberties. His lines, inflated by a breathless rush of prose, usually didnâ€™t scan, and his rhymes often were clever or devious rather than inevitable. Perpetually at play, he made up words or bent words to fit the rhyme. He came on as a complainer, a man chronically out of sorts. With his customary tone of mild irritation, he seemed haplessly at sea in the modern world. The elastic, pell-mell form of his verse contributed to this sense that life somehow never matched oneâ€™s expectations. Bubbling over with details, he was always getting carried away, as if he had too much to say to confine himself to the words in the dictionary, the shape of a regular line, or any easily anticipated rhyme.
An Ogden Nash poem typically begins with a great title, often a long one, the prosier the better, such as â€œHearts of Gold, or A Good Excuse Is Worse Than None.â€ This one opens with a paradox, pinpointing a source of exasperation with the social habits of his fellow man:
There are some people who are very resourceful At being remorseful, And who apparently feel that the best way to make friends Is to do something terrible and then make amends.
The lines vary in length, and their rhythm defies the metronomic tick-tock that grounds the beat in most light verse. The tone is not the serious poetâ€™s tone, not vatic, terse, or meditative, but that of the familiar essayist, of E. B. White and Thurber and Benchleyâ€”in short, the peevish accents of The New Yorker in its early incarnation as the upstart American cousin of Punch . Here is more about those annoying people:
They come to your party and make a great hit with your Victorian aunt and with her freely mingle, And suddenly after another drink they start a lot of double entendre the entendre of which is unfortunately not double but single, And if you say anything to them they take umbrage, And later when you are emptying the ashtrays before going to bed you find them under the sofa where they have crept for a good nightâ€™s slumbrage, Then the next day they are around intoning apologies With all the grace and conviction of a high-paid choir intoning doxologies.
Reading lines like these, you may easily imagine why my fondness for Nash and for light verse took such a beating when I first came upon â€œThe Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.â€ Donning his Prufrock mask, with its layers of irony, Eliot gives us an anguished version of the genteel social world in which Nashâ€™s speaker, hardly distinguishable from the writer himself, feels quite at home, for all his pet peeves. Where Nash is irritated, but with an irritation that seems worked up for the occasion, Prufrock is a soul in hell yet also effete and spineless, unable to step outside the world that makes him so uncomfortable. Hemmed in by infinite scruples, a paralyzing discretion, Prufrock sees himself as â€œan easy tool, / Deferential, glad to be of use, / Polite, cautious, and meticulous; / Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculousâ€“ / Almost, at times, the Fool.â€ Compared to this cry of despair, full of self-mockery, the mood of Nashâ€™s complaint feels complacent even in its sophistication.
But who ever asked me to make this comparison? Nashâ€™s verse belongs not to the poetic revolutions of the twentieth century but to a forgotten era of vers de sociÃ©tÃ©, which had its heyday in America between the 1920s and the 1950s. Its most enduring legacy is the musical theater of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and other Broadway wits. This kind of sociable verse improvised on nineteenth-century models from Byron to W. S. Gilbert even as it burlesqued the poetry of Romantic inwardness that looms behind Prufrockâ€™s ambiguous anguish. Light verse, like witty musical theater, scarcely survived the horrors of midcenturyâ€”war, holocaust, and cold warâ€”that gave new credence to the darker flights of the modern imagination, from Kafka to Eliot. Nor was its boisterous irreverence still welcome in popular culture, which was overwhelmed after the war by an enforced optimism laced with sugary sentiment.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that the golden age of light verse coincided so closely with the peak years of the modernist poetry that dispatched it and made its insouciant wit seem shallow, its formal dexterity retrograde. Simply as attitude, Nashâ€™s recoil from modern life is not so distant from Eliotâ€™s, but his verbal resources are different. He could not have written, â€œI should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,â€ though he might have been in tune with the satiric bent of Eliotâ€™s refrain, â€œIn the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.â€ Cultural pretension was always one of his targets even though, like Eliot, he was immensely cultivated. The New Yorker writer of Nashâ€™s era was typically a philistine who mocked highbrows, priding himself on being in touch with ordinary life. But he (usually he) was also an avatar of style, displaying a sumptuous range of cultural reference and, above all, a keen interest in language itself as something to be lovingly protected yet fully exploited.
Linell Nash Smithâ€™s superb collection of her fatherâ€™s verse, The Best of Ogden Nash, is loosely organized by subject, not chronology. The themes, all mined by Nash for their oddest manifesations, include family, gender relations, food, travel, sports, and the almost infinite range of creatures who share our planet. One of the best sections, â€œWhatâ€™s in a Word?,â€ highlights his vertiginous exploration of language itself. â€œThis Is My Own, My Native Tongue,â€ for example, pokes fun at regional accents as illustrated by words written out phonetically, as if tortured on a rack:
And I have parked my caah in Cambridge, and elsewhere spoken with those who raise hawgs and worship strange gawdsâ€”but here I am, later in lifeâ€™s autumn, Suddenly confronted with somebodyâ€™s apawlogies and bawttom. I tell you whawt, Things were different when I was a tawdling tawt.
This might seem too trivial even for light verse, but no oddity of English usage is alien to Nash. His customary tone is conversational but his vocabulary is huge, full of rarities that make up a verbal bestiary worthy of Marianne Moore. Rhyme enables him to foreground these peculiarities. Incongruity and surprise are the keys to Nashâ€™s rhyming. He links words that look different, mean something different, or come from different wordpools, even different languages. Among his papers, under the heading of â€œRhymes and Sounds,â€ his daughter found the following: â€œAnatomy-anathema,â€ â€œEnnui-Can we?,â€ â€œGanymede-Runnymede,â€ â€œMeyerbeer-Biedermeyer.â€ Such pairings could generate whole poems, for his fascination with language was bottomless. In â€œLetâ€™s Not Play Lotto, Letâ€™s Talkâ€ he wrote a typically peevish lament for the dying art of conversation:
Take the causerie of the most effervescent coterie, It sounds like something sworn to before a notary. Where are yesterdayâ€™s epigrams, banter and badinage? All you hear is who behaved scandalously at the club dance and how hard it is to get a new car into an old garage. The maxim, the apothegm, yea, even the aphorism, die like echoes in the distance, Overwhelmed by such provocative topics as clothes, beauticians, taxes and the scarcity of competent domestic assistants.
To rhyme â€œcoterieâ€ with â€œnotary,â€ â€œbadinageâ€ with â€œold garage,â€ or â€œdistanceâ€ with â€œassistantsâ€ puts Nash into a state of high enjoyment. So do other word unlikely word choices that suggest, thanks to their French and classical roots, the articulate grandeur of old times as they underscore the crushing banality of everyday life. He loves to contrast the exotic with the demotic, or to highlight differences of scale. Another poem, â€œThe Germ,â€ begins in a mock-epic voice: â€œA mighty creature is the germ, / Though smaller than the pachyderm.â€ As Dana Gioia has observed, Nashâ€™s rhymes are â€œnot merely amusing but often revelatory.â€ He takes full advantage of the peculiarities of English pronunciation that so incensed language reformers like George Bernard Shaw.
The presence of French in Nashâ€™s verse is at once a marker of cosmopolitan culture and a show of nativist resistance, only partly tongue-in-cheek, to anything remotely foreign. â€œWhoâ€™ll Buy My Lingual? or You Pronounce Pluie, Louieâ€ is made up of couplets that rhyme an English word with a French, but only visually, and only if the French is grossly mispronouncedâ€”that is, pronounced as it appears to an untutored American eye:
I wander through a Paris shower, Off to inspect a flat Ã louer. The water pours as from a pitcher On walls inscribed DÃ©fense dâ€™afficherâ€¦. I ring, I do not wish to trespass, For trespassing is naughty, nâ€™est pas?
Another poem evokes the plight of a â€œManhattan socialiteâ€ in the City of Light, one whose spoken French fails to pass muster among the surly natives:
At her socially impeccable school she had passed her college boards and had read Corneille and MoliÃ¨re, But in Paris even her request for a glass of water was answered by a humiliating stare.
Nothing gives Nash more pleasure here than rhyming â€œMoliÃ¨reâ€ with â€œstare.â€ Rhyming across language barriers is his modest contribution to cross-cultural dialogue, making up for the malentendu wickedly described in the poem itself. And rhyming with proper nouns, especially exotic ones, opens up all sorts of new possibilities. Standing guard over the language yet alert to every innovation or intrusion, Nash grinds his teeth over â€œforeignâ€ elements in English itself. In one poem he tries to rhyme with a series of awkward abbreviations, verbal shortcuts inflicted upon English by the haste and velocity of modern life, such as â€œtpkeâ€ for â€œturnpikeâ€ and â€œwhsleâ€ for â€œwholesale.â€ As usual, half the humor is in the title, the punch line that precedes the poem: â€œDo You Plan to Speak Bantu? or Abbreviation Is the Thief of Sanity.â€ I can only imagine what Nash would have done with the electronic shorthand of Twitter and text messaging.
Rhymeâ€”the sonorous kind that makes itself heardâ€”is the active ingredient of most (but not all) light verse. Nashâ€™s ingenious explorations of rhyme came at a moment when many serious poets had either given up rhyme and meter for free verse or (like Frost) downplayed them, reaching for a conversational voice and more prosaic diction. Appealing to what he called the â€œsound of sense,â€ Frost turned rhyme and meter into a kind of undersong, making them less obtrusive, less jingly. More typical of light verse, Dorothy Parkerâ€™s poems not only scan, as she boasted, but remain anchored in the poetic forms of the aesthetes and decadents of the 1890s. Pungently disenchanted, she inverts yet still channels their rueful romanticism, as epitomized by Ernest Dowsonâ€™s celebrated refrain, â€œI have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.â€ If Nash is a poet of exasperation, Parkerâ€™s verses turn on disappointed amatory fantasies, as in â€œUnfortunate Coincidenceâ€:
By the time you swear youâ€™re his, Shivering and sighing And he vows his passion is Infinite, undyingâ€” Lady, make a note of this: One of you is lying.
In Parkerâ€™s poems a girlish longing for true love gives way to the sardonic recognitions of the morning after; her jokey punch lines invariably deflate these dreams, but her sarcasm is only a thin membrane over hope or despair. Her best-known poem, blandly labeled â€œRÃ©sumÃ©,â€ is a crisp takedown yet also an expression of the suicidal impulses of the romantic artist, a creature with whom she does not otherwise identify:
Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp. Guns arenâ€™t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live.
Parker substitutes epigrammatic brevity for Nashâ€™s prosaic expansiveness; the briefer the lines the stronger the rhymes. Alan Isler, known mainly as a novelist but also the author of a great deal of witty light verse, much of it unpublished, includes this scintillating prÃ©cis of Paradise Lost in his 1996 academic novel Kraven Images:
Paradise: Enter Vice, Satan Waitinâ€™. Eve falls; Adam bawls, Falls too. What to do? Stole fruit; Ate loot. Man bad, God mad. No hope? How cope? Christ is come, Manâ€™s chum; Dies on Cross, Pleases Boss, Saves all: Lucky fall!
There is a glaring paradox here. Light verse has usually been the work of exceptionally literate writers, yet its satirical bent can drive it perilously close to doggerel. Mocking and reductive almost by definition, it offers us a holiday from the urgency of literature, undercutting its seriousness while luxuriating in its forms. For scholars like Isler, light verse is the satyr play that rounds off the grave rituals of tragedy and epic. In this irreverent summation, the humor comes from the imbalance of scale with Paradise Lost as well as the diction and rhyme that level it down to a barroom anecdote: â€œChrist is come, / Manâ€™s chum; / Dies on Cross, / Pleases Boss.â€ Parody at its best, according to Dwight Macdonald, is â€œa form of literary criticismâ€; it demands â€œa peculiar combination of sophistication and provinciality,â€ the hallmarks of the early New Yorker writers.
The affectionate lampoon of serious literature can be found not only in parody but in every form of light verse. Franklin P. Adams, one of the Algonquin wits of the Twenties and Thirties and the author of a much-admired newspaper column, â€œThe Conning Tower,â€ produced a poem, â€œâ€˜Lines Where Beauty Lingers,â€™â€ made up entirely of other poetsâ€™ first linesâ€”what would now be called a mashup. At moments its incongruities even make sense:
Love in my bosom like a bee Love still has something of the sea I sat with one I love last night She was a phantom of delight.
This is a send-up of poetic diction itself, as if it were one amusing common language, all of a piece, all aspiring to a long-outmoded idiom of beauty. William Cole, on the other hand, in his Uncoupled Couplets, pairs a poetâ€™s famous line with one of his own. To Herrickâ€™s â€œGather ye Rosebuds while ye mayâ€ he adds, â€œBut take your little pill each day.â€ He follows Swinburneâ€™s â€œWhen the hounds of spring are on winterâ€™s tracesâ€ with â€œThe rich take off for warmer places.â€ Mimicking a poemâ€™s rhythm while exploding its sense, he makes a virtue of what Alexander Pope called â€œthe art of sinking in poetry.â€ Both Adams and Cole can be sampled in John Hollanderâ€™s Library of America anthology American Wits, along with good selections from Nash and Parker and the best of their peers, including Phyllis McGinley and Don Marquis, the author of archy & mehitabel, a suite of delicious lower-case poems featuring a literary cockroach, who writes â€œfrom the under side,â€ and a preening, pretentious alley cat. Iâ€™d guess they influenced the knockabout tone and antic cast of characters of John Berrymanâ€™s Dream Songs.
Parody is the predictable fate of any writing with a distinct or mannered style. (That Wordsworth has been the most frequently parodied English writer testifies to his originality and lasting impact.) Parody at its best is the offspring of genuine love and a slightly oppressive familiarity. Any style can wear out its welcome, grow automatic, and slide over into stereotype. In his wonderful 1960 anthology Parodies, Macdonald includes a generous selection of unconscious self-parodies, with Wordsworth himself copiously represented. A literary style will look risible to a new generation no longer under its spell. Thus Anthony Hechtâ€™s â€œThe Dover Bitchâ€ translates Matthew Arnoldâ€™s â€œDover Beachâ€ into the hard-boiled lingo of film noir, while S. J. Perelmanâ€™s â€œFarewell, My Lovely Appetizerâ€ puts precisely these hard-boiled mannerisms into a kvetchy ethnic vernacular. By shearing off whatever the writing might be about, Perelman left the style itself hanging out to dry.
Parody is only a small, if important, subset of light verse. Reading through these volumes, I was surprised at how well â€œlightâ€ verse, at its margins, can accommodate serious subjects. John Gross, in his Oxford Book of Comic Verse, includes a jeering atheist manifesto by James Fenton called â€œGod: A Poem,â€ which gives us an unusual glimpse of the afterlife:
A serious mistake in a nightie, A grave disappointment all round Is all that youâ€™ll get from thâ€™Almighty, Is all that youâ€™ll get underground. Oh he said: â€œIf you lay off the crumpet Iâ€™ll see you alright in the end. Just hang on until the last trumpet. Have faith in me, chumâ€”Iâ€™m your friend.â€ But if you remind him heâ€™ll tell you: â€œIâ€™m sorry, I must have been pissedâ€” Though your name rings sort of a bell. You Should have guessed that I do not exist. I didnâ€™t exist at Creation, I didnâ€™t exist at the Flood, And I wonâ€™t be around for Salvation To sort out the sheep from the cudâ€¦â€
One might ask what this vision of a smirking God, who admits smugly that he doesnâ€™t exist, is doing in an anthology of comic verse: â€œIâ€™m a crude existential malpractice / And you are a diet of worms,â€ he tells the disappointed believer, buried in false promises. The comedy, of course, is in the wordplay, the repetitions, the slangy diction, and above all the hypnotic rhythm, which makes so much light verse â€œlightâ€ but here also points to the numb credulity of the believer, living under a spell.
An even more terrifying vision of death can be found in Andrew Hudginsâ€™s Shut Up, Youâ€™re Fine: Poems for Very, Very Bad Children. Itâ€™s called â€œWhen Granddad Says, â€˜Please Kill Me,â€™â€ and it deals with the right to die by insisting ironically that even the miserably, terminally ill have no such right. It begins:
He canâ€™t control his bowels and since the stroke he drools, and sings those dirty army songs about the family jewels.
After each pair of stanzas detailing Grandpaâ€™s condition, thereâ€™s a refrain that begins:
When Granddad says, â€œPlease kill me!â€ You mustnâ€™t help him dieâ€” no matter how he begs and pleads and tries to tell you why.
The rest of the poem is about the handiest ways to end someoneâ€™s life and how to help without really helping, the fine lines that must be drawn between mercy killing and assisted suicide:
You can hand Granddad the gun when youâ€™re a little bigger. You can even click the safety off, but you mustnâ€™t pull the trigger. But if you find a plastic bag pulled down across his nose, feel free to shut the bedroom door and leave on tippy-toes.
Some will find this gruesome, others liberating in its dark comedy. What makes it work is the savage voice, the nursery-rhyme rhythm, and the fiction that it is addressed to children, albeit â€œvery, very bad children,â€ instructing them about life, or rather the end of life.
In Ben Milderâ€™s book Whatâ€™s So Funny About the Golden Years we can almost hear the voice of Granddad himself, except that the author seems to be in robust healthâ€”robust, that is, for a ninetythree- year-old retired professor of Clinical Ophthalmology. Dr. Milder, the author of four previous collections of light verse, takes as his subject the ordinary discomforts of old ageâ€”memory loss, vision problems, disc pain, prostate trouble, hemorrhoids, sexual dysfunctionâ€”except that they divert rather than horrify him. In the robust poetic culture of the first half of the twentieth century, light verse had been a vehicle for talented amateurs as well as professional poets. Milderâ€™s work is rooted in this lapsed popular tradition. Comic writers, immune to the high-flown thoughts and idealizing bent of their solemn brethren, are prone to reminding us of the limits imposed by our bodies. With gusto, Dr. Milder brings his medical expertise as well as personal experience to the table. Here are stanzas from â€œThe Itchâ€:
In the daily press, itâ€™s their intention That none of them would ever mention Hemorrhoids or their prevention. One must maintain a bland exterior While scratching, until one grows wearier, Incessantly, at oneâ€™s posteriorâ€¦. The site may well be inaccessible, But the bounds of good taste are transgressible When the urge to scratch is irrepressibleâ€¦. So, I am lost in admiration Of those who, without hesitation, Risk their own ostracization, By scratching in the right location, With undisguised exhilaration, To reach the seat of their frustration.
Milderâ€™s poems are not as polished as those of his professional counterparts, but he experiments with many of the same thumping verse forms. They make illness comical, even somehow enjoyable, but only by avoiding anything really threateningâ€”the ailments Milder writes about are undignified and annoying rather than potentially fatal. Though focusing on the indignities of old age, his poems are really the vigorous offshoots of a strong constitution, a contented temperament, and an unsinkable joie de vivre.
Very little light verse deals with matters as grave as those explored by Fenton and Hudgins or as embarrassingly physical as those evoked by Milder. At the other extreme, much of it gravitates towards nonsense, which was how the Victorian Edward Lear described his own poetry and drawings. Light verse is often not about anything, instead evincing an exhilaration with language itself, whether as a challenging game or a playful exploration of the resources of man as a language animal. This links it more closely with verses for children rather than with the free verse that holds sway in contemporary poetry. Light verse is musical and mnemonic in an old-fashioned way. Like childrenâ€™s poetry, it is anchored as much in sound as in sense, if not more.
Though some light verse is garrulous, like Milderâ€™s, or conversational, like Nashâ€™s, it often works best in miniature. Itâ€™s the normal challenge of the light verse writer to work within a highly constraining form, one that lays down strict rules or parameters but offers a delightful payoff. Such compressed forms include the epigram, the mock-biographical clerihew, the venerable limerick, and the more recent double dactyl. Schooled in the classics, eighteenth-century English writers wrote brilliant epigrams. The whole style of Augustan writers like Pope is epigrammatic, but an epigram per se is typically an individual rhymed couplet, such as the brutal lines Pope had engraved on the collar of a dog he gave to the Prince of Wales:
I am His Highnessâ€™ dog at Kew; Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
Coleridge even wrote an epigram about epigrams: â€œWhat is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole; / Its body brevity, and wit its soul.â€ Catholic anti-modernists like Hilaire Belloc were especially gifted with epigrammatic wit:
When I am dead, I hope it may be said: â€œHis sins were scarlet, but his books were read.â€ (â€œOn His Booksâ€)
Here Belloc somehow combines religion, ambition, and witty wordplay into an epitaph for himself. Itâ€™s a form closely related to the epigram, as in his â€œEpitaph on the Politicianâ€:
Here, richly, with ridiculous display, The politicianâ€™s corpse was laid away. While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged, I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.
Both these examples are included in Russell Bakerâ€™s 1986 Norton Book of Light Verse, the most enjoyable anthology of its kind Iâ€™ve come across. However, Hollanderâ€™s estimable American Wits has easily the most brilliant introduction. Hollander describes the whole upper-middlebrow poetic culture that made light verse possible, and points to a tone of â€œexuberant irreverenceâ€ that modern writers substituted for the â€œgenialityâ€ of earlier light verse. In terms of form, Hollander draws attention to the epigrammatic quality of Parkerâ€™s short poems, such as â€œNews Itemâ€: â€œMen seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses.â€ The same could be said of Nashâ€™s best-remembered lines, â€œCandy / Is dandy / But liquor / Is quicker,â€ a very short poem that, like William Carlos Williamsâ€™s â€œThe Red Wheelbarrow,â€ is enhanced by its strategic enjambments. And here, delivering a neat pun, is Nashâ€™s â€œSnap, Crackle, Popâ€: â€œBreakfast foods grow odder and odder: / Itâ€™s a wise child that knows its own fodder.â€
As brevity is the heart of the epigram, stringently prescriptive forms like the limerick and the double dactyl showcase the light verse writer as miniaturist. Edward Learâ€™s cleverly compacted â€œnonsenseâ€ limericks make me think of a man in a straitjacket conducting an orchestra, signaling the players by a nod of the head or a shrug of the shoulders. A broad selection has been reprinted by Oxfordâ€™s Bodleian Library in a ravishing volume called So Much Nonsense. Except for the proper noun at the end, Learâ€™s opening line is almost always the same; the short, rhyming third and fourth lines sometimes appear as a single line; and the final, rather flat lineâ€”flat in Learâ€™s limericks, at leastâ€”is only a very slight variation on the first, a mere raised eyebrow that gives the poem its subtle twist:
There was an Old Person of Hyde, Who walked by the shore with his bride, Till a Crab who came near, fillâ€™d their bosoms with fear, And they said, â€˜Would weâ€™d never left Hyde!â€™ There was an Old Person of Rimini, Who said, â€˜Gracious! Goodness! O Gimini!â€™ When they said, â€˜Please be still!â€™ she ran down a hill, And was never more heard of at Rimini. There was a Young Lady of Corsica, Who purchased a little brown saucy-cur; Which she fed upon ham, and hot raspberry jam, That expensive Young Lady of Corsica.
Far from being nonsensical, these poems are monuments to English eccentricity. Lear, like Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie, was one of those bachelor eccentrics, probably stunted in his emotional growth, who was able to keep in touch with something ineffably childlike in himself. Though he spent much of his life abroad, he undoubtedly found most foreigners (and foreign words) strange, and therefore threatening, though also delightful.
Each poem is illustrated by a line-drawing as explosively energetic as the poem is buttoned up. The Old Person of Hyde and his bonneted bride look hysterical as they face a crab about four times their size. The Old Person of Rimini seems almost to be skiing down a very steep slope. The much-elongated Young Lady of Corsica is leaning at an impossible angle to minister tenderly to her little black mutt. The alliance between light verse and draftsmanship is as strong as its link with poetry for children; Beerbohmâ€™s caricatures were as deft as his parodies. As Learâ€™s limericks are all about the rhyme, his illustrations are all about the line. Both the poems and the drawings portray a timeless world that, despite its little social markers, has no context and no history. Their manner is fussy, their values quaint, but their spare technique is self-conscious, reflexive, and curiously modern. (Where Learâ€™s method is almost inhumanly rigorous, a legion of later limerick writers would be more flexible in their use of the form.)
If the rolling anapestic meter of limericks sounds comical in English, so does its opposite, the dactyl, and its sing-song effect is only heightened in the double dactyl, which begins with a nonsense line and is composed of two quatrains. The first must include a double-dactylic name (such as Hans Christian Anderson or Gustav von Aschenbach), while the second must contain a single double-dactylic word ranging from the ordinary (like heterosexual) to the recherchÃ© (Epipsychidion, Misericordia). In 1967 Hecht and Hollander gathered an initial harvest of these poems in Jiggery-Pokery. Like all such impacted forms, the double dactyl encourages a play of wit, but the result is often a polysyllabic tongue-twister. Here is Hechtâ€™s reduction of Book V of Paradise Lost (Milton seems irresistible to comic writers):
Higgledy-piggledy Archangel Raphael, Speaking of Satanâ€™s re- Bellion from God, â€œChap was decidedly Tergiversational, Given to lewdness and Rodomontade.â€
This makes the double dactyl seem like sesquipedalian calisthenics for mandarin writers, form for formâ€™s sake, though just the stuff to beef up the readerâ€™s vocabulary. I have yet to read a double dactyl that has the weight of Bellocâ€™s mock-epitaph for himself, something funny-serious, not merely funny. But its sound is as irresistible as its small, definite lexical challenge. It was Byron who, in Beppo and Don Juan, showed how feminine endings, ubiquitous in Italian, generally sound comic in Englishâ€”an effect that has made them a permanent resource for light verse writers and serious comic poets. As long as the iambic foot remains the default unit for English meter, verse written in three-beat feet, using anapests or dactyls, and verse deploying feminine rhymes, dragging extra syllables with a dying fall, will always have a slightly subversive feeling.
Even Nash, who had his own rhythm, not as prosaic as it looked, sometimes aspired to the pure lilt of nonsense, with its touches of surrealism and derangement, its potential for music unbound from meaning. One of his best and most unusual poems, â€œThe Private Dining Room,â€ begins:
Miss Rafferty wore taffeta, Miss Cavendish wore lavender. We ate pickerel and mackerel And other lavish provender.
The rest of this longish poem offers nonstop musical variations on these lines and syllables. Dactylic words like â€œRafferty,â€ â€œtaffeta,â€ and â€œlavenderâ€ induce a kind of lexical bliss that issues in words invented solely to consort with them, as if to confirm Audenâ€™s view that authentic poets are interested in coupling words rather than expounding subjects. Yet, â€œas the wine improved the provender,â€ these dizzying variations bend the language to mimic a state of inebriation, along with a loss of inhibition. â€œWe boggled mackled pickerel, / And bumpers did we quaffeta.â€ The whirligig continues:
Miss Rafferty in taffeta Grew definitely raffisher. Miss Cavendish in lavender Grew less and less stand-offisher.
This is Nashâ€™s version of â€œIn the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.â€ It would be hard to say what makes the poem so exhilarating, beyond the feeling it conveys of a writer, mockingly superior in his way yet simply drunk on words, rhyming almost beyond the limits of the language. In doing so, he also brings back a silly and endearing social world, thirty years past, not by describing but by enacting it, sounding it out. This is light verse no longer on holiday but on the job.