Academic journal article British and American Studies

The Popularity of Poetry: Light Verse in Post-1945 British Literature

Academic journal article British and American Studies

The Popularity of Poetry: Light Verse in Post-1945 British Literature

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Light verse is a well-known but rarely defined term in poetry studies. The word "light" is usually used to mean 'not serious', 'unimportant' or 'not causing any harm' in contemporary culture: we hardly need any definition to understand what light music means as opposed to serious or classical music, what cola light is in comparison with the classic soft drink, and many of us would not hesitate to label anything that we do not find serious enough to satisfy our intellectual expectations as "light".

Of course, handbooks of literature, these extremely optimistic publications, do offer definitions of light verse. According to one of these, light verse treats "its subjects gaily, or comically, or whimsically, or with good-natured satire" (Abrams 1985: 96). Another defines light verse as "poetry to entertain" (Beckson and Ganz 1986: 130). A third one suggests that such verse "displays obvious formal characteristics of METER, RHYME, and STRUCTURE" (Myers and Simms 1989: 161). It is easy to see that all of these possible definitions provoke us to ask the question: does not serious poetry do the same? If light verse constructs goodnatured satire, does that mean that serious poetry can only construct a different kind of satire (possibly ill-natured)? Is serious poetry forbidden to entertain? Aren't formal elements often displayed in serious poetry?

In W. B. Yeats's "The Symbolism of Poetry" (2004: 34) we read that "[t]he form of sincere poetry, unlike the form of the 'popular poetry,' may indeed be sometimes obscure, or ungrammatical". Yeats's remark tacitly implies that popular poetry (probably a synonym of light verse) is always clear and grammatical. However, this is not always true: if we accept this distinction, nonsense poetry and much of the poetry for children would fall into the category of serious verse.

The definitions mentioned above, including Yeats's statement, are remarkably varied. Nevertheless, they share a common feature: with different emphases, they suggest that light verse relies on the reader's expectations. We expect something "good-natured" rather than disturbing (even if it is in the form of satire), we want to be entertained, and we want to recognize something familiar in tone and meter. In sum, we want to be oriented rather than disoriented when we are ready to accept what light verse offers.

In an essay about literary reception Hans Robert Jauss (1990: 74) wrote:

[...] a literary work with an unusual aesthetic form can shatter the expectations of its reader and at the same time confront him with a question which cannot be answered by religiously or publicly sanctioned morals. [...] The literary work can also - and in the history of literature this possibility characterizes the most recent period of modernity - reverse the relationship of question and answer and in an aesthetic medium confront the reader with a new 'opaque' reality which can no longer be understood from the previous horizon of expectations.

Since light verse aims at satisfying its readers' demands, using Jauss's theory as a context, we can ask the question: is light verse the kind of poetry that deliberately rejects any ambition to change the horizon of expectations, and intends to come up to expectations instead? This seems to be true in the majority of popular poems, but most definitions of light verse also emphasize that such poetry is based on the interplay between the comic and the serious rather than on something "light" in isolation.

2. Light Verse in Contemporary Poetry by Women

In the title poem of Wendy Cope's volume, Serious Concerns (1992: 15), we read this:

Write to amuse? What an appalling suggestion!

I write to make people anxious and miserable and to

worsen their indigestion.

The title is not a joke: Cope's hilarious texts give evidence that the seemingly most ridiculous factors of human life are the most serious matters. The title poem of another volume, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986: 61), creates poetry out of nothing. …

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