Magazine article The American Conservative

Sweetness & Spite: The Forgotten Pleasures of Light Verse

Magazine article The American Conservative

Sweetness & Spite: The Forgotten Pleasures of Light Verse

Article excerpt

IT IS ALWAYS SAD when a valuable artist perishes. It is sadder still when a valuable art form perishes. It is saddest of all when a valuable art form did not need to perish, but was simply hounded to the culture's periphery by a deliberate, malicious process of what Fred Reed has called "enstupidation."

One art form belonging firmly to this last group is light verse. Today it is a drab, tiny creature, which, insofar as the major media tend it at all, survives more in Britain than in the States. Things were very different in the two decades following World War II. Back then, among Americans, light verse flourished. It owed part of its exuberant health to the enlightened attitude of New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who had an admirable policy of paying substantially more for light-verse contributions than for conventional free-verse bromides. But The New Yorker was not light verse's only home. The New York Herald Tribune, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post all found abundant room for it. As critic William H. Pritchard observed, "Books by [light verse's] practitioners were reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, the general sense being that, in the age of [T.S.] Eliot and Wallace Stevens, it was an excellent alternative to high modernism." The practitioners themselves won Pulitzers and honorary doctorates. They could even earn a middle-class living by producing the stuff.

There was E.B. White, a dab hand at such confections, although even in light verse's heyday White remained better known for his children's literature (Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little) and for his periodically acrid New Yorker cartoon captions. (Doting mother to fractious infant: "It's broccoli, dear." Fractious infant: "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.") There was Ogden Nash, with his preposterously ingenious line endings: who else would have dared to emphasize that "calliope," properly pronounced, rhymes with "diaper"? There was Morris Bishop, professor of Romance Languages at Cornell, not to mention biographer of Petrarch, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, and Samuel de Champlain. Bishop excelled above all at mimicry, as in his swipe at graffiti-carving tourists, which begins with a straight quote from Shelley's "Ozymandias" but finishes:

   And on the pedestal these words
   'My name is Ozymandias, king of
   Look on my works, ye Mighty, and
   Also the names of Emory P. Gray, Mr.
      and Mrs. Dukes, and Oscar Baer
   Of 17 West Fourth St., Oyster Bay.

Representing postwar light verse's Little League was the young John Updike, whose recent obituarists largely ignored his poems yet who once admitted, "As a boy I wanted to be a cartoonist. Light verse ... seemed a kind of cartooning with words, and through light verse I first found my way into print." Far too much of Updike's seriously intended poetry--the verse in which he took most pride--bore the unprepossessing paw-prints of Walt Whitman, whom P.J. O'Rourke accurately but unavailingly called "a self-obsessed ratchet-jaw with an ear like a tin cookie sheet." Happily, every technical virtue that Updike forgot in his serious efforts, he remembered in his light ones. Witty rhymes, as in a meditation on, of all topics, Venus's magnetic field: "Stern Mars is cold, Uranus gassy, / And Saturn hopelessly declasse"; equally amusing enjambments across lines of otherwise strict meter: "Just turned nineteen, a nicely molded lad, / I said goodbye to Sis and Mother; Dad / Drove me to Wisconsin ... "; lampoons that showed how well he knew the literary canon, as when newspaper reports of a pampered Iranian oil magnate reminded him of Coleridge:

   In Naishapur did Khaibar Khan
   With stately ease exclaim 'Kerchoo!'
   And Standard Oil dispatched its man
   With bales of linen to Iran To
   minister unto his flu ...

By general consent at the time, though, the doyenne of light versifiers in this period was not Updike or Nash or Bishop or White but Phyllis McGinley. …

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