ANALYZING THE LIGHT VERSE POEM

analyzing light verseLight Verse Forms

Light verse comes in many forms, including:

1. Society Verse

Often described as light, graceful and entertaining poetry that appeals to polite society, 'society verse' can also make pointed comments, sometimes with deadly effect:

Some men never look at you,
Some men fawn and flatter,
Some men break your heart in two,
And that cleans up the matter. {1}

I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you? {2}

2. Humorous Verse

Humorous verse is often boisterous fun:

The airline's fare seemed more than fair,
but I am not impressed,
for while my flight travelled east,
they sent my luggage west! {3}

We're truly in awe
of Fernando the Fearless
who needed no net
for the flying trapeze.

Alas, what a shame
it's surprisingly difficult
catching a bar
in the midst of a sneeze. {4}

but can carry darker undertones:

At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,
The cold winter air makes our hands and face tingle
And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle
And the whole business is unbearably dreadful if you're single. {5}

3. Nonsense Verse

Humorous or whimsical verse features absurd characters and actions, often containing evocative but meaningless nonce words.

The elephant is a bonnie bird.
It flits from bough to bough.
It makes its nest in a rhubarb tree
And whistles like a cow. {6}

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch! {7}

4. Limerick

The Limerick's definition is more serious than it should be: a kind of humorous verse of five lines, in which the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines, which are shorter, form a rhymed couplet.

There was a fair maiden of Exeter,
So pretty that guys craned their necks at her.
One was even so brave
as to take out and wave
The distinguishing mark of his sex at her. {8}

The limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks to the slums
And promptly becomes
Disorderly, drunk and obscene. {9}

5. Exotic Forms

Light verse generally requires a sound metrical touch, and verse where the form exceeds the content is often termed 'light' — the French ballade, rondel, villanelle and triolet, but also the pantoum and possibly the haiku.

I took her dainty eyes, as well
As silken tendrils of her hair:
And so I made a Villanelle!

I took her voice, a silver bell,
As clear as song, as soft as prayer;
I took her dainty eyes as well. {10}

The red blossom bends
and drips its dew to the ground.
Like a tear it falls {11}

6. Serious Poetry

The form can also be used seriously, as did Sylvia Plath in Lady Lazarus {12} where the seeming nonchalance sharpens the theme.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God. Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air

A Letter of Advice

When he died, suddenly, at the age of thirty-nine, Winthrop Mackworth Praed stood on the verge of a brilliant parliamentary career. {13}

A Letter of Advice

You tell me you're promised a lover,
My own Araminta, next week;
Why cannot my fancy discover
The hue of his coat, and his cheek?
Alas! if he look like another,
A vicar, a banker, a beau,
Be deaf to your father and mother,
My own Araminta, say "No!"

Miss Lane, at her Temple of Fashion,
Taught us both how to sing and to speak,
And we loved one another with passion,
Before we had been there a week:
You gave me a ring for a token;
I wear it wherever I go;
I gave you a chain, - it is broken?
My own Araminta, say "No!"

O think of our favorite cottage,
And think of our dear Lalla Rookh!
How we shared with the milkmaids their pottage,
And drank of the stream from the brook;
How fondly our loving lips faltered,
"What further can grandeur bestow?"
My heart is the same; - is yours altered?
My own Araminta, say "No!"

Remember the thrilling romances
We read on the bank in the glen;
Remember the suitors our fancies
Would picture for both of us then;
They wore the red cross on their shoulder,
They had vanquished and pardoned their foe -
Sweet friend, are you wiser or colder?
My own Araminta, say "No!"

From A Letter of Advice by W. Mackworth Praed.

The charm and polish of the verse should be obvious, but we might notice:

1. The metrical skill:

Alas! if he look like another, (a oo u)
A vicar, a banker, a beau, (i a o)

And drank of the stream from the brook;

2. The smiling good humour of so many touches:

You tell me you're promised a lover,
My own Araminta, next week;

Miss Lane, at her Temple of Fashion,

3. The sheer brio of the anapaestic lines:

Remember the thrilling romances
We read on the bank in the glen;

4. The speaking voice, its coyness in:

You tell me you're promised a lover,

followed by petulance in:

Why cannot my fancy discover

and mock despair in:

Alas! if he look like another,

5. The telling details, creating believable characters:

O think of our favorite cottage,
And think of our dear Lalla Rookh!
How we shared with the milkmaids their pottage,
And drank of the stream from the brook;
How fondly our loving lips faltered,
"What further can grandeur bestow?"

How is my High-Stepping Filly?

Wit, metrical skill {14} and a distinctive voice on the page are what count in society verse. Rather than laboriously work the steps involved, I will try to show how the following does not measure up.

How Is My High Stepping Filly was written many years ago in imitation of Praed, and seems to rattle along quite happily:

And how is my high-stepping filly?
How is my first love and late?
Still flagrantly showy and silly
But wild and unfeigned at the gate?
For, silly, I could have been bolder,
And wild, then why not with me?
For I, who am old, am older,
So you, though you do not agree.

To think you were firebrand and bandit,
Our chief in each changing craze,
And tomboy in times now disbanded,
Companion of uncountable days.
Was anything haltered or hidden,
Or anything left to repent?
But your future came forward unbidden,
From girlhood to woman you went.

Old friends were phantoms, forgotten,
Aloft in another domain
You flounced in a frock of white cotton
And were queen of the city and plain.
Men came and went with their hot-rod
Jalopies, and even a yacht
You laughed, and thought them an odd lot:
Oh did you, my shy demigod?

What good if at school I was clever
When you gamboled and beckoned me on?
What solace in summery weather
In phoning to find you had gone?
But now I have come to my mid-life
And must earn with flat effort my wage
In forests of tropical midnight,
And deserts that do not know age,

I smile and look back to that brief time
When later we met and made up:
Amazing that absence at each time
Of each other had charged the cup.
So long was the draught that we drank then
And sweet the residue stays.
I reach with both hands to thank them
Who gave us such pasture to graze.

Yes, my mind goes back, and I'm merry
To think of the characters now:
From Moira a nun down in Kerry
To Pru, of all people, a frau.
I don't know where all have their holdout
But Dot's in the social whirl,
Our Meg filled some centre-page fold-out
And Tup got engaged to an earl.

Well, well, I may mumble and wonder,
Fate turn the wheel round one more time,
If we, who were close, fell asunder
Back closer would come if we climbed?
But I doubt it, and know not to tether.
Go further and kiss and curvet:
Whatever impends is forever,
And that which is past I forget.

The verse is fluent, and carries its pathos lightly, the metre adjusting in tempo to the content.

But is it true? Did these people exist, and did the writer have to earn with flat effort his wage In forests of tropical midnight / And deserts that do not know age? To some extent, certainly. That was how I used to feel on brief visits to London from exploration work in various desert and rain-forest countries, though I have changed some of the names.

And the place to Kerry, clearly to rhyme with merry. When, looking at the alliteration:

Yes, my mind goes back, and I'm merry
To think of the characters now:
From Moira a nun down in Kerry
To Pru, of all people, a frau.

we begin to wonder if it's not a little over-neat. The suspicion grows that the story is filling out the form, and we notice two other matters: voice and character. We can picture the young women from their voices in:

You tell me you're promised a lover,
My own Araminta, next week;
Why cannot my fancy discover
The hue of his coat, and his cheek?

And their childhood memories:

Remember the suitors our fancies
Would picture for both of us then;
They wore the red cross on their shoulder,
They had vanquished and pardoned their foe -
Sweet friend, are you wiser or colder?
My own Araminta, say "No!"

But do we see either in How Is My High Stepping Filly?

The language in the first adopts a certain tone or social register, something real that Praed affectionately mimics, but what about this?

Was anything haltered or hidden,
Or anything left to repent?
But your future came forward unbidden,
From girlhood to woman you went.

And this?

Men came and went with their hotrod
Jalopies, and even a yacht

Yes, they pick up the filly theme, but no Englishman will take them as natural speech. English society is class-conscious, and anyone who would write society verse has to develop an ear for its forms of address and word usage.

Since contemporary poets are often oblivious to this aspect, I will discuss tone more in translating A Margarita Debayle by Rubén Darío. A more successful attempt at light verse is given here.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

References

1. Dorothy Parker and the Art of Light Verse. John Hollander. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/parker/lightverse.htm. Good introduction to light verse in general.
2. Alexander Pope. http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072405228/student_view0/poetic_glossary.html. Entry under epigram.
3. Attempt Light Verse - You Could Do Worse. Guy Belleranti. http://www.thewritersroommagazine.net/guybattemptlightverse.htm NNA. . Examples and markets.
4. Fernando the Fearless. Kenn Nesbitt. http://www.definition-info.com/McWhirtle.html NNA. Short entry on the McWhirtle.
5. Christmas. Wendy Cope. Able Muse's bulletin board. http://www.ablemuse.com/erato/ubbhtml/Forum3/HTML/000518.html.
6. Nonsense verse. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonsense_verse. Wikipedia entry, with examples.
7. Jabberwocky. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jabberwocky. Poem, with glossary.
8. Limerick (poetry). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limerick_(poetry). Lots of examples
9. Limericks. http://freewebs.com/limericks NNA Funny examples.
10. Villanelle of His Lady's Treasures. Ernest Dowson, in Overcoming Time and Despair: Ernest Dowson's Villanelle. Karen Alkalay-Gut. Spring 1996. http://www.karenalkalay-gut.com/dowvill7a.html.
11. The Rose. Donna Brock. http://volweb.utk.edu/Schools/bedford/harrisms/haiku.htm NNA. One of a series of online lessons.
12. On Lady Lazarus. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/plath/lazarus.htm. Excerpts from several autors on the Modern American Poetry devoted to Sylvia Plath.
13. A Letter of Advice by W. Mackworth Praed. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.
14. Easy Poetry. Edward Zuk http://www.n2hos.com/acm/essayA122003.html NNA. Not specifically about light verse, but a plea for diversity and verse skills in contemporary poetry.

 

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