When I first began writing about the craft of poetry, I asked the important question: Why write a poem?
For some people the answer is a flip "Why not?" Which is surprisingly valid as an answer. Some people write poetry simply as an amusement, because they can, and because they want to play with language or form or both. I recently invited an author, who I knew to be very busy with many important screenwriting and novel projects, to participate in an anthology I was editing; I specifically asked him for a poem, because I had admired the way he handled some forms I personally found difficult to write in. The idea appealed to him; it would provide a pleasant diversion from the other projects, he said, the way a crossword puzzle can be a distraction, albeit an intellectually engaging one.
I think it's important for people to enjoy writing poems. Since I write full time, there are often days when I dread having to sit down at the computer. (I am right now avoiding work on an overdue short story that my brain is just not ready to face.) The simple act of writing is something I often will take great enjoyment from, but right now I'd much rather have written than be writing.
At times like these, turning to poetry can be a way to keep writing fun for me. And one type of poetry I'll turn to, for my own mental sanity, is light verse.
Light verse is often looked down upon, by those with pretensions to being Poets, and by people in the academic and conference circuits, as not being "serious." Of course, poets are generally looked down upon by most other types of writers, so I assumemany of you have at one point or another dealt with this sort of prejudice and we can acknowledge it and just put it aside now.
Humor is always a very serious thing to consider writing, since the object of humorous writing is to make it seem effortless, which requires considerable effort even for those with a proven facility for humorous writing. It is therefore harder to write good light verse than most any other type of poetry. Which makes it a good thing for poets to practice their craft by writing. Your meter must be flawless; any breaks in rhythm will wreck the effect. Your language must also be flawless; the proper word will make a difference not just in meter but in tone.
Humor is a very subjective thing, and what causes one person to roll on the floor laughing another may find tedious. One of the best ways to create humor, especially if one is aiming to create something comedic or satiric rather than simply a pun, is through irony. Ideally, light verse will draw on both irony and punning; often those are the poems which are most "successful" -- which resonate most strongly and thereby linger longest in people's minds and the culture. The vers de societe or witticisms of Dorothy Parker are a good example: biting in their satire, and playful in their language.
Most light verse is formal in nature, in part because this often can be used by the poet to create a sense of self-awareness of what the poem is doing, and that it is a poem. Rhyming three or more syllables always has a strong effect because it makes terribly apparent the fact that these words are intentionally rhymed; Gilbert and Sullivan are the master of multi-syllabic rhymes of this sort, especially since they make it seem effortless. Ideally, the formal nature of the poem can combine rhyme with a judicious use of puns, although one should try to avoid being too heavy-handed about punning with the rhyming words.
There is a level at which the pun is the ideal form of poetic expression. Poetry is a compression of language, and the movement in a poem is from idea to idea. A well-crafted pun might accomplish this with a single word or phrase. A pun is a metaphor, and as such should be meted out carefully; just as building one metaphor upon another can result in an emptiness, where there is no substance for the metaphors to be based upon, so building pun upon pun will weaken the impact of all of them.
To craft some types of light verse, then, sometimes takes more effort than the other writing I'm avoiding! But at the same time, there are some forms of light verse which are ideal for putting yourself through the paces, like a musician practicing scales; you must learn the forms, the way a musician learns the notes of the scale, but after that you're free to play on your own. It helps to read light verse, on the one hand to learn the forms and on the other to see how they work--what makes them funny, and how this is set up.
How do you decide which to write?
In part, this depends on why you're writing light verse. And in part it depends on what you're writing about.
I am going to split hairs, using the humorous works of various authors or genres as examples. WARNING: I am about to make gross generalizations for the purposes of these analogies.
The slapstick antics of circus clowns or MAD Magazine, though funny and chock full of puns, might be limericks -- a concrete form of light verse with small ambitions. A limerick is a tiny poem, whose humor is derived from a punchline -- there is a limit to what one can accomplish within the form, which is essentially a joke. A joke may enjoy popularity and be retold for many years, perhaps with substitutions, but for the most part they are topical and ephemeral.
Limericks, like jokes, are very popular. The form is a five line poem, where the first, second, and fifth lines are eight syllables in length and all rhyme; the third and fourth lines are five syllables in length and also rhyme. A place name should end the first line, and be the word which sets the rhyme. Limericks further have a specific rhythm; the accents fall on syllables two and five--and also eight on the longer lines. Limericks are usually bawdy -- if not outrightly pornographic -- which no doubt has contributed to their popularity. Isaac Asimov was very fond of the form, and penned numerous examples, both occasional and otherwise; many are collected in a volume co-written with John Ciardi.
Because of the galloping, rollicking meter of a limerick, it is difficult to write serious poetry within the form. And so much of the success of a limerick lies in its punchline; there is little room for anything else to be impressive within the form. An economy of language is also helpful; many Feghoots might have more impact as limericks or other forms of light verse.
The humorous writings of Mark Twain or Jerome K. Jerome, by contrast, would translate into a different type of light verse, more satirical, and more ambitious. Generally, they would not fall into one of the well-known forms of light verse, but would create their own forms; it is possible (though difficult) to pull this off in a quatrain, or using a longer form. This type of light verse is generally dictated by subject matter rather than language; there is an ironic observation the author wishes to make, or an object he or she wishes to skewer through satire.
One of my favorite forms of light verse is the clerihew, named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley, best known perhaps for his detective stories. The clerihew is a four line form consisting of two rhyming couplets of variable lengths; the line lengths may vary within each couplet as well as between the couplets. The first line of a clerihew is a name, and nothing but that name, and the poem proceeds to give some biographic fact -- true or simply clever -- which lampoons them. For instance:
Wrote poems in magic marker
Upon the walls
Of the Algonquin's bathroom stalls.
It is difficult to explain humor, but I can, I believe, make some generalized points. This poem's wit is based strictly on irony, for Ms. Parker did not, so far as we know, write graffiti, in bathrooms or elsewhere. But the idea of her defacing the highbrow Algonquin's walls with a magic marker has a delicious feel to it, and in many ways bathroom graffiti today has replaced the vers de societe popular in the days of the Algonquin Roundtable.
The following clerihew relies on pun to create irony:
Would not stay at brick inns;
He had greater expectations
When he went on vacations.
The pun, of course, comes from the reference to Dicken's novel, Great Expectations; this is an ironic use of a pun as opposed to a punchline. The rhyme of "Dickens" with "brick inns" is also amusing or clever because it is so unexpected; it is not-quite forced.
One last example of light verse through another clerihew, whose innovative technique is self-evident (and irreproducible):
WrOte a pOem shaped like a cOllander
With hOles cOmpOsed Of rOws
And rOws Of capital O's.
--Marie Borroff (Or shOuld that be BOrrOff?)
This poem works even if one does not know Hollander's book, Types of Shape, of poetry written in typographic shapes ranging from a lightbulb to a swan with its reflection (shaped poetry is discussed in another column). This knowledge adds an additional level of irony, in addition to that derived from the poem's self-awareness.
W.H. Auden wrote an entire book of clerihews titled Academic Grafiti, and Gavin Ewart edited an anthology of them for Oxford University Press titled Other People's Clerihews. (G.K. Chesterton, a friend of E.C. Bentley's, was one of the early proponents of the form.) I've always been a little mystified at the form's relative obscurity, when it is a more-suitable form of social witticism than the limerick -- although historically less bawdy.
A third form that is strictly for light verse is the double dactyl, or the Higgledy Piggledy as it is sometimes called, which is again a pseudobiographical form like the clerihew. A dactyl, as you all recall from the earlier column on meter, is a three syllable sequence or metrical "foot" wherein an accented syllable is followed by two unaccented syllables. The lines of a double dactly are, quite simply, two dactyls in length -- which means that only a few names are suitable to use to write double dactyls about. (The form was invented on a lark and was never meant to linger on as long as it has.) Some names which are perfect double dactyls would be Englebert Humperdink or Christopher Isherwood. The second line of a double dactyl is always the name of the poems subject. One can be creative in making names fit the format; I recall one double dactyl about the frequent collaborations of one SF author, where the second line read "Mercedes Lackey and" (earning points for satire right away).
The form of a double dactyl is two quatrains, where the fourth and eight lines are shorter rhyming lines of four syllables (with accents on the first and fourth syllable). The first line is usually gibberish, often the phrase "Higgledy piggledy" which is why the form is sometimes known by that name. The second line, as previously mentioned, is always a name, and the sixth line is always a six-syllable word that is a perfect double dactyl--such as the word "antepenultimate" which also describes where the line must fall.
It is not a form I'd recommend, but some are fond of it, and as it is one of the few forms dedicated exclusively to light verse I felt it ought to be included here. (I've only written one, which I don't include here because I cheat and break the meter in the shorter rhyming lines for the sake of using -seven- one-word lines instead of just the required antepenultimate one. It is, therefore, a bad example of the form. John Hollander, satirized above by Marie Borroff, has a book titled Jiggery Pokery, which is the classic text on the subject.)
Light verse is in no means restricted to these forms, though these forms are, de facto, restricted to light verse. (As I challenged earlier -- just try to write a non-funny limerick, the meter rebels against you.) The meat of light verse, however, is rhyme and meter -- one can write funny poems in free verse, but they'll always be just funny poems and missing something essential.
Try your hand at one of these forms. Or invent some new ones to fit your own wit.
And, especially, have fun.
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