by Max Gutmann
Light verse appeals primarily to the intellect. Most good poetry, of course, appeals to more than one faculty, but if the main thrust is intellectual, the poem will feel light.
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The labouring children can look out
And see the men at play.
Sarah Cleghorn’s four-line “Golf Links,” though not particularly funny, makes its point with something like a joke, the reversal of our expectation that men work and children play. (The fact that the poem has a point pushes it toward the intellectual, the light.) Another poem might draw an individual child watching a specific group of golfers, and help us experience the child’s situation. That wouldn’t be light. Both approaches seek to make us think about the situation, and both to make us feel it. The other poem would engage our thought by making us feel; Cleghorn’s engages our emotions by making us think. Light verse.
In some cases, of course, readers may disagree about which appeal is primary, and, at least theoretically, an individual reader may at different times, possibly different stages of life, experience a poem as light and not light.
The distinction between primary appeals helps me understand, for instance, my reaction to two wonderful Philip Larkin poems: “This Be the Verse” feels light; “Vers de Société” does not—this despite superficial reasons, including the apparent opinion of anthologists1, to feel the reverse. “Vers de Société” is the more comic poem, both because it’s funnier (“My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps/To come and waste their time and ours. Perhaps/You’d care to join us?”) and because of its structure, its ending a reversal of its beginning. So why doesn’t the comic “Vers de Société” feel light? I think it’s because the poem so specifically shows and helps me feel “how hard it is to be alone” and, more, the things we use company to distract us from. “This Be the Verse,” on the other hand, shares its bleaker vision only intellectually, arguing, in earnest some feel, that we are best off childless and dead, but never helping me feel it.
Do commonly recognized modes of light verse fit this description; do they appeal primarily to the intellect? I think they do. (This assumes, of course, that humor is intellectual, which, though not universally agreed on and maybe not provable, I think correct.) Parody, satire, wordplay, acrostic: all these are intellectual modes. Nonsense verse? It may sound upside-down to call something that confounds the intellect “intellectual,” but after all it’s intellect, not emotion, being confounded.
This definition helps explain a paradox that sometimes puzzles anthologists and others compelled to determine what qualifies as light verse. Light verse both is and isn’t different than other poetry. All poems exist on a continuum, appealing in varying, unmeasurable proportion to both intellect and emotion. At one end of that continuum, jokes in verse (most limericks and other brief, humorous poems) can easily be separated from the main flow of poetry. They provide fun. They’re worthwhile. And they’re a different species of art than, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets. We give them their due by recognizing them as poems for the intellect. (A poem that bypassed the intellect and appealed solely to emotion—if such a thing were possible—would be equally limited.) Other lightness can never be separated from poetry. Why would anyone want to? Lewis Carroll, Phyllis McGinley, e.e. cummings, Wallace Stevens; light verse is poetry and all poetry has some degree of lightness. (Yes, even Milton.) Where on the continuum a given poem falls and where the label “light verse” ceases to apply will always be matters of taste.
1 The more familiar “This Be the Verse” gets included in general anthologies but rarely if ever among light verse. From the four light verse anthologies on my shelves that include Larkin poems and were published late enough to include “This Be the Verse”—The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse (Kingsley Amis), The Norton Book of Light Verse (Russell Baker), The Oxford Book of Comic Verse (John Gross), and The Penguin Book of Light Verse (Gavin Ewart)—it is entirely absent. Ewart’s Penguin does include “Vers de Société.”