Spectrum: Tailgaters


Welcome to our first Spectrum—an occasional feature on light verse and humor-friendly verse forms.

Tailgaters by Jerome Betts, Anthony Harrington, Julie Kane,
J.Patrick Lewis, Bob McKenty, and Chris O’Carroll.

Permissible Plagiarism

by Bob McKenty

The tailgater is a rhymed couplet in which the first line is “borrowed”—usually from someone famous—and the punch line (it’s supposed to be funny) supplied by some lesser light, like me. The second line should follow the meter of the first, insofar as possible.*

I initially encountered the form in Richard Armour’s Punctured Poems: Famous First, and Infamous Second Lines, published in 1966. Here’s a sample with Leigh Hunt the “lender”:

Jenny kissed me when we met
Not oft such quick results I get.

Also published in 1966, though I discovered it much later, was William Cole’s Uncoupled Couplets: A Game of Rhymes. Inspired by a small magazine that called the genre “bouts rimés: a game of rhymes,” Cole tried to make his collection a game by including only the borrowed line on odd-numbered pages with blank lines for players to supply their own punch lines beneath it. The complete couplet, with Bill’s punch line, appears on the following page. Here’s his take on Jenny:

Jenny kissed me when we met
The cold I caught is with me yet.

Bill was proud to say that Armour told him he preferred Bill’s couplets to his own. Years later I would chime in with:

Jenny kissed me when we met
So I’m leaving Juliet.

Finding no proscription against the practice, I gave my tailgaters titles. (Armour and Cole did not.) The couplet above I called “Fickle Romeo.” A title can explicate (as this one does), add to the
humor sometimes, and tilt the balance of ownership toward the parodist. By adding a title, I have authored two-thirds of the poem, not just half.

Inspired by Armour’s collection (I hadn’t yet discovered Cole’s) and armed with Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, I produced 64 couplets based on lines from Shakespeare, called the set Brush Up Your Shakespeare: A Curious Collection of Collaborated Couplets, and presented them to my mother for her 64th birthday in 1972. Mom’s reaction? “I don’t know what’s got into you!” I put a bunch
of them in an early issue of Lighten Up, my self-published newsletter. Through a mutual friend, a copy reached language maven Richard Lederer, who asked for permission to publish a bunch in his syndicated column, “Looking at Language.” Permission granted. He used 20 (omitting their titles).

As for the name of the genre, I think Cole and his source got it wrong. “Bout” (boo) in French means “end,” not “game”; hence “rhymed endings” is a better translation. Wikipedia describes bouts rimés as a game in which a poet is given a list of rhyming words in a specified order, and challenged to complete the poem (often a sonnet). For our collaborated couplets, “tailgaters” is a more recent and more appropriate coinage, canonized by Lewis Turco in The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms, 4th Edition, p. 360. Sounds good to me.

*Editor’s Note: These rules—like all others in formal verse—have sometimes been stretched with great results. (See some of the examples below.)


Leigh Hunt
Jenny kissed me when we met
Drooling like a bachelorette

Robert Herrick
A sweet disorder in the dress
Is evidence that she said yes..

W.H. Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Turn on the gas, I’m out of methadone.


Excerpts from The Red Lady Sonnets

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Try Botox shots to get the brow lines out,
Then Juvederm to get the trenches sealed.

A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass—
Stop getting tragic with the milk, you ass!

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day
And make me travel forth without my cloak?
Weather-dot-com was just a click away—
You said “no rain” and now my outfit’s soaked.


Royal Headache
William Shakespeare
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Stupid! Take it off when you lie down.

Loss Leader
Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master
(The Cubs are a perennial disaster).

No Place Like Home
Robert Frost
Home is the place where, when you have to go there
They make you mow the lawn or shovel snow there.

Accident is the Mother of Invention
Fitzhugh Ludlow
While we wait for the napkin, the soup grows cold
(And that’s how gazpacho was born, I’m told).

Wall Coverings
Robert Browning
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall
And Dutch Boy latex covering the hall.

Perilous Fight
Francis Scott Key
O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light?
Till after my third cup of coffee, not quite.

Richard Lovelace
Stone walls do not a prison make
(But they deter a prison break).

Anne Bradstreet
If ever two were one, then surely we
Amoebas were. (No longer; now we’re three.)

William Wordsworth
My heart leaps up when I behold
The beauty in the centerfold.

Good Grief
Percy Bysshe Shelley
I weep for Adonais. He is dead.
He left me nothing. Weep for me instead.

Fight Back!
Dylan Thomas
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Use meter, rhyme, and humor when you write.

(“Royal Headache” first appeared in Richard Lederer’s “Looking at Language.”)


Four Shades of Gray

Certificate Refused In A Country Garage

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way
His motor having failed its MOT.

Beyond The Pail

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd … avoided BSE
And foot and mouth disease, but then last May
Were culled because of badger-borne TB.

Gray’s Anatomy

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day …
A churchyard shoot’s been scrapped by TV3
Because the actor playing Thomas Gray
Tripped on a slab and broke his LEG.

Stoke Poges 26 December 2116

The curfew? Typo? (‘f’ for ‘l’) OK?
The herd? A band? And lea? What’s that one, please?
The ploughman? Not a robot, strange to say.
And darkness? Something known pre-LEDs.



Robert Frost
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
There is, dumbass. It’s called a wrecking ball.

A.E. Housman
The time you won your town the race
I lost fifty at the bookie’s place.

Walt Whitman
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
We have to get ready for the halftime show.

Edwin Markham
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Dressed in a stone-washed pair of Wrangler jeans.

Emily Dickinson
I taste a liquor never brewed
But never wind up wholly stewed.


Robert Browning
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
And over here’s my life-size blow-up doll.

William Shakespeare
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I hope the jury buys my lawyer’s lies.

Emily Dickinson
Hope is the thing with feathers.
Spike is the dude in leathers.

Jerome Betts lives in Devon, England. His verse, light or otherwise, has appeared in a wide variety of British magazines and anthologies as well as UK, European, and USA web venues such as Amsterdam Quarterly, Angle, Light, Lighten Up Online, The New Verse News, Per Contra, Snakeskin, and Tilt-A-Whirl. He now edits Lighten Up Online in succession to Martin Parker, its founder.

Julie Kane’s most recent book is Paper Bullets (White Violet Press, 2014). Her light verse has appeared in Light, Lighten Up Online, Poemeleon, Prairie Schooner, So It Goes: The Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, and Southern Women’s Review, among other journals. The 2011-2013 Louisiana Poet Laureate, she teaches at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

J. Patrick Lewis‘s first book of poems, Gulls Hold Up the Sky (Laughing Fire Press), appeared in October 2010. He has published over 130 verses in Light, as well as poems in Gettysburg Review, New England Review, New Letters, Southern Humanities Review, new renaissance, Kansas Quarterly, Fine Madness, and many others. In May 2011 the Poetry Foundation named him the third U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate (2011-2013). He has published 90 children’s picture books to date with Knopf, Atheneum, Dial, Harcourt, Little, Brown, National Geographic, Creative Editions, Chronicle, Candlewick, Scholastic, and others.

Born and raised in the Philadelphia area many decades ago, Anthony Harrington was educated in a local seminary where he was exposed to the Classics, Philosophy, and Theology, strains of which keep showing up in his verse. Semi-retired from an undistinguished career in sales, he lives with his wife, Natalie, in Alpharetta, Georgia. His dog Oliver also lives there, but Harrington chooses not to mention him because he can’t read. For more of his work, visit http://harringtonverse.blogspot.com/

Bob McKenty remembers when there were numerous print periodicals that not only welcomed, but paid for light verse. Fortunately, he kept his day job.

Chris O’Carroll is the featured poet in this issue.