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  #1  
Unread 09-06-2009, 01:52 PM
E. Shaun Russell E. Shaun Russell is offline
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Default Defining "Light"

An interesting discussion has arisen in the Light Verse Bakeoff up at Distinguished Guest. One of the poems is, in my view, and the view of a few others, decidedly NOT "light verse", though others contend that it is. I love the poem -- it's full of dark cynicism and it casts a rather pointed light on human nature. It's done in a slightly bemused, slightly accusatory tone, but has a fairly jaunty meter with a few amusing rhyme pairings. But overall, I think the poem isn't light verse, due to the depth of subject matter.

Ultimately, I'm now a bit perplexed as to what one would consider "light verse". I've always thought of light verse as humorous and without a lot of depth -- geared more towards snickers and guffaws than deep contemplation; slapstick comedy versus satiric drama. I don't see how heavy / deep subjects with cynical tones can be considered "light", regardless of the meter or rhyme scheme.

I should point out that this is by no means a criticism of John selecting this particular poem for the Bakeoff...I'm just curious as to where folks draw the line between "light verse" and other forms of poetry.
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Unread 09-06-2009, 02:21 PM
Richard Epstein Richard Epstein is offline
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The best place to view the possibilities is in the Auden-edited version of The Oxford Book of Light Verse, which includes such surprises as "Danny Deever" and "Upon Appleton House." Auden suggests there are 3 kinds of light verse--poetry written for performance, poetry meant to be read, but having for its subject everyday social life, and nonsense poetry with general appeal. I am glad he included that last qualifier. I read a lot of nonsense poetry without general appeal.

RHE
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Unread 09-06-2009, 02:32 PM
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John Whitworth John Whitworth is offline
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Well of course Auden was trailing his coat. See Kingsley Amis in his ppreface to his own Oxford Book of Light Verse. But if Auden is (perhaps) too inclusive, KA is too exclusive. Anyway, certain bastards over here say I am a Light Verse poet. This used to piss me off but now I go with the flow. If I am a Light verse Poet then anything I write must be light verse. Which means Auden rules.
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Unread 09-06-2009, 03:35 PM
E. Shaun Russell E. Shaun Russell is offline
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Well, to no one's surprise, Auden is paramount to me (as if my avatar wasn't enough of a clue...), but there's not a lot of his work I'd consider "light", really. His tone is often very light, but the gravity of much of his subject matter is anything but. So I guess for me, I think of "light" in terms of subject matter, while others think of light in terms of tone and the jauntiness of meter etc.

Is Betjeman consistently light? "Slough" certainly has a jaunty rhythm, some amusing images and a remarkably tongue-in-cheek tone...but doesn't the gravity of the subject matter prevent it from being considered "light verse" as opposed to a standard, meaningful poem?

How about Robinson? Some of his character sketches make you want to laugh aloud, and yet at the same time, they delve into deep-rooted flaws in man himself. Hardly "light" stuff, is it?

I guess we all have our visions of what "light" means. But I don't blame you, John, for having taken offense at being considered a "light verse" poet. In my view, that's a dismissive categorization of any poet, basically indicating that you're a one trick pony...and you're certainly not.
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Unread 09-06-2009, 03:52 PM
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Quincy Lehr Quincy Lehr is online now
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Or are we pretty much setting our definition of light here in order to justify the banal tripe that so often gets published under that banner? Where's Lord Rochester when you need him?

Sheesh.
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Unread 09-06-2009, 04:09 PM
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W.F. Lantry W.F. Lantry is offline
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I'm with Quincy on this one. If someone asked me to make a list of Light Verse poets, it would start with Herrick, Ovid, Catullus, Chaucer and Martial.

Sheesh is right!

Thanks,

Bill
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Unread 09-06-2009, 04:44 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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I don't think "light verse" can be defined in a way that everyone will agree with, because each person has a different level at which a poem becomes too heavy to be considered "light." I always tend to see the darkness behind so-called light verse: Dorothy Parker's little ditty about suicide methods, "Résumé," for instance, which I would say is definitely light in tone even though she really did try to commit suicide repeatedly. Satire is one of the hardest cases in point, because it can be funny or can be as subtle as a bludgeoning. The same poem will evoke different responses from different people, since we all have a different sense of humor from one another. Light verse often has a very serious point, so I would lean toward accepting Wendy Cope's suggestion of looking at the funny/unfunny spectrum to try to define light verse.

Susan
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Unread 09-06-2009, 04:46 PM
Richard Epstein Richard Epstein is offline
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Are light verse poets born or made? My favorite description of the process is this,
"Admitted to the bar in 1865, [Calverley] fell heavily on his head while skating and was forced to retire and devote the rest of his life to polite letters."

RHE
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Unread 09-06-2009, 04:52 PM
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Everyone's so eager to classify things; I guess it makes everyone feel safe.

PS. If we have to classify, light verse is better than non-light verse. Comment on the human condition all you'd like, but if you can make it funny and entertaining you've one-upped the rest of them.
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Unread 09-06-2009, 05:48 PM
Janet Kenny Janet Kenny is offline
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Light verse is what fools mistake for shallow verse. It engages us and we don't notice that it's every bit as profound as solemn verse.

I was t/walking on the beach with my nearest and dearest who spent his life in publishing--journalism and non-fiction. He said that if he were still in the business and had enough capital to risk on poetry he wouldn't publish these slim volumes but great big fat volumes with a variety (not too many) of poets in them and there'd be a leavening of what we call "light" poems and most of them would rhyme. He was thinking commercially not critically. He said poets had brought about their own publishing downfall. He said people wanted their money's worth and they wanted something they could pick up again and again and search through and I remembered how he came to my notice many centuries ago because of his (A) record collection but above all because of his (B) collection of humorous poetry anthologies. All of the Penguin poetry publications. I read Louis MacNeice's "Bagpipe Music" http://www.artofeurope.com/macneice/mac6.htm in one of those.
He didn't and doesn't read poetry except as an occasional divergence. I think there are a lot of literate thoughtful people who would read a lot more poetry if it were as intelligent and entertaining as Louis MacNeice.
But he can also quote more "non-light" poetry than I can. By dividing poetry into proper and silly we have bored the pants off the public. That's why no main stream publisher will risk publishing poetry.

Byron was as political as Christopher Hitchens and as funny as Stephen Fry. And yet he could rival Berlioz in expressive and romantic phrasing.
Was Shakespeare "light" or "serious"?
Let in the light!
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