Appeared previously in LIGHT Quarterly
The extent of light verse’s broad and dark dominion is underappreciated. The long-faced forces of stultifying self-regard make light of levity, equating it with insubstantiality. As there is no better defense than a pun-laden offense, light versifiers should heave their detractors’ plaints right back by freighting the debate with an even more pointed question: how can anything other than light verse lay a glove on this bleak, ironic age?
The term itself—light verse—is dismissive and, well, lacking in gravitas. One of this century’s crack practitioners of the genre, Phyllis McGinley, eschewed it altogether preferring poetry of wit. This essay will run with ‘light verse’, though in the broadest possible sense and while chafing at the indignity of it all.
A comic staggers across the stage impersonating a drunk just as an earthquake strikes. Transformed by seismic happenstance into the portrait of sobriety, he manages a straight line. Ironists, a large contingent of the light verse brigade, are the present era’s bee-line drunks. Turns of phrase are a thumb in the eye of straight lines. A wry, oblique voice offers the fastest way home with irony and incongruence its navigational aids. Frivolity and flatulent silliness have seats at the light verse table too. But in light of the very heavy gauntlet thrown down here, there will be no further mention of whoopee cushions.
There is an undeniable public feature to light verse. Uninterested in tireless self-examination (there’s a show to put on!), light poets want to coax smirks from the London Bridge crowd. Provide these hambones with a dais and you’ll need the Big Hook to restore the auditorium to the brown fog of Eliot’s winter dawn. No joke is an island. Simple dialectics, not to mention The Friars Club Encyclopedia of Jokes, insists a joke make its bones in the telling, side-splitting optional. A similar exigency holds for squibs, aphorisms and puns. A stand-up recursive guy always quick with a joke or a light-up-your-smoke, Rodney Dangerfield incorporated the quiet desperation of deserted, seedy joints into his shtick. At least he had the Borscht Belt to fall back on. Poetry journal submission guidelines routinely read light poets the riot act: all light verse is instructed to use the locked side entrance. Where is our Rosa Parks? Who will stare down our stone-faced Jim Crow’s?
The poet’s public mandate, as epitomized by the great 20th century ironist W. H. Auden involves sifting through all the cynicism and moral decay (as alternately railed against and epitomized by present-day Neander-gogues, Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, et al) to emerge on the other end with something deft, witty and oh so very pithy; as Monty Python would say, “witty, Wilde, witty.” Did I mention rhyme? You must rhyme. In a parallel universe, Sean Hannity is already lashed in heroic couplet to crudely-drawn inanity:
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
That’s drop-dead irony there, folks. A few years ago in The New Criterion, essayist Donald Lyons damned Auden with the faintest of praise labeling him a ‘minor Augustan’ while characterizing his poetry as “polite, generalizing, urbane, wry, composed.” Ouch. How the democratic impulse detests the patrician inclination towards the elevated podium and the craft of rhetoric. Auden’s noblesse oblige owes perhaps as much to the Cavalier school as to the Augustan–indeed irony’s cool distance suits an aristocratic bearing not to mention an Oxford education–but there’s that millstone again, composure, as in composing meter and rhyme and forswearing the logorrheic imperatives of the radically free and blithely tin-eared.
The tuneless logic goes something like this: In a chaotic age, composure exposes the poseur when, properly, fierce winds should be disheveling the poet’s hair, Fabio style. What an elemental force of nature the poet really is! Except, why speak chaos to chaos?
Amidst all this aerobicized individualizing the polis goes begging for men and women with the courage to stand their words on the heads of others: edifiers, unapologetic didacts; visionaries who can illumine constructs beyond the contours of their umbilical sockets.
The public poet arranges his thoughts before he speaks. He tucks in his shirt, acknowledges a public sphere and within that sphere comports himself with aplomb, even as he knows his cultural import suffers for stiffly ironed pleats. Finding odd liberation in centuries of convention, he rejects all the prevailing bumper stickers: Reticence appeases taboo. Craft is pretention. Composure is prudery. Exposure is courage. Composition is hubris. Erudition is effeteness.
Chickens with their heads cut off cannot find the road let alone cross it. The hallmark of courage, especially in a chaotic age, is not undirected free-wheelingness, but Hemingway’s grace under pressure. The ironist epitomizes grace. His inflections are deftly executed and bear the unmistakable imprimatur of composition. Though few may possess the correct turn-ratio to navigate the minefield (someone said there has been more great poetry written than good light verse), no one in his right mind would delve the present cesspool at a zero-degree angle–unless of course he had foregone trajectory altogether, contenting himself with linty self-analysis. Today’s public poet requires a Tyvek suit. He speaks in the shadow of Chernobyl’s city square and Time Zero’s crater, well below even Auden’s pre-WWII nadir. Bringing the light touch to a culture poised on the brink of cessation is akin to telling jokes in a terminal cancer ward. Perhaps we’ve fallen over a serviceable definition of irony: cheering the near-dead.
People, poets among them (four out of five scientists now agree poets are in fact people), can be excused for recoiling from the muck. Who but the most committed squibist would blame them? Their solipsism is derived at least in part from a justifiable aversion to a myriad of socially contractible diseases. Whereas ironists graze the muck, Confessionalists are germaphobes, dropping Ambien down tin-walled esophagi, journalizing the echoes and reporting back on the contour of the interior dings. Whether these poets fancy their dings unique or singularly worthy of telling is difficult to surmise. Perhaps they report back on the only dings they know, because they can. Perhaps they have zero interest in your dings and mine. There is no great evidence they particularly even crave an audience. Why then should we await their reports on all the damaged furniture?
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
In order to balance incongruence and convey irony, a sense of perspective is required. The rectum can appear for all the world like a universe until one gathers the temerity to seize the relevant aperture and crawl out. It’s no accident that Confessionalists, lacking critical distance, are deficient in humor, and suffer for wont of this therapeutic recourse.
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare
The reader could interrogate a few Confessionalists except they die with such alacrity–often by their own hand sadly–that one must be prepared to ask very quickly. Better to take a satirist’s word on this as the former is apt not to lie so much as twist things beyond all pedestrian recognition. This essay helpfully bends the sword of irony back into a ploughshare so that all may see for a moment the necessity of Auden’s unfolded lie. It is the vital lie, Freud’s causa sui. Give us the half-crouch of irony or give us Anne Sexton’s fully extended masturbatory exertions. To devastating effect, Clive James caricatured the Confessionalist crowd a few years back in New Statesman as comporting: “stringy hair, open-necked shirts, non-rhyming sonnets that multiplied like bacilli, and nervous breakdowns.” This description, on all points, explicates the atrophied sense of a public sphere, and the discredited notion that accommodations must be made towards it.
Confirming Thucydides’ fears, democracy is really an atomistic monarchy where everyone is his own mad king. Sadly lacking is the oblige part of noblesse as forbearance and discernment do not, as a rule, fall off the backs of turnip trucks. We all now practice in our heads “what dictators do”, indeed what they’ve done for millennia. No matter: ‘we must suffer [their predations] all again”, the droning Nietzschean trope of eternal recurrence caused by perennial ‘mismanagement’. Auden lectures against the autistic impulse at the heart of confessionalism: “no one exists alone.”
Solipsism stems from a reticence born of prior social injury or fragile constitution. Fear is a factor. Who but Auden’s frightened children could content themselves in such a hobbled and cocooned existence?
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
I’ll leave the good bit to the moralists, (just as I extrapolate the cultural madness expressed by Auden beyond the Wittenberg-Versailles-Weimar-Nazi arc to western culture in general.) As for the rest, it’s a chronological stretch, and much happened in between, but Martin Luther empowered the individual conscience whereupon the radical empiricists conducted it, ‘scientifically’, to a suburban cul de sac. Late novelist (and, it should be noted, none-too-shabby light versifier) John Updike spent a career in that three-sided circle poking at the Realtors. After quaffing a carafe of bad Zinfandel at the local Olive Garden, Kevin Spacey, a pock-faced Montresor, walls in the cul de sac with bloody finality in American Beauty.
But blame Bishop Berkeley and his sui generis who, taking the Luther gig to a nutty extreme, posited that if Dad’s not in the room then he doesn’t exist. With Dad’s head all but lopped off, it became a snap for Nietzsche to finish the job, though even the Executioner par-excellence appreciated the subversive powers of the light touch: “One does not kill by anger but by laughter. Come, let us kill the spirit of gravity!” Or, for the post-modernist who prefers dollops of ketchup with his philosophical termini, Dad lent us the keys to the car whereupon we shot him and embarked on a cross-country road-trip qua Tarantino crime spree. Now our demons have us pinned in a Phoenix Laundromat where the back door is chained shut and the SWAT team is in no mood even for the blackest, gallows humor:
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad
Of course there were some atom bombs, genocidal dust-ups and chemical wars along the way, all of which conspired to make the living room and its worn-out sofa more than adequate for many an august poet, thank you very much. For what is a modern poet but a couch potato without cable? Meanwhile the regular guy–who doesn’t buy even Hallmark cards anymore because you can get the same drivel for a buck in the Dollar Store–retrains himself on the dreary details of modern life: “I will throw myself more into my fantasy football picks.” Or something like that:
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work
But there’s that whole offence thing. Indeed, it was an arc, not an incident; a scandalous culture not a discrete criminal. Now we must busy ourselves in the low-brow aftermath. Yes, the milieu is a sewer. But where else were you planning to swim? I don’t want to slit my wrists. I want to be kept from slitting my wrists. Make me laugh. Irony blunts the inward-turned knife.
Note: The poetry that appears throughout this essay is excerpted from W. H. Auden’s September 1, 1939.