This talk on light verse was an invited lecture at the historic Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana. The topic on the day in question - "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" - was devoted to humorous poetry
Lecture on Light Verse
Willard Library, May 21, 1995
Steven C. Scheer
The greatest fear of my life is having to listen to a boring professor lecture on and on about humor. No, make that "the greatest fear of my life is being the boring professor who lectures on and on about humor." It is not easy to be funny about being funny. You're either funny or you ain't. As Josh Billings, one of the greatest American humorists, once said: "It is better to know nothing than to know what ain't so." I think I had better hide behind a cute intellectual distinction right off the bat (that's a baseball metaphor, by the way): there's a difference between being "merely" funny and being entertaining. I also aim to be informative, within reasonable limits. Thus, right off the bat (there goes that baseball metaphor again), I am in the safe, classical mandate according to which the purpose of literature is to teach and to delight. I shall thus conceive of myself as a person who is here to inform and entertain you, kind of combining business with pleasure which, according to proverbial wisdom, one shouldn't do. But then one shouldn't mess with "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," either. In any case, just remember I am here to inform and entertain you, so don't continually ask your neighbor, "Is this guy supposed to be funny? Don't make me laugh!"
Having begun now with an intellectual distinction (and once you begin something with an intellectual distinction, there's no turning back), let me go on by defining humor at the outset. Defining anything is a pretty dangerous thing to do, if you ask me, for once you define something (especially definitely) you are committing yourself not into an institution for the mentally deranged, but to some sort of clarity of thought. If people could actually see what we really think at times, they would of course think us mentally deranged. Have I digressed again? That's all right, I am the digressive sort. In any case, before I so rudely interrupted myself, I was going to define humor. Let me back up from that bold ambition, though, and simply say that I think that humor has to do with incongruities. Now just think, next time you find yourself at a cocktail party, you can just go up to the first perfect stranger you see (do avoid the imperfect ones at all cost) and say, "Did you know that humor has something to do with incongruity?" The stranger (if he or she be perfect indeed) will probably tell you that he or she would love to talk to you, but at this point they've just got to go see this friend of theirs whom they haven't seen in ages, so you will just have to excuse them, and then just stand there and think about humor and incongruity all by yourself.
Be that as it may (aren't clichés wonderful?), here's an example of the humor/incongruity connection: Imagine that you are at this same cocktail party and an imperfect stranger (let's say he is always already slightly inebriated) comes up to you and says: "I got no kids. The reason I got no kids is because my wife is impregnable. No, what I mean to say is, the reason I got no kids is because my wife is inconceivable. No, no, what I mean to say is, the reason I got no kids is because my wife is unbearable." Well, there you have it. Please don't make me explain what you have there. Let me just point out the fact that what's funny about this very imperfect stranger at this cocktail party we have been talking about is that the key words of his uncalled for statement do have something to do with having children, namely pregnancy, conception, or the ability to bear a child. The actual statement he's made, though, doesn't quite bear up, shall we say, under the ordinary conception (no pun intended) of what he's been talking about. In other words, his words are pregnant, as it were, with a meaning other than the meaning he has intended to convey. Well, I did it. I explained the incongruity anyway. Please forgive me, even though I am likely to go back on my word again during the duration of this lecture any number of times.
Our subject this afternoon is light verse. Now light verse is to be distinguished from heavy verse on the grounds of its weight. You know, the funny thing about language is that there's almost always a bit of discrepancy between what people say and what they are talking about, and not just when they are trying to be funny. Words mean different things not just in different contexts, they also mean figuratively or metaphorically (and there are a lot more figures or metaphors in our language than we ordinarily realize), which means that they are constantly on the verge of incongruity (a punster is, after all, a person who delights in making you moan by suddenly making you aware of an unexpected double meaning). When we say, "They kicked so and so upstairs," we are not talking about literally kicking anyone, and when we say, "They put so and so out to pasture" we mean the same thing even though we appear to be talking about something else altogether.
Given the fact, therefore, that all words are in constant danger of slipping to the other side of congruity, it is safe to say that light verse is also heavy, or shouldn't that be dark? Never mind. The point that I am trying to make with a certain touch of humor here is not the proverbial slander aimed at a German joke (which is said to be no laughing matter), but something almost incongruous with it: namely, that humor is serious business, even if it is merely nonsensical, if for no other reason than because laughter is good for us. And unlike nutritious food, which isn't always delicious - to say the least - laughter is both good for us and pleasurable. But I am trying to get at something serious here, so maybe it's time I quoted from a very unfunny poet, T.S. Eliot. In a famous poem of his ("Choruses from 'The Rock,'" to be precise) he raises the following questions:
Where's the Life we have lost in living?
Do note, by the way, that our age is supposed to be the Age of Information. If T.S. Eliot is right, this should worry us. But let's not worry right now. By the way, I have also committed a bit of a sin above when I referred to T.S. Eliot as an unfunny poet for, as you probably well know, he's also the author of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats on which the famous Broadway show, Cats, is based. Which brings me back to what I am talking about here anyway, light verse. And the fact that light verse is in some sense also heavy and/or dark. Here light is a metaphor for that which is not serious whereas both heavy and dark figure seriousness seriously, therefore, what we have here is a definition that's almost incongruous. It certainly defies itself, which is precisely what I like about it.
And since I have so sneakily broached the subject of poets here, light and/or heavy and/or dark, allow me the further indulgence of sharing with you some of Robert Frost's insights about poetry (funny or not). In a delightful essay called "The Figure a Poem Makes" (which is itself replete with figurality, especially with respect to the word "figure" in its title), Frost tells us that the poem "begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love." Aha, by now we are further than wisdom, by now we are in the realm of love. For as Frost explains a little further along in this essay, the essence of a good poem, funny or not, is that it represents a "momentary stay against confusion" - in other words, it makes life itself make sense, if only for a moment. Later on he also tells us, "no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." Though Frost doesn't mention laughter, we might as well add it: no laughter for the writer, no laughter for the reader. What Frost is talking about, of course, is the fact that a good poem doesn't follow prefigured plans. In other words, you can't write one on the basis of a blueprint. Well, you can, but then it won't be a good poem.
You know, people frequently complain that poems are difficult to understand because poets don't tell it like it is. Oh, but they do, they do! It's just that there is always a discrepancy between what a poem says and what it means. But, as you recall, this is a characteristic of all language. Because of the hopelessly metaphoric nature of language, we can almost never simply say what we mean. Which doesn't mean that we don't mean what we say. On the contrary. But there's a danger in using prefigured expressions, clichés in ordinary parlance. That's because repetitious talk robs our perceptions of the very thing perceptions should deliver: the thing in itself or the other person as he or she really is. Let me take a short-cut here with a double quotation, a quotation from Tolstoy embedded in one from an essay by a Russian formalist critic:
[Says Tolstoy:] I was cleaning a room and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn't remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious, I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember - so that if I had dusted it and forgot - that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.
This goes double for poetry. The reason why poets use unfamiliar (and therefore difficult) metaphors is because the familiar ones have become unconscious in us and so we no longer see what is in front of our eyes. And if this is true of poetry, it is equally true of light verse, especially since, as we have already established, all verse is constantly on the verge of the incongruous. The person who cannot laugh, cannot weep either, for such a person can no longer feel, or think or even know, for that matter.
In any case, I am now going to be true to my basic strategy here (which is inadvertently inspired by Robert Frost, of course) and talk not about what you have probably expected me (and what I myself have probably expected myself) to talk about - namely, such famous practitioners of light verse as Edward Lear or Odgen Nash (plus which, I do not wish to steal the thunder from my fellow panelists who may well have selected samples from the aforementioned poets [don't I sound just like a professor? Aforementioned poets, indeed!]). In any case, what I aim to do now is make good on the points I have been making so far by a few carefully chosen examples of light verse. First, I will share with you a parody. Now parodies represent one of my favorite forms of light verse (the love of which goes back to my mid-teens, to another continent and another language). The trouble with parodies is that you can only enjoy them if you know the original of which the parody is a parody. I don't mean to insult your intelligence, but as a professor of English (don't let the accent fool you) I know that most of my students nowadays, particularly of the younger persuasion, cannot be assumed to know many an original. I will take a chance on you, though, by assuming that most (if not all) of you know that famous American poem, written by Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven." You know, "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary . . . Quote the Raven 'Nevermore.'" Now the parody you are about to hear in its entirety bears a love/hate relationship to the original. It is, of course, also replete with incongruity, the biggest of which is attributed to Poe himself. Here, then, is the parody:
WHAT TROUBLED POE'S RAVEN
Could Poe walk again tomorrow, heavy with dyspeptic sorrow,
Please note how perfectly and mischievously the parody echoes both the diction and the rhythm of the original. Poe's knowledge of the ways of shadows is, by the way, impeccable. The parody, though, not only turns this knowledge upside down, as it were, with impunity, but it also attributes a ridiculously archaic cosmology to Poe, which is actually the punch line of the parody. Part of the good, clean fun of the parody is, therefore, the wicked delight we share with its author about making another author, a potentially classic schoolbook author to boot, look ridiculous. But Poe can afford to look ridiculous, his reputation is firm, otherwise the world would indeed be upside down, which sometimes I think it is anyway.
My penultimate example (that's next to last for those of you who like to collect words appropriate to use at cocktail parties) is from an ordinarily very serious and intellectual poet, quite frankly one of my favorites, Wallace Stevens. The poem I am about to recite is clearly an example of a seriously funny (or funnily serious) poem. It nevertheless tends to puzzle most of my students at least at first, until they get the hang of it, as it were. Well, here's the poem, let's let it speak for itself for the time being:
ANECDOTE OF THE JAR
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
What usually puzzles students about this poem is the "jar" itself, which, as you will soon see, is the perfect object for the poem, in that it perfectly plays on the very message of the poem at its deepest level, but more of that in a moment. Also don't let the playful tone of the poem mislead you, this one is about a serious matter. What the poet tells us is that he can tame the wilderness merely by placing a stupid little jar down in it somewhere (the fact that it happens to be in Tennessee really makes no difference). Part of the playfulness of the poem resides in the contrast between matter-of-fact descriptions of the jar (as in "the jar was round upon the ground" or "the jar was gray and bare") and personifications of it, as if it were the proudest thing on earth precisely because of its splendid ability to tame the wilderness with such ease (as when the jar is said to be "tall and of a port in air" as it takes "dominion everywhere" and as it just plain ignores such elements of the wilderness as birds or bushes). The theme of the poem is, of course, culture vs. nature. The human domination, control, and perhaps even potential destruction of nature, but on a rather philosophical plane, for what it tells us is that as soon as we so much as encounter it, we have always already rendered nature somehow cultural. And why is "jar" the perfect choice for delivering this theme? Why, because it exemplifies the very thing it does, doesn't it? I mean, doesn't its mere presence "jar" nature? I rest my case.
For my final example I would like to turn to a less intellectual case. It is nevertheless highly traditional in spite of being light-hearted and whimsical. It also happens to touch upon the most time-honored theme of classical as well as modern poetry, the mutability theme, or ubi sunt, which is Latin for "where are?" as in "where are the snows of yesteryear ?" But it also touches on something else that's equally universal, love and the propensity of love to go against wisdom, for in our heart of hearts don't we know that following our hearts isn't always wise? Yet we do it anyway for, as Pascal so beautifully put it, "the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know." My final example, then, is Thomas Moore's charming "The Time I Have Lost in Wooing." Although this Thomas Moore (not to be confused with the famous "man for all seasons") was Irish, he was very popular in Regency England, so we are finally as close to Mad Dogs and Englishmen as I am likely to bring us this afternoon. Here, then, is this charming but playful and full-of-wisdom, too, commentary on a familiar aspect of the human condition, which I will not comment on or analyze. I will just finish by letting the poem speak for itself:
The time I have lost in wooing,
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