My old friend, the late Gavin Ewart, a poet who could turn a shapely stanza with the best of them, tried to introduce a phrase “the heavy brigade” to refer to those poets who were never, absolutely never, to be caught out writing anything that could be described as light. He was not terribly successful. The heavies didn’t like it and, to a great extent, in poetry today, it is what the heavy brigade say that goes.
But who are they and what do they do and does any of this matter? A little poem by that same Gavin Ewart, may clear the ground a bit and show us our enemy, for it is, I think, an enemy, and it ought to be resisted. The poem, the great poem:
A Great Poem
This is a great poem.
How I suffer!
How I suffer!
How I suffer!
This is a great poem,
Full of true emotion.
Notice first the reiterated “I”. This poem is about me in my me-ness. It is about my suffering because one of the things that marks a true poet is just this capacity for suffering. That and the poet’s endless capacity for self-importance, self-dramatization and (all too often) self-delusion. Oh, and it doesn’t rhyme. The only thing about it that prevents it being a true heavy brigade poem is that it isn’t very long.
Light Verse doesn’t have a very long history. Kingsley Amis, another man whose best poetry was Light, doesn’t allow much written earlier than 1800. The fact is that before the Romantics came along most poets were hard put to say whether what they wrote was Light or not. It didn’t really occur to them to ask. Amis claims that Milton is the only poet who is never Light but I say he is wrong on two counts. First, Milton does indeed make jokes, even in “Paradise Lost”, he makes jokey rhymes, and he thinks Scots names are funny (they are). And secondly the most obvious poet , great poet indeed, who is never light, is not Milton but Wordsworth. If he makes a joke in the entirety of his Collected Works then I must have missed it. And there aren’t a lot of jokes in Shelley either. Coleridge and Blake do tell jokes, of a rather elephantine kind, but the only English Romantic who commits light verse from time to time is Keats. There is Burns of course, but he is not English and, to a great extent, he is not Romantic either. He does write “How I suffer” stuff, but it isn’t his best stuff, or even his good stuff which is most of the time this sort of thing from “Death and Doctor Hornbook”. Death is complaining that the Doctor’s medical skills are robbing him of his lawful prey.
Ev’n them he canna get attended,
Altho’ his face he ne’er had kenned it,
Just shite in a kail-blade an’ send it,
As soon’s he smells’t,
Baith the disease and what will mend it,
At once he tells’t.
A kail’s a cabbage but I’m sure you knew that. German doctors still have the trick, or so I am told.
And then there is Byron. According to me Byron is not really a Romantic poet at all. My enduring picture of him is a fireplace in Italy, Byron on one side, and his Italian Countess on the other, knitting. Though he confessed to sex with a thousand women (do you believe that?) he insisted that they had always talked him into it. Anyway, “Don Juan” is a veritable mine of light verse, and if its length has put you off in the past, do try it I beg you. Take the selected bits in various anthologies. Here is one of his brilliant rhymes.
But, oh ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, — have they not henpeck’d you all?
That’s the way to do it, as Mr Punch says.
My thanks to all the light poets who sent me poems. Getting it down to the present selection was very difficult and many a verse that gave me enjoyment is not here. These cannot be the very best light poets now writing — how can they be when the great English Wendy Cope and the great American X.J. Kennedy are not there? — but they are a pretty good team. Or should I say WE are. Because, brothers and sisters, we are the white hopes of poetry. Think of all that nerveless, flaccid FREE verse. They call it free because they can’t GIVE it away. We are the people. Oh yes we are!
Oh, and if you have never read any of Robert Conquest’s unmatchable limericks, here’s one. And not dirty. What a genius. Publishing a book of poems soon and over ninety. THAT’s the way to do it!
There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in.
But where he did one in,
That grand Marxist, Stalin, did ten in.
John Whitworth is oldish, fattish, baldish. His tenth book of poems Being the Bad Guy was published by the great and good Harry
Chambers in Cornwall. Les Murray likes it and so should you.