Thursday, January 14, 2016

`Have Something to Say, and Say It Well'

So familiar was Franklin Pierce Adams (1881-1960) to his readers, he was known by his brand name, the crypto-anonymous “F.P.A.” His daily column, “The Conning Tower,” appeared in numerous newspapers, most of which went out of business decades ago. On Saturdays he published a second column, “The Diary of Our Own Samuel Pepys.” How many newspaper editors and publishers would get the allusion today? Adams’ “F.P.A.-isms” were quoted the way we quote – who? No one, probably. The closest we come are taglines from movies and sitcoms, cranked out by genuinely anonymous scriptwriters.

Adams thrived in a more literate age, when people who were neither poets nor academics still read poetry, and columnists sometimes saw their work printed on the front pages of newspapers. Adams was a regular panelist on radio’s Information Please from 1938 to 1952, alongside such onetime celebrity wits as Oscar Levant and Fred Allen. His work was collected in anthologies of humor, along with Thurber, Benchley and Perelman, which is how I came to read him as a boy. Adams’ best known and most-enduring single work is probably “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.” The deservedly forgotten Dorothy Parker said of Adams, “He raised me from a couplet,” which is better than most of her stuff.

I’ve often noted the important role poetry anthologies have played in my education. This one, published by Adams in 1945 (a good year for light verse), I missed until now: Innocent Merriment: An Anthology of Light Verse. It’s a good sign that the names of half the poets included are new to me. To his credit, Adams limits Edward Lear to a single selection, and Lewis Carroll to three, but his taste in poetry is generous. His five hundred pages raise the question, who could be more obscure than a forgotten writer of light verse? Take T.A. (Thomas Augustine) Daly (1871-1948), who writes “Mia Carlotta” in broad Italian-American dialect reminiscent of Chico Marx. And his “The Tides of Love,” four lines of buildup to a pun:

“Flo was fond of Ebenezer—
`Eb,” for short she called her beau.
Talk of Tides of Love, great Caesar!
            You should see them—Eb and Flo.”

This is easy to dismiss as doggerel, but so is some of Martial and Swift, two of my favorite poets. Poetry began to take itself with overweening seriousness during Adams’ early years. By 1945, Eliot and Pound were quasi-canonized, and Adams behaves as though they never existed. In his introduction he writes:

“It was the condescending, patronizing attitude of book reviewers and critics toward light verse that caused me to write innumerable newspaper paragraphs, from time to time, assailing the patronizers. Their loftiness is based on fear--fear that the critic's readers will think that he is a light-minded fellow; a man who feels that it is creditable to praise Robinson Jeffers; but to come right out and say that Dorothy Parker is a better poet is anarchy. I am opposed to the ranking system in art or literature.” 

Bless his comment on the unreadable Jeffers. Of course, writers of light verse can also take themselves too seriously, a seriousness often expressed in the form of self-righteous whimsy. Gee-whiz cuteness is never cute and certainly never funny. Consider “Poem for Mother’s Day” by Margaret Fishback (1900-1985):

“My mother taught me to be good
At least as good as I was able;
Otherwise I think I could
Dress in ermine, mink or sable.”

The “naughty-but-nice” tone is cloying. This is a poem Betty Boop might have written. Good light verse, of course, is light, but not too light (or “lite”). A black heart ought to beat inside its lightness. Adams puts it nicely:

“Not that most poets wouldn’t prefer to write a great serious poem to the best light verse ever written. If I could write either the best `serious’ poem or the best piece of light verse, I would vote for lightness, nor is my wine from these grapes sour. I am unashamed. I am unapologetic. Much have I traveled in the realms of verse. Most of mine was mediocre; and almost all of it was written to catch newspaper deadlines. Bad light verse is more to be condemned, it sets the teeth more on edge, than bad serious poetry. Light verse should be flawless in execution; it should have something to say, and say it well. It needs little critical ability to tell whether light verse is good or bad; the difference between good and bad `serious’ poetry is far less obvious. They speak of light verse, the critics. They never say that anybody is a heavy-verse writer.”

Except Charles Olson. And Anne Carson.


Denkof Zwemmen said...

What's your problem with Dorothy Parker? She's clever, funny, doesn't take herself seriously, and her writing is straightforward and clear. And, compared to F. P. A., Oscar Levant, Fred Allen, even Robert Benchley, I would say she is "deservedly remembered."

Jeff Gee said...

I think you're being unfair to Betty Boop.