I’ve been reading stacks of anthologies devoted to “light," “humorous,” “funny” and “comic” verse. The shifting adjectives suggest the slipperiness of the genre. But the exercise reminds me of the important role anthologies have played in my education, starting with the poetry collections edited by Oscar Williams. Anthologies are the autodidact’s best friends. The good ones serve as literary buffets, encouraging a promiscuous sampling of many dishes. Among them is The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry (Hamish Hamilton, 1965), edited by William Cole. That’s a name I knew from The Most of A. J. Liebling, published in 1963, just two months before Liebling’s death. Cole was a writer of light verse and the editor of more than fifty anthologies. He includes three of his own poems in The Fireside Book. It’s a good thing he kept his anthologist job. Savor these lines from “Undersea Fever”:
“Hark, hark, the shark!
What ho, the blowfish!
(This is how fishermen in the know fish.)
Egad, a shad!
Shalom, a jewfish!
Off with the old and on with the new fish.”
Cole is a better judge of other poets’ work. Most of the better poems he collects are harsh and barbed, not cute, whimsical, topical, nonsensical or nice (common light verse failings): Swift’s “A Gentle Echo on Woman” and Nabokov’s “A Literary Dinner.” He includes no Byron or J.V. Cunningham. Cole writes in his introduction:
“The standard set for inclusion in this gallimaufry is that it is all funny stuff. Of course, there are all kinds of funny . . . Humor, like war, is the great leveler, and if the comic spirit is alive in any particular poem, it will find appreciators, be it farce, irony, wit, caprice, burlesque, nonsense, satire or high-flown tomfoolery.”
I don’t know about you but I hate caprice and I’m not fond of tomfoolery, high-flown or otherwise. Give me venom. Cole wisely includes “Epitaph on Charles II” by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647–1680), whose observation is timeless:
“Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King,
Whose word no man relies on,
Who never said a foolish thing,Nor ever did a wise one.”