Sunday, November 12, 2017

`Something to Say, and Say It Well'

In the dark year of 1942, Franklin P. Adams published an anthology of light verse, Innocent Merriment. At the time, Adams, known by his initials F.P.A., was a household name. His syndicated newspaper column, “The Conning Tower,” ran for decades. He was a charter member of the Algonquin Round Table, a prolific writer of light verse and a panelist on radio’s Information Please quiz show from 1938 to 1948. Journalists and wits can be amusing in their time but tend to prove evanescent in the long run. Think of Adams’ pals Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. In the introduction to Innocent Merriment, he writes of poetry:

“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.”

One browses in a light-verse collection. Perhaps the better verb is “cavorts,” moving nimbly from dud to dud, never losing faith in happy serendipity. That’s how I came upon “The Hundred Best Books” by the marvelously named Mostyn T. Pigott. Even better, his full name seems to have been Montague Horatio Mostyn Turtle Pigott. He seems real enough – in 1892 at Oxford he founded The ISIS (retrospectively, an unfortunate choice of title) – and was born the same year as Kipling and Yeats, 1865. He died in 1927. “The Hundred Best Books” shares the comedy of any human effort aiming at comprehensiveness. It can be read as a parody of annual book lists. Loosely iambic, most of its one-hundred lines contain five syllables and refer to one book or author. It begins:

“First there’s the Bible,
And then the Koran,
Pope’s Essay on Man,
Confessions of Rousseau,
The Essays of Lamb,
Robinson Crusoe
And Omar Khayyam.”

There are minds that will not find this amusing. I think it’s a riot. Poetry gains little comedic purchase without rhyme, because it’s forced back on whatever humor might be inherent in the subject matter, whereas “Lamb”/ “Khayyam” is intrinsically funny. Here are the closing lines of Pigott’s tour de force of rhyme and inventiveness:  

“Rienzi, by Lytton,
The Poems of Burns,
The Story of Britain,
The Journey (that’s Sterne’s),
The House of Seven Gables,
Carroll’s Looking-glass,
Æsop his Fables,
And Leaves of Grass,
Departmental Ditties,
The Woman in White,
The Tale of Two Cities,
Ships that Pass in the Night,
Meredith’s Feverel,
Gibbon’s Decline,
Walter Scott’s Peveril,
And—some verses of mine.”

You can tell Pigott’s imaginative energy is flagging. Increasingly, he adds or elides syllables. Then he throws in some self-promotion, but who could blame him? But “Decline”/ “mine” is sweet. I’d take Pigott over Ashbery any day.

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