Saturday, March 06, 2021

'And Raise to Immortality the Rag'

In his introduction to An Anthology of Light Verse (Modern Library, 1935), Louis Kronenberger is earnestly serious about his profoundly unserious subject: 

“As I see light verse, it is almost entirely a matter of mood and accent; and whatever work has that mood and accent, regardless of its form or its subject-matter or its context, is light verse. The mood is simply one of enjoyment, whether quiet or hilarious, cynical or cordial, simple or complex; the accent is simply one of comedy in its many, various and interpenetrating; comedy, perhaps I may add, in the philosophical sense of the word.”


Huh? Not once in his seven-page introduction does Kronenberger use the words “funny,” “ironic,” “comic,” “humor,” “humorous,” “laugh," "laughter," or "amusing," though "philosophical" shows up twice. Light verse is forever fighting a two-front war: on one side, nonsense and sheer silliness (any limerick not written by Robert Conquest); on the other, stridency and ham-fisted message-mongering. What those opposites have in common is their crippling inability to provoke a good laugh. Consider the year of publication -- 1935, roughly the Great Depression’s midpoint. The nation could have used a few laughs.  


When Tom Disch refers in “The Art of Dying” to “Pope disappearing like a barge into a twilight of drugs” and “the execution of Marianne Moore,” I’m still laughing decades after first reading the poem. And the same goes for R.S. Gwynn’s Southern-style subversion of Hopkins in “Fried Beauty.”


Kronenberger collects some good poems in his anthology, especially from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – Shakespeare, Jonson, Campion and Herrick, among others. But it’s not light verse. And he doesn’t even come close to Swift’s best stuff, or Pope’s, or Landor’s. Kronenberger devotes a section of his book to parodies, including one by Robert Henry Newell, who captures the gaseous, high-minded insubstantiality of Ralph Waldo Emerson thought:


“Source immaterial of material naught,

Focus of light infinitesimal,

Sum of all things by sleepless Nature wrought,

Of which abnormal man is decimal.


“Refract, in prism immortal, from thy stars

To the stars blent incipient on our flag,

The beam translucent, neutrifying death;

And raise to immortality the rag.”

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