Poetry Sunday: 'Used Book,' 'Unplanned Obsolescence,' and 'Plea Bargain' by Julie Kane

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Rebecca Foust (Photo: Jeremy Thornton)I’m featuring three poems by Julie Kane this week because they’re short and all so good, and also because I want to use them as a springboard to talk about a subject called “Light Verse and Parody” at the 2016 West Chester Conference. [Note: This official video of the 2016 West Chester Poetry Conference, is just out. ] Taught by Melissa BalmainPat Myers, and Frank Osen, that course was a revelation to me. I’m not covering parody today, discussed previously in my columns featuring Annie Finch and Kim Addonizio, but I want to share a few things I learned about light verse. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics defines it as a broad term that includes “folk poetry, nonsense verse, ribald verse, comic poems, and kitsch.” [Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics (Princeton University Press 1993), p. 692.] Some extend it to include occasional verse (at least where the occasion is light), clever epigrams, epitaphs, and graffiti. My class was told that contemporary poet X.J. Kennedy prefers the term “comic verse.” I like W.H. Auden’s definition of light verse as any poetry that is simple, clear, and joyous, or Richard Armour’s: “poetry written in the spirit of play.” [Ibid.] So, it’s not just limericks, not by a long shot. (And by the way, not all limericks are bar fare, but that will, I hope, be a subject for a future column.)
One obvious problem with the term “light verse” is that many interpret it as meaning “lightweight verse.” In fact, as I learned in my course, light verse requires considerable virtuosity in technical elements like meter and rhyme, and one “of the few points on which most critics agree is that [it] requires the formal confines of verse form.” [Id. at p. 693] The most brilliant limerick, translated into prose, will become a dull or at least less sparkling thing. As any good comic will tell you, it’s way harder to pull off a good joke than it is a sad story. Things that don’t always matter in poetry-at-large—like timing and knowing where your audience is this second—become crucial. In any event, light verse has endured a bum rap over the years, as PPE acknowledges when it comments that the term has sometimes been broadened to include “bad poetry, for example, or Cole Porter’s lyrics.” [Ibid.]
One resource we were told about at West Chester was an online video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining to The New York Times his process for constructing a routine about Pop-Tarts. I was struck by how Seinfeld’s process of writing the piece out in pages and pages of longhand, then compressing and revising it while saying it aloud mimics the process many of us use when writing poems. My biggest take-away from the West Chester class is that writing light verse requires more mastery of form, meter, and rhyme than writing other kinds of poetry and also demands that its writers master the techniques basic to good comedy: timing, restraint, ending-sense, and ultimately, empathy. Let’s talk a bit about these techniques and how they are worked out in this week’s poems.
Formal poetry is a species of the poetry of form that requires stricter attention to end-rhyme and meter than other types. In fact, in formal poetry, many patterns are predetermined (sometimes called “fixed” or said to be “received”), and some have been around for centuries. Let’s talk first about meter. I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but basically, meter is the pattern of falling and rising inflection registered by the ear and body when lines are read out loud. Stress and unstress is a binary pattern that can give rise to a multitude of meters, but the most common in English is the one said to dominate our spoken language: iambic pentameter. A rising meter, it has five beats per line (hence “penta-”) and is common in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Here’s one example from Sonnet 74, where bolding designates the stressed syllables: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.” The patterns of stress and unstress in that line can be diagrammed (scanned) as follows: ~ /~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /, where a slash (/) represents stress and the tilden (~) a lack of stress. Trochaic meters reverse the pattern, putting unstressed before stressed syllables: / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ , as seen in these 4-beat lines from Longfellow’s “Hiawatha:”

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water

In successful poems, meter is not arbitrary or imposed but something that emerges from the poem’s meaning or intent. According to Emerson, “It is not meters, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem,” and Pound said that meter “cannot be merely a careless dash-off, with no grip and no real hold to the words and sense.” [Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter & Poetic Form (McGraw-Hill, Rev. Ed. 1979), p. 32.] There can be any number of beats in a line, including one (monometer), two (dimeter), three (trimeter), four (tetrameter), five (pentameter), six (hexameter), and so on, and I’ve had fun collecting sonnets written in each of these meters. Variations (reversals) of the stress patterns within a given line are okay and in fact desirable to prevent singsong (think nursery rhymes) and monotony. Shakespeare often reverses the stress pattern at beginnings of lines (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”), and the reversed first foot is so common in iambic pentameter that it’s subsumed by its definition. Ordinary speech is not broken into lines, and its metrical variations are so frequent as to overtake the pattern, one of the things that distinguishes free verse from formal poetry.

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