Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Swift’

Why is light verse in disfavor? The crusade to save it.

Friday, March 29th, 2019
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The man behind “Anecdotal Evidence”

One of our favorite fellow bloggers, Patrick Kurp of the highly (and justly) respected Anecdotal Evidence, has a article on light verse in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It makes a thoughtful, rewarding read, recognizing in particular Light, the biannual journal founded by a retired Chicago postal worker, John Mella.

One of his goals, Patrick writes, was “to salvage verse from what he called the ‘cheerless, obscure, and finally forgettable muck’ of poetry written by and for academics.” The journal was launched in 1992 and has become a modest literary industry of its own, continuing after his death in 2012. It’s all online now, here.

There has long been a prejudice against light verse in such magazines as The New Yorker, that used to champion the wit and wisdom of Dorothy Parker, the sparkle of Ogden Nash. “It’s a shame the sophisticated humor in its cartoons can no longer be found in its poetry, which is fairly dreary and has been for years,” according to R.S. Gwynn (we’ve written about him here and here). “Maybe the magazine is too high-minded to think that poetry can entertain.”

Joe Kennedy, éminence grise

It’s a commonplace attitude, writes Kurp, that light verse “kids’ stuff, doggerel, greeting-card fodder, unhappy echoes of Richard Armour, whose whimsical riffs appeared in Sunday newspaper supplements starting in the Great Depression. Definitions of light verse are notoriously slippery.”

We’ve written about X.J. Kennedy here and here. Kurp calls him “the éminence grise of American light verse.” His poem “The Purpose of Time Is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once” is one of my all-time favorites of the genre, and I tend to repost it everywhere on his birthday. (He just turned 89 on August 21.)

According to A.M. Juster (we’ve written about him here and here), who is quoted in the article: ““Light verse has to deal with the timeless issues the way that Martial, Horace, Swift, Byron, Dorothy Parker at her best, and Wendy Cope do, to have any longevity at all. Just wordplay and/or inside jokes on the issues of the day doesn’t last. Dialect poems, which were also popular in the first half of the 20th century, went almost immediately from funny to the elite to offensive to everyone.”

“Light verse requires polish.”

Athens-based A.E. Stallings, a MacArthur Fellow and translator of Hesiod and Lucretius, recalls her early publication in Light, and her interactions with Mella, “I was often less successful in placing poems I truly considered ‘light’ verse with Light,” she says. “Rather, [Mella] seemed to like darker things with music to them. It was often a place where I would send in things that were quite polished, but perhaps didn’t have the scope or gravitas for a ‘serious’ magazine. But light verse requires a great deal of polish. It can be harder to turn out a perfect squib than a publishable page-and-a-halfer, the typical form around the millennium.” It seems to have paid off: read the moving short poems on the refugee crisis, which seem to draw their conciseness from some of her work in a lighter genre.

Discussing a poem by Barbara Loots, Patrick writes:”Deflation — reducing human vanity to its ridiculous or distasteful essentials — is a frequent strategy of light verse. Loots’s poem starts as the 10-thousandth Robert Burns parody and quickly turns Swiftian and more substantial. Critics risk killing the patient when dissecting light verse (or dissecting any kind of humor), but one can’t imagine Loots’s poem written as free verse.”  Here’s her matchless “Colonoscopy: A Love Poem”:

My love is like a red, red rose.
I know because I’ve seen
the photographs inside of him
projected on a screen:

the petal-like appearance of
his proximal transverse,
his mid-ascending colon
like a rose’s opening purse,

appendiceal orifice,
a bud not yet unfurled —
Oh, what a pleasing garden is
my true love’s inner world!

How very like a red, red rose
his clean and healthy gut.
I love my laddie all the more
since looking up his butt.

Josh Landy’s lonely fight against “The Chicago Way”

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012
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"Has he not read his Bakhtin? Has he not read, well, anything?" (Photo: L.A. Cicero"

“Who is this Mr. Chicago?” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Unemployment remains above 8 percent.  Foreclosures continue to devastate cities.  There’s persistent talk of a double dip recession.  And all President Obama and Mitt Romney do is whack at each other.

It’s time to get serious.

So what about the Oxford comma? I have had an ongoing argument with an editor of my acquaintance over this issue. Wars have been fought over less.

Josh Landy has some good and certainly witty points on these and other subjects in his Arcade essay entitled, “Who is this Mr. Chicago, and what does he have against the English language?

Chicago ManualHe is, of course, railing against the tyrannical Chicago Manual of Style.  I think of myself as somewhat of a style agnostic, having been brought up on the AP Stylebook since I was knee-high to a pica rule.  I’ve even adhered to the esoteric MLA Stylebook, on occasion.

But I applaud the Mr. Chicago on most of his choices,  with the most powerful exception being the prohibition against starting sentences with numerals. “Nine hundred and ninety-eight people responded to the survey” seems a bit cumbersome to me.  So does writing out numbers up to 100.  Like Mr. Chicago, I still prefer the old-fashioned abbreviations for states over the ugly postal codes that have become ubiquitous (I favor Mich. instead of MI, Wisc. instead of WI).

Josh takes exception to Mr. Chicago’s avoidance of hyphenated words, rolling them into one:  “I sometimes think he has a secret desire to turn English into German.  An Englishintogermanconvertingdesire.” I side with Mr. Chicago. I think the excessive use of hyphens is aesthetically squalid.

Josh deplores Mr. Chicago’s putative habit of wrenching hyphenated terms apart, but he blows his argument when he uses “finely tuned” as an example.  Surely he knows adverbs ending in “ly” are never hyphenated?  Wait a minute, that’s the AP Stylebook…

“You better watch where you put those commas, Mr. Landy. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”

It is time for me to out Mr. Landy.  He is an Englishman.  And, as someone once wrote, an Englishman lecturing Americans on punctuation is akin to an American lecturing the French on sauces.  I am irritated by English texts that seem to be on a unending comma diet.  The elimination of commas after clauses like these: “In May Churchill gave his address to the…”  Who is May Churchill?

Josh continues:

No, Mr. Chicago won’t let us say “consider for example the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V,” or “thus for instance I may acknowledge,” or “fiction too is a requirement.”  Instead he insists on commas around “for example” and “for instance” and “too,” and also after “namely” and “now.”  In fact, Mr. Chicago would not have allowed my first sentence in this paragraph; he would have insisted on a comma after “say.”  But all these commas slow things down.

As they say in Chicago, “What’s the hurry, Bub?”

To show how desperate things can get, Helen DeWitt, who can only be described as a punctuation libertarian (she hyphenates copy editor, for example), rants in a 2007 post over at Paperpools about her trauma in publishing a book involving a number of texts with different kinds of punctuation.  She cites an Oprah Winfrey interview with  author Cormac McCarthy: “He doesn’t like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things.”

Style libertarian (Photo: Aileen Son)

Now, I like 18th-century punctuation; I like 17th-century punctuation; I like 16th-century punctuation; one of the things I love about Peter Ackroyd is the way he gets the punctuation right when he writes a text that is from another century. The punctuation is part of the texture of the text, and when I read that a text has been repunctuated for modern readers I go away and find another edition of the text. I like McCarthy’s punctuation in McCarthy’s texts, but I would rather not have it imported into the work of Jonathan Swift. The assumption that one has the right to repunctuate a writer’s texts is in fact a very dangerous one, since it leaves modern writers open to all kinds of abuse.

Hence she was at odds with her publisher when a manic copy editor decided to have a go at her text, making thousands and thousands of punctuation corrections.  DeWitt describes one of the opening rounds:

The editor came back to the office; I assumed we would now have a discussion involving someone with a wider knowledge of literature. My editor has an undergraduate degree from Oxford in French and Italian; he has an M.Litt. for a thesis on Music and Montale; presumably someone who has read Montale &c. &c. The office was on the 55th floor of a building looking down Manhattan; it was so high you could see the East River and the West River and the end of the island, it was the office of a Master of the Universe.

He hates semicolons.

In this office we have a stupid, petty little conversation. The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.

It gets worse.  In America, land of the free, she argues, we should be free to punctuate as inventively, as creatively as we wish.  She dashes to a bookshop to buy The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and shows it to her publisher.  Her manuscript nevertheless slips through to the “advanced reading copy” stage with her persistent “stets” disregarded.  She mulls suicide: “If I kill myself now, though, the book will go out looking like this, so I have to try not to kill myself before it is fixed.”

Even Tatum O’Neal is involved. Read the rest here.

Postscript on 7/20:  The incomparable Dave Lull retrieved the following passages, from Jacques Barzun‘s  essay “Dialogue in C-Sharp,” in response to a younger editor who cited the Chicago Manual whenever he could:

“. . . run words together and make the reader puzzle out the result. See here: antiintellectual in one word. What is the point? What has been gained?”

“Never mind the Manual – it isn’t holy scripture; I haven’t joined a religious sect and taken an oath to be ruled by a book. My creed is that I put my name only to what I write; I write as I like; and I like hyphens – especially when they make reading easier.”

Postscript on 1/8/2013:  You see what it’s all come to?  “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence,” from The Onion, here.

“Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. ‘At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,’ said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word ‘anti-social’ had been corrected to read ‘antisocial.’”