Comic Verse

Daljit Nagra - 4 April 2011

Why is comic verse seen as light verse? Can comic verse be heavier than 'serious verse'? Should comic verse have a strong rhythm and rhyme? Can comic verse foreground strong ideas that allow comedy to issue forth or must comic poems simply state a simple idea so we all get the joke? Should there be a joke? Have you written comic verse and how comic was it?

I'm troubled, as you can tell by my introduction, about comic verse. Comic verse gets bad press because rigid notions of comedy foreground throwaway poems.

Surely the best comedy is when the poem surprises us into laughter rather than setting up the expectation of laughter. The former leads to a complex self-evaluation whilst the latter leads to our judgement about whether the poet delivered the gag.

What sorts of poems have you read that made you laugh unexpectedly because they communicated a deep truth in yourself about something that may actually be serious?

Some of my favourite funny poems by two contemporary poets are Jo Shapcott's Mad Cow poems, her English Woman poem, and Paul Muldoon's goofing around with political, historical and cultural information. Both of these poets write serious poems but I think it may be the shock in the stories or the linguistic play that unsettles and surprises.

I'd be glad to hear of your ideas about how comedy can be found in unusual places. Or I'd love to hear your thoughts about what you think comedy is or should be in verse.

Comments:

I think comic poems aren't taken seriously in some quarters because poetry is sometimes (perhaps wrongly?) associated with a serious way of thinking. I enjoy reading comic verse by Wendy Cope, for instance, and think her light hearted poetry complements work by 'serious' poets. It's a nice diversion that doesn't take itself too seriously. I've only written a couple of pieces that were funny (one at http://www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk/slq/3.3/poetry/christian-ward.htm)

Just read your poem Christian and I'm pleased to note that not only is it funny it's a funny prize winning poem.
I hope that poets would consider complementing wittier pieces alongside serious ones in a collection so there is a variety of tone for the reader.

Comic verse can be brilliant or crap like any other verse genre. Lewis Carroll is brilliant, especially in 'You are old, Father William', and of course Shakespeare is not bad either! But a lot of contemporary 'comic' verse is unfunny and technically incompetent - Ian McMillan and John Hegley are two good examples.

Daljit,

I share your unease about the bad press given to comic verse, and I’m just going to say it out loud, I think it’s a form of snobbery. Attitudes of this kind exist everywhere in life, and it’s no different in poetry. But I feel that it’s a mistake to think like this; it seems to me that comedy is often a good way into a subject, and I see no reason why this should necessarily mean that the poem is worth any less, or that the poet has been less skilled in their craft.

I was saddened to read Wendy Cope’s comments in The Telegraph for an interview about the recent publication of her new collection Family Values, that in the past she had felt that there had been a lot of nastiness because her poetry is humorous, and that this had made her feel like giving up. Why do we put up with this kind of bullying? There are all sorts of funny poems, and poets, just as there are all sorts of unfunny poems, and poets, and everything else in between. Caroline Bird’s collection Watering Can includes some poems that deliver hard messages with a wry, lopsided grin on their faces. What’s wrong with that..? Was Andrew Marvell too funny, or funny in the wrong way? Did you never get a giggle out of Philip Larkin? And we don’t think any less of them for their humour.

I think you have a point when you mention the strong rhythm and rhyme, it may be that we associate this with throwaway humour from children’s light verse and nursery rhymes. But we remember them forever… There are, of course, daft, dull gag poems, as there are daft, dull no-gag poems, but it’s not the humour here that’s the problem. I also agree that funnier pieces do complement the serious ones in a collection, after all, real life is just such a mix.

So I’ll stand up and be counted here. I’ve recently won the Funniest Poem Category in the Café Writers Competition 2010 with my poem After Jeoffry. I’m putting my hard hat on now.

I'm glad there is support out there for comic verse that is seriously funny!

The English language throws up many comic possibilities because of the diverse backgrounds that has emerged from and keeps developing with. The approach to a serious subject matter can take on comic value through the way language treats that content.
Poets mentioned above such as Larkin, Carroll and Shakespeare rely on surprises gained by sitting words from different fields or cultural traditions alongside each other.

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Glossary term

Epigraph

Text found before a poem, but after the title.