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Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood
Jon M. Sweeney
Paraclete Press, 2005
173 pp., $19.95
Another Day, Another Dolor
Light verse used to be a vital part of American culture, high and low. It was by no means the exclusive turf of "real" poets: anyone could, and did, turn their hand to it. A birthday, wedding, or anniversary was always an excuse, if excuse were needed, for enthusiastic amateur versifying.
What brought this charming custom to an end? My grandmother, born in the late Victorian era, was an avid practitioner of the art; so were many of her friends and contemporaries. Nowadays the only person I know who still cranks out the occasional humorous ode or epithalamium is my 82-year-old uncle, who has an ear for an eccentric rhyme. ("I'll have a scotch; sit down with Cammy; / And watch Green Bay take on Miami.") Even children, who used to be encouraged to mark holidays and public events with celebratory poems, have succumbed to the minimalistic William Carlos Williams red-wheelbarrow aesthetic, forsaking the rhymed doggerel of the pastthough I was pleased to see that in a recent issue of The Chronicle of the Horse where little girls were invited to eulogize their ponies, they did so in a decidedly retro fashion: one poem, I remember, began with: "My pony, Snickers, is snobby and rude / And he has a very bad attitude."
The high priest of this sort of fun was of course Ogden Nash (190271). He took the mere wit of much light poetry and consistently raised it to the level of true wit, in Alexander Pope's formulation: "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." As a young and enthusiastic reader of poetry, good and bad, he had reflected that "if someone who knew the rules of versification, began writing bad poetry deliberately and consciously instead of unconsciously" it might "turn out to be fairly amusing." The result was stuff like the following (from "Spring Comes to Murray Hill"): "I sit in an office at 244 Madison Avenue / And say to myself You have a responsible job, havenue?"
The difference between Nash's version of bad poetry and the real thing was his thorough ...