Today–Read a Poem and Laugh

Today–Read a Poem and Laugh
They're So Cute When They're Small

It’s still April, which means it’s still National Poetry Month. Last week, I shared my two favorite poems in French, and Richard Blanco’s very powerful work. I thought that this week we’d go a bit lighter. Whether you call it light verse, doggerel, comic verse, whatever, humorous verse has the ability to let us read a poem and laugh. And these days, we all need to laugh a little, right?

I chose today’s Photo of the Day, at the top of the page, to make you laugh. The caption for this photo of an alligator lying in wait in the Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of the Everglades in southern Florida, is “They’re so Cute When They’re Small.” It’s an alligator, for pity’s sake. Of course it’s not “cute.” Except maybe to another alligator. So c’mon. Read a poem and laugh, at least a little.

I’d like to feature five books from my own library today. I’ll speak of each in turn, and list them by publication date.

Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

Ogden Nash rests firmly among the best loved, best known American writers of comic verse. Little, Brown published his collection Everyone But Thee and Me in 1957. My own copy dates from 1962. The poems therein collected appeared first in such notable, and varied periodicals as The New Yorker, Holiday, Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s, Saturday Review, Sports Illustrated, The Saturday Evening Post, House and Garden, and others. Personally, any writer who can appear in both Harper’s and Sports Illustrated has my admiration.

Nash’s wit tends toward the dry, and often shows a good bit of social commentary. I offer one short poem as illustration. (Although I understand New York City and Central Park are not nearly as dangerous as once they were.)

If you should happen after dark
To find yourself in Central Park,
Ignore the paths that beckon you
And hurry, hurry to the zoo,
And creep into the tiger's lair.
Frankly, you'll be safer there.

A Century of Humorous Verse

Roger Gilbert Lancelyn Green (1918-1987) is best known as a biographer and children’s writer. He wrote a good many books based on Greek mythology, and taught at the University of Liverpool and also at St. Andrews. Having studied under C.S. Lewis, he stayed close to Lewis and his family, and also to another author you may know: J.R.R. Tolkien. Together with Lewis and Tolkien, Lancelyn Green was part of the group Inklings which included many of the leading English writers of the 1930s and 1940s.

J.M.Dent and Sons published Lancelyn Green’s anthology A Century of Humorous Verse in 1959. The Century indicated ran from 1850 to 1950. My copy of the book is No. 813 in Everyman’s Library. Looking at Lancelyn Green’s curriculum vitae, I find it hard to imagine when he found the time to put together this compendium of funny verse. I’ll leave you with two short pieces right at the end of the 289 page book.

Two Poems from Lancelyn Green’s Collection

There was a young fellow called Green,
Whose musical sense was not keen.
   He said: 'It's most odd,
   But I cannot tell God
Save the Weasel from Pop goes the Queen'!
Last come I, my name is Green--
That so much Humorous Verse has seen.
I hope here's value for your money,
And what I've missed--just isn't funny!

Hilaire Belloc (1870 – 1953)

At this point, I cannot remember when I first started learning the poetry of Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (yes, that’s his full name). Born in France, M. Belloc became a naturalized British subject in 1902. He retained his French citizenship, however. While I never studied his work at school, I began memorizing his verse early on. Especially poems from his collections The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1897) and More Beasts for Worse Children (1898). My own library has “Three Books Bound As One,” which means the two just named plus A Moral Alphabet (1899). Published by Dover in 1961, the book has been reprinted numerous times. My own is inscribed “BDS from SLS Xmas 1973.” Thank you Sandy. I’m forever grateful.

My Two Favorite Belloc Poems

The Yak
As a friend to the children commend me the Yak.
You will find it exactly the thing:
It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about with a string.

The Tartar who dwells on the plains of Thibet [sic]
   (A desolate region of snow)
Has for centuries made it a nursery pet,
   And surely the Tartar should know!

Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got,
   And if he is awfully rich
He will buy you the creature--or else he will not.
   (I cannot be positive which.)

Hilaire Belloc, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts
The Python
A Python I should not advise,--
It needs a doctor for its eyes.
   And has the measles yearly.

However, if you feel inclined
To get one (to improve your mind,
   And not from fashion merely),

Allow no music near its cage;
And when it flies into a rage
   Chastise it, most severely.

I had an aunt in Yucatan
Who bought a Python from a man
   And kept it for a pet.

She died, because she never knew
These simple little rules and few;--
   The Snake is living yet.

Hilaire Belloc, More Beasts for Worse Children

The Limerick

What essay on humorous verse can avoid the limerick? Is the limerick a funny poem, a strict verse form, or a place name in Ireland? As it turns out, all three. In form, traditionally a limerick has five lines, with the first, second and fifth each dactylic trimeter (u /uu /uu /u) while the third and fourth lines have only two stressed syllables (u /uu /u). Usually the “poem” is barely fit for polite society. The cover of my volume (the largest book of these five) notes: “This is the largest collection of limericks ever published, erotic or otherwise. Of the 1700 printed here, none are otherwise.”

Two almost clean limericks

There was a young lady from France
Supposed to play at a dance,
   She ate a banana
   And played the piano
And music came out of her pants.
No. 701
A nudist girl wearing three raisins,
A masquerade prize was her goal.
   The judges said, "Lookie,
   From the front she's a cookie,
From the back she's a Parkerhouse roll.

No. 1716

The second is irregular in that the normal limerick rhyme scheme is AABBA. (Looks like an enlarged Swedish rock band, doesn’t it.) This poem has an odd scheme in that the first line doesn’t rhyme with anything. But from there on, it’s definitely a limerick. Most of the limericks used in this book are not fit for a G-rated audience. You’ll have to get yourself a copy of the book if you want to see “the good stuff.” I won’t quote it here. But you have plenty of chances to read a poem and laugh!

Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy

Last, but certainly not least, we come to my favorite of the five books under discussion. Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy takes its title from a Lewis Carroll poem, The Duchess’s Lullaby from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I assume everyone! has read Alice’s Adventures and recognizes the lullaby which starts “Speak roughly to your little boy / And beat him when he sneezes.” What you may not know is that Carroll was writing a parody of an earlier poem by David Bates (1809-1870). Bates’s poem begins “Speak gently! It is better far / To rule by love than fear.”

Personally, I had never heard of Bates, a 19th Century American poet. Speak Gently may well be his most famous poem. We can be sure that Carroll knew it, even if we today do not. And that is the purpose of the collection of poems that make up Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy. Myra Cohn Livingston has given us both the original poem and at least one parody. Some poems have garnered numerous parodies. The book’s subtitle is “A Collection of Parodies and Burlesques, Together with the Original Poems, Chosen and Annotated for Young People.”

Original and Parody–Side by Side

Most of the poems (and their parodies) are too long to quote here. Robert Southey’s The Cataract of Lodore goes on for four pages. Helen Bevington’s parody, The Cataract at Lodore only requires one page to skewer Southey. Below side by side are a poem by Dr. Isaac Watts and its parody by none other than Lewis Carroll. (Rest assured, this book has parodies of Carroll as well.)

Against Idleness and Mischief

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes!

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day,
Some good account at last.

Dr. Isaac Watts
How Doth …

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Lewis Carroll

In addition to the five books summarized above, I have attempted to make my “of the day” pages fit today’s theme. I hope that you will find time to read a poem and laugh.

Guest Site of the Day

When I searched for a blog about humorous poetry, Write Out Loud! kept coming up. Indeed, they have a wealth of humorous poems, but rather than link to one of their poetry pages, I thought you’d rather learn about Write Out Loud! itself. More than a website, WOL (as they call themselves) is an international community of poets based in the North of England. You can read all about them on their What is Write Out Loud! page, and then I hope you will explore the rich diversity of poetry their members share. I have to admit, that while looking for humorous poetry on their site, I came across a word I’d never before seen. A word that WOL was using as a tag. Turns out, “Chav” is British slang for a certain type of young man–similar to a “Slacker.”

Recipe of the Day

Ogden Nash should need no introduction to lovers of humorous verse. And why does appear here, under Recipe of the Day? Very simply. He wrote a four-line poem entitled The Clam. Our recipe, thanks to Jeffrey who writes the PressureLuckCooking blog, is for Instant Pot Manhattan Clam Chowder. Personally, I love clam chowder in any form I can get it, but I have a particular weakness for the Manhattan variety. And to savor, while you’re waiting for your soup, here’s another chance for you to read a poem and laugh:

The Clam
The clam, esteemed by gourmets highly,
Is said to live the life of Riley;
When you are lolling on a piazza
Its what you are as happy as a.
Ogden Nash, Everyone But Thee and Me, page 66

Video of the Day

A.A. Milne wrote the poem Vespers in 1924 and Harold Fraser-Simson set it to music in 1933. Frank Luther sang it first, followed by Gracie Fields, and many more performers. In 1971, Melanie Safka wrote her own version and recorded it on her 7″ album Songs for Children. Today’s video is the youtube version of Melanie singing while the poem’s words appear on the screen. Christopher Robin Is Saying His Prayers. To which J.B. Morton writing as “Beachcomber” replies:

Now We Are Sick

Hush, hush,
Nobody cares!
Christopher Robin
(J.B. Morton)  [From Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy, page 63]

And on that note…

I hope you have had some fun with me, sharing a few poems that I enjoy. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be enticed to look for more humorous poetry, either in the books I’ve suggested or on sites like Write Out Loud! After all, in these perilous times, it behooves us all to read a poem and laugh.

Tomorrow is an “open” day, which means you’re liable to get just about anything. My current plan, however, is to finish up with the dogs in my life, specifically the three dogs that now share our home.