American Wits: an anthology of light verse (2003)
John Hollander, editor
ISBN 1-931082-49-9, $20.00

A Review by Boris Dralyuk


With American Wits: an anthology of light verse, the Library of America has brought a notoriously neglected poetic genre in from the cold. The slim volume's illustrious editor, poet and critic John Hollander, has assembled shining examples of American wit by thirty-six writers of verse, and has provided an informative introduction which places the tradition of light verse in its hostorical context, from its begetter, Byron, to such latter-day masters as Anthony Hecht. Although Hollander is quick to note that many of the contributors were "not poets in the fullest (or full-time) sense of the word," but rather literate professionals--"journalists, playwrights, or screenwriters"--some of the names which grace the table of contents are those of incontestable literary heavyweights such as E. A. Robinson, Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. E. Cummings, F. Scott Fitzgerald, W. H. Auden, Anthony Hecht, Kenneth Koch, James Merrill, and Geoprge Starbuck. Nevertheless, as he notes, these poets do "often sound more like one another when writing light verse than in their principal work."

This congruity of style is no shortcoming; rather, it is the sign that these poets are working in a definite mode. It is a mode entirely different from the free verse, which dominates today. Light verse requires, by its very nature, wit and facility. Ultimately, a piece of light verse has achieved its purpose if the reader finds it so enchanting that he or she commits it to memory whether he or she intends to do so or not. Needless to say, this task is greatly aided by the use of meter and rhyme. When I, at the age of fourteen, first laid eyes upon the beguilingly polished poems of the incomparable Dorothy Parker, who, along with Ogden Nash and Samuel Hoffenstein, is the centerpiece of the collection, I was so entranced by the venomous nuggets that I memorized one after the other. I became immediately aware of the fact that, as Hollander puts it, "what is funny can also be very serious. This happens most often by design--by the design of wit." Perhaps the most recognizable poem in the anthology, Parker's "Resume," deserves to be quoted in full:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

It is evident that excellent light verse requires a great deal of technical mastery--almost all the poems collected in the volume adhere to the rules of meter and exhibit rhyme, with several notable, intentional exceptions such as the disciplined irregularity of Ogden Nash, the vers libre of Don Marquis' cockroach, Archy, and the bitterly witty poems of Kenneth Fearing. Even "Upper Family," by the tragic, nearly forgotten avant-garde poet, Maxwell Bodenheim, rhymes and scans. Unfortunately, due to a change in tastes and prevailing trends in education, few today could fully appreciate the ingenuity of such verse, and fewer yet produce it. As Hollander states, "The writers gathered here came to literate maturity at a time when the ability to read and write accentual-syllabic verse was part of what it meant to be literate. [...] There was something like a culture of verse," and one gets the impression that he mourns its passing.

Formal mastery is not the only requisite, however. Much of the verse in this volume calls for a certain level of cultural literacy. Consider F.P.A.'s "Ballade of Schopenhauer's Philosophy," or John Crowe Ransom's "Survey of Literature," in which Feuerbach's famous apothegm, "der Mensch ist, was er ißt," is taken to heart: "The abstemious Wordsworth / Subsisted on a curd's-worth, // But a slick one was Tennyson, / Putting gravy on his venison. // What these men had to eat and drink / Is what we say and what we think." Consider also F. Scott Fitzgerald unintentionally poignant contemplation of longevity, "Obit on Parnasus," in which he writes, "Death, the eventual censor, / Lays for the forties, and so / Took off Jane Austen and Spenser, / Stevenson, Hood, and poor Poe." Even the latest examples, chronologically speaking, require some familiarity with literary tradition. In order to appreciate this fact, one need only glance at the titles of Kenneth Koch's playful "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" and Anthony Hecht's exquisitely handled loose pentameter response to Matthew Arnold, "The Dover Bitch," or examine Hecht and Merrill's offerings in the exacting form of the double-dactyl.

Perhaps the anthology's single drawback is the absence of biographical information on any of the authors within. Though Eliot and Pound may need no introduction, a few facts about the lesser-known authors would have been welcomed. Some might have been interested, for example, in the fact that Samuel Hoffenstein, whose work is generously represented, was a Lithuanian immigrant and the screenwriter behind the film noir classic Laura. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see these poets recognized for their virtuosic, and uniquely American wit.