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Vintage WD: Don't Hide Your Light Verse Under a Bushel

In this article from 1960, poet and author Richard Armour explores the importance of light verse and gives helpful hints to the hopeful poet.

Writer’s Digest, October 1960

By Richard Armour

Light verse is a kind of poetry that anyone can write. Whether anyone can write it well enough to make it salable is another question. Oddly, it is at once easy to write and hard to write. It is easy to write light verse that will amuse a friend but hard to write light verse that will amuse an editor. Of course, an editor can become a friend, after he has bought a few dozen verses, but even then he is a little different from your other friends, because when he says, “I laughed and laughed over this one,” he has to send you a check, unless he hastily adds, “but I was out-voted.”

It’s Easy to Write

What makes light verse easy to write, in some fashion, is that it is (and it should be) brief. It can be as short as two lines, and the lightness is likely to go out of it if it becomes much longer than, say, sixteen. Thus, it can be written in short snatches of time, and composed in one’s head while one is physically busy about something else—while shaving or driving or ironing or washing the dishes. Since it requires no such investment of time as writing a novel or a short story or an ambitious serious poem, it is no catastrophe if you fail a few times, or even a few hundred times.

Another thing that makes light verse easy to write is that it demands no research (that is, not usually), no erudition, no profound thinking. Publishable light verse is within the grasp of almost anyone, and the “almost” is put in there just to be on the safe side. But even if it is within your grasp, it takes some grasping, and maybe some stretching.

Rx: A Bit of Talent, A Bigger Bit of Work

For, comparatively easy though it may be, writing light verse requires a little bit of talent or aptitude and more than a little bit of work. Otherwise, so much first-rate light verse would be flooding the editors that they would by now be overstocked for the next ten years. Actually, the only thing that inundates them is unusable material, doggerel that does not come even close to publishable standards. There is always a dearth of light verse that is fresh in idea and nicely turned. Not that editors are begging for it, as they sometimes beg for humorous prose, but they can use it.

A word, at this point, about what light verse is. My own definition in this: poetry written in the spirit of play. Many, I know, will insist that light verse is not poetry, and much of it I have read (and written) probably is not. I confess that I am more comfortable when called a “light verse writer” or a “light versifier” than a “poet.” But light verse, at any rate, uses the devices (rhyme, meter, etc.) of poetry, and I hope can be admitted into the family, at least as a Cinderella sister. When a real poet is in a playful mood or a light verse writer turns poetic—in the first instance producing some of the poems of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden and Robert Graves, and in the second instance, some of the light verse of Phyllis McGinley and David McCord and John Betjeman— the line between poetry and light verse is hazy indeed. Perhaps there are two distinguishable species, which might be identified as “light verse” and “light poetry,” but I think this would be quibbling.

It Had Better Be Good and Light

The important distinction, for one who wishes to be read (i.e., to be published), is between “good” and “bad,” and it had better be good. The financial rewards of light verse are not comparable to those of the novel or short story. For one thing, a piece of light verse is not likely to be sold to Jerry Wald or one of the other Hollywood producers and made into an Oscar-winning movie. Nor are the foreign rights, in Sweden and Brazil, likely to be fought over. But light verse in magazines can bring as much as ten dollars a line (here is where brevity really hurts!) and can earn additional dollars through reprints in The Reader’s Digest, Coronet, and other magazines, and inclusion in anthologies and textbooks. This is peanuts, perhaps, but chocolate-covered peanuts. Currently, a few magazines have humor pages on which they use light verse, along with short prose humor, epigrams, and cartoons. Examples are “Post Scripts” in The Satevepost, “Look on the Light Side” in Look, and “Light Housekeeping” in Good Housekeeping. But the chief use of light verse today is as filler material to break the monotony of back pages of solid prose.

Lightens Hearts of Advertisers

Like cartoons, light verse catches the eye of those who merely thumb through magazines, and thus, by forcing them to pause, gladdens the advertisers on these pages. It is a humble function, but a useful one. Many readers, as we all know, read these short pieces first, before settling down to the stories and articles. And I suspect that the light verse is more likely to be read than the serious poems, in those magazines which carry both.

Markets are constantly changing, for light verse as for any other form of writing. Some magazines have changed in format, now omitting light verse. However, there are also magazines that have suddenly begun to use light verse. One of these is Mccall’s. And there are those new magazines, like Together and Family Weekly, which, happily, have the good sense and good taste to publish light verse regularly.

Ideas, by the way, are precious. It has been nearly 25 years since I sold my first pieces of light verse to The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. In that time, I have contributed more than 5,000 pieces to well over 100 magazines. To sell these 5,000, I have written perhaps 10,000. Assuming each of the 10,000 to contain a separate idea, you will see why I sometimes wonder whether there is anything left to write about. Now that I have achieved some confidence with techniques, I have run low on ideas. How I envy the fresh minds of my versifying juniors, bubbling with clever things to say.

“How” Rates With “What”

But in light verse, perhaps even more than in serious poetry, how you write is as important as what you write. Indeed, light verse depends on skill (or tricks) more than serious poetry. The meter should be accurate, so as not to throw off the reader and make him falter in the reading. The rhymes should be precise and, if possible, amusing in themselves. Recently, I had a little piece in Good Housekeeping that was reprinted in The Reader’s Digest. I am not especially proud of it, but it illustrates how a very short bit of verse can be brought off with virtually nothing but an unusual rhyme.

Here it is, called “Slow Motion”:

Kids eat their spinach

Inach by inach.

And I am still followed around by another silly little thing, written some years ago, that depends almost wholly on the rhyme. It appeared first in The Saturday Evening Post, then in The Reader’s Digest, and subsequently in various anthologies, occasionally over some other author’s name. It is “Going to Extremes”:

Shake and shake

The catsup bottle;

None will come,

And then a lot’ll.

Archibald MacLeish has said that “A poem should not mean but be.” This may be true of serious poetry; or some of it, but it is not true of light verse, except possibly things like Edward Lear’s nonsense poems and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Even the playful verses quoted above, and leaning heavily on their rhymes, say something. Not much, it is true, but something. Without the assistance of an unusual rhyme, it is possible to make such a wry, and sadly true, observation on human nature as this, called “Middle Age”:

Middle age

Is a time of life

A man first notices

In his wife.

In longer, more ambitious pieces of light verse, there is room for developing a thought, exaggerating details, doing some metrical fancywork, and bringing off a surprise or special twist at the end. Even in eight or twelve lines, it is possible to write what amounts to a humorous short story, or short short, with a bit of mood and climax. I myself like a piece of verse that is funny all the way, and not merely in its surprise conclusion, but this is hard to manage.

Trade Secrets

Back in 1947, I wrote Writing Light Verse, a book that has recently come out in a revised edition. Since it is the only book on this minor art or craft, I can safely say it is the best. In its pages, I told so much about subjects and verse forms and titles and endings and marketing and all the rest that one of my competitors wrote me rather sharply, saying I had given away all our trade secrets. But if there are any trade secrets, they should be shared with those who want to enter the trade, I, for one, should like to see more and better light verse written—and published. My suggestion to potential light verse writers is that they {1) keep their eyes and ears open for fresh ideas, (2) learn the rudiments, and if possible the nuances, of rhyme and meter, (3) read what is being currently written in the magazines, and (4) study the old (and middle-aged) masters of light verse, among whom I would include Arthur Guitennan, Samuel Hoffenntein, F.P.A., Dorothy Parker, Phyllis McGinley, Morris Bishop, David McCord, Margaret Fishback, Ethel Jacobson, Ogden Nash, E. B. White, and John Updike. I have two shelves devoted to light verse and keep several collections on my bedside table. If you turn out not to be a light verse writer, you can be the next best thing—a light verse reader.

Proper grammar, punctuation, and mechanics make your writing correct. In order to truly write well, you must also master the art of form and composition. From sentence structure to polishing your prose, this workshop will enhance your writing, no matter what type of writing you do.

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