Good light verse is hard to do. Tragedy is easier to write and individual experiences have a wider resonance with audiences. However, individual senses of humour don’t always have a greater resonance. A joke that leaves one person rolling on the floor with laughter can leave a neighbour stony-faced. A poem that follows the structure of a joke, leading to a punchline in the final couplet, doesn’t always reward re-reading once the punchline is known. One or two here suffer that issue. The successful poems are ones where careful though has been given to structure and content. In “Shrinking of Shrugs” (the small, fine jackets designed to warm shoulders left bare by a sleeveless or strapless evening dress, rather than the act of shrugging something off),
“This is my favourite shrug, which is kept this size
With an easy read of the label. And please do not let me
See you washing this one. You could do it quite easily
If you bothered to read the label. The label
is sewn on the inside, which anyone can see
. If they use their eyes.
And this you can see is a lecture. The purpose of this
Lecture is to save our marriage. I can slide this ring
Rapidly off and on my finger: I call this
Easing the ring. And rapidly off and on, off and on,
Depending on whether you are shrinking and ruining my clothes.
. I call it easing the ring.”
The use of Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts” as a template may ruffle some feathers, but the structure keeps the poem moving forward and increases the sense of jeopardy. The lightly sarcastic tone is perfectly judged. There’s a careful use of structure in “Perfect Miming”
“Bad start: the microphone’s broken.
He’s so softly spoken
That people have thought he was miming
This is dreadful timing.
There’s a good crowd – about 20,
Which experience tells him is plenty
But the chances of hearing him
Are very, very, very slim.
At the end, everyone claps
And he wonders if perhaps
He should abandon the spoken word
And perfect his talent for being unheard.”
The couplets seem to escalate towards disaster but third stanza subverts the first two, suggesting success and a new direction. Like all the poems in “Exclamation Marx!” it lends itself to being read aloud and would work in performance. The pamphlet is the right length for exploring humour. A fuller collection would need some variation in tone and maybe a few ‘straight’ poems to add balance.