Poetry in motion

In comic verse, masters of the art unveil flights of wit and fancy

David Barber is the poetry editor of The Atlantic. His most recent book of poems is 'Wonder Cabinet.' David Barber is the poetry editor of The Atlantic. His most recent book of poems is "Wonder Cabinet." (ANDY MARTIN)
Email|Print| Text size + By David Barber
February 3, 2008

Kenneth Koch: Selected Poems
Edited by Rod Padgett
American Poets Project, 190 pp., $20

On the Edge: Collected Long Poems
By Kenneth Koch
Knopf, 411 pp., $35

In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems 1955-2007
By X. J. Kennedy
Johns Hopkins University, 205 pp., paperback, $18.95

Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008
By X. J. Kennedy
BOA, 118 pp., paperback, $17

Toad to a Nightingale
Written by Brad Leithauser
Illustrated by Mark Leithauser
Godine, 64 pp., $20.95

Did you hear the one about poetry being no fun anymore? Let's just say it's no laughing matter. Granted, sterling comic verse is a fiendishly difficult craft to master, demanding perfect pitch and expert chops lest one's quips and japes descend into mongrel doggerel. But the sad fact also seems to be that there's little professional premium placed on poetic mischief and merriment nowadays: If it goes without saying that American popular culture has no shortage of irony in its blood, the dire scarcity of scamps and jesters who can crack us up in lines and stanzas suggests that most poets now feel that it's somehow beneath their station to play for yucks. All the more reason, then, to raise a glass to those happy few whose poems remain the stuff that mirth is made of, be it in the form of puckish light verse or waspish social satire, still reveling in the fine old sport of beguiling us with their sublime wit.

No American poet over the last half-century wrote with as much antic and anarchic gusto as Kenneth Koch (1925-2002): In the grand tradition of fast-talking funnymen from Aristophanes to Groucho, his boisterous brand of comedy was a natural byproduct of his exuberant audacity. Who says serious poetry has to be solemn? Koch made a career out of proving it ain't necessarily so, and his signature poems - hyperbolic monologues, rambunctious manifestos, absurdist burlesques, madcap fantasias - take jubilant pleasure in playing havoc with just about every highfalutin' literary pretense and propriety. For all his outlandish iconoclasm, however, Koch now seems in hindsight not so much a ferocious satirist as a delirious psalmist, lustily singing the praises of imaginative energy as eternal delight.

That manic buoyancy also looks to have been the secret behind his prodigious output. As the two repackaged compilations of Koch's work released recently amply demonstrate, brevity was never the soul of his wit: The highlights of "Selected Poems" include a hit parade of lavish farces and litanies ("Fresh Air," "The Pleasures of Peace," "Some General Instructions," "The Art of Poetry") that barrel over multiple pages with their big galloping lines and breakneck banter, while "On the Edge" resembles nothing so much as a rip-roaring circus caravan of a book, headlined by a twin bill of stem-winding mock-heroic epics, "Ko, or a Season on Earth" and "The Duplications," composed in the jaunty ottava rima stanza of Byron's "Don Juan" and utterly defying plot summary. As with much of Koch's voluble lunacy, these over-the-top charm offensives won't be to everyone's taste, particularly if you don't care for having your stamina taxed and your legs pulled almost out of their sockets, but it would be a mistake to write him off as just a jackanapes of all trades. The most infectious thing about his rampant tomfoolery is its redemptive bravura: Just when you think that nothing is sacred in a Koch poem, it dawns on you that he's pouring all of his irrepressible animal spirits into counting his blessings, and everybody else's too.

This publishing season has also brought forth two retrospective volumes of lapidary drollery from X. J. Kennedy, one of our foremost living masters of light and satirical verse. Kennedy is every bit Koch's match as a joker in the deck, but the kinship pretty much ends there: Laconic and piquant where Koch is raucous and frenetic, Kennedy has always found his calling as a mordant wit in the old-school mold, a dab hand at the dapper style of snappy raillery and gadfly waggery that delivers its licks by way of formal prosody. Even when Kennedy takes up matters of weightier import, as in his celebrated anthology piece "Nude Descending a Staircase," inspired by Duchamp's infamous cubist portrait, he's unfailingly light on his metrical feet: "We spy beneath the banister / A constant thresh of thigh on thigh - / Her lips imprint the swinging air / That parts to let her parts go by."

But why two collections instead of putting all his chestnuts in one basket? Kennedy evidently sees some practical virtue in drawing a bright line between his comic verse and his flintier stuff, and there's something to be said for that taxonomic punctilio: True to its billing, "Peeping Tom's Cabin" is all in saucy good fun and then some, consisting of spoofs, lampoons, acerbic squibs, and assorted cherry bombs of ribald frivolity. Then again, as Kennedy gamely admits, he has "never understood how you tell light verse from poetry, exactly," and a reader with both books is liable to be just as happily confounded: While there's not nearly so much jingling of his cap and bells in the pages of his new and selected tome, Kennedy's most disarming poems owe much of their pathos and punch to their tart bite and deftly sardonic aplomb, calling to mind Auden's bracing maxim: "Comedy is the noblest form of Stoicism." All of which makes him a worthy heir not only to such American artisans of the acid-tongued epigram as Dorothy Parker and J. V. Cunning ham but to the indispensably impertinent likes of Catullus and Dean Swift - cheerfully serving notice that there's still nothing like an artfully pithy piece of verse for making short work of killjoys.

Light verse of an elegantly whimsical bent has long been a sideline trade for the industrious poet and novelist Brad Leithauser, who nevertheless once likened the genre to the Carolina parakeet, a candy-colored chatterbox that's been extinct for more than a century. One gathers he wasn't entirely kidding, which would explain why he seems determined not to let the charms and graces of larksome versifying die out.

Leithauser's latest collaboration with his brother, Mark, an artist and senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, has the retro feel of a cozy fireside picture book, but it's no antiquarian bauble: Arrayed in eight constellations of sprightly lyric sequences, mainly composed in neatly turned octaves and fine-tuned haiku stanzas, the poems brim with an urbane jeu d'esprit that knows the difference between the winsome and the twee, leaving no doubt as to just how much exacting discipline the delectations of sparkling light verse entail. Bracketing the book's mixed bag of impish bagatelles (ranging from "Periodic Riddles" on "Neon" and "Uranium" to a clutch of eldritch nocturnes called "Furnishings of the Moon") is a lively flyting match between the heralded songster and the lowly amphibian of the title, and anyone with a rooting interest in the survival of poetic wit and fancy should find it heartening as well as fitting that the underdog toad gets the last word: "Earth's fairest dreams are born of earth - / Born sometimes, even in the scummy Ooze of a drainage ditch . . . including those / Where I am your ventriloquist, / And you, my dear, my dummy."

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