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David Bouchier: The Amusing Muse

Image by MorningbirdPhoto from Pixabay

April is the gateway to spring and also, appropriately, National Poetry Month. Poetry is a high art and an enormously important part of the Western intellectual tradition, but I must confess that, although I have a few favorite poets, I never became a dedicated reader. We were made to study poems at school, and to memorize and recite popular examples from an ancient book called Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. This was a painful experience for young boys, especially when the verses were of a romantic nature, as they often were. Being compelled to read them out loud was acutely embarrassing, and I doubt whether one in a hundred of my schoolmates ever looked at a poem again.

But I did enjoy the rhythms and the rhymes and appreciated the fact that, unlike dates in history or formula in mathematics, poems were easy to remember. Some of those lilting verses have stayed in my head forever, like old familiar songs.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills.”

Yes, it’s easy to remember, but hard to understand. Are clouds lonely, and if so why? There were always plenty of other clouds up there for company, usually pouring rain down on us.

That was the problem. Our teacher never explained the uses of poetic metaphor, and we wouldn’t have believed him if he had. Small boys are just not metaphorical creatures. We gave up the unequal struggle to make sense of poetry, and accepted it as just another pointless form of oppression, like Latin grammar.

So when National Poetry Month comes around I always feel guilty about my prosaic attachment to prose. I know I should take the sublime art more seriously but all too often poets, like those clouds, just float above my head and rain on me. They often seem to be unhappy, and want to share the experience. But, if April is National Poetry Month, it is also National Humor Month and the two things can go together very well. Most humorous poetry is dismissed as mere verse, but that’s mere snobbery. You can find it in fine collections that feature the comic genius of writers like Lewis Carroll, Hilaire Belloc, John Betjeman and Edward Lear.

Who can forget the unfortunate eating habits of the walrus of the carpenter, or the obstinate little boy Henry King whose chief defect was eating little bits of string, or Mr. Elliott’s practical cats, each one with a vivid personality, or indeed the world’s worst poet William McGonegall who, in “The Great Tey Bridge Disaster,” managed to turn a real life train accident into a comic classic? There’s no need for poetry to be all about sadness and nostalgia. Shakespeare, like T.S.Eliot, embraced the full range from funny to tragic and back again.

Our present situation is unfortunate, but it is also absurd. So I hope that, in National Poetry Month, our wonderful poets will lighten up a bit and offer us something more amusing, or at least moderately hopeful, like the lines read by young Amanda Gorman at the Inauguration. It’s true that there are not many good rhymes for COVID – rancid, flaccid, florid, lurid, and of course Ovid the ancient Roman poet. It’s not the most promising subject for humor. But in poetry, as in life, bending the rules is half the fun.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.