Zinsser on Friday

Literate Revelry

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By William Zinsser

August 20, 2010


 

When I became a Harper author, in the 1950s, the firm occupied a red brick building, five stories high, at Park Avenue and 33rd Street. On its façade a sign in italic gold letters said Harper & Bros., est. 1817. It was the kind of building where you felt you could walk in and actually see an editor at work, possibly one who had been with the firm since 1817.

Today the company is housed in the innards of a high-security tower in midtown Manhattan and has undergone many mergers and mutations. I have variously been a Harper & Bros. author, a Harper & Row author, and a HarperCollins author. At one point in this fluctuating history the company held a party for my longtime editor Buz Wyeth to honor him for his 35 years of service with Harper–a rare act of fealty in an industry where editors hop from nest to nest like migratory birds. The then-head-honcho of the company invited me to the party and asked me to “say a few words” about Buz.

Something about the way he said “a few words” made me think he meant it, and I decided on the format of light verse, limiting myself to the sonnet length of 14 lines. The problem would be to find 13 rhymes for Wyeth, but for us light-verse junkies that’s the kind of puzzle that makes the world go round. Here are my few words for Buz:

 

When the writer’s talent drieth,

Peters out and petrifieth,

When ol’ writer’s block denyeth

Inspiration and he sigheth,

Sleepeth late and alibieth,

Moaneth low and me-oh-myeth,

Whimpereth and why-oh-whyeth,

Lieth down and like-to-dieth,

David daunted by Goliath,

Then whose wisdom most applyeth

When the gadding muse gadflyeth?

Where’s the balm that satisfyeth?

What’s the Buz word that he cryeth?

“Let me die–or get me Wyeth!”

Light verse gets no respect as a literary form. Some would say it’s not even a literary form. Some might even spell it lite verse. Today America is crosshatched with poetry workshops and MFA poetry programs, and I think I can safely bet that the words light verse will not be found in their descriptive literature.

But I’ve always enjoyed the form—and so, I suspect, have a lot of other people, nursing their guilty secret in the privacy of their homes. At weddings and birthday parties and anniversaries I’m repeatedly struck by the outpouring of light verse in toasts and congratulatory speeches, much of it remarkably good. As a form it’s anything but easy, requiring nimble feats of compression, allusion, exactitude, and wit.

Mainly, however, I like light verse because its purpose is to amuse, and that seems to me to be a good day’s work. Edward Lear’s nonsense poems are a serious contribution to the world’s enjoyment, much loved for their playfulness, and many American writers–Ogden Nash, Phyllis McGinley, E. B. White, John Updike, Calvin Trillin–wrote light verse that conveyed their pleasure in entertaining both themselves and their readers. Trillin still does.

It consoles me to remember that the form did have one golden moment. During the late 1920s and early ’30s, all of New York’s newspapers carried a daily column of light verse, most famously Franklin P. Adams’s “The Conning Tower” and Don Marquis’s “The Sun Dial.” They encouraged submissions from their readers, and it was in those hospitable columns that many men and women who later made their name as writers and playwrights and wits—Dorothy Parker, Russel Crouse, Dorothy Fields, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley–first saw their name in print. As E. Y. (Yip) Harburg put it, “We lived in an age of literate revelry in the New York daily press, and we wanted to be part of it.”


William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.

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