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This is poetry on the American a series of broadcasts on American poets and poetry produced and recorded by a radio station KPFA in Berkeley California under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. The participants in this program are Mr. Anthony Ostroff and Mr. Robert Bellew and they will discuss and read American light verse. Stop me if you've heard this one. Reflection on a common misapprehension. So many forthright ladies are overjoyed to think themselves hardboiled when as a matter of fact they're only for all the crimes of Lizzie Borden. Lizzie Borden with an axe hit her father 40 whacks when she saw what she had done. She hit her mother 41. If the poet isn't being morbid he's probably being sort of the canary the song of canaries never varies. And when they're motoring they're pretty revolting or sometimes the poet is simply commonplace.
Thomas Carlyle Carlyle combined the literary life with throwing teacups it is wife remarking rather testily. Oh stop your dodging Missa see her occasionally. The point is purely practical as in reflections on ice breaking. Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker and upon rare occasions simply imaginative from Opus 6 in spectrum. If I were only dafter I might be making him Zz to the liquor of your laughter and the lacquer of your limbs. That minute anthology of poetic jokes can begin this conversation on American light verse. Surprisingly much might be said about these kinds of poems works the poets produce when they are essentially or at least partly at play. Especially if one were to treat the work seriously. Of course it's a mistake to talk very much about humor any very ponderous inspection destroys it and most
light verse is written simply to entertain. Still a good deal of it has a rather sharp edges of meaning in its play and I think a brief consideration of American light verse as a whole might reveal some interesting things. You mean you're going to take it seriously anyway. Well I think it is of some social logical interest. Of course we're not meant to ponder deeply such eminently sensible inanities Ogden Nash's reflections on ice bridge Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker Yanni. That's what I mean I you know I always keep. I always think that poem want to have a different title How to Make Friends and seduce people or something more direct. But even here I think is a type of thing of which we get a great deal. It doesn't have any particular. All social significance all about as much as a Boy Scout Manual. You mean social instruction. That's the thing I think which we can't call socially insignificant. Well you're right about that. If you can afford the martinis. But what I'm getting at is that this kind of pure fluff is simply all over the place not
much of it is is as shrewd and useful shall we say as our little verse of Ogden Nash but our popular magazines are simply filled with it. And I think are somewhat unique in this. In other words humor is a great characteristic devotion of the American I think. Yes that's certainly true. Laughter is a human I think not a national trait but I certainly see what you're getting at. There is a kind of humor of self dramatisation a kind of innocent omnipresent laughter that is America. Yes exactly I think it's one important national genius perhaps the great new medium where this trait is seen most often nowadays is in the cartoon. Yes I think our cartoons are perhaps one equal in quantity or quality anywhere else in the world. Don't you think though Tony that the special quality of American humor is really in its direction that is seems to be that Americans are or at least were always
willing to sort of laugh at themselves whereas where one sees. The humor of another country it seems to be usually bitter sardonic or at least highly mannered but historically American humor at its best is where you are which points its horrors with a kind of deceptively simple gay at the end. Exaggeration Well I guess like the Mack Sennett cartoons or Helen Hawkins and that sort of. Yes yes. Well I think that's right it is. And it's and it's self directed and I think these are far more important points than any other to be made about American humor whether we're talking about light verse or cartoons or any of the other forms of humor. Oh we began as a nation of iconoclasts in a sense. And it is nearly always been an American tradition to laugh. Without much self-consciousness matters commonly held sacred in the culture of Western civilization including the culture of
America itself you know in that connection Tony it's interesting to recall that Yankee Doodle was an English song in the beginning which originally created as a mockery of the American Yes I remember oh you know and then of course the American began to sing it quite joyously and unashamedly won the Revolutionary War singing I don't know whether that's an instance of old fashioned Yankee shrewdness turning the tables on the British or the American laughing at himself but you're quite right we have poked fun at ourselves and many of our most precious institutions devotions fads and so on through just about all of our history even in that inane Nash verse about the forthright ladies overjoyed to think themselves hardboiled when as a matter of fact they're only Freud. F r e you d. We have an example. Well the crimes of Lizzie Borden then is consistent I suppose of the same sort of thing it's a play on what was perhaps still is a great national fever for these Freud in the science of the mind sex Oedipus Electra complex as knowledge sort of thing.
Well yes of course we get verse more directly critical of things American than this I think for example of that famous little quatrain about the American aristocracy called Boston. You remember that I don't know because I come from the city of Boston the home of the bean and the COD where the Cabots speak only to locals and the locals speak only to God. That reminds me of the struggle of another kind and family of American aristocracy. Rockefeller if you remember when he built Rockefeller Center hired the Mexican communist Diego Rivera to do a mural for the new building. E.B. White satire on the resultant mass spoofs the naivete of both participants. Yes this is this is a wonderful little poem to which history has added certain ironies. It's called I paint what I see a ballad of artistic integrity. What do you paint when you paint a wall. Said John D's grandson Nelson. You paint
just anything there at all. Will there be any dubs or tree in fall or hunting scene like an English hall. I paint what I see said Rivera. What are the colors you use when you paint. Said John D's grandson Nelson. Do you use any red in the beard of a saint. If you do is it terribly red. A faint. Do you use any blue. Is it Prussian. I paint what I paint said Rivera whose is that head that I see on my wall said John D's grandson Nelson. Is it anyone's head whom we know it all are Rensselaer or a sultan stall. Is it Franklin D. Is it mordant hall or is it the head of a Russian. I pinned what I think said Rivera. I paint what I paint. I paint what I see. I paint what I think said Rivera. And the thing that is dearest in life to me in a bourgeois hall is integrity. However I will take
out a couple of people drink and put in a picture of Abraham Lincoln. I could even give you McCormick's Reaper and still not make my art much cheaper. But the head of Lenin has got to stay. All my friends will give me the bird today. The bird the bird for ever. It's not good taste in a man like me said John D's grandson Nelson to question an artist's integrity or mention a practical thing like a fee. But I know what I like to a large degree and the art I hate to hamper for twenty one thousand conservative bucks you painted a radical. I say shucks I could never at the offices the capitalistic offices for this is you know is a public hall and people want dubs or tree in fall and tho your art I dislike to hamper a little to God and grampa. And after all it's my wall. We'll see if it is said Rivera.
Notice that the charming thing is of course that Rivera put up that mural exactly the way he wanted to paint it and then later having had his triumph Rockefeller had his new man came in and pulverized it and something else is there now. Well you know I don't want to labor this point but I do want to suggest it more fully than we have certainly this kind of humor is to be found in many places in the world but it seems to me there are also many places it is not to be found. For example I find it very hard to imagine the German laughing at himself in these ways or the Spaniards or the Japanese or or the Russian to name a few. Of course a few of these countries have had their great satirists and Iran is I think of 70s for example but such humor is not general as it is here or as it may be somewhat in modern Britain or certainly in friends. And it seems to me significant in this regard for laughter involves a certain measure of detachment above all laughter at oneself and surely this is a fundamental of
democracy. You mean you don't think democracy can survive without a sense of right especially about itself and the idea of self-criticism is terribly important as national wit or human you're talking about. But do you think American light verse is particularly demonstrative of this quality or aspect of our humanity. Well yes I do though. I don't want to press the point too far. Finally light verse is simply intended to make us laugh at something on something maybe anything at all. Often I do think that in American poetry it is some especially American folly that we are laughing at but often it's not it may be just simply fun. Oh I think maybe we do best simply reading some poems that might be considered examples. Yes I think these generalizations are apt to get out of hand. We've had some verses by Nash Ogden Nash Witter Bynner Dorothy Parker and the old reliable and on so far all twentieth century things. It's interesting to go back a little like verse doesn't seem to survive for long as a rule but in the publications of
almost any period of eyestrain it can be found in some of it at least still seems worth the trouble. For instance over a century ago James Russell Lowell wrote his Bigelow papers which were essentially like verse but with an American edge. I remember a few lines Hosea Bigelow's friend Saul one writes in from the front. I believe the Mexican War. This sort of thing just like that. I wish that I was thirty nine pence a day for killing folks comes kind of low for murder. I have a heart to write of course its light verse but given the world we're living in just now it's hard to laugh at isn't it. He has at any rate good light verse produces its own special non laughing laugh. Like the statement that little verse by Robert Frost called Kings X which came out shortly after the A-bombs on Hiroshima. How did that go it was King's
X having invented a new Holocaust and been the first with it to win a war. How quick we are to cry. Kings X. No fair is to use it any more. Yes like that one you know. One of the one of the delightful ironies of that poem if you're living on an Olympus I suppose we can say it's a delightful irony has been given it by history. We were so quick after World War 2 having enjoyed the luxury of blasting a couple cities with atom bombs to cry out to the world that atom bomb shouldn't be used in war ever again. But of course at the time nobody else had any. And of course now that everybody has them or is about to have them we've announced the world will use them if we must since really all is fair in war. I suspect Frost foresaw this joke I hope he didn't foresee a further one day comfort for me. E cummings non prophetic vision in the little verse that says a politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man. Would you repeat that a politician is an arse
upon which everyone has sat except a man. Well move on to something else. You know a pawn that's always delighted me is this one by Josephina Miles called monkey which takes off on that self-righteous book by William Buckley of a few years ago called God and man at Yale a monkey. God a man at Yale. Adopted a monkey in order to raise him up in his own image. But only in some respects could the monk identify. Could learn manners but not the Word of God. I always it was so meditated the monkey dies old and be Faddle out of my tree I fell in the forest of Eden or if I manually ate did was the wrong apple or if I climbed I die.
And this is all I guess some magical series of my ascent and a fall. History is not my tree his wire my work he is my yeah but you're not. That's truly a verse at it's best verse on reason. Maybe because of the mention of Yale I'm reminded of a poem by Ogden Nash called the purists it just doesn't really relate to the Myles poem but it does marvelously portray something of the Academic my and I might just read this tourist. I give you now Professor twist a conscientious scientist trustees exclaimed he never bungles and send him off to distant jungles camped on a crop in Riverside. One day he missed his loving bride. She had the guide informed him later been eaten by an alligator.
Professor twist could not but smile. You mean he said a crocodile. As long as you name it directly you get it correctly classified it doesn't matter what it is or what it does especially or what it does and admirable. The Dutchman from necessity I guess. How about reading that poem by Richard Wilbur called superiorities. This one shows two men in a somewhat more vital relationship to reality and some others who've at least been well-trained superiority Malakai stamped out diving decks and shouted to the frigging wind for a gun and Hove an empty court into the stomach of a way. Tips at the bucking rail was still keenly modest as a star attentive to each blast and surge and soul become the storm in him.
How far superior to those huddled below with wives and buddies comforting caring sharing pills prayers and other proper studies while we're on poems about people is a longish one by Kenneth Fearing I'd like to read called dirge but it has something to do with the American myth about how rich we're all going to be how safe we're all going to be House strong we're all going to be and above all how glamorous. Oh boy that's funny. But it also deals with what the facts are or were in in the case of the defeated hero of the poem who oh I don't know exactly what his fate is except that he dies I think it's I think you take one long step out of a high window in the Great Depression dirge by Kenneth Fearing. One two three was a number replayed. But today the number came three to one. What is carbide 30. And it went to twenty nine.
Had the favorite Bowie but the track was slow. Oh executive type. Would you like to drive a float and power a knee action silk upholstered 6 when a Hollywood star shoot the course in 58 draw out of the ace king Jack o fellow with a Will who won't take No. Watch out for three cigarettes on the same single man or a Democratic voter born in August under Mars. They wear a liquidated rail. Denouement the denouement. He took a personal pride in the certain certain the way he lived his own private life but nevertheless they shut off his gas. Nevertheless the bank foreclose. Nevertheless the landlord called Nevertheless the radio broke and 12 o'clock arrived just once too often just the same he
wore one grey tweed suit bought one straw hat drank one straight scotch walked one short step took one long look drew one deep breath. Just one too many. And while we die it is a well we lived. Go and what to the office and bluey home to sleep in if got married in Bam had children and got fired. Zoe did a live event. Did he die. Well who the hell are you. At the corner of his casket. Well the hell we go and on the right hand silver knob. Who the hell cares walking second from the end with an American Beauty wreath from. Why the hell not very much missed by the circulation staff of The New York Evening Post. Deeply deeply mourned by the B and T. Mr. Roosevelt power Sears Roebuck Big Dipper.
Summer Rain Mr. Mr. Mr. bung. Yeah but it finishes him off and if you know maybe you're going to say I was going to say let's change the subject. Yeah I'm all shook up for that excursion Let's get I'm just sexy. OK thank you Ed.. You know I ran across this one By Helen Bevington some time ago called academic. It seemed to me quite humorous in relation not only to our professor crocodile. Oh yes I remember that I think it's one we better not explain just academic. I've been walking under the sky in the moonlight with the professor and I'm pleased to say the moon was luminous and high and profitable moment with the professor.
Clear as day. He had read of late how extraordinary moons are upside down aloft in the night sky one drifted upright in the usual fashion. But the professor glad to verify hypothesis or truth when he is able. Even It seems to set the moon askew. I propose that we reverse our own perspective and on the whole it was a lovelier view of white circumference smaller now he fancied a tidy house there. This last I could not tell from so oblique and I go. I only remember enjoying the occasion there a while. Well here is another one about an occasion that was not enjoyed very well. Oh there is it's kind of delicious joy of revenge shows the sadistic joy this is the little poem by Don Geiger called
Valentine. I did not buy this pasteboard heart to send you a simple symbol of my rich red love nor even to mark your nickel Ticker. But with a far more sinister purpose like a dark eyed savage with his effigy would use this valentine to bring you down. But I'll not be a silly savage sticking pins into a card upon a wall for I am brave as a savage I'm doubly armed with science and will risk my life by going nude in rains and catch a deathly fever to breathe my germs upon this car which I will send to you. And even though my savage science fails and though I never get my coal nor you my car still in this poem will your death be accomplished. For as you read my queen viciousness you will have to smile it so quiet Melissa lover and feel something akin to affection for so strange a
man conscious of this prick of love. You will guess how deep love might be and realize for the first time how dead your heart is. That lets her down with nothing left doesn't it. You know one of the main strains of light verse seems to me is our poets mocking their own profession or others in their profession. And I particularly of Dorothy Parker's little four line poem about Dante Gabriel Rossetti you know said he was rather romantic soul and when his wife died he buried his poems in his only manuscript of his poems with his wife. Oh yes. And this little quatrain describes the sequel to that. Not a Gabriel Rossetti buried all of his libretti thought the matter over then went and dug them up again. Dorothy Parker is full of a lot of that kind of thing that is Marcus is that I love me
best. There's another little literary satire by Lowell this one James Russell. Look before before we do go on to that one Bob. Let's do stop for another one here which is it seems to me really relate to that as a great I love poem. Oh you mean that the archetypal history of the Decline and Fall of the expatriate groups that one of them are off. Yes I was won by Howard Nemerov history of a literary movement that seems to be the poem to end the whole movement. Howard Nemerov history of a literary movement. After Margrave diet nothing seemed worthwhile. I said as much to Grumbach who replied the oscillations of fashion do not amuse me. There have been great men before. There will be other great men. Only Man is important. Man is ultimate.
I can still see him sitting there sipping level by level his puter cafe. He was a fat man. Fat men are seldom the best creative writers. The rest of us slowly disperse. Hardly ever saw each other again and did not correspond for there was little enough to say only simply and I hung on feeling as we did that the last word had not finally been said. Sometimes I feel I might say cheated. Life here at Bob grunge Dinah's does walk with eternal rocks in the river and simply the one of my dearest friends can never. I have decided to become great. Well you get back from the James Russell All
this comes from his poem The fable for critics which took a little slap at about everybody in this particular sections about Emerson. It is refreshing to old fashioned people like me to meet such a primitive pagan as he in whose mind all creation is duly respected is parts of himself just a little projected and who's willing to worship the stars in the sun. A convert to nothing but Emerson. There is no the brawl at the cruelty of that there is a cruel truth in it. That reminds me of that little poem by TS Eliot called lines for kus kus caraway and Mirza Murad Al I beg I don't know what in the world the title means nothing. I think intentionally I think I make about what you can. It's it's interesting there's a sort of an autobiographical poem on the same order as these other light verses and I think everybody thinks that Mr. Elliott generally as an immensely
and constantly serious man and it's fun to see Mr. Elliott looking at himself from a distance as he does in this poem lines for kus kus caraway and there's a Murad bag. How unpleasant to meet Mr. Elliot with his features of clerical cut and his brow so grim and his mouth so prim and his conversation so nicely restricted to what precisely. And if and perhaps and but how unpleasant to meet Mr. Elliot with a bob tailed cur and a coat of fur and a Porpentine cat and a white sickle hat. How unpleasant to meet Mr. Elliott whether his mouth be open or shut. You know I think with all the fun of these last ones still it's perhaps worth while to come back to one of our main points here that a great deal of American light verse for all its wit for all its charm for all its
humor is also essentially making serious points. I'd like to read as a last one here this famous short verse by Robert Frost called Fire and Ice. Some say the world will end in fire some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice I think I know enough of hate to know that for destruction. Ice is also great and would suffice. I think that's excellent to conclude with partly because it's so large in its skull and human or is so and you morose in its implications. Yes finally perhaps it's a mistake even to include this under the heading light verse because Frost is talking about something terribly serious really the the nature of human hate and the terrible nature of nihilism and a lot of
these things are at home and passion. Yeah in fact. But perhaps it's suitable to close with this because it shows nothing else it shows the poets are always talking about something. Well a tree on the American was produced and recorded by station KPFA in Berkeley under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center and distributed by the National Association of educational broadcasters. This is the NAACP Radio Network.
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Poetry and the American
Light verse
Producing Organization
pacifica radio
KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
An anthology, read by Anthony Ostroff and Robert Beloof.
Series Description
Twenty half-hour programs designed to further the enjoyment of poetry.
Broadcast Date
Media type
Performer: Beloof, Robert, 1923-2005
Producing Organization: pacifica radio
Producing Organization: KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
Speaker: Ostroff, Anthony, 1923-
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 59-12-18 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:26
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Chicago: “Poetry and the American; Light verse,” 1959-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 25, 2024,
MLA: “Poetry and the American; Light verse.” 1959-01-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 25, 2024. <>.
APA: Poetry and the American; Light verse. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from