On the Decline of Light Verse

ed rosenthal
July 9, 2015

As I have indicated here , I grew up in a household that loved verse.   My mother was an actress, who appreciated recitations.   My father was a college professor turned rocket scientist who loved to recite.   I grew up with W S Gilbert, and Lewis Carroll and Ogden Nash.   In those days, it was easy to find light verse to read, as well.  National magazines like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post would accept humorous verse for publication.   But no more.   By the time I decided to publish my book of light verse for  children  (and adults), A is for Arnyx, in 2010, self-publication was essentially my only option.

Why is this?  Light verse poets like Richard Armour and Ogden Nash were quite popular when I was young.   And even today, when I read light verse aloud, it still has the power to engage the attention of children.  So why is there so little of it being created today?   I can think of three possible explanations- the internet and other changes in technology, the channelling of verse talent into music, and disturbing trends in our educational systems.

The internet has certainly made a difference in our daily lives.  When I used its predecessor, the ARPANET, back in the 70's,  at System Development Corporation, it was still possible to imagine sitting around the fireplace in the evening and reciting verse (and holding your children's interest at the same time)   Now we are all connected by various electronic devices that compete constantly for our attention and that sort of quiet time seems quaint and old-fashioned.

To be sure, popular music has kept various  forms of versification alive, and the good news is there is a lot of it available to us.  On the other hand, the needs of the music tend to drive the techniques used.   Rap, for example, makes heavy use of slant rhyme (words that don't quite rhyme), which sounds fine on a recording, but is unsatisfactory in print.

Finally, there are the changes that have taken place in our educational system.  When I was in the fifth grade, I was taught the basics of music theory.   When I was in high school,  Art and Acting were popular electives available to all.   Now, these so-called enrichment classes are much harder to find in public schools around the country.  I could probably write a lengthy essay on why that is so, but for my current purposes, the point is that the study of light verse, its techniques and its most skilled practitioners, is being left to whatever overworked and underpaid English teacher who might want to include it in her or his curriculum.

Here's a simple example, in the style of Richard Armour.  (Note: the Arthur Murray dance studios are still around; the first two lines of this verse was their advertising jingle for many years.)

Arthur Murray
Taught me dancing in a hurry.
I dance divinely in my head,
I wish he'd taught my feet instead.


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"for 'twere absurd to think that nature in the earth bred gold, perfect in the instant;
there must be remote matter." - Ben Jonson
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