He sits alone. His barstool straight, it faces forward - not askew. The room is full, the music loud. He stares through his half-empty brew. He's oblivious to all else -- all alone in the human zoo.
Those who wished to see but not be seen
would sit and see the world through carved screens,
taking in the thriving market scenes,
watching hunched women sweep the streets clean,
vendors ladling curry from tureens,
pickpockets who thought themselves unseen,
and drunks who use walls as a latrine.
What’s worse about life behind the veil,
the sight of lives lived beyond the pale,
or knowing you live outside the tale?
This poetry anthology consists of works selected and arranged by J.M. Cohen with the overarching theme of light-heartedness. Some of the poems are outright funny, others are more quirky, corny, or tongue-in-cheek. This edition was originally published in the 1970’s, though there was apparently a preceding edition that was largely the same that dates to the late-1950’s. The poems are almost all metered and rhymed, in part because that was still the dominant mode of poetry when these works were first published, and also because metered and rhymed verse conveys a jocular tone. Forms associated with comedic delivery, such as the limerick, are well-represented.
The 450-plus poems by about 180 authors (actually many more owing to the fact that the biggest contributor by far is Anonymous) are arranged into 22 thematic categories that are clearly meant to be more whimsical than categorical. The poets include those who are most well-known for playful verse such as Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Lear, but also light works by poets known for seriously toned work (e.g. Alexander Pope, John Betjeman, and W.H. Auden.) There are also plenty by authors known for mixing light and serious work, such as G.K. Chesterton, Robert Graves, and Hilaire Belloc. There are also a large number of poets who you’re unlikely to have heard of unless you’re a literary historian. Included in the collection are some widely anthologized works such as Belloc’s “Matilda,” Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” and Aldous Huxley’s “Second Philosopher’s Song,” but there are a great many more that will be unfamiliar to most (and a few that may be familiar as graffiti on a restroom wall.)
I enjoyed this book. It turned me onto some poets with whom I’d been unfamiliar. The works included, as one would expect of light verse, are quite readable (though there are some outdated references here and there.) If you stumble onto a decently-priced copy, pick it up.
“I remember being born.”
“No. You don’t.”
“How would you know?”
“Well, let’s start from the assumption that you’re human…”
“I’d like to think so, but what are my options?”
“I don’t know. Humans don’t have that neural machinery at birth… So nothing from Earth remembers its birth.”
“And yet, I do.”
“Mightn’t you have cobbled together the scene from your mom’s stories, the family photo album, et cetera?”
“Nah! It’s too detailed. Feels too real.”
“I find your ignorance exhausting.”
“I find your certainty perplexing — not to mention irritating and slap-worthy.”
“Let’s agree to be mutually disenchanted.”
What are you free to do or be?
Can you set out across an endless sea?
What deserts can your mind go roam
from which your fears won’t send you home?
Epictetus asked, “Are you free?”
Can you stand, while others flee?
Can you escape the default mode
that’s locked into your mental code?
Can truth change your way of seeing?
Are you sectless in the art of disagreeing?
They ask you when you’re just a little pup.
So, what part of what I must BE,
is different from the me you see?
Dad thought, “the part that they’ll pay you for.”
Like an allowance for finishing a chore?
“Yes, young man, but you can safely assume,
no one else will pay you to clean your room.”
Kids don’t think of being gainfully employed.
Which seems to make grownups quite annoyed.
At five, I wanted to be a cowboy.
“Son, there’s no jobs in that line of employ.”
That’s OK, then I’ll be an Indian.
“You’d have to be born that way, my friend.”
I wasn’t born a doctor, but you said that’s OK.
“That’s not the same, son, what can I say?”
I know what then, Dad, I’ll be the Batman!
“Come on, son, that’s not a feasible plan.”
You’re thinking Superman, Batman has no powers.
“Bruce Wayne by day, Batman at night, where’s the sleeping hours.”
You have a point there, you’ve got me stumped.
Thinking myself prematurely defunct.
Caught in a midnight neon glow
Neurons firing in slo-mo
As blue and red dance on the wall
I felt the footsteps in the hall
A jagged game of cat and mouse
Ends, spied by a mattress louse
An ominous knock near at hand
Me, without the will to stand
This story started days ago
Me, without a need to know
Just a lackey in a suit
Who took a case from a coot
What’s in the case? You want to know?
Oh, they’re here. It’s time to go…
Wait, no… that’s not right.
Let me admit that I have no gift
for mythical fliers that get lift.
One can’t just throw wings on a rat.
Of course you can, we call it a bat!
Alright, bad example…
One can’t draw wings on a whale,
and through the sky expect it sail.
How did the likes of primitive man
create the myth of a flying orangutan?
They did no such thing.
Fair enough, then answer me this:
Who came up with ogres that eat babies?
Does a crescent-moon werewolf give you rabies?
Who first saw a spiraling dragon,
and how many drops remained in his flagon?
From whence came the fearless griffin
body of a lion and the head of a… chicken?
If by her shrill scream you know a banshee,
how’d you know it’s not any old woman she?
In how many beds are succubi layin’
in which the occupant ain’t already strayin’?
Leprechaun stories come from notorious drinkers,
and Gorgons and Sirens from a culture of thinkers.
My deficit, it seems, is as aligns with my fears.
Quick, get me a stack of books and a case of beers.
it’s my cross, my curse
this rhyme in my verse
rhymers aren’t taken seriously
and are berated furiously
“Oh, your poem is so cutsie,
like little baby bootsies.”
call it banal or call it niche
but “cutsie?”, please!, step off bitch
just because my verse ain’t free
don’t act like I’m a perp to slavery
I spare my words the sting of the rod
they’ve never tasted a cattle prod
I’ve never waterboarded my “ands” or “buts”
or kicked a pronoun square in the nuts
I don’t whip my adjectives to get ’em in line
I stand waiting patiently holding a sign
Why steer my words like some stern brigadier?
because it scratches an itch somewhere in my ear
I know my rhymes sometimes lack cachet
because they’re little too Ogden Nash-ay
but from the hilltops I sing
like that guy Rodney King
hear the words of my song
“Can’t the poets all just get along!”