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Whatever Happened to Light Verse?

A paean to a disappearing and misunderstood literary tradition.

· 21 min read
Whatever Happened to Light Verse?
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

By all means let us touch our humble caps to
La poésie pure, the epic narrative;
But comedy shall get its round of claps, too.
According to his powers each may give;
Only on varied diet can we live.
The pious fable and the dirty story
Share in the total literary glory.

~from ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ by W.H. Auden

Some of the most beloved American poets of the 20th century were light versifiers. Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Richard Armour, Samuel Hoffenstein, Phyllis McGinley, Judith Viorst, and Baxter Black sold millions of books between them. McGinley was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for light verse. And it was the New Yorker, that most highbrow of all American popular magazines, which published much of the best light verse of the 20th century, including most of Ogden Nash’s work and much of McGinley’s.

In his introduction to a collection of McGinley’s verse, W.H. Auden places her in the company of Jane Austen, Colette, and Virginia Woolf. Versifiers like McGinley were often held in high esteem by sophisticates like Auden and also managed to entertain millions of readers who had probably never been exposed to the works of Woolf, Colette, Austen, or even Auden himself. Auden was in fact an excellent writer of light verse. He became an American citizen at the age of 39, so much of his verse can be categorized as American, at least technically.

McGinley’s verse holds up very well. Her ‘Lament for a Wavering Viewpoint’ could have been written recently about the bane of contemporary political tribalism:

I want to be a Tory
And with the Tories stand,
Elect and bound for glory
With a proud congenial band.
Or in the leftist hallways
I gladly would abide,
But from my youth I always
Could see the other side.

How comfortable to rest with
The safe and armored folk
Congenitally blessed with
Opinions stout as oak.
Assured that every question
One single answer hath,
They keep a good digestion
And whistle in their bath.

But all my views are plastic,
With neither form nor pride.
They stretch like new elastic
Around the Other Side;
And I grow lean and haggard
With searching out the taint
Of hero in the Blackguard
Of villain in the saint.

Ah, snug lie those that slumber
Beneath Conviction’s roof.
Their floors are sturdy lumber,
Their windows, weatherproof.
But I sleep cold forever
And cold sleep all my kind,
Born nakedly to shiver
In the draft of an open mind.

Light versifiers didn’t write exclusively about politics. They more often wrote about everyday and humdrum topics like child-rearing, marriage, suburbia, office work, golf, grandchildren, animals, food, the generation gap, and the various banes of modern life, from crabgrass to noise pollution. Some of them specialized in a particular topic or genre. Baxter Black wrote cowboy poetry, a type of verse that focuses on ranch work, humorous anecdotes, the great outdoors, and the legends, lore, and traditions of the Old West. Judith Viorst, a lifelong city dweller, has written a whole series of light verse collections about aging, with titles such as ‘When Did I Stop Being 20?’ ‘It’s Hard to be Hip Over 30,’ ‘How Did I Get To Be 40?’ and ‘Forever Fifty.’ In ‘Suddenly Sixty and Other Shocks of Later Life,’ published in the year 2000, she provides an abecedary that begins:

A’s for arthritis.
B’s for bad back.
C is for chest pains. Corned beef? Cardiac?
D is for dental decay and decline.
E is for eyesight—can’t read that top line.

She may have got the idea from Richard Armour (1906–89), a celebrated light-versifier who, in 1974, published ‘Going Like Sixty,’ his own collection of observations about the indignities of aging (“Of late I appear/to have reached that stage/when people look old/who are only my age.”). Armour was a highly educated man who received a PhD in English philology from Harvard and went on to become a professor of English for many years at two southern California colleges. His early books were serious studies of English literary figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But, by the 1940s, he was writing comically, both in verse and in prose. For years, his light verse was syndicated in numerous newspapers and Sunday supplements. He often wrote about children, parents, and the gap between them. Naturally, he wrote from the point of view of a parent (he and his wife had two children). These poems include complaints about rock-and-roll:

There’s this about
The teen-age crowd:
They like their music
Good and loud.

And I’m not hep,
I lack the knack.
It sends me, but
I don’t come back.

And complaints about the indifference of some offspring towards their parents:

He’s a four-letter man
At college, we hear.
That’s the number of times
He writes home each year.

Some of these poems would surely ruffle the feathers of many contemporary readers. One such example is called ‘Pulling No Punches’:

What an awful beating kids
Would get (the thought allures),
If you could whale the neighbors’ brats
And they could punish yours.

The biggest name in American light verse is Ogden Nash. Unlike McGinley, he never won a Pulitzer for his work, but he towered over all the others. This is partly because he was more prolific than most, and partly because, in his late 20s, he formed an association with the New Yorker, which published hundreds of his poems over the next four decades. But mostly it is because he was enormously gifted as a light versifier. Clever wordplay was a hallmark of Nash’s work (“if called by a panther/don’t anther”), so much so that almost any piece of light verse that contained something similar was likely to be misattributed to him. Wikipedia’s entry for Richard Armour notes that:

Many of Armour’s poems have been repeatedly and incorrectly attributed to Nash. Probably Armour’s most-quoted poem (often incorrectly attributed to Nash) is the quatrain: “Shake and shake / the catsup bottle / none will come / and then a lot’ll.” Another popular quatrain of his, also usually attributed erroneously to Nash, is: “Nothing attracts / the mustard from wieners / as much as the slacks / just back from the cleaners.”

In 2017, W.W. Norton & Company published a slender volume called Morningstar, in which novelist Ann Hood recounts how she fell in love with books and reading. In a moving passage she writes about how her Aunt Angie, an Italian-American immigrant, introduced her to poetry:

One afternoon, when I was seven or eight, as I sat beside her at the enamel-topped kitchen table, she produced from the depths of her handbag a neatly folded newspaper clipping. She smoothed it out and told me to read it out loud, “I never saw a Purple Cow,” I read. “I never hope to see one. But I can tell you, anyhow, I’d rather see than be one.”

Aunt Angie hooted with laughter. “This guy, Ogden Nash, he makes the best rhymes!”

Why this poem was in the newspaper, or how Auntie Angie had heard of Ogden Nash, I cannot say. What I do know is that reading that nonsense poem out loud, feeling the rhymes slide off my tongue, reaching the delightful ending—I’d rather see than be one!—is an experience that I still can’t describe, like the first time you ride your bike without training wheels or watch television in color instead of black and white. A world opened up.

It’s a great story, except—as Hood later acknowledges—her Aunt Angie was wrong. ‘The Purple Cow’ was written by American poet Gelett Burgess, and it was first published in 1895, seven years before Ogden Nash was born. But Hood’s story illustrates the way that light verse was capable of reaching beyond educated elites. The rhythm, the rhyme, the humor—all of these things were accessible to ordinary Americans, and helped to bring poetry to people who may have just scratched their heads over the works of Wallace Stevens or Ezra Pound.

Letter sent by Ogden Nash to a schoolteacher named Maryrose C. Campbell who had written to tell him how much her pupils had enjoyed his children’s book The Tale of Custard the Dragon. (Image courtesy of the author)

It is not surprising that Hood’s aunt found her favorite poem in a newspaper rather than in a textbook. In the 19th century and into the 20th, what was known as “newspaper poetry” was hugely popular in both America and Great Britain. It is where many common readers read most of their poetry. Edgar Guest, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, James Whitcomb Riley, and other popular American poets of the 19th century published much of their work in newspapers. Most of that poetry would be categorized as light verse, although much of it tended to be more sentimental than humorous.

Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 satirical novel Babbitt contains a character, T. Cholmondeley Frink, who writes a widely syndicated column called “Poemulations,” in which he muses on current events in rhymed and metered verse. If that sounds far-fetched, consider that, before she was made famous by her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling and her memoir Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings spent two years writing a syndicated poetry column called “Songs of a Housewife.” She published a poem a day, six days a week, for a total of 495 poems, on such subjects as cherry pie, waffles, Christmas gifts for children, canning, mending the family’s underwear, and hanging the wash out to dry. Most of these are humorous. ‘Swearing Off’ begins:

My family—every one’s a glutton—
Stuffed through the holidays on mutton,
On turkey, goose, and chicken, too,
And with the new year cried, “We’re through!”

Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics for ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and many other classic songs, began his professional career writing light verse for newspapers. It was his friend Ira Gershwin who suggested he branch out into the much more lucrative field of writing song lyrics. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, he wrote lyrics to such songs as ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon,’ ‘Lydia the Tattooed Lady,’ ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard,’ and ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime?’ A lifelong leftist, Harburg was blacklisted by the proponents of McCarthyism for a dozen years (1950–62), during which neither Hollywood nor Broadway would offer him much work. As a result, he returned to writing light verse, much of it critical of America’s military-industrial complex:

An Atom A Day Keeps The Doctor Away

We’ve licked pneumonia and T.B.
And plagues that used to mock us.
We’ve got the virus on the run
The small pox cannot pock us.
We’ve found the antibodies for
The staphylo-strepto-coccus.

But oh, the universal curse
From Cuba to Korea,
The bug of bugs that bugs us still
And begs for panacea!
Oh, who will find the antidote
For Pentagonorrhea?

When the blacklist was finally retired, he published these poems in a collection called Rhymes for the Irreverent, published in 1965.

Born three years prior to Harburg, Dorothy Parker was one of the most famous light versifiers of her era. Much of her work took a pessimistic look at subjects such as romance, love, happiness, and success.

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying—
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

Light verse was so prominent in American life that many advertising agencies employed it to sell their products to consumers. Probably the most famous of these ad campaigns was the one that promoted a shaving lotion called Burma-Shave. From the 1920s until the early 1960s, Burma-Shave erected signs along American highways that advertised its “brushless” shaving cream with a wide variety of humorous rhymes. These rhymes were usually spread across six small signs that were spaced far enough apart to be easily readable by drivers traveling at highway speeds. The last of the signs simply contained the name of the product. A total of 600 rhymes eventually found their way to roadsides all across America, with messages such as:














So, whatever happened to light verse in America? Well, it still exists, but nobody gets famous writing it anymore. Often, you’ll find it written by ordinary joes (and janes) in the comments posted below an online article. Last October 31st, when the New York Times posted an obituary for Jerry Lee Lewis online, hundreds of readers contributed comments expressing their fondness for his music. Some of these were written in verse, such as this one (to the tune of ‘Great Balls of Fire’):

He shook the world, please let me explain
He led a life that was not mundane
He had the skill
He fit the bill
So audacious
Now he’s expired

RIP, Jerry Lee Lewis

And this one:

There’s no one left who is
Like Jerry Lee Lewis
Sex, dope, and anarchy’s
Gift to piano keys.

A writer named Larry Eisenberg gained at least a bit of fame by posting comments in metered verse—mostly limericks—beneath hundreds of New York Times opinion pieces over the course of the last decade of his long life (he died on Christmas Day, 2018, just four days after his 99th birthday). About Donald Trump, he once wrote:

A mauler, a grabber, abuser,
A do whatever you chooser
Non-thinker, non-reader,
A spoiled-child breeder
An every trick-in-the-book user.

Most of Eisenberg’s poems were forgettable, generally just ephemeral comments on passing trends, but many younger readers seemed to enjoy them. Imagine how they’d respond if giants like Nash or McGinley still roamed our periodicals. When Eisenberg died, the Times gave him an obituary appropriately titled, “Larry Eisenberg, 99, Dead; His Limericks Were Very Well Read.”

The limerick was invented as a comic (and often obscene) form of poetry. Paradoxically, that is why it isn’t well suited to true light verse. The comedian known as Gallagher generally appeared on stage wearing goofy hats (which couldn’t contain his long unkempt hair), loud striped shirts, and carrying a watermelon and a sledgehammer. He was the limerick of American stage comedy, funny in an obvious and heavy-handed manner. Rodney Dangerfield, on the other hand, usually appeared on stage in a conservative suit and tie. His hair was always short and neat. He was well composed, like a sonnet or a villanelle, which is what made his sardonic humor so memorable. You didn’t expect a guy who looked like your accountant to be so funny.

When you write in the limerick form, you announce up front that you plan to be funny. But the best light verse generally comes in forms that are staid and traditional. And light verse is probably the most difficult verse to write well. In his introduction to The New Oxford Book of Light Verse, Kingsley Amis wrote:

Light verse makes more stringent demands on the writer’s technique. A fault of scansion or rhyme, an awkwardness or obscurity that would damage only the immediate context of a piece of high verse endangers the whole structure of a light-verse poem. The expectations of the audience are different in the two cases, corresponding to the difference in the kind of performance offered. A concert pianist is allowed a wrong note here and there; a juggler is not allowed to drop a plate.

And therein lies the problem with most contemporary light verse writers. They seem to believe that, because the verse is comic, it needn’t be strictly metrical or well-rhymed when the opposite is true.

Richard Armour once wrote a book for prospective versifiers called Writing Light Verse and Prose Humor. He didn’t believe that a precise definition of light verse would be helpful to anyone, so he used a deliberately broad definition: “Light verse is poetry written in the spirit of play.” By this definition, much of the work of Poe, Dickinson, Frost, Richard Wilbur, and many another great American poet would qualify as light verse.

In the last few decades, a couple of older writers, both long associated with the New Yorker, have tried their hand at reviving American light verse. The results have been disappointing because both men seemed to believe that light verse needn’t work as hard as high verse does. Calvin Trillin and Garrison Keillor have both written hundreds of very funny prose pieces. But when they tried their hand at comic verse, the results were painful.

Trillin began writing light verse for the Nation back in 1990. His verse is almost exclusively about American politics. So, unless you are familiar with every minor member of President George H.W. Bush’s administration, much of it is now of no interest. His work also includes poems about the presidential candidacies of Steve Forbes, Orrin Hatch, and Elizabeth Dole—candidacies that were so short and inconsequential that even most American political junkies have forgotten them.

His verse about the two George W. Bush administrations has been collected in a pair of volumes: Obliviously on He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme (2004) and A Heckuva Job: More of the Bush Administration in Rhyme (2006). Every poem in these books is written in a tone of smug superiority—the kind of upper-class condescension that P.G. Wodehouse satirized in his tales of Jeeves and Wooster. This excerpt from ‘The War in Nine Stanzas’ might as well be a political pamphlet for all the humor it contains:

The weapons that we went to war to get
Have not, as Bush might say, been found just yet.
And even Bush no longer seeks to blame
Iraq for when the towers were aflame.
You needn’t have clairvoyance to intuit
This war’s against a man who didn’t do it.
The man who did is laughing up his sleeve
As parents of our fallen soldiers grieve.
Although we live in color-coded dread,
This war has made us safer, Bush has said.
Most voters like the way he’s fought the terror.
And Bush, when asked, could not recall one error.

What’s more, Trillin tends to beat a few easily-rhymed sounds to death, as in this piece titled ‘CONCERNING NANNY DICK CHENEY’S CONTINUED STATEMENTS ABOUT IRAQ’S ROLE IN 9/11’:

The Commission’s report starts anew
Nanny’s fairy tales, worthy of Pooh,
For the contrary facts that accrue
Can do nothing to change Cheney’s view.
He believes, from what we can construe,
If you say it enough, then it’s true.

Though less than 20 years old, that poem is so dated that it begs for a gloss. Another poem begins:

The networks give Bush knocks or mocks.
They paint him stubborn as an ox
And clever as a box of rocks.
So set the channel, please, to Fox.

That particular poem goes on for another 12 lines, every one of which ends in a rhyme for “fox.” Likewise, all 20 lines of a poem called “McCain,” end with a word that rhymes with the late Senator’s surname. The great light versifiers of the past were capable of writing well about politics, but they didn’t confine themselves to the subject. By commenting almost exclusively on the table talk at Washington, DC social functions, Trillin guaranteed that his verse would become obsolete with the arrival of each news cycle.

You’d think that by sheer chance a professional writer who produced so much verse would have put forth something at least as catchy as “Candy is dandy/But liquor is quicker” or “Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses.” But it never happened. Every poem by Calvin Trillin is like the tape at the beginning of each episode of the old Mission: Impossible TV series. It self-destructs as soon as it has served its immediate purpose.

In 2009, Garrison Keillor published a book called 77 Love Sonnets, which seems to have been intended as a spoof/tribute to Pablo Neruda’s Cien Sonetos de Amor (100 Love Sonnets). These are often clever and funny. They are mercifully free of the condescension that mars most of Trillin’s efforts. But they are also very sloppy. The second poem in the book is called ‘Supper’:

You made crusty bread rolls filled with chunks of brie
And minced garlic drizzled with olive oil
And baked them until the brie was bubbly
And we ate them lovingly, our legs coiled
Together under the table. And salmon with dill
And lemon and whole-wheat couscous
Baked with garlic and fresh ginger, and a hill
Of green beans and carrots roasted with honey and tofu.

It was beautiful, the candles, the linen and silver,
The sun shining down on our northern street,
Me with my hand on your leg. You, my lover,
In your jeans and green T-shirt and beautiful bare feet.
How simple life is. We buy a fish. We are fed.
We sit close to each other, we talk and then we go to bed.

This isn’t one of the more comic poems in the book, but it fits Richard Armour’s definition of light verse as poetry written in the spirit of play. The problem is that it’s a mess of slant rhymes, half-rhymes, and near rhymes. Some of these might have worked in a more serious poem, but here they sound like a juggler’s smashed plates. And there’s no real reason for it. With five minutes of tinkering, Keillor could have neatened up the rhymes. He could, for example, have replaced, “And minced garlic drizzled with olive oil” with “And garlic minced and lightly olive-oiled” to perfect the rhyme with “legs coiled.” (If you don’t like that suggestion, I’m sure you can come up with something better with a few minutes of effort.)

And why would an amateur poet (this was his first book of poetry) end a line with “silver,” which, like various other colors (orange, purple, etc.) is famously impossible to rhyme? His first line has a masculine ending (the final syllable, “brie,” is stressed) and the third line has a feminine ending (“bubbly,” the second syllable of which isn’t stressed). In “serious” poetry this would not necessarily be a problem, but it’s an error in light verse. And since it would be so easy to fix (the “-ee” sound is the most easy to rhyme in English), it just makes the poet look lazy. Keillor’s book is filled with this kind of carelessness, which suggests he neither cares about nor understands the form.

In 2012, novelist Elinor Lipman published Tweet Land of Liberty: Irreverent Rhymes From the Political Circus. Despite the title, there’s nothing the least bit irreverent about Lipman’s verse, which is reliably leftwing in the vein of much mainstream American political commentary. Each of Lipman’s quatrains first appeared on Twitter as an individual tweet back when tweets were limited to 140 characters. The book includes poems about the presidential candidacies of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, and Ron Paul—all of which are about as memorable as Trillin’s poems about the forgotten presidential candidates of 2000. Like Trillin, Lipman forces her titles to do a lot of heavy lifting for her:

No. 1 Gov. in Executions: Rick Perry: 234 in 11 Years

Perry’s way ahead of Mitt,
In every Gallup poll.
If not his hair or frequent prayer,
Perhaps his death-row toll?

And, like Keillor, her rhymes are often unnecessarily sloppy:

Bachmann Sees Hurricane as Divine Message on Spending

God is Mad at Washington;
The weather makes that plain.
Bachmann says if she is prez,
We won’t get hurricanes.

In the recent past, our books of light verse usually came from writers of stature whose primary genre was light verse. Nowadays, they generally come from slumming novelists and political pundits for whom light verse is just a side hustle—writers who seem to think that just making things rhyme (sort of) is all a light versifier has to do.

Plenty of decent light verse still gets written. A magazine called Light: A Journal of Light Verse publishes new verses every week in its online format. Formalist poets like Timothy Steele and A.E. Stallings often produce very witty poems. For instance, this excerpt from Stallings’s poem, ‘Glitter,’ sounds like one of Richard Armour’s complaints about his kids:

You have a daughter now. It’s everywhere,
And often in the company of glue.
You can’t get rid of it. It’s in her hair:
A wink of pink, a glint of silver-blue.
It’s catching, like the chicken pox, or lice.
It travels, like a planetary scar.
Sometimes it’s on your face, or you look twice
And glimpse, there on your arm, a single star.

In Britain, Wendy Cope keeps the fires of light verse alive. But at some point in the last 50 years or so, American tastemakers seem to have decided that light verse isn’t a serious literary form, so writers have seldom worked as hard at it as poets like Nash and McGinley and Parker and Armour once did.

Part of this seems to be due to what has lately been termed “elite overproduction.” In previous eras, much of America’s journalism, poetry, and fiction were written by people who not only lacked an elite college education, many of them lacked any college education at all. Neither Ogden Nash nor Dorothy Parker earned a college degree (nor, for that matter, did Emily Dickinson, H.D., Robert Frost, and any number of other “serious” poets of previous eras). But for half a century now, most of America’s most prominent journalists, poets, and novelists have been graduates of elite universities. And, because the lecture is a primary method of delivering education at schools like Harvard and Yale and Stanford, much contemporary journalism, poetry, and fiction reads like a lecture.

Google the words “Why you’re wrong about [inflation, The Handmaid’s Tale, whatever]” or “You’re doing [oral hygiene, biscuit-baking, whatever] all wrong” and you’ll find countless links to essays at Slate, the Atlantic, Vox, the New York Times, and elsewhere that read more like lectures than actual essays. Two recent titles from the Atlantic are “The Homeownership Society Was a Mistake” and “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” Pretty much anything widely embraced by Middle Americans is a mistake as far as the Atlantic is concerned, and the writers there are happy to lecture you about it.

The essay form takes its name from a French word meaning “an attempt,” and the earliest (and best) essays were written in a spirit of humility, suggesting that the author could well be wrong. Such a spirit is largely gone from contemporary American essays. And, as with essays, so with poetry. Much contemporary American poetry appears to be aimed at hectoring those less enlightened than the author, who almost always possesses an elite education. It is unlikely that good light verse—which requires humility, intellectual rigor, self-deprecation, a sense of humor—could be written by the people of the lecture. Long stretches of the libretto for Wesleyan-graduate Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton feel like history lectures. Amanda Gorman (Harvard ’20) delivered a poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden that sounded more like a lecture, albeit one that occasionally rhymed:

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption.
We feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.

Even back in the 1950s, light verse was under attack by the educated elites. Sylvia Plath (Smith ’55) wrote in her journal, “Phyllis McGinley is out—light verse: she’s sold herself.” Others dismissed McGinley as “a housewife poet.” But McGinley understood that what she was writing was more difficult to produce than what Plath and her fellow confessionalists were gushing out. “The appeal of light verse is to the intellect,” she noted, “and the appeal of serious verse is to the emotions.”

Technology seems to support this conclusion. Last November brought us the introduction of ChatGPT, a new computer app that can produce poems, essays, and stories almost instantaneously on command. Some pundits worried that it would make the college essay useless, since anyone with a cell phone could produce an original essay on any subject simply by requesting one from ChatGPT. In some cases, ChatGPT can even produce an essay or poem in the voice of a famous writer. You could, for instance, request a sonnet on the films of Kristen Stewart written in the voice of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

As a test, I asked ChatGPT to write a poem called ‘The Goshawk’ in the voice of the late Mary Oliver. Many of the lines sounded like they might plausibly have come from one of Oliver’s sentimental and not very poetic nature poems:

A graceful dancer in the morning light.
I watch in awe as she disappears,
Into the green and leafy bowers.
For just a moment, I am filled with fear,
That I will never see her again, or hear her

But then I see her soaring back,
To perch atop a towering oak,
And I know that she is a spirit,
Wild and free…

It’s schmaltzy, but in the same way that much of Oliver’s work is schmaltzy, such as this excerpt from “Wild Geese”:

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

But when I asked ChatGPT to write a poem about Joe Biden in the voice of Ogden Nash, the app laid an egg. Humor, true cleverness, and a sense of style all seem to be beyond it. Here’s what I got:

There once was a man named Joe Biden
Whose hair was a shade of golden
He ran for the White House
With grace and poise
And now he’s our president and he’s not beholden
To the whims of the rich or the power of the elite.
He stands for the people and he can’t be beat.
With a heart full of compassion and a mind full of wisdom
He’s leading our nation with courage and freedom.

Joe Biden, our leader, our guide
He’s working hard every day with pride
To bring about a change and make a difference
He’s the president we needed in this instance.

So let’s give a round of applause for the man we call Joe Biden,
Because he’s a man of integrity and a man of his word
And we’re lucky to have him,
Oh, it’s simply absurd.

Alas, today, it’s Plath’s spiritual descendants who hold sway in elite university creative-writing departments while Nash’s and McGinley’s work is largely forgotten. Today’s elites are all totally in touch with their feelings and can’t wait to lecture you about them. Someday they will all be replaced by AI and no-one will notice. But who can replace Ogden Nash and Phyllis McGinley?

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