Having a laugh with rhyme and reason

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The Independent Culture
WHAT'S THE best way of putting down a writer of funny poems? By calling him a practitioner of light verse. That word "light" suggests that a poem can't be both funny and serious at the same time, that "light verse" is, by its very definition, a slightly inferior breed of poem for two quite distinct reasons: its emotional gravity and the fact that it is "verse" and not poetry. Verse is mechanical, poetry is inspired.

The phrase also skillfully disguises the fact that much funny writing is often written out of a kind of despair. Think of that terribly sad and lonely Mr Lear, for example. And how light is despair, for God's sake - if there is (sob, sob), a God?

But what exactly makes funny poems funny? At the South Bank this week, two of the best writers of funny poetry, Kit Wright, a beanpole of a man from Kent, and Sophie Hannah, a much shorter, girl-next-doorish sort of girl from Moss Side, Manchester, were making us laugh with poetry which was neither light nor mechanical.

One thing that these two poets had in common was a very strict approach to form. Funny poems, generally speaking, are not written in free verse. There has to be a strict rhyme scheme, and a strict formal shape for the humour to play off against. Such formal robustness gives the poems a sledge-hammering directness of attack.

Both poets were lovers of the 17th-century devotional poet George Herbert, for example, a man who devised the most intricate formal shapes within which to express the dramatic inward struggles between the compulsions of the carnal man and the yearning of the godly.

In a poem called "George Herbert's Other Self in Africa", Wright turns Herbert's characteristic stance on its head. The tortured narrator is now an atheist who gets tempted into belief, but who manages to resist the blandishments of religion all the same. At the poem's end, he remains as sternly godless as ever.

If Kit Wright had not been born a comic poet, the muses would surely have had to invent someone who looked and sounded exactly like him in order to demonstrate the type. His voice seems continuously to undergo slight changes - as if he makes a habit of chewing the words up in his mouth before they get spat out. If they've been chewed for too long, they come out clipped and short. If they've been chewed once only, they are likely to be bigger, wider, and more orotund. Sometimes he sounds like an olde-time Kentish hop-farmer; moments later, the vowels come out all flat and Northern. Then, all of a sudden, he turns into a harrumphing colonel type - until, that is, he modulates farther, into a slightly over- fussy and embarrassed public schoolboy.

And always, standing before you, there is this giant of a man with a blaze of snow-white hair, who stretches the microphone flex up and up to its farthest limit, and still he's leaning down to reach.

Sophie Hannah makes the best of her poems, which also show an unfashionably strict fidelity to rhyme and formal shape, out of the weird comedy of fractured relationships, the incongruous behavioural patterns of real people in contention with each other.

They both proved that funny poetry of this kind has an important role to play in our lives: the saving of sanity by the absolution of a joke.

Michael Glover