Laughter lines

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
THE FUNNY SIDE
101 humorous poems chosen by Wendy Cope
Faber. #163;7.99

THE NATION'S FAVOURITE COMIC POEMS
A selection of humorous poems chosen by Griff Rhys Jones
BBC Worldwide. #163;4.99.

No one ever advises you to look on the funny side unless you're having a hard time. It's not surprising, then, to find that the new Faber anthology,The Funny Side, contains, in editor Wendy Cope's words, "poems about being broken-hearted, about obsessive love, about dissatisfaction with a marriage or a life, and about feeling suicidal". It's no surprise, either, to find our sanity and good humour restored at each turn of the page. After all, as Benjamin Franklin King's "The Pessimist" explains, there's:

"Nothing to do but work.
Nothing to eat but food.
Nothing to wear but clothes,
To keep one from going nude."

Roger McGough's "Survivor" comes to a similar conclusion in the The Nation's Favourite Comic Poems:

"Everyday
I think about dying. About
disease, starvation,
violence, terrorism, war,
the end of the world.
It helps
keep my mind off things."

Armed with these two books of parody, punning, human lunacy and invention,we have all the material we need to spend National Poetry Day laughing at ourselves. Good.

Poetry is a kind of playing, and, like all sincere play, combines our most concentrated enjoyment with our most irreverent mischief. Ted Hughes has described the construction of poetry as playfulness - involving both a meditative focus and the detachment we associate with humans "at play" (that is, engaged in something for no profit which releases us from a sense of time) - and as a form of teasing, punning, breaking rules and challenging conventions.

As Griff Rhys Jones points out, the second of these attributes is ground shared with comedy: "Puns, wordplay, hidden meanings and the wrong-footing of cherished notions: it's the very stuff of verse."

Wendy Cope claims to have little time for nonsense or "pure play", but her anthology has all the detailed construction of a comic stage set, developing and diverting from themes, varying pace, calling on a range of poets and styles as a comedian calls on favourite stock characters and voices. This builds a cumulative pleasure for the reader which is unavailable in the alphabetical order of the BBC book, as when J C Squire's "Ballade of Soporific Absorption" rolls on to

"I'm a upple litset by the talk you rot -
But I'm not as think as you drunk I am"

and into Ian McMillan's "Life on Earth" - a one-liner in language so clean and sparse it reads like a parody of transition, an exercise in close-cropped lines - and on to Ogden Nash's "Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man", half of the comedy of which rests on the strung-out hairy lines:

"You didn't slap the lads in the
tavern on the back and loudly
cry Whee
Let's all fail to write just one
more letter before we go
home, and this round of
unwritten letters is on me."

In this way we are led through the funny side of money, drink, crime, marriage, love, children, animals and poetry itself, where, among other delights, Pierre Jean de Beranger (translated by Robert B Brough) does little to narrow the assumed gap between "serious" and seriously funny writing:

"When great scribes to poetry
March, by notions big led,
Be so kind as pray for me,
I'm as dead as pig-lead.
When you start a careless song,
Not at grammar sticking,
Good to push the wine along,
I'm alive and kicking."

Let's not be misled; there's nothing "careless" in any of these songs. They may wear their craft lightly, but they're no less well dressed for that.

Both editors draw attention to their omission of those inadvertently funny poems and failures to see the funny side as properly belonging to another category, but it was good to see Wordsworth almost making it into the BBC book on this score for "Spade! With which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands".

Rather than leave the old bore the final word, I'll turn to archy, Don Marquis's reincarnated vers libre poet trapped in the body of a cockroach and living under the tyranny of Prohibition. Yes, archy and his friend the renegade mehitabel are back in print in a new Faber omnibus edition, which,as archy puts it in his "book review",

"is one of the
best books i ever
tasted".

You can vote in the BBC poll to find "The Nation's Favourite Comic Poem" on voting cards from bookshops or by phoning 0990 122266 (national rates apply) until midnight on October 7

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