In certain literary circles, light verse is about as highly esteemed as light beer. Sometimes dismissed as doggerel or greeting-card sap, light verse actually dates back to the ancient Greeks. Many of our greatest poets have written it, from Catullus to Lord Byron to T.S. Eliot, not to mention Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, and Dr. Seuss.
Melissa Balmain ’87 hopes to revive this misunderstood poetic tradition. In 2012, she took over as editor of Light, the oldest journal of light verse in the United States, and last year moved it entirely online. Published quarterly, a typical issue might contain verse by 50 or more poets, along with essays about light verse and announcements of recent awards and upcoming poetry competitions.
Light verse, she says, can be hard to categorize, covering a variety of poetic forms, including limericks, epigrams, and double dactyls. It is usually humorous, although the humor can be dark, and the lines usually rhyme and scan or follow a particular pattern of beats. Beyond those loose constraints, light verse is “more a state of mind,” says Balmain, whose first solo collection of light verse, Walking in on People, will be published later this month. She also has written a memoir, Just Us: Adventures and Travels of a Mother and Daughter, and teaches English at the University of Rochester.
When Balmain (who was known as Melissa Weiner as a student) became Light’s editor, she asked classmate Kevin Durkin ’87, a fellow poet, to join her. Durkin, now a contributing editor to the magazine, recently published a book of non-light verse poetry, Los Angeles in Fog (Finishing Line Press).
After reaching its zenith in the mid-20th century, Balmain says, light verse lost favor to free verse as popular tastes changed and many of the magazines in which it was published folded. But it never disappeared, holding on in Broadway song lyrics and children’s books, among other places, and has begun to gain new notice in venues such as The Washington Post’s Style Invitational, a weekly humor and wordplay contest. “There’s hope,” Balmain believes. “People still enjoy what their grandparents enjoyed, but with a modern twist.”
From Walking in on People © Melissa Balmain, 2014. Used by permission of Able Muse Press.
Dear Writer [who’s not dear and cannot write],
Thank you for showing us your [so-called] work.
[It’s obvious that you’re a clueless jerk
and typed the thing while higher than a kite.]
Although we read [three words of] it with care,
we’ll have to pass [a kidney stone or two—
or so it seemed when we were reading you.
We also felt like tearing out our hair].
Unfortunately [fortunately], we
get many [better] manuscripts each week
[spam, takeout menus, notes from creditors],
so [if we want to keep our sanity]
we can’t give [drunks like you] a full critique.
Good luck [at Betty Ford],