Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

"Easy Marks" by Gail White (David Robert Books, 2008)

I have trouble with light verse though I sometimes write it and even get the odd piece published. I like some Wendy Cope, but when she's bad she's horrid. Ditto Sophie Hannah. I don't like to see a joke, anecdote or aperçu bloated and put into rhyme in an attempt to give it greater veracity. I much prefer the approach of Don Paterson and some Italian poets who produce a book of aphorisms every so often.

Perhaps another light-verse characteristic is that it can be read and enjoyed by people who don't read much poetry. Certainly these poems don't err on the side of sententiousness. Indeed, if you don't read much poetry, many of these themes will be new to you, and the only word-economy to compare these poems against might be that of novels.

Light verse can tackle serious topics, but it needn't, and this book doesn't duck any issues. It's unlikely to be difficult and allusive, but I think it should demand the same word-perfect care that mainstream poems receive. A good punchline doesn't excuse a lax poem.

On my first read of this book I noted the page-numbers of poems that were ok and those that weren't.

  • OK: 13, 17, 19, 22, 25, 35, 37, 48, 51, 52, 68, 74
  • Not OK: 14, 18, 26, 27, 30, 31, 36, 38, 39, 40, 41, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 54, 56, 59, 60, 61, 66, 67, 69, 72, 73

There were only a few Maybes.

Too often lines are padded with extra words for the sake of the form. Rhymes are sometimes unduly forced. Sometimes poems are padded with extra lines - poems on p.14, p.21 etc could have been so much shorter and more effective. I like the idea of "Red Riding Hood's Sister" - that the younger sister's not allowed out, that at night she looks from her window for the lights of her grandmother's cottage. But the poem starts slowly.

Beware of the older sister
who becomes a herione.
On her account
so much is forbidden.
I was never allowed to walk
in the wolf-haunted woods.
Who knows what could happen?
A friendly woodcutter may not
always be at hand
in case of emergencies!

We don't even a strong sense of voice coming through (indeed, the same voice and diction pervades nearly all the poems). I'd consider replacing the first 15 lines by something like "It's all her fault that I can't play in the wood. She's not as brave as they think, just lucky that the hunky woodcutter turned up in time."

Prose formats are never used, though "Breaking Down in the South" (for example) is prose with a final rhymed quatrain.

Some of the ideas have been seen too many times before - a widower keeps laying 2 plates on the table, putting one away; mobile phones are used too much; there are drunk hangers-on at parties. I've seen poems like the de Beauvoir piece before too. The metaphors get tangled up sometimes -on p.23 there's "and I fear our people drink acid from an evil tongue"

I like some of the punchlines - e.g. "His widow mourns - and claims his closet space", p.65 - though too often it takes too long to get there.

In the end I guess it's the genre rather than the poems that I don't get on with. I think I'd chop half of the poems, and reduce many of the rest of the poems by 30%.

Typos - p.14 "I look back now with pity on the young Me I didn't pity them [then?]". p.30 "less humiliating then [than?] being fished"

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