Poets write far too much; without apologies.
This must be clearly said Distracted readers
Cringe at collected works, and so anthologies
Are made to help us recognize the leaders.
But sometimes they are used as manifestors.
Stepping (quite impolitely) on the best toes.
Amis has put his volume in that class;
He radically modifies the canon.
Allowing many honored names to pass
(They range from T.S. Eliot to Anon).
But throwing out, at the compiler's pleasure.
A lot of verse that readers well might treasure.
He introduces newer names (a blessing,
But not unmixed), and argues with great vigor
To justify a few of his distressing
Examples of anthologizing rigor.
But one must ask: Should he reduce his scope,
E.g., by excommunicating Pope?
He does, and Geoffrey Chaucer is rejected
(And Milton, though he really won't be missed).
In fact, the poets Amis has neglected
Would constitute a most impressive list.
The fellow hardly seems to know what shame is;
Half of a page for Shakespeare, six for Amis!
Enough of that. A more prosaic task must be confronted here: to sift the pages of this anthology and then to ask (calmly, avoiding wild poetic rages) whether the contents justify the name, and if they don't, what factors are to blame.
Part of the problem (and there is a problem) lies in a lack of definition. What constitutes "lightness" in verse? Is it certain surface polish? Or might we define it (your reviewer would) as "a kind of verse that focuses on human absurdity but avoids despair?" Or, as W.H. Auden did in the predecessor of this anthology 40 years ago, should the anthologist decide that this elusive term describes verse in which the poet is not "conscious of himself as an unusual personage, and his language [is] straighforward and close to ordinary speech."
Amis wanders around the question in his introduction without answering it, and the result is that "light" verse becomes, for lack of definition, what Amis happens to know (this may be the most severe limiting factor) and like (the most capricious limiting factor).
He does indicate some negative criteria. For example, if a poem requires footnotes, it is by definition not light. There go Caucer, Pope and Burns - but not Kingsley Amis, though one of his poems in this collection is footnoted. We can accept readily enough his dictum that Milton is not light, but where are Herrick and Lovelace and Suckling?
There is, of course, a minor tradition of quirkiness in Oxford anthologies. Some would date it back to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who compiled the first Oxford Book of English Verse, and it is rampant in the collection of modern verse entrusted to William Butler Yeats, who filled a good part of it with people he happened to know - people who have never been included in any other reputable anthology. Auden's 1938 collection of light verse stretched the definition to include proletarian verse of all kinds - even Kipling's gruesome "Danny Deever" - but its quirkiness was more interesting than that of Amis because it was more inclusive.
Among the editorial prejudices evident in this volume there may be a sort of chronological prejudice. Amis represents the 17th century, a golden age of English poetry, with a mere baker's dozen of selections, and cuts off his entries rather sharply after he gets beyond poets born in the decade of his own birth, the 1920s. He denounces the light verse of the 1970s and says that he "cannot see the situation improving much." To this, one can only reply (borrowing from one of the too-few poems of Auden collected here): "Read The New Yorker, trust in God . . ."
One may detect other forms of prejudice as well. Several poems seem to be included largely because their flavor is anti-Irish, anti-Scottish, anti-American, anti-New Zealander or (in the case of some of Amis' own verse) anti-Welsh. Fair enough, I suppose; any subject will do if it is well-handled - but many of these poems seem deficient in the indefinable "lightness" that is otherwise so highly prized.
This collection is not a total loss, to be sure. There are some happy discoveries in the new material Amis introduces, notably the first appearance in book form of some fine poems whose authors were born around the time of World War I. These include three excellent limericks by Victor Gray, two superbly didactic poems by Roger Woddis which originally appeared in the New Satesman, and a splendid diatribe on academic life ("Where lads that are largely unteachable/Learn subjects that cannot be taught") by Ted Pauker.
Amis is probably most sound on the mid-19th century, the apogee of vers de societe, but even in this period he shows a most distressing attitude toward Edward Lear. He calls him "whimsical to the point of discomfort" and wishes "that the lands where the Jumblies live were a good deal farther and fewer than they are affirmed to be," while at the other extreme he finds "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat" "too touching to be light."
Although most of his introductory essay on lightness is devoted to such exclusionary observations and he fails spectacularly to define just what he is anthologizing, Amis does make some felicitous random obervations - for example, this one the specially stringent technical demands of light verse: "A concert pianist is allowed a wrong note here and there; a juggler is not allowed to drop a plate."
But ultimately an anthology must stand or fall on the basis of what it includes, what it represents - and on these terms, this collection must fall. A large and very impressive book could be made using only poets who are not represented in The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse. It would include a good many specialists in the form - Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash and Don Marquis, to name only three - and a few writers better known for their prose (Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence). But most surprisingly, it would include some major poets who have made significant contributions to light verse. Ezra Pound, for example, characteristically pioneered new ideas and original techniques in this field which deserve some recognition.
Then there is E.E. Cummings, who wrote (among many others) that masterpiece of double entendre, "she being Brand/-new" and the sonnet beginning "next to of course god" and the splendidly double-edged poem about Buffalo Bill and a word-jumbling extravaganza about a grasshopper. An argument (strong if incoclusive) could be made that he was the greatest English-language writer of light verse in the first half of the 20th century. It would be comforting to think that Amis has examined and rejected the evidence for this assertion (as he certainly examined a few standard anthology pieces by Pound), but nothing in this volume (particularly in its rather amorphous introduction) indicates that he has even thought about the possibility.