Book Review

The Accidental Cynic by Gail White, Prospero’s World Press, 2009. $15 (postage included) from Prospero's World Press, PO Box 774, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462. 

Reviewed by Susan McLean

Remember when reading poetry was fun?

Okay, that was a trick question. If you said “yes,” how far back did you have to go—Shel Silverstein? Dr. Seuss? Robert Louis Stevenson? At one time, poetry that was fun was not just for kids. Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and Phyllis McGinley cracked up adult readers for decades in journals such as The New Yorker. But then such journals stopped taking light verse, and poetry became very serious and read almost exclusively by poets or would-be poets.

In the United Kingdom, the turn against humorous poetry was not as sweeping. Competitions for light verse are still held in British journals such as The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Literary Review. That training ground has nurtured poets like Wendy Cope, whose poetry books are downright popular in the UK, though she is still relatively little known in the US. In the US, however, humorous poetry has been relegated to children’s books and to a handful of publications such as Light Quarterly in print and Bumbershoot online, very slim pickings for the few practitioners and readers of this time-honored art.

Gail White has been toiling for many years in the outer darkness to which light verse has been relegated in America. Not only has she been writing excellent formal verse herself (both light and darker), as collected in The Price of Everything (Mellen Poetry, 2002, now out of print) and Easy Marks (WordTech Communications, 2008), but she has striven to increase light verse’s visibility by editing collections of light and satirical verse, such as The Muse Strikes Back (edited with Katherine McAlpine, Story Line, 1997) and Kiss and Part: Laughing at the End of Romance and Other Entanglements (Doggerel Daze, 2005). Her latest collection, The Accidental Cynic, which won the 2007-2008 Anita Dorn Memorial Prize for Poetry, focuses particularly on light verse, though even White’s light verse tends to have a cynical edge and is always aware of the darkness in life.

That awareness that we are all laughing in the dark gives wryness and piquancy to White’s wide-ranging takes on literature, art, religion, the indignities of modern life, and the often-fraught relations between men and women. Because she is well read in the literary tradition, her poems are peopled with characters from Emilia and Desdemona to Jane Eyre to Madame Bovary, with allusions to Dickinson as an office worker, Hardy as a party-pooper (“In an effort to effervesce,/he would read selections from Tess”), Housman (off his Prozac), and Villon (on millionaires, drink, and women). In “Simone de Beauvoir to Sartre,” de Beauvoir sardonically observes about her philandering lover “we had two freedoms—his and hers,” while Rossetti’s wife reflects that although her husband buried his poetry manuscript with her “to be a sacrifice of love/forever,” it didn’t take long for him to dig her up to get his poems back.

Even somber subjects, in White’s poems, often make a swerve into satiric territory. In “Post Diagnosis,” a man who hears he has a terminal illness imagines his wife’s life after his death:

His picture of her future (tender, brave,
devoted) always ends beside his grave.
When his life ends, he feels—and she concurs—
nothing will go on happening in hers.

But she must look ahead—and while he sees
a mist of sweetly mournful memories
in that remote expression on her face,
she sees new uses for his closet space.

But the cynicism that brings delicious wit to the undercutting of the expected in poem after poem does not preclude less defended emotions, such as the pathos and horror of seeing the crouching figure of a young girl with a baby, who both died at Pompeii in the volcanic eruption:

Now, in an iron carapace
of ashes, here she crouches still,
shielding in vain her charge’s face
while tourists photograph their fill.

Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” does not apply to White. In “What We Hold in Our Hands Is Only String” she praises the wisdom of “the non-attachment toddlers know—/that kites exist to be let go.” Her own self-deprecating good humor shines through in the brief “Epitaph of the Unknown Poet”:

When I was roaring healthy,
it made my spirit groan
to see what fools were famous
while I was all unknown.

But now I’m dead and buried,
my own immortal fame
and that of William Shakespeare
look very much the same.

One characteristic that sets light verse apart from most contemporary poetry is its deployment of flexible and melodic verse in a huge array of poetic forms. Most modern formalists are content to exploit a limited range of forms: sonnets in great number, some quatrains or couplets, perhaps a villanelle or two. White adds to those forms a dazzling array of clerihews, double dactyls, triolets, skeltonics, a quiz poem, free verse, and six ballades, a form rarely attempted today because of its demanding rhyme scheme, a veritable triathlon for rhymers. Though her allusions are impressive in their range, her language is direct, colloquial, and accessible. For me, her dry wit is a taste I can’t get enough of; however, if you like your humor in jokes rather than in sly and subversive observations, her poetry may not appeal equally to you. She is an unabashed animal lover, but even her beloved cats are not immune to ironic deflation, as in her “Abelard, or Love Gone Wrong,” about a puzzled male cat who can’t figure out why “results are not the same” after his neutering. Still, for readers less enamored of cats, their appearance in the poems may seem over-frequent. Since I share White’s love of literature, I have a bottomless appetite for her quips about writers and parodies of famous poems, but those who are not bookworms themselves may not share that taste.

Light verse is not the opposite of nuance and awareness of darkness, but of the ponderous or pompous in poetry. Most cynics may be disillusioned idealists, but White’s level-headedness and ability to laugh and move on are the elements that keep readers turning the pages long after they had resolved to go to bed. And the fact that the poems are consistently fun doesn’t hurt.

Susan McLean is a professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University. Her first full-length poetry book, The Best Disguise, won the 2009 Richard Wilbur Award and was published by the University of Evansville Press.