The Billy Collins Experience by A.M. Juster. Aldrich Press. 66pp., $14.00
Sleaze & Slander: New and Selected Comic Verse, 1995-2015 by A.M. Juster. Measure Press. 124pp., $25.00
In his introduction to The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse (1978), Kingsley Amis summarily defines the criteria for inclusion in his anthology: “Light verse is light, light in the sense of cheerful, airy, light as in light-footed and light-hearted.” Which is not the same as fluffy. Though Amis omits, for instance, Dryden and Pope, and does include poems by Swift and Johnson, he has little use for Edward Lear, describing the limerick scribbler as “whimsical to the point of discomfort,” and advises us to avoid nonsense verse at all costs. So, what would Amis, a deft hand at verse light and otherwise, make of “Houseguests”:
There’s shouting by the stove (it’s Plath & Hughes)
as Wystan wanders off without his shoes
and Whitman picks the Cheetos off his beard.
The Larkin-Ginsberg chat is getting weird,
for after countless hours they have found
bizarre pornography is common ground.
Old Emily is not
As prim as billed—
When Dylan finds her bra-hooks—
She is thrilled.
Poe strokes his bird; Pound yawps that it’s a pity
Eliot can’t sleep without his kitty.
Rimbaud’s on eBay searching for a zebra
while sneering, “Oui, a cheemp can write vers libre!”
The Doctor’s soggy chickens start to smell
and Stevens has insurance he must sell.
The readings are spectacular, I know,
but is there any way to make them go?
Amis, we suspect, would toast the author. Potshots at the sacrosanct are always welcome. Here the shooter is A.M. Juster in Sleaze & Slander: New and Selected Comic Verse, 1995-2015, which collects twenty years of well-crafted irreverence. Light verse often presumes on the part of the reader some knowledge of literary convention and history. If we know the lives behind the lines, “Houseguests” (like Tom Disch’s “The Art of Dying” and its immortal line, “The execution of Marianne Moore”), carries a gossipy wallop. We’ve all had enough of Plath and Hughes, as duo and solo acts, and Juster takes us right to the yawning stove.
“A.M. Juster” is an incomplete anagram of the poet’s given name, Michael J. Astrue, who from 2007 to 2013 served as Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration (his tenure straddled the reigns of Bush and Obama). The pen name echoes “jester” and “adjuster,” and suggests that its bearer is juster than the late American poet Donald Justice. Juster was outed as Astrue in 2010 by Paul Mariani in the journal First Things, and may have the most unorthodox curriculum vitae in American literary history. He graduated from Harvard Law School, served as General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ran three publicly traded biotechnology firms and, since 2008, has published volumes of translations of Latin poetry by Horace, Tibullus and St. Aldhelm. Since leaving public office, Juster has been busy. The two volumes under review came out in 2016, and this year will see publication of two more books of translations: The Elegies of Maximianus and Milton’s Book of Elegies.
Amis was gloomy about the future of light or comic verse, which almost by definition must be written using the lost arts of meter and rhyme. The vogue for “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” would seem to signal the final removal of life supports. What would such sensitive plants make of Juster’s epigram “To My Ambitious Colleague”: “Your uphill climb will never stop; / scum always rises to the top.” Poems like this and a resilient light-verse subculture thrive in such venues as Light: A Journal of Light Verse, where fifteen of the poems in Slander & Sleaze were first published.
Light verse ought to make sense but cannot be effectively reduced to a prose trot. Except in parody, it seldom is written in free verse. Meter and rhyme supply the ordnance for wit. In his “Translator’s Note” to The Satires of Horace, Juster says his aim was to fashion “a faithful version of the Satires that was fun to read,” and writes: “I have chosen to use rhyme, even though the Romans did not, because it is so embedded in our expectations of humorous poetry. The combination of rhyme and meter creates rhythms that lead to the expectation of a punch line, and the anticipation of the punch line is a key element of humor.”
Juster must look elsewhere for laughs in The Billy Collins Experience, his clinically chilly and very funny dead-on parody of the former U.S. Poet Laureate’s trademark whimsy. Technically, Collins is unaccomplished, usually eschewing meter and rhyme, and seldom venturing far from prose-like free verse. His work is affable and accessible, but without variety. He has written the same poem a thousand times, customarily in a tone of flat-affect folksiness. The formula works, commercially speaking, and Collins’ popularity is the cause of much envious grumbling from fellow poets. This reader finds Collins almost unreadable but Juster makes having read even a small portion of his work a retroactively rewarding endeavor. It always helps to know the original being parodied. Here is Juster ventriloquizing Collins in “Elegy”:
Seamus Heaney has died,
so in the coming years
there will be more prizes
for other poets.
I should mourn him
on my walk after a chicken salad sandwich
and a frosty local beer,
but winter rain has turned
my neighborhood into one of Heaney’s bogs,
a scene so soggy and gray
that it inevitably suggests
that death is something
that could happen to me,
particularly on such a walk.
Why is this funny? (Always a dangerous question.) In Collins’ characteristic tone of plain-spoken sincerity, Juster expresses the jealousy and Schadenfreude lurking in the hearts of poets and the rest of us. And yet, his demolition of Collins is almost collegial. He pays him the compliment of close attention. Look at the titles Juster gives to Collins’ poetry collections, all fictional: Rapture with Paperclips, Gerald Ford Eaten by Wolves, Forgetting About Amnesia, Avocados in Action (Collins/Juster has an abiding attachment to poems about food, especially toast) and Removing My Penis. Here is the eponymous poem from that final provocatively titled volume:
When I am hard at work
In the late afternoon
And, as is my wont,
I have removed my penis,
It does not make me
Less of a man,
Just more of a poet.
Not to worry.
When I break for dinner,
It snaps right back in,
Like raisin toast in a toaster
Or oysters returning to their shells.
What’s funny is less the poem’s absurd premise (after all, Collins wrote a poem about discovering he was the same age as Cheerios, and another about undressing Emily Dickinson) than its earnest presentation. Rationally, one can’t imagine why anyone would formulate such thoughts, publish them and have readers take them seriously. G.K. Chesterton reminds us that the opposite of funny is not serious but unfunny, and Amis, in the introduction to his comic verse anthology, extends the observation’s logic: “Light verse need not be funny, but what no verse can afford to be is unfunny.” I take “unfunny” to mean pompous, dull, self-serving and pretentious. The best light verse, including Juster’s, focuses our attention on the complacently self-regarding. Behind the silliness hovers moral stricture, a point emphasized by the late Tom Disch when he titled a volume Dark Verses and Light. Here, from Slander & Sleaze, is “Rejection Note for Paradise Regained,” Juster’s account of how John Milton’s publishers might respond to his follow-up to Paradise Lost:
Loved that first book—it’s got no equal—
but, Johnny, we don’t love your sequel.
If you would only take a chance
on self-help or a gay romance,
we’d let you keep your last advance.
Phony conspiracies would do
if you could find a hook or two—
like someone famous who won’t sue.
Marketing knows you’ll see the light,
and thinks Da Vinci is just right.
This is a Perelman-worthy parody of Madison Avenue-speak. The reader will have noticed that much of Juster’s work is devoted to mocking poets and their frequent pomposities. It’s an irresistible target, time-honored, practiced by such forebears of Juster as Martial, Swift and J.V. Cunningham. In “Martialed Arguments” in Slander & Sleaze, Juster translated seventy-one epigrams by the Roman poet, including 1.4:
Caesar, if you peruse my books,
please soften your majestic looks.
Great leaders are the butts of jokes,
but they ignore our friendly pokes.
So read my poetry, I pray,
the way you would a comic play –
and give your goons some latitude.
My lines are lewd, but I’m a prude.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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