Anthem for the Official Rhode Island State Shellfish
Oh beau-ti-ful, crus-ta-ceous life
A-bid-ing in our muck
Through what a bi-valve knows of strife
We wish you e-very luckkkkkkk
Tho' sed-i-ment, and kinds of silt
May blanket o'er your reign
Sow seeds of roe and mind your milt
Peee-ple your wet domainnnnnnnnnnnn
Behind your bulging azure eyes
Through your breathy mollusk sighs
A clammy ethos mild and meek
Your shell is strong but mind is weak.
When aenemone with stinging spine
Or jellyfish with limbs like twine
Should on your restful time impinge
You just contract—and close your hinge.
While quick seas rush and swell above
The lang'rous shellfish dreams of love
But below in lonely briney sand
His mussel amors meet faint demand
And Lo! his mournful wails expand
Across the Stygian marine land
To fill with rueful cry the oceans
With his forlorn longing a-balone notions
Though sun may shine in air-filled skies
In ombrageous acqueous torpor he lies
His love as great as ever seen. She
Now doth garnish cheese linguini......
Embittered neither, not to grow sick
From thoughts on fate: a clam is Stoic
Would suffer samely less nor mo' joy
Had she wound up upon a PoBoy...
On sunny beaches all palm-fretted
Natives drumming frond-envetted
Stew-pots boil with what they've netted
Clams seek not to be so feted
New England too, its sounds and shores
Abound in Yale and Harvard bores
Who deem it is a mark of stah-tus
To shew our friend their learned glottis
Still so some other humbler genus
Treat the clam in ways as heinous
See the otter on his back
Give the Quahog rocky whack
Seagulls using no stone mallet
No less seek clams to gift their palate
Even octopi, of man-like heart
Are known to prise their shells apart
But though many foreign nation
From his husk seeks his ablation
He cannot loathe he doth not hate
Regards placidly his fate
For when there are two halves of you
Whether in chowder or island stew
Seabird slurp or otter bang
The end is self-same, yin or yang
Copyright 2006 by Matthew Farrell
Critique by Jendi Reiter
It's mid-January; your driveway has been covered with ice for two months; and already your resolutions to eat less carbs and read "War and Peace" are looking like a pipe dream. Here comes Critique Corner to start off your new year on a more cheerful note with this fine example of light verse, Matthew Farrell's "Anthem for the Official Rhode Island State Shellfish". Our Wergle Flomp Poetry Contest, which spoofs vanity contests by rewarding poems so bad they're good, is currently open to submissions through April 1. A poem like Farrell's would be a strong contender. We hope this critique will enhance your understanding of some characteristics of successful humor poetry.
The central joke of Farrell's poem is, of course, the absurdity of writing an elaborate rhyming ode about a clam, yet the poem would not succeed nearly as well were it not for his inventive use of rhyme, which allows him to extend the joke over numerous verses even after we've gotten the basic idea. Pacing is important in all poetry, but especially in humorous verse. We've all sat through comedic sketches that would have been great 30-second gags but are dragged out over several repetitive minutes.
Farrell holds our interest with his rich vocabulary (our hapless hero is variously described as a mollusk, a Quahog, an abalone, a mussel, etc.) and creative elaboration of the perils that can befall a clam. Another way he keeps the joke alive is by creating a storyline, complete with a bit of philosophical wisdom at the end. Thus, the poem not only pokes fun at flowery verse in general, but at a particular old-fashioned genre, the nature poem as moralistic allegory. (See, for instance, Isaac Watts' "How Doth the Little Busy Bee", famously parodied by Lewis Carroll in 'Alice in Wonderland'.)
What makes some animals funnier than others? Physical awkwardness or repulsiveness plays a role; clams, worms and insects invite the gross-out reaction that is central to low comedy. It is also hard to anthropomorphize a clam, since they are virtually immobile and probably lack a complex mental life.
Making this lowly mollusk the central player in a drama of love and death, as Farrell has done, creates an amusing incongruity that is often an important ingredient of light verse. The poem becomes only superficially about the clam, and more about gently satirizing recognizable social types (the Stoic philosopher, the star-crossed lovers, the Hahvahd man with his "learned glottis") by applying their self-important rhetoric to the unlikely mollusk. We become uncomfortably aware of the poetic cliches and mannered insincerity of our conventional love-talk when we read of the clam whose "breathy mollusk sighs" and "mournful wails expand/ Across the Stygian marine land" because his lady-love now "doth garnish cheese linguini."
"Anthem" contains many delightful rhymes that depend on unexpected yet perfectly apt word choice, like the song lyrics of Noel Coward or W.S. Gilbert. Some of my favorites were "stah-tus/glottis", "seen. She/linguini", and "mo' joy/PoBoy". The last four verses flow especially smoothly, unlike some of the earlier lines where the meter is less regular. While the first two stanzas are entertaining as parody, I found them distracting overall because the rest of the poem follows a different pattern (AABB rather than ABAB rhyme, roughly four iambs per line instead of alternating four and three). I would suggest that Farrell should replace the parody lyrics with a single introductory stanza in the same form as the subsequent ones, and complete the parody as a separate poem following the structure of the original ("America the Beautiful").
Even more than serious poetry, light verse often benefits from rhyme and meter. Natural-sounding poetry in contemporary language but traditional forms is much easier to find in our Wergle entry pool than among our War Contest entries, for instance. Perhaps our modern ears have become so unaccustomed to formal verse that many poets can only use its techniques ironically. Yet I also think form has a special role to play in humorous poetry. Good "bad" poetry requires a tone that is delicately balanced between sincerity and self-consciousness. The form requires the author to take the poem somewhat seriously, avoiding an excess of forced laughter at his own joke. The poem must first set up a convincing authority—in this case, the authority of poetic conventions—before it can deliver the satisfaction of undermining that authority through satire. As in Farrell's poem, the clever elaboration of the form can also do some work toward holding the reader's interest, taking the pressure off the joke to carry the poem all by itself.
Where could a poem like "Anthem" be submitted?
The dearth of significant awards for high-quality light verse is an opportunity for some enterprising publisher. Meanwhile, in addition to our Wergle Flomp contest, the following contests may be a good fit:
CNW/FFWA Florida State Writing Competition
Postmark Deadline: March 15
Top prizes of $100 for entries in poetry, fiction, nonfiction and children's literature, from Florida Freelance Writers Association
The following journals are also open to publishing light verse and satire:
The only US magazine exclusively publishing light verse, satire, cartoons, parodies, and word-play
Main Street Rag
Edgy literary journal enjoys satirical and dark-humored socially conscious poetry; accessible free verse probably preferred (think Edward Field rather than Hilaire Belloc); no simultaneous submissions
This poem and critique appeared in the January 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter.