A war has been raging for decades. It’s a war we don’t hear about on the news. Like religion and politics, it isn’t discussed in civilized company. This war is not fought with guns and bombs, it’s fought with pens. It is the horrible, ghastly war between . . . rhymers and non-rhymers. The iambic pentameter crowd versus the free verse crowd. No prisoners are taken and no mercy is shown by either side.
All kidding aside, I like them both, but only if both are ultimately understandable. “Ultimately” meaning after two readings. If the poem is so abstract that only the writer gets it, the writer failed, not the reader.
The free verse army says rhyming poetry is childish and unsophisticated, largely as a result of syrupy poems in Hallmark greeting cards. And let’s face it, they usually are. It’s hard to rhyme well (without sounding like a nursery rhyme) and tell a good story that accesses emotion.
The rhyming crowd argues that it takes as much or more talent to write a meaningful, emotionally impactful poem that also rhymes and has meter, structure and rhythm than it does to write one that has none of that. To them, criticizing rhyming poetry is like saying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost and even Shakespeare (who wrote a heck of a lot of sonnets) were a bunch of nincompoops.
Here’s a good example of a rhyming, emotionally moving poem. The story behind it is almost as good as the poem itself.
A friend of mine found it at the bottom of an old box in his parents’ garage. He asked his dad about it. He said the author was a man named Vernon Watson, who performed in theaters around London in the 1930’s and 40’s. He would sing, dance, tell stories and recite poems. A little bit of everything. The audience would start out laughing and end up crying, or vice-versa. He performed under the name Nosmo King, and thought up that name one night while looking at a “No Smoking” sign in one of the theaters. Here it is. I dare you not to get choked up.
Have you ever been broke? Just broke to the wide?
With what you stand up in and nothing beside?
Living on scraps the best part of the week
When you can get them, and with nowhere to sleep?
I’ve been like that on a cold winter’s night
When the streets were deserted and nothing in sight
But a slow-moving bobby whose job is to see
That the public’s protected from fellows like me.
Who get put inside to answer in court
Why they’re wandering around without means of support.
It always strikes me as a queer sort of joke –
To pick on a man just because he is broke.
Do they think he enjoys wandering around in the rain,
Soaked to the skin with a dull, aching pain
Through his stomach, forgetting his last decent meal
And just praying for the time when he’s too numb to feel.
Life isn’t worth much when you get to that state –
Of just waiting to die and nowhere to wait.
I remember the time, it’s a long while ago,
When I stood on a bridge with the river below.
The last food I’d had was two days before
And I never expected I’d need anymore.
That night was the worst that ever I’d known,
With a dirty, wet fog that chilled to the bone.
I set my teeth hard and I set down my heel
On the rail that my hands were too perished to feel
When a sniveling pup came out of the fog
And whimpered at me, just a scrap of a dog.
Bedraggled and dirty, like me, just a wreck,
With a sad, little face on his poor, scraggy neck.
A few seconds more and I would have died
But he licked my hand and I just sat down and cried.
I wrapped up the poor little chap in my coat
And carried him off with a lump in my throat.
I took him along to the one place I knew
Where they’d give him a bed and a biscuit or two.
They didn’t seem keen on taking him in
But the sergeant-in-charge gave a bit of a grin
When I told him, “The dog could do with a meal.”
He said, “I’ll fix him up, but how do you feel?”
It may be perhaps that the sergeant had seen
the state I was in, I wasn’t too clean.
The hunger and cold that I’d suffered all day
Exhausted my limits and I fainted away.
Well, they fed me and slept me gave me two bob.
The following day, they found me a job.
I’ve worked ever since and I’ve put a bit by.
I’m comfortable now and I don’t want to die.
I’ve a nice, little house in a quiet, little street
With a decent-sized garden that’s always kept neat.
I’ve worked there a lot when I’ve had time to spare
And I’m so proud of one little corner that’s there,
With the pick of my flowers ‘round a little old stone,
That stands in a corner, all on its own.
It bears an inscription, not very grand.
The letters are crooked, but you’ll understand –
That I wasn’t too steady, I couldn’t quite see,
At the time that I carved it, quite recently.
These are the words I carved on the stone –
“Here lies my friend when I was alone.
Hopeless and friendless, just lost in a fog,
God saved my life with the help of a dog.”
~ Vernon Watson AKA Nosmo King, 1930
The photo of the dog’s tombstone was actually made by a friend of mine as a prop for a filmed version of this poem we made. (I played the homeless man.) The words on the stone are a little different because I wrote it from memory and didn’t have this – – –
A YouTube video uploaded by someone who had one of Vernon’s old 78’s. (For you youngsters, 78’s were vinyl LP’s that pre-dated 33’s and 45’s.) His diction and delivery is very heightened and melodramatic, as was the style of the time. His voice reminds me of Boris Karloff’s quite a bit. Oddly, the version I have also has a few more lines than Nosmo’s recorded version. Enjoy!