Calvin Trillin, responding to Daily Show host John Stewart's impish description of his new book in verse on the 2008 election Deciding the Next Decider, joked, "You made me feel like one of those guys who's done the Palace of Versaille in beer cans." No, John Milton he isn't.
Trillin is a comedic writer with a gift for light verse. And it was clear from last week's Daily Show interview that he understands that his latest project--chronicling politics in rhyming couplets--is a little goofy. He refers to his book in a tongue-in-cheek fashion as "epic" (it is, in fact, written in heroic verse). But while the author himself calls it doggerel, as you'll see from these excerpts on John McCain, his verse can be very biting:
No longer did he seem the same man who
Had charmed the voters (and reporters, too)
With candor as he'd cheerfully express
His willingness to call BS BS.
McCain of old would not allow such scat.
His honor meant much more to him than that.
But into Bush's role with Rove he'd slid.
What torture couldn't do, ambition did.
Trillin overcomes one of the biggest hurdles to writing a book-length poem--managing to hold a reader's attention--by breaking up the work (and its relentless rhyming couplets) with short, "embedded" poems, many of which appeared previously in The Nation. Some of the embedded poems play off of well-known songs, and others, including "The Rhyme of the Ancient Candidate," take their cue from literary classics. All in all, the book spans events from the 2006 midterm elections through the 2008 decision, and few of the major players escape his wit. Here are some good ones:
Virginia Senate candidate George Allen:
He fit what's often valued by the right,
Quite cheerful, Reaganesque, and not too bright.
She'd say it yet again, with no contrition,
As if she'd make it true by repetition.
The stories of his married life confirm
That, if we can be frank, the man's a worm.
The pros said, "That's a state (SC) he has to take,"
And he just might, if he can stay awake.
Some said that if the presidential glimmer
Was in Gore's eyes, he'd try to get much slimmer
And, of course, Barack Obama:
Experience was what he seemed to lack.
And to be frank, they pointed out, he's black.
You wouldn't expect it, but Trillin's sort of light verse has an impressive lineage. Take a look at the similarities to this barb from Byron's famous poem "Don Juan" wherein he rips fellow poet Robert Southey (whose name he rhymes with "mouthy") by following up a Southey quote with:
The four first rhymes are Southey's every line:
For God's sake, reader! take them not for mine.
His work has another predecessor in the witty, light verse of Alexander Pope. Here's an excerpt from "Rape of the Lock," which details the horrifying(!) theft of a lock of a woman's hair:
The meeting Points the sacred Hair dissever
From the fair Head, for ever and for ever!
Then flash'd the living Lightnings from her Eyes,
And Screams of Horror rend th' affrighted Skies.
Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav'n are cast,
When Husbands, or when Lapdogs breath their last
So how does Trillin end a poem of such size and scope? With a victory speech, of course.
And foreigners, from Rome to Yokohama,
Were cheering an American: Obama
From this vote they were willing to infer
We aren't the people they had thought we were.
And Lady Liberty, as people call her,
Was standing in the harbor somewhat taller.
I have to admit, the ending is kind of "epic."