What Light Verse Meant to Scott Bates

Scott Bates, June 13, 1923-August 25, 2013

Scott Bates, June 13, 1923-August 25, 2013

Today, as a way to counteract a draining depression I am experiencing over my father’s death, I’ve decided to reflect upon his poetry. That I’ve shared so many of his poems in this blog—I see from my tag cloud that he ranks only slightly lower than Shakespeare and Jane Austen—is of course entirely due to bias. It’s as though I have adopted a minor poet to accompany all of the great ones that I cite. I have done so in part because I get a kick out of my father’s poems, in part because my sharing them made him happy. But my major reason is because many of this blog’s readers have responded enthusiastically. His poems are often highly entertaining.

When he was attending the University of Wisconsin graduate French program following World War II, my father took a creative writing class with poet Karl Shapiro. Shapiro liked his poetry a great deal and even recommended some of his poems to The New Yorker, which printed one of them. But he also warned my father that Americans for the most part have little respect for light verse. After a lifetime of writing mostly light verse, my father told me that Shapiro knew what he was talking about.

True, he sometimes received high praise for his poems. Alan Tate enjoyed them and Robert Penn Warren once wrote that “Scott Bates is a very funny man.” But light verse seems to fare better in England, where poets like Hilaire Belloc, A.E. Housman, and Rudyard Kipling specialized in it and others (I have in mind such poets as Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning) occasionally dipped into it. But momentous or not, my father’s light lyrics have attracted a wide range of readers, many of them people who don’t think they like poetry.

Take, for instance, my paternal grandfather. Alfred, whom I never knew, was apparently a manly man who didn’t like the fact that his son wrote poetry and was barely reconciled to the fact that he was on his way to becoming a literature professor. Nevertheless, he absolutely loved my father’s “The Ballad of Jim Blakeley’s Sleepy Bird Dog,” a Stephen Vincent Benet-inspired poem that my father wrote while in college.

The lightness of my father’s verse is deceptive, however, and I suspect that it reflects how he was changed by World War II.  Before the war, he had a child-like sensibility (he was the baby of the family) and loved the Edwardian children’s literature which my very Victorian grandparents introduced him to—works like Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, the E. Nesbitt Treasure Seeker series, The Jungle Books, and many others. His sensibility took a blow, however, from being bombed in Avranches and from witnessing the horrors of Dachau. (He saw the concentration camp three days after it was liberated, and one of his jobs in Munich was to educate the Germans on what had happened.) Then he felt the Americans forfeited any moral superiority after dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was during this time that he turned his back, permanently, on his Congregationalist upbringing.

I think his light verse and his characteristic British dry wit became a way for him to hold on to his playfulness. He didn’t shy away from dark subjects but he turned them into fables and doggerel. Take, for instance, “The Two Worms and the Cow,” which takes on particular significance for me at the moment with his death. In it, a debate between a worm who believes in the afterlife and one who doesn’t is decisively decided in the latter’s favor:

The Two Worms and the Cow

Two Worms ambulating
Through the grass
Descried a Cow
Deceased Alas

Poor Cow said one
Her labor spent
She now must seek
Divine content

In bovine heavens
May she browse
Eternally
With all good Cows

What said the other
Can you be
Convinced of
Immortality

When Dust that brought
Us Worms to birth
Has brought another
Cow to earth

When Fate that killed
This Cow would grant
That we be her
Disposal plant

Blasphemer! cried
The first The goal
Is not the grave
Nor dust the soul

Nor Heaven made
For parasites
Indulging fleshly
Appetites!

O let us turn
And seek the Good
In Peace and Bestial
Brotherhood

And in our seeking
Leave behind
Wormholes in the
Sands of Time!

Worm said the other
You’ve lost your nerve
And ate him ideologically
As hors d’oeurve

In other words, those who believe in transcendence and are guided by higher vision may be blind to the Hobbesian reality of the world. Indeed, their very idealism may make them particularly vulnerable to tough-minded and cynical opportunists.

My father purported to be a realist and talked like the second worm. He regularly asserted, expressing no doubts as he did so, that material reality was the only reality and that everything in life was determined. He was also a pessimist who continually assumed that the worst was going to happen. He would discourse on our bleak prospects almost cheerfully, which used to drive me crazy since I tend to be an earnest sort. How could someone who was so kind, funny and, yes, idealistic talk this way?

And my father was idealistic. He regularly devoted himself wholeheartedly to the cause of social justice, whether it was desegregating the Franklin County schools and Otey Parish (the church I attended) or protecting our Appalachian environment or fighting for the rights of gay and lesbian students. Earlier this summer he was the subject of a four-hour interview by the Smithsonian on his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. It didn’t matter that (as I sometimes pointed out to him) social action is pointless if we are predetermined to destroy ourselves. He would cheerfully live with that contradiction, an existential man finding his own meaning in an absurd universe.

I think his pessimism, like his witty verse, was a deflecting shield designed to protect the vulnerable man underneath. Serious poetry, perhaps, would lead him into the quicksand of despair whereas lightness helped him stay positive.

Note how, in the poem, the black comedy of the final stanza makes a joke of the idealist’s vulnerability. The second worm eats the first almost to rub his face in his naïveté, an abrupt departure from the rules of philosophic debate. My father, who talked constantly, is mocking his own buried hopes so that they don’t rise up and overwhelm him.

His approach to life made him a great father since he entered fully into our imaginative worlds. I’ve mentioned in past posts about how he read to my brothers and me every night—up through middle school—and how he sometimes tried to protect our innocence by shying away from the final chapters of certain fantasy books where the children return to the real world. Even as a child I could tell how much he disliked the conclusions of Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, The Water Babies, and The Jungle Books.

Along the same lines, the only time I saw him angry was when he came up against (to use his phrase) the desecration of innocence. One of his cardinal rules to us was “never burst someone’s bubble” and he would scold us if he caught us doing so. I also remember being impressed when this normally gentle man lit into a gang of boys who were bullying me. I was ten at the time, we were spending the summer in Quebec, and his tirade was all the more impressive because it was in French.

I miss him terribly. Thankfully, I can still hear him in his poetry, which I will continue to share.

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