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[Detail] Illustration of the shield of Virginia, from the eighteenth century

Humorous Poetry

Humorous poetry, also dubbed light verse, is often equated with bad poetry. While humorous poetry generally has the poetic characteristics of rhyme and meter, it frequently lacks other characteristics that critics demand of good poetry, characteristics that are often unstated but nonetheless real. The Capital and the Bay contains some humorous poetry that might be used to begin gaining skill in determining whether poetry is "good" or "bad." The following questions might be used to begin the process:

  • What is the poet's purpose? Does the poet achieve that purpose? Was a poem a suitable genre for achieving that purpose?
  • Are the words carefully selected to convey exact meanings? Are there excess words?
  • Are the words ordered to best express the author's meaning?
  • Are the language, images, and figures of speech fresh?
  • Do the sound of the poem and its form and meaning clash or work well together?
  • Is the poem overly sentimental?
  • Does the poem sacrifice meaning for rhyme or meter?

Apply these questions to the following poems from The Capital and the Bay. Both poems are about how Zouaves, New York infantrymen dressed in the style of the famous French units, were treated when stationed in Baltimore during the Civil War. The poems reveal attitudes in Maryland, which did not secede but was sharply divided over the issue of secession, but are they good poetry?

After analyzing these poems, search the collection using poetry as a keyword and then analyze other poems in the collection as well as other poems available at poetry sites online or in poetry collections available in the classroom. How might the starter list of questions above be refined to reflect other views on what makes a poem "good"?