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Comic verse wins out at Caerleon Arts Festival

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Laura Chamberlain Laura Chamberlain | 15:25 UK time, Monday, 9 July 2012

A comic poem inspired by The Sound Of Music has won the inaugural All Wales Comic Verse competition at the Caerleon Arts Festival.

The subject matters of entries ranged enormously, including the after effects of curry, the problems of ageing and women with facial hair. But Mike Greenhough, a retired physicist at Cardiff University, won the competition and the £500 winner's cheque with his poem Mounting Anxiety, inspired by the song My Favourite Things sung by Julie Andrews in the musical.

Competition winner Mike Greenhough with judge Siriol Jenkins and panel chairman Roy Noble

Competition winner Mike Greenhough with judge Siriol Jenkins and panel chairman Roy Noble

The first All Wales Comic Verse competition drew entrants from all across the country; 126 entries were received in all, with the shortlist of 10 drawn up for the inaugural competition that took place yesterday at the Priory Hotel in Caerleon.

Greenhough took his inspiration from the song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and particularly the word 'few' that Julie Andrews' character Maria uses to describe her favourite things - which led him to wonder what other favourite things the nun might have had.

The opening stanza reads:

Fräulein Maria reveals when she sings,
Only a few of her favourite things.
Is the tip of the iceberg all she admits?
Has she carefully censored the spicier bits?

Watch a video clip of Greenhough reciting his winning poem at the competition.

Greenhough said, "As far as poetry is concerned I only write comic verse because I don't really understand more conventional poetry. I prefer to write humorously, rather than writing about the human predicament."

I asked poet and regular contributor to Roy Noble's show on Radio Wales, Goff Morgan, for his thoughts on the comic verse competition. He compèred at yesterday's event:

"I'd been interested in the idea of running a comic verse competition for some years. As someone who makes a small income from being a muse for hire on the Roy Noble program, it seems to me that it's often hard to get comic verse taken seriously. It seems to be the elephant in the room of poetry - everyone knows it exists, but they'd rather not talk about it.

"Comic poetry has a long pedigree. Since poetry was first declaimed, someone decided to subvert the form and raise a laugh. At the drama competitions in ancient Greece, performed in honour of the Gods, comic and tragic pieces were both consider fit tributes to the deities. Aristophanes was every bit as respectable as Aeschylus.

"The 17th and 18th centuries teemed with ripe satirical verse. The 19th century, however, saw a retreat of the poetry establishment from humour - it was a po-faced establishment in which lack of reverence was highly frowned upon - not to say that the form didn't flourish from comic opera to ribald music hall songs; it was just not worthy or respectable to promote laughter.

"I relish laughter - both raising it and doing it! A day without laughter is a sorry day indeed.

"One day, at the start of this year, I was discussing over a few beverages my long percolating idea with my friend Richard Frame, who suggested that we approach the Caerleon Arts Festival Committee, with whom he was associated, as they were looking to incorporate a literary element in to this year's festival.

"I wrote a short brief, and an outline of the rules, terms and conditions etc. and they took the idea and ran with it! It was fantastic - I don't know how they managed to pull it off so smoothly. Suddenly there was a team of people behind a real project - it was no-longer the idea of a lone fat man in a pub!

"I offered to MC the event, and was asked to write a verse to launch the competition. As we were the Caerleon Arts Festival, and Caerleon has a strong Roman connection, I wrote a short verse after the style of the Roman satirist Juvenal. We decided to read the poem to the assembled press from the steps of the Roman Legionary Museum - wearing a toga seemed to come naturally to mind in the circumstances.

Goff announcing the competition

Goff announcing the competition

"It was a rather short toga - my dimpled knees were a little more evident than I would have hoped or realised at the time - but I thought that my very British choice of socks with sandals set off the whole thing nicely. However, the number of times I've had to point out that they were for comic effect is starting to become rather wearing!

"I think we've achieved something rather entertaining with this competition, but also useful in reminding the world of poetry that comic verse is an important and still vibrant part of our literary tradition - it's time to take it seriously once more."

The Caerleon Festival continues until Sunday 15 July, with performances from the National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke, poet and comedian John Hegley, a performance of Richard III and a literary walk with Catherine Fisher, organised by Literature Wales.

For more information and the full line-up of performers and events visit caerleon-arts.org.

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