David Lewis Pogson writes fiction for the 'ACES Terrier', has two books published and has poems and short stories in a variety of media.
Happy Birthday To You
Forgive me for stating the obvious but it is necessary for me to demonstrate by using the actual words of this universally-popular verse.
Happy Birthday to You,
Happy Birthday to You,
Happy Birthday dear (insert first name),
Happy Birthday to You.
This article concentrates not on what is said, but rather on what is not said above in those famous lines. There is a gap to insert a name which is variable with every rendering of the lyric. It's that variable gap that fascinates me.
The Rules Of 'Happy Birthday To You'
The Guinness World Records recognises 'Happy Birthday To You' as one of the three most popular songs in the English language. Almost everyone knows the words without even having to think about it. And almost everyone knows the rule; that when you reach the third line you have to insert the first name of the person who is being sung to. This is regardless of the name, how many syllables it has or how difficult it is to fit it into the verse. That's just the way it is and it's universally accepted without question. It's a very successful verse with a very successful formula. Which makes me wonder why its form has not been copied and why I cannot readily find other common examples of this type of poem or song. There may be others but, if they exist, they do not immediately spring to mind.
What Makes It So Popular?
'Happy Birthday' has so many winning qualities in its formula.
It's simple, it's repetitive, it's memorable. It's fitted to a tune. Everyone learns it from childhood. It's likely to be sung to you at every birthday and you are likely to sing it for others at theirs so it becomes re-enforced in the memory by regular usage which gives it longevity. It's always sung on enjoyable occasions which helps it linger in the memory. But many other verses have similar qualities so why are they not as well recognised?
'Happy Birthday's' single most accommodating quality is its ability to adapt to fit any name that the singer/reciter wishes to insert.
Other Popular Contenders
'For He's A Jolly Good Fellow' and 'Auld Lang Syne' are the closest contenders in popularity. These suffer from technical disadvantages.
'For He's A Jolly Good Fellow' is unlikely to be sung to young children, it's only heard on infrequent occasions where it applies - you may never hear it sung to you in your life-time. However this is the closest because the 'he/she' is interchangeable so it could be categorised alongside 'Happy Birthday To You' at a stretch because you have to insert the correct sex into the line to make it appropriate.
'Auld Lang Syne' is only aired once a year and, to be honest, whilst most people recognise it and mumble their way through it, it's unlikely that they know all the words. The only insertion here is when people make up the words just to join in.
The National Anthem - God Save the King/Queen - allows for a change of fixed title but little else, only applies to the British and the switch only occurs upon the change of monarch, which is rare.
Many poems are popular. Kipling's 'If' and Wordsworth's 'I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud' regularly top any British polls for the nation's favourite poems but how many people can recite all the lines, on what occasion would they be required and where is the interchangeability?
Any and all Nursery Rhymes are learnt early and can stay lodged in the memory for a lifetime. 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' and 'Little Boy Blue' are fine examples but these fall out of use as children develop although they may return when they produce children of their own. They are useful for teaching verbal skills and developing young minds.
Similarly children's songs, like 'Ten Green Bottles', 'The Farmer wants a Wife', 'Oranges and Lemons' and 'Old McDonald had a Farm' allow interaction but still follow that set memorised pattern.
Christmas Carols, like 'The Twelve Days of Christmas', and Hymns, like 'All Things Bright and Beautiful', provide a similar test of memory throughout life by offering lists for recall in the correct order.
But none, with the possible exception of 'For He's A Jolly Good Fellow', have the adaptability of 'Happy Birthday To You'; that gap to fill in the third line, making it suitable for consistent application, anywhere and anytime regardless of the name of the person. And let's face it, the only thing you have to remember is the first name of the person being sung to, and if you can't remember that then, you have to ask yourself this; should you really be at the party?
Isn't it odd that two of the three most popular songs in the English language contain this ingredient? And isn't it strange that there are so few examples to rival them if it helps make them so popular?
What's also curious is that I can't think of any similar verses for recital at weddings even though that's usually an enjoyable occasion where names are interchangable. 'Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue' has no spaces for variable insertions.
It may not be surprising that I can't think of any for use at funerals, also where the name is interchangable, but that may be dictated by the solemnity of those occasions ... 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust etc. refers only to 'our dear brother here departed') On those occasions formal text is more likely to be used rather than a more spontaneous form of verse. And certainly 'Happy Birthday To You' and 'For He's A Jolly Good Fellow' are nothing if not spontaneous in nature.
I couldn't resist the challenge. I had to have a go at writing verse that could be adapted to any relevant circumstance. It wasn't easy but my attempt can be found in the capsule below. It will never rival 'Happy Birthday To You' or 'For He's A Jolly Good Fellow' in their simplicity, popularity or memorability but it does mean that HBTY and FHAJGF are no longer alone in their category. However, trying to fit a tune to mine to enable it to be sung was a step too far for me.
It's a political and satirical poem so will never be associated with happy occasions but it does have that one special ingredient (a gap to be filled by the reader) that at least allows it to stand alongside 'Happy Birthday' in its category.
It has been published in Forward Poetry's 'Political Fortunes' anthology and later in the 'ACES Terrier' journal. I offer it below as my modest contribution to whatever classification might apply to this type of verse.
The Price Of Democracy Kit.
The Price of Democracy Kit
(Instructions: 1. Insert name of Local Council in spaces provided. 2. Sit facing a mirror. 3. Read Carefully. 4. Apply Solution.
Works under all climatic conditions, in all locations and in all time periods. No batteries needed)
The Burghers of ........ are willing and able,
To discuss matters political sat round a table.
It’s seldom a pleasure to hear their debate,
Especially when setting the forthcoming rate.
They all hold opinion on what it should be,
But never can settle on what to agree.
So whenever that happens and consensus they seek,
They resort to tradition and defer till next week.
The Burghers stress caution when decisions they take,
And deferral’s preferred to avoid a mistake.
It’s said that this policy is often derided,
But controversy’s avoided when nothing’s decided.
But there is one exception to that circumstance,
One issue so important they can’t afford chance.
And for that decision they long to be praised,
It’s vital that Councillor’s expenses be raised.
The Officers of ........ observe with heads in hands,
As deferrals frustrate all their well thought-out plans.
They’ll have little to do whilst tea-bags they strain,
Because next week there’ll be a deferral again.
So Group Managers dream and Directors conspire,
To bump up their pensions so they can retire.
But until that arrives the game they keep playing,
And take pleasure in knowing the public is paying.
The Government watches from far, far away,
Passing laws to frustrate with each passing day.
Indecision and waste are what they perceive,
Which numerous initiatives are bound to relieve.
And lack of resources is no answer they say,
If the Council wants funding it must pay its own way.
And when Council fails, as they know that it will,
Reorganisation will follow, so swallow that pill.
But who is to blame for this sad state of play?
It’s those who shout loudest and have most to say.
The Burghers and Officers and Government all,
May well be deserving of the firing squad wall,
But the voters of ........ when able to sway,
Defer their decisions in a more deplorable way.
And the price of democracy continue to pay,
By not bothering to vote come Election Day.
So How Do We Classify Such Examples?
I've scoured the internet for a classification of 'Happy Birthday To You' and 'For He's A Jolly Good Fellow'. They appear to be in a class of their own. I considered:
This is the most obvious and nearest-appropriate suggestion. There's a whole industry devoted to writing personal poems for individuals on special occasions. However, these poems are designed for one individual, may often be constructed with words to rhyme with the individual's name and can include personal details specific to that person. So they are not readily adaptable and it would hardly be a fitting categorisation for a poem such as mine.
This seemed to be an obvious possibility until I found that it was already in use to cover a multitude of varying poetry exercises - such as 'Blackout Poetry', 'Found Poetry' and 'Poetry Mashup'.
Insertion Poetry, Contributional Poetry or Omission Poetry all offered possibilities. Some of these were in specific use for other purposes - for example 'Insertion Poetry' claimed to represent poems using the word 'insert' and tended to include sexual references. I felt that these did not really do justice to the classification.
In the end I came up with 'Adaptable Poetry or Verse' as the best fit in my mind based solely upon the ability to use the gap in the verse to adapt it to any relevant subject. I'm not in any position to confer authority upon this classification so if anyone knows any better, and can demonstrate why, then I will be happy to defer.
To change, or to change something, to suit different conditions or uses
Your Examples of Adaptable Verse? The Challenge.
I've offered 'The Price of Democracy Kit' as my published example for this category. I'd be happy to edit the main text of this article to refer to any well-known examples if readers can identify any already out there that I may have missed. I'd also love it for any readers of this article to come forward and post their own written contributions to this classification in the 'Comments' capsule. So, over to you.
© 2020 David Lewis Pogson