September 29, 2020

“Comedy is entertainment consisting of jokes intended to make an audience laugh. For ancient Greeks and Romans a comedy was a stage-play with a happy ending. In the Middle Ages, the term expanded to include narrative poems with happy endings; often characterised by a lighter tone. In the sense of having a happy ending Dante used the term in the title of his poem, The Divine Comedy.” , Renaissance writers of dramas, and of what are termed romances, these being early novella-like prose pieces, also considered themselves writing in the genre comedy”

Over the weekend I bought a book of poetic parodies. The book has a poem, usually an item quite well known, on one side of the book opened, and on the other, its parody.

Here is one such comparison of poem/parody which took my notice:

Trees by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

And its parody:

‘Poems’ by Tom Disch ...for Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never read A tree of any shape or breed - For all its xylem and its phloem - As fascinating as a poem. Trees must make themselves and so They tend to seem a little slow To those accustomed to the pace Of poems that speed through time and space As fast as thought. We shouldn't blame The trees, of course: we'd be the same If we had roots instead of brains. While trees just grow, a poem explains, By precept and example, how Leaves develop on the bough And new ideas in the mind. A sensibility refined By reading many poems will be More able to admire a tree Than lumberjacks and nesting birds Who lack a poet's way with words And tend to look at any tree In terms of its utility. And so before we give our praise To pines and oaks and laurels and bays, We ought to celebrate the poems That made our human hearts their homes.

Setting one poem against the other like this at first set me thinking about parodies, and then more broadly about the nature of much comedy, including many of the parodies in the book I had bought.

It’s pretty clear and commonplace to say parody as an artform cannot subsist without its parodied objects preexisting, and being in general circulation. It’s pretty easy also to broaden this observation over to include altogether the genre of satire in comedy as a form.

Unless there is an object to be mocked none of these types of comedy can subsist upon their foundational objects.

So as to mitigate this fact of dependency, one might also note what has been noted by many commentators; that very little if an yart in any form is able to have come into being without it having taken note of and assumed, assimilated, much of the previous art gone before it.

The case with parody and satire may be more contingent and specific, in that a parody inorder to be made usually demands a specific object and rarely a genre; whereas in general a work of art which has its own legs so to speak, stands on a generalised and much more broadly distributed caucasus of formerly-made works.

So I am claiming perhaps that all art in some degree is derivative; and parody and satire being specifically and contingently so – obviously so.

The borderline between parody and satire can be difficult to draw, or even to maintain; because the humour inherent in parody more or less so derives from comparison to another object, being its model for its mimicking.

That said, those parodies in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books manage to ‘stand alone’; and I think little is lost to a reader not acquainted with the originals on which Carroll’s parodies are modelled. And if acquainted, just as little gained maybe?

The greater dependency of a parody on its model the greater the finer detail of the content of the satire in it refers back for its clear understanding to its model. That is when a parody is not telling a story of its own which is able to subsist without props; the more need does a reader have to be well acquainted with the original model for that parody.

Carroll’s parodies have their own contexts in his stories of Alice; and Carroll is mimicking and mocking at a level slightly beyond mere poking direct fun, although this he does do also. He is parodying literary forms, and personal moods and casts of mind, style itself; and thus his content in his parodies parody more or less necessarily as a by-product of his parodic approach.

Thus Carroll’s parodies are much more like lighthearted fun, are rather more without targeted foibles, and without ‘slings and arrows’ which are, somewhat critically, a scourge on the originals and their authors.

However Carroll does have a shocking violent streak in him. The Mock Turtle and the Queen of Hearts are two instances

Fun is a characteristic of The Alice books; and although there are undercurrents of criticism in the books, these never obliterate the fun which is strong and robust and at the forefront. A forerunner of Absurdity, but an Absurdist with a joyousness. For its own sake.

I’ve commented before now on how I view satire – most especially with regard to TV standups and quiz shows – how I see their angles of attack on the issues and events of the day, political and social, chiefly political, as being as it were degrading of the cement of society, loosening its strength and ability to provide us with a framework in which we can all live justly and agreeably with one another.

The attitudes which such shows encourage, promulgate, aim to make acceptable and even to become prevalent; and whether or not this is their intention, are those outlooks which accept skepticism and espouse as their default bottom-line a generalised distrust and no bona fide acceptance prima facie of anything. It is the automatic nature of this default position which comics of this kind propose that is being learned by people who watch/listen to such shows – even when one is not aware one is learning the habit. (I include myself in here).

Of course people are not puppets, and many have discrimination in these things. Yet the advertising world continues its bombardments of perpetual exposure upon us all nonetheless; and from this fact I take the conclusion that we may be discriminating but that the advertising works on us nonetheless, and the advertising world knows that it works on us.

Likewise the comics of this kind. They do not seem to reduce in popularity, although persons in their ranks come and go occasionally. This popularity remains even though this kind of comic finds s/he has always to be upping the ante, and pushing the envelope, on ever more and grosser scandalous crudites.

This need for the next level of offense is inherent in the nature of the business; because the whole thrust and deliciousness to most viewers/listeners of their content palls with repetitions, unless the dreadfulness is pushed that bit further week on week show on show.

It’s the digging of a pit of iniquity into which the only direction is deeper. This argument of mine if you accept it can answer you for a lot of the social and political phenomena we see happening around us right now.

Let’s look in some detail at the two poems written above. I believe I can demonstrate my argument from us looking at them.

The author of the first poem: Trees – so it is said – is not considered well by others because he also wrote in another place a poem being an excoriation of women becoming poets. Just as standup jokes of the 60s and 70s were about women drivers.

This poem Trees commonly has been trashed as being mawkish and sentimental claptrap.

I thought when I read it – and before I knew about the author’s take on women poets – that it was a poem with many merits. Perhaps not first or close to first rate; but memorable and worth preservation.

I saw the image as delightful of the tree’s mouth (its roots) kissing the ground and drawing sustenance thereby.

The pervasive imagery of a tree as a female personage – praying, permitting robins nesting in her hair and such I saw as unifying the piece.

The actions of the tree being figuratively said to be actions of a human body also permeated the poem and works integrally

The statement that a tree, a natural living thing, is more beautiful than any artist can make any thing that s/he creates, I saw as a sound judgement – and one which is important for our own times to be exposed to and to take into our outlooks.

The final couplet is again importantly true. Creation is Creation proper; and men and women’s artefacts made as art pieces at best are pale reflections of that Preternatural Mastery. This sentiment too today we should try to take back on board into our lives.

Now many will say here I am biassed - I am a believer in God. Well I say a person doesn’t have to believe in God to be able to agree 100% with the poem and its conclusion. It is desirable but not necessary.

Besides, the poem as an aesthetic object is worthy and its author is to be congratulated.

The parody below it I tend to think was written in the ‘knowledge’ of the common understanding of the author as being a purveyor of mawkishness. I think this common understanding is mistaken. I do not know whether the parody was written also in the ’knowledge’ of the author of the poem Trees’ aversion to women poets? Let’s assume for charity’s sake that it was not.

The parody, like the ‘cure’ in the proverb ‘is worse than the disease’ - than the poem parodied. I don’t mean as aesthetic object, although this is the case also I believe, but as an expression of thought and opinion.

Its author goes into a quite elaborate thesis so as to counter and so lay low the simple and frank expressions of the Trees’ author, which are what I take to be wonder at an instance of the natural things of the world, rather than ‘argument’ as such.

The latter author of the parody – his business is argument – a further – is counter argument – contrary.

He reverses in his first four lines the thought of the Trees author that a tree is more to be admired than any poem. Not only is this a dubious proposal, it seeks to elevate men and women’s work above nature's (and for myself if not for you, above God’s works).

Even the greatest person with words perhaps who has been alive went out of his way to praise nature as being above his own works; as being the source and sustainer of them; as art in general ‘holding a mirror up to nature’.

The contrary view that art is above beyond nature is not only a heresy; it is degenerate and a person who holds it is a degenerate of mind. To hold such a belief reflects as a parallelism very much upon the mindsets of many of us alive in Britain today.

Here we are in confrontation, under siege, in battle, ‘The World Shall Defeat This Virus’, went a headline boasting Boris Johnson’s bluster on the front page – against Covid.

There was a cartoon of a rainbow in the sky and army tanks ranged up in front of it to shoot it out of the sky. This cartoon says very well what I want to say to you here. We should be working with nature – alongside nature – against our policies which have caused so many floods across Britain in the past two years; against the overzealous – to be the kindest about it – offering and, advertising for sale of, hosts of ‘processed’ products as foods, of household cleaners and toiletries and ailment ‘solutions –of these last some having been wholly created by salve manufacturers and salve developers – plus more, much more, al being attempts attempting to ‘save us’ from nature and from its ‘red tooth and claw’.

The shift is most apparent that we have seen and experienced away from us seeing nature as our ultimate mondial support, and towards seeing nature as a faceless enemy which cannot be allowed near us. Dickens created a character whose image we are in; a person who ‘considered nature on the whole to be a good idea, so long as it was surrounded by a park fence’. This is precisely our sickness, our attitude, our bane.

Case in point: Masks – and those persons who like Jeremiahs claim that Masks are here for the future permanent are slightly unhinged. The triumph of the folly and arrogance of Mankind is expressed in that Jeremiad. Who ever heard of such a thing? - Masks forever!!

I explained to one of my sons that mothers of many species, humans too, would, some people still do in parts of the world, chew food before giving it to their young infants, so as to make the food digestible to the infant stomach. Birds of all kinds do this.

Children today are commonly surprised and shocked aboherent at the fact when I tell them that as a child is saw that bread loaves would be held and squeezed for freshness by shoppers; than potatoes we sold with earth still clinging to them; that they were emptied straight into a shopper’s bag; that fruit was selected by hand and that you could take your choice, likewise meats, which were of a wholly different colour to meats sold today; that bacon sides would hang behind the counter at Sainsbury’s in air unwrapped; that chickens were sold ungutted and shpoppers gutted them at home; that my mother would dampen her cloth handkerchief with spittle so as to wipe my face; that cakes which were stale we sold sixpence a great bagful to children as their ‘feast treat’; that one put on extra clothing rather than turn up the central heating – central heating being unheard of in most houses in that time. And much more.

And people lived, did not grow sick because of these things, but endured just the same.

What did kill them was industio]al air pollutions and dreadful black yellow smogs; labour for years underground digging out coal and ores for manufacturing and heavy industry; the heavy promotion and sale of tobacco by companies who knew very well their products were killers; likewise alcohol; likewise poverty.

There were victims of polio, and some of TB and of other nasty natural hazards; and these nasties have been largely cleared away by way of vaccinations. But what are vaccinations? Is there a better example, in the history of their discovery by Jenner, and in their general theory of application, of men and women working with nature to find a solution?

The beginnings of inoculation were based completely on an astute observation of a natural immunity; thus copying nature, learning from nature, not from setting a face against it.

I would suggest and suppose that it is very likely that more real and present harm, historically and still today, has been done, is being done, and more untimely deaths are attributable to the activities of men and women, in the worlds of politics, science, technology, and society, than have been attributable to nature over the same period of time.

Exclude from the calculation all people who die over the age of 70. Make the time period say the past 50 years.

I saw in Durham Cathedral in the Book of Remembrance there pages and pages and pages of records of the deaths of men aged between 40 and 60 – not soldiers but miners, of the 1950s and 1960s.

I saw in 1968 when I was in hospital in a men’s medical ward in the course of a two week stay more than a dozen men die in their hospital beds; few if any over 60. Smoking and drinking the main enemies. Mode of employment also a runner beside them.

No way is human art and science above nature.

The parody poet’s thesis that it is only via a grooming of aesthetic appreciation, as with access to and activity with the art of poetry for the course of a period, that people’s minds are made aware of and amenable to the delights of nature; this is sophistry.

Some of the earliest nature poems arose from ancient shepherds and farmers, Theocritus, Hesiod, in Greece; The Psalmists and others of The Hebrew Old Testament, who have the ‘hills skipping’ and the ’mountains rejoicing’, an admiration of the cedars and of the cypresses. Possibly, probably, the other way around; pastoral poetry stimulated by nature herself in the very first place. Even Homer the poet of war and destruction has his heroes often say in reverend gratitude about ‘the earth; supplier of all our food and life’. The earth and nature were hallowed in people’s minds from the very beginning of consciousness – that is my guess.

The parodist of the poem argues rather than responds to poetry, in the way that the author of the first poem responds aesthetically, creatively, reverndly, and enthusiastically to the tree. The parodist has made a low and creeping thing of words, something almost ignoble in its controversy and in its contrariness – he has certainly not made a worthwhile poem.

He has set out to prove a counterpoint. His words may have literally gone some way towards this; but his spirit and the poetic lustre of his composition are grovelling.

I may exaggerate a little but in the main I am right – I stick by this and ask those who know to consider what I say.

The story of these two poems, of the parody attempting overtop the former poem, is the story of The Tower Of Babel in miniature happening again:

“they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name….

….So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel”.

This scattering is happening to us now in our minds; we are far from being of one mind. The comedy shows and their spirit of contrariness, contention, and of adversarial humour, is helping, along with several other factors of force and effectiveness in our day to day lives, to atomise our society,,and to fracture our cares for the common good.

Constructive opposition is altogether different to a dismissal of all events, people, views, prima facie as being by default non bona fide, and so worthy of ridicule; and so of the contempt which accompanies ridicule.

Happy in our own satisfactions that we are people of insight and discernment, we watch, we parody, we disdain and laugh. If these things were the reality indeed, would we have anything to laugh about? Is humour appropriate when Rome is burning?

We feel we are safe; we feel too much that we are safe; in this way we make our own catastrophes; and fail to see them coming. Masks forever!!