. . .

My Funny Valentine

        -- The ungainliness
        of the creature needs stating.

Feeling this, what should be the form
Which the ungainliness already suggested
Should take?

        -- Description -- lightly -- ungainliness
        With a grace unrelated to its suroundings.
- Louis Zukofsky

Gob, he'd have a soft hand under a hen.
- James Joyce

Ungainly not only here, Zukofsky's muse. As for grace?

The extent to which you find (for example) "Look in your own ear and read" 1 an infelicitous image 2 must depend on whether you consider gooniness one of the felicities of lyric. 3

Robert Duncan and Barrett Watten have demonstrated two very different ways of reading Zukofsky humorlessly, but why bother? I read Zukofsky because he makes me laugh.

Am I laughing with Zukofsky or at him? Is the humor about a dry pedant being unselfaware, or is it the dry humor of a selfaware pedant?

First reaction

It's not any of our business. Finding out that Thurber was "really" an abusive drunk should make us rightly suspicious of getting married to guys because they make us laugh, but it shouldn't make us stop laughing at them, any more than finding out that name-your-slapstick-favorite was "really" very graceful and athletic. As Barthes pointed out in his immensely influential essay, "The Death of the Clown," one never gets the opportunity to laugh at a performer. Only at a performance.

Second reaction

It's pointless to worry about intentions if the point is that the intention is unknowable. When the absent-minded professor springs out of bed shouting "Zebra-fragrant! That's the answer: zebra-fragrant!",4 the joke depends on our understanding his lack of regard rather than our understanding what he's on about.

Third reaction

Not all laughter is mocking. Laughter is also a reaction to surprise and pleasure. We laugh to free our mind from our mind's bondage. When pundits talk about humor, they often concentrate on the Rush Limbaugh and Camille Paglia end of the spectrum, but George Herriman and Buster Keaton are funnier.

Not that Zukofsky is that funny. We are talking about just poetry, where the competition's not as fierce as in cartoons or slapstick, and the results are weaker. If it's true that twentieth-century poets' humor doesn't age well, 5 that's probably because nothing about twentieth century poetry ages well. The wit has always been sub-Rotarian; the lyricism has always been kitsch; the politics has always been blowhardy; the eroticism has always been braggadoccio; the imagination has always been received. What fades over time aren't its effects, but the personal allegiances and illusions that distracted contemporary readers from its effectual paucity.

Still, Pound's bullying excursions into dialect are clearly enough distinguishable from Zukofsky's homeboy familiarity. One is Collins-&-Harlan; the other is, if not Herriman or Keaton, then at least, say, Milt Gross. 6 On his recordings, I hear a soft-spoken hay-fevered rabbinical Groucho Marx; like Marx, a near-as-dirt-to-perpetual verbal machine requiring just an occasional squirt of impulse -- lyric (Zukofsky) or aggressive (Marx) -- to keep the flywheels spinning.

Whether we react like Margaret Dumont or like Edgar Kennedy is a matter of personal taste. I know to which model of bewilderment I aspire, even if I only ever make it to Zeppo.

1 Speaking of private knowledge, this paraphrases Ezra Pound's advice, "Look into thine owne eare and reade," sent in a letter to Zukofsky in 1930.
2 Cf. "Ars Vini" by Anselm Dovetonsils:
         Look up your nose and blend.
3 Presumably Lorenz Hart, for example, was aware of the consequences should one's cardiac muscles try to twist themselves into even the coyest of smiles.
4 Wasn't it Marianne Moore who described poetry as "imaginary lunch bags with real frogs in them"?
5 But how can you trust the judgment of a guy who writes about humor without mentioning David Bromige?
6 A search for "Milt Gross Zukofsky" lands me at the Hugh Kenner Papers, which isn't surprising. What surprised me was finding the typescript of the Heath/Zenith Z-100 User's Guide there.

. . .

The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things, not according to their immediate impression on the mind, but according to their relations to one another. The one is a monopolizing faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion; the other is a distributive faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of ultimate good, by justice and proportion. The one is an aristocratical, the other a republican faculty. The principle of poetry is a very anti-levelling principle. It aims at effect, it exists by contrast. It admits of no medium. It is every thing by excess. It rises above the ordinary standard of sufferings and crimes. It presents a dazzling appearance. It shews its head turretted, crowned, and crested. Its front is gilt and bloodstained. Before it "it carries noise, and behind it tears."
William Hazlitt. Characters of Shakespeare's Plays

Michael O'Donoghue used to say that humor has to be startling, and I agree with that. It has to reframe reality in a way that is exciting. It's like seeing in two dimensions and then opening the other eye or looking through a View-Master and suddenly seeing in three.
George Meyer

"Brass Orchids."
"No 'The' or anything?"
"That's right. Just: Brass Orchids."
"That's very nice. I like that. I—" Then Newboy's expression changed; he laughed. "That really is nice! And you've got quite a sense of humor!"
"Yeah," Kidd said. "Cause I think it takes some balls for me to pull off some shit like that. I mean, me with a book of poems?"
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

Admittedly, Hazlitt is talking about "Coriolanus," which is bound to get anyone down. But "imagination" seems democratic to a fault, injustice is more tediously predictable than justice around these parts, and anyone who thinks the powerful are noncomformists hasn't spent much time in yuppie bars.

Shakespeare's drama individuates rather than inflates. Collapse is another perfectly valid "anti-levelling" technique, and to judge by his works (sweatily self-defeating ambitions, clowns running wild, nobility in disguise, frauds unveiled) and his reception (as badly educated, laughably pretentious, and politically ambiguous), collapse came natural to the guy. "Humor" easily swaps in for "imagination" and "poetry" in all but Hazlitt's first and fifth sentences.

Some might say even those two aren't exceptions, but the great anti-democratic satirists of the past would sneer at the language of American power c. 2003: the dull levellers of know-nothing fundamentalism and care-less finance. The whole point of money as a unit of exchange is that it's detachable, anonymous, and personality-free, right? The imagination is not a Republican faculty.

. . .

I've written before (and will again) about the urge to substitute narrative for lyric.

Poetic diction is one manifestation. For most contemporary poets and readers, what defines and justifies poetry is a rhetorical tone: the sound of someone being a poet, rather than the sound of a poem. Instead of listening to a work, we enact a poetry listener and set our afflatus adrift with the imagined author.

People really cling to those chicken-wire-and-terrycloth mothers, too. How often do John Cage or Jackson Mac Low get talked about without bringing their Eastern (Long Island, anyway) wisdom into it? What the literary reader finds difficult to handle isn't incoherence but distance.

Thus Eliot Weinberger attacked Language Poetry's reliance on "the non-sequitur (which is quite different... from Cubist simultaneity, Surrealist collage, or the Poundian ideogrammatic method)."

Yes, the non-sequitur is quite different: It doesn't reek of pomposity. Patchouli-soaked shamans don't always make sense either, but with them you can tell it's A Poet talking. From a block away.

Me, I no more like everything called "Language Poetry" than I like everything called "Hong Kong movies." It's just where I find a part I like.

And the part I like has little enough in common. In fact, only nothing. Where do Susan Howe and Bob Perelman and Stephen Ratcliffe and Hannah Weiner overlap? Only in what's missing. From a writerly standpoint, Zukofsky's late-night amateur watchmaking, tweezers in shaking hand and jeweler's in blearing eye, and Mac Low's crank-handle sausage machine are opposed. But in their mutual discarding of the poetic voice, their works appeal to the same reader.

Or, more accurately, they put off one class of readers and make room for another. That doesn't mean we always enjoy ourselves once we get in. The obscure redolence of a dive bar welcomes without guarantee. Barrett Watten and Bruce Andrews prove that when taken as an assignment, "depersonalization" becomes as dull as any other assignment.

It's just a beneficial side-effect. An assurance of sorts. Of "sincerity," as Zukofsky put it: the baggage of personality discarded because one's truly intent on some other goal, some point outside oneself.

. . .

Physics assures us that if the artist is to produce a viable artifact distinct from the artist, external assistance is required. Such supplements of idiot intention we call "the Muses." (Or, equivalently, "radio transmissions from Mars.")

They're often at odds with dignity as well as conscious intent: Van Morrison's dour Ulster affect 1 jerked down hill and up alley by the loping Irish wolfhound of his vocal impulse; Zukofsky backed into La Parfumerie's stacked display of zebra-fragrance by the words, the words, the tintinnabulation that so Tin-Pan-Alley blurts from the words, words, words, words, words, words, words.

Sometimes the top of the head comes off; sometimes the trousers fall down. What inclines the individual toward one startle effect over another?

1. A countryman, rustic, or peasant.
  1563 BALDWIN Mirr. Mag., Rivers xliv, The cloyne contented can not be With any state.

    b. Implying ignorance, crassness, or rude manners: A mere rustic, a boor.
  1848 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. I. 320 Language..such as we should now expect to hear only from the most ignorant clowns.

I've written before about the class lines obscured under the Modernist blanket. "Modernism" was a defense of endangered privilege, but "Modernism" was also an attempt to prove that one could fit into an imagined meritocracy, that one was more than one's slum.

Although I wouldn't claim that the aesthetic is atemporal, by definition it's antitemporal. Attempting to confine such a formulation to a particular range of "modernist" years will make it squirt out between one's fingers and all over one's nice dress shirt. Class trauma had something to do with Joyce's move from solemn epiphany to sarcastic sentiment, yes, but it also helps explain Hans Christian Andersen's risky move from hifalutin novels to the ecstatically naked resentment and shame of his fairy tales. And Jerome McGann argues that John Keats 2 anticipated Frank O'Hara's insolent mingling of low and high diction.

As for "Postmodernism," it's not like verse regained its eighteenth-century position in the cultural mainstream after World War II ended. If you want to be a contemporary countertenor, you'd better have a sense of humor about it.

(Not that I've ever met a countertenor who did.)

1 My favorite example of Muse as obnoxious practical joker isn't anything from Hopkins or Zukofsky, but fireplug Van Morrison advising his "Ballerina" to "fly it; sigh it; come on and diet."
2 In Yeats's indelibly cruel description, "the coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper" "with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window."

. . .


Flemish panel, early 16th Century

Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off his clothes and showing his shortcomings?
David Niven

So a dead form with a glamorous reputation attracts nostalgic losers from both the decayed and the arriviste classes.

Like that should be a surprise.

I often like the lumpen upstarts and often dislike the aristos.

Like that should be a surprise either. Naturally, the lowbred will be attracted to high art (or to low art, for that low matter) for reasons unique to our station. Thalia shows different faces to Dobie Gillis and to Milton Armitage.

And it's hardly surprising that art can entangle us in the ratlines of class mobility (or, from our betters' point of view, slumming). Our senses divide into the communicative and the communicable, either broadcast ready or requiring physical contact. We could talk of "good eye" or "good ear," but those are idioms of technique; instead, in aesthetic matters we talk of "good taste." Intimate, risky, invasive, animal: Taste is cheap, but offers an entrance, albeit to one's own biology rather than to exclusive social circles.

Well, I'm easily astonied, I guess. And I haven't always loved the experience: unable to let go, unable to trust the handhold....

There is something scarily presumptuous (or, from our betters' point of view, demeaning; or, from Jack Spicer's point of view, distracting) about the act of publication. Success seems either fraud or betrayal, and failure's not much better.

But if I bit my tongue, how would I taste?

. . .

Now it feels all lumped up again.. JAIL

Lawrence L. White writes that our recent serial on comic poetry glanced off a thought much on his mind:

What if the non-sequitur were a legitimate figure of speech?

I take this thought to be a lesson of Gertrude Stein's work. I'm sure Mr. Weinberger counts Stein among the better angels. "Cubist simultaneity" would be her invite to the party. But one thing perplexes me about his list of virtues: two of them are based directly on pictures, and maybe even the third (one creative writing teacher suggested to us that dreams were more like rebuses than stories). None of them are about language. & I thought the lesson we all got from Cezanne was that your medium was the truest path into the problem.

[...] I do mean the "what if" part seriously. There's an odd triumphalism to a lot of Language poetry proponence. As if it really did move mountains. Now I'm not saying that Stein wasn't one heck of a triumphalist, but the parts I like (there are plenty available) are when she's wondering if she's managed to get her latest contraption off the ground yet & if so how long it's going to stay airborne.

Seriously or not, I'm not sure a what-if is necessary. The non-sequitur, like other approaches to nonsense, is already "a legitimate figure of speech" in the living language. It only seems exceptional within the bounds of purposefully restricted discourses such as funeral orations, or shareholder reports. To bring it into those restricted areas isn't to overcome the quotidian but to enrich (or corrupt) with the quotidian.

True, the power fantasies of poets and theorists (and science fiction writers and superhero comics and hiphop MCs and so on) are laughable. But, far from being an attack or a defeat, deflation reveals the true nature of their achievements.

And, as you say, worrying aloud about the impression one's making while in the midst of purposefully restricted discourse is a deflationary technique mastered by Gertrude Stein as well as Robert Benchley. (Which may hint at why my readings of Derrida have been unusually benign.)

I'm aware of my tongue! Unable to stop fretting about one's own place in one's own medium -- doesn't that send us back to Cézanne's school?

Before and beyond any other response they might elicit, Manet's paintings (like Stein's writings) were funny, mocked (more-or-less warmly) even by friends and supporters. Accordingly, the affections of caricaturists and parodists often sided with their irresistible target rather than with their hostile employers. Marcel Duchamp said that when he was a cartoonist hanging out with other cartoonists (not to insinuate that Duchamp ever stopped being a cartoonist), "The conversation centered above all on Manet. The great man that he was." Or, in Baudelaire's reassuring words, "the first in the decrepitude of your art."

I'm trying to avoid terms like "Postmodernism" -- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, found the lyric stance as distressingly risible as Frank O'Hara or Jack Spicer ever did. But I suppose it might be true that one would need ever higher doses of delusion to avoid self-consciousness after the printer's devil has stopped tapping at the casement window for new installments. Just us and the medium, all alone by the telephone.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.