Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Poetry, Grimness, and Gallows Humor

Ange Mlinko

Ange Mlinko, whose posts are such an impertinent pleasure over at Harriet, gets off a good volley against grimness in the comment box this morning, and I don't want it to go unnoticed. "Is black humor the only serious humor, then?... 'Dahn the Plug'ole' makes me want to cry, not laugh. Which is fine, but frankly I'm tired of the sense I get from some in the avant-garde that negativity is the ultimate value. Nietzsche's Silenus, who stops laughing long enough to advise one that it would have been better never to have been born, might be its mascot."

I understand her weariness with gallows humor, although I don't always share it when the hangman (or is it the hanging man or woman) leaves us with uncertainties about the larger order that set the death-platform stubbornly in place. Here's a poem that accomplishes that feat of gallows legerdemain (apologies for wrapped lines, which defeat me in html with all the different browsers and text sizes out there):

War Has Been Given a Bad Name

I am told that the best people have begun saying
How, from a moral point of view, the Second World War
Fell below the standard of the First. The Wehrmacht
Allegedly deplores the methods by which the SS effected
The extermination of certain peoples. The Ruhr industrialists
Are said to regret the bloody manhunts
Which filled their mines and factories with slave workers. The intellectuals
So I heard, condemn industry's demand for slave workers
Likewise their unfair treatment. Even the bishops
Dissociate themselves from this way of waging war; in short the feeling
Prevails in every quarter that the Nazis did the Fatherland
A lamentably bad turn, and that war
While in itself natural and necessary, has, thanks to the
Unduly uninhibited and positively inhuman
Way in which it was conducted on this occasion, been
Discredited for some time to come.

— Bertolt Brecht
(tr. John Willett)

Ben Lerner’s “Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan,” from his 2006 book Angle of Yaw (Copper Canyon), immediately comes to mind as well as a poem bracing (not enervating) in its darkness. Here’s a brief excerpt:

I am wearing a Mikhail Gorbachev Halloween mask.
Blood is a vegetable when it forms part of a school lunch.
Tell the boys to go out there and win one for me.
The former president entered my room at night.
We celebrated by breaking off pieces of the wall.
I want the tone to have a very broad surface in relation to its depth.
I want a gun for protection.
         I want the form to enact the numbing it describes.
         I would shoot myself only in self-defense.

Like Ange I do sometimes find it hard going when a poetic performance seems to teeter on the edge of nihilism, when the poet speaks from a seemingly airless cultural room in which the objects of his or her loathing loom triumphant, with no possibility of resistance in sight. This is clearly not the case with books of incendiary satire like K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation and Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat, but (in less skilled hands) it does seem a particular challenge for a poetry collaged from found materials chosen for their ridiculousness or even for their ignorance and bigotry, in which the poet’s own stance must emerge solely from what he or she selects.

I’d be very interested in hearing more from Ange or others about dark-humored books or oeuvres that seem rooted in unreconstructed hopelessness, or tack against it. I’m sure Ange would not include excitable boys and girls Ron Padgett, Bernadette Mayer, Kenward Elmslie, Maxine Chernoff, and Kenneth Koch among the grimly hilarious, for instance, but who else might we put forward among our contemporaries or recent contemporaries?

Who, in other words, is writing funny poems that set nihilism on its ear? And where do we run into a thick, unmoving, windless sea of despair, that Nietzschean Silenus wanting to sleep and never wake again?


Cris said...

I wish I could argue with you about being tired of negative value, am. Maybe I can and don't see it yet. Will you tell me? I'm even tired of Beckett.

Silenus is a good place to start-- or Nietzsche the philologist-- (god, I know you're dead, but could you please help me remember how to spell that man's name?) who brings to everyone's attention the fact of the Void in our lives-- the 20C's trouble-- the relativization (hideous word) of context, the loss of ultimate meaning. It is really terrible and not yet solved.

To begin with Plug'0le:
It does make laughter ('mid the tears, since we have seen mere skelingtons-- at least in the newspaper if not our homes or neighborhoods) acceptable, because we all know that a baby could never really fit down a plug'ole. Also, because it puts all the really terrible lines in the voice of the Angel.

To move on to the Problem: today, the problem of the Void is "filled" by mass media. Its hollow laughter and insincerity and lying. The permanent separation of art from entertainment. The permanent impoverishment of art and artists (who must A. compromise, B. find trust funds or C. day jobs or D. die).

On to poetry: Tragicomic humor is a red herring for me and the search for humor in poetry is a school of herring of all colors. I actually don't scan for it. I love Yeats & Lorca not because they're funny (I don't find 'em so) but because they're language is beautiful. What I miss and what I'm looking for is beauty. Has anyone been to the bottom of the Void, and come back with something beautiful?

Now I see: what we do is go out looking in the world for what we ourselves believe, timorously, we have to offer. As if by finding it, we might make our own efforts unnecessary. Or, more honestly perhaps, to find someone who would show us exactly what to do, someone we could then despise, hope to overcome, and pray for them to be knifed in a barroom brawl.

So the positive value, for me am, is beauty.

Cris said...

...Guess I commented a bit late...

Thanks for the ref to the Koch book. He has written another book I love... though it doesn't contain his poetry, but his approach to teaching children: Rose, where did you get that red? I was going to use it for a homeschool coop class that never happened.


Anonymous said...

suggestion: indira jalli.

Rachel Loden said...

Cris, "Dahn the Plug'ole" might be fun to sing in a pub.

Going to the bottom and coming back (at least briefly): Paul Celan, "Todesfuge."

I'll google Indira Jalli... thanks.

Cris said...

Correction "_their_ language" in first post above... Also, I should say that I was referring in the last paragraph to Shakespeare's possible relationship with Marlowe, not suggesting that any one of us would actually wish for such a terrible thing. You know how an idea begins rather harmlessly and by the end of the sentence has become overly dramatic?

Yes, I wonder what tune we could use for Plug'ole? Something Burnsey, p'raps? Well, I see Martin Carthy's already done it... http://www.informatik.uni-hamburg.de/~zierke/martin.carthy/songs/yourbabyasgorndahntheplugole.html

Just read the Celan and heard him reading in German. And read 4 poems by Indira Jalli. The Celan is incredibly intense and beautiful in its horror. I have always hated the sound of German probably because it is associated in my mind with precisely these images and scenes: always the victim and the murderer. This is exactly the dyad I've spent years trying to dissolve. How? Gallows humor? A turn toward ecstasy? It was, I've heard, resolved on the cross-- which reminds everyone now of the impossibility of our situation.

Jalli: written in English, not translated I think (from a blog http://lovepeaceandprosperitytotheworld.blogspot.com/ )... Does not strike my ear as beautiful writing. Angry, impassioned, yes. She does not like the caste system or the position of women in India. I'm sure she has very good reasons for these feelings. I would probably feel the same. But I'm looking for a way out of the responses of the local self to suffering. Poetry written from this place does not interest me now.

Thanks to you both. I've been reading Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Verlaine in French. Like a boy riding a bicycle for the first time! A rather oldish boy. Mallarme is still too hard for me without a dictionary. Le Pont Mirabeau made me cry real tears. Isn't that silly?

Anonymous said...

i didn't suggest that indira jalli's work was "beautiful writing", i suggested it as darkly humorous. i'm surprised that work as dense with reference as herss struck you as the "responses of the local self to suffering" -- the hilarity is in the response to *theorizing* about suffering.

poetry written from this place does not interest you -- that made me chortle.

Cris said...

Dear Anonymous,
Shadow boxing wears me out! And I do not dare tangle with anyone I do not know, especially when she is author of many works I adore, including "Plug'Ole"!

There is a person behind the words you have written, I remind myself, someone with feelings-- and one on this end too. The ability to forget this fact on a blog or by email is part of what makes "online community" an oxymoron. So until we meet again, Adieu! Adieu!