POETRY IS FUNNY
I have always felt that much of the best poetry is funny. Who can read Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” for instance, and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh? I suppose there has got to be some line where one might say about a poem, “That’s too much nonsense,” but I think it is a line worth tempting. I am sure that there is a giggly aquifer under poetry.
Right now I am thinking of something unlikely that I saw a few days ago, the morning after my town had experienced a major winter flood. In the middle of a residential street, a cast iron manhole cover was dancing in its iron collar, driven up three or four inches by such an excess of underground water that it balanced above the street, tipping and bobbing like a flower, producing an occasional bell-like chime as it touched against the metal ring. This has much to say about poetry.
For I do not want to suggest in any way that this aquifer under poetry is something silly or undangerous; it is great and a causer of every sort of damage. And I do not want to say either that the poem that prompts me to laughter is silly or light; no, it can be as heavy as a manhole cover, but it is forced up. You can see it would take an exquisite set of circumstances to ever get this right.
I would like to offer as an illustration a poem that has always elicited from me one of those involuntary ha!s that jump out when you’ve witnessed a wonderful magic trick. Maybe that ha! is the body’s natural response to perfection: a perfect trick (one has been utterly deceived) or a perfect poem (one has been utterly deceived). In any case, here is the poem, Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay:”
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Where is the laughter? Don’t ask yet. For now, please settle for a more generalized sense of amusement, of the high-toned T.S. Eliot variety:
Poetry is a superior amusement: I do not mean an amusement for superior people. I call it an amusement, an amusement pour distraire les honnêtes gens, not because that is a true definition, but because if you call it anything else you are likely to call it something still more false. If we think of the nature of amusement, then poetry is not amusing; but if we think of anything else that poetry may seem to be, we are led into far greater difficulties.
I love two things about Eliot’s definition. First, the bedrock, indefensible truth of it: that poetry is a superior amusement. Second, Eliot’s mess of an attempt to explain what he means. I am reminded by him that though we cannot be exactly precise or complete, that is no reason not to make gigantic statements, for there is great enjoyment in gigantic statements.
But to return to Frost’s poem. I have chosen it because it’s about as funny as the Farmer’s Almanac. Had I chosen “The Windhover,” there would be the obvious near gibberish that comes from Hopkins’s supersaturated rhyming and his strange bulging liberties with sense, but Frost’s poem couldn’t be less gibberishy or less apparently nonsensical.
What could be more straightforward? The title is repeated as the last line—as though this little stack of an eight-line poem were a bitter sandwich with a filling compounded of evidence that nothing gold can stay. The gold that precedes green in new plants? Pfft! The way little new leaf clusters on trees look like flowers? Again, pfft! And notice that by the second couplet we have already moved away from the literal “gold” that exists briefly before the “first green” and are beginning our relentless slide into metaphorical gold—in the sense of something precious—with the flower’s superiority to the later leaf. Now things speed up geometrically, as “leaf subsides to leaf.” There is no doubt of Frost’s meaning here: the early, the delicate, the golden—all go down, buried under the grosser, heartier, darker, more leathery giant repulsive leaves of maturity and stink.
But that’s just in the natural world; how about humankind? Another pfft!: “So Eden sank to grief”—another ring of maturity and stink. Look at how Frost intensifies the sensation of falling (or being overcome) with his choice of verbs: first that unnerving “subsides” among the leaves, now full-out “sank” for man: something is always pulling the plug and draining the gold.
Well, so it goes for nature, and for humanity, but there’s still the planet; how about it? Pfft!: “ So dawn goes down to day.” It is odd, this thought of dawn (a kind of gold) defeated by day. We usually say, “day breaks,” or “the sun comes up,” something to suggest a beginning, an opening, a rising and spreading. Not here; here day is a corrupter, a violence that drives dawn down. No trick in this poem: nothing gold can stay.
Except wait a minute! Has gold ever been more manifest than in this poem? Nothing makes us treasure something like feeling we’re right then losing it. This poem is all trick; Frost spreads before us (like a magician’s deck) the gold of the first green, the early flower, Eden, and dawn, one after another, snatches them away, and still the gold remains; it’s suspended within the poem shivering between being and being palmed.
And that’s poetry, this impossible pang, which seen another way is a tremendous bullying job to which we submitted before we knew it. We’re done for so fast we can’t stop to think, “Who says leaf subsides—rather than advances— to leaf, or that dawn goes down—rather than expands—to day?” Too late; we’re stuck in Frost’s little house, shingled-in with the overlapping arguments, nailed down with the tidy, rhymed couplets. It’s the strangest thing; the poem is a trap—that is a release. It’s a small door to a room full of gold that we can have any time we go through the door, but that we can’t take away.
At about nine months, a baby starts to laugh when something is suddenly taken away from her. One of a baby’s first games is peek-a-boo, where someone repeatedly disappears and reappears (the enjoyment of which is, incidentally, considered a key indicator of later language acquisition skills). Frost’s poem could be thought of as a kind of peek-a-boo. The rhythm of its repeated take-aways may go all the way back to our deep early enjoyment of loss, which we register with laughter.
If this strikes you as nonsense, it is. Something nonsensical in the heart of poetry is the very reason why one can’t call poetry “useful.” Sense is useful; you can apply things that make sense to other circumstances; you can take something away. But nonsense you can only revisit; its satisfactions exist in it, and not in applications. This is why Auden and others can say with such confidence that poetry makes nothing happen. That’s the relief of it. And the reason why nothing can substitute for it.
Now would be a good time to think more about the elements of nonsense when it sails under its own colors. And where better to look for them than in a small nonsense recipe by Edward Lear:
To make Gosky Patties
Take a Pig, three or four years of age, and tie him by the off-hind leg to a post. Place 5 pounds of currants, 3 of sugar, 2 pecks of peas,18 roast chestnuts, a candle and 6 bushels of turnips, within his reach; if he eats these, constantly provide him with more.
Then procure some cream, some slices of Cheshire cheese, four quires of foolscap paper, and a packet of black pins. Work the whole into a paste, and spread it out to dry on a sheet of clean brown water-proof linen.
When the paste is perfectly dry, but not before, proceed to beat the Pig violently, with the handle of a large broom. If he squeals, beat him again.
Visit the paste and beat the Pig alternately for some days, and ascertain if at the end of that period the whole is about to turn into Gosky Patties.
If it does not then, it never will; and in that case the Pig may be let loose, and the whole process may be considered as finished.
Many of the nonsense elements that animate Gosky Patties animate poetry as well:
1 AN INVENTED GOAL. Nobody, previously, wanted Gosky Patties made, just as no one wants a poem made. There is the occasional requirement of poets laureate to memorialize a bridge, but that hardly counts. In general, one does not “find a need and fill it,” as Henry Ford urged inventors to do. There is no need which precedes either nonsense or a poem. The creator is entertaining him or herself.
2 COWBIRD TECHNIQUE. Just as the cowbird lays her eggs in another bird’s nest, nonsense is built inside the nest of some traditional form. It isn’t just shapeless. Here, in Gosky Patties, Lear takes over the recipe. Sometimes it’s a botany or an alphabet. Or, on a smaller scale, a nonsense word may be fitted into the nest of perfectly good sense. Take “Gosky Patties” here, or, in “The Owl and the Pussycat,” “runcible spoons.” Nonsense’s habit of taking up residence in something formal creates a feeling of order and propriety. Similarly, the poet occupies some sort of form. This may be the traditional form the poem takes, a sonnet or a villanelle, or simply a rhyme scheme. Or it may be a type of poem—say an epithalamium. Or it may be something else—perhaps a definition, or a list, or a claim to explain something. (I myself like to write “how-something-works” poems.) These things lend order and propriety. Form gives us confidence that we are not wasting our time on shapeless nonsense. (That’s a joke of course; nonsense is always shaped. You can distinguish real nonsense from garbage because nonsense is shaped and tense.)
3 EXACTNESS. The nonsense writer is exact about things that only become important because he is exact about them: “Take a pig, three or four years of age, and tie him by the off-hind leg.” There is little slop here. Similarly, the exactness of a poem’s distinctions makes us feel that the distinctions matter. We suddenly care, for example, when Marianne Moore describes the shell of the paper nautilus with its “wasp-nest flaws/of white on white.” We just feel that something precise is something important.
4 INCONGRUITY. Nonsense revels in working incompatible elements “into a paste.” For example, “some cream, some slices of Cheshire cheese, four quires of foolscap paper and a packet of black pins.” The poet too feels that things which bear no outward relationship to one another must nonetheless be brought into proximity. Think of Marianne Moore’s connection of “mussels” to “injured fans.” Or simply think of “injured fans”; that’s great enough.
5 A SENSE OF IMMINENCE. Lear’s instructions contain the faith that something is about to happen: “ascertain if ... the whole is about to turn into Gosky Patties.” Things are on the verge of coming together—which is more exciting than things having actually come together, of course. A poem, both for the writer and reader, must have this same buildup, as to a sneeze. Nonsense, like poetry, is a kind of game, with rules or requirements. Neither is pointless play like that endless horsies whinnying and prancing thing girls do, or that strange martial arts sequence by which small boys advance through rooms. Play assumes that there is no end. Games (nonsense and poetry) assume there is—if only for the sake of seeing it thwarted.
6 A HIGHLY PERSONAL IDEA OF CAUSE AND EFFECT. Lear insists that there is a relationship between the pig, the pig’s placement, the pig’s diet, the beating of the pig, and the paste, which may bring about Gosky Patties, although then again it may not. We must accept all this on faith, for we know nothing about such things. We simply know that there is cause and effect in nonsense, as we know it in a poem—some interior machinery that must strike and tap and rotate in a particular sequence to get something to happen, beknownst only to the author. As readers, we like this. It’s nice not to be in charge of cause and effect all the time, as we feel we are in “real life.”
7 THE READER IS MADE INTO A CO-CONSPIRATOR. This is in contradiction to the previous point, which is not a problem. We are treated both peremptorily and as equals. It is assumed—wrongly, of course—that the reader shares the knowledge of what Gosky Patties would be if they were to become themselves. There is this sense of shared delicate sensibility between reader and author about this: the reader must use judgment equal to the author’s: “Visit the paste and beat the Pig alternately for some days, and ascertain if at the end of that period the whole is about to turn into Gosky Patties.” You’ll know what to do.
And so of course with poetry. We have the flattering feeling in reading a poem that we are somehow creating it. We’re sending it where it goes. And in a way this is absolutely true, since the poem is only reconstituted by our act of reading and understanding, the letters otherwise quite helpless on the page. One might note, further, that in both the case of Lear’s nonsense and in a poem, the thing that is being asked of us, such as knowing when Gosky Patties are about to form, may be pure hokum. We may understand it as hokum, and remain exactly as willing to get on with the show. Perhaps more willing, since who wants more practical outcomes.
8 A PERFECT ABSENCE OF SENTIMENT. The pig’s feelings do not concern us. The pig is provided endless (primarily) tasty food (except the candle). The pig is at the same time beaten: “Beat the Pig violently, with the handle of a large broom.... Visit the paste and beat the Pig alternately for some days.’’ If the whole doesn’t turn into Gosky Patties, “the Pig may be let loose.” (We may ask, What might have become of the pig if the Gosky Patties had occurred? But we are given no hint ... except in the terrible word, “Patties.”) If we had feelings about the pig, this would not be fun for us. I believe that feelings, attached feelings that is, are also dead weight in a poem. We mustn’t be feeling things for the poor tethered pigs in poems; poems are to liberate our feelings rather than to bind them. If a poem sticks you to it, it has failed. Consider the example of the death of Lesbia’s sparrow, as described by Catullus, that “has hopped solitarily/down that dark alleyway of no return.” Our sentiments are stuck neither to the bird, nor to Lesbia’s grief over its death, but, through Catullus’s tone of mock gravity, are connected to something truly grave: that implacable force that “swallows up all beautiful things.”
9 INDIFFERENCE TO OUTCOME. There is no product, and this is perfectly satisfactory. “If it does not then [turn into Gosky Patties] it never will; and in that case the Pig may be let loose, and the whole process may be considered as finished.” There were expectations, it was important to have expectations, but achieving them doesn’t matter a black pin. Isn’t this the burden of Cavafy’s “Ithaca” as much as “Gosky Patties”? Although I hate to bring in the word burden; the burden here is that there is no burden. I love this blessed release from the goal. I love the feeling of deflation, in general, that one enjoys in nonsense. Take this familiar rhyme:
Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to see the Queen.
Pussycat, Pussycat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under a chair.
I love the small thing that results from great circumstances. The Pussycat goes the long way around to do something she could have done in the next room. When any child repeats this nonsense rhyme, she most likely pays no attention to what she’s saying, but some interior overworked overdutiful overintentional windup machinery inside her is relaxed, and that is why this rhyme has lasted without anyone ever worrying about it.
10 A WONDERFUL SENSE OF HELPLESSNESS. We can do certain (very exact) things to make Gosky Patties, but we have no control over whether or not they work. This of course is the exact delicate state required of poetry writing. We can urge parts (pins, cheese, etc.) together and then we have to hope that they will do their part, somehow becoming active in an enterprise that is beyond us.
11 THE OBJECT IS DELIGHT. Lear is first delighting himself and then his audience. And I would argue that the poet as well as the nonsense writer is delighted by his work, whatever the apparent extremity he may be describing in a poem. Could Hopkins, for example, have been anything but delighted/released by the phrase “time’s eunuch”? Somehow he created an atomic broth (cooked over despair) that twisted these unlikely word partners together into a supremely powerful and economical description of supreme powerlessness and waste. He is, in the moment of calling himself “time’s eunuch,” released from being “time’s eunuch.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he actually laughed. I don’t think it would be a rueful laugh, either; it would be joy.
MODIFY THE GLEE
I can’t go on any longer without reference to Emily Dickinson, whose work is so buoyed by nonsense that it fairly pops out of the water. When I was first thinking about this relationship between poetry and nonsense, I opened her collected to find an example in her work, and the book fell to a remarkable demo poem that I hadn’t previously known at all. But the truth is, when you’re reading closely, almost any poem can be a great demo poem. Almost any random poem by a great poet can become your private key to their enigma machine; although the enigma machine keeps spitting out different daily codes, you will sense the same deep gizmo behind it. For example, everything in Frost has that same ominous something-that-drains-away-the-gold, once you’ve really seen it at work in “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
Here is Emily Dickinson’s “The Morning after Woe”:
The Morning after Woe—
’Tis frequently the Way—
Surpasses all that rose before—
For utter Jubilee—
As Nature did not care—
And piled her Blossoms on—
And further to parade a Joy
Her Victim stared upon—
The Birds declaim their Tunes—
Pronouncing every word
Like Hammers—Did they know they fell
Like Litanies of Lead—
On here and there—a creature—
They’d modify the Glee
To fit some Crucifixal Clef—
Some Key of Calvary—
Dickinson is a natural in thinking about the cool, ungummifying effects of nonsense on poetry and the liberation nonsense introduces to the spirit. “The Morning after Woe” is a grief-giddy poem, dazzled with loss and filled with extreme invention.
The first two stanzas establish one of those big contrasts so characteristic of Dickinson’s way of constructing a poem, how she rubs rough opposites together so that each side aggravates the other. In this poem the contrast is between the night of Woe (probably someone’s death) and the tauntingly joyous morning after.
It’s the last two stanzas I want to get to. Emily Dickinson’s sensitivity this morning (if we agree to think of her as writing this on the morning after a death) is so extreme that the language is exaggerated and speeded up and cartoonlike. The mind is impatient with anything local. It has to find some sort of mover—like the little cast-metal car or boot of the Monopoly board—that can maneuver free of the clingy stuff of the actual unbearable morning. She finds birds. She describes the birds as “Pronouncing every word/Like Hammers.” See how fast she’s moving here from the aural to the physical. She barely slows down as she passes from the sound of birdsong to the still logically related sound of ringing hammers, to the strange shift in logic whereby she keeps the hammer idea, but moves from their sound to their terrible downward weight. The picture is comically impossible; if you think of the birdsong broadcast out (as of a sprinkler, say) it suddenly condenses, going south fast and hard, falling as “Litanies of Lead.” The transmutation from the immaterial sound to the aggressively material hammerheads shifts the poem to a cartoon scene where “here and there—a creature” is getting bonked on the head like Krazy Kat.
Now the game changes again. No more weight; back to abstraction. If the birds knew the painful effect their joyous song was having on the sufferers below, “They’d modify the Glee.” And it’s little wonder the word “glee” should come up here; it’s glee that’s cranking up this poem, delivering it now to another kind of invention dear to nonsense writers, the invented word “Crucifixal” nestling against an actual word: the birds would find some other way of singing, some “Crucifixal Clef.” With that, Emily Dickinson has invented a whole new musical notation—a new pitch of suffering.
Well, no, not suffering. We are far beyond suffering here. We are in the grip of invention so free that invention invents further, so that the first great trope, nudged by the appetites of rhyme (“Glee”) effortlessly discovers its own restatement: “Some Key of Calvary.” This whole new notational Golgotha at which we arrive is a place discoverable only by language operating on language. The direction of this poem is one of increasing exaggeration and extremity, moving out and out—much as Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”—to a condition of understanding which only the poem sustains. In Frost, we know a shivering gold; in Dickinson, this painless pitch beyond hearing. I have to think they were both having a wonderful time.
Nonsense exists only in relation to sense. It uses the rules of sense but comes to different conclusions. What is it but nonsense that has taken the grave weight of Frost’s and Dickinson’s poems—the sensible, expressible weight of them: all that is new is soon lost; human grief finds no sympathy in nature—and has left them weightless? Because if these poems, or a Shakespeare sonnet or a dark sonnet by Donne, had not had their arguments undone somehow, they would indeed crash upon our heads like hammers.
All feelings must go through the chillifier for us to feel them in that aesthetically thrilling way that we do in poetry. Poetry’s feelings are not human feelings; we know the difference. There is some deep exchange of heat for cool that I’m trying to get at, something that I see operating in nonsense and that I believe gives poetry much of its secret irresistibility and staying-power (we are not exhausted by it and must always revisit it). In fact I am sure this mysterious exchange informs all the arts I’m drawn to. Today, again, I’ve found evidence of it in a New York Times article about a puppet theater version of Anne Frank’s diary. The puppets are Barbie-sized “pose-able mannequins” that two actresses move around in “a giant cutaway dollhouse, an exact replica of the annex rooms where Anne and her family hid.” This unlikely production, “which sounds at first blush like someone’s idea of a bad joke,” succeeds. It is thought to succeed “because puppets, by their very woodenness, force the audience to fill in movements, expressions and interior lives.”
We swarm to a vacuum. We warm a vacuum. That’s nonsense; vacuums can’t conduct heat. That’s funny.