Thursday, June 16, 2011
Poetry and mirth
I posted a link to the above on Facebook and dozens of outraged comments from poets rapidly ensued. This tells me that Steve is onto something. I mean, many's the day I resist the suspicion that AmPoets have lost their sense of humor. (Clearly there's more than humor involved in Steve's ebullient videos.) In AmPoBiz, there are daily heaps of snark, sarcasm, irony, silliness, jokes-at-others'-expense and - a real bete noir of mine - poems that are composed and/or delivered in the manner of stand-up comedy routines. But a plain old delightful sense of humor?
Maybe humor's not the right word. What I'm getting at is something intriguingly described in a recent TLS piece on G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton is far from my favorite thinker on most subjects, and I feel surprised at the recent movement to make him, literally, a saint (Ezra Pound was arguably more saintly than Chesterton); but the Father Brown stories, and The Man Who Was Thursday, strike me as elemental reading. Anyway, here's the bit from Bernard Manzo's essay that seems lovely and apt to me.
Chesterton [...] valued the grotesque in art – a matter of definite outlines, exaggerations, wayward individualization, of “the energy which takes its own forms and goes its own way” – because it rejoiced in the particular. To present something in a grotesque manner, to stress what makes it peculiarly itself, is “to draw attention to the intrinsically miraculous character of the object itself”. (He was strongly appreciative of the energies of the grotesque in Browning and Dickens.) He valued humour because it involves openness to the ways in which reality exceeds any ideas one might form of it: “the man who sees the inconsistency in things is a humorist”, and it involves humility, because one must abandon oneself to a joke to be funny: “do not fancy you can be a detached wit and avoid being a buffoon”. The humour of Chesterton was of a kind that finds the thing laughed at precious and admirable in its laughableness, and he saw laughter as inseparable from love. He once remarked that “there was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth”.
I don't need or want the house of poets to be a house of mirth. And I know that current poetics sneers at individualization, wayward or otherwise. But humility, abandon, openness and love? Hey, that'd be kind of salutary.
Edward Dahlberg (a sweet guy, eh?) wrote years ago in Poetry:
People that read without an abundance of love leave the book they have read as famished as they were before they came to it. We are hungered and thirsty, but how can we turn the gray water words in the earthen Cana books into wine without much loving. How easy it is to go to a great poet with a small listless heart, and with morose surd ears; for though the arbute shakes in the wind, the eye is lookless, and though the kelp has the acutest longing for the sea in it, the nose is stupid, and the dells and hard frith that are signs of the opaque substance of mortal will are dead dirt. There is a secret, porcine disgrace in loveless reading, just as there is in any instant of our lives when we are not remembering actively, and our thoughts are of starvelled material, and our passions are not the gems that were on Aaron’s breastplate, but just rubble and slain stones.