Friday, July 30, 2010

John Collier, Twilight Zoner

If ever you wondered where “The Twilight Zone” got some of its hokey material, wonder no longer. They probably got some of it from John Collier.

Collier’s “Another American Tragedy” has that typical Twilighty Zone zinger at the end, in which a nephew who murders his rich, irascible uncle to get his hands on his fortune discovers he’s not the only one with murder on his mind. I can just hear Rod Serling saying that.

Collier’s “Mary” is no better – it’s a sad tale of an English lass who competes with a pig for the affection of her new husband. The pig, of course, ends up as sausage, which the wife and husband eat with relish, the husband unaware of whom he is consuming.

Yeah, it’s that bad.

Almost William Shatner bad. Witness:

“This is another thing we couldn’t’ have while she was here,” said Fred, as he finished his plateful. “Never no pork sausages, on account of her feelings. I never thought to see the day I’d be glad she was pinched. I only hope she’s gone to someone who appreciates her.”

“I’m sure she has,” said Rosie. “Have some more.”

“I will,” said he. “I don’t know if it’s the novelty, or the way you cooked ‘em, or what. I never ate a better sausage in my life. If we’d gone up to London with her, best hotels and all, I doubt if ever we’d have had as sweet a sausage as these here.”

Wikipedia says Collier’s writing has been praised by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury and Paul Theroux. Well, there’s never an accounting for taste, is there?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Frank Moore Colby, Meet Tony Lanzio

Tony Lanzio is the guy who taught Dad how to make chicken cacciatore and turned him on to making his own spaghetti sauce and other Italian foods. He’s also the guy that was at least 25 percent easier to understand after I spent two years in France.

Tony, it turns out, speaks several languages. At least English, Italian, French, German and Dutch. To make things interesting, he speaks them all at once.

I’m not sure you could classify him as a francophile, as Frank Moore Colby claims to be in his piece “Confessions of a Gallomaniac.” He does it, I believe, out of survival. As an immigrant to the United States from Europe after World War II – just like my father – Tony simply picked up languages along the way as a way to get along.

So hearing Colby’s pidgin French/English conversation in this piece is a delight:

‘It is good morning,’ said I, ‘better than I had extended.’

‘I was at you yestairday ze morning, but I deed not find.’

‘I was obliged to leap early,’ said I, ‘and I was busy standing up straight all around the forenoon.’

‘The book I prayed you send, he came, and I thank, but positively are you not deranged?’

‘Don’t talk,’ said I. ‘Never talk again. It was really nothing anywhere. I had been very happy, I reassure.’

‘Pardon, I glide, I glode. There was the hide of a banana. Did I crash you?’

Gestures and smiles of perfect understanding.

This is, I’m sure, how I sound in French. This is how Tony sounds always, given his penchant for mixing languages. Colby’s is a delightful romp through learning a language because you want to communicate with people, not because you want to impress them.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Waifs and Strays

It’s the dream of every author to be remembered.

Check that.

It’s the dream of every author to be paid, then to be remembered.

Thus, likely, the provenance of one of Louis Untermeyer’s “Waifs and Strays,” little snippets of humorous verse for which the origins have been lost “They all seem to be the work of that industrious and often-quoted author ‘Anonymous.’ They are the waifs and strays of poetry.”

Here it is:

The saddest words of tongue or pen
Perhaps may be “It might have been.”
The sweetest words we know, by heck,
Are simply these: “Enclosed find check.”

We’ve all heard variations on them. Such as this:

‘Twixt optimist and pessimist,
The difference is droll:
The optimist sees the doughnut,
The pessimist sees the hole.

And yet I wonder. In today’s Google Society, are such little scraps of verse still anonymous, or has the ubiquitousness of the search engine and the hungry maw that is content and research finally found the authors of these waifs and strays? Let’s find out.

An, the “Optimist and Pessimist” seems to have been authored by one McLandburgh Wilson. What may we discover of him? Well, we may discover that this amusing little bit of verse may be the only thing for which McLandburgh is remembered, if not for the serendipity between his last name and a popular maker of outdoors and sports equipment, for which advertisements appear on many pages containing this bit of pastry-based amuse-cerveaux.

And how about our first example, the author pining for the check? Mr. Google tells us this one was written by John Greenleaf Whittier, Quaker Poet prominent enough to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp. And a happy man he appears to be.

So, they’re waifs and strays no longer, at least these two examples. Pity that the verses are so memorable, so quotable, without the author being remembered for them, except by a few fanatics at Wikipedia and the combiners of searched items with advertisement tags.

Let’s try one more. Surely this one is no longer anonymous:

Girls, to this advice give heed –
In your affairs with men
If at first you don’t succeed,
Cry, cry again.

Plug that into Mr. Google, and . . . ugh.

It’s been taken over by neocons. Tammy Wynette. Bad, bad joke-tellers.

Sorry, bub. It’s obvious whoever wrote this one is going to remain anonymous.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Irvin S. Cobb: Our First Thudding Artiste

Today’s installment is a good example of how, over time, rhetorical style changes.

Louis Untermeyer assures us, in his introduction to Irvin S. Cobb’s “Speaking of Operations,” that the piece, written in 19196 and commonly delivered as a humorous monologue, had people laughing. But –

No, I’ll let you pass judgment. Here are a few excerpts:

It all dates back to the fair, bright morning when I went to call on a prominent practitioner here in New York, whom I shall denominate as Doctor X. I had a pain. I had had it for days. It was not a dependable, locatable pain, such as a tummyache or a toothache is, which you can put your hand on; but an indefinite, unsettled, undecided kind of pain, which went wandering about from place to place inside of me like a strange ghost lost in Cudjo's Cave. I never knew until then what the personal sensations of a haunted house are. If only the measly thing could have made up its mind to settle down somewhere and start light housekeeping I think should have been better satisfied. I never had such an uneasy tenant. Alongside of it a woman with the moving fever would be comparatively a fixed and stationary object.

So. Pain as a haunted house. That’s pretty funny. Then there’s this description of waiting in the doctor’s waiting room:

Time passed; to me it appeared that nearly all the time there was passed and that we were getting along toward the shank-end of the Christian era mighty fast. I was afraid my turn would come next and afraid it would not. Perhaps you know this sensation. You get it at the dentist's, and when you are on the list of after-dinner speakers at a large banquet, and when you are waiting for the father of the Only Girl in the World to make up his mind whether he is willing to try to endure you as a son-in-law.

Then some more time passed.

One by one my companions, obeying a command, passed out through the door at the back, vanishing out of my life forever. None of them returned. I was vaguely wondering whether Doctor Z buried his dead on the premises or had them removed by a secret passageway in the rear, when a young woman in a nurse's costume tapped me on the shoulder from behind.

Who hasn’t wondered this – where do they bury the dead that never leave the premises? Honestly, this is funny stuff. It’s just that the language is so stilted and lugubrious it’s kinda hard to get through to the humor.

That’s how the rhetoric has changed. We’re a lot less flowery now. A lot less stilted, at least in comedic circles. If Cobb got onto the standup circuit today and tried this material, well, Bomb City. No way can this compete against this:

And even this is a bit old-timey now.

Cobb does get out some good humor. I recommend reading the full text, available here. But if you fall asleep and thud your head on the desk while reading and end up going to a doctor, well, that’s not my fault. I have to admit I’ve tried reading through it several times and the language just turns me off every time. It’s not that it’s not funny, it’s just so rhetorically alien to what I’m used to reading – and I’ve read a lot of stuff, both older and younger than this.

So read. The thuds you hear will likely be brain cells falling asleep as you do. But at least you have a pain you can localize, and something to think about as the patients leave one by one.

This makes Irvin S. Cobb our first "thudder," the kind of writer who inspires sleep -- and quickly -- among modern readers. I know what that's like -- I'm a thudder, too.

Back On

Yes, I know I mentioned mid-September or later. I'm still doing the
online teaching thing. Still doing the novel thing. Still doing the
husband and father thing. But I also still want to be doing this thing.

So later today, a (rather boring) visit with Irvin S. Cobb.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Going on Hiatus

Regular followers of this blog (thanks, Mom!) may have noticed a paucity of posts here lately. For that I apologize. I am here to say that, as of now, this blog is on a temporary hiatus. The free time I've been using to do the reading and writing for this blog has evaporated, at least temporarily, as I take on the challenge of becoming an online instructor of English at a local university. Once I'm through online certification and maybe the first half of my first class, which starts in September, I'll be able to pick things up here again.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Guy Wetmore Carryl -- Another Bad Joke Uncle

Louis Untermeyer calls Guy Wetmore Carryl "an extraordinary versifier," in the vein of Ogden Nash. And I have to agree with Untermeyer when he says Carryl can keep up a "battery of bristling rhymes, astounding puns, and topsy-turvy morals in the air at one time and in one poem."

And I'm jealous.

It's the kind of stuff I'd like to write. And it's not as easy as it seems -- nor is it as easy to recite, as many recitations on YouTube attest. This is one of the best recitations of his "The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven," obviously put there by someone trying to keep Carryl's poetry in the ears of modern listeners:

I've got a lot of respect for poets who can work unusual words like "Gotterdammerung" into their poems.

Still, there is a bit of the Bad Joke Uncle about Carryl's poems -- which is ultimately forgivable. The morals to which he arrives are the kinds of puns that can make any crowd groan. But at the same time, you're agreeing with what's said, and laughing at it. Thanks, Bad Joke Uncle.