Friday, October 29, 2010

Robert Frost's Childrens' Book?

Droll, dry wit.

Reserved language. Mellifuous language. RHymes tighter than a miser's DNA.

That is Robert Frost.

I know so little of poetry, though I write a bit from time to time. I think that's part of the reason I'm reading this book and blogging about it, so I can learn a bit more about the forms and the styles and the writers who use them.

Robert Frost is an enigma to me. I know his poem about the road not taken. I know he was a New Englander. And that's about it. I'm sure there are many out there who know much more than I about the man, so I won't go into any detail here.

Except to say I love his poem "Brown's Descent." Such tightly-wound, rich language with such a whimsical story underneath it. Written in a more modern, more folksy style, it could easily have been this:

But when you read lines like this, you know this is from no ordinary poet:

Sometimes he came with arms outspread
Like wings, revolving in the scene
Upon his longer axis, and;
With no small dignity of mien.

Faster or slower as he chanced,
Sitting or standing as he chose,
According as he feared to risk
His neck, or thought to spare his clothes

This whole story -- of a hapless farmer who gets blown down an icy hillside by a sudden winter gale -- could easily be a children's book. And perhaps it was, that long ago, written in 1919. But I doubt it. Still, it's fun to think of kids gathered 'round the fire at night, asking dad to read about the poor Farmer Brown getting blown down the hill again.

My kids prefer Josh McBroom. But tonight, I'll read them some Robert Frost.

Long Live Jim Clark! And Robert Frost.

When YouTube's Jim Clark has done one of his fantastically absurdist "animations" of a fellow or lady reading one of their most famous works, you know that author is a heavy-hitter:

Thus it is with the subject of our next installment at the Treasury of Laughter: Robert Frost.

The road less traveled. Most of us have heard the poem. Some of us can at least recite a few lines. But there are fewer who have actually read it. Here it is:

The road not taken......

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Soon we'll be treated to Frost's comic poem "Brown's Descent." Until then, enjoy the quirky, unintended weirdness of Jim Clark's animation.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Paranoid Corey Ford

As a person who is naturally shy and easily gets flummoxed in social situations, I certainly empathize with the nameless drip in Corey Ford’s “Wanted, Dead or Alive,” as he details the excruciatingly painful (to him) process he went through to open a charge account at a department store.

He starts off like this:

One of my ancestors must have robbed a bank. There must be something in my family history to account for the guilty way in which I stammer and blush and glance shiftily out of the corner of my eye whenever I try to cash a cheque, or give references for an apartment, or open a charge account in a department store.

I feel his pain, though my anxiety may stem from the time that Dad and his brother Sjaak, as little boys, locked themselves in the sole pay telephone booth in their village of Santpoort just prior to World War II, forcing the postmistress to go in search of Frau Davidson to extricate her boys in case a call came in on the line.

Ford continues in a comically anxietal vein:

“Garters,” I explained huskily.

The clerk appeared mildly interested.

“Don’t want to buy ‘em,” I added in short gasps. “Don’t want to pay for ‘em, that is,. Want to,” loosening my collar, “charge ‘em.”

“In whose name?” asked the clerk.

In the name of the great Jehovah and . . . Ford,” I checked myself. “My own name. I want to open an account.”

Of course, as we all know all too well, such paranoia only can grow, as Ford tells us:

“I see,” said the clerk quietly, with the sort of look that seemed to add: “And maybe this will clear up the mystery of those solid-silver belt-buckles that have been disappearing lately.” And he exclaimed in a loud voice: “Mr. Messersmith.”

There was a slight odor of sulphur, and Mr. Messersmith appeared, rubbing his hands. “Ah?”

“This is Mr. Ford,” said the clerk significantly.

“Ah. Of course,” said Mr. Messersmith, casting a grateful look at the clerk.

“Mr. Ford,” added the clerk, with an ill-concealed smile, “says he would like to open an account.”

I could see a look of almost respect creep into Mr. Messersmith’s eyes, as he contemplated this bit of sheer bravado on my part. At least, he reflected, this crook had his nerve with him. “Won’t you come with me?” he urged, leading me gently by the arm toward the elevator.

Little bureaucratic niceties, in the eyes of the paranoiac, assume gargantuan significance:

“And now,” said Mr. Alvord [a Messersmith minion] presently, handing me back my license and blotting his questionnaire grimly, “have you ever had a charge account before?” “No,” I lied bravely. “Are you sure?” frowned Mr. Alvord. “Think,” Mr. Messersmith added darkly in my ear. I sagged. “Once,” I admitted weakly, “I opened a charge account with Brooks.” I leaned forward impulsively. “But that was years ago, Mr. Alvord . . . I was a mere boy then. Surely you can’t hold against me the follies of my . . .” “Any other account?” patiently. “No,” I insisted, watching him like a cat.

Of course, Mr. Ford gets his account – though he leaves the store without the garters, too ashamed of his assumed criminality to buy them, even on the account the Messrs. Messersmith and Alvord have so politely set up for him.

Aye, sometimes looking into a person’s motivations is akin to looking into an empty room. Corey Ford reminds us of that well.

Friday, October 15, 2010

These are the Jokes, Folks, Part II

To follow up the rather confusing Joe Miller collection of questionable humor, Louis Untermeyer offers another loose collection of jokes, but with a caveat provided by Josh Billings:

There is little chance of agreement among experts on humor. Or, rather, there are no experts; the only real test is personal taste.

That goes especially for the jokes in this section, which Untermeyer calls “Joe Miller’s Grandchildren.” Here are a few examples:

It was in the hills of Kentucky that a traveler saw a farmer holding a pig in his arms so that the creature could eat the apples right off the tree.

“Won’t it take a long time to fatten your hog that way?” asked the traveler.

“I suppose so,” replied the farmer. “But what’s time to a durned old hog?”

Yeah. The jokes don’t get much better than that. Well, they do, but not in this collection. Behold:

“Did you hear about the woman who married four times? Her first husband was a millionaire. Her second was a famous actor. Her third was a well-known minister. And her last was an undertaker.”

“I see. One for the money; two for the show; three to get ready; and four to go.”

You’re larffing on the inside, I can tell.

What the hell. One more:

“Why do you act so unhappy? Anything wrong?”

“I had to shoot my dog.”

“Was he mad?”

“He wasn’t exactly pleased about it.”


Only one thing to say to that:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

These Are the Jokes, Folks

Google “joke database” and you’ll get a few hits – 20,600,000 at least.

The internet has blessed joke collectors – and cursed the rest of us who have to listen to these jackanapes – with vast joke databases where, for hours on end, one can probe the hilarity of everything from yo mama jokes to the tenebrous world that is “adult” humor. (For examples, go here. And here. And there. And over there. And here again. And here. And over here. Go, frankly, anywhere. NOTE: Don’t come crying to me if the jokes in the links I’ve provided aren’t to your liking or satisfaction; I’m only responsible for the stuff in the Treasury of Laughter, not anything else.)

Robert O. Foote would feel at home here.

So would Joe Miller, his mysterious fictional researcher of everything jokey. And he might repeat the mild anti-sophisticate rebuke in “Who was Joe Miller,” a “research” piece Foote put together on ribald humor through the ages:

Humor, say philosophers, is the index of an era’s sophistication. Because the present day laughs at broad jokes, it is inclined to fancy itself as tolerant; “modern” is the popular word. The stories we tell in mixed company would only have been whispered by grandfather to his barroom cronies. Ipso facto, we’re pretty darn sophisticated. But are we?

Examine a case example: You see a cartoon – or will shortly when the gag men realize what they have been overlooking – which shows a young man getting out of bed in which still reposes a lovely dame. The caption says “I think I’ll get up and rest.” Now, except for the manner of its telling through the aid of a drawing reproduction process unknown to our ancestors, instead of completely by words as was necessary with them, that is the identical joke at which our forbears of two hundred years ago were snickering. Here is its exact wording, No. 164 in the now priceless first edition of Joe Miller’s Jests:

“A Young Lady who had been Married but a Short Time, seeing her Husband going to Rise pretty early in the Morning, said, ‘What, my Dear, are you getting up already? Pray lie a little longer and rest yourself.’ ‘No, my Dear,’ replied the husband. ‘I’ll get up and rest myself.’”

So sophistication is obviously in the eye of the beholder. As is humor, but Foote doesn’t argue that. He figures everything is funny. Just like somebody else I know: The Bat-Bat.

The pertinent bit begins at 1:36. Listen through to 2:30, then skip to 3:08 for more punnery and a Bob Hope-inspired payoff. For you anal retentives, the first portion of this cartoon is available here.

Joe Miller, at least in this piece, focuses on the ribald – though the mildly ribald, compared to much of the stuff that we hear said in the open today.

To be honest, however, I’m not quire sure what Foote’s point to all of this is: that ribald humor is common in all eras, just more open today? Anyone who reads Chaucer ought to know better than that.

It might just be that (whispers) I’ve never been all that much into jokes. Funny stories and situations, yes, but not jokes. No one in the family really is into jokes. Want proof? Here’s my mother’s favorite joke:

Why do gorillas have big noses? Because they have big fingers.”

And my Dad’s:

Two Americans were at the train station in Amsterdam and wanted to go to the town of Deloo. The man went to the ticket counter and said “Two to Deloo,” to which the agent responded “Tee teedle lee!”

I rest my case.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

That Indomitable Duck

As I read Charles G. Finney’s “That Indomitable Duck,” two things immediately came to mind.

First were the stories of fellow Idahoan Patrick F. McManus, or more specifically the stories involving his dog Strange, who more or less adopted Pat’s family and used their farm as a base of operations for his disgusting and lecherous activities, ranging from rolling on fresh roadkill to molesting any farm dog or chicken that came within his disparate territory.

The other is the tale of Radar O’Reilley’s goat Randy who, as Charles Emerson Winchester the Third read with disgust in a letter from Radar’s mother, once “tried to kiss a turkey.”

Finney, in a mix of high-falutin’ language and country boy patois, spins a tale of a rather randy duck who is brought home as a pet by three boys whose mother is concerned they know a bit too much about the sex lives of frogs. The duck, never too friendly with the boys, apt to hiss and scream at them and beat them with its wings when they got too close, escapes his woodshed prison and goes on to wreak sexual havoc among the neighborhoods’ chickens and at least one fluffy white pet rabbit. Behold:

Lulu [the rabbit] doubled and redoubled with astonishing agility, but the great white bird was as relentless as death is supposed to be. It never ceased pursuit for a second; finally it made a quick turn on its awkward webbed feet, got hold of Lulu by one large pink ear and, at the same time, folded her under its immense wing.

Lulu gave a shrill squeak; there followed a scene which gave Mrs. Multin nightmares for a long while afterward. It was atrocious and outrageous and unbelievable. It was fantastic and downright insane. It was incredible that such a thing could happen on a sunny summer morning in the Multins’ fenced side yard. And the most hideous thing about it all was that Lulu seemed to enjoy it. It was as if Lulu were, indeed, another Leda.

Louis Untermeyer and his editors even thoughtfully provide an illustration. G-rated, of course.

I’m not sure what to think. Not that the content of the story bothers me – it’s rather innocuous – but as a writer myself, the stark contrast between Finney’s prose and the twang of his characters is a bit jarring.

The boys went to market, but went reluctantly. “Doggone,” they kept wondering to each other. “whur did mamma ever get the idear we wanted any old fool chickens?”

The market, a hollow square with pens all around, aroused their interest slightly. Its acrid poultry smell piqued their nostrils, and the cries of the fowls piqued their ears. They wandered round and round, talking and looking.

Just at the end of their tour of inspection, they saw the Muscovy drake. After seeing him that once, they looked at nothing else.

A damned ugly bird in a mix of odd prose. But I should talk; I’m all high falutin’ when I write.

Why I Do This Blog

Here’s one of the reasons I’m doing this blog:

A writer writes. Always.

And when a writer isn’t writing, he or she is reading. And most often when that reading occurs, that writer finds styles of prose, rhetoric, and voice that just grate grate grate upon them. They swear they will never do what these other writers do, because these other writers, obviously, suck.

And then they get back to writing and realize that, damn, they’re doing exactly – or almost exactly – what they hate in other writers.

This is good ammo for readers who want to see writers get better. Every time you hear a writer complaining about someone else’s style, ask them: Is the pot calling the kettle black?

I admit to it because my suckiness knows no bounds. I am trying to tone down the suck, and until today I didn’t realize how powerful reading and dissecting an anthology like this could be in my journey away from suckiness.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

So Oddly Familiar . . .

What we have here, folks, is a case of what a writer wrote becoming bigger than the writer himself.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Writers want what they write to be recognized and loved – at least the writers I know and associate with. So if one of their creations becomes bigger than life itself, so much the better.

So here’s the familiar poem:

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we!”
Said Wynken,
And Nod.

And here is this poem’s author: Denver journalist Eugene Field.

Here he is in Disneyfication, writing this most famous poem:

And here’s his poem, Disneyfied:

There are many, many, many renditions of this verse, from amateurs trying to do the Poet’s Voice on YouTube, to the Doobie Brothers and Carly Simon crooning their way through the song. If you like disco freaks and hippies, that is.

It’s quite possible I grew up knowing some of Eugene Field’s work, but it’s also just as likely that I’m more familiar with the humorous poems of Dutch author Jacob Cats, since those are the poems Dad remembered from his childhood. (I’d love to find some of Cats’ works in English, by the way. They’re extremely hard to find.)

Louis Untermeyer, inexplicably, offers up a rather dull Field poem called “Seein’ Things,” a dialectic account of a boy scared of monsters in his room and under his bed:

I ain’t afraid uv snakes or toads, or bugs or worms or mice,
An' things 'at girls are skeered uv I think are awful nice!
I'm pretty brave I guess; an' yet I hate to go to bed,
For, when I'm tucked up warm an snug an' when my prayers are said,
Mother tells me "Happy Dreams" an' takes away the light,
An' leaves me lyin' all alone an' seein' things at night!

It’s okay, and Untermeyer is right in saying it’s funny. But I like the more lyrical, ethereal tone and cadence of “Wynken, Blynken and Nod.” Poets often let the words and the rhymes and the dialects get in the way of the rhythm, making their writing incredibly hard to read from a lyrical sense. It’s no surprise that the simplicity of “Wynken” lends itself to be sung, and sung quite prettily. It’s like the difference between fences made of pickets or cinder blocks. The cinder block fence is sturdier and far uglier than the simple picket, which lets the wind blow through and the daisies grow between the pickets.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

I Am So Funny

Several years ago, the hostesses of a local political talk show thought it would be funny to insult me on their show. I was a newspaper columnist at the time and evidently they thought I thought I was funny, "but really he's not." A friend, of course, in the fine tradition of Mark Twainish friendship, brought me the news.

I no longer have a newspaper column. I'm no longer a journalist. And their political show now has a lot of recipes in it, since the japery of the other stuff soon wore thin on the community.

What I'm being funny about now is that when I started this blog, I was worried I was churning through the authors too rapidly. I thought I'd be lucky to last until Christmas.

We're now 40 posts into this mess and we're only about a third of the way through the book. That's just fine with me.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

More Irish Japery

Ah, and while we be talkin’ ‘bout the Irish, why not bring up a selection of Irish tall tales and jokes told in the stereotypical vaudeville/dance hall manner? That’ll get ye to talkin’ through yer hat, me boyo:

“Those Irish Bulls.” That’s the name of the next installation of japery from the Treasury of Laughter. Here’s an example:

“Brady,” said Flynn to his friend who had fallen into a pit. “Brady, are you killed? Answer me. If you’re killed, say so!”

“No Flynn,” replied Brady. “I’m not killed. But I can’t answer you. I’ve been knocked speechless.”

Ha ha. Kind of reminds me of this.

Unfortunately, the video in that link has been removed from YouTube. So I’ll put a substitution in here:

It’s much better performed on that old Star Trek episode, however. Daniel O’Donnell would have done well to punctuate his singing by pushing random buttons on a big computer console.

But we’re getting distracted from the bull, which is a shame. Here’s more:

“Tell me, Denny,” said Barney as he put down the last glass and rose uncertainly to his feet, “do you know where I left my coat?”

“Sure Barney,” said his friend. “You’ve got it on.”

“Thanks for telling me. And it’s a good thing you noticed it, or I’d have gone home without it.”

I think we’ll end with that.