Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Insanity Defense

These days, at least according to the Internet, about the only things you can make fun of and get away with it are Mormons and fatties. Heck, given what’s happened in Japan recently with the earthquake and tsunami, you can’t make jokes of any sort – especially if you’re a talking duck – or write shows that have nuclear power as a plotline.

So imagine the uproar today if some of these Treasury of Laughter jokes, filed under the header “The Lunatic Fringe” ever got out. They’d be coming to take me away, ha ha.

Two patients of the asylum were looking over the wall, watching the gardener.

“What’s he doing?” said the first.

“Putting fertilizer on the strawberries,” said the second.

“Fertilizer on the strawberries!” exclaimed the first. “We put sugar and cream on our – and they call us crazy!”

This one’s my favorite:

The fashionable psychiatrist finished his notes and turned to the lady in front of him. “I’ll be perfectly frank,” he said. “I find nothing the matter – nothing abnormal – and I shall so inform your relatives.”

“Thank you, doctor, I was sure you’d say that,” she replied. “I only came here to please my family. After all, there’s nothing very strange about a fondness for pancakes, is there?”

“Pancakes?” repeated the psychiatrist. “Certainly not. I’m fond of them myself.”

“Are you?” she queried brightly. “Then you must come over to my house. I have trunks full of them.”

Yup, that’s a zingah!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Dorothy Parker: Oh Dear

During my university days, I saw a lot of drunken asses, from the guy who got tight and ended up naked and tied to the anchor in front of the neighboring fraternity to the guy who got tighter still and ended up talking animatedly to a small pair of pumpkins that ne brought home from the grocery store.

So to read Dorothy Parker’s “You Were perfectly Fine,” in which a drunken soul evidently confesses his undying love for a woman long pining for him held no surprises, not even his bottled chagrin at the end, when he realizes what he’s in for:

“And we’re going to be so happy,” she said. “Oh, I just want to tell everybody! But I don’t know – I think maybe it would be sweeter to keep it all to ourselves.”

“I think it would be,” he said.

“Isn’t it lovely?” she said.

“Yes,’ he said. “Great.”

“Lovely!” she said.

Of course, to cure what ails him, he asks for another drink, fitting in with what Homer Simpson says about beer:

Not that I’m advocating beer, or alcohol, given, during my university days, I also saw (and smelled) enough alcohol puke to firmly cement in my mind the idea that imbibing is not for me.

But enough about beer. How about Dorothy Parker? Wit, bon vivant, hater of all things Calvin Coolidge. In reading quite a bit of her stuff, I get the feeling that today she’s be a fairly successful Internet troll. A droll one, to be sure, but still out there doing what trolls do best.

Obviously, a writer one has to read more of to appreciate. And, I hope, this isn’t her funniest. Because if it is, well, that anchor’s looking pretty good.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Mormon Joke

Inevitably, when a story is set in Utah, you get the obligatory Mormon Joke. Here’s Bill Nye’s, from an otherwise lackluster “Twombley’s Tale”:

She was an emigrant, about seventeen years of age, and, though she had been in Salt Lake City an hour and a half, she was still unmarried.

Hee hee. Funny and original. Mormon. Marriage. Marriage at a young age. Hi-la-ri-ous.

Not that I don't mind reading this kind of japery. When it's well-done, I don't mind an entire book that pokes fun of my religion, because, frankly, in some ways it deserves to be made fun of.

So let us move on to “The Stars,” which is only slightly better.

There’s this:

In 1866, there appeared suddenly in the northern crown a star of about the third magnitude and worth at least $250. It was generally conceded by astronomers that this was a brand new star that had never been used, but upon consulting Argelander’s star catalogue and price list it was found that this was not a new star at all, but an old, faded, star of the ninth magnitude, with the front breadths turned wrong side out and trimmed with moonlight along the seams.

And that’s about it. Next, please.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ogden Nash and CS Lewis: Spare Bedroom Readers

Whenever I think of Ogden Nash, I immediately think of an anecdote told by CS Lewis. The anecdote has nothing to do with the most-recognized practitioner of light verse in the United States, but, rather, how many people treat his books. Here’s the bit:

[The Screwtape Letters] is even, as I have noticed with a chastened smile, he sort that gravitates towards spare bedrooms, there to live of life of undisturbed tranquility in company with "The Road Mender," "John Inglesant," and "The Life of the Bee." Sometimes it is even bought for even more humiliating reasons. A lady whom I knew discovered that the pretty little brobationer who filled her hot water bottle in the hospital had read Screwtape. She also discovered why.

"You see," said the girl, "we were warned that at interviews, after the real, technical questions are over, matrons and people sometimes ask about your general interests. The best thing is to say you've read something. So they gave us a list of about ten books that usually go down pretty well and said we ought to read at least one of them."

"And you chose Screwtape?"

"Well, of course; it was the shortest."

I’ve read a lot of Ogden Nash, as I was first drawn to his writing by his poem about Isabel, which appeared in one of those nameless readers you encounter in American elementary schools:

Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn't care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear's big mouth was cruel and cavernous.
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you,
How do, Isabel, now I'll eat you!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry.
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.
Once in a night as black as pitch
Isabel met a wicked old witch.
the witch's face was cross and wrinkled,
The witch's gums with teeth were sprinkled.
Ho, ho, Isabel! the old witch crowed,
I'll turn you into an ugly toad!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry,
She showed no rage and she showed no rancor,
But she turned the witch into milk and drank her.
Isabel met a hideous giant,
Isabel continued self reliant.
The giant was hairy, the giant was horrid,
He had one eye in the middle of his forehead.
Good morning, Isabel, the giant said,
I'll grind your bones to make my bread.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She nibbled the zwieback that she always fed off,
And when it was gone, she cut the giant's head off.
Isabel met a troublesome doctor,
He punched and he poked till he really shocked her.
The doctor's talk was of coughs and chills
And the doctor's satchel bulged with pills.
The doctor said unto Isabel,
Swallow this, it will make you well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She took those pills from the pill concocter,
And Isabel calmly cured the doctor.

Most people probably know a poem or two by Nash – the shorter ones – or confuse Nash with Richard Armour or any other number of nonsense poets – or vice versa. But Nash, I think, is one of those authors whose books, like Lewis’ are relegated to spare rooms and are kept around because they’re thin and easy to read.

Not so for me.

Especially because when he reads his poetry, he doesn’t put on that “poet’s voice” that has pretty much killed live poetry readings for me.

Untermeyer includes Nash’s “Common Cold” as one of three comic poems from the man. It’s okay.

I’ll admit I like this one a heck of a lot more: The Strange Case of Mr. Donnybrook's Boredom.

Once upon a time there was a man named Mr. Donnybrook.

He was married to a woman named Mrs. Donnybrook.

Mr. and Mrs. Donnybrook dearly loved to be bored.

Sometimes they were bored at the ballet, other times at the cinema.

They were bored riding elephants in India and elevators in the Empire State Building.

They were bored in speakeasies during Prohibition and in cocktail lounges after Repeal.

They were bored by Grand Dukes and Garbagement, debutantes and demimondaines, opera singers and Onassises.

They scoured the Five Continents and the Seven Seas in their mad pursuit of boredom.

This went on for years and years.

One day, Mr. Donnybrook turned to Mrs. Donnybrook,

My dear, he said, we have reached the end of our rope.

We have exhausted every yawn.

The world holds nothing more to jade our titillated palates.

Well, said Mrs. Donnybrook, we might try insomnia.

So they tried insomnia.

About two o'clock the next moring Mr. Donnybrook said, My, insomnia is certainly quite boring, isn't it?

Mrs. Donnybrook said it certainly was, wasn't it?

Mr. Donnybrook said it certainly was.

Pretty soon he began to count sheep.

Mrs. Donnybrook began to count sheep, too.

After a while, Mr. Donnybrook said, Hey, you're counting my sheep!

Stop counting my sheep, said Mr. Donnybrook.

Why, the very idea, said Mrs. Donnybrook.

I guess I know my sheep, don't I?

How? Said Mr. Donnybrook.

They're cattle, said Mrs. Donnybrook.

They're cattle, and longhorns at that.

Furthermore, said Mrs. Donnybrook, us cattle ranchers is shore tired o' you sheepmen plumb ruinin' our water.

I give yuh fair warnin', said Mrs. Donnybrook, yuh better git them wooly Gila monsters o' yourn back across the Rio Grande afore mornin' or I'm a-goin' to string yhuh up on the nearest cottonwood.

Carramba! Sneered Mrs. Donnybrook. Thees ees free range, no?

No, said Mrs. Donnybrook, not for sheepmen.

She strung him up on the nearest cottonwood.

Mr. Donnybrook had never been so bored in his life.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Another Big Hitter: Ogden Nash

Photo used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

When you look like this and can rock a name like Ogden Nash, you know you're going to go places. And oh, the places Ogden Nash takes us.

Of all the short light verse bits he's written, this is my favorite:

A Word to Husbands

To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.

Wiser words have never been spoken. More wise words from Mr. Nash a little later this week.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Poking at You Constantly

He pokes inside the reader’s mind, like this:

The reader of today, soaked in the Freudian sewage for so many years, will assume at once, I suppose, that Hoggie must have been a Lothario, and his headquarters a seraglio. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was actually almost a Trappist in his glandular life, and his hormones never gave him any visible trouble until much later on, as I shall show in due course.

He pokes them in the eye, like that:

Hoggie would catch infant rats in a trap, pull their teeth with a pair of pliers, and then throw them into a barrel with a couple of his [canine] pupils. As the latter gained in strength and technique, he would test them with rats of gradually larger growth, retaining at first one tooth each, then two, and then four or five, and finally a whole set, upper and lower. Now and then a freshman was badly mauled in these exercises, but Hoggie did not despair, for he knew that any sort of educational process was bound to be painful, and he preferred the hard way for dogs as for men.

And then, H.L. Mencken, in his piece “Downfall of a Revolutionary,” describes the irascible Hoggie Unglebower, horse doctor, dog trainer, cat killer, sleeper of the stables and object of admiration of every boy in the neighborhood above the age of seven, as succumbing to the same thing that got Alfie Dolittle – except for the money thing. Hoggie, dressed in a beribboned straw hat, shaved within an inch of his life and smelling of Jockey Club scent, had fallen in love:

The ancient psychosis that had floored and made a mock of Marc Antony, Dante and Goethe – but not Shakespeare, Napoleon Bonaparte, or George Washington – had now fetched him, too. Some inconsiderable and probably pie-faced slip of a girl, name unknown, had collared him, tamed him, and made of him the dreadful popinjay that I had seen. The rest of the pathetic story follows classical lines, and is soon told. Hoggie disappeared from his stable, and was reported to be occupying a bedroom in the Unglebower family home, and actually eating at table. In a little while he vanished altogether, and reports came in that he was married to the lady, living in far Northwest Baltimore, and at work as a horse-car driver. That was the last I ever heard of him.

So now I’ve read something of H.L. Mencken’s. Probably one of his tamer bits; with a few tweaks this could easily have fit into a Patrick F. McManus collection. Giving me the feeling that maybe I’m not missing much. But I can’t judge by two simple pieces. I’ll have to read more.

I’m impressed by his grasp of vocabulary and history, however. To me, that’s always one of the hallmarks of a good writer.

Friday, March 18, 2011

An Embarrassment . . .

What follows is probably one of the most embarrassing intellectual confessions I’ve had to make:

I’ve never knowingly read anything by H.L. Mencken.

In fact, probably about the only thing I know about Mencken is the story of the Bathtub Hoax.

Mencken filled the story with nonsense, such as:

The noise of the controversy soon reached other cities, and in more than one place medical opposition reached such strength that it was reflected in legislation. Late in 1843, for example, the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and it failed of passage by but two votes. During the same year the legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up, and in Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington (Del.) special and very heavy water rates were levied upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.
And it was believed. And in some corners, it is still quoted as fact.

But that’s a pittance compared to Mencken’s literary legacy, to which Louis Untermeyer and the Treasury of Laughter will give me a preliminary introduction. For that, I am grateful.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Embarrassed by A Sock

I’ve never much been embarrassed by socks. Underwear, yes, that’s sometimes embarrassing – like the time in elementary school I reached into the pocket of my freshly-laundered jacket and found a pair of my brother’s underwear – also freshly laundered – inside. Or the time my aunt went shopping with a pair of panties statically stuck to the back of her coat.

Ruth McKenney, however, was once embarrassed by a sock, as she recounts in the humorous essay “The Sock Hunt.”

The story in brief: She decides, against all opposition and a highly patriarchal society in Columbus, Ohio, to infiltrate the hotel where Randolph Churchill, son of famed English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was staying prior to delivering a talk on “Fate of an Empire” to a men’s group in Columbus. (Gratefully, we’ll get to hear from another of Columbus’ humorous writers, the inimitable James Thurber, shortly.)

She succeeds in getting an interview. They get chummy, and, as they say on the Internets, hilarity ensued:

“I say,” he said, “how about a spot of food, what?” He really talked just like that.

“OK,” I said. “Let me order, though. They can’t understand you over the phone. You talk so funny.”

Mr. Churchill glowered. He said I was the one who had a peculiar accent.

“You talk through your nose,” he said, with truth, “and you pronounce all your ‘r’s. They aren’t supposed to be pronounced.”

“That’s what you think,” I said, feeling hilarious. “Old Mushmouth.”

For some reason, Mr. Churchill thought that was very funny. “’Mushmouth’!” he shouted joyously, amid peals of real upper-class English laughter, very high-pitched, like a whinny. “’Mushmouth’! Deah me, I must remembaw that.”

That’s only the start of the hijinks. All culminates with both Churchill and McKenney looking for his one missing black dress sock, which he must wear during the luncheon speech. It is found, of course, by one of Columbus’ leading citizens, come to the hotel room with others to seek Mr. Churchill, catching Churchill and the young, earnest journalist crawling on the floor beneath the bed looking for the offending bit of frippery. Kenney concludes her essay thus:

But even the sweet rewards of college fame and my colleagues’ envy did not erase the memory of that hideous moment when I was caught, red-handed, looking for Mr. Churchill’s sock. It is comparatively easy to recover from honest sorrows, but I wake up in the dead of night at least twice a year and my heart fills with agony, remembering that unspeakable moment when, like a rising moon, my face slowly appeared from behind Mr. Churchill’s bed, to confound the three leading citizens of Columbus, Ohio.

Life can hold no further terrors for me.
Ah, the classic, classy anecdote. Not even Dobby's sock can beat this one.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who Wrote This?

As much as I like Ogden Nash, he gets entirely too much credit for most of the nonsense verse written in the first half of the 20th century.

Ask a group who wrote this:

Shake and shake
the catsup bottle
first none’ll come
and then a lot’ll.

You’ll most likely hear “Ogden Nash.” Not so. That’s Richard Armour.

Then there’s this brief chuckler, also always erroneously attributed to Nash:

Epitaph to a Waiter

By and by
God caught his eye.

This one is written by David McCord, who has with other poets fallen into that Ogden Nash-shaped hole that is nonsense poetry in the United States. (I don’t say this to detract from Mr. Nash, whose poems I enjoy; it’s merely a fact of life that any nonsense verse written in the first half of the 20th century is attributed to him, whether he like it or not.)

Mr. McCord appears to have but one fan on YouTube, a rather squeaky-voiced, over t-shirtted tot reciting another of his poems.

Other than that, he appears to be the Rodney Dangerfield of nonsense poetry.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Uh-oh. A Cockroach

Where I work we have a stink bug problem. If we have a week where we don’t see two or three of them trundling along the walk outside or from underneath the cubicle walls inside, we consider ourselves lucky. And it’s not necessarily the stink that’s worrisome, it’s the radioactivity they bring.

Because of this, I feel Don Marquis’ pain. As the creator of Archy and Mehitabel, a paste-eating cockroach and Cleopatra reincarnated as a cat, he lamented “It would be one on me if I should be remembered longest for creating a cockroach character.”

So this is one more on you, Mr. Marquis.

And thanks.

Here’s Archy’s first bit of vers libre poetry, as found on the typewriter:

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be fore
there is a rat here she should get without delay

most of these rats here are just rats
but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him
he used to be a poet himself
night after night i have written poetry for you
on your typewriter
and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet
comes out of his hole when it is done
and reads it and sniffs at it
he is jealous of my poetry
he used to make fun of it when we were both human
he was a punk poet himself
and after he has read it he sneers
and then he eats it

i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat
or get a cat that is onto her job
and i will write you a series of poems showing how things look
to a cockroach
that rats name is freddy
the next time freddy dies i hope he wont be a rat
but something smaller i hope i will be a rat
in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach
i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then

dont you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i haven't had a crumb of bread for i dont know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings
and paste and leave a piece of paper in your machine
every night you can call me archy

More, of course, is available here.

And oh, isn’t that the truth, the fierce competition and jealousy between poets. But as a rat poet, what exquisite relish to be able to eat one’s opponents’ words after having sneered at them.

Interestingly, Marquis’ work transcended the page, ending up as a musical, “Shinbone Alley,” starring Eddie Bracken as archy and Eartha Kitt as mehitabel and featuring the song “Toujours Gai,” based on a poem archy transcribes for the catty cat.

And further as a terribly-produced 1970s cartoon of the same name starring Bracken and Carol Channing at her bone-rattlingest.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Biggest Jail in the Whole World . . .

Why did you decide to become a writer?

Me? I’m not sure. Still figuring that one out. Seems like a good thing to be, as I’m having fun writing my own novels over at the Targhee Writers Blog (invitation only; drop me an email at misterfweem(at) for an invite).

Howard Maier knows exactly why he became a writer. And until I figure out exactly why I’m going down the same path, I’m sticking with what Mr. Maier says.

To set this up: The author is on trial for something or other, and the prosecutor/editor is interrogating him. The author said as a child he wanted to become a policeman so he could lock his family members up. See what happens:

UNTERMEYER: And you became a writer?

MAIER: Yes, I guess so . . . (then quickly) . . . But I never gave up the other idea.

UNTERMEYER: What other idea?

MAIER: Of locking them up.

UNTERMEYER: (very impatiently) But that was when you wanted to be a policeman . . . You just told us you became a writer.

MAIER: But I only became a writer so I could pretend I was a policeman. In that way, you see, I could lock up –

UNTERMEYER: (wearily) I know, I know . . . You could lock up your parents, your brothers, your sisters . . . your whole family, in fact.

MAIER: (excited) That’s it! But that’s not the best . . . It’s even better now.

UNTERMEYER: (a bit dazed) How better?

MAIER: Well, now that I’m a writer and therefore a policeman, I’ve built a big jail, the biggest jail in the whole world.


MAIER: And that’s wonderful. You understand that, of course.


MAIER: (exultantly) Because now – now I can lock up everybody!

UNTERMEYER: (quite dazed) But—

MAIER:Yes, everybody—everybody in the whole world. (Leans out of witness chair . . . and whispers dreamily) I could even put you in my jail, Mr. Untermeyer. Yes, I can almost see you sitting there now, in a tiny cell . . . (as if just remembering where he is . . . sits back and resumes normal tone) But I beg your pardon—I will talk about myself. You were asking me about how I became a writer, I believe?

UNTERMEYER: (hurriedly) Ho, no, it’s quite all right, Mr. Maier . . . There are no further questions . . . you may step down.

This blog’s part of my big jail, folks. Welcome home.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

WARNING: Tight Rhymes Ahead

Though I profess to be a fan – and practitioner – of free verse, there’s something to be said for the tight structure of rhyme. Though free verse imports its own rhythm when the author does it right – consider Meredith Wilson’s “Doesn’t Know the Territory,” for one:

I’ll confess the main reason I prefer the structure of rhyme over free verse is that you don’t necessarily have to launch into The Poet’s Voice to read it and make it sound good; the sound naturally carries through.

Maybe that’s why I enjoy Newman Levy’s poetry from The Treasury of Laughter.

But before we get to the poetry, here’s actually one of the funniest bits Louis Untermeyer wrote to introduce one of his subjects:

Newman Levy, born in New York in 1888, contributed to P.P.A.’s column while in college, and won a watch for the collaboration in 1912. Nine years later he won another watch, this time unassisted. Plentifully supplied with watches, Levy discovered it was later than he thought; he also discovered that he could get paid for writing.

Now on to the poetry. Note the tight structure, which works well for him:

On the isle of Pago Pago, land of palm trees, rice and sago,
Where the Chinaman and Dago dwell with natives dusky hued,
Lived a dissolute and shady, bold adventuress named Sadie,
Sadie Thompson was the lady, and the life she lived was lewd.

She had practised her profession in our insular possession,
Which, to make a frank confession, people call the Philippines.
There she'd made a tidy profit till the clergy, hearing of it,
Made her life as hot as Tophet, driving her to other scenes.

So this impudent virago hied herself to Pago Pago
Where the Chinaman and Dago to her cottage often came.
Trade was lucrative and merry, till one day the local ferry
Brought a noble missionary, Rev'rend Davidson by name.

Full text of levy’s poem is here, though you’ll noticed it’s not faithfully reproduced. Untermeyer has this poem laid out at four lines per block, not the eight shown on the page. As I’m sure he’s working from original material, I’ll go with Untermeyer’s version of the thing.

I love this kind of intricate structure within a structure, and faithfully try to replicate it in my own poems. Unfortunately, I don’t have characters like Sadie and the Rev’rend Davidson to work with (at least not yet) so my poems are not as good as these.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lear, Lear, the Gang's All Here

I have, apparently, missed something, never having heard Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” as a child. My evidence? Everyone else in the universe, it seems, has recorded themselves reciting, reading, or singing this poem and posted the results on YouTube. Listen.

First, the poem as done by a Serious Poet, in a Serious Poet Voice;

Next, a rather bland animation of the poem done by someone whom, it appears, really had no idea:

Then there’s this happily singing fellow. I think this is the one I enjoy the most. He’s enjoying himself at least, not taking himself too seriously.

No one, oddly, has seen fit to record and then post themselves giving the same treatment to Lear’s Incidents in the Life of My Uncle Arly which, in my mind, ranks a bit higher on the nonsense poetry scale than the aforementioned Owl and Pussycat:

O! My aged Uncle Arly!
Sitting on a heap of Barley
      Thro' the silent hours of night,--
Close beside a leafy thicket:--
On his nose there was a Cricket,--
In his hat a Railway-Ticket;--
      (But his shoes were far too tight.)
Long ago, in youth, he squander'd
All his goods away, and wander'd
      To the Tiniskoop-hills afar.
There on golden sunsets blazing,
Every morning found him gazing,--
Singing -- "Orb! you're quite amazing!
      How I wonder what you are!"
Like the ancient Medes and Persians,
Always by his own exertions
      He subsisted on those hills;--
Whiles, -- by teaching children spelling,--
Or at times by merely yelling,--
Or at intervals by selling
      "Propter's Nicodemus Pills."
Later, in his morning rambles
He perceived the moving brambles--
      Something square and white disclose;--
"Twas a First-class Railway Ticket;
But, on stooping down to pick it
Off the ground, -- a pea-green Cricket
      settled on my uncle's Nose.
Never -- never more, -- Oh! never,
Did that Cricket leave him ever,--
      Dawn or evening, day or night;--
Clinging as a constant treasure,--
Chirping with a cheerious measure,--
Wholly to my uncle's pleasure
      (Though his shoes were far too tight.)
So for three-and-forty winters,
Till his shoes were worn to splinters,
      All those hills he wander'd o'er,--
Sometimes silent; -- sometimes yelling;--
Till he came to Borley-Melling,
Near his old ancestral dwelling;--
      (But his shoes were far too tight.)
On a little heap of Barley
Died my aged uncle Arly,
      And they buried him one night;--
Close beside the leafy thicket;--
There, -- his hat and Railway-Ticket;--
There, -- his ever-faithful Cricket;--
      (But his shoes were far too tight.) 

Lear, of course, is probably best known as the modern popularizer of the limerick, viz:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
To Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.”

In fact, Lear is probably only second to this anonymous, yet much more familiar (at least to my ears) limerick popularizer:

Oh yeah. Good times.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Satirical, Stuffy Victorian Novel

If writers have nightmares that they rarely put on paper, they’ve got to resemble the farcical bit of writing that is Stephen Leacock’s “Gertrude the Governess, or Simply Seventeen,” a satire of the traditional, stuffy Victorian novel along the lines of those written by the sisters Bronte or Jane Austen.

It’s nightmarish, of course, in that it resembles the stratified and stiff Victorian society the Brontes and Austen lived in but does not, in fact, resemble the carefully created stories, the deep characters or the limpid language we’ve come to associate with the best novels of the age. Instead, it reads like a cheap imitation copy of a fake. Behold:

“What a dull morning,” Gertrude had said. “Quel triste matin! Was fur ein allerverdamnter Tag!”

“Beastly,” Ronald had answered.

“Beastly!!” The word rang in Gertrude’s ears all day.

After that they were constantly together. They played tennis and ping-pong in the day, and in the evening, in accordance with the stiff routine of the place, they sat down with the Earl and Countess to twenty-five-cent poker, and later still they sat together on the verandah and watched the moon sweeping in great circles around the horizon.

It was not long before Gertrude realized that Lord Ronald felt towards her a warmer feeling that than of mere ping-pong. At times in her presence he would fall, especially after dinner, into a fit of profound subtraction.

So we have here, as Larry Donner might say, all the elements of a Victorian novel, we have the tension, the horror of courtship – but you might want to know a little bit more about Victorian living before you set a novel in the era. And you’ve made ping-pong feel dirtier than I’ve ever had it feel before. Ever.

Of course it’s the smart author who can turn a nightmarish imitation of something into a satirical take on something. I’m not that smart; I’m still in the nightmare stage. But perhaps studying things like this will help me recognize my own follies.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Those Radio Wits

I’m a big fan of old-time radio. For that I blame my mother, who introduced me to the likes of Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Jack Benny, Spike Jones, and others. So to trot into a section in the Treasury of Laughter called “Those Radio Wits,” I wandered into familiar territory. Like this:

And this:

And this:

And, of course, stuff like this:

I will never run out of things to listen to. Or to laugh at.