Academic journal article Chicago Review

Not Joking Exactly: Peter Mmanson and the Poetry of Crudity

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Not Joking Exactly: Peter Mmanson and the Poetry of Crudity

Article excerpt


  Or see some poet pensive sit, Fondly mistaking spleen for wit.
  --Matthew Green, "The Spleen" (quoted in Manson's Adjunct)

Is a joke poetry? According to Henri Bergson "in every wit there is something of a poet," because both practice "a certain dramatic way of thinking": "Instead of treating his ideas as mere symbols, the wit sees them, he hears them and, above all, makes them converse with one another like persons."

The poet, however, is not rewarded with an equally appreciative audience:

  As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not
  a career but a mug's game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of
  the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his
  time and messed up his life for nothing. All the better, then, if he
  could have at least the satisfaction of having a part to play in
  society as worthy as that of the music-hall comedian.
  (T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism)

Is poetry, then, a joke? Eliot takes it as given that the poet has already "messed up" from the point of view of professional society. The value of comedians is understood: they make us laugh. But a poet is always in danger of becoming what Bergson calls a "professional comic," a person whose work is of such dubious utility that they "can only justify their existence by assuming that the public is meant for them":

  For it is a remarkable fact that the more questionable an art,
  science, or occupation is, the more those who practise it are inclined
  to regard themselves as invested with a kind of priesthood and to
  claim that all should bow before its mysteries.

Bergson's example is the quack doctor, but he might be describing the modernist poet. The comedian, at least, can command a public.

In an earlier essay, "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama," Eliot suggested that the poet might still aspire to this audience:

  Our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it
  to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-
  hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a
  dangerous suggestion to make. For every person who is likely to
  consider it seriously there are a dozen toymakers who would leap to
  tickle aesthetic society into one more quiver and giggle of art
  debauch. Very few people treat art seriously. There are those who
  treat it solemnly ... and there are others who treat it as a joke.

At the end of his career, Eliot attempted to realize this proposal with his verse comedies. But the middle-class theater was a long way from his original ideal of a poetic music hall, with its Elizabethan ability to encompass high and low. In an age of cinema and pop music, mass entertainment by verse was history; the poet could not hope to compete for these audiences. The possibility remained, however, that poetry might draw on the vitality of popular modes in its own minority art.

Music hall died, but in its place came stand-up comedy. Stand-up practices the same art that Eliot praised in music hall: close observation of human nature performed in rapport with an audience. As Eliot noted in "Marie Lloyd," most popular music-hall acts provoked their audience through "a kind of grotesque." The same is true of stand-up comedians. Consequently, stand-up's characteristic form of wit is the outrageous observation or sick joke.

Laughter, Bergson writes, "does not belong to the province of esthetics alone, since unconsciously (and even immorally in many particular instances) it pursues a utilitarian aim of general improvement." The social use of comedy is that it makes us laugh at ourselves. But that is also its intellectual limitation: an audience decides by consensus what is acceptably "immoral." As anyone will know who has seen the documentary The Aristocrats, in New York soon after September 11, a joke about an incestuous vaudeville act was acceptable, but a joke about catching a plane was not. …

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