Thursday, 20 February 2014

Poetry and Jokes 2:
So where's the joke?

A ginnel

(I am writing this as a continuation of my last post because it was there to be written. It is also a distraction. I was given news of two deaths today, both of poets. Michael Baldwin was 83 and died suddenly at the top of the stairs. He was the first poet whose book I took off the school library shelf when I was seventeen. I should have been doing Physics. I met him only once some six or so years ago. Szilárd Borbély was just forty nine, an important, indeed vital, Hungarian poet, whose first novel (excerpt translated by Ottilia Mulzet in The White Review) created a sensation in Hungary last year.  He too died suddenly. Some of his work is in English. The Dispossessed might be. I never met him but I felt him as a writer. Two deaths in a day is hard, especially of one as young as Borbély.) 

Not all jokes have to have punch lines but they have to have appropriate form and an ending that provokes laughter usually with a surprise or category confusion.

In telling the Jamaica joke in my previous post  I used this version.

- I say, I say, I say, my wife's gone to the West Indies. - Jamaica?- No, she went by herself.

Correspondent Gwilym remarked that the punchline in the version he knows goes: "No, she went of her own accord". 

There are reasons we might prefer Gwilym's version if only because my version, while revealing that the point of the joke is not her destination but her will still leaves open the possibility that the woman is travelling alone because she prefers to be without his company and that he has no say in it (a potentially melancholy situation for him), whereas Gwilym's version not only makes it clear that her destination was not the issue but that the woman has relieved her husband of the necessity of making her go by doing it herself (a happy resolution for him). You want something to happen then it happens of its own accord.

There would be other ways of bringing the joke to that same point, Here are three:
1. No, it was her decision.
2. No, she just did it.
3. As if she would listen to me!

Those, and many other  variations in the same spectrum would each have a slightly different value - some would be funnier than others - but the mechanism of the joke would remain the same. We are led up to the point Jamaica, then, using the pun we give the answer to the wrong question. The word Jamaica remains the vehicle of the joke.

There is, however, a different version waiting in the wings, in which the answer is No, Trinidad which may be funnier still because by offering a straight answer, it already assumes the joke and passes beyond it to a further and potentially superior kind of surprise by performing a kind of feint.

The feint as an act of grace. It's still just a joke but now we are getting somewhere. 

Yesterday I was writing a series of 15 plotlines for non-existent films and added a coda of plot lines - or rather scenes from - five more grounded, socially conscious films under the heading of Realismus. The last of was:

The door to a terraced house stands open. A hallway smelling of booze gives you a cheery thumbs up. A dog in clogs disappears down a ginnel.

The mechanism here is pretty clear. It consists of three parts. 

The first is a neutral but evocative statement (think Distant Voices, Still Lives) that could lead anywhere but faintly suggests something about poverty and the melancholy and tragedy associated with it. 

The second statement holds open that possibility with the boozy hallway (the drunken father returning from the pub) but proposes something absurd or possibly metaphorical as a development of it (the cheery thumbs up).  Halls don't have thumbs. The word cheery is a bit plonking, a touch ridiculous. However ridiculous the image there remains nevertheless the possibility that what we are reading is a kind of metaphor, the memory trace of a drunken character giving us the thumbs up. (It could have happened in Distant Voices, Still Lives). The potential for a tragic reading remains hanging by a thread but it hasn't vanished. 

Then a third image appears in the last statement that presents us with a plausible scene from a documentary about the condition of the North in which a dog (possibly a lurcher or a scruffy mongrel) vanishes down a passage between two houses. That might be straight enough as a comment but the dog in this case is supplied with clogs. Clogs too are associated with the subject area but are ridiculous when worn by dogs.

There is one more element here: the ginnel. The word means a passage between houses, and again is plausible given the context (the poet Matt Simpson introduced me to it in one of his poems set in Bootle). But there is something more than plausible in fact quite beautiful about it. It is beautiful because it allows the text a form of intimacy in terms of language, and not only because it has a soft choking sound but because its deep choking 'g' harmonises with the sounds, and rhymes, of dog and clog.

The result is complex. The text is not a joke though it has absurd, joky aspects. Nor is it a straight if minimalist prose poem about the social and emotional values of (beautiful) films like Distant Voices, Still Lives. If anything it mocks them while presenting them with funny yet, to my ears, lovely lines such as the one that ends, in this case, with a ginnel.

Beauty. Beauty is what I really want, and this is one way it may be possible to seek it. Beauty is this ambivalence: this teetering. It presents the imagination with an act of grace whose voids and horrors are real but deferred by familiar detail. I want to laugh but not at a joke, I want the kind of laughter elicited by beauty because there are odd places where grace might be found. And if I don't quite locate the beauty there is still the laughter and some of the grace.

I don't intend analysing, and certainly not praising, my own work. I write fast and by instinct but that doesn't mean I stop thinking about what might have happened and what might happen again. Writing such texts is, I find, exactly like writing poems - and beyond a joke. We are, I think, somewhere beyond Trinidad.


Gwil W said...

Beyond Trinidad but not far beyond Ireland I think and perhaps we're drifting into something almost Joycean here. Keeping the drunken thumbs up but taking the dog's clogs away and replacing with a shawl and hey presto! the dog becomes a bitch on her way to the corner . . .

George S said...

I suspect some of Joyce's delight in the ineffable lumber-room of language may be creeping in.

Guy Walker said...

I agree with you George:

"And still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.'

(Larkin - The Trees)

The juxtaposition of trees with castles is felicitous because it relies on the similarity and difference between trees and castles and,therefore , has the vital element of the unexpected in poetry.

This is identical to the pleasing shock of humour in a good joke such as:

I am a teacher who recently took schoolchildren to New York. A colleague caused much hilarity by ordering pupils in a Sylvester Stallone voice to 'Step away from the snow!!' The humour came from the juxtaposition of schoolchildren with a New York tough guy police scenario.

The poem (using metaphors) and the joke (using situations) do the same thing and rely on the space between differing contexts provided by our ability to be aware of context. This comes from our self consciousness. You could argue that this is where all art comes from. Only humans produce art and only humans laugh.

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