"...the ordinary won't halt/For good taste. Or knows nothing of tragedy," Deborah Garrison, writes in "September Poem," a poem in her new collection A Second Child (Random House).
Last month, while visiting my 94 year-old aunt in Florida, Garrison's words invade my gut.
My Aunt Manci's crying. Her daughter Andrea is venting against the media, guns...the universe. ("Don't you want the world to be perfect?" she rails at me.) News of the Virginia Tech shootings has just broken on TV. We're unhinged. Glued to the images of the deranged gunman and innocent victims flickering repeatedly on the screen.
Instinctively, we seek relief. You'd think we'd turn to Shakespeare or Mahler. Or if not Mahler, Mozart. You might imagine that we weren't hungry or that if we were, we'd eat something medicinal like chicken soup.
You'd be wrong. We didn't reach for high art or grave food. We munched Kettle Korn flavored microwave popcorn and watched The Devil Wears Prada on DVD. Somehow, Orville Redenbacker's salt and Meryl Streep's withering glances helped us to face the Virginia Tech tragedy. We were sad, clueless as ever about life's big questions, but able to get out of bed the next morning.
Garrison's words ring true for me in both life and art.
Of course, life, "the ordinary," is filled with tragedy. Yet, though it's a cliché, it's true: the tragic and comic are two sides of the same coin. In the "human comedy," laughter, sometime uninvited, grows, like a dandelion, in the midst of tragedy, and it often doesn't "halt/For good taste."
When my partner Anne was ill with cancer, she went for some radiation treatments (to ease her pain). When the cab I'd called to take us to the hospital failed to arrive, I called the taxi company. "Sorry! We picked up the wrong party," the dispatcher said. Anne and I cracked up when we heard this. How could this happen? We pictured some guy, sitting at home, twiddling his thumbs, wanting some action. "Wow!" we imagined him saying when the cab came to his door, "I'll get a real buzz from being burned! I'll get right in!"
"The most protean aspect of comedy," said the late literary critic Harry Levin, "is its potentiality for transcending itself, for responding to...tragedy by laughing in the darkness."
I'll go Levin one better. I believe comedy is valuable in and of itself; I don't feel it needs to transcend itself in life or in art. Comedy to me is as essential to a well-lived life or to good art as breathing, food, love or money.
I may be the minority report on this.
Recently, I had dinner with some poets. I mentioned that I'd written a poem "Dancing in the Dark," a retelling of the Three Blind Mice story. (It's not Pulitzer material; but it was published in Kaleidoscope in January.) My mice are members of their community: they go to the opera. Their sense of taste is so sharp that the literati seek their advice on wine and cheese. Yet, before this, they have a bad time of it. They run through unkempt fields, the farmer's wife cuts off their tales and nearly beheads their souls. But, this didn't cut it (so to speak) with one of my dinner companions. "My Three Blind Mice poem was much darker," he said, as if he'd won a contest.
But, I was in good company. Frank O'Hara's poetry wasn't serious enough for these darkness mavens. They liked his work all right, they said, but he just wasn't "dark" enough. His work, unlike say, Sylvia Plath's, just didn't measure up in the misery department for them.
Now, I love and admire Plath's work. If I won the lottery or had a personality transplant, I could never write a masterpiece like "Daddy" or any poem as good as hers. I doubt many of us could. Yet, I wondered how closely my dinner partners have read O'Hara. His poems are filled with humor and wit. Even the most prune-faced policy wonk would smile at these lines of O'Hara's, "LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!...I have been to lots of parties/and acted pretty disgraceful/but I never actually collapsed/oh Lana Turner we love you get up."
But, how could anyone read "The Day Lady Died," his elegy of Billie Holiday, and not feel the poet's sadness. "and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of/leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT/while she whispered a song along the keyboard/to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing"
A friend told me that he once heard a poet read who had little humor in her poetry. The ironic thing, he said, was that the poet apologized before she read, for any humor that might be contained in her work.
We don't give laurels to humorists, James Thurber said.
It's time we did.
We need darkness in art. Nothing would be more horrible than if the writing on Hallmark cards became a new poetic genre.
But, let's stop making humor the poor relation–the step-child of poetry.
Tragedy and comedy are the two sides of the muse.