Monday, July 30, 2007 18 Comments

Ten lines for Dorothy Parker

How can you make anything much pretty
when you don't absolutely despise
ugliness? When you don't just hate it,
want to tell it to walk to Cleveland

on a springless, pointed pogo stick,
get some kind of nasty cancer and die?
So you can't, and they think they can,
but this only grinds into your grin:

bitterness is not a sort of sunshine,
though it's just as bad for the skin.

18 Comments:

Anonymous Edward Williams said...

Poems like this, difficult little ditties with referenced subject matter, always and only convince me that their author is waiting in the wings with about ten thousand words of explanation. Just waiting for someone to say, "could you explain this sir?" But, as a writer of long, and longer, poems, which are also and always indulgent explanations, or at least elaborate mysteries, I find myself only annoyed.

July 30, 2007 at 11:38 AM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

The exegesis should always be longer than the poem, and more interesting than it. (Just ask Dante.) Thus:

Could you explain this, sir? Or better still, could someone else?

July 30, 2007 at 2:37 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Edward,

I never have any trouble following your poems. Unless, of course, it's a failure of stamina :-)

It's always a faux pas to explicate one's own verse. An explanation can't add anything to the reader's experience, and it is certainly quite capable of detracting. If it strikes you as mysterious, it's mysterious.

July 31, 2007 at 8:23 AM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

"It's always a faux pas to explicate one's own verse. An explanation can't add anything to the reader's experience"

I couldn't agree less--a good interpretation adds meaning and richness to a work, rather than taking it away. A good interpretation can make a poem more difficult, more problematic--even more mysterious. The only trouble is, we've lost the art of interpretation, and so we tend to conceive of it as something parasitic and anti-artistic. (Hence Susan Sontag.)

August 1, 2007 at 3:28 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 1, 2007 at 5:04 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

"If it strikes you as mysterious, it's mysterious."

But it's also possible, is it not--and I do not wish to sound rude--that if it strikes someone as mysterious, it is in fact merely clumsy?

I appreciate that the ending here is intended to be epigrammatic, like the third line of a true haiku, or the rhymed couplets at the end of a Shakespearean monologue, but the thought doesn't work for me. I would rather, in fact, if you had said that bitterness is a kind of sunshine--after all, the reverse is the default position, isn't it? And being 'bad for the skin' is not the salient characteristic of either bitterness or sunshine, and has no apparent relation to the rest of the poem--it feels ad hoc, possibly even for the sake of rhyme.

I have problems with the rest of it too: one doesn't walk on a pogo stick (this feels like carelessness more than surreal wit), and the banality of 'absolutely despise' and 'some kind of nasty cancer', while that is of course the point, still makes my teeth curl.

I also wonder if there is enough conceptual interest in 'pretty'. Did you mean 'pretty', or 'beautiful'?

Having said all that, perhaps I would feel differently if I knew anything about Dorothy Parker.

August 1, 2007 at 5:06 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

conrad,

I made a last-second decision before I posted this to remove the word "much" from before "pretty." On second thought - noting also your comments - I feel this was a mistake, and I'm restoring it.

Sunshine is awful for the skin. All that UV, you know. And if you don't think bitterness is, perhaps your acquaintance with really bitter females will remain at its obviously minimal level.

The teeth-curling (nice image) is absolutely intended. I suppose I could say "hop to Cleveland," though. But I suspect you've never been to Cleveland, and the grim impact of such a pilgrimage, which is intended to quite overshadow the mildly mixed metaphor, may be slightly lost on a Brit.

August 1, 2007 at 5:16 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

As for exegesis, it is always fascinating. But it should never be done by the author.

August 1, 2007 at 5:17 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Also, I suspect you'd enjoy Parker. Really quite witty. The biopic by Alan Rudolph is also excellent, and probably gives you as fair a context as this little verse needs.

August 1, 2007 at 5:18 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

"Sunshine is awful for the skin. All that UV, you know. And if you don't think bitterness is, perhaps your acquaintance with really bitter females will remain at its obviously minimal level."

I never denied that both sunshine and bitterness are bad for the skin. Mrs. Roth will especially attest the former, as she has lupus. I merely denied that being bad for the skin is the salient characteristic of either.

As for Cleveland, no I've never been there. But I do have a sense of its cultural reputation, acquired I think from a Garfield cartoon I read when very young. Jon approaches a woman on the beach, and asks her what it's like living a life of Hawaiian leisure, but she replies "I'm a computer programmer from Cleveland." That made it pretty clear for me.

It can't be worse than Wichita, though--certainly the most inhospitable city I've ever seen.

Maybe 'walk' could be replaced by 'boing'?

"As for exegesis, it is always fascinating. But it should never be done by the author."

Ah, my dear Mencius: exegesis never can be done by the author--only by a man who happens to occupy the same body.

August 1, 2007 at 5:23 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

The sound of "boing" is of course far too jocular, and I have figured out the mixed metaphor - the whole sequence is deliberately unbalanced and a little drunken, the speaker has no idea of what words will come next. She sends the ugliness to Cleveland before deciding on its contrivance or its horrid medical fate.

The real question, for me, is which end of the pogo stick is pointed. I believe there is some intentional Empsonian ambiguity on this point.

Bitterness may exacerbate lupus, but I don't believe the latter causes the former. Although, yeech. My sympathies.

Of course we never step in the river twice. But I still refuse to explain.

Let's face it: compared to European cities, the whole face of urban America is a dread horror. The twentieth century could have tipped them either way, and they went the wrong way. Except for a few enclaves, urban life as such simply did not survive in this country.

August 1, 2007 at 6:02 PM  
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