Review: “Holy Tango of Literature”, amazing parodies by Francis Heaney

Holy Tango

T.S. Eliot anagrams to “Toilets”. Francis Heaney therefore uses that theme to parody Eliot’s best-known poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, as the opening poem of the book:

Let us go then, to the john,
Where the toilet seat waits to be sat upon
Like a lover’s lap perched upon ceramic;
Let us go, through doors that do not always lock,
Which means you ought to knock
Lest opening one reveal a soul within
Who’ll shout, “Stay out! Did you not see my shin,
Framed within the gap twixt floor and stall?”
No, I did not see that at all.
That is not what I saw, at all.

To the stall the people come to go,
Reading an obscene graffito.

We have lingered in the chamber labeled “MEN”
Till attendants proffer aftershave and mints
As we lather up our hands with soap, and rinse.

And so it goes, throughout the Holy Tango of Literature: anagram the poet’s name, use that as the theme for parodying their best known poem. Here are some of the openings:

e. e. cummings: “nice smug me”

nice smug me lived in a pretty hip town
(with up so noses snobs looking down)
saks moomba vong prada
i wore my mesclun i ate my uggs

William Shakespeare: “Is a sperm like a whale?”

Shall I compare thee to a sperm whale, sperm?
Thou art more tiny and more resolute:

Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Kong ran my dealership”

I hired last summer someone simian, King
Kong of Indies islands, fifty-foot-fierce Gorilla, out of hiding

Chaucer, Dorothy Parker, Frost, Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks… it is an extensive collection, including parodies of plays by Wilde, Woody Allen, Beckett, Pinter and so on. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who anagrams to “Multicolored Argyle Sea”, is a particular delight. Beginning

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he taketh lots of drugs,

it surreptitiously develops a second level of parody of a completely different drug-related poem. I’ll let you discover it for yourself.

And one of my favorites is William Blake, “Likable Wilma”:

Wilma, Wilma, in thy blouse,
Red-haired prehistoric spouse,
What immortal animator
Was thy slender waist’s creator?

When the Rubble clan moved in,
Was Betty jealous of thy skin,
Thy noble nose, thy dimpled knee?
Did he who penciled Fred draw thee?

Wilma, Wilma, burning bright, ye
Cartoon goddess Aphrodite,
Was it Hanna or Barbera
Made thee hot as some caldera?

The book is out of print, and its publisher out of business, but even if you can’t find a used copy, it is still available online for free, although without the illustrations. It is the most satisfying collection of parodies I have ever read. 

Poem: “4 God Limericks”

God

Christian idea of God

God made Heaven, earth, plants, people, fleas
In six days, and then rested at ease;
Then He thought: “In those stones
“I’ll hide dinosaur bones!!”
(He was always a bit of a tease.)

God looked out a Heavenly portal
And what He saw made Him just chortle:
Some dude, on a cross,
Claiming he was the Boss!
For his hubris, God made him immortal.

God, blessed with what one must call humour,
Decided to start up a rumour
That Himself as a dove
Came to Mary with love
And begat an Immaculate Tumour.

God saw how Religion had deadened
And said to His host, “Armageddon’d
“Look good on this lot”
For His plans were all shot
And His angels teased Him till He reddened.

As with the previous post, “4 Guru Limericks”, this was first published in Ambit No. 196, Spring 2009. (Hence the English spelling.) Like the previous post on gurus Buddha, Jesus, Marx and Hitler, you shouldn’t expect anything serious from a limerick. But this flippancy can have a purpose: by tackling a serious subject in a completely unserious way, you can undermine preconceptions and unthinking assumptions, and suggest alternative views and approaches.

With this in mind, consider the idea that religious belief correlates negatively with analytical thinking, but positively with moral concern and empathy. Research into this was summarized in The Independent in 2016, after more complete reporting in the science journal PLOS ONE. Limericks by their iconoclastic nature appear to be low in moral concern and empathy – but often it is some form of moral concern that has driven the limerick’s creation, although its rudeness and fresh viewpoint tends to favour analytical thinking over empathy.

Limericks are the clowns, the fools, of the poetry world. The best of clowns and fools go into stealth mode to make useful observations.

Poem: “4 Guru Limericks”

A wealthy young prince called Gautama
Loathed worship of Krishna and Rama;
“It’s inside you,” he said
But, once he was dead,
He was worshipped…. That’s interesting karma!

A radical rabbi called Jesus
Assumed if he loved us he’d please us;
Though he loved Mary Magdalene,
John, and small children,
His power was no match for Caesar’s.

A second-rate father, Karl Marx
Let his kids die while writing remarks
On Struggle and Might
And the duty to fight
For state-owned newspapers and parks.

Hitler, son of a half-Jewish bastard
Dreamed of occult power; Europe, aghast, heard
Race-hate psychodrama;
His unending trauma
Destroyed the whole state that he’d mastered.

I love limericks. Their elegant form, rhythmic and rhyme-rich, and their frivolous and chatty anapestic feet, allow you to be rude and insulting without causing more offence than a well-dressed wit who has had one too many drinks at a party. And as such, they say things with very few words in a way that is very easy to remember.

As for gurus… well, it’s always good to be able to listen to people with more experience and wisdom than oneself, but that doesn’t necessarily make them correct in their analysis, infallible in their prescriptions and proscriptions. They’re still only human, full of half-aware dreams and unconscious bias. And if they have swarms of devotees and go off the rails, well, they really go off the rails.

Review: “Poems” by Ralph Hodgson

Ralph Hodgson

It is a little strange to think of Ralph Hodgson’s ‘Poems’, collected and published in 1917, being contemporaneous with Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (begun 1910, published in Poetry in 1915), but there we are.

He was born in Yorkshire in 1871, the son of a coal miner or coal merchant. A champion boxer and billiard player, an actor in New York, an artist in London, he wrote most of his poems between 1907 and 1917. During the First World War he was in the Royal Navy, and then the British Army. In the 1930s he taught in university in Japan and was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for his work in translating classical Japanese poetry into English. He then moved to Minerva, Ohio, living there until his death in 1962.

Hodgson was of the Georgian school – traditional, pastoral, occasionally longwinded, but often charming and memorable. Poems that I know and love in this collection include:

‘Time, You Old Gipsy Man’, with its simple, wistful philosophy:
“Time, you old gipsy man,
Will you not stay,
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?
(…)
Last week in Babylon,
Last night in Rome,
Morning, and in the crush
Under Paul’s dome;”

‘Eve’, with its lyrical portrayal of her seduction by Satan:
“Eve, with her basket, was
Deep in the bells and grass,
Wading in bells and grass
Up to her knees,”

‘Stupidity Street’, with the animal-lover and natural ecologist’s outrage:
“I saw with open eyes
Singing birds sweet
Sold in the shops
For the people to eat,
Sold in the shops of
Stupidity Street.

I saw in vision
The worm in the wheat,
And in the shops nothing
For people to eat;
Nothing for sale in
Stupidity Street.”

‘The Birdcatcher’:
“I lurk among the thickets of
The Heart where they are bred,
And catch the twittering beauties as
They fly into my Head.”

It’s not Eliot. But at his best, Hodgson is truly charming.

Poem: “On Rousseau’s Dream”

Rousseau, The Dream

Henri Rousseau, “The Dream”

I will be a flutist
standing in the trees
with the lions and tigers
stalking past my knees;

you, my naked lady
languid on a couch –
is the tiger standing,
or is it in a crouch?

Enormous tropic blossoms
open in the heat;
your hand is out toward me,
the pipe I play is sweet.

You have no need to answer
if things are as they seem.
The scene will last forever,
A moment, and a dream.

Henri Rousseau’s 1910 painting, The Dream, is one of his jungle-themed paintings, and hangs in one of the world’s greatest museums, MoMA, New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It is very powerful seeing the original – for one thing, it’s big – 2 x 3 metres. But my immediate inspiration for the poem was the Chaleur coffee mug of the painting – the colours are brighter (or they were, until I put the mug through the dishwasher too many times), and the flute player is more prominent.  

Technically the poem is… well, ekphrastic, because it’s about a painting, or at least a coffee mug. First published in The Lyric, it is a simple poem; perhaps colloquially you could say it is in hymn format. Regular quatrains. Three iambic beats to the line, with an extra syllable on the first and third line of each quartet. Just like

“From Greenland’s icy mountains
To India’s coral strand…”

But unlike a lot of hymns, only rhyming the 2nd and 4th lines. That’s just me being lazy. The painting itself is far better (of course!). My poem doesn’t even mention the elephant, trumpeting away in the foliage…

Poem: “Eva’s Trip”

Eva

(Poster for Prostitution Support Centre, Norway)

Some of the girls I know
Go to the University
Sit so pretty
Prissy
Kiss-kiss and cissy
With beautiful boys that they know
Friends to drink tea with
Chat with and be with
Feather-headed into the feather-bedded night.

Oh no, sweet Jesus, hear me. I scream.
Such a life of show
Is beyond what I dream.
Give me a man who I’ll never know
A man without feelings, without wrong or right
Without obligations
Except for the money.
Let him be cold and hard as the money
And the money as dirty and evil as me.
I can’t trust feelings, I never trust feelings
And I don’t care
That I can’t care…
I don’t dare.

Some of the girls that I’ve seen
Listen to that classy music, they sit
And play piano while they drink their tea.
That’s somewhere I’ve never been.
Cello! Piano!! What SHIT!

Sweet JESus CATCH me beFORE I SCREAM
give me ROCK, ROCK, give me ROCK oh give me ROCK
ROCK, give me ROCK, give me ROCK
blast my MIND let me DROWN give me SO much of ALL
that my HEAD and my BODy are FINally SOUND
give me ROCK, ROCK, give me ROCK, ROCK
give me ROCK rock ROCK rock ROCK, ROCK
DROWN me DROWN me, LET me go DOWN
aWAY
aWAY
aWAY.

Some of the kids from my school
Would sit down to a smoke, have a toke and cool down,
Drift round the town feeling cool.
Not me.

Some of the students I’ve seen
Trip out on acid, they want to expand.
They want to feel all that they can, and still more.
Not me.

Give me JUNK.
Give me the rush and the bliss of fuck-all.
Give me the unsatisfaction of life.
Give me the treadmill toward the next fix,
The stealing or whoring, the need, the despair
Of being whipped up an unending stair.
A problem of Now I can just about handle,
The safety in knowing tomorrow’s the same
And the whole problem, thank God, unthinkable,
Only the treadmill toward the next fix,
The fix of nothingness, of peaceful nothing.
And let me not think
LET me not THINK
Sweet JESus if I THINK even ONCE
I’ll SCREAM I’ll SCREAM I’ll SCREAM
I’ll DIE.

This poem was originally published in Ambit in the UK when the delightful Martin Bax was editor, and has been reprinted various times, most recently under the name “Eva’s Trip” by Bewildering Stories, edited by Don Webb and John Stocks.

I wrote the poem when I was living in Copenhagen at a time that there was a lot of concern about young people from across Europe running away to Denmark, especially to Copenhagen’s “Freetown Christiania”, and ending up in prostitution. A big newspaper investigation on the subject gave the pseudonym Eva to a teenager they interviewed, and I thought the name well-chosen for the combination of innocence together with the knowledge of good and evil that such people have.

Poem: “All Aboard!”

If an emotion pulls into your mental station
Like a steam locomotive, whatever dream motive
I second the motion, I say, “All aboard!”

Why do I, I who try not to die,
Welcome a hurricane? Waves walk, trees fly,
Houses unbuild. I don’t know why, but: All aboard!

Why do I, bride-bridled and stably stabled,
Let other girls turn my head to no purpose nor bed?
I don’t know; it’s a ride! All aboard!

Why, in hot sun or cold rain, do I take my stand
Protesting war not my war in some other land?
I don’t know; need a hand? All aboard!

Why even think? And why, from thought’s rubble,
Write without fright, and freight me with trouble?
Listen, that whistle that bristles with power! – We now are
All aboard!

This poem was published in Bewildering Stories #822. It is a paean to action, excitement, adventure, exploration and self-exploration, including both brave moral stands and dangerous irresponsibility. There is something very human in the reckless drive for experience and achievement, from Pandora’s box and Eve’s apple to the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program and Nike’s “Just Do It”. This drive can’t be suppressed without warping or destroying the human, but it can certainly be channeled into constructive rather than destructive activities… although who is to say which is which? And then this becomes yet another area for ruthless research.

Technically the poem has formal elements rather than being “formal verse” as such. It has a scattering of rhyme and a ragged rhythm; each stanza has a similar length and structure, ending in the “All aboard!” Tricks of rhetoric, designed like all formal poetry to make the passage memorable and able to be recited. But is that enough to designate it a formal poem? I’m dubious.