For me, paying attention to the radio is always a bit of a challenge. I’m a fan of the romantic, old-school aura that surrounds it; even in the age of podcasts and online streaming, listening to the radio makes me think of murder mystery plays, fireside chats, and other things I’m sad I missed out on (penny candy! hat boxes!). But the very portability that gives radio its crucial edge over television and the internet is also my downfall: when I’ve got the radio on, I’m usually not in a very good state to listen properly. I’ve got an NPR podcast cued up, say, but I’m on the subway, too distracted by the guy spitting peanut shells onto the floor–and other passenger’s shoes–to follow talk of subprime mortgage crises. (Who does that? What is his motivation? Has he perhaps mistaken the subway for a Texas Roadhouse restaurant?) Or I’m set to hear about Nixonland or “Iron Man” or whatever while walking down 5th Avenue in Brooklyn on an early weekday morning, but there’s a street-sweeping truck keeping pace with me like a monster-machine puppy and someone is pointing at me and I’m not sure what it means, and (relatedly?) I think my shirt may be on inside-out. Then again, it could just be that, when it comes to spoken words, my mind’s less likely to wander if it has an attractive face to rest reports upon. Isn’t it cute the way Keith Olbermann says “primaries?”
But a few weeks ago, a This American Life episode made me put down my laundry load and listen up, but good. “Mistakes Were Made” has all the elements a gripping tale of human err ought to: lies, loyalty, betrayal, love, mortality, unfounded hopes, universal sorrows, unexpected plot twists. A charismatic and unreliable protagonist. Man versus nature. Cryonics. Seriously, Sam Shaw & Co. knocked it out of the park with this one, and they must have known they were on to something, because about 95% of the show is devoted solely to the story of TV repairman Bob Nelson and his unlikely turn as frozen-crypt-keeper. Then, the last six minutes of the show are devoted to a topic so far off course that only an English dork could care. I refer to poetry parodies.
Specifically, the segment addresses William Carlos Williams’ famously unapologetic “This Is Just to Say,” and the numerous parodies the poem has inspired. It’s weird, and it doesn’t relate to the rest of the show very well, but it’s also a good time! Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” is gleefully mad-hatter. A Harry Potter takeoff isn’t that great but implements the use of the adjective “beardy” which counts for everything; a sixth-grader burns some money and blows me away. The ones by This American Life contributors are not so hot (David Rakoff’s poem on getting with his wife’s sister at their wedding is almost awesome, but then it goes on too long and ruins itself). The problem is that most of the contributors appear to be eschewing spoofy fun in favor of rueful imagined conversations with absentee moms and bad boyfriends. There’s a time and a place for that, but parodies are not one of them. If a parody doesn’t make you laugh, it’s failed its mission; satire, on the other hand, leaves the door open for more serious-minded purposes.
Anyway, the segment got me thinking of another one of my favorite poetic send-ups, Anthony Hecht’s “The Dover Bitch” (a play on Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”). To me, these poems by Koch and Hecht represent parody at its peak: they’re odd, funny, and–in some ways–even better than the originals.
Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.
I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.
Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!
A Criticism of Life
for Andrews Wanning
So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me,
And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc.’
Well now, I knew this girl. It’s true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn’t judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
She’s really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right. We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it’s a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’ Amour.