The Tale of the Thirteenth Floor
The hands of the clock were reaching high
In an old midtown hotel;
I name no name, but its sordid fame
Is table talk in hell.
I name no name, but hell’s own flame
Illumes the lobby garish,
A gilded snare just off Times Square
For the maidens of the parish.
The revolving door swept the grimy floor
Like a crinoline grotesque,
And a lowly bum from an ancient slum
Crept furtively past the desk.
His footsteps sift into the lift
As a knife in the sheath is slipped,
Stealthy and swift into the lift
As a vampire into a crypt.
Old Maxie, the elevator boy,
Was reading an ode by Shelley,
But he dropped the ode as it were a toad
When the gun jammed into his belly.
There came a whisper as soft as mud
In the bed of an old canal:
“Take me up to the suite of Pinball Pete,
The rat who betrayed my gal.”
The lift doth rise with groans and sighs
Like a duchess for the waltz,
Then in middle shaft, like a duchess daft,
It changes its mind and halts.
The bum bites lip as the landlocked ship
Doth neither fall nor rise,
But Maxie the elevator boy
Regards him with burning eyes.
“First, to explore the thirteenth floor,”
Says Maxie, “would be wise.”
Quoth the bum, “There is moss on your double cross,
I have been this way before,
I have cased the joint at every point,
And there is no thirteenth floor.
The architect he skipped direct
From twelve unto fourteen,
There is twelve below and fourteen above,
And nothing in between,
For the vermin who dwell in this hotel
Could never abide thirteen.”
Said Max, “Thirteen, that floor obscene,
Is hidden from human sight;
But once a year it doth appear,
On this Walpurgis Night.
Ere you peril your soul in murderer’s role,
Heed those who sinned of yore;
The path they trod led away from God,
And onto the thirteenth floor,
Where those they slew, a grisly crew,
Reproach them forevermore.
“We are higher than twelve and below fourteen,”
Said Maxie to the bum,
“And the sickening draft that taints the shaft
Is a whiff of kingdom come.
The sickening draft that taints the shaft
Blows through the devil’s door!”
And he squashed the latch like a fungus patch,
And revealed the thirteenth floor.
It was cheap cigars like lurid scars
That glowed in the rancid gloom,
The murk was a-boil with fusel oil
And the reek of stale perfume.
And round and round there dragged and wound
A loathsome conga chain,
The square and the hep in slow lock step,
The slayer and the slain.
(For the souls of the victims ascend on high,
But their bodies below remain.)
The clean souls fly to their home in the sky,
But their bodies remain below
To pursue the Cain who each has slain
And harry him to and fro.
When life is extinct each corpse is linked
To its gibbering murderer,
As a chicken is bound with wire around
The neck of a killer cur.
Handcuffed to Hate come Doctor Waite
(He tastes the poison now),
And Ruth and Judd and a head of blood
With horns upon its brow.
Up sashays Nan with her feathery fan
From Floradora bright;
She never hung for Caesar Young
But she’s dancing with him tonight.
Here’s the bulging hip and the foam-flecked lip
Of the mad dog, Vincent Coll,
And over there that ill-met pair,
Becker and Rosenthal,
Here’s Legs and Dutch and a dozen such
Of braggart bullies and brutes,
And each one bends ‘neath the weight of friends
Who are wearing concrete suits.
Now the damned make way for the double-damned
Who emerge with shuffling pace
From the nightmare zone of persons unknown,
With neither name nor face.
And poor Dot King to one doth cling,
Joined in a ghastly jig,
While Elwell doth jape at a goblin shape
And tickle it with his wig.
See Rothstein pass like breath on a glass,
The original Black Sox kid;
He riffles the pack, riding piggyback
On the killer whose name he hid.
And smeared like brine on a slavering swine,
Starr Faithful, once so fair,
Drawn from the sea to her debauchee,
With the salt sand in her hair.
And still they come, and from the bum
The icy sweat doth spray;
His white lips scream as in a dream,
“For God’s sake, let’s away!
If ever I meet with Pinball Pete
I will not seek his gore,
Lest a treadmill grim I must trudge with him
On the hideous thirteenth floor.”
“For you I rejoice,” said Maxie’s voice,
“And I bid you go in peace,
But I am late for a dancing date
That nevermore will cease.
So remember, friend, as your way you wend,
That it would have happened to you,
But I turned the heat on Pinball Pete;
You see; I had a daughter, too!”
The bum reached out and he tried to shout,
But the door in his face was slammed,
And silent as stone he rode down alone
From the floor of the double-damned.
— Ogden Nash
Scott Stantis reflected on the recent violence in Paris, France with an uncharacteristically long political cartoon on November 20, 2015. What is normally a single tableau, Stantis made the effort to write a more detailed account of his feelings toward terrorism in thirteen panels. This is not a rant about how awful the Muslim jihadists are or a cheerleader cartoon about how the United States will crush ISIS, it is an introspective look into the futility of using words and pictures to demonstrate that words and pictures are inadequate to describe the helplessness that many of us feel about the violent world situation.
This medium that normally works like a rebus puzzle to amuse news junkies takes on a more somber tone and is no longer enigmatic, in order to cut to the heart of civilized thought. People are taught by the founders of all major religions that it is better to talk through differences than to fight over them, but both words and pictures have failed. In his cartoon, Stantis says, “We’re angry. We want to bomb them. Bomb them all.” When we do, we are disgusted with ourselves for taking out innocent children and civilian bystanders. The military calls those deaths “collateral damage,” a term that appalls us even more for its thoughtlessness.
There are candidates for President who are trying to encapsulate the answer to Stantis’s concerns in a fifteen-second sound bite. They will deprive peace-seeking refugees of relative safety in order to prevent an attacker from harming an American. How many Muslim lives is equal to one American life?
It is fairly shocking to open one’s newspaper to the editorial page and expect a chuckle at the expense of bloviating politicians but receive a philosophical eye-opener. However, the eye-opener puts all of the bloviating in perspective. The politicians don’t have the answer and the cartoonists don’t have the answer. But the difference is that this cartoonist admits that he does not have the answer. We appreciate political analysts who don’t have all the answers; maybe we ought to elect politicians who know they don’t have all the answers instead of those who think they do.
In seven days the big feast will be upon us. Whether you’re hosting or traveling the time crunch has likely begun. With due respect I’ll keep opening remarks brief. Here are three smile inducing poems dedicated to those facing an eipic grocery trip in their very near future. Have a blessed Thanksgiving!
The potato that ate all its carrots,can see in the dark like a mole,its eyes the scarsfrom centuries of shovels, tines.May spelled backwardsbecause it hates the light,pawing its way, padding along,there in the catacombs.
(Copyright ©2008 by Bruce Guernsey. Reprinted from New England Primer by Bruce Guernsey, Cherry Grove Collections.)
I am a Grocery Bagger, and I Have Feelings
The beets pass through my hands
waiting to be juiced by the vegan
they will scream as he juices them
and stain the floor a terrible red
only a dollar
must we then conclude
to be white
is to be cheap?
the pieces of lettuce strewn on the floor
are the discarded cloaks of fairies
the snowy mold on the strawberries
their frost-touched pillows
and they have stolen the price signs
to make the palace of their king
shall we blame mere mortals
for the actions of fairies?
for where others see Incompetence, I see only Beauty
(Originally sent as a joke to poetry.com)
A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon. In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
(Penned in Berkeley, 1955)
“If something is really important, keep it in your underpants.” -Mindy Thomas, aka Absolutely Mindy, on Kids Place Live, Sirius XM
With all of the hyper-political parody and cunning satire currently churning through every jaded channel of irate idiot boxes and addled adult podcasts, perhaps its time to take a moment to appreciate a very different kind of humor that has been quietly, but quickly reshaping the way that many American kids and their families laugh, learn, and listen to the world around them.
Meet Mindy Thomas, the magnetic maestro behind Sirius XM’s Kids Place Live programming and the utterly enchanting spirit of early morning mayhem. As Absolutely Mindy, she helms the largely under-recognized Backseat Breakfast Club morning show on Sirius Channel 78.
The satellite radio industry has raised its fair share of eyebrows in recent years, with subscription fees, corporate mergers, and complex debates about markets and musical rights all tied to a medium that once represented the technological equivalent of free public speech. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, a number of exciting new outlets for all sorts of humor have arisen on a variety of satellite channels.
Among the most innovative and enjoyable of these forums is Kids Place Live, a channel devoted to family-friendly, G-rated kids programming that continues to surprise and delight with its frequently clever and often hilarious cast of affable characters and personalities.
More importantly, Kids Place Live has almost single-handedly inspired an explosion of diverse, dynamic children’s entertainment that rips through established genres and conventions with astonishing force. In fact, Kids Place Live has brought safe, fun, and rewarding radio back to children in ways that other interests, from Disney to NPR, could never quite muster. Not since the fabled days of The Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, and Let’s Pretend has kids’ radio been so fun, loud, and different.
Mindy Thomas, Sirius’ perky princess of screwiness, is a revelation of light-hearted, pixie-dusted glee and her affable address to both kids and adults is laced with a beaming, witty joy that captures both the thrilling wonder and the insistent anarchy of childhood.
Billed on the Sirius website as “a carousel of non-stop nuttiness,” Mindy’s Backseat Breakfast Club has inspired a newly imagined community of young listeners and bemused parents nationwide. Beginning at 7 am, carloads of freshly caffeinated drivers and briskly brushed offspring tune in to Mindy, sharing those last precious minutes of freedom and frolic before harsh institutional realities come crashing down with the dreaded school drop-off or deadlocked morning commute.
Not all parents are fans, and that’s just fine, but there is no denying Mindy’s intimate understanding of what makes children smile. More often than not, she takes her kooky cues from kids’ own tastes and preferences. Potty humor and “Grosser than Gross” routines are common, but so are lengthy interviews with musicians, poets, and artists. Among her audience favorites are the outrageous “Birthday Missions” announced each morning in tandem with the Mission:Impossible theme and the “Breakfast Blasts Newscasts” featuring hilarious but relevant commentary from NPR’s Guy Raz. Frequent guest appearances by her own kids, tall tales about her mobile home loving parents, and outrageous tales of the misadventures of devoted hubby, Absolutely Mister, are all loaded with mirth and mayhem. To balance out the bedlam, the Absolutely Mindy Show also features its fair share of routine “healthy lifestyle” advice done up in wacky wrapping. These include Kira Willey’s “Seatbelt Yoga Breaks” and the always astute book reviews by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author of the early readers’ Lunchlady graphic novel series.
Most importantly, though, Mindy and her media celebrate one primary theme: the limitless fun of Play. Calling on all listeners to mess around with everyday life as imaginatively and enthusiastically as possible, Absolutely Mindy constantly celebrates the multitude of benefits, inventions, and discoveries that arise from enjoying the world around us. She urges callers of all ages and listeners of every region to try new things, share wild adventures, and, even more frequently, admit to embarrassing fears, failures, and mistakes that may somehow limit their fun. Many of the most amusing stories from excited callers are accompanied by a background of adult groans, chuckles, and gasps. Of course, similar themes of fun and frantic comedy run through the shows hosted by Mindy’s collaborators, including Jack Forman’s Monkey House and Kenny Curtis’ neurotic menagerie, the Animal Farm. In fact, Lorenzo the haphephobic llama has become something of a super-star equal to Bugs Bunny, Sponge Bob, or Rainbow Dash in the eyes of my own children and their friends.
Music itself has changed thanks to Mindy and her maniacal crew. Screwball songs like Mike Phirman’s hilarious “Who Makes the Breakfast?”, Joe McDermott’s “Kitty Fight,” and Andrew & Polly’s ridiculously catchy “Grapes” are now as familiar and famous among the playgroup set as Katy Perry hits or Disney tunes.
Sure, Frozen‘s “Let it Go!” and Vanilla Ice’s tepid Teenage Turtle anthem are constantly reiterated to the delight of gazillions of kid listeners, but so are charming tracks like Kristin Andreassen’s little known marvel, “Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color for Your Eyes” and Chris Rice’s “Billy Joe MacGuffrey.” Longtime star of the children’s charts, Laurie Berkner has hosted her own Kids Place Live feature as have the Aussie imports, the Wiggles. Dozens of wonderful new bands, acts, and comedians have found broad and eager new audiences through Kids Place Live’s lollapalooza of songs, games, and skits including the popular Story Pirates, who ‘steal” the concepts for their zany plays from submissions by child listeners. Among the most engaging musical offerings are bands like Lunch Money, The Pop Ups, Mista Cookie Jar, Jazzy Ash, and Joanie Leeds. Most importantly for my own family, though, Absolutely Mindy’s marvelous mixture of the eclectic and the iconic brought us all in touch with the remarkably fresh and environmentally empowering, Grammy-winning songs of the Okee Dokee Brothers, a goofy Bluegrass comedy duo whose rich folksy anthems have forever sealed our family’s commitment to getting outside and explore the natural wonders of the nation.
Mindy’s circus of sound, speech, and song on Kids Place Live might not delight every parent with its raucous address. The Backseat Breakfast Club will not speak to those adults who are too entwined within the sour spin machine of Bill Maher/Jamie Oliver/Stephen Colbert/Jon Stewart, or whatever splendorous smarm Andy Cohen and Jimmy Fallon hover over at the moment. What it does do, however, is keep us interested in the endless potential of childhood fun, wonder, and happiness. When so much contemporary comedy is as factional, contentious, and combative as can be, the Absolutely Mindy Show is alive with mischievous innocence and family-focused frenzy. Now, that’s magic well worth keeping in your underpants!
Maybe I’ve been watching too many political debates or reading too many articles that pop up as newsworthy on my social media newsfeed (i.e. Starbucks’ Cupgate) – either way, I’ve been craving some authenticity lately and jumped at the chance to see comedian Bill Burr and his borderline-obnoxious-yet-refreshingly-honest standup last week.
My affinity for Bill Burr started years ago when I stumbled upon Bill Burr’s Monday Morning Podcast. Since 2007, Burr has relied heavily on material about sports, food, stereotypes, and even consumer complaints to air out his grievances in his weekly podcast, a part of the All Things Comedy network. During a recent episode on a Thursday night, Burr discussed his upcoming trip to Philadelphia, home of the world’s best cheesesteaks, where I saw him at the Wells Fargo Center, his largest live crowd ever, the following evening. If you’re not familiar with Bill Burr, his role during the second season of Chappelle’s Show might be worth a watch. Or you can catch the Massachusetts native on one of his specials – 2014’s I’m Sorry You Feel That Way being the most recent. Burr’s newest project, F is For Family, airs on Netflix next month.
As I was leaving the show, a group of 3 or 4 women in front of me lamented about giving up a Friday night to attend a show highlighting “another sexist comedian.” They cited his shtick about women’s takeover of the NFL as proof of their supposition. Below, a sample:
An old post, but with a fresh relevance today with the resignation of Tim Wolfe.
Originally posted on Humor in America:
Update: As of October, the decision to close the Press has been reversed and Clair Willcox has been rehired. The concerted efforts of many people helped convince the bigwigs at Mizzou to reverse course, even if they won’t fully admit their mistakes. I will be publishing my book with the press, if it is approved, of course. To follow the situation, go here: https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheUniversityOfMissouriPress. I have added a new cartoon below.
Another update: in November, 2015, Wolfe has resigned due to his handling of a number of incidents concerning racism. In a twist, considering the satire on Wolfe below, the final straw seems to have been the announcement that many members of the football team would be on strike until Wolfe left. In another, more personal, twist, I received my page proofs for Mark Twain: American Humorist from the University of Missouri Press on Saturday night.
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In the old days of television, before on demand and remote controls, the theme song announced the next show. It was designed to catch or keep your attention. Between the birth of television and the end of the 20th Century, 42 television theme songs charted on the Billboard top 60, four of which made it to No. 1. In the 21st Century not one television theme song has hit the pop charts.
Reasons for this include changing public taste and the fragmentation of popular culture but also the simple fact that many modern shows have no theme, and most that do use a short instrumental motif in lieu of a full fledged song.
Like all television programming, the sitcom has its origins in radio shows that were adapted for the new medium. Two pioneering shows – The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy – set the template that would remain virtually intact for the rest of the millennium.
The Honeymooners theme keeps with the radio tradition of an orchestral bed beneath the announcer.
I Love Lucy was a pioneering show in many ways, including its theme song. The I Love Lucy theme, written by Eliot Daniel, is the first sitcom theme that works almost as a commercial jingle. It is an infectious, easily identifiable tune that serves to brand the show.
Interestingly, these two iconic 1950’s sitcoms featured childless couples living in apartments – one blue collar realism, the other showbiz glamour – in an era that would be defined by the quintessential suburban nuclear family: a large house with a yard and a dog, a father who works, a mother who keeps the home and the 2.5 kids who learn and grow from their problems each week: Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
As the 50s morphed into the 60s, sitcoms began to focus on less traditional families, from the broken to the fantastic.
Since the days the Toast of the Town and the Texaco Star Theater late-night talk shows have, under the guidance of television legends like Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin, evolved into a humor institution in the United States. Late-night talk shows enjoy a very public and influential position in American life, which is why controversies within the subject have such a significant news value. When Carson, the King of Late Night, quit the choice of replacement caused a rift between Jay Leno and David Letterman that was covered by the press and actually resulted in a HBO film adaptation. Some two decades later, when Leno asked for his show back months after retiring and handing the show over to Conan O’Brien, the fight was again fought out in public. Given their roles as the nation’s public humor institutions, late-night talk shows are also attractive for presidential candidates hoping to form their image in a light setting.
Back in 2012 President Barack Obama joined Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show for an interview and a segment called Slow Jam the News, where he recited news while Fallon provided comedic commentary and his house band The Roots provided a smooth musical soundtrack. The appearance was hailed by the audience but criticized by conservative commentators. Gretchen Carlson on Fox News lamented how the appearance “lowers the status of the office” and called it “nutso”.
Similarly, when Obama recently visited Jimmy Kimmel Live! he participated in one of the show’s most popular comedy segments: Mean Tweets. The bit is very simple, a celebrity reads actual negative messages directed at them on Twitter while Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. plays in the background. While the appearance was incredibly popular, drawing millions of views on YouTube, some found it unworthy of the presidency.
When will we get a President who is more like a behind the scenes CEO and not a megalomaniacal elected dictator obsessed with fame and public image?”
Yet late-night television appearances have long been a part of the political sphere. Going back to 1960, both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon visited Jack Paar on the Tonight Show. Ronald Reagan appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the run-up to his campaign to unseat Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee in 1976. When Bill Clinton came on The Arsenio Hall Show and showed off his saxophone talent, political commentators accused him of demeaning the presidency, yet the appearance came to shape his image as a relatable leader. The same quality helped George W. Bush 8 years later, as he showed off his folksy side in late-night chats.
Like it or not late-night television is an appreciated domain for politicians seeking or holding the highest office. This has been especially clear this autumn as the race for the 2016 election is moving into high gear. Since the end of August a presidential contender has appeared on one of the main late-night talk shows a total of 14 times (as of October 28, 2015). The number can be viewed as both high (roughly every third night of late-night, there is a candidate campaigning) and low (when combining the Democratic and Republican fields the candidates, including the ones who have now dropped out, exceed twenty). There is clear patterns visible in these appearances; the bulk of them are on Stephen Colbert’s new Late Show (5) or Comedy Central’s two late-night shows (3). Neither James Corden nor Conan O’Brien have hosted any candidates this fall and Kimmel has only had Bernie Sanders on. It is clear that Colbert is staying with what he knows and is making his domain one far more political than his late-night competition (besides the presidential candidates he has hosted the First Lady, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senators John McCain and Elizabeth Warren, and even Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer). Despite the far broader Republican field they have only one more appearance on late-night thus far this autumn, with five candidates appearing twice; Secretary Hillary Clinton, Governor Martin O’Malley, Senator Bernie Sanders, Governor Chris Christie, and of course Donald Trump.
With the exception of the late-night veteran Trump, the only candidate from the conservative wing who has entered the lion’s den is Senator Ted Cruz. For late-night remains a space that can be uncomfortable for conservatives, and indeed Cruz was booed by the studio audience for his conservative views. Stephen Colbert pleaded with the audience to show Cruz respect as an invited guest and has taken decisive steps for partisan balance among his guests. But it is clear that the arena is far more risky for conservative candidates than moderate or liberal ones.
For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.
With Halloween just nine days away, it’s time to enjoy a little warm-up scare. The first thing along those lines that came to mind was Room for One More, the classic urban legend style horror story that took place in a department store elevator. The notion of department store elevators got me thinking about the dreaded 13th floor, though the only department store I know of that ascends to those heights is the Shinsegae Centum City in Busan, Korea. That shopper’s paradise is 14 stories high, though this number may be somewhat elastic since I am not sure if the 13th floor was omitted.
This general dread of the number thirteen (Triskaidekaphobia) has been around for a long time. though nobody knows for certain how it got started. A Norse legend states that twelve gods were sitting down to a banquet, when a thirteenth god, Loki, showed up and wrought havoc. Some say Judas was the 13th to sit for The Last Supper.
Thought it wasn’t until 1885 that the first skyscraper was built––and that one was only twelve stories tall––in skyscrapers that followed thirteenth floors were often omitted––officially at least. That hasn’t changed. According to Otis Elevator Company, up to 85 percent of elevator panels today omit the number 13. The practice is so pervasive that emergency responders generally assume that to be the case.
In this uncharacteristic epic poem, Ogden Nash addresses that missing floor. It’s a delight to read any time, but perhaps it’s most enjoyable this time of year. Read it, and get into the spirit of a spooky Halloween!
Here’s the thing. I really don’t like to get too political on social media or other public platforms, but my frustration with the critiques of the new Muppets show has reached peak levels – peak levels I say! And so, like the great critics of our time – the Edward R. Murrow’s, the Frank Rich’s – I must take pen to paper in passionate defense of what I view as the brilliant new direction of The Muppets.
Critiques since airing the pilot episode last month range from so called “friends” on Facebook, who claim the new incarnation has “ruined childhood,” to conservative news outlets such as Breitbart, where John Nolte claimed, “By making the Muppets ‘edgy’ left-wing partisans who attack Fox News, come out as pro-abortion, and hurl sex jokes, the once-universally beloved franchise has been doomed…More proof the old saying is true: Liberals ruin everything.” Well drink it up, new Muppets show haters: I’m leaving this matzah ball out for all to see.
Firstly, a lot of the chief complaints are variations on a theme: that the new show can’t compare to the original version (which aired 1976-1981), and that this new incarnation carries a kind of cynical modernity, distastefully embodying the mockumentary filming style of shows like The Office. For starters, these criticisms contain the classical logical fallacy of “argumentum ad antiquitatem,” or “appeal to antiquity.” This is the fallacy which falsely argues a “thesis is deemed correct on the basis that it is correlated with some past or present tradition.” In other words, the older idea is better, because it’s old. Or conversely, the new idea doesn’t work because it doesn’t adhere to the old one.
“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each./ I do not think that they will sing to me.” These self-pitying lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” are some of the most often quoted from this poem. In fact, Stephen Colbert quotes them in an interview with Elizabeth Alexander (see this recent post on Humor In America for the link). Colbert is convinced that the mermaids will sing for him, a confidence which causes his guest and audience to laugh. Colbert makes light of the speaker’s self pity, and his faux-innocent position seems refreshing.
“Prufrock” is a poem with a tone that seems to change over time––for the reader. Presumably resonant with all adolescent forms of urban angst and anguish (see this recent article in the New York Times about a man for whom the poem characterized a romantic sense of adolescence), “Prufrock” is really a silly poem the more one reads it. Yet silliness makes the poem richer and perhaps more profound than angst ever could. Colbert is right: it is ridiculous, even comically melodramatic to worry about whether or not the mermaids will sing to you––to worry about personal worthiness.
We are warned of the poem’s deadpan humor in the opening lines, which open classically with the line, “Let us go then, you and I…” and follow with a comparison between “the evening . . . spread out against the sky” and “a patient etherized upon a table.” Romantic vision and complete physical, social, and emotional inertness are juxtaposed. “Do I dare disturb the universe?” a voice in the poem wonders. Spontaneous boldness is not an option for this voice. Cowing and reticence and quiet observation of others are its modes.
We think of these personal characteristics in something of the same light that we view adolescence: brooding, sensitive, thoughtful, withdrawn. We rarely think of these states as funny. Yet coming back to “Prufrock” after adolescence has been over for many years is a humorous experience. Why should a love song about a man with a funny, unromantic name begin in Italian? We are already in parody here. The choice to rhyme “come and go” with “Michelangelo” is hilarious (“In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo”). The choice to rhyme at all in a poem like this is worth a pause and a smile.
Noting parody and play in Eliot’s early poetry is nothing new. Drawing connections between the feline imagery here (“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,/ The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes”) and Eliot’s later light-spirited cat poems is also nothing new. But it occurred to me the other day, as I watched ten teenagers work their way through this poem, that adolescence is rarely a state of being that inspires laughter. It inspires eye rolls, awe, and worry mostly, but not often overt chuckles of understanding. Perhaps we recognize the difficulty of the changes and uncertainties one faces at that age. Perhaps we shutter at remembering those difficulties.
Yet isn’t humor present in any cartoonish, shape-changing, awkward phase of life? Isn’t the comic persona fundamentally awkward and uncertain? The humor in “Prufrock” comes from the very same notes that strike adolescent readers as serious and true. Coming back to the poem after adolescence is over, one realizes that the awkward phase of life, though dramatically uncertain, was not very serious or permanent after all––nor did the self turn out to be as central to the drama as we thought. Just as Stephen Colbert hopes and Elizabeth Alexander encourages, the mermaids will sing to you if you want them to.