Posting early today. Off out to buy a kidney for Bloomsday … anyway, hello and read on …
In the last lecture, we looked at a few arbitrarily selected forms of parody, the parodia ex urina, satirica and ad desperata, adding a facetious blank category for future filling. Then we left the eager reader on tenterhooks, wondering what the key form would be to describe the author’s latest effort. If you refer back to last Wednesday’s blog, you can see these in more detail and also the ‘source work’ for this tawdry exercise, Philip Larkin’s Annus Horribilis of 1967.
This final category has been labelled (after much cogitation over strong coffee) as the parodia ad responsum, a parody which comments on or contradicts the original piece.
In fact there are a few distinct subcategories. The response can be a simple contradiction. A famous example was the 1920s effort by theologian Ronald Knox on the topic of Berkelian idealism (ie the suggestion that things are only there when perceived, trees falling unobserved make no sound and all that sort of rot)
There once was a man who said: “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”
An anonymous respondent (many say Knox himself) replied:
Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd
I am always about in the Quad;
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God
Equally the response could, though with less chance of humour, support the original idea. What my piece below, Annus Horribilis (don’t say you didn’t see that coming) sets out to do is to update Larkin’s. This could be done with originals, recent or as old as Shakespeare or Chaucer, to highlight both the differences in the modern world or indeed the principle of plus ça change. Alternatively, as in this case, it can take a ‘little did you know’ approach and comment on what happened not that long after the optimistic (if self-pitying) original.
Now, to most British people, my title evokes memories of Elizabeth Windsor in 1992 referring to a year of family break-ups, sensational publications and castles burning, for which one’s heart truly bleeds. Theology students may also think of 1870, for which the term was first coined (in 1891) to refer to the adoption of the doctrine of Papal infallibility. And indeed the phrase is itself a parody, of the much older annus mirabilis, as per Larkin’s poem, which dates from at least 1603 and which you can google for more info.
In the present author’s case, it stems from picking up a volume of poetry which I always keep by the porcelain throne, suitable for the briefer visits (every bathroom should have a bookshelf, with tomes to suit everything from a quick sit to a bout of dysentery). This one fell open at his aforementioned iconic verse, second only to They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad in the general consciousness. And it made your correspondent, who came to some sort of maturity not long after the year in question, to ponder on the history of sexual revolution and reaction in the years since.
A brief aside: Poets (well, this one at least) often have cause to remind people that poetry is not necessarily autobiography. Wilde said all bad poetry is sincere, which I constantly try to disprove by writing insincere shite; I now say that all bad poetry (except mine) is therapy. But real poetry is just poetry. Were mine autobiographical, I would be a serial lothario with a penchant for Dutch transsexual brothels — at the same time as being a reclusive virgin. Its like assuming Agatha Christie was a detective and a murderer. We’re just writists, dammit! We draw on our own experiences, feelings and observations, of course, but we do also have imaginations. And I’m a gregarious, bi-celibate miseryguts, if you must know.
So the fact that Yours Truly was a socially inept nerd who largely missed out on that permissiveness which ‘began in Nineteen Sixty-three’, and only started to overcome his ‘shyness that is criminally vulgar’ and turn into a social animal just as a new disease was putting a fatal spanner in the works, may well be behind the work produced, but I hope the poem stands as a valid comment on the times, with or without that. And the self-deprecating asides about the poet’s own failures simply echo those of the ‘too late’ Larkin in the original. The more layers the parody has, the more complete it feels, imao*
Incidentally, I’ve just been looking at a few of the sites that claim to analyse the poem, probably for the benefit of the writer’s ego (like this blog, I freely admit), but ostensibly to provide notes for students. It is amazing how easily things are misread and misunderstood by the ludicrous, especially those who didn’t live through that glorious era of sexual and social revolution. According to one site, Larkin is arguing that the Beatles themselves were responsible for the beginning of sexual intercourse! A case of post rock ergo propter rock, no doubt. I humbly suggest that this exercise in parody will contain more truth than all those study notes put together. But it won’t be half as funny.
In terms of content, then, the events that ‘changed everything’ came in the early 80s, when a new virus emerged and was soon shown to be sexually transmitted and very, very nasty. Exactly when it started is the subject of debate, but it was when it began to impinge on the general public’s consciousness that matters here. While VD clinics (as they were known then) could detect and treat all the life-threatening STDs, and the pill could reduce drastically the risk of unwanted oven buns, people (at least those more appealing than the present author) really could play that ‘quite unloseable game’.
Therefore it seemed obvious to comment on when the dice got loaded the other way, and the game became very loseable indeed.
In this case, then, the parody is a verse-for-verse (if not line-for-line) commentary on the original. The choice of year — 1984 — is partly for historical accuracy but largely for ease of rhyming. The Falklands War was of course a couple of years earlier, and broader concerns about AIDS were only just beginning to set in, as people realised it could affect folks other than homosexual men and heroin addicts; add to that the utterly useless and distracting association with George Orwell’s famous novel, and one might think it’s a far from ideal selection. Well, fuck that, it is effectively historically accurate (the vagueness of ‘just after’ sees to that) and I can’t think of other 1980s events that could give me as good a rhyme as ‘four’ and ‘war’. Add in the line about ‘a bore’ and I wasn’t going to waste time looking for an alternative.
Having got the basic idea, and a reasonable parody version of the first and best-known verse, we need to decide whether to leave it at the famous opening verse (as with At Lords/Au Louvre above) or continue with a fuller version. The Green Aye of the Independent Scot is not as long as its predecessor. I didn’t feel obliged to match that one verse for verse, but the Larkin has a certain, arch-like structure, and is only four verses anyway (laziness must never be underestimated as a reason). To make it a reasonable parody, the last stanza (as with The Green Aye and The Green Eye) needs to mirror the first, so a four verse structure makes most sense.
We can characterise the verses of the original as …
1. General statement of thesis,
2. How things were
3. What things became
4. Restatement of thesis, now it’s been explained,
xxxx… only now our ‘how things were’ starts from Larkin’s third verse. His ‘began’ is our ‘went wrong’. Thus the most obvious and, thankfully, the simplest way to proceed is to take each of those verses and recast them, shifted in time through a couple of decades.
After a bit of rhyme juggling, then, we have a reasonable answer to the original assertion, mildly amusing and perhaps even thought-provoking. But a satisfying opening merely increases the pressure to make the rest live up to it. In humour or anything that moves the reader in any way other than to the toilet bowl, it’s often a good tip to write the ending first, rather than use up all the good bits at the start. Nothing lets you down like the feeling that barrels were scraped more and more as the work proceeded. A clever ending gives the impression of something worked neatly towards, a final flourish of genius; it rarely occurs to the reader that that was the first bit written and the rest was filled in later.
So to the second verse. As Hildy Johnson says in Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page, “who the hell’s gonna read the second paragraph?!” Hardly anyone remembers the detail of Larkin’s inner verses, but I’m a craftsman, dammit: middle verses matter, even if they only get scanned once, even if the real funny (if any) lies in the parody of the well-known bit. And can I be more lax about the parodic elements that my readers won’t notice? Well, yes and no, but not for that reason. As I often find with Larkin, the middle verses can have the feel of it’ll have to do, with less elegantly expressed ideas and things that seem to be there because they rhyme (‘fools in old-style hats and coats’? — really?). There’s even a desire to prove I can do a better job than that (even though deep down I know I can’t). But I am going to follow the basic structure (if only cos it saves thinking of another one). The rhyme scheme also fits the idea flow, line three in each case restating or commenting on line two and ending with the same sound (rhyme, like alliteration is or should always be more than just a pleasing noise or aide memoire).
So ‘Before that’ (1984) echoes Phil’s ‘Up to then’ (1963), and ‘having a ball’/’free-for-all’ takes the sexual freedom theme of Larkin’s thrid verse and applies it to the ‘history lesson’ of the second.
In that thrid verse, Larkin’s inner rhymers, ‘Everyone felt the same/And every life became’, add rather than enlarge, so I feel justified in advancing with mine. I break with Larkin by ending the verse on a more personal note. This was nicked from 1980’s alternative comedy riffs about how AIDS had changed things, so that going out on a Saturday night and not pulling was no longer a sign of failure, but rather of a social conscience. Mediocre humorists, like great artists, steal. As, by definition, do all parodists. But in its own way it does deal with the reduction in promiscuity, free loving and stress-free fucking experienced by many of those who were more attractive than your correspondent.
We end with the slightly altered reprise that rounds the whole thing off and has a matching (and equally true) self-pitying parenthesis. This, I feel, is actually more distinctive than its first verse pre-echo, and therefore even better than Larkin’s feeble variations on ‘too late for me’. I submit that we now have a rather satisfying match to the original, which, as all good parodies should, stands pretty well on its own merits. I believe that a mark of all great art is that it works as it stands for those what doesn’t know the other pieces or traditions to which it refers, but gives an extra level of appreciation, understanding and communication (and not just a smug self-satisfaction) to those what does. And I hope that even applies to tawdry stuff like this …
Annus Horribilis (after Larkin)
Sexual intercourse went wrong
In nineteen eighty-four
(Which for me was rather a bore)
When the AIDS virus came along,
Just after the Falklands War
Before that everything had seemed
Like folks were having a ball:
A lust-crazed free-for-all,
Except for those like me, who dreamed
Of getting laid at all
Then all at once the good times ceased;
The active took more care,
And though it wasn’t fair,
My failures, due to risks increased,
Seemed ‘socially aware’
So that was when it all went wrong
In nineteen eighty-four
(And still I couldn’t score)
Once the AIDS virus came along
Just after the Falklands War
Good night; and thanks for reading.
*I don’t do ‘h’