Wednesday, March 08, 2017

`I'm All Together Too Lazy to Kill Anyone'

“Whatever merit my work may or may not possess, I fancy that it will always be a waste of time for any reader who has not a fairly well-developed sense of humor -- which, as someone has said before, is a very serious thing -- to bother with it.”

Most humorists are not funny and some of our most amusing writers are not humorists. Melville can make me laugh; Thurber, never. Granted, humor is mortally rooted in its time and place, which explains why I should have been born in the eighteenth century. A reader sent me a video of a recent performance by a stand-up comic. Mostly he riffed on politics and pop culture. Every punch line was telegraphed, and he laughed at some of his own jokes, which is death on humor. I hated the lazy predictability of the routine, the way the comedian knew in advance that certain words – “Trump,” “penis” – would get a laugh, and every time the audience, like trained seals, obliged. Humor, like revenge, is best served cold.

It's a matter not of gags but sensibility. It’s a way of understanding the world. The author of the passage quoted above is not conventionally judged a humorist, but even his grimmest poems – say, “Richard Cory” – are laced with dark wit. E.A. Robinson was writing in July 1917 to Lewis N. Chase, who has enquired after his life and work. Robinson’s humor is often a means of fending off intrusions. He pays Chase the compliment of a thoughtful, amusing, revealing answer, when ignoring him would have required less effort:

“I am handicapped at the start in having no biography and no theories. You will find as much in Who's Who as I have to say about myself personally; and as for my work, I have hoped that it might speak--not very loudly, perhaps--for itself. Ten years ago I was called a radical, and most readers looked sideways at my work on account of its unconventional use of so-called simple language. I suppose that I have always depended rather more on context than on vocabulary for my poetical effects, and this offense has laid me open to the charge of over-subtlety on the part of the initiated and of dullness on the part of the dull.”

J.V. Cunningham described Robinson as a man “almost without biography” – a blessing for a true poet and his readers. One can’t imagine Robinson going about his business in a world of social media and perpetual self-revelation. In November 1928, Robinson writes to his friend Edith Brower: “If I ever said anything so ferocious about `people’ as your quotation goes to show, it was just my way of saying that I am not a very good mixer. Oh no, I don’t hate ’em. I don’t hate anybody. It is too expensive, and it doesn’t do any good unless you intend to kill him or her. And I’m all together too lazy to kill anyone—even a critic who calls me the American Browning, meaning apparently to give pleasure.”

And in 1915 he writes to Daniel Gregory Mason: “The old-fashioned hand-organ isn’t bad  . . . , but its proper setting is a small town in the early spring just before sunset, and then it makes a fellow think of shooting himself out of sheer homesickness for a previous existence that he wouldn’t like if he got back to it.” 

The man who said, “Sentimentality is far worse than death,” and said, “I am sorry to learn that I have painted myself in such lugubrious colors. The world is not a `prison house,’ but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks,” wrote this:

“Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
   Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
   And kept on drinking.”

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