Saturday, August 04, 2018

'Ah, Venom Mouth and Shaggy Thighs'

The first issue of Mad magazine was published the month I was born, and its influence was lasting. Parents and teachers disapproved. It was deemed more depraved than comic books. At least two other magazines tried to cash in on Mad’s popularity – Cracked and Sick. The latter shared its title with a school of humor that flourished in the early 1960’s. “Sick” encompassed everything from Lenny Bruce to dead-baby jokes and the novels of Bruce J. Friedman. When I noticed in the library catalogue an entry for The Penguin Book of Sick Verse, and saw that it was published in 1963, I expected a nostalgic revisit to those carefree days when people were still shockable. Not so. By “sick,” the editor, Scottish poet George MacBeth, meant something more literal:

“I have arranged the poems in this anthology to constitute a return voyage in the black ship: a voyage from morbid obsession with illness of the mind and body, through nightmare and vision to despair with the world, on to perverted action and extravagant emotion, and finally to that grim enjoyment of the voyage in retrospect which is the essence of the sick joke. Many of these poems will horrify, some will frighten, a few may disgust; several, I hope, will seem intentionally or unintentionally funny.”

There’s a mildewed Freudian stink about MacBeth’s project, and he’s altogether too solemn. Consider some of his anthology’s categories: Illness, Mental Breakdown, Visions of Doom, World-Weariness. All are potentially amusing, but that’s not how MacBeth plays it. Sick Verse is almost a Halloween anthology in disguise, or one devoted to Decadence. In the final chapter, “Sick Jokes,” he somehow includes Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill” and Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (though I always liked saying “on the marge of Lake LeBarge”). MacBeth seems overly fond of minor late-Victorian verse (Eugene Lee-Hamilton), though I found a smattering of good poems, including Howard Nemerov’s “Brainstorm,” Thom Gunn’s “The Monster” and Karl Shapiro’s “The Fly” (“O hideous little bat, the size of snot”). New to me was a poem by John Byrne Leicester Warren (1835-1895), “The Study of a Spider,” which, if not “sick,” is creepy and overwrought:

“Ah, venom mouth and shaggy thighs
And paunch grown sleek with sacrifice,
Thy dolphin back and shoulders round
Coarse-hairy, as some goblin hound
Whom a hag rides to sabbath on,
While shuddering stars in fear grow wan.
Thou palace priest of treachery,
Thou type of selfish lechery,
I break the toils around thy head
And from their gibbets take thy dead.”

No comments: