Do you “fit” with society? That makes two of us. I don’t understand it, and I don’t think I ever will.
Yesterday I watched an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s internet show: the one where he fetches refreshments with a friend and they chat. I’m jealous of Seinfeld, because I can tell that he does exactly what he wants with his comedy and his career, and he’s been rewarded with success for it – I mean he has money and fame. Yet I’m wary about mentioning his name, because I recall how I would never have become familiar with Emanuel Swedenborg if William Blake hadn’t given him a dressing down in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
…Swedenborg’s writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further.
…Any man of mechanical talents may from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg's; and from those of Dante or Shakespeare, an infinite number.
But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine.
I like Seinfeld, though; so I don’t mind if these words tempt future readers to try to figure out what past generations saw in him, just the way that I myself was lured to look into Swedenborg, 200 years after Blake lambasted the man. (This blog post is going to be VERY popular someday, believe me.)
Anyway, I want to mention one small moment near the end of a recent episode. Seinfeld’s guest was Norm Macdonald. With apparent sincerity, Norm said:
My son writes eight hours a day. And he loves poetry… I don’t understand poetry. I don’t understand a single word.
Then Jerry quipped:
Poetry is bad stand-up. It’s carefully chosen words that have no laugh at the end.
Now this is something that continues to interest me greatly. I’ve attempted to brainstorm about the topic before; I’ve long wondered about the relation between poets, rappers, preachers, and stand-up comedians. Is there a link between these callings? They all proclaim words to an audience. Do the tone and content of their messages diverge since each job has a different motive? Or do these positions all represent essentially the same vocation, whose tone or content changes relative to the age or culture in which it’s being performed?
Why not round up all three of the latter trades under the first, and say: Rappers, preachers, and stand-ups are all types of poet.
But I use this term more freely than the above-quoted conversation allows. I’d even label movie directors as poets. To me, a poet is any type of maker. And a poem is any creation whatsoever.
Macdonald mentions poetry after referring to his son’s habits of composition – this is understandable; but, again: Why limit the term to the written word alone? (Is there not an oral tradition in poetry?) Then Jerry distinguishes poets from stand-ups by insinuating that poets do not aim for laughs – this seems passable too, on a jokey level (for the sake of lightheartedness, one voluntary suspends any closer reasoning); but it’s false to say that all poems lack humor or punchlines. It’s only the case that, at least in our current era, stand-up comedy appoints for itself just one single goal: the audible laugh. Poetry can go for the laugh or any other aim.
Although compositions from each format are loved by all, the sheer potential of Rock ’n’ Roll is restricted when compared to orchestral or “Classical” music. There’s a disparity of scope. Just so, stand-up is a small hall in comparison to poetry’s mansion with many rooms; or the great outdoors of poetry: an exuberant surge of energy suffusing Jupiter and beyond the infinite.
I repeat, the difference between poetry and stand-up is that poetry is limitless: poetry can choose to be funny or not, whereas stand-up that does not spark laughs is judged to have failed. But instead of pitting poetry against comedy, I’d say that the latter is a subsection of the former. I would rank “stand-up comedian” as a type of poet. Any poet who chooses to focus on oral delivery and audience laughter is a stand-up.
There is more to being human than just laughing. Laughter is the peak—it’s the most royal fragment, which is why I pay attention to (am jealous of, and even idolize) stand-up comedians. But to joke too much leaves one feeling hollow, annoyed…
I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.
I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?
That’s good old Ecclesiastes, from the start of his or her 2nd chapter. Also, near the beginning of the 7th, he or she proclaims as follows.
Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
To quip nonstop about absolutely every little thing will grow just as tedious as any other obsession: like the soul whose melancholy mood forbids her from ever cracking a smile, or religious zealots who must turn every observation into an argument for their cult.
…Or a snooty blogger who will not dismount his hobbyhorse.
The natural stress of the syllables of the words is what creates the rhythms of “traditional” verse; the kind that Jerry and Norm would recognize as poetry. However, when repetitive (superbly repetitive) percussion creates “external” rhythms, which the words and their natural stresses are forced to fit, this branch of poetry is called hip-hop or rap. So “paper” poets (those who publish books) create their own word-based rhythms, while rappers (those who circulate demo cassettes) prophesy over drum-based rhythms. As for preachers, they stem from the oral tradition, like rappers; yet they less often employ percussive beat tracks to fortify their sermons: they are more like “free verse” poets, in this respect; and though they utilize humor like stand-up comedians, it is but a tool that’s kept strictly in service of spiritual guidance; while stand-ups, as Seinfeld admits, hold every value of humanity, even wisdom, as subservient to THE LAUGH.
God is to preaching as order to science as imagination to poetry as yuks to a stand-up routine.
It’s all art because it’s all fake. Therefore it’s all superior to reality.
That last outburst is on account of my recalling a previous episode, where Seinfeld wondered aloud to his guest whether stand-up might be an art-form, and whether comedians should be considered artists. I say yes and yes: absolutely. And I’m the authority on such things.
By the way, I titled this post after some dialogue from The Master (2012), a movie written by Paul Thomas Anderson. Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd are arrested and jailed in adjacent cells; Quell throws a tantrum and Dodd begins lecturing him. Amid Quell’s raging disruptions, Dodd explains:
…you’ve been implanted with a push-pull mechanism that keeps you fearful of authority and destructive. We are in the middle of a battle that’s a trillion years in the making and it’s bigger than the both of us.
This is how I feel about the current “comics vs. poets” cage-match. We’re the same essence, yet one is too self-indulgent while the other is nowhere near self-indulgent enough. And I can’t even tell which is which. About either, one could repeat Emerson’s criticism of Shakespeare (which I would take as a compliment):
He converted the elements which waited on his command, into entertainments. He was master of the revels to mankind. Is it not as if one should have, through majestic powers of science, the comets given into his hand, or the planets and their moons, and should draw them from their orbits to glare with the municipal fireworks on a holiday night, and advertise in all towns, “very superior pyrotechny this evening!” Are the agents of nature, and the power to understand them, worth no more than a street serenade, or the breath of a cigar? One remembers again the trumpet-text in the Koran,—“The heavens and the earth and all that is between them, think ye we have created them in jest?”
That’s from the essay “Shakspeare; or, The Poet,” which, it seems, could’ve just as well been titled “Shakspeare; or, The Comedian.” In Oscar Wilde’s “Vera; or, The Nihilists,” Count Rouvaloff says: “There seems to be nothing in life about which you would not jest.” And Prince Paul answers:
Ah! my dear Count, life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
At this point I admit that comedy wins me over. And yet I hunger for depth, for sublimity, for thought. As the mysterious man known only as “The Cowboy” tells the director Adam Kesher in Mulholland Dr. (a 2001 film written by David Lynch):
…you’re not thinkin’. You’re too busy bein’ a smart-aleck to be thinkin’.
Are there admirable comedians who’ve clomb from and escaped the funny pigeonhole? Louis C.K. has dabbled in less-than-frivolous material throughout the mature part of his career – at least the type of material that doesn’t leave you feeling upbeat sprightly cheerful high-spirited positive and optimistic about the human condition. Not that to be low is the goal: I actually like the weird stuff the best. I’m thinking about the recent series shows he’s made. I love his stand-up too, but his film work pleases me every bit as much as my favorite directors. I think he does an impressive job mixing comedy and tragedy—that’s a feat so rare that some critics say it’s never been refined. Isn’t there a lost play from Shakespeare based on something by Cervantes that is supposed to have blent the antipodes?
I’d rather watch portions of the first few seasons of Louie than most Woody Allen movies (I was a big fan of Allen, so I’ve seen pretty much all of his work, and I sense that C.K. is attempting something similar in his show; that’s why I compare them). I think C.K. outdoes Allen, actually… except maybe Allen at his best, like in my favorite of his films: Manhattan (1979).
All I intended to do with this entry was fuss about Seinfeld’s poetry-mocking one-liner; but now I’m reminded of an actual poet – one of my favorites, although the excerpt that I’ll cite is only a name-match (I’m prying it away from a work that I love; but the source is long, and its interest resides in the way that it flows, the way it moves as it keeps easing onward: and these things are hard to represent in a modern blog post, which is limited to 140 paragraphs). This poet happens to mention Jerry, just briefly, in one of his works. His name is A.R. Ammons, and the following verses are from his book-length poem Glare (Part Two: “Scat Scan”; section 89):
…well, so, like, we found these nestled nuts
in a closet corner, and, like, well, Phyllis
said, we have a mouse: so we did because
there he was the next morning in the trap I set
but so then we were watching Seinfeld when
abruptly another mouse, like, darted across
the floor, out upon the floor actually and
back, so, well, like, I set the trap again,
but can you believe after two nights it
remains unsprung: I suppose the mouse smelled
death and ran out the way he came…
To review: Louis called his series Louie. Seinfeld called his sitcom Seinfeld. And Hamlet called his dumbshow The Mousetrap.
One side-thought: this has nothing to do with Ammons’ poem; it just came to mind now, so I must record it, because I can’t tell a whim from my superego. I really should shuffle this into the mess above, but I’m running out of time…
Ministers strive to improve the harmony of their community. It seems that prophets, as defined by their contributions to the Hebrew Scriptures, have a similar purpose: to proclaim to their nation a message that criticizes the powerful on behalf of a higher justice. Am I mistaken to note this: That which in the past was a concern for communal betterment has become a manic chase after mere levity? Is the phenomenon “stand-up comic” what happens when a preacher or prophet gets baptized in capitalism?
I’m sorry for letting the “c”-word invade this document (money-ism, the root-ism of all evil-isms… 1 Timothy 6:10) – I usually try not to let systems get me down; but I’ve been aggravated of late to see such obvious deadening of humankind’s potential, in the form of trite art. That’s where I draw the line.
Finally, to be sly in like manner for the sake of humdrum accuracy, one could retort:
Stand-up is the exploitation of poetry for the goal of selling alcohol.