New twists for old, Harry Ricketts

Parodies Regained
A K Grant
Hazard, $19.95,
ISBN 1 877161 23 3

Literary parody, though it subverts and pokes fun at literary tradition, has evolved a richly varied anti-tradition of its own. One fairly recent strand of this, dating from the 19th century, is the rewriting of nursery rhymes in the style of famous poets. The eighteen-year-old Kipling and his even younger sister Trix thought nothing, on hot Lahore evenings, of doing a Browning version of “Jack and Jill” (“Well, Jack and Jill – God knows the life they led”) or turning “I had a little nutmeg” into a dig at British memsahibs and their sexual shenanigans.

G K Chesterton took the game a stage further in “Variations of an Air”, where he rewrote a single nursery rhyme, “Old King Cole”, in the manner of Tennyson, Browning, Whitman, Swinburne and Yeats. Following the Chesterton model, our own Ron Meek produced “Variations on an Ancient Theme”, a rewriting of “Hush-a-bye baby”, which appeared in Victoria University of Wellington’s Cappicade in 1938. His Whitman “variation” is particularly sharp, concluding:

Camarado, I am rustling with the wind
that rocks you and brings down your
cradle, your shoes, your napkins, your
bottle, your rattle, and yourself.
Bang!
Death, death, death, death, death!

Of course the common factor in this kind of parody need not be nursery rhyme; it can be a shared motif. In A Christmas Garland (1912), Max Beerbohm uses Christmas as the repeated feature around which he weaves a collection of wicked parodies of contemporary novelists. Closer to home, there is James K Baxter’s 1957 sequence The Iron Breadboard, in which he sends up his poetic contemporaries, and himself, in a series of bravura pieces, with the breadboard of the title providing the common motif. His parody of his own early manner – with its self-dramatising gestures and characteristic yoking of the colloquial and the grand – is dauntingly apt:

Perhaps I should have written somewhat more
About the breadboard, but my heart is sore
For other reasons; and I save my breath
To blow my porridge cool, though in the gates of death.

My own A Brief History of New Zealand Literature (1996), which rewrites well-known local poems and novels as limericks, is in the same line. So too are John (Fred Dagg) Clarke’s Complete Book of Australian Verse (1989) and Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse (1994), which present the work of such celebrated “Australian” poems as T S (Tabby Serious) Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Arthur Perpend” and Sylvia Blath’s “Self Defence”. Like all the best parody, Clarke’s is both extremely witty and close to the bone, as in “The Emperor’s New Album”, his spoof of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen:

And we synchronise watches and guide books
And our weapons, false papers and charts
General Mills on deployment of symbols
General Boon on the breaking of hearts

Then I’ll send in my troops in their millions
I’ve trained them to swim in the dark
Resistance is futile, we’re poets
And we’ll touch your perfect bodies
With our shlong …

Satirist and columnist A K Grant is another notable local contributor to this parodic anti-tradition. His zany history of New Zealand, The Paua and the Glory, and his modernisation of Mansfield’s “The Doll’s House” (“I seen ‘The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’”) have both become classics of their kind – as has his rewrite of Denis Glover’s “The Magpies”, in which after six verses of quardle oodle ardlying comes the pay-off:

Tom said, “I know I’m finished,
But I couldn’t give a hang.
I’ll take that bloody magpie
With me!” – Bang!

What comic revisions does Grant have to offer in his latest collection, Parodies Regained? One very neat twist is to have familiar local poems rewritten by famous overseas poets. So Yeats, Eliot, Housman, Flecker and Larkin rewrite Denis Glover’s “Home Thoughts” (“I do not dream of Sussex downs … I think of what may yet be seen / in Johnsonville and Geraldine”). Rochester, Marvell, Fitzgerald, Kipling and Gray rewrite the final verse of Sam Hunt’s “Running Scared” (“Enough! to count the cars/Sliding by, remember the bars …”). Blake, Coleridge and Tennyson rewrite “a poem composed of lines from other poems by Allen Curnow”.

This is an ambitiously subversive idea since, ideally, the parody throws two punches, a right at the overseas poet and a left at the local one. Unfortunately the execution is pretty hit-and-miss. “Bottle Creek” (Grant doing Kipling doing Hunt) scores well: “‘I must go to Bottle Creek / (When my dog has had a leak), / Where the dawn comes up like chunder out of Pae-ae-kak-arik!’” But “Not Very Much Gidding” (Grant doing Eliot doing Glover) is only so-so, and not a patch, say, on Henry Reed’s parody of Eliot, “Chard Whitlow”. And “Let’s Hope It’s All Over Fairly Quickly” (Grant doing Larkin doing Glover) is frankly feeble:

But anyway I’ll stay in Geraldine
Till that icy finger beckons,
Because they reckon that down here all that sort of thing
Is usually over in a matter of seconds.

But if with the overseas poets Grant seems at times to be boxing a bit above his weight, back home he lands plenty of good jabs. In an adaptation of the Chesterton-Meek line, he has a couple of ingenious sections in which “Little Jack Horner” and “Ding, dong, bell, pussy’s in the well” are rewritten by a raft of local poets: Fleur Adcock, Peter Bland, Jenny Bornholdt, Allen Curnow, David Eggleton, Anne French, Denis Glover, Sam Hunt, Kevin Ireland, Louis Johnson, Michele Leggott, Bill Manhire, Rachel McAlpine and Ian Wedde. The versions of “Little Jack Horner” are particularly mischievous and well-sustained, showing a keen eye and ear for the originals’ imaginative and verbal habits.You might like to guess who could have been responsible for the following openings:

I write in praise of the solitary plum:
of not slicing a pie and eating
the slices with juice dribbling down the chin …

* * *

A man can’t help think
as he nurses his plum pie
by the fire still smoking
of the love he saw die
like the fire. No point in poking.

* * *

There he sits in his
corner, eating a pie
that no doubt his
Mum made for him
and keeping it all to
himself …

* * *

The pie is in the corner
The pie is in the corner with Jack
The pie is penetrated by Jack
The pie is eviscerated by the thumb of Jack
The pie is deprived of its plum

These are welcome additions to our own rich vein of comic verse. But, good as they are, it seems to me that Grant has kept his best twist till last. It is “The Ultimate Minimalist yet Richly Postmodern Rhymed Poem”, with its marvellously overweight title and wafer-thin lines, its witty game with the sonnet form and knowing little innuendo (lines 9-12), which is the real knock-out in this engaging collection:

a
b
a
b

c
d
c
d

a
c
d
c

a
a

Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books. His biography of Rudyard Kipling, The Unforgiving Minute, has just come out in paperback from Pimlico.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
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