In observance of National Poetry Month, every Friday of April Micah Mattix will be examining one great line of verse. -Ed.
The final great line in this short series may seem an odd choice because, well, it’s not so great, at least on its own, in terms of either craft or intellectual heft. Some readers may recognize it as the final line in Frank O’Hara’s “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!).” In the poem, the speaker is hurrying along in the rain and snow in New York to meet someone when he is surprised by the headline: “LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!” He concludes:
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
It’s a funny line, effective in part because of the surprising contrast in diction, mild slapstick, and incongruity (“I have been to lots of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful / but I never actually collapsed”), but one might argue that it is too light to be of any lasting value.
No doubt many humorous poems are less important than other more philosophical or political ones, and some comic poems seem hardly poems at all. More than one poem by Robert Herrick or John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester are little more than jokes.
Yet poetry is a literary form that lends itself to comedy. Donne, for example, uses the strict logicality of the epigram to create delightful surprises. Shakespeare draws on the centrality of sound in poetry for puns. And the structure of the short lyrics, which often “turn” in the concluding lines to offer some insight, are also perfect for punch lines (as in the above O’Hara poem, Chaucer, or in much of Aaron Belz’s work).
In the latest issue of the New Criterion, David Yezzi laments the decline of satire, “classical tartness and venom” in poetry. “How did the main effects of poetry,” he asks, “ever boil down to these: the genial revelation, the sweetly poignant middle-aged lament, the winsome ode to the suburban soul?”
Satire and bile belong in poetry, Yezzi suggests, partly because the world is an absurd and hateful place, and partly because in expressing these states of affairs, poetry (and satire in particular) corrects and assuages them. “The condition of satire,” Yezzi writes, “(broadly construed) is realistic and moral.”
Satire is not the only form of comedic correction. Riddles, irrationality, and puns all work to show us that our reason is limited—that reason alone, much to the philosopher’s chagrin, cannot show us all that we are and all that is. Slapstick, on the other hand, shows us that our bodies are limited and much frailer than we often care to admit (especially in a modern world devoted to overcoming such frailty).
O’Hara uses both incongruity and slapstick in the above line to help us see the shortness and fragility of life, as well as the absurd things we do and say to avoid being reminded of them. Again, the first part of the poem recounts a busy speaker rushing in the rain, snow, and traffic to meet an unidentified “you.” The simple, present progressive verbs capture both the ordinariness of the action and its liveliness. When the speaker sees the Lana Turner headline, however, the action pauses and the verbs change to the present perfect, then past tense.
At this point, the poem could have provided a mildly ponderous reflection on the fragility of fame (Lana Turner’s star was waning at this point) or life, but instead the speaker humorously disassociates himself from Lana Turner by wrongly attributing her collapse to bad manners. He then pleads with her to “get up” (which is a surprising contrast from the declarative tone of most of the poem) because “we love you.”
We may love Lana Turner, but what we love with greater affection is our own lives, and the line makes us laugh (if we have a sense of humor) because we see ourselves in the speaker’s absurd attempt to disassociate himself from Turner’s fragility. But we too, as we all know too well, will collapse one day and will no longer be able to rush through the rain and snow to meet a friend. In short, “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,” as Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 60, “So do our minutes hasten to their end.”
Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.
“Great Lines: ‘April is the cruellest month,’” Micah Mattix
“Great Lines: ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?,’” Micah Mattix