Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Little Hearse on the Prairie

Difficult as it is for you to pin down the point where puns became so pleasurable for you, the probable genesis was with the appearance in your life of the constant metaphor of parallel lines.

You'd come across poetry in a way of meaningful recognition in the seventh grade, when, thanks to your sister, you fell in with the unlikely likes of Kahlin Gibran's The Prophet, Walter Benton's This Is My Beloved, and in general, Ogden Nash.

On your own, you came across Robert Browning and, having done so, how could the impetuous romantic you were growing to become not also take up his wife, Elizabeth Barret.  The puns in Ogden Nash were exquisite.  Many of them rhymed. "The golden tracery/Of Ogden Nashery."  "A wonderful bird is the pelican/ Its mouth can hold more than its belly can." 

In all probability, your interest in puns came at the time you were exploring your delight with certain rhyming combinations, particularly those playing off a cliched trope.  Thus did a horse of another color become a hearse of another killer, while the popular song of a generation or so before yours, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." became "Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart.

The parallel lines started with the curriculum presented to you in middle school and many of the things you wanted to study and did.  While pretending to absorb Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," you were committing to memory one of Tennyson's poems that found its way into the lyrics of a musical hall song and, thus, vaudeville.  "Maude."  Although you pretty well know the Arthurian legend, you cannot quote from it, but to this very day, with the right amount of beer as a prompt,  you know at least the first stanza:

Come into the garden, Maud,
    For the black bat, Night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
    I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
    And the musk of the roses blown.

Some of your classmates could and did memorize lines from Idylls, and indeed one of them went on to memorize enough of it to be accorded a performance segment at a student assembly.  This performance holds a place in your memory because you recall your reaction to it and your turning to the chum seated next to you, using a statement you would make many times afterward in numerous similar situations.  "Can you fucking believe this?"  Your chum's deadpan reply also remains.  "You're not supposed to say fuck in assemblies."


In later years, you titled your book review of Philip Roth's novel, Portnoy's Complaint "The Gripes of Roth," and a mock-review essay discussing a famed two-dollar-a-bottle red wine from Trader Joe's, which you called "The Wrath of Grapes."  Of course the source of both was a trope from Julia Ward Howe's song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, to which you have minimal objections that have nothing whatsoever to the notorious war between the States, rather to the intense, biblical nature.

In more recent years, you gave the title to one of your favorite of your own short stories, "Coming to Terms," which is a less obvious pun that the in-your-face ones you favor.  The reader of the story will quickly discover the academic setting in which the characters first engage, thus the synonym of term for semester or quarter of instruction, which is the supposed engine driving the university.

Term can also be a collective noun for the name of a concept.  Character, for instance, can mean an individual's personality or one of the conventional layers of players within a story, beginning with a principal character or protagonist, working all the way down to a stock character or a walk-on.

Terms can also signify a series of conditions in an agreement, say the terms of a lease, or contractual terms.  In a sense, "Coming to Terms" is one of your better titles for a story because the protagonist in the story has to accept certain terms and concepts if he is to progress in his profession as a professor, he has to accept the reality of his department chairman's personality, he has to accept the reality of the individual with whom he is now in a romantic relationship, and most important of all, he has to come to terms with the potential for growth within him as a result of this relationship.

There are writers you admire who seem to have a certain lapidary quality about their work, wherein you are given cause to see a particular story or novel as a mosaic, each tile set in with loving care.  You admire this quality, but strive for something else, in your case it is a sense of inevitability or the event and word, yet the inevitability is not the main object.  Story is the main object.  The payoff or emotional effect or, if you will, take-away is the object.

Puns and mischievous language and ironic points of view all add to this mosaic.  Anything included for the purpose of design or ornamentation must come out.  You do not strive for simplicity or directness or even starkness.  You want totality of effect,  The characters come forth, consult the terms of their emotional fate, then begin the negotiations.


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