ON irony, or not meaning what you say

[...] Langgasse,
in Danzig
, sparked a short fuse. The massed
-banners appeared as machine-fresh
robust street-hangings, crests of the phalanx,
terror’s new standards. I do not recall which
death-camp it was that sheltered Goethe’s oak
inside the perimeter. I cannot
tell you who told me or in what footnote
it sat hidden. This and other disjecta
, the abused here drawn
together with pain for their further dis-
memberment, I offer to the presiding
judge of our art, self-pleasured Ironia.

(The Triumph of Love, CIII)

It was Buchenwald—the irony being Hill cannot for lapse of memory make his poem, a work of ‘our art’, complete; and enfolding another irony, one which positions lionised nation-artist Goethe’s oak, favoured place of respite and significant landmark in a life of rebuffed courtship,* opposite the laundry in a camp where thousands of Jews were murdered for a bankrupt concept of German empire. In a feat of startling analogy Hill joins the dismembered fragments of his own listing memory, ‘here [in this poem alone and this work] drawn together with pain’, to the abused victims of eugenic hysteria who populated Buchenwald, of whom the phrase ‘the abused here [ie. the death-camp] drawn together with pain for their further dis-memberment [the word itself dismembered by linebreak]’ is perfect description. Latinists will note that Ovid’s now fustianly literary ‘disjecta membra’ translates as ‘scattered limbs’. Moreover in offering the disjecta membra of murdered Jews and of memory (the pun is obvious), not to mention the memory of murdered Jews, to this ‘judge of our art’ Ironia, Hill performs a further irony: the very offering shows how useless and thewless is art against edifices of horrendous fact, how, like Hill’s memory, in such circumstance it fails, offering back only ‘self-pleasured’ irony, which this time by its meagre presence, the absence of anything more, has judged our art dismembered.

But if irony is not meaning what you say, and not meaning what you say is also not saying what you mean, how is any of this irony? Who is ‘you’? I think that common slip of sense issues from the human wont to personify, and that the personified entity here is ‘nature’, ‘the world’ or, better, ‘life’. All the gristle and skank of hours. In situating Goethe’s oak next to the laundry at Buchenwald, life is not meaning what it says: but the irony is twofold, for as the camp, the deaths, are what it means, and the artist’s oak is what it says, so also the oak’s being in the camp is what life means, and the world where in all other camps there are no oaks, just death, and all other poets’ oaks are not in camps, but greening in fine rain, is what it says. The camp oak is therefore both an instance and a symbol of irony.

Why expend so many words on Hill? The poem, I suppose, illustrates what in Henry IV (both parts referred to as whole) is the motor of comedy, which may be perceived as anything from weak insincerity to straight deception: that is, not meaning what you say. A pun is an instance of not meaning what you say (though it needn’t mean the opposite of what you say), since puns never say as much as they mean. Pistol is first a name; then a gun; then a cock. Pistol as name is all that’s said.

Not so, my lord. Your ill angel is light, but I hope he that looks upon me will take me without weighing; and yet in some respects, I grant, I cannot go. I cannot tell. Virtue is of so little regard in these costermongers’ times that true valour is turned bearheard; pregnancy is made a tapster, and his quick wit wasted in giving reckonings; all the other gifts appertinent to man, as the malice of this age shapes them, are not worth a gooseberry. You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young. You do not measure the heat of our livers with the bitterness of your galls; and we that are in the vanguard of our youth, I must confess, are wags too.

The quality of Falstaff’s irony here is made intenser by the graceful mixing-in of truth—of saying what you mean—but really it is knowingness that lifts the passage. It’s impossible guilelessly not to mean what you say, for if genuinely without guile any meaning apart from what you’ve said must be a product of interpretation, and interpretation likely to make such products is usually triggered in the first place by knowingness. Prima facie meaning pregnant with ulterior meaning anyway tends to knowingness in expression, though expression (tone, diction) comes second; it is pregnancy, by which is meant nothing more than the assumed relation of content to truth, which loudest signals the presence of irony. An example: ‘I love you’ may be marked ironic only by tone, where ‘I love Tony Blair’ is likely ironic whatever the tone, because the former is probably true and the latter untrue. What is said (‘I love Tony Blair’) is clearer distant from what might be meant; probably whoever lies when he says (in earnest voice) ‘I love you’ lies also to himself.

So Falstaff. The ‘gooseberry’ sentence is elemented with truth, but so hyperbolic as to indicate the knowingness of irony—the easy argument for this being that if we took Falstaff seriously we’d think him a churl and sour-faced bore, where in fact we smile along. The list of qualities (virtue, valour) in playful self-regard set Falstaff against his costermongers’ times and, by hyperbolic irony, at the same time suggest him specimen of them. Complicated indeed, this passage invites explanation but labours all explainers. Let me try. Falstaff says ‘true valour’ is debased, but exaggerates with ‘bearheard’, so that he assumes the stung tone of one talking from experience. At this point, what is said (1) = ‘The times are bad’ and what is meant (2) = ‘I am good’. Then however we note something mischievous in so referring to oneself, something non-virtuous, and a second irony in which (1) = ‘I am good’ and (2) = ‘I am naughty, but it’s the times’ fault (though you might not be able to trust all I say about the times)’ realises itself. After this, Falstaff’s irony shifts a third time in a way that reasserts his goodness: we see that, because he has handled what might have been a brittle, fogeyish lament so well, really he is virtuous and pregnant, but not in the immediate senses of virtue and pregnancy whose destitution he bemoans. The paraphrase becomes: (1) ‘I am naughty, etc.’ and (2) ‘I am good; it is my very deployment of irony that shows it; I am certainly naughty as the times would define it, but that’s because the times are bad, and so wrong’. He does not say this. Nor simply does he mean it. The laboured truth is that he means it so far as he is it.

We are finally confronted by a much balder irony:

You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young. You do not measure the heat of our livers with the bitterness of your galls; and we that are in the vanguard of our youth, I must confess, are wags too.

Obviously Falstaff knows he is not young: there is no implication of unbalance sufficient for him truly to believe himself a young man. The key distinction between this and the foregoing is that here Falstaff is past knowingness—for what is there to know? This is irony as personality, irony for fun, irony as quick eddy of the Falstaffian whirl. Its ‘meaning’ component could be anything from ‘You, Lord Chief Justice, are an uptight fool’ to ‘I’m rather old’ to ‘Aren’t I a jolly bloke carrying on like this?’ In these lines you feel it’s almost possible to fix Falstaff’s innocence and his goodness, even why he is beloved, but, having so felt, you are like a squat pug wheezing after a greyhound, in weary focus unaware he’s lapped you ten times already. (And is the greyhound Shakestaff or Falspeare?) Our fix, in any case, is the word ‘vanguard’, or ‘vaward’ in Folio. The epitome of overreaching Falstaff-ism, ‘vanguard’ lacks any of Ironia’s cunning; behind it there is no calculation because it was said so freely in a spirit of jest; it is a wide-eyed open-hearted word, and yet a lie. I do not even know that its intention is—humbly, mercurially—self-mocking, given what follows (the confession of waggery) is both basically and self-referentially true, and without hint of ridicule. Welles thought Falstaff the best representation of a good man in all drama. The character’s breed of conflicted virtue is the Shakespearean counterpoint, a ‘globe of sinful continents’, to moral ideals that do not face honestly the mess and truth of life. Shakespeare knew that if lust is sin, everyone’s a sinner, and the idea of sin is useless. ’vanguard’ is untrue in a way that’s true to Falstaff, which means that it’s truer to life than truth. By saying what he does not mean Falstaff sustains that unstably comic penumbra of being under which nothing is dully certain because everything could be its opposite—nothing, that is, except the honesty and truth of the acknowledgement that people embody irony, because they are fuzzy, and cannot be drawn with ruler and lead.

Irony is like metaphor: what is said the vehicle, what is meant the tenor, what is meant by not meaning what is said the grounds. The difference with strong irony is the vehicle and tenor are opposites.

*I made this up.



[I hope to write on prosaical prose, on sound — same thing my Owl article's about. I'm helplessly obsessed by it, & reading GH properly just aggravated that. it's very hard to explain. I SEE sound. when sentences are 'imperfect' in rhythm or musical quality I want to cut or change words to set them right by an idiosyncratic, Hill-derived standard. it's worst when I'm the writer: I can't stand clusters of like stress or like sound. when words end & begin with the same sound I have to change one, & when there're too many unstresses or stresses crowded together I have to cut something. at the same time I love sound correspondence done judiciously, with propriety, & constantly revise my own prose in conforming to that numinous ideal. (some imagined but really afflicting decorum of evenness whereby a phrase like 'Parting of the Sensory' isn't permissible because 'ing of the' are 3 unstresses bunched in row; I want to make it 'Parting Sensory'.) reading Hill both inculcated & elicited a factitious concept of aural taste, from which I now cannot free myself. (I'm rankling at all the 'f's in that sentence, but I won't amend it.) whence my obsession with 'kalefield', his word, which I've realised interests me so because it can't be pronounced as you hear it, silently, in yr head. the diphthongs always become triphthongs when yr tongue goes for its 'l'. 'ay-ul', not this pure 'ale' sound (the closest to which I can get is enouncing 'kel'). ah christ, also love the way that 'ing k' rocks together, the tiny movement yr tongue makes when switching to plosive from velar nasal. SO YOU SEE I'm a freak. I never tried to tell anyone that freaky information before; it's pretty well impossible adequately to describe. let it suffice I'm so psychologically involved with language I fear my life is less lived than it's written.]


OF Hocking & song

Literary criticism, as I have learned from Dr. Johnson, is the art of making the implicit finely explicit Harold Bloom

& why not criticism tout court?

There's a singersongwriter whose career I follow with rapt interest (I was first a fan of her poems); her second newest song's called 'Swim Thru', & I've been drawn to write about it. Problem is, according to a soon published (in The Owl) essay, I'm supposed to believe 'Song lyrics [...] are not poetry.' How else to write about Laura Hocking's lyrics but in terms of poetry criticism? I know no other discourse well — not even the professionalised discourse of academic writing, for which ignorance I've suffered in college. Pace Ricks, song lyrics are a form on their own: they don't need 'poetic' imprimatur. But if to split music from words in criticism of lyrics is like writing on Picasso colourblind, I'll have to muddle through, missing the interplay of azure & crimson.

The lyric is here; the song is found on the MySpace profile to which the title is linked.

Throughout my analysis I shall want to eschew questions of evaluation. Doubtless I'll fail: by practice if not by theory criticism has, for me, been to show what's good & why. For poet-critics, judgements of value have been the very sinew of the practice, or the 'art' in Bloom's phrase. I'm no poet, but still I find it hard to criticise from outside, to think of myself as professional observer of cultural product, as detached exponent of aesthetic strategies. (Wilson said Shakespeare's 'detachment seems so bafflingly consummate'; what he means is Shakespeare so consummately inhabited his characters you can't see the join.) Criticism without good & bad feels like autopsy when you could be at home fucking your wife.

Sometimes I suspect the endeavour to 'find out' by criticism rather than by scholarly inquiry is wishfully, naïvely scientistic. Just as precarious, the endeavour to make what's good & why finely explicit rests with suspicious idiosyncrasy on the concept of 'taste'. Gah, I'm off-track.

'Swim Thru' works by its transforming metaphor. Hocking makes of the title cliché an iconography whose private meaning may have been tenderly specific, but which is ambiguous enough (& ambiguous perhaps for privacy) to catch, to appear to reflect, the concerns of others. Her fragmented, delicate plot — really a row of vignettes told in hushed vocative — manages to confer on the phrase 'I've seen your swan dive', with its s, n alliteration & rhyming symmetry ('I've'/'-ive'), a moving significance beyond its bare sense. A metaphor, yes, but for what? Surely a crass reduction to say, 'For the means of the person addressed to face challenge'? Paraphrase isn't so much heresy as hazard; the converse approach would be to look at the line & say, 'This embodies love.' For 'swan dive' indeed figures how the person addressed would face challenge, the water he or she must swim through, & that metaphor is metaphor also of the singer's feeling for swimmer: the word 'swan dive' holds potential for beauty as well as for a sort of helpless, headlong clumsiness — as here, 'Mrs. Green executed her swan dive, flopping onto the water with the poise of a stricken bird' (OED). Those senses the metaphor mingles in suggesting the 'I', because of love, has seen grace in what lacked grace. Such motion, such transforming of weakness to fiercely cherished mark of character, embodies the perspective of lover. All her affection is there in two words, but the affection could be anyone's, for any diver.

You might have noticed I fail to mention the line after 'swan dive', 'It suits you just fine.' The reason is I don't like it, I think because it seems filler to support the half-rhyme 'fine' — a little too banal, too vacant where real vacancy would have given richer ambiguity. So I don't like it, but I think I understand it. Recall my phrase 'hushed vocative'. The song has the tone of a loveletter, & stays true to that tone quite rigorously. Thus it's unafraid of cliché, of irrelevance or private reference, of bathos & of self-exposure. The instances of bathos, for example, with which each verse closes, gently sustain the authenticity of that voice. Harking back to the song's inaugurating cliché, their resonance expands like that of the swimmer metaphor as, by muttered promises & lazy musing, they represent to us the tenderness of intimate address, lover to loved. Even the words' aural texture expresses that intimacy: the singer's lexis, moreover her thoughts, often seem determined by vowel play. Where to aim the catapult? Well, we could go to Monaco, the foreign place where they race cars, which isn't very far. Likewise the avalanche doesn't 'melt', it jarringly 'defrosts', because three lines earlier the singer felt 'lost'. But the clearest instance is the second verse, where 'impeccable' leads to 'said 'n'/'leaden'* then to 'retinas', 'hands' to 'detach' & 'rocks' to 'box'. A random, in fact bizarre, image of solicitude is there conjured aurally, as a picture from lines drawn freely on the page. These rhymes are no unsassuming framework; I couldn't call them a 'scheme'. Rather their unpredetermined quality, their close acquaintance with bathos, which bespeaks comfort, is constitutive of the sleepy, loving voice Hocking has created.

How subtle is this song! You can tell it's art because the more you look, the more you see.

And o god i heard you
saying that you'll
never go to war.
And if they call you up
Best look for you in the open water.

On first listen it sounds as though the singer's calling her 'you' a coward here. Perhaps she is, but the tone is one of tender mockery ('Best look for you'). Again, however, the metaphor transforms. 'open water', in Hocking's iconography, should mean something like 'trouble', 'hardship'. It's what you swim through, where you dive — 'water' being linked vocalically to 'war'. & if the 'you' has resolved never to fight, being called up would indeed make for adversity. But, as with 'swan dive', the metaphor's secrecy opens out further suggestion, so one could read here a teasing scepticism about the strength of 'you's commitment to his abstention. 'You looked so resolute', are the words above; worth quoting fully:

And o god i heard you
saying that you'll
never go to war.
You looked so resolute
i wanted you like
never before.

The song's most beautiful moment, & impregnable to my criticism. The song's most beautiful moment for how it's sung.

Except: does she want him for his resolution, or for the vulner- ability behind it — for another swan dive seen?

*Thanks to Laura for this point.



Gorgeous reader, if you don’t live inside the ringroad you mightn’t have had the chance to bag a copy of the latest Oxford Poetry (published this February), whose editor is PITCH supremo Paul T. Abbott & whose attractions can be as little overrated as they can resisted & whose blushless plug will be pulled with one LINKY to the order form.

Follow it.


ON doggerel

(Tone & the signals of intention: two forms of doggerel)

The two poems on which I’ll be writing were submitted this Easter to Oxford Poetry at Magdalen College: one (‘DOSSING DOWN WITH DEATH AGAIN / ASKED THE DRIFTERS FROM DISASTER’ by Robert Mills), inside a book-length manuscript with a ‘Volume the Second’ accompanying it, for publication in the journal, and the other (‘Jemima’ by Marian Blythell) in a book for review. I will be assuming they are both doggerel, and would be recognised as such by students of literature, but will not argue the classification, for this is not an exercise in evaluation except insofar as its necessary basis is the evaluation, pretty well instinctive, of the poems as bad. My ambition will rather be to show how two distinct modes of badness, ‘funny-bad’ and ‘bad-bad’, express and signal themselves by language, and how they are largely distinguishable by tone, which is:

A particular style in discourse or writing, which expresses the person's sentiment or reveals his character; also spec[ifically] in literary criticism, an author’s attitude to his subject matter or audience; the distinctive mood created by this. [OED sense 5. d.]

Relevant particularly to my thesis are ‘expresses the person’s sentiment’ and ‘author’s attitude’, because as I see it the way in which a poem is bad—the class of doggerel to which it belongs—is a function of the poet’s intention, or ‘the self-impression of her writing’, as indicated by her language.

‘Jemima’ is funny-bad; ‘DOSSING DOWN’is bad-bad. (While the phrase ‘so bad it’s funny’ comes originally from discourse about popular cinema, it is as easily used for poetry.) Here’s another example by Blythell, to help define the word:


There was a young woman called Val,
Who was an extraordinary gal.
Her athletic prowess
Put the stars in a mess,
And her muscles were considered marvellous.

(Val died 16th May 2006 –
she was my best friend at school.)

Pound, a good poet, parodied this kind of effect in ‘The Bath Tub’, from Lustra:

As a bathtub lined with white porcelain,
When the hot water gives out or goes tepid,
So is the slow cooling of our chivalrous passion,
O my much praised but-not-altogether-satisfactory lady.

But where Pound’s bathos is a product of craft, Blythell’s comes about by lack of it. How do we know? The difference lies not simply in the facts that Pound is Ezra Pound, famous modernist, or that his title is a knowing pun, for his poem has features of poetic craft aside from its success as bathos: listen to that carefully spaced assonantal pattern, from ‘goes’ to ‘so’ and ‘slow’ to ‘O’, and compare with Blythell’s metrical confusions, by which ‘Put the’ has to be mumbled if pronounced (she should have omitted ‘the’), her second line is too obviously a fluffed cushion supporting the one amenable rhyme for ‘Val’, and the fifth fails completely. His null phrase ‘gives out’ notwithstanding, there is guile in Pound; Blythell is guileless. She has commemorated her ‘best friend at school’ with a limerick.

What’s funny, then, is Blythell’s marrying of light matter in light form, and ineptly done, with the genre of epitaph. Presumably she chose, in remembering Val, to celebrate happy achievement, and not to elegise. That she used such matter in such form shows her intention was not glum, sad, or even serious—though I would not call her insincere. If it were evident she had been trying to accomplish more than a limerick about her friend’s athletic prowess, and had foundered in the same respects, with the same unselfconscious artlessness, lapses of metre, bathetic focus on banal detail (the muscles), and subtle bizarreness (‘considered marvellous’? by whom? is this another defective rhyme-word?) her poem would not be funny, it would be abject. Moreover if such a poem gave the impression of its author having tried, we would have judged it harsher. And ‘judged’ is right: the poem’s appearance of relaxed intention, its ‘tone’ of levity, is absolving in two senses. First, it absolves the poem of what’s unintended (the technically disastrous fifth line, for example) and second, it silently withdraws the poem from comparison with those which are good. Rather than having to come last in the race, it sits on the sidelines, not even cheering—not even watching.

It’s far easier to define the form of doggerel exemplified by ‘DOSSING DOWN’. This is the poem whose signalled intention is to be important, to be good enough that we do not regret paying attention to it, to be, as are so few, worthwhile. This is the poem whose intention is not fulfilled, but whose unfulfilment is clear in every line. These do not make fun reading, except when they say funny things:


Her face is an angled overture of dead fucking;
Her eyes have the sheen of lubricating gel;
Her breasts are cold and pointed under dark clothes;
Pubic mound and buttocks assert like rising, sluicing whales.

The fact that Robert Mills has thought this, written it down, rhymed it, and sent it off with the hope that it get published is amusing, yes, but with two more stanzas of it, ending on, ‘Brain, mind, are no different in orgasm or when she pisses; / Her marble turds are the fragmentation of polyester civilisation’, your amusement quickly pales.

I want to wake up in your arms;
I want to lick your flesh in all sexual charms;
I want to go in fluid ecstasy to your womb
And merge alive from our joyless mutual mental tomb.
You you glorious angelic big bitch
Belong to and love another in this appalling life itch!

Whether you find this funny or depressing (certainly a bookful would give anyone headaches) is subjective; we can all agree, however, that it’s bad. What right has such verse to judge life appalling? If he had confined himself to horny rants, Mills would have earned the absolving influence of our laughter, but he writes often as though he held the serious belief that people ought to listen, and so, when he writes badly, since he’s demanding our attentive judgement, he is nakedly bad.

I watched mental wine drown the sky

Jemima stole from her best mate –

Immediately it’s clear Blythell is telling a story; she confirms the smallness of her ambition with a homely colloquialism, ‘best mate’, which also works for Jemima (analogously to free indirect speech) as appropriated diction. In Mills, carrying on the style of the title, there is thick alliteration—a heavy play on the n consonant, a strong correspondence between ‘watched’ and ‘wine’—there is pseudo-Audenesque reduction of the celestial to the malleable and palpable, and in ‘mental wine’ there is what was potentially a surprising juxtaposition deprived of that quality by strangeness and nonsense. In other words, Mills’ line bears the watermark of good poetry: you can just see where beauty might have taken root, but there is no colour or strength, only the outline of what is wanting. Unfortunately this means the line sinks to pretension, in that it appears the poet intended great things for it, and perhaps thought he’d pulled them off, but to readers the signals of intention, betokening a tone of self-importance, will be all that subsist there. Here is a snatch of successful poetry:

To find out that, good shepherd, I suppose,
In such a scant allowance of starlight,
Would overtask the best land-pilot’s art

While it would feel absurd to set Blythell against these words, of Mills’ watermark they are the gorgeous obverse, rich with vibrant expression and exact imagination where Mills has only the grey lines of failure.

I watched mental wine drown the sky
And champagne rage choke the horizon:
I sensed the skull slick with icy, pretty poison
And the better sense of being battered to want to die!
I stood up angry and crazy with vertical doom to lie:
I was my own black midnight beach of revelation
Armageddonically frustrated: one man apocalypse institution:
My breath crushed mind and bloody was my sigh…

Jemima stole from her best mate –
It very nearly sealed her fate.
A pile of coins, some jewellery too,
Her poor young friend didn’t have a clue!

She took her gloves, she pinched her hat,
She almost stole Iona’s hat.
But the feline pal let out a wail,
Jemima, yes, let go of her tail!

Blythell’s verse is not wholly in want of craft: the line ‘She almost stole Iona’s hat’ is perfect, like ‘Her athletic prowess’ in the limerick. Many more lines are peculiarly clumsy, though, so that, if you believe light verse demands regularity, her attempt to write in such form looks less an act of hubris than a noble misstep. Her flaws of metre (‘from her’, ‘friend didn’t have’, ‘But the’), and the contortions she will tolerate to bung in a desired rhyme-word, by dint of their suggestion of guilelessness, may be seen as cheery imperfections; Mills, with his strained, metrically dead abba, evinces guile gone wrong. But why can’t we say simply that the two poets write on about the same level of incompetence, and that the substance of the ‘two forms’ distinction is really to be found in the matter of which they treat? The point is good, but critics are naïve who take matter to bespeak intention, for if, say, I write about cows, my style may indicate I want them to act as allegory for state idiocy, or for antivivisectionism, but never the plain fact I’ve written about cows. There is no reason why bad writing about death, Armageddonic frustration and disaster could not have been funny if it appeared unseriously intended, like Blythell’s on theft; it is Mills’ style which signals his seriousness about—and prejudices readers against—this manner of egotistic doomsaying.

To move back to the texts, I want now to ask exactly what about those eight lines of Mills determines their status as ‘bad’ doggerel. I won’t bring in the concept of aural bad taste (‘skull slick’), which is too numinous for quasi-linguistic analysis to admit, but I will at least point out that most words in Mills seem to have been selected primarily for their consonant potential. ‘champagne’ and ‘rage’ clang together without making a very striking formulation for angry drunkenness, because of all drinks we are least likely to get drunk on champagne, and those who do are then almost as unlikely to feel it choking the horizon, or drowning the sky (two different things, as ‘champagne’ is elegant variation for ‘wine’). The poem has alliterative style which again and again makes compromises of sense for its scattershot sound effects, as the rhymes are contrived and perch on the edges of lines warped beyond rhythmic or grammatical coherence to allow their place. In ‘bloody was my sigh’ Mills has tried a verb-adjective reversal, which can work, and be resonant, but here is a mark at once of grandiose intention and technical inability, while also making thin sense (coughing blood, yes, but to sigh it?). That blundering coinage ‘Armageddonically’because poets coin words, don’t they?signs the warrant. Mills wants to tell us in thundrous metaphor he’s a dark ‘beach of revelation’, frustrated somehow in a way that is like Armageddon, and wants in elucidation to allude by language to the Bible (as Blythell falls to Biblical style in ‘She rued she had a wicked way’), which seem to him serious intentions, except their elements are piled together with the grace of a fat ballerina, becoming finally like the lunatic shouting of an echatologist tramp. You needn’t sound drunk to write drunkenness; you needn’t sound angry, far less inform us you’re a ‘one man apocalypse institution’ (note catachresis), to deal with anger.

What remains is to talk about how each form of doggerel ends. Mills again signals a self-important intention by clotted sound-texture (every line-end half-rhymes with the other; alliteration still rife), recklessly excessive vocabulary, which leads to tautology (‘waved and writhed’) or overstatement, and acquaintance with lifeless oxymoron—of language (‘literally symbolically’) and of thought (‘Christ waltzed with Rasputin; all demonic divines danced’). Whatever is imagined here is obscured utterly by an avalanche of verbiage:

An abstract sea of cosmetic dread literally symbolically heaved
An[d] on that surreal shore happy dread phantoms waved and writhed.
Be a holy murderer or be the holy murdered
They advised dossed down with death and from disaster drifted.
Christ waltzed with Rasputin; all demonic divines danced:
Mental wine smothered granite clouds. Champagne rage had not lifted.
‘granite clouds’ is Mills’ best phrase, though it’s lost in the cacophony of ending, where the assumption that if (in ending) one repeats what one started with, the result cannot fail to be profound, is clearly enacted and, as clearly, shown false. This is Mills’ last signal of serious intention: it proves the tone of portentousness, and its failure to do anything more than emphasise the poem’s distance from the serious, its failure to be for us what it was for Mills, seals the designation of the poem as ‘bad’ doggerel. In contrast, Blythell:

One week later, I have to say,
She rued she had a wicked way.
Confession spilled out in Iona’s ear:
“I’ll not steal again from you, my dear!”

Iona caught her by the throat:
“Give me back my best blue coat!”
Jemima gulped, she was a lout,
Her heart then stopped and time ran out.

I laughed when I first read this ending. I still don’t understand it, unless incredibly as crude morality tale against stealing. (Perhaps the poem rewrites an apologue I’ve never heard.) ‘I have to say’ is blather like Chaucer’s ‘soth to seyne’. Line eleven is farcically overladen with stresses. But it’s the clinching couplet that signals conclusively Blythell’s modesty of intention—her saving ingenuousness—for Jemima’s death is so sudden, written so hastily, it seems improvised (‘Her heart then stopped’, as if this was a matter of course), and a pretty well random way to wrap up—even as though it was contrived to suit the rhyme-scheme. And why ‘time ran out’? Is this a sly bit of poetic self-reference, or a swift profundity about the nature of our universe? The way these last words are brazenly irrelevant, ‘tacked on’ like a ragged piece of collage, must surely be a consequence of artlessness: the intention it signals is lack of much intention, uncertainty about where to go and what to do with the poem, which is responsible for the lines’ uncertain tone, their strangely blasé approach to death and that rushed, wholly unconvincing moral. It is this tranquil omission to impress itself on us, this composure of intention, which absolves the poem of its weakness, making it cause for laughter.