Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Affect Feature—Issue 55, July 2015)

Gerald L. Bruns
Apology for Stuffed Owls

spears of laughter

hiss for a time

then clank across

leaving flakes of rust

—Tom Raworth, “Writing”1

1.The Metropolitan Museum of Poetry

Here we will find the Miltonic Sublime, Keatsian Beauty, Mallarmé’s la poésie pure.

Poetry in its epic, lyric, elegiac modes.

Dreams, visions, strange fits of passion.

Dramatick poesy. Dramatic monologues. Soliloquies (“Am I alone, and unobserved?”).

Pindaric odes, Spenserian stanzas, alexandrines, heroic couplets, blank verse, free verse (if not too free).

“Excuse me. Where would I find ‘comic poetry’?”


“Witty verse, sir?”2

“No, broader, as in ‘hilarity.’”

“‘Hilarity’ is usually found in prose, sir.3 Falstaff. Touchstone. Baudelaire rightly confines laughter to caricatures on the English stage—Pierrot, for example—and the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann.4 However, we do have an amusing ‘Sonnet Found in a Deserted Madhouse’”:

Oh that my soul a marrow-bone might seize!

For the old egg of my desire is broken,

Spilled is the parly white and spilled the yolk, and

As the mild melancholy contents grease

My path the shorn lamb baas like bumblebees.

Time’s trashy purse is as a taken token

Or like a thrilling recitation, spoken

By mournful mouths filled full of mirth and cheese.5

“You’ll find this in the basement, sir. That’s where we keep our doggerel.6 May I recommend, before you descend, Alexander Pope’s essay, ‘Peri Bathous; or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry’ (1727)? As every clown knows, comedy requires a repertoire of failures, broken props, exposed backsides.”

2.An Aviary of Comic Badness

In 1930 D. B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee published The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (With Cartoons from the Works of Max Beerbohm). Here, for example, is a poem by John Armstrong (1709-1779), a Scottish physician, addressing what appears to be a disorder of the lower tract:

Advice to the Stout

The languid stomach curses even the pure

Delicious fat, and all the race of oil:

For more the oily aliments relax

Its feeble tone; and with the eager lymph

(Fond to incorporate with all its meets)

Coyly they mix, and shun with slippery wiles

The woo’d embrace. The irresolute oil,

So gentle late and blandishing, in floods

Of rancid bile o’erflows: what tumults hence,

What horrors rise, were nauseous to relate.

Choose leaner viands, ye whose jovial make

Too fast the gummy nutriment imbibes.7

A neoclassicist would remark upon the failure of decorum: stately form housing (without seeming to notice) a Rabelaisian substance. As the editors of The Stuffed Owl explain, the effect is that of a pratfall.

The most obvious and predominating tint [of badness in verse] is bathos: that sudden slip and swoop and slither as down a well-buttered slide, from peaks into the abyss. When some dignified, headline personage, an eminent Academic, a gaitered Divine, an important Actor-Manager, a leading Thinker, a prominent Financier, skids on a scrap of banana-peel in the street and suddenly presents his western façade to the shuddering stars, the impact on the sensations of a thoughtful observer is more tremendous than if the exercise had been performed by a nobody, some urchin, some shabby man of letters, some threadbare saint. (p. xi)

Which explains why The Stuffed Owl is chiefly composed, not of verse by bad poets, but of less-than-inspired efforts of established authors from Dryden to Tennyson, including one of Wordsworth’s sonnets:

The Stuffed Owl

While Anna’s peers and early playmates tread,

In freedom, mountain-turf and river’s marge;

Or float with music in the festal barge;

Rein the proud steed, or through the dance are led;

Her doom it is to press a weary bed—

Till oft her guardian Angel, to some charge

More urgent called, will stretch his wings at large,

And friends too rarely prop the languid head.

Yet, helped by Genius—untired Comforter,

The presence even of a Stuffed Owl for her

Can cheat the time; sending her fancy out

To ivied castles and to moonlight skies,

Though he can neither stir a plume, nor shout;

Nor veil, with restless film, his staring eyes. (p. 151)

To be sure, “The Stuffed Owl” is an occasional piece (as are many of Wordsworth’s poems). So he gives us a real stuffed owl, one that poor Anna cherishes, and which stands her in better stead during her illness than did her guardian Angel, called away on the Lord’s business. Pathos rather than bathos will be the judgment of Wordsworth’s champions, but there is no confusing a Stuffed Owl with a nightingale or skylark, or even with Poe’s raven—although it sends Anna aloft to “ivied castles and to moonlit skies.” Ordinarily an owl is not a lofty, much less transcendental bird; it mainly perches the better to swoop.

Perhaps in pursuit of one of Gertrude Stein’s pigeons:

Pigeons on the grass alas.8

Pigeons, being intrinsically comic, or at all events (like potatoes and carrots) outside the limits of a properly poetic diction, were perhaps Gertrude Stein’s favorite bird, notwithstanding James Thurber’s protests, registered in one of his New Yorker essays, “There is an Owl in My Room” (17, November, 1934):

There is nothing a pigeon can do or be that would make me feel sorry for it or for myself or for the people in the world, just as there is nothing I could do or be that would make a pigeon feel sorry for itself. Even if I plucked his feathers out it would not make him feel sorry for himself and it would not make me feel sorry for myself or for him. But try plucking the quills out of a porcupine or even plucking the fur out of a jackrabbit. There is nothing a pigeon could be, or can be, rather, which could get into my consciousness like a fumbling hand in a bureau drawer and disarrange my mind or pull anything out of it. I bar nothing at all. You could dress up a pigeon in a tiny suit of evening clothes and put a tiny silk hat on his head and a tiny gold-headed cane under his wing and send him walking into my room at night. It would make no impression on me. I would not shout, “Good god almighty, the birds are in charge!” But you could send an owl into my room, dressed only in the feathers it was born with, and no monkey business, and I would pull the covers over my head and scream [my emphasis].

Owls, after all, are birds of prey, as Wallace Stevens reminds us:

The little owl flew threw the night,

As if the people in the air

Were frightened, and he frightened them,

By being there.9

Leave it to Edward Lear, however, to bring us back to earth—or at least to water:

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea

In a beautiful pea-green boat:

They took some honey, and plenty of money

Wrapped in a five-pound note.

The Owl looked up to the stars above,

And sang to a small guitar.

“Oh, lovely Pussy, oh, Pussy, my love

What a beautiful Pussy you are,

You are,

You are!

What a beautiful Pussy you are!”10

To the sea, but happily not after the fashion of Icarus, who, reaching for the sublime, suffered a meltdown:


off the coast

there was

a splash quite unnoticed….11

3.In dreams begin a lot of bad poetry.12

Since Aristotle the defense of poetry has meant endowing it with a philosophical seriousness (the task of allegory, for example, was to invest verse with ideas, or at all events to make it coherent with the prevailing conceptual schemes by which we try to make sense of things). Or think of the German Romantics—F. W. Schlegel:

There is a kind of poetry whose essence lies in the relation between ideal and real, and which therefore, by analogy to philosophical jargon [der philosophischen Kunstsprachen], should be called transcendental poetry [Transzendentalpoesie]. It begins as satire in the absolute difference of ideal and real, hovers in between as elegy, and ends as idyll with the absolute identity of the two.13

Note that for Schlegel the forms of poetry are defined by their ascent into the idyllic empyrean. Geistlich enthusiasm is no doubt its propellant. By contrast,

The shortest


from transcendence

to immanence



Immanence is made of haecccesities, or whatever happens to be at hand (“A poem can be made of anything”: grocery lists, newspaper clippings).15 Oblivion awaits the oblivious poet. Recall Wittgenstein: “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.)”16 It hardly bears repeating that much of modern art and poetry—starting, say, with Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1913) and, before that, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1911)—takes place at ground level. Tender Buttons, after all, is famously made of everyday things (Objects, Food, Rooms) that make up Gertrude Stein’s life-world, and instead of elevating these things by way of a grand style, she engages them with her own distinctively paratactic comedy:


Colored hats are necessary to show that curls are worn by an addition of blank spaces, this makes the difference between single lines and broad stomachs, the least thing is lightening, the least thing means a little flower and a big delay a big delay that makes more nurses than little women really little women. So clean is a light that nearly all of it shows pearls and little ways. A large hat is tall and me and all custard whole (Selected Writings, p. 473).

Stein’s admirers, in an effort to protect her from decades of ridicule, have been apt to endow her with high seriousness (John Ashbery, in a review of Stanzas in Meditation [1932], compared her work to Henry James’s The Golden Bowl).17 In fact the freedom of her ludic juxtapositions constitutes one of the logical conditions that after World War II made so much of innovative art and poetry possible—for example, the music and poetry of John Cage (1912-1992), for whom ambient noises count as art:

And what is your purpose

in writing music? I do not deal

in purposes; I deal with sounds.


sounds are those?  I make

them just as well by sitting quite

still looking for mushrooms.18

Or, perhaps more vigorously, the mundane aesthetics of Claes Oldenberg (b. 1929), a sculptor and performance artist who would place ordinary objects (a large replica of an ice cream cone) in incongruous places (atop a skyscraper):

I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.

I am for an art that grows up not knowing that it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.

I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top.

I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.19

To which one might add some lines from the New York poet Frank O’Hara (1930-1964), who is remembered for his “I did this, I did that” poems:20


here I sit in Jager House

where you got so mad at Gem

for picking on Bob

over a schnitzel

through the window stains the

funny air of spring tumbles

and over the yellow and green

tables into the brew I sip

waiting for Roy….21

And whose everydayness is marked by occasional tribute to the grotesque body:


Wouldn’t it be funny

if The Finger had designed us

to shit just once a week?

all week long we’d get fatter

and fatter and then on Sunday morning

while everyone’s in church

ploop! (p. 351)

Not to mention self-mockery:

It’s so

original, hydrogenic, anthropomorphic, fiscal, post-anti-aesthetic,

 bland, unpicturesque and WilliamCarlosWilliamsian!

it’s definitely not 19th Century, it’s not even Partisan Review, it’s

 new, it must be vanguard (“Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s,” p. 265)

Unfortunately there do not seem to be many owls in O’Hara’s poetry—his preference seems to have been for larks and parakeets—but those with an interest might profitably consult The Owls of Central Park, a volume of photographs, observations, and haikus by Charles F. Kennedy.22

4.Concluding Anecdote

To gain entry into Plato’s Republic the ancients aspired to the true, the good, and the beautiful. Comedy’s classic theme, by contrast, is freedom from constraint, and perhaps especially from philosophical virtues:

i had this liberating thought the other night

imagine that nothing that i write or thought

was good    it was all crummy     and the fact of its

crumminess would somehow free me up from this burden

that i feel to speak to express to say something

meaningful     because i couldnt     and i an i started

to laugh23


1Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2003), p. 252.
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2The museum guide is almost certainly a philosopher of sorts, perhaps in the manner of Simon Critchley, whose treatise On Humour is, in the end, an argument in behalf of the wry witticism against the Rabelaisian guffaw, or “the priority of smiling over laughter” (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 96.
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3William Carew Hazlitt’s classic, Studies in Jocular Literature: A Popular Subject More Closely Considered (London: Elliot Stock, 1890), contains almost no examples in verse.
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4“On the Essence of Laughter,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Maine (London: Phaidon Press, 1964), pp. 160-71.
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6Doggerel is the preference of many poets who make up The Oxford Book of Comic Verse, ed. John Gross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). A poem by John Keats begins as follows:

There was a naughty boy

And a naughty boy was he,

For nothing would he do

But scribble poetry…. (p. 114)

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7The Stuffed Owl (New York: Capricorn Books, 1962), p. 61.
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8“Four Saints in Three Acts” (1929), Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), p. 605.
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9“On the Adequacy of Landscape,” Collected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 243. See also “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” pp. 431-36.
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10“The Owl and the Pussycat,” A Nonsense Anthology, ed. Carolyn Wells (New York: Dolphin Books, n.d.), p. 68.
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11William Carlos Williams, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Selected Poems, ed. Charles Tomlinson (New York: New Directions, 1976), p. 238.
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12Charles Bernstein, “The Lives of Toll Takers,” Dark City (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994), p. 15.
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13“Athenaeum Fragments” (Fr. 238), Philosophical Fragments, trans. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 50.
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14Charles Bernstein, “ms. otis regrets,” With Strings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 112.
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15William Carlos Williams, “Kora in Hell: Improvisations,” Imaginations, ed. Webster Scott (New York: New Directions, 1970), p. 70.
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16Philosophical Investigations, §129, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1953), p. 50e.
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17“The Impossible,” Poetry (July 1957), 250.
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18“’45 For a Speaker,” Silence (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p. 192.
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19“I Am for an Art,” Art in Theory: 1900-1990, ed. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992), p. 728.
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20See Marjorie Perloff, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (Chicago University Press, 1998), esp. pp. 1-30. Perloff’s book was first published in 1977.
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21The Collected Poems, ed. Donald Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 400.
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22(Black Hawk CO: Cerberus Press, 2011). See Kennedy’s website.
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23Charles Bernstein, “G—/,” Content’s Dream: Essays, 1975-1984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986), p. 208.
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