No 50 - September 2004
Highly Offensive Satire
At last year’s Torbay Festival of Poetry I attended a session described as “More About Satire” and came away disappointed. Let me state straight away that my negative feelings were not a comment on the session’s two poets – Ann Drysdale and John Whitworth. I dutifully purchased one each of their Peterloo collections from the egregious Harry Chambers and found them greatly entertaining: Whitworth is a witty rhymester of the first order despite being praised by Les Murray (Ouch!) and Ann seems to me to go straight to the heart and nerve ends of satire in a poem like “Waiting to Sign On” with its comparison of job-seeking to an infant’s potty performance:
Stand in the queue and listen. You will hear it
Plopping disconsolately at random intervals –
Job. Job-job-job. Job. Job.
No, what disappointed me was my own enjoyment. I should have been offended, disgusted, outraged instead of which I laughed with the rest of the audience and counted this a good-natured, quality contribution to the Festival. So what has happened to satire? Is it now the same thing as comic poetry: does satire have to make you laugh? Has it been blunted by over-use or, contrarywise, by the timidity of editors and poets? Or has satire been smothered by the thick strata of today’s personalised and portentous lyrics so that even a Hans Christian Andersen princess would fail to feel its sharpness? I say “portentous” deliberately – I was much taken by an analysis of the state of current writing by Joseph S. Salemi of New York in which he inveighed against “Portentous Hush”, the inflated self-importance and vacuous inwardlooking high seriousness of so much contemporary poetry, and advised poets to “write as much satirical, comic, and erotic verse as you can, and make sure that it is highly offensive to somebody” (Dark Horse, vol. 16). “Highly offensive” – now that’s more like it!
Has satire lost its edge? To find out, I carried out my own survey
of the poems published in seven chosen-at-random literary journals,
from the slim and prestigious to the fatter and less discriminating, in
the South Bank’s Poetry Library. My scrupulously non-scientific survey revealed that 32% of the 280 poems surveyed could be categorised as personal/reflective/elegiac, 24% were descriptive, 14% dealt with narrative or historical themes, 13% were philosophical/reflective/ironic, 11% were attempts at comedy or just quirky and 3% each were satirical or about love. Poems that could be described as religious or erotic scarcely registered; but if there had been a ‘geriatric’ category it would have been overcrowded. Fathers and grandfathers loomed large in the elegies while mothers were conspicuous by their absence, even compared with aunts. Cancer was another favoured subject. Descriptive poems demonstrated a definite bias towards dampness, with swans, seals and slugs, peat bogs and mudflats all responsible for vigorous verse (though as yet no mention of cockle pickers or gangmasters).
Before considering whether Morecombe cocklepickers or Iraq or
Blair ought to be subjects for satire, we must have a few definitions.
According to the Oxford dictionary (the big one, the OED) satire was “in early use a discursive composition in verse treating of a variety of subjects, in classical use a poem in which prevalent follies or vices are assailed with ridicule or with serious denunciation”. From this I would highlight “verse” (since satire seems to have been ours first before novelists or playwrights appropriated it), “assailed” and “ridicule”. In other words, you cannot go gently up to your subject and invite it to laugh along with you: satire is a form of attack and it makes a laughing stock of its victim.
By this definition, even the 3% or seven poems in our survey of
seven magazines are not all true satires. In fact, four of the seven
appeared in Acumen 49 whose editor apparently has fewer objections to contemporary references than her colleagues: thus Al Qaeda, weapons of mass destruction, the late Dr. David Kelly, Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair all make their appearances. There is even a refrain: “I’m a poet. For god’s sake get me out of here!” All very topical and, for the most part, amusing but neither quality qualifies these poems as satires. Without wishing to patronise the poets, what they have written is surely “light verse” which does not assail the subject or make it ridiculous. Satire needs to draw blood. There is something cruel about it, or at least deeply antipathetic: ridicule and contempt are close relatives.
What of the other three thrown up in my survey? One of them, in
Ambit 176, is “Exequy for a Citizen” by Jim Greenhalf which is really an elegy with bite:
Chisel his National Insurance number
on the slab marking the final spot,
and add: He served his sentence
with gathering pace then came to a full stop.
The other two are parodies – parody is a distinguished but free-wheeling platoon in the satirical army. Herbert Lomas’s “Anyway” is a telling but quite gentle assault on its subject, conveniently identified in the subtitle “Just a bash at Ashbury” (London Magazine, April/May 2004). On the other hand, in Ambit 176 Danielle Hope joins forces with her mentor to aim sharp ironies at the government and an unnamed contracting company (whose identity we all know) in a poem entitled “Potters Bar (after Auden)”:
This is the accountant doubting the order
totting the costs of repairing disorder
faxing his boss for a second contractor
who passed it to Bloggs of Little Senshester.
Danielle’s poem is well focused and definitely not comedy – nor are Ann Drysdale’s or Jim Greehalf ’s. Nor was Swift’s modest proposal that a little cannibalism would help ease Ireland’s problem of rural destitution. The sharpest satires are not at all funny: indeed humour – being a convivial mood – gets in the way of real satire.
By and large, poets and editors steer clear of topicalities. They
feel apparently that these are best left to journalists or cartoonists (The Guardian’s savagely satirical Steve Bell) or filmakers (the whiskery Michael Moore). Topical poems soon pass their sell-by dates, given the months for which many editors keep poems in their in-trays or floating around on the floor! Fear of Britain’s horrendous libel laws may also play a part. More than any other factor, there is the flood tide of descriptive/personal/lyrical poetry which beats upon an editor’s desk and, since every editor knows that his or her readers really like that sort of thing (and write it!), political or topical satire becomes marginalised. It takes an anthology, like Klaonica: Poems for Bosnia, edited by Ken Smith and Judi Benson (Bloodaxe, 1993) to harvest a good crop of political satire. Will there be a successor for Iraq or the Gaza Strip or has the muse been anaesthetised by our daily dose of horror stories?
Social satire fares somewhat better than political satire but seems
to be in a regressive mode. A whole generation of satirists – collaborators or at least contemporaries of Monty Python and That Was The Week That Was – has passed on. Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Gavin Ewart are all dead, John Fuller has taken to journalism, Christopher Logue has exchanged satire for Homer and Peter Porter, the champion of satire in the ‘swinging sixties’, has become sombre and meditative. It may also be a sign of the times. The twenty-first century has begun in a multi-cultural, multi-facetted, multi-everything ethos, and the right of everyone to be and do their own thing is hereby recognised. William Oxley, who chaired the Torbay Festival session cited above, maintained that “political correctness” was killing satire. I don’t think this is so, for I think the fault lies in ourselves rather than society. But satire does gain its sharpness, its bite from a clear and conscious point of view and that is so often lacking in present day poetry.
We live in an age not unlike that inhabited by Swift and Pope, where property is paramount, mendacity so common it really deserves its own Ministry, and opposition is compromised by political patronage or just ineffectual. Is it possible that the age will produce poetry of satire, that a future festival session about satire will make me squirm – and even make its victims react? I would like to think so. Earlier this year, the Nobel Prize winning playwright Dario Fo learned that a rightwing MP intended to prosecute him for lampooning his Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. “What is satire coming to when this sort of thing can happen?” asked Dario. What indeed?
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