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Friday, December 23, 2005

The sort of joke you find in hymns

Posted by John Holbo on 12/23/05 at 10:30 PM

I was happy to pick up a copy of Empson’s Argufying, for $5. From a review of George Rylands, Words and Poetry, in Granta, 11 May, 1928:

There is a charming introduction by Lytton Strachey, about Poetry being written with words, but it is a tiresome dogma; he would at once see through something a trifle more sophisticated, and there seems to be nobody who is teased when it is brought forward. In fact, all the bad poetry of the moment is written with words; I believe myself poetry is written with the sort of joke you find in hymns. (p. 69)

It takes me back to this fine, fine page at Pseudopodium. Suppose you were asked to explain what, exactly, Empson means by ‘the sort of joke you find in hymns’. What would you say?

Merry X-Mas, everyone!


Comments

I don’t have a response to the above beyond that it reminded me of something I read in Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company about James Joyce and Ezra Pound (p. 176):

Joyce was seriously wounded by Ezra’s contemptuous remark on receiving the little volume of Pomes Penyeach that it was “the sort of poetry to be kept in the family Bible.”

By theorist on 12/24/05 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have an inadequate response to the above. Needless to say, it’s a very subtle joke, something along the lines of “least possible difference,” a favorite topic of mine.

Rather than explain, I’ll throw out a red herring. I think it’s the same kind of joke you find in Wittgenstein. But I can’t find a good example of one of those. The only one I can remember (from _On_Certainty_) is too obvious: “I am sitting in a garden with a philosopher. He keeps saying, ‘I know that that’s a tree’ while pointing at a nearby tree. A third party comes up, & I tell him, ‘He’s not crazy: We’re only philosophizing.’”

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 12/24/05 at 02:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d say it’s more written with the sort of faith you find in honky tonks, but I wasn’t raised C of E.

“Good King Sauerkraut, LOOK OUT!
On yo’ feets uneven,
Whilst the snoo lay ‘roun’ about...”

By Ray Davis on 12/24/05 at 03:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s “snoo”?

By ben wolfson on 12/24/05 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know, what’s “snoo” w/you?

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 12/24/05 at 05:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Was it Edna St Vincent Millay who said poetry is just one damn word after another?

By nnyhav on 12/24/05 at 09:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The sort of joke that can be found in hymns would be such absurdly unsupported notions as the belief in divine Providence &etc.

I’d agree that poetry is properly composed of these.

Probably Empson didn’t mean this, and only managed to come up to my personal level of profundity by accident. Vague but erudite persons often do this, and take all sorts of credit after the fact, to my great annoyance.

By scriblerus on 12/27/05 at 03:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, Empson was such a fierce atheist that this is quite a plausible interpretation. Namely, that religion is a joke.

I’m suddenly wondering whether Asimov’s short story “Jokester” could be another source of insight into what Empson might have had in mind.

By John Holbo on 12/27/05 at 04:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That was my interpretation as well.

By Ray Davis on 12/27/05 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Which one? Atheistic or Asimovian? Or both?

By John Holbo on 12/27/05 at 04:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Atheistic. (As I hinted, though, I think Empson was looking in the wrong end of his gift horse.) Shamefully, I don’t remember the Asimov story.

By Ray Davis on 12/27/05 at 05:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are different versions of the following epigram, but allegedly Degas ("the" Degas) wanted to write a poem and complained to his friend Stephane Mallarme that it wasn’t going well and he couldn’t express his ideas. Thereupon:

“Poetry isn’t made out of ideas; it is made out of words.”—Mallarme

I’m not sure there’s a contradiction, because it’s more interesting to insist upon this than to decide on one doctrine or the other.

By scriblerus on 12/27/05 at 06:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s a tough one to answer, I would probably need to study up on hymns, poetry and empson before I could get a real joke answer back :)

By Harry on 03/10/09 at 07:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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