by the Tripadvisor-type concern for comfort — just think, urges the voice in the poem, of the drawbacks! Drowning will expose you to ‘damp’; razors tend to cause pain. Handling a gun will only bring an unwelcome tussle with the police. Not once does the voice mention the true drawback, which is death. The poem manages to be both taboo-breaking and euphemistic.
How delicately, indeed, Parker steps around potential goriness. No mention of ‘hanging yourself’ or ‘slitting your wrists’: it is the guns and the rope themselves that have agency. The poem makes us smile even as it offers a touching insight into the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness that precedes self-harm.
It was the perfect line to use as the title of her biography: ‘You might as well live’. With all the force of a punchline, Parker’s brilliant last line turns conventional thinking on its head. Life is the last resort, not suicide. It’s here in the volte, the sudden turnaround, the twist that often occurs in the second half or even the last line of a poem, that we are jolted by the hidden spring of wit: surprise.
When a new person joins my poetry workshop in Cape Town, I’m always keen to see evidence of wit. I try to encourage irreverence and surprise with exercises like these:
a) Write a poem summarising a subject usually considered more suited to treatises: the Bible, birth, guilt, hope, evolution, the decline of morality.
b) Take the idea of a CV, but twist it into a poetic shape.
c) Briefly list different ways of breaking up a marriage.
d) Complete the previous exercise without using the words ‘marriage’, ‘divorce’ or ‘relationship’.
e) Begin a poem with the words ‘No one in my family has ever …’
f) Write a poem the title of which is longer than the poem itself. Do not use this instruction as your title.
g) Write a poem in which only the last two lines rhyme.
h) End a poem with the line: ‘This is just a poem’.
Why labour away at exercises, though, if wit is, as Cicero had it, ‘assuredly an endowment of nature’? Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker: wit seems more a function of a particular type of personality — a bold, outspoken nature unhampered by inhibition, fear of censure or tired ideas. Wit may not be teachable, but as both Wilde and Parker proved, it can be honed by keeping witty company. Friends with verbal rapiers permanently drawn drive one to an equally quick riposte, a matching bon mot. Rubbing shoulders with raconteurs is most likely to happen in a city — there aren’t enough sparring partners in the countryside. That, at least, was the advice of ancient Roman writers of rhetorical primers. It was their praise for ‘urbanitas’ that ultimately brought us the notion of ‘urbane wit’. City streets have no truck with wit’s enemies: earnestness, stuffiness, preconception, tedium. Streets are loci of spontaneity, surprise, outrageousness and the surreal; they throw up the anomalies and incongruities that nourish an ironic frame of mind. Think of Mary Karr’s ‘A Perfect Mess’, a poem that finds in the sight of an umbrella cortege accompanying a baby grand down Ninth Avenue in a thunderstorm (what is it about mirth and moving pianos?) ‘a scene from some unwritten opera,/the sails of some vast armada’. Even funnier is the contextual irony provided by Karr’s admission, in a Q&A about the poem, that ‘in reality, it’s a daily spiritual exercise not to want to mow down my fellow citizens with a machine gun’.
Even when streets are dull, nothing more than bad weather and traffic, they aren’t. Think of Frank O’Hara’s sublimely breathless ‘Lana Turner has collapsed’ (one of his ‘lunch poems’). Poems like these prove Camus’ assertion that ‘at any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face’.
Another poetry exercise, then: Write a poem after returning from a walk on a busy street. If you have seen something insignificant, speak of it in a grand way; if you have seen something significant, speak of it slightingly.
Wit, you see, does not respect hierarchies. It loves to exalt the humble (Matt Harvey’s elaborate praise poem to a tea bag begins ‘You are four-cornered star, shining rustily in hot water’) and to demote the exalted. For any number of article