By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, June 5, 2005
A great parody is a great tribute: To be considered worth imitating and worth laughing at is a compliment. Moreover, to be truly seen and understood is close to the pinnacle for a work of art, and no critical essay can see and understand as deeply as the best parodies.
There's an additional thrill for the reader if the object being parodied has not seemed ridiculous -- until the parody wakens the sleepy perception that, yes, even a charming and indelible work may have its ridiculous aspects. Here is a fine and famous poem by William Carlos Williams (1893-1963):
This Is Just to Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
Williams's insouciance and offhand apology, his delight in his own capricious taste, and, underlying all of that, a certain male, maybe even professional, assurance -- these qualities do not diminish the poem. Still, it is bracing to notice them here and in Williams's other work. The late Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) leads us, hilariously, to take such notice. Somehow, substituting long lines for short ones, while keeping some of the rhythms, is another satisfying part of the joke:
Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do and its wooden beams were so inviting.
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.
I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.
Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am a doctor.
I really like the Poet's Choice in the Washington Post Book Review every Sunday. The poems are currently being presented by Robert Pinsky; they are always worth reading. I'm going to post last Sunday's article here because I love the poems, and because I don't know how long they are going to stay up: