Marty Graham 5:30 p.m., Aug. 29
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Satire Saunters into the Reader! A word on Walter Mencken’s February 24 installment of “S.D. on the Q.T.”
This blog entry started out as a simple comment, a reply to other reader comments on Walter Mencken’s second installment of “S.D. on the Q.T.,” which still seems to invite discussion of its literary form, a bit rare in the pages of the Reader—more or less formal satire of a city "gossip" column. The first installment invoked the ire (or at least, the impatience) of a couple of its objects of gentle fun, who felt the need to write in and remind us that this was indeed satire—and by the way, could the writer and/or Reader editor please let readers know this in future about Mencken’s pieces?... Some readers were outraged by being ‘duped’ into reading half of it as a serious piece (C’mon, people, really? A golf tournament for water conservation?! That should penetrate or perk before coffee), before realizing it was all in fun. --Or was it? That remains to be seen, as the column continues.
Satire camouflages itself coyly, in flirtatious obviousness, or embeds in deeper, more layered fashion, like poetry. It is rare these days that satire does not reveal itself in some obvious, yet indirect way, and is now more likely to hide in film than it is in popular textual forms (a topic for another time). Mencken’s very column’s title “…on the Q.T.” announces itself in a loud stage whisper, the only way satire should ever indicate itself—indirectly, in keeping with its production of figurative language and frequently, absurd analogy, as the aforementioned objects of fun should realize. Satire should never be announced. Should Mencken or his editors have marked or titled any of these pieces with “Satire Ahead” or placed it in a corner marked “Satire,” would be equivalent of having an announcer interrupt a standup routine with disclaimers like “The following monologue contains what may be described as humorous anecdotes, which may be interspersed with puns, one-liners, and gags. The establishment is not liable for the content of this monologue, including any misrepresentation of living persons, places, or events.”
Some readers may object on the grounds that the Reader is not a literary journal, and should not mix genres. But weeklies like the Reader already do juxtapose genres; film, music, theatre and restaurant review with neighborhood stories and reportage (stringers have their own controversies, yes), with opinion (Bauder), with memoir (Brizzolara) with a poetry corner, with all manner of genre for cover stories. Perhaps the idea of straight reportage should be rethunk anyway, with the advent of the stringer story—at least, one might cry, we have the principle that fiction is fiction and news is news. Well, we have issues aplenty with that notion today, whether you are aware of postmodern critical thought or no.
Part of the enjoyment of a piece of writing is being allowed to read and interpret for oneself; no one is looking over your shoulder, telling you what to think, except perhaps a narrator or authorial voice or both—and good writers don’t allow these to bully the reader, unless of course, that is part of the function of the story or novel, or whatever. If the stringer story plays fast and loose with the truth, there’s bound to be another source to consult—multiple sources should probably be consulted in any case. With a play or a poem or story, we need to be left alone to read. Perhaps we read a critical essay beforehand, and perhaps we’ll read one after, but for that space of reading the ‘original’ piece, it is about work—the pleasurable work of reading the text. I don’t really relish someone announcing to me what I’m reading anymore than a crossword puzzler enjoys someone smacking down a finished puzzle in front of her. I ignore the categorizations on the back of the book or in the library of congress, unless I am doing research, and need to use them as quick and handy ways of locating the work: Fiction/mystery/women/bayou…Criticism/Genre/Satire/Irate Readers…
And speaking of a faraway time when horn-rimmed glasses glinted over your shoulder, many of us, upon accessing remaining memory stores from high school, will remember an introduction to the concept of satire via Jonathan Swift’s “Tale of a Tub” or “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.” For ages, writers and satirists (yes, blesséd the day when there used to be folk with this job title!) have quietly submitted works of satire to periodicals of all kinds, or, more common in previous centuries, published them alone. Modestly following in this tradition, Mencken, in my opinion, is attempting to wake up the complacent Reader reader, unused to questioning the forms used by its writers, which are, as in traditional news publications, transparent vehicles meant to aid the digestion of its content. I see Mencken’s work as a way for the Reader to provoke more lively debate on—or at least reaction to—its own content, which, even based on misunderstanding of the intent of the writing or the author, has the potential to be productive.
A commenter on Mencken’s first “Q.T.” remarked that it seemed a lame attempt at being “Onionish” (or like the Onion, a socio-political satirical free weekly available in many large cities, alas not ours) as is borne out by the first item’s title and subtitle:
“Policeman Poet Vows to Kick Some Ass: Coronado Police Department’s Internal Affairs Team on Lookout for Clever Constable Following Discovery of Poem.”
And the comments piled up, some reiterating that an announcement or official editorial stamp of some kind is needed to let us know that we are indeed reading a “fake” news column. The chief of the Coronado Police Dept. felt the need to let us know just that:
“As the chief of the Coronado Police Department, I am disappointed in the Reader for publishing this fictitious story under the guise of “humor” without clarifying that it is false. It is important to note that this phony article is listed as “news” on the Reader’s website. While some may know it was a spoof, some of your readers may not have distinguished fact from fiction. The unfortunate consequence results in undermining the public trust and confidence in those sworn to serve and protect them. In the future, we hope the Reader will use better judgment when selecting content for this section of its publication.
Louis J. Scanlon,
Coronado Police Department”
Patrick Daugherty’s “Sporting Box” often satirizes its subjects, apparently quietly enough so as not to invoke the same kind of onerous reaction as “Q.T.,” which waltzes in and playfully slaps our faces (without the consequences of an assault charge, happily). Some commentators are irked by the first story for reasons of content found offensive rather than funny, and some still seem confused by the idea of satire.
In the critical breakdown that follows, I’ll be speaking to the latter two issues here, and hope that readers will join in and agree, disagree, and fill in the informational/interpretive gaps, as this piece is itself, as I said, not much more than a weedy, blowsy, overgrown comment.
Satire works strongly on irony and hyperbole, the former in terms of affirmation or evocation of ideas through an overt presentation as 'truth' or reality, their very opposites. Hyperbole, being exaggeration of events or ideas, is often necessary as a device of satire because it allows one to pick up on the ridiculous or absurd qualities of the irony, of the equation of opposites, or valorization of something clearly undeserving or unworthy.
The latter shows up right away with the idea of a poet cop, and an "internal investigation" being conducted into the poem as it reads, is your first clue that this is satire--or at the least, it should clue in the reader that it is suspect.
What is funny is obviously subjective, but I can say I found it chuckle-funny when it came to the Rae Armantrout "quotation." The reader does not necessarily need to understand that UCSD Literature Dept. professor and poet Ray Armantrout is not known exactly for effusiveness, and can respond to the wry funniness of the characterization of the poem as:
“rhythmically strong, not overly slavish to the original, and frankly terrifying.”
“Frankly terrifying,” of course, because the poem is pretty bad; it exists at the center of Mencken’s satire, but because it must encapsulate all that it does conceptually and intellectually, it is understandably clumsy in and of itself as it extends spokes outward in multiple ironic directions. Think of a commercial or a joke, or an episode of the Simpsons which, in setting up a punch line uses really stupid, unlikely, or aesthetically unpleasing imagery that yet seems absolutely necessary.
To continue: There is funny in the deadpan, earnest way the cops then perform a criminal "investigation" of a poem. Not only are they taking deadly seriously an anonymous posting of a poem on an office corkboard, these cops of course grasp the concepts of metaphor and analogy, as they read the situation of the gun and taser to recall an event not mentioned in the poem (Foley’s confrontation and arrest), but present in figurative language.
Funnier: The device of the satire-within-a-satire is used here, because the anonymous cop's poem is a satirical (but likely unintended) spoof on another poem (to be dealt with below). Now I had to look up the details of this event of the gun and taser, which gave me further insight into the author’s use of satire:
"Officers involved in the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity, speculated that the “first they came for my gun” line may be a reference to the $5.5 million settlement the City paid to ex-Charger Steve Foley in 2008."
The investigators note (without knowing they are doing so) that the structure of the poem is also put into service of the satire, in which each line begins with a renewal of the same action of someone coming for you: “First they came… then they came…etc” recalls the original series of events with Steve Foley and the officer, Aaron Mansker, which reads like some kind of Keystone cop scenario.
Apparently Foley and his companion stop the car THREE times at Mansker’s command, once at a light, and twice only to drive off twice while he stood there. The fourth time, Mansker has by this time decided to give up the chase, because he has no back up (even after calling for it), but then, apparently while calling, he accidentally drives into Foley’s cul-de-sac, and feels ‘trapped’ there by Foley. Then, of course, after some more ridiculous antics, in which Foley’s companion nearly runs over Mansker by accident, the very unfunny shooting happens.
Some here seem to object to the use of the event of the shooting (Cuddle and possibly maninthemirror) at all in an irreverent, comedic way, but may also be referencing the fact that the Foley shooting is a racialized event. We can discuss this further, but here, I’m limiting this ‘investigation’ to the ironical subtexts by which law enforcement is satirized, and satirizes Mansker’s position as aggressor/vigilante/victim/poet/clown in a way that to me, makes it ‘ok.’
As the "reporter" of this article notes, the original poem "warns against inaction in the face of tyranny." The idea of "tyranny" is here hyperbolized in service of the author's intent, though the anonymous cop would not have intended to do so, being likely as earnest in his "adaptation" of the original poem's ideas as the investigators are as regards the content of the spoof poem (another device: embedded irony).
The original poem is meant to invoke the insidious way a people may become oppressed by a tyrannical government, as personal liberties are taken one by one. Yet here, we have the warning spoken by the one who would be the actual oppressor (the anonymous writer of the poem obviously supposed to be Mansker), who, in effect, harasses Foley. But the poet is trying to present himself as a victim. The actual victim in the situation would really be Foley, a Chargers football player and someone celebrated by society as a hero, who wouldn't seem to need to protest "tyranny." Yet he does seem to have such a case, at least from what I’ve read hastily about it this evening (correct me anyone, if I have any of the facts wrong, or if there is more to it to consider).
And there is more to consider--as refriedgringo points out--here is a late addition to this essay, but important to note:
"The writer's fictional premise is that a Coronado cop wrote a poem based on the work of an anti-Nazi theologian. A Coronado cop fashioning a poem based on the words of Niemöller? The only thing more funny than that would be finding a recording of George Wallace reciting a speech by Martin Luther King"
Very well put, as usual, gringo. So now we have another literary device employed here, of ironic reversal (of roles) with “Mansker” the cop--again-- as victim, but with also the ironic subtext of the original being written by none other than an anti-Nazi theologian. Thus “Mansker” has satirized himself through multiple subtextual references by writing the poem, and to add to this effect-- he does not sign it; his complaint remains anonymous. The original poem tries to incite courage in the oppressed to rise up and demand his rights—yet this guy isn’t even courageous enough to sign his own name to his own words.
As an aside, perhaps it is all the more ironic that Chief Scanlon's official--or officious, depending upon what side you take--letter to the Reader asking that future work be 'identified' as fact or fiction is signed by Scanlon yet posted by an "mlawton," whom CuddleFish has identified as "Commander Lawton." Hmmm. More fun with the signature, which has a rich history in plays and works of comedy concerning mistaken identity, but also as a trope working at deeper levels of writing that I cannot go into here (see the work of Jacques Derrida for more on the 'name' and signature in relation to the linguistic 'sign').
Finally, that a keystone cop criminal investigation takes the ironic place of a literary critique (which is often like an investigation, but of a wholly different kind), makes me wonder if this piece could be the author's (Mencken's) response to the brouhaha started here in the online commentary over the last piece, in terms of whether or not a San Diego audience might be capable of recognizing satire, and whether or not his work should be clearly labeled as such.
Perhaps the author will respond, and let us know? :)
More like this:
- San Diego Poetry Society announces its 2012 award for Best Local Poem — Dec. 13, 2012
- Cops in the News — Dec. 19, 2007
- Getting Their Stories Straight — Sept. 21, 2006
- In And Out Of Cars — Sept. 7, 2006
- Thomas Lux's The Cradle Place — April 8, 2004