Dark Whimsy

(A post that started months ago as I realised my creative attention had moved for the time being toward something between the poem and the prose poem. These pieces arose from my engagement with social media rather than the conventional frame of magazine submission or commission, and they kept me writing – to put it crudely – while I got through a difficult period. I wanted to think about new modes not as a substitute for the poem, but as, in some ways, successors to it, and that helped me to discuss a particular approach to humour rather than wit in my work in general.)

I was trying to explain my Twitter prose pieces at one point as word cartoons – they have something of the ephemerality of the strip cartoon, the daily-ness rather than disposability per se, and therefore they might aspire to something of that thematic freedom, that chance to explore every variation which we see over the decades with, say, Herriman’s Krazy Kat.

Then I realised that, in order to argue this, I’d have to define whimsy so that it wasn’t a simplistic negative, but a mode of access to absurdism of both the good old British as well as the European varieties. This would, I supposed, be like my attempts to reclaim terms like ‘procrastination’ or ‘nostalgia’.

And by then my argument had already lost the lightness I think of as one of the things I’m aiming at in such pieces in the first place… As James Finlayson used to say, in that manner which inspired the writers of The Simpsons, ‘D’ohhhhh!!!’

To plough on deeper into the self-reflexiveness, what I think I’ve been trying to do for some years is to replace camp (which for me as a grinchy Scot still has too much of an English upper class connotation, albeit one that parodies that class) with whimsy (which clearly has some of the same sort of connotations, but seems to me more determined to undermine it). Part of that choice was no doubt driven by my heterosexuality, part of it by my outsiderness – while friends were happy to position themselves within a gay or at least theatrical aestheticism, and would cite Coward or Wilde, Bowie or Morrissey, I found myself thinking more of Carroll and Lear, but also Milligan and Ivor Cutler.

I’m interested in that vein of absurdist satire which begins in the trauma of war with The Wipers Times, moves through to an anti-establishment take in the Goons, Pete and Dud (and Derek and Clive), Monty Python and The Goodies, and then rejoices in the reappropriated surrealism of Reeves and Mortimer or The Mighty Boosh. US counterculture comics were full of it, and to the likes of Crumb and The Flaming Carrot, I’d add the line that runs from Herriman to Jim Woodring’s Frank. In fiction it’s found as much in wierd fantasy as Kafka or Bruno Schulz, in that strain that links Lovecraft and Ashton Smith to Murakami and Michal Ajvaz.

It is effectively a dark whimsy, and I recognise its edge in Jan Svankmajer, and its lightness as far afield as Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Hayao Miyazaki.

Michel Gondry’s work in particular exemplifies a shift from storytelling per se to how a story is told which seems at the heart of dark whimsy. His work is less about the story as a necessary force derived from realism and inexorably driving the characters to their destinies, and more about the aesthetic decisions you can take in depicting such a journey. It almost seems that narrative is less important than narrative figures and devices – an approach to the story arc which resembles the Baroque’s way with the architecture of the arch. And yet it’s not arch, in the Rococo sense, or in the way a camp rebelling would be, or as, say, John Ashbery’s approach to traditional form (or indeed the traditional pronoun ‘I’) is. It’s just found a new-ish way of telling.

The ‘story’ of Mood Indigo, for instance, is an Orphic myth of the loss of the beloved which is reconfigured by the film (and the original book)’s fecund generation of imagery. We already ‘know’ what’s going to happen – as we do with many stories – so most of our attention is transferred instead to the emotive impact of detail. All this intense, frenetic invention is foreground, a sort of flattening of ‘reality’ to resemble the comic and the cartoon, but this is not to claim the film (or book) is affectless.

On the contrary, I found it moving precisely because our presumption that the lightness of approach must be inadequate to deal with the darkening of mood was being tested. Yes, we don’t know how to handle such matters as the mortality of those we love, and assuming conventional aesthetic norms will help, focussed as they are around tragic necessity, is certainly to pay lip service to Aristotelian catharsis, but that is not to make it an inevitable choice.

Something opens up to us when we don’t rely on an idea of characterisation that puts its inventiveness into backstory rather than stylistic choices about imagery or framing. The pictorial is aligned to the poetic in that both acknowledge symbolism arises from the immediacy of the senses as much as from the depths of memory. Wes Anderson’s work in particular returns again and again to this equivalence.

In a similar sense, I found it a real liberation when I began to think of the poem as a cartoon in words, an animation. I sometimes find it more useful to think of stanzas as panels rather than as paragraphs, and of metaphors as visual (or at least sensory) accompaniments to the ‘text’ rather than as a set of statements or rhetorical structures. The analogies may not be exact, but they still help me.

But basically I like the way cartoons get to allude in a compressed way to all sorts of other cultural modes, but still (or ‘and therefore’) play around with tone in such a free (not necessarily comic) way: that’s the sort of plasticity I love in poetry. Thinking in terms of cartoons gets me out of what feels monotonous or monologic about the lyric – that it’s this perfectible voice all poetry should aspire to. Perfection in this sense hints at narrative consistency as much as at aesthetic or theoretical coherence. It might not itself be a pompous concept, but the attitude toward it can often feel like it is. Whereas a cartoon can require a huge amount of work and just look wild, or be incredibly controlled yet, morally, off the wall: its aesthetic just feels more open.

What it feels like when it’s working is something like late Philip Guston when, after years of abstraction, he turns to figurative work but it comes over as cartoonish, and you realise it’s because he knows that the cultural division between art and the cartoon isn’t there any more, the division between the abstract and the figurative isn’t there; that the distinction between the modern and Renaissance definitions of ‘cartoon’ no longer holds, and pretty soon the idea of division itself will be as much of a nostalgia as the things it’s supposed to separate off.

And as soon as you realise that, everything’s back again – art, cartoon, abstraction, figurative stuff, and the divisions between things. It’s just that they’ve become something else, something completely alien to us, and nobody really knows what they mean anymore.

Except for the nostalgia they induce, a concept which now means what it always did, though nobody noticed: the returning pain. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the pain of not being able to return, or the pain of having returned, it’s returned to us as pain for the simple reason we no longer feel at home where we are, because we can see our way toward a way of being that reconfigures our old idea of ‘home’ itself.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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