|The Grotesque in Poetry: Some Thoughts Toward A Theory
by Jeremy Brown
The Grotesque in Children's Literature by Susie Stephens
G. K. Chesterton
J. P. Donleavy
E. T. A. Hoffmann
H. P. Lovecraft
Edgar Allan Poe
John Addington Symonds
Middle Tennessee State University
The Grotesque in Poetry: Some Thoughts Toward A Theory
The grotesque as a stylistic form presents many difficulties to consideration. First, it intersects many other stylistic variations such as comedy, parody, caricature, horror, the bizarre, tragedy, and the absurd. To make things more complicated, the grotesque is often confused by means of its name, with the common usage of the word, meaning something horrible or distorted. Thus, it becomes hard to identify the grotesque without wishing to classify all distortion as grotesque. A rough definition of the grotesque could be divided into the Baktinian grotesque, the grotesque of life affirmation, and the dark Swiftian grotesque of life denial. The former might be defined as any literary form, which does not hold to a single form, which affirms or allows the possibility for the affirmation of life, and at the same time disjoins the reader from the world he or she is acquainted with personally. The dark grotesque might be defined as distortion meant to show the corruption or terror of life, the violent assault upon the reader’s sensibility, the ripping of the veils of illusion from our eyes, not for a vision of God’s grace, but of the devil’s dominion. They are inseparable, and sometimes can be found in the same text.
The grotesque starts in art, and gradually expands into other areas. Of course, like all stylistic ideas, the grotesque has found expression before its identification and classification by mere academics. Thus, we find truly grotesque moments in all the world’s literature. However, the grotesque seems more suited to poetry in many ways, as poetry’s already distorted format, its condensation of ideas and layering of meanings, lends itself to the expression of the grotesque. Most often, a poem’s structure, if grotesque, will lend itself to the celebratory mode; if the content is grotesque, then it will become the dark destructive mode.
Poetry by its very nature lends itself to the grotesque. Poetry is a condensation of language into strictly adhered to forms--even free verse strictly adheres to no given form. This compression and odd constructions gives poetry a bazar quality before content is examined. Iambic pentameter, though we are told it is the rhythm of natural speech, seems awkward and uncouth in all but the most skilled hands. Rhyming, a convention which until recently had been dominant, gives poetry a singsong childish quality which separates its great themes from the serious and weighty prose of philosophy. However, poetry is the oldest form of literature and remains one of the most influential. If any literary form can be said to be inherently grotesque, it is poetry, birthed as it was in ages where the grotesque was normative and unremarkable.
One might argue successfully that almost all modernist poetry is grotesque. The explorations of form and experiments performed by the moderns caused poetry to take radical new directions. However, the grotesque flourishes even before this, as previously noted. One sees in Homer the terrible scene where Odysseus calls Tiresias with blood magic in the halls of Hades. Also, in the Odyssey, the escape from Polyphemus by means of being symbolically birthed by the sheep of the cyclops. Dante too describes horrors in The Inferno which truly disturb the imaginative reader. However, in most cases before the eighteenth century, this idea of the grotesque was accepted. It is only through our perceptually alien eyes that we can see these scenes as grotesque. Our ignorance of the language makes it sound ugly to us. It is when the Romantics begin subverting the poetry of the Neoclassical Age that poetry truly finds a structurally grotesque form.
Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience are truly grotesque, not only in their blood thirsty denouncement of organized religion and state, but also in the form. By looking at the same situation from two vantages, Blake achieved much the same effect as Dali does with his stereoscopic paintings. We see more clearly, in some cases more clearly than we wish, after Blake gives us a metaphorical depth perception with his twinned vision. In other works, such as the Book of Thel, Blake uses the religious language of the King James Bible to accomplish a grotesquery of mood as the maiden wanders talking to clumps of earth and others. Perhaps the best example of the celebratory grotesque, based entirely on structure as much on theme, would be Byron’s Don Juan. Its episodic exploration of the joys of the poor Juan catapults the reader into some truly grotesque situations. Not to mention, Byron’s use of language. The rhyming in Juan is exceptionally good and horribly done — "Intellectual and hen pecked you all" perhaps being the worst offender. (Canto I)
With the moderns, examples grow too numerous to count. One should note E. E. Cummings’ work with its picture forms and playful language. Also, titles like "The Way to Hump A Cow is Not" are both suggestive and intriguing while drawing the reader into unexpected twists of the poet’s craft. Pound’s Cantos are often very grotesque, in form if nothing else. The sudden shift from Homeric emulation to Confucian wisdom to personal essay, are very disconcerting and yet effective. H.D.’s small imagistic poems often achieve a celebratory grotesque as many focus on the body or the body’s reaction to surroundings. The poem "Heat" is suffocating in both its form and invigorating in its small epiphany. Wallace Stevens in "The Comedian as the Letter C" demonstrates his own form of celebratory grotesque, where even wood rot can become a fact to cherish and put into poems. Mary Ann Morre’s Pangolan, with its celebration of the animal over the human, and yet, equation of the animal’s condition with that of the human, is very disturbing and almost Bosh-like in its intricacy.
The dark grotesque, like the celebratory, has existed since time immemorial. Its terrible beauty graces Beowulf and lends much the terrible splendor to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. However, again, not until the eighteenth century does it truly gain its own authority. Swift’s use of it in poems decrying the practices of his time, and some of Pope’s more gently savage sections in Rape of the Lock are poignant in their double vision. Again, Blake comes to mind with "Marriage of Heaven and Hell" where the dark proverbs of Hell belie their fragmented grotesque appearance by bane horrors when contemplated as a whole. Coleridge’s "Cristobel", and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" too, have incredibly grotesque scenes. Shelley’s "Ozzymandeus" with its vast unexplored desert scape pierced only by fallen grandeur stirs both horror and a reaction of pity or pride of oneself and one’s culture which like the great king thinks of itself as immortal. Byron in Cain and Manfred brings this grotesque more directly to the fore, using it as temptation or as scenery for the mental horrors the characters contemplate. Browning’s "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", and even, "The Pied Piper of Hamlin," carries this grotesqueness into the Victorian age. Christina Rosetti’s "Goblin Market" has the terrible wrongness and the distortion of what the reader sees in it as well.
With the moderns, the dark grotesque gains its voice once more however. Eliot in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" explores not only stylistic grotesque but also the mental grotesque of indecision. Gertrude Stein’s poems, while structurally suggesting the celebratory grotesque more often than not, leave the reader with the dark distortion of a dark grotesque. Williams in his bleak details often achieves this dark grotesque by what seems accident. The most prominent example of this is "The Red Wheelbarrow." However one wishes to interpret the piece, the icon of a lone red wheelbarrow standing amid chickens is a strange distortion of the real when foregrounded. Stevens’ "The Emperor of Ice Cream" also follows this pattern. In addition, one might add Sylvia Plath’s poem "Daddy."
Occasionally a piece will exhibit characteristics of both light and dark grotesque. As has been earlier noted, many of the moderns did this. Perhaps the best example would be Eliot’s The Waste Land. Its structure is grotesque, a montage, an ever shifting Tartaros of images, allusions, and characters. However, its content for the most part is the dark destructive grotesque that peeks beyond the real to find nothingness then must flee both real and nothingness to stay, however temporarily, sane. The idea of footnotes to a poem, some might argue, is grotesque in and of itself.
The grotesque in poetry can not be summed up in a paper of this length. The most that can be done is the demonstration of a theory. The structurally grotesque, a poem whose form and appearance suggests a radical cheating of our expectations of a poem, often seems to be celebratory. Many poems are standard poems but with destructively grotesque contents. Neither rule can be hard or fast. Add to this, the idea, touched on earlier of the perceptually grotesque, such as Dante or Homer, and we have three possibilities. However, these tools seem useful in discussing the grotesque in poetry. Perhaps, some of these ideas might apply to other forms of the grotesque as well. As always, both poetry and the grotesque are protean entities that defy classification or stasis. They shift, they change, they flow into new forms--they become grotesque through mere existence.