Following is a guest post by Morbid Anatomy Museum A.J. Mell docent on the mid-20th century phenomenon of "sick humor," as inspired by The Penguin Book of Sick Verse, a book which he suggested for (and which now resides in) the Morbid Anatomy Library. Hope you enjoy!
The Return of the Repressed: Sick Humor from Both Sides of the Atlantic
By A.J. Mell
Among the obscure jewels to be found in the Morbid Anatomy Library is The Penguin Book of Sick Verse, a British poetry anthology which never came out in America and hasn’t been reissued since its publication in 1963.
I first learned about it through a passing reference in Rob Young’s history of the British folk-rock movement, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Faber and Faber, 2011). Apparently the collection was a favorite of Fairport Convention founder Richard Thompson, whose own mordant lyrics might fit nicely into an updated edition. (He also set music to one of the book’s offerings, George Painter’s “The Lobster,” which appears on Fairport’s eponymous debut album.) Inspired by the irresistible title and the imprimatur of one of my musical heroes, I sought the book out online and found a well-seasoned but readable copy for about fifteen bucks.
How sick is it? Well, rather than quote specific poems, I’ll list some favorite entries from the index of first lines, to give an idea of the tone:
A ghost of a mouldy larder is one thingAh, dog. Here is my boot. Does it stink good?I shall never get out of this! There are two of me nowIn sad and ashie weeds I sighInert in his chairIt is this deep blankness is the real thing strangeLast night, on coughing slightly with sharp painMy head is bald, my breath is badO hideous little bat, the size of snotSometimes just being alone seems the bad thingThe mad girl with the staring eyes and long white fingersWhen I died the devils tortured me with icepicks and pliers
And so on. The book contains no poems in translation, so seemingly obvious candidates like Baudelaire make no appearance, but editor George MacBeth drew broadly and deeply from the miasmic corners of British and American literature with satisfying results. The collection spans the Elizabethan era to the mid-20th century, and is helpfully arranged into eight sections: Illness, Mental Breakdown, Visions of Doom, World-Weariness, Corpse Love, Lovesickness, Cruelty, and Sick Jokes. “What some have called a fascination with obscenity or disaster,” MacBeth writes in his introduction, “may only be a wise foresight, an anxiety to know the worst, an eagerness to explore the most exquisite and the most intense. The extreme situation can be terrible in the form of love; but it can also be a source of wisdom in the form of terror.” Relatively little light verse or scurrilous doggerel finds its way into these pages; the emphasis is on Quality Lit, and venerable names like Auden, Blake, Marlowe, Poe, Shelley and Wilde. Among MacBeth’s contemporaries, he saw fit to include Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and a smattering of others.
I am only an occasional poetry reader, and miles from being an expert, but the editor in me can’t help weighing in on possible candidates for a revised, updated edition. Such a volume would almost have to include Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving But Drowning,” for example, or any number of works by that poet laureate of disappointment, Philip Larkin. It might be a poignant touch to include one of George MacBeth’s own later poems, in which he explored the toll taken on his life and marriage by the motor neuron disease that ultimately killed him. Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” from 1732, was probably still too rancid for general consumption in 1963, but its expression of epic loathing for human (or at least female) physicality makes it a strong candidate for most neurotic poem in the Western canon. Still, if anything is conspicuous by its absence, it’s the “sound and fury” speech from Shakespeare’s Macbeth – for me, the most sonorous, gobsmacking, and profound poem in English.
On the other hand, I felt personally validated by the inclusion, albeit with slight variations and an anonymous attribution, of the first verse of “Antigonish” by Hughes Mearns. Most people seem to find it innocuous enough – it was adapted into a hit song by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, for God’s sake – but it always struck an existential chill in my heart, like a cross between Edward Lear and Samuel Beckett:
Yesterday, upon the stair,I met a man who wasn’t there.He wasn’t there again today,I wish, I wish he’d go away…
Still, it’s doubtful that a book entitled The Penguin Book of Sick Verse could have been hatched any time other than the late ‘50s – early ‘60s, a time when the concept of “sick” was very much in the air.
It didn’t take a whole lot to be considered deviant in post-war America, and the word “sick” came to be applied to any form of behavior or artistic expression that questioned the suburban pieties. (If one is to believe the cartoons and sitcoms of the era, the word was also a common term of approbation among beatniks, as in “Sick, man, sick!”) Everyone was busy hypnotizing themselves into believing that everything was perfectly normal, that the war hadn’t really changed anything – when it fact it had changed everything, irrevocably. Combine that with the midcentury vogue for Freudian psychoanalysis, and the stage was set for the Return of the Repressed. Presiding over the emerging chaos was that gap-toothed imp of the perverse, Alfred E. Neuman – a figure whose lineage has been traced back to advertisements from the late 19th century, but who reached his apotheosis in the ‘50s and ‘60s as the mascot for Mad magazine and avatar of an irreverent new age that took nothing at face value. (Nineteen-sixty even saw the debut of a Mad knockoff called. . . wait for it. . . Sick.)
At the other end of the spectrum was Time magazine, then the semi-official voice of mainstream liberalism and guardian of middlebrow “good taste.” In July of 1959, it published “The Sickniks,” which cast a wary and largely disapproving eye on the new generation of anti-establishment comics then making waves in American nightclubs. (As for the title, this was the era when everyone was on edge about the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik. For awhile, it was trendy among journalists to add a “-nik” suffix to everything they wished to dismiss and/or tar with the brush of Godless Communism; thus “beatniks,” “peaceniks,” etc.)
“They joked about father and Freud, about mother and masochism, about sister and sadism,” the anonymous Time article begins. “They delightedly told of airline pilots’ throwing out a few passengers to lighten the load, of a graduate school for dope addicts, of parents so loving that they always ‘got upset if anyone else made me cry.’ They attacked motherhood, childhood, adulthood, sainthood. And in perhaps a dozen nightclubs across the country. . . . audiences paid stiff prices to soak it up. For the ‘sick’ comedians, life’s complexion has never looked so green.”
The article rounds up an impressively diverse and brilliant array of comics under the “sick” banner: topical comedian Mort Sahl, who drew most of his material from the New York Times; improv master Jonathan Winters (“a roly-poly brainy-zany,” in Time-ese); the neurotic but relatively mainstream Shelley Berman; erudite sketch artists Nichols and May; and acerbic satirist and song parodist Tom Lehrer.
But Time directs its harshest criticism at, predictably enough, Lenny Bruce, whose fate it was to bear the brunt of mainstream hostility and, by falling on his sword, make it possible for future comedians to speak freely without fear. From the article: “Although audiences unquestionably laugh at Bruce, much of the time he merely shouts angrily and tastelessly at the way of the world (on religious leaders: ‘They have missed the boat. “Thou shall not kill,” they say, and then one of them walks comfortingly to the death chamber with Caryl Chessman.’)”. For his part, Bruce fired back in his routine “The Tribunal”: “The kind of sickness I wish Time had written about, is that school teachers in Oklahoma get a top annual salary of $4000, while Sammy Davis Jr. gets $10,000 for a week in Vegas.”
Nowadays, few people would raise an eyebrow at Bruce’s take on religious hypocrisy, but in the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, the very concept of criticizing organized religion in a comedy routine seemed alien and frightening. What links revolutionary figures like Bruce with a relatively genteel poetry collection from across the pond is that both reflect an era when a handful of brave souls realized that truth-telling mattered more than social decorum. Popular culture no longer aimed to please everybody, all the time; it dared to be divisive, ask tough questions, and look frankly at subjects once considered beyond the pale. And lo and behold, it worked.
In 2015, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher routinely broadcast material that goes beyond what Lenny Bruce was arrested for, both in savagery and profanity, and they are adored by millions. By contrast, the once-safe humor of mainstream icon Bob Hope, rife with casual sexism and homophobia, now seems retrograde and embarrassing in the extreme. The sickniks won, and we’re all the healthier for it.