Dorothy Parker and the Art of Light Verse

30 August, 2007

Life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong
And I am Marie of Roumania.

Dorothy Parker (August 22, 1893 – June 7, 1967) in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Dorothy Parker said she wished she could write like a man and drink like a lady. Perhaps we should be grateful she got it the other way around. Along with her criticism and more serious writing, she penned astute and witty light verse much of which demonstrates her talent to use language like a well-plucked lyre.

As John Hollander points out in his erudite critique, Dorothy Parker and the Art of Light Verse*, the mention of the once celebrated Marie of Roumania no longer has the resonance it did when Mrs Parker penned those lines. He suggests that today those thoughts would need use a more contemporary figure as a punch line. Here is my modest example:

Life’s bounties pour upon me like rain
Life’s riches unceasingly grand.
Love is a never-ending refrain,
And I am Premier of Queensland.

OK, I said modest. Besides, she had scant respect for critics of her scansion:

Say I’m neither brave nor young
Say I woo and coddle care,
Say the devil touched my tongue
Still you have my heart to wear.

But say my verses do not scan,
And I get me another man!

Many of Mrs Parker’s aphoristic verses were effectively oozed by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the Robert Altman production Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. In this there is much of the ambiance of American letters in the 1920s with its literary knights’ nights of jousting with wit-tipped lance and broad-sword tongue at the round table at the Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street, New York City.

I hope to get back there sometime to pay it a visit. Hommage, actually.

*First published in the Yale Review 85:1, 1997

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Sin Tax

17 August, 2007

It doesn’t sound like a really funny word, but syntax is the key to much unintentional humour and miscommunication.

As a child I used to delight in Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes, limericks and riddles — as had a century of children before me. Syntaxually-challenged classified ads were a childish favourite: “For sale: grand piano, hardly used, by elderly lady with carved ebony legs.”

Hey, I was four!

Journalists can do it, too, and most of them are older than four.

Sometimes this leads to humour of a darker shade. The BBC reported the disappearance of a man in Nepal saying “he was last seen being dragged from his home by soldiers wrapped in a blanket.”*

The most devastating effect of Australia’s current drought has not been to the trimmed, green lawns and herbaceous borders of the cities’ suburbia, but to those who provide the crops and herds to feed this and other countries.

So overwhelming have been the consequences of the drought on the many farmers and graziers that some have been driven to take their own lives.

A common slug line for this sad statistic was: “One farmer commits suicide every fours days.”

Australia does not in general celebrate Groundhog Day. If only the solution were as simple as finding this one farmer endlessly recycling himself and stopping him before he does himself a damage.

*Anyone who sends me an illustration inspired by the soldiers wrapped in a blanket may have it included here. Use the “contact me” form to reach my e-mail directly.

Heard on BBC World Service, 31 August 2007.


Bad weather

17 August, 2007

It seems a pretty fair bet that the word “drought” in a TV weather bulletin refers to a lack of rain — for time enough adversely to affect the environment.

So why does Channel 7’s David Brown insist that we have a “hydrological drought” — unless to distinguish it from a drought of intelligent weather commentary.

For the benefit of any other aspiring weather Barbies out there, hydrological merely refers to the study of water on earth and in the atmosphere. As in drought. Duh.


What’s in a name?

26 January, 2007

Perhaps the greatest danger of modern media is that it perpetuates errors by continually referencing itself rather than any original source — to the degree that the error eventually totally occludes the truth.

Eventually, the error becomes the truth.

The reasons are many: laziness, time pressure, lack of professional training or basic education, ignorance, stupidity, herd instinct. None of them noble and all have the same result.

Maria SharapovaA trivial but really annoying example: these days, a very large proportion of female tennis players have Russian names which sports commentators appear to have great difficulty pronouncing (along with many English words encountered above a grade three primer).

For their benefit the World Tennis Association has published a guide for broadcasters. Sadly, this has eight out of ten seriously wrong.

The WTA’s response to criticism has been that along the lines that “this is how most Americans would pronounce them and the players would go along with that”.

The prime example would be one of the world’s highest earning and most successful women players, Maria Sharapova. Russian speakers assure me that this is pronounced “sha-RAH-pa-vuh”, as do authorities overwhelmingly and, most significantly of all, the lady herself.

Now here is the kicker. I have read reports of prominent sport and news broadcasters knowingly using the popular but incorrect pronunciation for fear of being thought ignorant!

Truly, the inmates now run the asylum.

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Saturdays too far away

17 August, 2006

As a kid there were more Saturday matinées than even the combined efforts of Peter Sellers, Danny Kaye and John Wayne could fill. That didn’t stop me from hoarding or begging the price of a train ticket, a packet of Jaffas* and a ticket to the movies for the Saturday matinée.

Rififi posterSometimes what followed the cartoons and Johnny Weissmuller cliff-hangers was not the stuff of comedy fantasy or cowboy heroes. Sometimes it was a movie of an entirely different genre. These were movies made in shadows; not soft shadows as between seasons, but shadows of fate and doom or the black glint of a death-threatening revolver. They were full of men and women, good and bad, doomed by their needs, flaws and frailties – or those of others.

Of course I had never heard of such a word as “genre” then but, in my youthful innocence, I classified these as “dark films”. As much as these movies frightened me they gripped me too. I had yet to encounter Shakespeare or Sophocles and so film noir became my introduction to theatrical tragedy.

I mention this because I recently watched again after perhaps 20 years one of the icons of my “dark films”.

Rififi (Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes) is a séminal work; a seed, and sometimes an outright template, for following films noir and for heist and caper movies to the present day – be they films couleur regardless. Overblown latecomers such as Mission: Impossible and its type have never approached the breath-suspending sour-sweat tension and ultimate sadness of this original.

I was still young when I was promoting Stanley Kubrick’s release of Sparticus, not so long after Jules Dassin was forced out of America by the hysterical McCarthy House Un-American Activity Committee. Kubrick reportedly insisted similarly-accused Dalton Trumbo write and be recognised for the screenplay for Sparticus.

If you ever wanted to experience the rank fog of Gaulois butts and stale calvados, there is plenty here, as is a certain absolution and an exposition of a code de honoré – for some at least.


* A marble-shaped confection with a chocolate centre and an orange-flavoured candy coating beloved of Australian moviegoers.


Up ship creek

20 July, 2006

Last night, over three successive newsbreaks in less than 60 minutes, Australia’s Ten Network News first had Australians in Beirut “…booted off their ship”. Next we were told their ship had been “commandeered” by “an international organization”, the United Nations or some other country — take your pick. The third version was that Australia had been gazumped by those sneaky Canadians who took the ship for themselves.

Which ship was that, Ten News?

The ship chartered by the Australian government which failed to show up in Beirut at all? Now that would make it difficult for those people to board the ship and even more difficult for them to be booted off it.

That it never showed up would also make it difficult to commandeer (such a juicy, dramatic word).

That the ship Australia had chartered through a Turkish shipping agency failed to show had already been announced on ABC Network News — and possibly on other networks — by no less than the Foreign Minister. It was also disclosed that the shipping agent had charted the same vessel to both Australia and Canada and cheated both governments. It happens in times of crisis. It is called profiteering, and in a sense, that is what news reporting of this kind is doing, too.

For god’s sake, Ten News, this is one story you don’t have to beat up. I know that there is nothing more important than ratings, but just try to get a few facts right and this is already more gripping and distressing than your execrable Big Brother.

While on the subject of the coverage of the plight of those people trying to leave Lebanon; why does every news story need to shoehorn the proper noun Australian or Australians between ever few words? Everyone is not just “Bruce Hayak” but Australian Bruce Hayak. It is never “they” but “these Australians”. Has every personal pronoun has been banished from the journalistic lexicon. What is this spin and why is it necessary? We get the point. We know, we know. Enough.

Gazumped?

Can’t smack Ten News for this because (Australian) Foreign Minister Downer used the word in an earlier reference to the “Whose Ship is it Anyway?” game. For the Australian government to be gazumped, Canada would have had to have known that the ship’s agents had finalised a deal with Australia then jumped in with a higher bid at the last moment. There has yet to be any suggestion that this is what happened. The only party who knew about both deals seems to be the corrupt Turkish shipping agent.

Go get ’em, Ten News. Sic Sandra Sully onto them. That’ll fix ’em.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gazump
http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gaz1.htm


The Buzz

17 July, 2006

In huge letters on the window of a Bourke street, Melbourne, lingerie retailer: “MASSIVE BRA AND PANTY SALE!”

Just the thing for women with massive tits and arses.

Massive is the buzzword of the month for the linguistically and educationally challenged. Actually, it has been the word of every month since the last massive New Year sales. If there is any good in it at all it is that it edged impact off the top spot in the deluge of clichés, malapropisms and grammatical howlers that dribble constantly from the mouths of politicians, bureaucrats and reporters and copywriters.

According to an admiring colleague at a 90th birthday celebration for the former Prime Minister-cum-elder statesman, Gough Whitlam “impregnated Australia …” Is that what is meant by “being the father of the nation” — or a wry comment on what he did to the budget when in power?

A report on the national broadcaster, ABC-TV, on the recent bombing atrocities in what I used to call Bombay rather lost the sombre mood of the moment when telling us that “Yesterday (this man) lost his son in the bombings and today he will be cremated.”

I thought they only did that to widows in India.