Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The dark side of the limerick

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“As almost nothing that has been written about the limerick can be taken seriously—which is perhaps only fitting—a few words may not be out of place here,” the scholar Gershon Legman writes in his introduction to the definitive work on the subject. Legman was one of the first critics to see erotic and obscene folk forms, including the dirty joke, as a serious object of study, and The Limerick puts his singular intelligence—which is worthy of a good biography—on full display:

The limerick is, and was originally, an indecent verse form. The “clean” sort of limerick is an obvious palliation, its content insipid, its rhyming artificially ingenious, its whole pervaded with a frustrated nonsense that vents itself typically in explosive and aggressive violence. There are, certainly, aggressive bawdy limericks too, but they are not in the majority. Except as the maidenly delight and silly delectation of a few elderly gentlemen, such as the late Langford Reed, and several still living who might as well remain nameless, the clean limerick has never been of the slightest real interest to anyone, since the end of its brief fad in the 1860s.

Legman describes the work of Edward Lear, the supposed master of the form, as “very tepidly humorous,” which seems about right, and he apologizes in advance for the vast collection of dirty limericks that he has prepared for the reader’s edification: “The prejudices, cruelty, and humorless quality of many of the limericks included are deeply regretted.”

But a metrical form typified by prejudice, cruelty, and humorlessness may end up being perfectly suited for the modern age. Legman claims that “viable folk poetry and folk poetic forms,” aren’t easy to duplicate by design, but it isn’t an accident that two of the major American novels of the twentieth century indulge in limericks at length. One is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which includes a remarkable sequence of limericks in which young men have sexual relations with the various parts of a rocket, such as the vane servomotor. The other is William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, which prints numerous limericks that all begin with the opening line “I once went to bed with a nun.” In his hands, the limerick becomes the ideal vehicle for his despairing notion of history, as a character in the novel explains:

The limerick is the unrefiner’s fire. It is as false and lifeless, as anonymous, as a rubber snake, a Dixie cup…No one ever found a thought in one. No one ever found a helpful hint concerning life, a consoling sense. The feelings it harbors are the cold, the bitter, dry ones: scorn, contempt, disdain, disgust. Yes. Yet for that reason. nothing is more civilized than this simple form. In that—in cultural sophistication—it is the equal of the heroic couplet…That’s the lesson of the limerick. You never know when a salacious meaning will break out of a trouser. It is all surface—a truly modern shape, a model’s body. There’s no inside however long or far you travel on it, no within, no deep.

Both authors seem to have been drawn to the form for this very reason. And while Gass’s notion of writing “a limrickal history of the human race” may have seemed like a joke twenty years ago, the form seems entirely appropriate to the era in which we’re all living now.

Another prolific author of limericks was Isaac Asimov, who clearly didn’t view the form as problematic. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, with typical precision, he writes that his first attempt took place on July 13, 1953. A friend challenged him to compose a limerick with the opening line “A priest with a prick of obsidian,” and after some thought, Asimov recited the following:

A priest with a prick of obsidian
Was a foe to the hosts of all Midian,
Instead of immersion
Within a young virgin
’Twas used as a bookmark in Gideon.

“I explained that the ‘hosts of Midian’ was a biblical synonym for evil and that ‘Gideon’ was a reference to a Gideon Bible, but no one thought much of it,” Asimov writes. “However, when I challenged anyone present to do better, no one could.” Asimov was encouraged by the experience, however, and he soon got into the habit of constructing limericks in his head “whenever I was trapped in company and bored.” Not surprisingly, it occurred to him that it would be a shame to let them go to waste, and he convinced the publishing house Walker & Company to let him put together a collection. Asimov continued to write limericks with “amazing speed,” and Lecherous Limericks appeared in 1975. It was followed by six more installments, including two collaborations with none other than the poet and translator John Ciardi.

And the uncomfortable fact about Asimov’s limericks is that most of them frankly aren’t very good, funny, or technically impressive. This isn’t a knock on Asimov himself, but really a reflection of the way in which the limerick resists being produced in such a casual fashion, despite what thousands of practitioners think to the contrary. (“Amateurs amble over everything like cows,” Gass writes in The Tunnel. “The A which follows so many limericks stands for Amateur, not for Anonymous.”) Asimov was drawn to the form for the same reason that so many others are—it’s apparently easy, superficially forgiving of laziness, and can be composed and retained without difficulty in one’s head. And it’s no surprise that he embraced it. Asimov didn’t become the most prolific author in American history by throwing anything away, and just as he sent the very first story that he ever wrote as a teenager to John W. Campbell, who rejected it, he didn’t have any compunction about sending his first batch of limericks to his publisher, who accepted the result. “One good limerick out of every ten written is a better average than most poets hit,” Legman accurately writes, and Asimov never would have dreamed of discarding even half of his attempts. He also wasn’t likely to appreciate the underlying darkness and nihilism, not to mention the misogyny, of the form in which women “generally figure both as villain and victim,” as Legman notes, while also calling it “the only kind of newly composed poetry in English, or song, which has the slightest chance whatever of survival.” Gass, and presumably Pynchon, understood this all too well, and the author of The Tunnel deserves the last word: “Language has to contain…emotions. It’s not enough just to arouse them. In a perverse way that’s why I use a lot of limericks, because the limerick is a flatterer, the limerick destroys emotion, perhaps it produces giggles, but it is a downer. It’s an interesting form for that reason.” And it might end up being the defining poetry of our time.

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December 10, 2018 at 8:26 am

Quote of the Day

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December 10, 2018 at 7:30 am

The scientist in private

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The feeling of understanding is [as] private as the feeling of pain. The act of understanding is at the heart of all scientific activity; without it any ostensibly scientific activity is as sterile as that of a high school student substituting numbers into a formula. For this reason, science, when I push the analysis back as far as I can, must be private…The public level is tremendously important, and most of our individual and social living is done on this level. Our language is so constructed that we are almost forced to talk on this level…But always beyond the public level, waiting for a deeper analysis, is the private level. It is on the private level that I realize my essential isolation; here is my awful freedom that I can hardly face.

Percy Williams Bridgman, Reflections of a Physicist

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December 9, 2018 at 7:30 am

The threads of the mind

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Analogies, metaphors, and emblems are the threads by which the mind holds on to the world even when, absentmindedly, it has lost direct contact with it, and they guarantee the unity of human experience. Moreover, in the thinking process itself they serve as models to give us our bearings lest we stagger blindly among experiences that our bodily senses with their relative certainty of knowledge cannot guide us through. The simple fact that our mind is able to find such analogies, that the world of appearances reminds us of things non-apparent, may be seen as a kind of “proof” that mind and body, thinking and sense experience, the invisible and the visible, belong together, are “made” for each other, as it were…There is, finally, the fact of the irreversibility of the relationship expressed in metaphor; it indicates in its own manner the absolute primacy of the world of appearances and thus provides additional evidence of the extraordinary quality of thinking, of its being always out of order.

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

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December 8, 2018 at 6:36 am

The long night

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Three years ago, a man named Paul Gregory died on Christmas Day. He lived by himself in Desert Hot Springs, California, where he evidently shot himself in his apartment at the age of ninety-five. His death wasn’t widely reported, and it was only this past week that his obituary appeared in the New York Times, which noted of his passing:

Word leaked out slowly. Almost a year later, The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving Palm Springs, California, and the Coachella Valley area, published an article that took note of Mr. Gregory’s death, saying that “few people knew about it.” “He wasn’t given a public memorial service and he didn’t receive the kind of appreciations showbiz luminaries usually get,” the newspaper said…When the newspaper’s article appeared, [the Desert Hot Springs Historical Society] had recently given a dinner in Mr. Gregory’s memory for a group of his friends. “His passing was so quiet,” Bruce Fessler, who wrote the article, told the gathering. “No one wrote about him. It’s just one of those awkward moments.”

Yet his life was a remarkable one, and more than worth a full biography. Gregory was a successful film and theater producer who crossed paths over the course of his career with countless famous names. On Broadway, he was the force behind Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, one of the big dramatic hits of its time, and he produced Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, which deserves to be ranked among the greatest American movies.

Gregory’s involvement with The Night of the Hunter alone would have merited a mention here, but his death caught my eye for other reasons. As I mentioned here last week, I’ve slowly been reading through Mailer’s Selected Letters, in which both Gregory and Laughton figure prominently. In 1954, Mailer told his friends Charlie and Jill Devlin that he had recently received an offer from Gregory, whom he described as “a kind of front for Charles Laughton,” for the rights to The Naked and the Dead. He continued:

Now, about two weeks ago Gregory called me up for dinner and gave me the treatment. Read Naked five times, he said, loved it, those Marines, what an extraordinary human story of those Marines, etc…What he wants to do, he claims, is have me do an adaptation of Naked, not as a play, but as a dramatized book to be put on like The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial…Anyway, he wants it to be me and only me to do the play version.

The play never got off the ground, but Gregory retained the movie rights to the novel, with an eye to Laughton directing with Robert Mitchum in the lead. Mailer was hugely impressed by Laughton, telling Elsa Lanchester decades later that he had never met “an actor before or since whose mind was so fine and powerful” as her late husband’s. The two men spent a week at Laughton’s hotel in Switzerland going over the book, and Mailer recalled that the experience was “a marvelous brief education in the problems of a movie director.”

In the end, sadly, this version of the movie was never made, and Mailer deeply disliked the film that Gregory eventually produced with director Raoul Walsh. It might all seem like just another footnote to Mailer’s career—but there’s another letter that deserves to be mentioned. At exactly the same time that Mailer was negotiating with Gregory, he wrote an essay titled “The Homosexual Villain,” in which he did the best that he could, given the limitations of his era and his personality, to come to terms with his own homophobia. (Mailer himself never cared for the result, and it’s barely worth reading today even as a curiosity. The closing line gives a good sense of the tone: “Finally, heterosexuals are people too, and the hope of acceptance, tolerance, and sympathy must rest on this mutual appreciation.”) On September 24, 1954, Mailer wrote to the editors of One: The Homosexual Magazine, in which the article was scheduled to appear:

Now, something which you may find somewhat irritating. And I hate like hell to request it, but I think it’s necessary. Perhaps you’ve read in the papers that The Naked and the Dead has been sold to Paul Gregory. It happens to be half-true. He’s in the act of buying it, but the deal has not yet been closed. For this reason I wonder if you could hold off publication for a couple of months? I don’t believe that the publication of this article would actually affect the sale, but it is a possibility, especially since Gregory—shall we put it this way—may conceivably be homosexual.

And while there’s a lot to discuss here, it’s worth emphasizing the casual and utterly gratuitous way in which Mailer—who became friendly years later with Roy Cohn—outed his future business partner by name.

But the letter also inadvertently points to a fascinating and largely unreported aspect of Gregory’s life, which I can do little more than suggest here. Charles Laughton, of course, was gay, as Elsa Lanchester discusses at length in her autobiography. (Gregory appears frequently in this book as well. He evidently paid a thousand dollars to Confidential magazine to kill a story about Laughton’s sexuality, and Lanchester quotes a letter from Gregory in which he accused Henry Fonda, who appeared in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, of calling Laughton a “fat, ugly homosexual”—although Laughton told her that Fonda had used an even uglier word.) Their marriage was obviously a complicated one, but it was far from the only such partnership. The actress Mary Martin, best known for her role as Peter Pan, was married for decades to the producer and critic Richard Halliday, whom her biographer David Kaufman describes as “her father, her husband, her best friend, her gay/straight ‘cover,’ and, both literally and figuratively, her manager.” One of Martin’s closest friends was Janet Gaynor, the Academy Award-winning actress who played the lead in the original version of A Star is Born. Gaynor was married for many years to Gilbert Adrian, an openly gay costume designer whose most famous credit was The Wizard of Oz. Gaynor herself was widely believed to be gay or bisexual, and a few years after Adrian’s death, she married a second time—to Paul Gregory. Gaynor and Gregory often traveled with Martin, and they were involved in a horrific taxi accident in San Francisco in 1982, in which Martin’s manager was killed, Gregory broke both legs, Martin fractured two ribs and her pelvis, and Gaynor sustained injuries that led to her death two years later. Gregory remarried, but his second wife passed away shortly afterward, and he appears to have lived quietly on his own until his suicide three years ago. The rest of the world only recently heard about his death. But even if we don’t know the details, it seems clear that there were many stories from his life that we’ll never get to hear at all.

Quote of the Day

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Here is an example of what seems to be general practice in astronomy: when two alternatives are available, choose the more trivial. It was so with the discovery of pulsars—white dwarfs, everybody said they were, until confrontations with fact showed otherwise. And it is so today throughout cosmology. Astronomers seem to live in terror that someday they will discover something important.

Fred Hoyle, Home is Where the Wind Blows

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December 7, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Bad Pennies, Part 4

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On June 10, 2014, the author Deirdre Saoirse Moen published an email on her blog from Moira Greyland, the daughter of Marion Zimmer Bradley. In a few short paragraphs, Greyland devastatingly described the extent of the abuse that she had suffered at the hand of her mother: “The first time she molested me, I was three. The last time, I was twelve, and able to walk away…I put [her stepfather Walter Breen] in jail for molesting one boy…Walter was a serial rapist with many, many, many victims…but Marion was far, far worse. She was cruel and violent, as well as completely out of her mind sexually. I am not her only victim, nor were her only victims girls.” Later that year, Moira’s brother Mark gave an interview in which he corroborated her claims, while also revealing the difficulty that he had felt in speaking out:

There was always drama and there was always the invisible blade of what would happen if all of this dreadful secret got out. The atmosphere of fear of discovery was simply everywhere and there was no place to hide. Worse, I was ashamed. When you are small you believe stuff, and I felt with my whole heart that I was responsible when she would go bad. There was absolutely no way I was gonna drag the mountain onto my head…And nobody spoke. Everything was always fine and that was my clown suit. I thought everyone knew and that I was such a bad person no one would speak to me. My echo chamber filled me with such fear of exposure I would do anything to make the shadow go away. And I did.

Not surprisingly, these revelations sent a shockwave through the science fiction and fantasy community, with many writers—including those associated with Bradley’s fiction series and magazine—speaking out against what John Scalzi called the “horrific” allegations. Yet while the full extent of Bradley’s abuse may have been unknown, her culpability in Breen’s crimes had been public knowledge for years. In 1998, Bradley testified in a series of depositions about her relationship with her husband, in which she admitted that she was fully aware of his behavior. When asked why she had defended him from accusations of child molestation during the buildup to the World Science Fiction Convention in Berkeley, she responded that she had felt that it was “nobody’s business” but Breen’s. And her involvement went far beyond the decision to keep silent. As the writer Stephin Goldin, whose stepson was abused by Breen, writes in a discussion of the case, which was published shortly after Bradley passed away:

[Bradley] actively aided and abetted her husband, Walter Breen, in the sexual abuse and molestation of children. Before people cast too many tears over her death, they may wish to learn some of the harm she helped perpetrate in the world as well…[Bradley] admits having deliberately covered up her husband’s involvement in activities she knew were illegal and harmful. She took some pains to tell Walter not to molest her own children, but she didn’t care in the least what he did to other children. Readers will be able to judge for themselves the sort of moral character this woman possessed.

And while this information was publicly available for fifteen years before the disclosures by Bradley’s children, they remained largely unknown outside a relatively small circle of fans.

So what happened in the meantime to inspire such a strong response to the statements from Moira and Mark Greyland? I can think of several possible reasons, all of which may have played a role. The first is that our culture has simply changed, which comes close to being a tautology. Another is that the accusations from Bradley’s children are more horrifying, because they indicate that their mother was an abuser as well as an enabler—although this doesn’t explain why her involvement with Breen had gone mostly unremarked until then. The third, which I think gets even closer to the truth, is that the fact that this information was rapidly disseminated online made it harder to ignore. (As Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker write in an article in CoinWeek: “Consider this: as a hobby and an industry, we’re actually quite fortunate that the Breen scandal erupted when it did. Had Breen’s crimes come to light in the Internet Age, the hobby as a whole could have been implicated.” And you could say much the same of the science fiction community.) A fourth explanation is that it can be difficult for us to collectively catch up with allegations that have existed for a long time, until they’ve been catalyzed by a fresh piece of news. As the events of the last two years have made clear, there’s a huge backlog of horrific behavior on the part of our artistic and literary heroes that we haven’t yet processed, in large part because we’ve been preoccupied with developments in the present. I’ve made this point before about Saul Bellow, among others, but an even more relevant example is the Nobel laureate André Gide, whose abuse of young boys was remarkably similar to Breen’s. A lot of this information is out there, but it’s been grandfathered into the conversation, and we don’t always pay attention to it until we don’t have a choice.

But there’s one more factor that may be the most significant of all, and it brings us full circle to Breen’s mentor. William Herbert Sheldon’s crimes were of a different kind, but he benefited from the existence of subcultures that allowed him to operate for years without scrutiny. The Ivy League nude posture photo scandal, as its name implies, depended on the existence of a relatively closed world that permitted Sheldon’s work to continue. I suspect that much the same holds true of the community of numismatists, who trusted him with access to rare coins that he quietly switched out for his own inferior samples, mostly because he could. And it’s worth noting that these were groups of people who presumably thought of themselves as more intelligent than average, which might actually allow such behavior to go unchallenged for longer. Breen, who became involved with Sheldon through their shared interest in both coins and gifted children, could hardly have failed to notice this. (While writing this post, incidentally, I became aware of the novel Wild Talent by Wilson Tucker, first published in 1954, about a telepath named Breen who is conscripted to work for the government. The main character is undoubtedly named after Walter Breen—Tucker named characters after prominent fans so often that it inspired its own term of art. And the timing, which seems too perfect to be just a coincidence, makes me wonder if there might be something to Jack Sarfatti’s claims about Breen and Sheldon’s work on psychic powers with children in the early fifties.) Science fiction, of course, is another such subculture. Or at least it used to be. Nowadays, it’s embedded in the mainstream, which makes it harder for predators to work undetected, or for their crimes to be covered up for long. Bad pennies, as we’ve all seen, can appear in any context. And the best way to deal with them may be to let the truth circulate as widely as possible.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2018 at 9:11 am

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