Parody paper online

Back in September, I gave a paper on parodies of modernist poetry to the conference on ‘The Popular Imagination and the Dawn of Modernism’, at the Institute of English Studies, University of London.

I enjoyed researching this one, and in the hope that others may enjoy reading it, have put it online. To take a look, just click here.

Kipling somewhere called parody the highest and most difficult of the arts. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s a subject close to my heart. I’ve attempted parodies myself, and the results have sometimes found a home in those havens for the amateur parodist, the Spectator  and New Statesman competition pages. I was very chuffed when John Gross chose one of my pieces for his Oxford Book of Parodies.

I mention this because it was my own experience of writing parody that made me look at the subject of parodies of modernist poets. Mainstream writers of the twenties laid into the Sitwells and others with a gusto that showed the strength of their disapproval – but did it show something else as well? My own experience is that I find it very hard to write a parody of an author whom I do not at least partly admire. In a dull or utterly predictable writer, there are no quirks to latch on to, no energy to take a ride on. The best targets are those where an admiration is qualified by a sense of the absurd. Craig Brown, the most devilish of modern parodists, has written:

parody is a pas-de-deux, in that the parodist must inhabit the language and speech-rhythms of the parodied while subverting them for his own ends. Thus a certain strange empathy is called for, no matter how cold-hearted.

Or to put it another way, the parodist is rather in the position of an actor playing a villain. If he merely acts villainous, highlighting only the character’s nastiness, the performance will be one-dimensional. A good actor has to get inside the character, find his good points as well as his bad, and see his point of view.

In my paper I’ve tried to discover how far this was the case for the mainstream writers who expressed their disapproval of modernist experiment by means of pastiche and parody. It was great fun to research, and I shall keep looking for further examples.

Thanks are due, by the way, to Nemo, a commenter on this blog, for pointing me towards Lovecraft’s parody of Eliot.


  1. Rosie Snajdr
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    On a similar note, have you seen Arthur Conan Doyle’s poem ‘A Post-Impressionist’ in *Songs of the Road* (1911)? It is about a realist painter whose work is out of fashion, distressed he throws out a canvas. The rain and resulting mould make it a masterpiece and he begins to leave all his work to ‘mature’ in the garden.

    If you haven’t already, you might also enjoy the columns ‘More Contemporaries’ by C. E. Bechhofer in *The New Age*. Particularly the pastiche of ‘BLAST’ (July 30 1914:308).

  2. Posted November 17, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m so glad you had opportunity to revisit this, since I missed it the first time around. Blast! And bless! Fantastic stuff, days and evenings worth of reading–down, down parodic rabbit holes. Lovecraft’s parody of Eliot is my new favorite thing, unspeakable and cthonic. Thank you, sir!

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