Ironic Structure and the Not-So-Funny

Gerald Stern’s turn in “The Dancing” took me by such surprise–I had admired previous poems for their humor, but his shocked me for its morbid comparison of joyous versus horrific moments. I am a sucker for Holocaust literature (although, oddly enough, not for 9/11 literature–) and will always be open to a new Holocaust poem. If any of you share my weird fascination, I would recommend Edward Hirsch’s poem “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944.”

Anyway, I don’t consider this turn to be one of opposition or negation because upon reflection, there was something coming. This turn was preceded by evidence that not all was right and good, so the turn was one of surprise, yes, but it was more of a forceful snap-to. The rhythm had been becoming more furious, more imposing, like a bass drum that crescendos to overcome the orchestra. The buildup of present participle verbs creates a constant stream of image that eventually seems hysterical. The voice’s

knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop–

suggest that something is wrong all along, that there is a madness and hysteria present the entire time. The turn, then, to

the other dancing–in Poland and Germany–
oh God of mercy, oh wild God

is earned, not a negation, and not an opposition. It was there, all along, but the poem plays with human tendency toward the veneer.

How does Stern do this? I think what makes an ironic structure successful and powerful is that it has earned the turn, that it has teased you with the latent and arrives by pushing your face below the water.

Am I capable of this? I sure hope so. There is something so powerful about playing with giddiness and horror, something so memorable. I think the best way of creating such a “perfect” ironic turn is the set-up, which must be careful-yet-present. If you push the image too much, the reader will predict the turn, but if it isn’t present enough, the reader will feel tricked. It sounds so simple, appears simple enough, but is deceptively crafty.


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