Thursday, April 22, 2010

Irony Again

A letter from a friend brings news or recent musings in the Economist magazine on the subject of poetry:

"Modern poetry seems all too often to be associated with coy, small-minded ironists; teasing, finicky word players who often write in disappointingly short lines and seem to lack the ambition, the emotional force, the rhetorical reach, and even the range of subject matter of great poets of the past. Where to go these days to find the real thing? Derek Walcott, born on the Caribbean island of St Lucia in 1930, and winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1992, is one answer..."

As soon as I read that comment about "coy, small-minded ironists" I began to jump. I think the term irony is much abused. Critics of a certain bent often use it to criticise what they don't like. Especially if they don't actually know why they don't like it. And normally the people who they accuse of being ironists are not being ironic at all.

How many truly ironic poems can you think of? If you can think of some I'd love you to leave a comment. That would have to be a poem written in an ironic manner, with a dash of sarcasm for example. And I don't mean poems that explore real ironies. I mean poets who write in an ironic manner. "Come gentle bombs and fall on Slough..." by John Betjeman might be one. Bombs are not gentle, in fact they are the opposite, so he must be being ironic. The irony is complex and the outward appearance (that he is being cruel to the people of Slough) is mitigated by the discovery of his real intention: to be cruel to the architecture of Slough: " isn't fit for humans now". It's ironic, it's memorable and it is gracefully amusing.

The concept of irony takes quite a lot of time to think about. It requires examples in order to put it into context, and examples do not always spring quickly to mind. But here is one I thought about this evening: playing the card game "Happy Families" always makes my children unhappy (because they get upset when they forget to say "Thank You" and lose the cards they just won.)

Why is this ironic? Because a game which is supposed to be about happy families creates unhappy ones. Watching our children burst into tears, we feel it might be better to call the game "Unhappy Families" because that would be more rational and fitting. So, the name is incongruous, all the more so because the reality is the exact opposite of the proposed happy experience that is suggested by the name.

To me, this type of irony is a beautiful thing. It reveals how intention can be flawed. It reveals how innocence is undermined by our own harsh-won experience. It is truth-revealing. You could say it is anti-romantic and I think that could be correct, if you believe that romance depends on existing in a state of innocent bliss, ever yearning for unachievable ideals.

If you're interested to pursue this further, carry on and read this article which I wrote a few years ago.

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