Best William Butler Yeats Joke Ever




Fellow Stacked blogger Mel Nezzo rightly suggested we post a link to the following Niehoff Lecturer Bi-Fecta: Robert Pinsky (Niehoff Lecture XIII) on the humor of Seamus Heaney (Niehoff Lecture XXV).

Great find, Mel.

-Norm De Plume

Published in: on October 2, 2013 at 11:11 am  Comments (5)  

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  1. My learned friend Mel Nezzo has invited me to post even though I am neither a patron of the Mercantile Library nor even a resident of the Queen City (merely a sometime visitor and admirer from afar). Mel tells me that he grew up in Cincinnati surrounded by Morans, Kellys, McCarthys, and Connors, so perhaps what I have to say will resonate with them as well as with any non-Irish Eireophile readers of “Stacked.”

    As a logophile of Irish Catholic origins and a fan of the late, great Seamus Heaney, I was captivated by Mr. Heaney’s story—recounted by Robert Pinsky in the lecture to which Mel has posted the link here—about the “Irish literary eminence” who reportedly said of the young W.B. Yeats, “I think he should be put back in and fooked-for again!” Irish humor is a genre unto itself, and I am struck by the Irishness of this insult as well as by its verbal force and outlandish humor.

    In an essay collected in Once a Catholic: Prominent Catholics and Ex-Catholics Reveal the Influence of the Church on Their Lives and Work (edited by Peter Occhiogrosso not long before he collaborated with Frank Zappa on The Real Frank Zappa Book), Senator Eugene McCarthy opined that much of the Irish Catholic attitude toward our species is epitomized in the question “Who do you think you are?” It’s likely that the “Irish literary eminence” quoted in Heaney’s story—if he existed at all—was, like Yeats, an Anglo-Irish Protestant, but the fact that the story was told and relished by Yeats’s great Irish Catholic successor suffices to make it of Irish Catholic provenance. And there is, indeed, something very Irish Catholic, as well as outrageously imaginative in a very Irish way, about this particular verbal takedown.

    The phrase “lace curtain Irish”—referring to members of the tribe with genteel pretensions—is a familiar put-down out of the Irish-American ghettoes of an earlier era. Another phrase with the same origin and meaning—“two-toilet Irish”—utilizes the same rhetorical ploy of reduction to the biological that we can observe in the line “put back in and fooked-for again.” Traditional Irish Catholic attitudes towards the body—the crux of many a story of torture at the hands of nuns that can be told by anyone who attended Catholic school in the era when my friend Mel Nezzo and I had our sensibilities formed and deformed by that particular institution—ultimately stem, by way of Jansenism, from St. Augustine, who famously wrote of the human person’s beginnings, “Inter urinas et faeces nascimur.” (“Between urine and feces we are born.”) That’s Augustine of Hippo, not Augustine of Sligo, but you get the point.

    Is comic reductio ad corpus, to coin a rhetorical term, really Irish Catholic or just Irish? The Anglo-Irish Jonathan Swift frequently put it to his own deflating uses, in Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of a Tub, and “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” for instance. Laurence Sterne—another Anglo-Irishman as well as the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy—deserves notice here as well. And we haven’t even mentioned the Irish Catholic Joyce or the Irish Protestant Beckett. Actually I doubt that the Irish of any sectarian stripe have a complete monopoly on this probably ancient trope, though they certainly are funny. Except for Yeats, who never said anything the least bit amusing as far as I know.

    D.S. Irey

  2. D.S., Come by anytime, and thanks for the lowdown on Irish humor! That monstrous insult is a much better and more involved version of Up yours, which has to be universal. Like the geography of our birth. Maybe the verbal elaboration is the Irish thing?

    And maybe Yeats never did write a joke (I’m looking, I’m looking) but he recovered enough from the put-down to take the side of the corpus. In “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop,” when the bishop tells her that she should live in a heavenly mansion, Crazy Jane reminds him that “Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.”

  3. Mel,

    Here’s a knee-slapper attributed to Yeats:

    Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

    Funnier than those cute cats on YouTube!

  4. Thanks Alfred. That was waiting to be said, and Yeats found it. Reminds me a little of Colum McCann’s remark at his recent Mercantile talk, that his friend Frank McCourt “got all the misery in Ireland” and there was none left for him [MCCann].

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