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Something Old, Something New

By: Midge Goldberg
January 31, 2017

ven the table of contents is funny. In Sleaze & Slander, A.M. Juster’s wit is aimed just as pointedly at himself as at others: the section title “The Stuttering Ventriloquist” introduces a collection of translations, imitations, and parodies; while “Shrapnel” are two- to six-line bursts of rapid-fire insults on a variety of topics.

Despite the title, the book’s broader theme is that humor is what people have in common: across generations, across centuries, and across the table. Juster mixes old and new, self-deprecation and disdain, to remind readers of this on every page.

To start with the basics, Juster is a master of poetic forms. The book opens with “Grandmother Gives Birth to Chimp,” a perfect rondeau about tabloid headlines, which in itself is a humorous contrast of old and new. Villanelles, sonnets, heroic couplets, limericks, and epigrams are all here. As Juster writes in “Letter to Auden,” an imitation of Auden’s “Letter to Byron” in the same rhyme royal, “Only a few eccentrics still support/Those poets who can scan lines properly.” Juster clearly counts himself among those eccentrics.

Calling himself eccentric is just one of the ways the poet makes fun of himself. In “A Plea to My Vegan Great-Grandchildren,” while asking forgiveness for everything from bacon to the Chinese debt, he hopes his wife diluted the “genetic mess” that he passed on, “and made you brilliant, strong, and kind—/and sensitive where I was blind.” “Self-portrait at Fifty” portrays the poet as “crabby, flabby, full of pride;/hypertensive, pensive, snide.” In an article in The New Criterion, Juster talks about this kind of humor: “Self-deprecation tends to be disarming….This kind of wit also creates a presumption that the speaker is humble, sincere, and self-aware, which in turn makes the speaker’s message more credible.” Poems he translates do this too, such as Martial, 10.9: 

I, Martial, am known in every nation
for hendecasyllabic versification
and abundant, though well-tempered, wit.
So why do you feel inadequate?
I am still not famous, of course,
compared to Andraemon the horse.

I could almost hear the substitute line Juster would have used, had he written it himself: “compared to Mr. Ed the horse.”

The funniest moments in the book come when Juster places the old and new cheek by jowl in the same poem. “A Prayer to Bill Gates” combines King James English with the ills of modern-day computer-based life: “We call to Thee, though Thou shalt not reply;/Let us not be the Apple of thine eye.” In “Houseguests,” in one corner, “Whitman picks the Cheetos off his beard,” while in another, “Rimbaud’s on eBay searching for a zebra/while sneering, ‘Oui, a cheemp can write vers libre!’” And in ”Letter to Auden,” Juster updates Auden’s “Excuse, my lord” to the much more colloquial “Uh, Wystan?” Juster uses the same technique in the collection of limericks “Selected Problems in Interspecies Relationships as Exemplified in Classical Mythology”:

Medusa dolled up for a date,
then hissed when he showed up late.
With true venom she said,
“I should cut off your head,
but now you’re so stoned I must wait!”

There’s humor to be found, whether it’s in Latin classical poetry, Greek mythology, disco, or computer operating systems, and Juster delights in bringing it out through this technique of juxtaposition. (Perhaps we’ll invent a word for it: Juster-position.)

Of course he uses wit to skewer, as well—don’t forget the book’s title. He has his favorite targets: bores, reporters, and sleazy colleagues: “Your uphill climb will never stop;/scum always rises to the top.” These “Shrapnel” poems are styled after the poets he has translated, such as Martial 11.103, “Your style and manner seem so mild/that I have doubts about your child.”

Bad poets are another favorite target, calling one a “feral poodle.” From Horace: “Suppose this idiot is writing verse/that couldn’t possibly be any worse.” His Billy Collins imitations are a wonderful send-up of the former Poet Laureate’s self-reflective style, as in “Self-portraits”:

The challenge of the day
is writing a poem
called “Self-portrait.”

It is slow to come,
for it is tedious to find words
that are apt but not totally self-absorbed.

Yes, one can lower one’s standards,
as it is said many poets do,
but I am not there yet.

Juster “excerpts” each poem from imagined Billy Collins books, Rapture with Paperclips (2003), Gerald Ford Eaten by Wolves (2005), and two poems from Forgetting About Amnesia (2007), leading me to speculate that the choice of two from Forgetting was on purpose, as he “forgot” that he’d already included one poem from that collection.

But Juster saves his sharpest knives for academics. He calls them “downtrodden MFAs,” and “smirk(s) when academics squirm.” In the poem about Esther Johnson, a “‘houseguest’ of the Reverend Jonathan Swift” whom many academics assume had a long-term affair with Swift, he writes, “The scholars fuss with what to say/Because they do not see their blindness/In matters shaped by human kindness.” In “Honest Email to the Librarian of Congress,” a request to become the next Poet Laureate, he praises his own qualities, stating that he can “…blandly fake my way through speeches/just like a Harvard guy who teaches.” He even translates “To a Statue of Rufus the Rhetorician” by Ausonius on the failings of an academic:

Behold the new memorial
for one so professorial!
It’s such a lifelike duplicate—
right down to lack of tongue or brains.
Stiff, dumb and blind—a perfect fit
(except no wimpiness remains).

In a recent interview on PBS, Juster explains that after college he was applying for a fellowship to graduate school in English, when “a senior Yale administrator called me into her office and told me I would have won but they had ‘decided that people with my politics shouldn’t become academics.’” Be careful when you insult a poet, or you’ll find yourself roasted in his poems, seems to be the lesson to learn here.

Juster is not a confessional poet, but it is possible to get hints of the man in these poems. Having spent so many years keeping his true identity separate from his poetry, lines like “images in facing mirrors” and “Stay tuned, no matter what you thought you knew/you never know” take on a different meaning. His translations often contain something he could have said himself. In Martial’s 10.47, the poem lists things that give him solace: “A lack of legal woes/or need for formal clothes,” hearkens back to the villanelle “Backup Plan”: “I would indulge like other men,/not shave or floss, and sleep past ten.”

There were some poems in the collection I didn’t enjoy, where the humor was off or lacking. “A Panegyric for Presidents Day” was quite a feat, working all the presidents’ names into a single poem, with a few clever rhymes (inhuman/Truman), but it seemed like more of an exercise than a poem. “Modern Lullaby” has some chilling phrases, like “Santa’s making you a big-boy gun,” but the tone seemed too cruel, without being balanced by Juster’s usual humor. While I enjoyed the Martial translations, the total selection could have been shorter.

Sleaze & Slander is a book of humorous verse, so one shouldn’t be looking for serious poems. But it was a pleasure and something of a relief to find something a little serious peeking out in “Elegy for a Horseshoe Crab,” where Juster identifies with this “crab of the marine Old Right” who is dying on the sand.

Last rites like these should have solemnity;
I’m sorry children frolic with your shell.
Let’s hope they are more somber when it’s me.

Sleaze and Slander is a book of funny and meticulously crafted formal poems reminding the reader that across the ages, there’s always something to laugh about, ourselves included.