Groucho on Groucho is a poem of Dan’s that may not reach the heights of condensation & subtlety of his others, but it is a good showcase of technical virtuosity. The musicality is loud & lyrical, and the thrust is clearly communicated, rather than submerged into a million other pathways of meaning. In a sense, it might be a good poem to use as an entry-point into Dan’s world – especially to those who are not yet used to the finer points of seeking meaning over aesthetics. It also serves as an example of how a poet can use other voices yet reveal his own through theirs.
So, here’s the poem in question:
Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.
Rather than critique the poem stanza by stanza, I’ll just treat it as general segments this time.
The poem opens with an enigmatic line “the secret word is pain”, and an epigraph from Sigmund Freud – setting up the techniques that will be used & the themes that will be subverted further lines down. The entire poem is structured as an internal imaginary dialogue in the head of Groucho Marx, the famous comedian, with one side being the active analyst, and the other side reacting against the analysis. In this way, Freud’s epigraph works well, because it is a quote from the famous psychoanalyst talking about how psychoanalysis can be taken too far and things like cigars can be overanalysed (to be read as Phallic symbols etc…) – and not only does this sync with the pop-culture image of Groucho Marx smoking his cigar, but it plays with the self-questioning that Groucho performs throughout this poem.
The first line shows what the poem is all about. Analyst-Groucho (AG) will try to get Reacting-Groucho (RG) to admit that their comic persona is a form of escape/repression from certain traumas & pains in Groucho Marx’s life. Throughout the dialogue, the word ‘pain’ will be suppressed and swapped with another rhyming word signifying the act of repression in progress, at least until the shift at the end. In this way, the rhyme actually contributes something more than its own lyricism, helping to facilitate this process of repression. The poem could not work without the rhyme.
AG opens the poem with a series of traumas in Groucho’s life, like the fact that his father was an “ill-reknowed tailor” (typo?), that one of his brothers was a gambler & drunk, and that he was alone “like a tootsie sans fruitsie”. Notable is how Dan keeps the comedic style of Groucho’s witty comebacks, as well as making reference to some of the jokes in his films (the Tootsie Fruitsie Ice Cream joke from Day at the Races). The primary thing that AG wants to prove is:
“Or could it be that in your black tie and tails
You cover a soul that excuses and wails?”
“And at a fine ball, or in a grand stateroom,
Do your wisecracks reveal a soul rent by gloom?
And can a carnation emblem salvation?”
Yet, from this initial part we can also see the primary weakness of the poem – the lack of extensive layering & parallels within individual lines, although how the whole comes together is superb. It explores the character of the comedian, does the voice well, has a bounty of interesting images and shows the psychological process in action – but there isn’t the same line-by-line subversion that can appear in something like Angelus of the Flatiron.
After AG’s analysis, RG reacts and almost says the word ‘pain’ – but supresses it (shown by the empty underline) and replaces it with the word Spain. Then the poem goes into a wayward whimsy for a few lines, with RG hamming it up comedically to try and escape from the questioning. Although this seems to be a surreal clutter of lines, it does hide a couple of parallaxes in the imagery (“rain plainly falls”, “questions dissolve”) to the whole anti-analytic stance.
The next suppression isn’t pain, but something ending with ‘-alls’ – most likely ‘balls’ – which is a small little touch that adds to the character (the family friendly nature of old comedians) rather than the main ideas. It also shows how Dan is willing to go beyond the parameters set up (The poem would still work if ‘pain’ was the only suppression) with these small details that contribute to the whole. There is also a layer added by shifting the word to ‘halls’ (of memory), which underlines the underlying psychological process – and RG’s next part is about trying to recognize AG as an internal mirror to RG (me or a ‘ventriloquist dummy’).
When ‘pain’ is supressed again – this time for the word ‘Maine’ – RG begins with the same whimsical comedy, but shifts into lines pointing to Groucho Marx’s Jewish background. This extends the characterization (especially due to how apolitical & universal the persona of Groucho Marx seems to be), but there’s also a growing convergence to self-recognition as RG refers to AG as ‘Julius’, which is Groucho Marx’s real name separate from his persona. Finally, it leads up to a confrontation as RG gets on the offensive with:
“And my mustache and glasses are just what they are-
not some signposts of anguish or a third-rate cigar!”
Which plays the epigraph in the beginning.
As AG begins to lose, we see another technique enter into the fray. The existence of ‘visual cues’ (“getting antsy”) other than just the rhyming voice. Despite being a simple technique, this opens up into a series of pathways to be interpreted – mainly a sense of pulling away from the internal into the external. With the next suppression, it goes back to ‘rain’ – and plays off the ‘rain plainly falls’ image established beforehand with ‘plain filled with rain’. The first suppression went into comedy, the second into past bad memories, and this time RG recalls a good memory – meeting his wife Lydia. From there he is able to launch his final attack against AG.
I won’t have to delve into that stretch of speech, but take note that there’s an interesting image – a hovering duck – that suddenly appears in the midst of it. When Groucho is finally able to accept the word without supressing it, there is a visual cue of the duck dropping. From there, the poem heads towards its conclusion, ending with the gestures of Groucho Marx, rather than his speech.
This poem touches on several themes characteristic to Dan, such as the importance of memory, getting over internal suffering to touch on a greater reality, and the act of ‘knowing thyself’. It is a great example to learn how you can submerge your own voice into that of another subject, and still use it to express your own world – but, in terms of ranking I feel that it is either near-great, or it just passes into greatness (94 or 95). Notice my lack of analysing the music, as opposed to past poems – because while the ability to sustain the Groucho voice is a technical feat, it also prevents creating meaning-layers in that dimension. The poem is more inward, in touching on the psychology of Groucho Marx, than outwards (although that aspect does exist).
This is not a bad thing though, for when placed in the context of Dan’s corpus – of which there are countless other great poems that reach out further – this proves how vast his voice is. And, as Dan has previously mentioned in his William Shakespeare essay: with works where you can see more chinks in the armor (near-great works) – it also educates on how the poet reached his heights in later great works.
Edit: In an email, Dan clarified that the whole structure was based on a TV show by Groucho Marx called You Bet Your Life – which I did not know about. It clears up some of the deeper references like the ‘secret word’ and the appearance of the duck later in the poem. Dan’s comment was that “it’s the old Groucho from the 1950s tv show speaking w the younger Groucho of Broadway and the movies”. I feel this fact shows how cohesive the poem is, though, in that even without knowing about the core references, I was able to feel the general thrust of it with just a bit of knowledge about Groucho Marx & some of his films watched.