John Ashbery (b. 1927) is one of America’s best-known living poets, a former art critic, and, apparently, a fan of animated cartoons. His poem “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” from 1975, has been studied and dissected by many scholars, professional and amateur. Now it’s my turn.
I could have focussed on Ashbery’s 1966 poem, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” which is about Popeye and his colleagues (Wimpy, the Sea Hag, etc.), but as I wanted to disuse surrealism in cartoons and poetry, “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” is a better choice. Where “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” is superior is in its structure; Popeye and friends are present throughout the poem – better storytelling in a cartoon sense, but arguably worse in a surrealist sense. Both poems are worth reading, even for the cartoon fan who has never bothered with poetry before, or the poetry maven who scorns more proletarian entertainments (that’s a lot of implied snobbery for one sentence).
Before I get too far into this, let me clarify a few things. Cartoon surrealism is different from written surrealism, and both differ from the other iterations of surrealism. It’s not merely comparing oranges and apples, more like oranges and kumquats, tomatoes, prunes, pineapples, and apples – perhaps with a potato thrown in as a ringer. Each type of surrealism shares attributes, however general or vague, with the others, and, in this case, one type is juxtaposed with another. Comparisons of this kind can be fruitless and quixotic, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. Quixote’s motives, however muddled, were of the best; I am quite willing to tilt at windmills. I even enjoy it.
Ashbery reaches toward the benign surrealism of animated cartoons (as Ashbery is writing about Hollywood studio cartoons and print cartoons I am limiting the comparison) and elicits a sense of dreamlike rather than unease. Ashbery’s admission that “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” owes more to Chuck Jones’ cartoon Duck Amuck (1960), rather than Tex Avery’s 1938 cartoon from which it derives its title, is not surprising; Jones was the most intellectual, and, at his worst, over-intellectual, of cartoon directors. Lines such as
“He promised he’d get me out of this one,
That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he’s
Done to me now!”
certainly suggest a monologue from ‘Duck Amuck” or something like it.
Surrealism is one big in-joke; cartoon surrealism lets the audience in on the joke. Free association, leading to the common household objects turned into gags “Drink Friz,” “Uwanna Cracker,” etc. The Fleischer Brothers, whose cartoons come up most often when surrealism is mentioned, draw from cartoon history more than surrealism, though both share common elements. A knife grows a face and a licks its lips (Bimbo’s Initiation, 1931); Ashbery takes these up an intellectual notch, into the realm of intentional surrealism. From the poem:
Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live
Which is like thinking in another language. Everything
Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.”
Andre Breton, in his Le Manifeste du Surrealisme (1924), defined surrealism two ways:
“SURREALISM, noun, masc., Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.”
From Wikipedia on Surrealism: “As they developed their philosophy, they [Breton and his colleagues] believed that Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination according to the Hegelian Dialectic.”
Ashbery himself comes close to defining surrealism in the poem:
“The pattern that may carry the sense, but
Stays hidden in the mysteries of pagination.
Not what we see but how we see it matters; all’s
Alike, the same, and we greet him who announces
The change as we would greet the change itself.
All life is but a figment; conversely, the tiny
Tome that slips from your hand is not perhaps the
Missing link in this invisible picnic whose leverage
Shrouds our sense of it.”
Cartoons have played with surrealism in a very mild way, exploiting cultural references and creative misspellings to comic effect as noted above. Baseball Bugs (1946, d. Friz Freleng) features an advertisement on the outfield wall of the ballpark, reading “Filboid Studge” – recognizable to students of literature as the inedible breakfast cereal from Saki’s story “Filboid Studge, the story of a mouse that helped” (1911). A random nod, and an extra little laugh. Ashbery simply takes the surrealist habit and melds it with the brand-name dropping of an animated cartoon.
For pure, arbitrary humor, the early 1930s are a gold mine in animation. The bizarre quality of the Fleischer cartoons, which is a delight, has a subliminal sense of intention, and pales beside the sometimes baffling, and at times laugh-killing, randomness of Walter Lantz’s cartoons. Seeming scripted via some form of exquisite corpse, “The Bandmaster” (1931), certainly has a surreal quality to it. Lantz’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons start out as exercises in free-association humor, then devolve into bland, tame family fare.
The Fleischer’s great Talkartoon “Swing You Sinners” (1930), is a great example of loose-limbed animation paired with an unfettered imagination. The imposition of the Production Code ended the most creative period for several studios, especially those on the east coast, such as the Fleischers. Before that, all bets were off. Similarly the Van Beuren Studio, represented here by “Wot A Night” (1930), often featured nightmarish, semi-surreal adventures dubbed New York Gothic, until personnel changes and a desire to emulate Disney took over the studio. The New York Gothic would survive only in sporadic cartoons from Terrytoons, which changed rarely and with great reluctance. I could supply many more examples, but time constraints prevent me.
By the middle of the poem the cartoon is over. We have moved on, perhaps to a feature (Ashbery refers to plays such as Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Aglavaine and Selysette” (1896) and John Dryden’s “Aureng-Zebe” (1675) without providing context), perhaps just elsewhere, in the surrealist fashion. The end of the poem brings us down to the moment, an observation perhaps of the present, perhaps of the world of the poet’s dream. A little more arty than “That’s All Folks!”, but containing that same valedictory sense. Set your feet on the ground, move on. This strange play is over:
“We don’t mind
Or notice any more that the sky is green, a parrot
One, but have our earnest where it chances on us,
Disingenuous, intrigued, inviting more,
Always invoking the echo, a summer’s day.”