Review: Special Laughter


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.

Special Laughter
by Howard Nutt

(Prairie City, IL: Press of James A. Decker, 1940)

Review by Jim Feast

Barney Rosset, our editor in chief, has a special affection for this slim volume of poems, Special Laughter, written by Howard Nutt and published in 1940. Nutt was one of those Chicago writers, such as Nelson Algren and Richard Wright, who got their start in John Reed clubs, which were literary societies connected to the Communist Party that provided places for book discussion and writers workshops. Nutt and Wright both published in the club’s journal, Left Front, and they became friends. Wright wrote a congenial, thoughtful introduction to Laughter.

It’s interesting, to take this connection a little further afield, to note that Sartre’s essay Qu’est ce que la literature (What is literature?) uses Wright’s Native Son as its chief example, describing how the novel is constructed with two, distinctive audiences in mind, white and black readers. According to Sartre, Wright’s understanding of the tensions between each group’s expectations determined many of his creative choices.

For me, the fascinating connection is that, in reading Special Laughter, I find it, too, is addressed to two different groups, in this case, those in the know (concerning the significance of the rise of fascism and the war in Europe) and those blissfully and almost criminally ignorant or, at least, unconcerned with these matters.

This is not to say that a book with such serious themes is a plodding or hectoring volume. On the contrary, as the title suggests, it is a work of light verse or, better, verse lit up by the absurdities and wackiness involved in the ostrich posture of so many citizens, something Nutt conveys both by a deft portrayal of ominous and incongruous scenes, and also by his casual, appropriately flippant tone.

The book is filled with war tension, foreboding suggestions of espionage and thought control, the nearness of gruesome death, and a mindset that moves between cynicism, fatalism and a sense that one might as well live for today, the devil take the hindmost.

Part of this mood is brought out in “The Intellectuals,” which describes a café where words have to be carefully weighed, not so as to say things precisely, but to make sure they are properly veiled. “Somebody softsays something; // Somebody overhears; // We tip our glasses in a toast, // Somebody – disappears.”

In “Discovering Tuesday,” the trick of the partygoers who are the poem’s subject is not so much to mince words but to keep away from the edge of knowledge (of the gathering storm abroad). They are urged:

“Dance! My pretty quacks and clowns, // Damn you, dance! Spin and pass -- // But hold your breath, and don’t look down! // You’re dancing on a floor of glass.”

These two are atmospheric poems, wittily suggesting the off-balance mood of the self-blinded, American middle class, but other poems are more sociologically probing. Fascism, for Nutt, is the product of an inequitable system which, as he describes it, among its ironies boasts that “the really rich who pledge the most [to charity] // That they may make the louder boast, // Who are so princely generous // With fortunes they have fleeced from us.” These same very well off continue in their routines, even as conditions deteriorate. One of them “Must work till noon revising … memoirs, // A date for luncheon, tea, at two o’clock, // A portrait sitting and a gas mask fitting, // And guests for formal dinner of dead duck.” Not only do these large property holder ignore the signs of approaching world cataclysm, they do their best to profit from it. “Business is good. Observed the merchant’s manner, // The vertical virtue of the cannon vendor; // Behold the broker’s penny-ante mien, // The hot-dog hawker at the lynching scene.”

All the poems I’ve mentioned so far reach toward two publics. There are those being put on notice, who have refused to face or gird themselves up in relation to the events transpiring in Europe and Asia, and there are those who are striving, through Party activities or otherwise, to intervene against fascism and fight for a better world. It is only in the last poem, “For Sure,” that Nutt speaks directly for these latter, the committed. In their voice, he says:

We know. We know the things we love

And what we love is ours!

Though the wires be cut, we still have ways of knowing,

The city dark, we know where we are going,

And who go with us where we go, we know --