The Art of Parody - Elizabeth Kay

          Parody is enormous fun, and I teach a class on how to write it each term in my creative writing courses Malden Centre and Surrey Hills Onward Learning because the students enjoy it so much. It doesn't seem as daunting as starting something from scratch. It’s actually a very good way of finding out about other writers’ styles, although you have to choose someone with a distinctive voice. Hemingway is an excellent subject, with his absence of adverbs, and reasonably easy to do as a consequence. Chandler and Spillane are good targets as well. Probably the most famous parody of all is Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, which took the mickey out of the accounts of rural life by writers such as Mary Webb, D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, concentrating on sexual undercurrents, muddy fields and inheritances. This is one of my favourite passages:

…He looked up as Judith entered, and gave a short, defiant laugh, but said nothing. Judith crossed slowly over until she stood by his side. She was as tall as he. They stood in silence, she staring at him, and he down into the secret crevasses of the porridge.
    ‘Well, mother mine,’ he said at last, ‘here I am, you see. I said I would be in time for breakfast, and I have kept my word.’
    His voice had a low, throaty animal quality, a sneering warmth that wound a velvet ribbon of sexuality over the outward coarseness of the man.
    Judith’s breath came in long shudders. She thrust her arms deeper into her shawl. The porridge gave an ominous leering heave; it might almost have been endowed with life, so uncannily did its movements keep pace with the human passions that throbbed above it.
    ‘Cur,’ said Judith levelly, at last. ‘Coward! Liar! Libertine! Who were you with last night? Moll at the mill, or Violet at the vicarage? Or Ivy, perhaps, at the ironmongery?’
            However, I think the greatest gains are to be had writing poetic parodies. You discover new verse forms, new ways of looking at things, new ways to use images, alliteration, metaphors. It’s a bit like the way art students of old used to group around paintings in the National Gallery, and copy them stroke for stroke. You may not be doing something totally original, but you’re learning a technique. I’m a great fan of trying forms that you’ll never use again, as you always discover something new. Poets benefit from writing stories, as they learn about narrative. Novelists benefit from writing plays, as they improve their dialogue. Playwrights hone their language skills by writing poetry. Although most parodies are amusing, they don’t have to be. I parodied Ted Hughes’ Pike, using the zebra-striped safari FWDs that I saw in Kenya in the nineteen nineties. I wanted to make a point about the voyeurism that causes huge numbers of vehicles to group around the death of a prey animal. I went to Kenya again last year, and it wasn’t any better.

Worse, because everyone communicates with everyone else by mobile phone, and the moment something’s spotted all hell breaks loose. You can tell this poem dates from earlier – the photographers are still using film, rather than digital images, and no one’s texting. If you know the original, which you can find here you’ll see how I’ve tried to copy the structure as well as the language and content. I have self-published a Kindle version of my own poems, The Spirit Collection, which was originally published as a chapbook by Manifold Magazine and includes the poem that won the Cardiff International Poetry Competition in 1999.


Safari bus, fourteen foot long, ugly,
Misplaced mechanism, black tigering the white,
Photographic predators: the rows of Nikon lenses,
They collect among the zebra like flies.

Or move, in single-file formation
Across a landscape, grey with dust.
Anomalies against an ancient skyline,
Silhouetted by a scarlet sun.

Near the waterholes, hardware at the ready,
Casting long shadows;
Locked onto this week’s lucky break, a lioness.
Or feeding vervet monkeys peanuts.

Snub-nosed predators, windows shut,
Not to be opened on any account;
They raise the roof instead, mushroom style,
The exhaust vibrating gently, spewing grey.

Three we watched yesterday,
Shimmering in the hot sun; then
There were four, then five, then eight -
But by nightfall there were none.

For even now, the darkness belongs to us.
And you know they spare nothing,
Not even each other.  Two of them,
Stranded by the side of a rutted road -

Laced together, shredded metal intertwined.
One headlamp stares upward, blind: another
Lies shattered, shards of glass
Growing like desert roses in the dust.

Sometimes they congregate, their meeting place
A clearing, flanked by gnarled giants
Who remember greener times
Before the cattle and the fires.

Bleached and ravaged plain,
It was as wide as Africa.  It hid
Us in its desiccated scrub, but let us watch
The ivory face of death: now

They shoot with Ektachrome,
Raking the bush with their telephotos
For what might move, aching to still it
Splashes of dye on resin-coated paper.

Pied kingfishers hover above the water,
Black and white reflections: a larger one
Peels away from the others, changes gear,
And drives slowly towards us, watching.

Of course, you can go the whole hog (!) and do what Bob Newman did, which is to parody an entire book of poems, namely Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.S.Eliot. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Pigs is a porcine feast of piggy characters such as 
Snowball, Snout and Sniffly,
Estate Agents to the Animal Kingdom, and was illustrated by me.


madwippitt said…
Your talent is boundless!
(And the porridge in CCF definitely has a life of its own) But I must go look up the Practical Pigs - sounds fun and the illustrations look fab!
JO said…
Oh yes - parody is such fun!! And it's wonderful what can emerge from it (I played with 'Let me Die a Young Woman's Death' from the poem by Roger McGough and had a wonderful tiime!)
Nick Green said…
I love your Safari Bus poem, but I wouldn't call it parody. I think parody can be defined loosely as mocking the source material in some way. You're not mocking Hughes here, you're mocking the tourists. So this is (if we have to give it a name) a satire written in the style of Ted Hughes.
Elizabeth Kay said…
Thanks, Nick. I feel I have more substance all of a sudden!
Bill Kirton said…
LOved it, Elizabeth and couldn't agree more about the delights (and usefulness) of parody. My own favourite is C.L. Edson's take on Poe's The Raven. I can't resist quoting it. Here's the opening:

Once upon a midnight dreary, eerie, scary, I was wary, I was weary, full of worry, thinking of my lost Lenore,
Of my cheery, airy, faery, fiery Dearie-(Nothing more).
I was napping, when a tapping on the overlapping coping, woke me grapping,
yapping, groping.. toward the rapping. I went hopping, leaping...
hoping that the rapping on the coping
Was my little lost Lenore.
That on opening the shutter to admit the latter critter, in she'd flutter from the gutter with her bitter eyes a glitter.
So I opened the wide door, what was there? The dark weir and the drear moor,--or I'm a liar-the dark mire, the drear moor, the mere door and
nothing more!

I love parody! One of my friends - she's still one of my very best friends - used to liven our Old and Middle English classes at Edinburgh, back in the early 70s, by constructing parodies of Beowulf (eminently suitable once you get into the OE mode) and Middle English poems. But you're quite right - there's no better way to understand how a text works - and have a lot of fun at the same time. Once you've read Cold Comfort Farm you can never read Lawrence again without sniggering. Mind you, I never could read DH without sniggering so that was fine by me. Great piece!
Susan Price said…
I so agree about Lawrence, Catherine!
Lydia Bennet said…
Me three, Susan and Catherine, loathe Lawrence and Cold Comfort Farm is one of my go-back-to books of all time. I enjoy parody too, of course my Lydia Bennet's Blog is a kind of parody. But Nick is right, it's sometimes something else you are parodying rather than the original writer or piece. Or it's an 'homage', I love Raymond Chandler and enjoy doing Marlowesque pieces (but hyped up a bit) - I wrote reviews of crime fiction in that style for Mslexia once. I'd never thought of teaching it however, what a good idea for workshops!
Lydia Bennet said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
julia jones said…
Brilliant, Elizabeth

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