Renee Ashley

An Aesthetic of Anomoly: Edward Taylor's "Preface" to his "Gods Determinations", My Mother and the Trolley, and Some Thoughts on Involuntary Comedy






          "The Preface" because I read it and I crack up. Not once, not just the first or the first few times. Every time. Across a lot of years. That fourteenth line. It stuns me and I laugh out loud.

          This sort of thing runs in my family.

When my mother was a young woman in San Francisco, she was riding a trolley car to work; it was rush hour, the car was crowded. Ma and another woman, a stranger dressed to the proverbial nines, had had to run to make the car -- Ma assured me it had been a breathy, but sure-footed, near-miss for both. And they were pole-hanging, the two of them holding on to the same brass stanchion at the outside step when, for some undiscernible reason, that second woman lost her grip. The car was moving rapidly at that point and she fell to the street. The trolley stopped. Police came. First aid people. The woman was attended to; she was not seriously injured, but, certainly, bloodied and wildly humiliated. Her clothes were ruined. And my mother couldn't stop laughing. She'd watched that unfortunate woman hit the pavement and roll like a stone, seen her come to a precarious halt perched on all fours, her previously well-dressed butt in the air doggy-style; she'd seen that fine red skirt torn and wrenched above the woman's waist, her ribbony garters white against the backs of her thighs, nipping at the dark bands of her ruined stockings, and my mother, still clinging to her shiny brass pole, couldn't stop laughing. And, by the time that woman lifted her head and began to stare, bewildered, at her own bloody palms, my mother's visceral, barroom laugh had enveloped the trolley, and the fallen woman, as well as the distance between.

          Ma first told me the story probably forty years after the fact, and the teary-eyed laughter began all over again. In the midst of this renewed bout, she told me that she was certain the other passengers, and the police, had believed she'd pushed the woman. She seemed to need to assure me that she hadn't.

          I believed her.

          Of course, the worst possible scenario was that those people thought she really had knocked the woman to the street. But probably they never thought that at all; maybe they just figured she was crazy. At the very least, though, they must have believed she was guilty of laughter at an inappropriate (not to mention an extended and amplified) moment. But both back then, when Ma first experienced what must certainly have been, for one reason or another, nasty and recriminating glances, and, forty years later, when she still felt, urgently, the need to defend herself against the old and unspoken charge -- that nebulous threat of responsibility -- she had laughed even harder.

          Of course, I think her response was more complicated than a simple attack of random, misguided laughter. I believe that in those few moments it took the woman to fall, and in those corresponding few moments it took my mother to recognize that the woman had fallen, Ma had gotten, suddenly, in a blast of unarticulated insight, the mother of all jokes: that though we preen and strut, though we think ourselves such an elevated and sophisticated species, though we have consciousness and are conscious of our consciousness, though we theorize about the intangible and unprovable, though we manipulate all that we are possibly able on this earth, we fall down. Accidents happen even to those who dress well, and they're funnier when they happen to those who dress well. We, as a species, are just plain vulnerable -- and all the more so because of our position as we perceive it within the hierarchy of the demonstrable world. You're upright and important. Then you're not. You look foolish. Or, you're in trouble. Fast, like that. That dressed-up woman had been taken down before anyone could figure out what happened; she had been, without a moment's warning, demoted to the messed-up woman. And it's not just the "messed-up" part that's funny; it's the where she came from, where she went, and how quickly she arrived there that kicked the progression into the slapstick mode. If she'd been badly hurt, as she well might have been, it would not have been funny. But she wasn't. It was a version of the pratfall -- this time, a Darwinian banana peel.


          It's funny. And disconcerting when it happens close to home. Ma maintains she simply got nervous. It had shocked her, she said, this woman, so much like herself, in such proximity, taking that ungraceful, unladylike, head-over-carcass momentum-powered tumble into the city street. It had been a "deviation from the common rule" of trolley rides, of ladies, in fact.[i] The incident had created a disturbing sense of dis-ease in her. It had been an anomaly. It made her nervous. It made her silly. And that made her laugh.

          It's much the same for me with Taylor's "Preface."

          I'd read him in college. I remember being mildly thrilled that the poems included in our anthology were neither as long, nor as painful, as the Puritan prose. When I look back at my marginalia now, it tickles me -- the word imagery appears over and over, along with snaky arrows meandering in great numbers across the tissuey pages. Clearly, it was all news to me, this idea of imagery. And I'd drawn a big star in the Table of Contents by "The Preface" and written in green ink, between the title and the page number, "Who in this Bowling Alley bowld the Sun?" And lots of green exclamation points. That's it. That's the one: Taylor's glorious fourteenth line.

          And then I forgot all about him and it.

          I got out of school. I had what I called, for a lot of years, a life. But that life has changed and Taylor's back in it.

          And I'm thinking of how, just lately, in the midst of my laughing, someone told me that fourteenth line wasn't funny, or at least wasn't meant to be. It set me to wondering all over again about Ma and about laughter in what seems to be the wrong places, about what appears to be an awkward subjectivity of the laugh response.

I know that if I read that "bowling" line to Ma, in its context, in its precision, with its unexpected analogue, its aha! moment of recognition, of rightness and outrageousness, she'd be horrified. She'd laugh. She'd get nervous and she'd laugh and she'd stand back and wait for the lightning to strike while she was laughing all the harder. I know this like it's in my blood -- it's what she does; it's what I do. The whats have clearly been in place for some time. Now, I think I'm able to see the pattern, to take those whats one step further: now I have an idea about why we're laughing.

          Much of what I'm getting at, no doubt, hinges on our sense of vulnerability. Fred Miller Robinson, when he speaks of Poe in his book Comic Moments, seems to understand: "The gap between the vulnerable human and the overwhelmingly superior Other can be readily converted into a comic contradiction...."[ii] Readily is right. Faster than we can comprehend. And the conversion seems to have a tripartite nature: roles belonging to the vulnerable human who makes the blunder, the vulnerable human who witnesses the blunder being made, and an awareness, on at least one of those parts, of some "overwhelmingly superior Other" that supposedly presides over it all and passes judgment on it. It has to do with a sense of complicity. And all that comes together in an instant. Ma, certainly, after the fall, experienced, if not articulated, a vulnerability; her great Other had just totted up one more small comeuppance for the self-impressed species, and she was aware of that -- just as she became aware of the presence of that other, lesser, Other, the unspoken prohibition of laughter in a potentially serious context. It all happened too quickly to perceive it as personal at first; by the time that registered, the sequence was already begun. Only after recognition took hold did the "Oh-My-God-That's-Not-Funny" response kick in. And then, in all probability, the "Damn-Damn-Damn-That-Could-Have-Been-Me" response. And then, after looking around her, the "Oh-Boy-Someone's-In-Trouble-And-I-Think-I'm-It" response. It's part of what I'll call the follow-up to the bringing down.

          And it's much the same in Taylor's "Preface."

       Robinson attributes such a response to a "breach of decorum."[iii] And Freud points out that "It seems to be generally agreed that the rediscovery of what is familiar, 'recognition', is pleasurable"[iv] -- which abuts beautifully with Robinson's notion of the "sympathetic element in laughter."[v] Shock. Recognition. And that troublesome sense of familiarity and complicity. Sanford Pinsker, in his excellent review of Robinson's book, talks about Freud's "'joke-work,' meaning an exploration of the pleasure that occurs when liberated nonsense allows us to say something blasphemous, hostile, or obscene."[vi] And with Taylor it is a sense of the slightly blasphemous that swats into action the sudden bringing down, which sets into motion the, shall we call it subjective, follow-up response.

          Belief in a God or no aside, I was brought up to fear the possible Him, to, at least, consider the offenses I would commit and the potential consequences should I decide to commit them. And when I have the gall to cross that invisible line, whatever we choose to call it, wherever we choose to place it -- and I do all too frequently, consciously and unconsciously, cross that line -- I am programmed to step back and wait for the bolt. I get these frissons of dis-ease.

          Taylor, for that instant, that one line, seems to have taken that sort of liberty. I witness it every time I read or recall it. I relive the trespass. And this in a poem of devotion, wearing its serious, devotional clothes. I witness the vulnerable poet make what feels, at the onset, like an obvious blunder, an inappropriate trope, and I am complicit in the witnessing. I get the shivers and then, down that predictable line: "Oh-My-God-Someone's-In-Trouble and...." And it makes me suspect that the effect of the laughter and tension cycle is sharpened by the perceived solemnity of the situation. In this instance, it's not so much a matter of simply overcoming a taboo, as it is just leap-frogging that taboo for an instant and then falling back. My reaction is prompted, I'm certain, by the conjoining of what Robinson so rightly calls "the effect of strangeness" and "the surprise of meaning."[vii]

          It's the trolley all over again.

       Freud alludes to some authors who describe laughter as a "'detente,' a phenomenon of relaxation of tension"; he says that they see laughter as a "release from constraint."[viii] It must be the truth, I think: a discomfiture and a release. I think of it as a barely man-or-woman-sized hole in the contextual fence. We're not sure just why we're laughing, but we have a real sense of the tense and the funny. We try to squeeze through. At the time, it's not articulated; it's a reflex, an unpremeditated flight response. Then, almost immediately, at that point of release, we experience a pall of guilt for having laughed and our tension is heightened. And that kind of tension, in the presence of laughter, begets laughter which begets tension which begets laughter. A Mobius strip of laughter.  

          Who in this Bowling Alley bowld the Sun?

          It's risky.

          Of course, none of this would matter if Taylor's metaphor weren't so striking, so to speak, so exactly right. If it weren't so borderline naughty in its vehicle-to-tenor transference, in its dressing down of God. Taylor's implied metaphor is that the pathetically human bowling alley is analogous to the kingdom of God's creation as we can know it. It's not the sort of comparison you hear every day. It is, in fact, an articulated -- by limitation -- demotion for God, one that radiates connotations of what might be called a less-than- properly-elevated nature. A real stopper, in fact. God, in all his presumed omnipotence, touted as a designer of bowling alleys -- and this the evidence of his glory!

          And, sure, I'll grant you that what makes me laugh and what's, literally, intentional comedy may be two different things, but that particular "surprise of meaning" makes me laugh every time. It may be unintentional -- it is surely unintentional -- but I've got a feeling that's part of what's so darn funny.


        Taylor was a Harvard graduate, a physician and an orthodox Puritan minister in Westfield, Massachusetts, at the cusp of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His work was never published in his lifetime[ix] -- in fact, his manuscript wasn't even found until 1937, tucked deep into some shadowy recess of the Yale University Library. Its discovery seems to have caused quite a stir; evidently, we were a little short of American Puritan poetry. We had Anne Bradstreet, of course, and the endearingly named, but agonizingly heavy-handed, bludgeon-footed, best-selling "Day of Doom" by Michael Wigglesworth; and we had lots of prose. We had Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." That was fun. But evidently there was an open slot in the textbooks for poetry and Taylor got the job.

          Certainly other poets have catalogued the world, but Taylor's panache is singular. His veritable muster of plain, worldly images, and his great show of ascending and descending energy, give us the dynamic of a struggle -- not one of faith, but one of expression. We get a real taste of the Puritan dilemma and of the Puritan himself via his own perception. The world as metaphor. The metaphor as witness. Nothing intimate here, no details of the singular man or his life, nothing personal, except such as a man's relation to his God is personal. Except as a display of immense piety and frustration is personal. No art for art's sake. Taylor is earnestly, privately, and logically, in his time and by his beliefs, marking the justification of his election to his God.

          "The Preface," written around 1700, is, for me, Taylor's most appealing piece. Nothing I can find in the body of work comes close. And, in turn, nothing else on its own within "The Preface" comes close to that fourteenth line. Though there is great charm and energy throughout the poem, and though the construction as a whole feeds the power of that single, brilliant line, there is little doubt that it earns its renown from that one "accurate unexpected detail."[x] Yet I love the poem in its entirety. In it, Taylor gives me pleasure. I like pleasure. And I like the little details, the sidebars, that bolster it.

          So, my concern in this essay is a small one: as far as poetry goes, just this forty-four line "Preface." Not the less interesting "Prologue" that follows it. Not the interminable, abstract dialectic, "Gods Determinations Touching His Elect," that follows that. Never that. And more, a small concern within that small concern: my experience of "The Preface," and, in wonderful particular, the effects of its collocation of pedestrian, downright homely metaphors. The pleasure those metaphors lend me. And that laughter.







          "The Preface" falls naturally into two parts. The first is characterized by awe in the guise of an interrogatory battering, intimated and concretely annotated -- the who did it? throughout which Taylor is nearly goofy with wonder; the second is awe once more, but in a more abstract mode, and accompanied by attribution -- his answer -- and the more predictable, darker didacticism. And though "The Preface" moves naturally from part to part, from question to answer, it is clear from the onset there was never any real question.

          Puritans, officially, did not question. It's an obvious and interesting issue: clearly a doctrine of "no doubt" in itself speaks of the possibility of doubt. It's a simple, linear, cognitive progression: in the consciousness the concept of doubt must exist in order to expunge it. Posit the concept of doubt, then wipe it out -- it does not exist within the fence of Puritanism. It's paradoxical. In fact, the whole world of Puritan paradox may be the engine that drives the adamant energy of the poem. Edmund Morgan put it this way:


Puritanism required that a man devote his life to seeking salvation but told him he was helpless to do anything but evil. Puritanism required that he rest his whole hope in Christ but taught him that Christ would utterly reject him unless before he was born Christ had foreordained his salvation. Puritanism required that man refrain from sin but told him he would sin anyhow.[xi]


          And, beyond all that, it required that he praise God but did not give him the language to do so. An unenviable dilemma.

          The question/answer form does lend itself to venting, though, the frustration and subsequent adamance from what Carlisle calls -- despite the orthodox proscription against doubt -- the "obsessively asked Puritan question: am I one of the elect?" He says that the format "revealed another of the ways in which Taylor apprehended life...."[xii] Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, the question/answer dichotomy of "The Preface," is, quite clearly, motivated by rhetoric, and, one might say, Puritanically punctuated for emphasis, each trope a fist coming down -- after all, Taylor was a minister, an arguer for God. His poems were not inquiries; they were pure and private sermons of and for the self.

          "The Preface" is written in a single stanza of forty-four lines, rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter. The rhetoric and its tension builds as the lines accrue, peaks at line fourteen, and then, in an enactment of the sequence of creation, grace, and the fall, spirals downward. Wild. Efficient.


          Taylor begins the poem at the beginning of all beginning, his pre-creation mass, Infinity, pure God-in-the-concept, then, as the world progresses, he adds parallel, physical "evidences" of his God via his earthly metaphors and then ends with -- or descends towards -- the quintessentially Puritanical final trope.


          The two poles of Taylor's concern are set up immediately: the "infinite" and that "nothing" which later will characterize his "nothing man." God and man, the absolute dichotomy in the Puritan mind. Insuperable. Perfect.


Infinity, when all things it beheld,

In Nothing, and of Nothing all did build,


          Through the dense music of his repetitions, Taylor virtually renders the abstract palpable in these lines: "in" and "infinity," the "all"s, "thing/s" and "nothing," the gorgeous iambic rhyme of "beheld" and "did build." It's tight, melodic. At the same time, he sets the foundation for his "nothing" wordplay -- a delicious and complex depth of accrued meaning by the time the poem hits its doctrinal stride in line thirty-eight. He's moving quickly. And from this point, from this abstract, creationist realm, he moves in a swift, natural progression to one of the familiar and finite. In line three, he sets into motion his marvelous catalog of what Woolsey calls Taylor's "incorrigibly-terrestrial metaphors."[xiii]


Upon what Base was fixt the Lath, wherein

He turn'd this Globe, and riggalld it so trim?


          The catalog of works has been opened. The images continue:


5 Who blew the Bellows of his Furnace Vast?

Or held the Mould wherein the world was Cast?

Who laid its Corner Stone? Or whose Command?

Where stand the Pillars upon which it stands?

Who Lac'de and Fillitted the earth so fine,

10 With Rivers like green Ribbons Smaragdine?

Who made the Sea's its Selvedge, and it locks

Like a Quilt Ball within a Silver Box?

Who Spread its Canopy? Or Curtains Spun?


          There's a childlike quality to these insistent questions, a humility I'm very drawn to. And a childlike repetitiveness: Who? Who? Who? That small and weak fist beating "who." A non-censoredness. And an if-at-first-you-don't-quite-succeed interchangability. (It's interesting, too, to note the difference between the catalog of metaphors and Taylor's similes: like green Ribbons Smaragdine, like a quilt ball within a silver box. These are the poet's editorializations, his embellishments, not God's works per attribution and they are slight and frivolous in comparison to those in the catalog of works itself.)

          So, was there a plan here? the big to the little? the structural to the decorative? Lath, furnace, mould, corner stone, pillars. Lac'de and fillitted. Selvedge, canopy, curtains. God is a woodworker. A metalsmith. A mason. A seamstress. A weaver. Is there a considered pattern of movement? I don't think so. An arena, I think, a locus of domestic craftsmanship -- though one which he will violate soon enough. But there does seem to be a small trade show taking place here. It's quaint, but it's not really funny yet. An expectation has been set up, however, a context of domestic artistry. It is still sober and practical. And, with this in mind, Alan B. Howard's point about the nature of Puritan perception is key in trying to deduce Taylor's intention: "...any suggestion that the creation might faintly resemble the bright chaos of a tradesman's fair simply did not exist for Taylor." His explanation is convincing: "the imagery ... is unified and coherent simply because each individual image exists for him only at the point at which it touches the idea of god as an enormously powerful artisan."[xiv] And Stanford, in the Introduction to his edition of Taylor's poems, agrees:


Taylor saw nothing incongruous in using an image from everyday life ... to illustrate a serious theological idea .... Taylor had little concern with incongruous connotations. He saw resemblances rather than differences.[xv]


          Daly brings it down to the level of the text itself in order to remove it once again: "In Puritan poems, symbolic correspondences occur, not at the level of the trope, but at the level of perception."[xvi] So, though the "tradesman's fair" is our first perception, the deeper truth is, no doubt, the Howard-Stanford-Daly core of reasoning. Taylor is stacking up evidence like firewood. Or, more aptly, stockpiling munitions. It was his job: what God put within his purlieu, within his dim understanding, he should report, and with it he might, in his poor way, glorify God. It's a stance adopted from Augustine of Hippo, from the Doctrine of Accommodation, which "implied that the Divine Author was employing the writer in His service...."[xvii] Taylor was God's scribe. He functioned within, what Junkins calls, this "religio-aesthetic"; it was the raison d'etre of the poem.[xviii] God was, of course, inexpressible; there had to be a scaling down to accommodate the severely limited human capacity to comprehend, so that, even in His employ, His poets had, finally, to fail. Taylor's inability, then, to breech the gap between man and God was a just confirmation of his doctrine: the more he failed the better he was. The gap was inviolable. The homely crafts that Taylor enumerates -- the structures and objects that, if all went well, protected and comforted him in the vicissitudes of an environment with a great potential for destruction -- were visible and comprehensible. Survival -- his physical life -- depended on homely concerns. And that life -- as well as his spiritual life -- belonged to God. It was no more than reasonable for him to draw parallels.

          There are, in fact, a drumful of theories on the dynamic of Puritan metaphor of this nature. Daly quotes Richard Baxter's "Saints' Everlasting Rest" in explanation: "... heavenly contemplation assisted by sensible objects."[xix] Carlisle supports Taylor's method with a certain insight: that man, too, like Taylor's household metaphors, "...must be acted on by someone...; he has no real power to 'make' or 'act' in his own salvation; God must act on him...."[xx] And, actually, that's a good argument. The catalog of work exists only to exalt God -- and to stress the chasm between nothing-man and all-God. Pearce, in his The Continuity of American Poetry, puts it this way: Taylor "is constrained everywhere to find an earthly counterpart -- however poor or dim -- of the ineffably holy."[xxi] That constraint is abundantly clear in "The Preface."

          Taylor, in fact, in his enthusiasm, bombards us with a virtual artillery of image and, I think, we must look at it on artillery's terms. Taylor never meant to offer a multiple-choice. Nor was he trying to create a pattern. He was building an arsenal of metaphors whose "force, like the army of the saints, lies in their numbers, not in their individual will."[xxii] And it works. As I read, I am carried on the swell of Taylor's rhetorical energy, the stockpiling of this argument's evidence.

          Puritan poets were, in their own eyes, not creating -- the trope, evidently, was not the issue. Again, it was the perception rather than the poem as art/artifact that carried the weight. These poets were transcribing the facets of God's works which God allowed them to see. The profane indicating the sacred. It was their duty to see and to make note. Daly makes the perfect distinction:


           [This view of poetry]... has far more in common with the Roman notion of the poets as 'vates,' a 'seer' who observed and utters a truth outside himself, than with the Greek notion of the poet as 'poeta,' a 'maker' who fashions verbal artifacts finally of his own creation....[xxiii]


          What was important was not the poet's experience, but his noting of the evidence of God -- and clearly no evidence was unworthy. God, supposedly, had set it up that way. "Man's reason, though dim, [was] sufficient to lead man part of the way to God, Who ha[d] ordered all things to aid such a pilgrimage."[xxiv] So, faith was built-in according to God's plan. The Puritan's, ideally, was an art of no art. It was to "... contain only enough art to guide one to the truth."[xxv] Hence the disparities in level of tenor and vehicle -- God's accommodation of man's dimness left a big gap.

          The Puritans saw their world according to their Grace, according to God's condescension. Art was a devotional process -- it was meant to adore, not to explore. The telos of the art was communion, adoration; the telos of the life, justification of hoped-for election, of salvation. One was merely a road to the next. Art, itself, was suspect, but useful. It smacked of human pride. Men could make nothing; only God could make. Woolsey points out the paradox once more: "Words adequate and appropriate to the situation [were] impossible to find, yet silence [was] unthinkable."[xxvi]

          For Taylor, I'm sure, despite the knowledge of ultimate futility, each image was a stab at bringing the ineffable nearer to articulation. Yet the ineffable is, by its nature, ineffable. And I can feel his dissatisfaction in the speed and lightfootedness of his catalog. Even in his inclusive view of builders and makers, despite the numbers of his "proofs," he never quite satisfied himself, I think; each time he tried again. The result is that great show of ascending energy -- the urgency in the poem builds, and the power accretes, until, finally, in line fourteen, he is nearly out of control and he swings wild:


Who in this Bowling Alley bowld the Sun?



          The sudden bringing down.

        Taylor has set up in us an expectation throughout what might be called his catalog of practicality, his list of metaphor-as-witness. Now he breaks the pattern, knocks us down with the anomalistic. Bowling, for that man of God, was no acknowledged trade, no practical craft. The effect on the reader is a sort of shock. Immediately the stereotypical, cacophonous, competitive, beery, smoky bowling alley we all know -- a version of which was rife in the seventeenth century as well -- springs to mind. This startling shift, from the craftsman's essential realm to the raucous and gamey, smacks of a Robin Williams line, an instantaneous, nearly perfect leap out of the proverbial not-previously-rocked boat. Clark Griffith suggests, perhaps, the poet was carried away by the "momentum of metaphor."[xxvii] Yes, I think so; and it's at this line that Taylor steps onto the line of decorum, with his, let's say, most exuberant trope. He's desperately casting about at this point, and the poem takes in and sends back that desperate energy. The reader gets a big shot of a hyper quality that lends itself to giddiness. And it's at this point that this whole idea of metaphor and humor comes into play -- of discomfiture, of the bringing down, and of the following-up reaction.

          Freud says joke-work makes sense into nonsense. I believe that's what the bowling line approaches. I don't believe it crosses over; in fact, the comparison is so close to precisely right that the sense gets blurred for a moment: the vehicle startles -- prolongs the unarticulated moment -- and then crosses back over (at least for me) into the recognizable and discomfiting.

          Why does that make me laugh?

        Reed says, "...Taylor's conceits are often too extreme, ... produce an effect that, for the modern reader, often verges on the ludicrous."[xxviii] He's accused of "straining the link" between vehicle and tenor.[xxix] Blau says Taylor's metaphors can "attract the attention away from the idea which they are supposed to convey.... [T]he disparity between things compared is too great for the mind to bridge with appreciation."[xxx] All true to some degree, I suppose, on that continuum of critical assessment. (The critics are nearly as funny as the image itself. Taylor, though he flailed in the face of the infinite, in the context of ineffability, did it brilliantly. The critics, on the other hand, are working within the realm of curtailed, finite meaning, the perfectly adequate utterance. They, too, wear their "good clothes" and they do struggle mightily to maintain their critical demeanor -- which results in what often, in the case of Taylor criticism, reads like wry understatement. The contrast between those two energies, the devotional and the critical, themselves make for a laughable tickle in that neighborhood of "the effect of strangeness" and "the surprise of meaning.") Those critical demeanors, however, their foibles aside, do come close to the point. Taylor's line does at first seem to approach the territory of their commentary, and we do gear up for some sort of disapproving response. But the reasoning-out of the metaphor never takes that infinitesimal final step into the ludicrous. The metaphor itself, historically and currently, makes much too much good sense for that. But by the time we work it out, we're already laughing and have set into motion the laughter-tension loop. That gap in comprehension, however, does prolong the non-verbal moment (a moment that I believe to some degree is inherent in the processing of any good metaphor) and is what sets into motion -- and contributes to the seemingly exaggerated nature of -- that noisy and nervous-making follow-up to the sudden bringing down.

          In fact, poetry and comedy seem to share several techniques, and, within this moment of the poem, they're all working simultaneously and furiously. Freud talks about the "technical methods of joking": "condensation, displacement, [and] indirect representation...."[xxxi] The parallels are stunning. The economy of joke work to the compression of poetry: these things take far longer to explain than it does to experience them first hand from the piece. Displacement: the dilemma of the ineffable, itself, that results in that marvelous indirect representation, the image. And Freud again: "A favorite definition of joking has long been the ability to find similarity between dissimilar things -- that is, hidden similarities."[xxxii] What else is metaphor?

          At line fourteen, poetry, the image, the joke -- that laugh -- have come together. But is the bowling metaphor a joke as we know it? Yes and no. I think we tend, at first thought, to think of a joke as deliberate, calculated, something told for effect. But Webster reminds us that a joke is also "the humorous or ridiculous element in something." Yes, absolutely: joke-like. Humorous. Comedy? Yes, yes. And it's all these many things going on simultaneously (compression, displacement, indirect representation, the sense of blasphemy, of witness, of complicity) -- these dynamics which, in concert, heighten the stun-laugh-recognition-shame-laugh-even-harder progression. Both the catalyst and the outcome are dis-ease. We look for that hole in the fence: release.

          And the effect of this flurry of cognitive activity is compounded by Taylor's lineation. The line is the second of only three one-thrust, self-contained lines in "The Preface." The first two are unremarkable, his line five, "Who blew the Bellows of his Furnace Vast?," a line perfectly integrated into his interrogatory catalog of practicalities; and the second, line eight, "Where stand the Pillars upon which it stands?". All other lines in the catalog, other than fourteen, are either compound or enjambed. But in fourteen, Taylor, after setting up the expectation of a continued laundry list of banal, homely metaphors, without warning, in that one swift thrust, tosses in an anomalous figure that startles -- that jarring, self-contained climax to the catalog (and a rhetorical peak to "The Preface" itself), the Bowling Alley. And the solid "spun"/"Sun" stressed rhyme along with that dual interrogatory lift at the line breaks heightens that sense of closure -- the door of the catalog of works, along with its climactic anomaly, slams shut. All that in an instant. Ba-boom. You get mugged like a punch -- all at once -- so fast you don't have time to sort out your reactions. The bringing down so quickly. The absence of warning. Donald Hall's "accurate unexpected detail."[xxxiii] It's perfect.

          Really perfect.

        As is the evolution of the bowling alley itself in relation to the trope -- though I laughed my good hard laugh even long before it occurred to me to look up its origin. The Encyclopedia Britannica says it "probably" began in ancient Germany as a religious ceremony. The pin (the "kegel" then) represented the heathen. You rolled a stone at it, and, if you knocked it over, you were "believed to have cleansed [yourself] of sin."[xxxiv] I love this idea just in general, but the best part is it's a perfect fit for Taylor's trope. That incredible "surprise of meaning."

          But the years exacerbated the risk-factor in bowling and it is that evolution that creates the high/low, abstract/concrete discrepancy -- and it added it earlier than I might have imagined. My twentieth century notion of the smoky, beery nature of bowling alleys was closer to the encyclopedia's historical notation than I could have imagined. In 1511, King Henry VIII issued an edict declaring bowling "evil" because of its link with "dissolute places" and gambling. The edict, of course, was virtually ignored until it was rescinded in 1845. Bowling's image continued to go downhill despite the game's great popularity, and in the seventeenth century the game became "more and more... associated with pothouses and taverns, and the excesses of drinking and gambling by the shady characters who met there...." Not just a twentieth century manifestation after all. That was news to me. Great news that made Taylor's line even funnier -- the kind of funny not attributable to a historical, contextual misreading. And all the more right: the human realm as sin-filled and besmirched. Taylor knew the connotations. Stanford and Howard were no doubt correct: Taylor had one thing in mind -- getting near the idea of God while acknowledging the insuperable chasm between man and the ineffable.

          Nevertheless, despite any profound intention, it is the unification in the trope, the figure of the high abstract and the low concrete that really clinches the laugh. Robinson puts it this way: "What is primarily necessary for the conversion or shading into the comic is the increased and conscious assertion of the human in the face of the Other."[xxxv] And Freud takes the same idea even further:


...I do not trace the comic pleasure in analogies to the contrast between the two things compared but to the difference between the two expenditures on abstraction. When an unfamiliar thing that is hard to take in, a thing that is abstract and in fact sublime in an intellectual sense, is alleged to tally with something familiar and inferior, in imagining which there is a complete absence of any expenditure on abstraction, then that abstract thing is itself unmasked as something equally inferior. The comic of comparison is thus reduced to a case of degradation."[xxxvi]


          Freud quotes Herbert Spencer's "The Physiology of Laughter" (1860): "Laughter naturally results only when consciousness is unawares transferred from great things to small -- only when there is what we may call a descending incongruity."[xxxvii] It's true. And it all falls into place. A descending incongruity. Affinity. Meiotic deflation -- meiosis: "the representation of a thing as less than it actually is in order to compel greater esteem for it."[xxxviii] It's the aesthetic for the entire catalog of works.

          And it is this just-right factor that gives me my foot-stomping certainty: "The Affinity between the objects is what makes the contradictions comic."[xxxix] The bowling alley is exactly right. Originally, nothing-man in his sin-sweat knocking down those unbelievers with a rock for the all-God's glory. And, later, man's realm as rife with sin and a world in which the upright fall and fall again. The precision of the parallel adds to the dis-ease. The recognition-laughter-tension-laughter sequence is in full motion. I think you have to love that.

          Freud, arguing the same rhetorical idea in a different arena, quotes a great couple of lines from Heine: "...Till at last,/at last every button bursts/on my breeches of patience." It's the same equation as the bowling line, and a laugher, too, though clearly not to the same degree. The deflation is not nearly as hyperbolic. Patience, a decidedly small, human virtue, is not quite in the same high abstract category as God-the-creator. The gap is a much smaller one. Nevertheless, Freud's explanation is apt: he says it has "a characteristic that we do not find in every good (that is to say, in every apt) analogy. [It is] to a great degree 'debasing'.... [It] juxtapose[s] something of a high category, something abstract (...'patience'), with something of a very concrete and even low kind ('breeches')."[xl] And bowling is certainly the lowest of Taylor's catalog. The high. And the low. And the gap in between.

          It's an interesting puzzle: God-the-maker-of-bowling-alleys bowling the sun, setting the sun loose across the sky. Kenneth Murdock, in his Literature & Theology in Colonial New England, gives a straightforward, actually beautiful, reading of the line. He says it has


the imaginative strength of great poetry. Taylor's God was not content to fix the sun on its orbit in the firmament; he must, with a magnificent sweep of his arm, bowl it into place. The image makes him just what Taylor felt him to be -- a God so great, so serenely powerful, that even the sun for him is a toy, a bowling ball, and all the material wonders of the universe are merely the appurtenances of a bowling green.[xli]


          It's lovely and it works, though the progression of the catalog of metaphors doesn't indicate that Taylor thought it through that far. I think, in his "momentum," he flung it out, surprised himself, and, in his singled-mindedness, said, "Wow, it's a keeper."

          John Gatta, Jr. gives Taylor credit for both his serious intent and his comic achievement:


In creating his celebrated image of God as a prize bowler of the universe, Taylor is actually underscoring the comic disparity between earthly vehicle and divine tenor, thereby dramatizing his awareness of the transcendent nature of his subject.[xlii]


          On the money whether Taylor intended it or not.

       Warren, from another angle, says "...the shock comes from the modernization, the provincializing and localizing of the Infinite...."[xliii] It's that too. The localizing of the infinite -- but to such an unseemly location! The unification of the ineffably sacred and unutterably profane. All dressed up and falling off the trolley. And it doesn't end there.

          Taking into consideration the Christocentricity of Taylor and the Puritan penchant for puns, word games, and typlogical double meanings, the word "sun" in that fourteenth line begs for scrutiny.

        There's the pun -- and Puritans loved them: Who in this Bowling Alley bowld the Son? The homonym.  God-the-Father setting loose His son into the world. Both as rhetorical climax and as image, this is bountifully meaningful. Christ, the son, was the bridge between nothing-man and all-God. There was no other way to breach that chasm but Christ.[xliv] Exactly right again. And it is startling: suddenly an issue of ontology addressed by way of a bowling alley and compounded by a pun.

          Metaphor lends itself comfortably, in fact, to both the apt and the comic, though, in "serious" poetry, we -- as writers -- tend to quash the funny stuff, when we spot it, in order to be taken seriously. Kids, on the other hand, are more than willing to give that safety measure a miss.

          There's an excellent classroom exercise for exploring metaphor that asks young students to name three categories of things: invisible things (such as love or anger), colors, and visible things (a window, a caterpillar, a brick), and to write each list in a column down the page, the three columns across the page; and then, in a Chinese menu sort of way, it directs the students to match up words, any one word or phrase from each of the columns, in the form of metaphor. Here's the examples from the book:


Invisible things Colors Visible things

fear fire-red needle

love black door

memory moon-white star



          Some examples from these offerings might be: love is a black door, or, love is a moon-white needle; memory is a fire-red door; fear is a black star.[xlv] All good, meaningful figures. But in my experience, more often, in the actual classroom dynamic, children come up with metaphors of this nature: All good, meaningful figures. But in my experience, more often, in the actual classroom dynamic, children come up with metaphors of this nature:


Love is a caterpillar-green tennis ball.

Hunger is an electricity-red lightning bolt.

Death is an elephant-gray moving van.


          And if you push them -- after they've had their good, hard laugh -- about how love is like a caterpillar-green tennis ball, they'll tell you: it's bouncy; you can see it coming; or going; sometimes it goes flat. Or hunger is a lightning bolt because it burns, or it strikes, it could kill you, or you can hear the rumble. And death is a moving van ... Well, figure it out.

          There is always that surprise of finding the "similarity between dissimilar things," those "hidden similarities." I used to tremble in fear that those young students would come up with a mixture that would stymie me, some catastrophic, from my point of view, image that allowed for no tenor-to-vehicle transference. It never happened. Some were hilarious. A few we had to reach for. But the mind leaps first. Then we look back and build bridges.

          It's not so far from the bowling alley, is it? Robinson nailed it: the effect of strangeness, the surprise of meaning. That childlike quality. And the nature of metaphor. An aspect of humor, too. God's creation is a bright bowling alley. Why not?

        Ma, of course, if she chose to address this at all beyond an open-mouthed gasp, would call it "cheek." She'd say Taylor had "a lot of cheek" to put God, his omnipotence and splendor, in the same squalid mouthful with a bowling alley. Not that she has anything against bowling alleys -- but it's apples and oranges, oil and water. And, besides, she'd say, it was a "fresh" remark. "Fresh" as in definition number four in Webster's Ninth Collegiate: "disposed to take liberties: IMPUDENT."[xlvi] A breach of decorum.

          It's at line fifteen that Taylor stops his rapid-fire barrage and from the foothold of his anomalistic metaphor finally extends an image -- that sun. Lines fifteen and sixteen belong to the sun itself. And seventeen through nineteen even have the good grace to stay put in the sky. It's at this point that the rhetorical charge of the poem begins to dissipate; it is the point, too, at which the reader/witness can begin to relax.


15 Who made it always when it rises set:

To go at once both down, and up to get?

Who th'Curtain rods made for this Tapistry?

Who hung the twinckling Lanthorns in the Sky?


          These sorts of attributions we're used to. The sky is God's theater, his showplace. Charming, sweet. Not a laugher, though; no downgrading, no demotion. These are things he's done amidst other things and now, at least, we're beginning to look towards the celestial, the historically more fitting, expected arena for this god. No severe limitation. Meiotic deflation, yes. Funny, no. More predictable. We've accepted the artisan trope all along. So God's hanging curtains now, hanging lanterns? No surprise.

          And then there's a shift in the rhetorical gears in which Taylor takes on his preacher's mantle and moves on to a little more fist banging -- and then enlightenment:


Who? who did this? or who is he? Why, know

20 It's Onely Might Almighty this did doe.


          Line nineteen is the line that most radically modifies the iambic pattern. If we have, up to this point, been carried along by the catalog, soothed by those few lines lingering in the sky, this line marks the point at which the Rev. Mr. Taylor demands that we sit up and pay attention. At line twenty, the poem turns around: he gives us his answer. It's Onely Might Almighty this did doe. The two lines following are the summation for the catalog of works:


His hand hath made this noble worke which Stands

His Glorious Handywork not made by hands.


          Who couldn't love that wordplay? ...Noble work... ...Handywork not made by hands. It's glorious. And it harkens back, poetically, to those deftly played lines, one and two, at the beginning of the poem.

Taylor's on certain ground now -- the balance between the effort to express the ineffable and the assertion of dogma is beginning to tip.

          Then begins, in apposition to that catalog of works, what I'll call the catalog of power, and this is the fulcrum point at which the energies of the poem begin descending, playing out the Fall -- long before his literal invocation of the Fall in the final four lines of the poem -- and letting Taylor do his doctrinal job.


Who spake all things from nothing; and with ease

Can speake all things to nothing, if he please.


          A little nudge here on Taylor's part: he's setting up the connotational scaffolding that will support his didactic thesis. These "nothing"s are again prefiguring his "nothing man" -- made him from nothing via the Word, can turn him back into the original nothing if it suits him. As a recurring image, "nothing" is accruing depth and a frightening vacuity.

          And then back to power and the world as we should fear it:


25 Whose Little finger at his pleasure Can

Out mete ten thousand worlds with halfe a Span:

Whose Might Almighty can by half a looks

Root up the rocks and rock the hills by th'roots.


          The crook of His pinkie could create ten thousand worlds -- how significant could man be? Nothing man. Taylor knows both his God and his poetic construction. The absence of "nothing" builds tension in this section:


Can take this mighty World up in his hande,

30 And shake it like a Squitchen or a Wand.

Whose single Frown will make the Heavens shake

Like as an aspen leafe the Winde makes quake.

Oh! What a might is this! Whose single frown

Doth shake the world as it would shake it down?


          That squitchen (switch, stick, rod) introduces a notion of corporeal punishment, discipline. Parental and personal. Up close and a spur to the complicity Taylor's already set into motion in line fourteen. And whippings aside, this God's frown alone can shake the heavens, the world -- in fact, shake it down No longer is it an issue of just the soul and salvation; the corporeal body is at risk here. If it pleases Him, we're human history. We're nothing. We're primordial soup.

          That threat in place, Taylor drives it home with more fist-pounding to make the "Nothing" point:


35 Which All from Nothing fet, from Nothing, All:

Hath All on Nothing set, lets Nothing fall.

Gave All to nothing Man indeed, whereby

Through nothing man all might him Glorify.

In Nothing is imbosst the brightest Gem

40 More pretious than all pretiousness in them.


          Seven "nothing"s in five lines! And he finally settles down to the focus of his rhetoric: nothing man. All those early "nothing"s come to fruition here, lend their ominous, vacuous edge to the nature of this nothing-man. God made us from nothing, has given us all; let's nothing fall -- good puns here: lets nothing-man fall, lets nothing fall on man.

          Through nothing man all might him Glorify. The climactic, doctrinal pun, the slippery, slithery bottom line of the poem. Read: Through nothing, man all might him Glorify -- it's futile. Or, Through nothing-man, all might him Glorify -- all in the created world glorifies God via the poor, dim sight of nothing-man. ...Might him Glorify. It's the reason for the poem itself. It's man's job description.

          The final four lines provide the perfect doctrinal denouement: the breaking of the Covenant of Works, the Fall. The final thrust of the downward spiral, the descension to the postlapsarian state of nothing-man.


But Nothing man did throw down all by Sin:

And darkened that lightsom Gem in him,

That now his Brightest Diamond is grown

Darker by far than any Coalpit Stone.[xlvii]


          The final line, the line of status quo. And though that "Brightest Diamond" image is a tough one to love, I love that "stone." Yes, I find it worth a chuckle for its allusion to the predictable hellfire and damnation we've come to expect from those generic Puritans we seldom ponder. But I respect the elegance here, the fact that it is only an allusion, that it comes in through the side door of hellfire. Coalpit. It's an admirable slight of hand.

          Ontology, eschatology. Taylor's world was one metaphor. Was one arena, had one fence.

          Our century is different. Ours is a century of innumerable arenas, a plethora of fences. And more metaphors than we can shake a squitchen at.






          Anomaly. Dis-ease. Recognition. Complicity. Release.

          I think it's all there. The surprise of meaning. The effect of strangeness. The sudden bringing down: from a trolley, in a trope.

          Yes, of course I can hear the objections: I am predisposed toward laughter. It's true. My husband says he can find me at any gathering by following the trail of my laugh. And, yes, the unfamiliar and irregular orthography of the seventeenth century is strange and looks funny. And, sure, there's a handful of strange-sounding vocabulary that lands something like silly on the ear.

          But I'm not laughing at Taylor's other work. Nor am I laughing over the works of other poets in his period. Not the same laughter anyway.


          Much of "The Preface"'s appeal for me is derived from the glimpse of the man being eloquently -- and hilariously -- human: it is not a work intimate in its details, but a work wildly intimate because of its urgency. And the vulnerability that arises from that all-too-human pressure is the key to both its success and its unintentional humor. "The Preface" is alive with that humanness. Taylor wrote from this world about this world, the only world he could know. He wrote with more presence in the now than I can muster on my best of days -- not the near or far future, not the near or far past, but in the moment. Yet he knew that singular moment as an indication of the Other. He was not writing about heaven; he was not writing abstractions. He was naming (by adamance, by inference) the author of his immediate world. In that way, "The Preface" is a sermon -- Taylor knew what he wanted to say and, though he found language lacking, there was no room for doubt, no room for deviation. His metaphors were his art as well as his insight; what drove those images was the doctrine and belief behind the perception. And more than that. The energy, the "momentum," if you will, of "The Preface" belies an act of desperate devotion and unrelievable frustration.

        Taylor was a man. And a poet. And subject to the pitfalls thereof. In Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, Donald Hall recalls Marianne Moore quoting Aristotle: "It is the mark of a poet to see a connection between apparently incongruous things."[xlviii] Divine tenor, vehicular world. Surely a poet. And Hyatt Waggoner, in American Poets from the Puritans to the Present, pointed out that in Taylor's time, "The use of poetry was to help one live well -- and die well."[xlix] Taylor seems to have done both as well as nothing-man could.

          I made the trip to visit Taylor's grave. After dragging my poor husband out for the three-plus hour drive to Westfield, we dragged our road-bleary eyes over the graveyard, stone by stone. I can honestly say I didn't feel much like laughing. But after an hour's blurry traipsing through the rain with my notebook covering my head, squinting at eroded, unreadable stones, and despairing at the great length and breadth of the cemetery itself, I heard a sound -- and I witnessed my normally quiet and undemonstrative husband shouting and waving like a wild man from across the graveyard. He, the good man, had found Taylor's grave.

          In the rain I took pictures of the head stone, the foot stone, Taylor's wives' stones, some strangers' marvelous stones. I pondered the rough angels, the strange designations. I'd been disappointed, really, really sad for the previous interminable, soggy hour -- I suspected the stone was gone, or unreadable, unrecognizable. Sad that I'd talked poor Jack into driving all the way out to Massachusetts for no reason. And I laughed like crazy in the warm rain, writing wildly while the pages of my journal buckled in the downpour and Jack held the umbrella over my head. Taylor's gravesite was well-kept, the stone legible, upright, cared for. We hadn't come all that way for nothing -- and someone had been caring for Taylor.

          I can't say I experienced a mystical union with the dead pastor; I'm not even sure he'd be pleased I knew his work. But I was pleased for him. His stone was a tall one, cleanly incised. And it had a lot to say:



Here Rests Ye Body

of ye Rev.D MR. Edward

Taylor Ye Aged

Venerable Learned

& Pious Pastor of Ye

Church of Christ in

this Town who after

He had Served God

and his Generation

Faithfully for Many

Years fell afleep

June 24th 1729 in Ye

87th Year of his Age



        I'd call that pretty accurate. He Served God.... Yes. Taylor himself said, in his Treatise Concerning the Lord's Supper, that "The Web of grace is wrought in the soul by the shuttle of the Word." His word, too, I think. Barbara Jordan -- though certainly without alluding to Taylor at all -- summed up the position of his accommodation and his grace succinctly: "All things become sacred from long gazing."[l]

          It was Taylor's job. He did it well, and -- even two hundred and sixty five years later -- to my delight. So I told him so. I thought he should know.


          But I haven't told Ma she's in the essay. If I did, I'm sure she'd feel I'd crossed some invisible line. She'd make that annoying sinus-y noise she makes before she tells me I've got a helluva load of cheek. And though she might be pleased, I'm not sure she'd laugh.

          We do, certainly, laugh for a lot of different reasons. But my point is this: in these instances, we laugh at what doesn't fit our expectations; we laugh at what makes us uneasy. We laugh -- or some of us do, anyway -- at anomaly, at a sudden bringing down that carries with it an unspoken notion of culpability. There's more to it, I'm sure, but ... it's kind of funny, isn't it? 




Reprinted from

Studies in American Humor: The Journal of the American Humor Studies Association, Fall '97


Renée Ashley is the author of four volumes of poetry: Salt (Brittingham Prize in Poetry, University of Wisconsin Press), The Various Reasons of Light, The Revisionist's Dream, and Basic Heart (X. J. Kennedy Award in Poetry, Texas Review Press) as well as a novel, Someplace Like This, and a chapbook, The Museum of Lost Wings. She has received fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is co-poetry editor for The Literary Review, and on the faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson University's low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing.