3

In Ted Hughes' "In Laughter" (A Crow poem. See it fully here), the first paragraph depicts "colliding" and "crashing" as the kind of events that happen "In laughter":

In laughter
Cars collide and erupt luggage and babies
In laughter
The steamer upends and goes under saluting like a stuntman
In laughter
The nosediving aircraft concludes with a boom
In laughter
People's arms and legs fly off and fly on again
In laughter
The haggard mask on the bed rediscovers its pang
In laughter, in laughter
The meteorite crashes
With extraordinary ill-luck on the pram

[Note that the repeating line "In laughter" is the beginning, not the ending, of each couplet, as evident by Crow's audio version].

In this paragraph, there's one image that I'm not sure how to interpret:

The steamer upends and goes under saluting like a stuntman

"saluting" may simply mean a nautical etiquette flag dipping (and see also this comment), but how do a "saluting" and a "stuntman" are connected to each other as an image of a sinking steamer ship?

  • Stuntmen are performers, and there is a feeling of performance, in that Hughes is a voyeur here. (Is that the kind of thing you're looking for?) – DukeZhou Aug 2 at 21:45
  • @DukeZhou, I'm looking for a simple explanation of how can a ship salute like a stuntman, or put another way: in what way a sinking ship salute can be seen as a stuntman salute. – HeyJude Aug 3 at 19:41
3

Simone Biles just made history this week, and pictures of her performance made me think.

Look at her saluting:

enter image description here

Now look at an upended ship (that's a painting of the Titanic, made by Filson Young):

enter image description here

These postures look pretty similar, aren't they? The body is all stretched up, impressively lengthened.

Now, Hughes maybe didn't have a gymnast salute in mind, but maybe he was thinking of something similar - a circus stuntman salute (see e.g. here), picturing a sinking ship as a saluting circus man in an ironic sense.

Considering the song title - and its repeating chorus - is "In Laughter", it's reasonable to also interpret other lines in the first verse in this circus-que light (aside from their apparent macabre meaning).

1

The image in this line is a synecdoche: it is not the ship itself that is saluting as it goes down, but its captain (or officers, or crew). The comparison to a “stuntman” indicates that we are to imagine the event taking place in a movie: as the model of the ship’s upper works disappears under the surface of the water tank in the studio’s back lot, it is the stuntman standing on the bridge, so that the star does not have to get wet. The sinking being part of a movie explains why people might be laughing at it.

Two critics who agree with this interpretation:

Crow, in short, is the beast of a very modern apocalypse, one in which images of global disaster and individual violence take absurd and grotesque and debased forms that derive quite as much from contemporary mass culture as from literary tradition:

Cars collide and erupt luggage and babies
In laughter
The steamer upends and goes under saluting like a stuntman
In laughter

And Crow himself, it seems to me, is conceived and handled in ways which invite comparison with a popular art form peculiar to the twentieth century: the animated cartoon, and its printed relative, the strip cartoon.

David Lodge (1971). ‘“Crow” and the Cartoons’. Critical Quarterly 13:1, p. 39.

Elsewhere, in the poem “In Laughter,” Hughes engages more fundamentally with the performative strategies of the popular visual arts. As David Lodge first noted in his influential 1971 article “Crow and the Cartoons,” this lyric sets highly staged images of violence and pain against a refrain-like soundtrack of canned laughter […] The reference to “a stuntman” highlights the text’s indebtedness to the realms of televisual and movie culture. The poem deliberately aims to shock and unsettle the reader with its robust, surreal humor.

James A. Knapton (2004). ‘Ted Hughes’s Crow’. In Jay Parini, ed. (2004). British Writers Classics, volume 2, p. 44. New York: Scriber’s.

  • 1
    Intriguing, but if it's the stuntman who's actually saluting, then why is he "saluting like a stuntman"? – HeyJude Aug 6 at 16:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.