Times have changed. Cute as it might be, or as one might think it is, you can’t get away with a line like this anymore: “Negroes, ignite! You have nothing to use but your brains.” Ha ha. “Negroes” were igniting in the 60s because the abuse they had been suffering for centuries still hadn’t stopped—so that’s not so funny, is it? Then to imply that they hadn’t been using their brains up to that point is completely ridiculous and insufferable. You shouldn’t even win a National Book Award with a book that has that line in it. Deal breaker. But it was the mid-60s, that stuff still had some play left, even in places where people should have known better. Cute racist puns in poetry? Go for it! The only salvation is that this is the record of a night spent eating and talking with a friend, Pascal. Such jokes may come and go, and friends will laugh or groan, but it stops there. Unfortunately it’s often the smoke-filled room where racism flourishes, plots its strategy, and passes on its tactics.
Someone asked Dorothy Parker to use a sentence with “horticulture” in it, and she came up with “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” Now that’s funny, and while that line insults whores everywhere, the joke is probably worth the risk.
After the litany of tasty food and a tasteless joke, without the “sauce” (booze), the only line in this toss-off that really matters? “One-two, the old thrones / topple, dead sober.” It’s probably not what he was getting at—he was out to topple the old-throne of sobriety on this night—but racist attitudes, from outright slavery down to demeaning jokes, is the big American old throne. The 60s took a good big chunk out of it, but it didn’t quite topple then and it still hasn’t toppled yet, and in fact there are plenty of smoking jokesters working hard to resurrect it right now. The poem ends with “The decanter, pal! / Pascal, we free & loose.” Yep. All the old habits. When you’ve been trying to stay off the sauce, but then get re-loosened enough to take that next drink, it must feel like anything goes. Hello, old friend! Did you hear the one about the Negro, the Mexican, and the Jew in the airplane?