Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Please Don't Send in the Clowns

You know how one thing leads to another if you spend any unregulated time on the internet? Well, this morning my mind led me into the craziest side street. It started with Stephen Dunn, a fine poet whose work I've long admired, and because I ran across a poem by him involving a clown, I found myself thinking more than I really wanted to about them. Clowns have always creeped me out. I find nothing amusing about them. I have even wondered, what kind of a person becomes a clown? Who in their right mind would want to put on that crazy get-up and try to make kids laugh? And my mind can only fathom that it's someone who doesn't like being themselves. Someone who has something to hide. I'm telling you, I get the creepy-crawlies from them. And I know I'm not the only one.

If a clown had shown up at one of my birthday parties - and I use that term loosely because I don't recall any party, ever, and there would never have been enough money for a clown anyway, thank God - I would have wondered how much my parents really liked me. Did they harbor ill-will towards me? Was I secretly adopted, as I sometimes wondered anyway? It's not that they didn't acknowledge our birthdays, they did, and we received some fine presents - although nothing that would break the bank, they were still well-chosen - so worrying about a clown at my birthday party would have been akin to worrying about getting eaten by a shark when I'd never been anywhere near the ocean, but that didn't stop me from worrying about it. Maybe I should be more worried about run-on sentences.

Anyway, I ran across this poem by Stephen Dunn and it got me thinking, too much, and also raised a metaphor or two, possibly three. Maybe it's because the world seems a little crazy right now and ripe for these things and the whole clown thing made me even more aware of it. Is this about a kid's birthday party gone awry? Is this about a clown inexplicably emerging from the woods? I don't know for certain but if a clown emerged from my woods I'd run like hell. I wouldn't be offering him a ride to any birthday party. He'd have to hoof it on those ridiculously over-sized, floppy shoes of his. And why should the kid have to make nice just to cover for the angry parents? I'm telling you, it's all a bit unsettling. I suppose that's the point. See what you think.

"If a Clown"

If a clown came out of the woods,
a standard-looking clown with over-sized
polka-dot clothes, floppy shoes,
 a red bulbous nose, and you saw him
on the edge of your property,
there'd be nothing funny about that,
would there? A bear might be preferable,
especially if black and berry-driven.
And if this clown began waving his hands
with those big white gloves
that clowns wear, and you realized
he wanted your attention, had something
apparently urgent to tell you,
would you pivot and run from him,
or stay put, as my friend did, who seemed
to understand here was a clown
who didn't know where he was,
 a clown without a context?
What could be sadder, my friend thought,
than a clown in need of a context?
If then the clown said to you
that he was on his way to a kid's
birthday party, his car had broken down,
and he needed a ride, would you give
him one? Or would the connection
between the comic and the appalling,
as it pertains to clowns, be suddenly so clear
that you'd be paralyzed by it?
And if you were the clown, and my friend
hesitated, as he did, would you make
a sad face, and with an enormous finger
wipe away an imaginary tear? How far
would you trust your art? I can tell you
it worked. Most of the guests had gone
when my friend and the clown drove up,
and the family was angry. But the clown
twisted a balloon into the shape of a bird
and gave it to the kid, who smiled,
let it rise to the ceiling. If you were the kid,
the birthday boy, what from then on
would be your relationship with disappointment?
With joy?  Whom would you blame or extoll?

~ Stephen Dunn

The whole thing raises a lot of questions. Speaking strictly for myself: please, do not send in the clowns. No ventriloquist dummies, either.

Perhaps I should say, "Don't bother. They're here."


  1. Oh, the Stephen Dunn piece is wonderful. I will have to spend more time thinking about the answer to his question. I never minded clowns, and I got to know a couple of them personally. They liked making people laugh and it seemed to me that the costume and makeup gave them the courage to perform; they couldn't have done it as themselves.

  2. That's funny--they're already here.
    The ventriloquist's dolls are what I find creepy, while some clowns I like. I think it is all that white makeup that makes them too much and all the horror movies that have evil clowns. However, I was one of those people who wanted to be one; when I was younger. I've always had a kind of goofy personality and like playing with kids, and I think the clown get-up would give me something to hide behind as I make a fool of myself with silliness. Being shy, I felt I took never be my true self without looking dumb. But then, my favorite holiday is Halloween.
    I understand where you're coming from though.

  3. Clowns give me the creep too. I'm scared of them. You don't know what or who they are. Any evil person can hide in a clown.
    Uhuuuuu....Grethe running to a safe place.....

  4. I totally agree about the clowns. And, I, like you, always thought that I was adopted too! Must be all the love we didn't get in our young lives or something.

  5. This bring to mind one of the most infamous, most despicable clowns of all time. John Wayne Gacy. Known to put on a clown suit for children's birthday parties, he was later discovered to be a serial killer of young boys, burying their body parts in the crawl space of his house. The story unfolded during one of the worst winters Chicago ever had, 1978, with snowfall after snowfall that never melted, and the horror of a house, in a neat little neighborhood, and how no one knew, for years, what a dastardly creep the clown really was. Oh my, this is a downer of a comment and I try to be upbeat, but, I guess you hit a nerve here, Teresa, and put us all on alert for the dangers of clowns.

  6. Clowns are scary! Especially after I saw the Stephen King movie "It". Terrifying stuff.

  7. At first I admit I was terrified by your description of a clown walking unexpectedly out of the woods. If I were a child or an adult I would run the other way.

    But then I thought, what if this clown is a regular person in clown's clothing, or a regular person who appears to be in clown's clothing, a person dressed out of the norm, or a person who is unconventional, or is strange looking to our everyday circumstances, perhaps a martian if you will. if a person is strange to our mind's eye, do we reject them out of our prejudice? or do we wait to see just who this person is? I wonder about these things sometimes, how do we judge who or what is before us. Are they friend or foe.

    I read a report of a scientific study of children in the first grade who were shown three photographs of other children and asked to choose who they wanted to be their friend. one photograph was of an obviously black child, one was chinese, and one was caucasian but over weight. In an overwhelming majority the children chose the overweight child last to be their friend. Always makes me think about life choices made upon appearances.

  8. Hi there. Interesting to think about. I don't recall ever seeing a clown in my preschool childhood, but must have been Christmas, 1946, my mom, sisters and I were at a gathering of country people in there house.. me a three-year-old. Everyone was sitting around a living room, but I'd wandered to the back of the house, the kitchen, when in walks a guy in a red suit, long white beard etc ... first Santa Claus I ever saw and it scared the bejesus out of me. I ran screaming and hid under the chair my mom was sitting in.

    I went to a 30th HS class reunion in 1991 and one surprise was a kid named Herman Ramsey I'd run with some, by '91 he and his wife both physicists at Los Alamos National Labs, spent weekend and holidays being clowns for parades, etc. Never occured to me it might be sinister, though I did consider it something I wouldn't personally gravitate toward.

    Rodeo clowning, by the way, is probably the most dangerous job out there, distracting angry bulls away from thrown riders a few dozen times every event.

    Guess I'm going to think some more about this before I decide whether I have a viewpoint.

    Enjoyed the poem, however, though I'm not sure he was precisely talking about clowns underneath all the words.

    Thanks for sharing the post.

  9. NANCY, I think it's wonderful, too. A lot more there than clowns. However, I'm not sure I'll change my mind about them... :)

    LINDA, Well, I have a feeling you're your true self now, what a true self is, and you don't appear dumb at all. Just for the record. :)

    GRETHE, I trust you've come out now. It's safe. Clowns all gone. :) I concur.

    TERI, I wonder if every kid doesn't wonder if they're adopted at one time or an other. It crossed my mind more than once, despite feeling quite loved, I also felt like an outsider of sorts. Strange.

    PENNY, Gacy crossed my mind when I wrote this. What a terrible thing that was. It doesn't prove all clowns are serial killers, but it does strengthen the questions I have. You too, apparently.

    LADYCAT, I haven't seen "It" as I recall. I'll take your word for it... :)

    LINDA, That's quite the study. Sad. Makes me want to go on a diet.

    JULES, I think the questions posed by the poet at the end go way past the subject of clowns and they're questions worth looking at throughout Life.

    Scared by Santa Claus. All I know is I did not want to sit on his lap and tell him anything.

    Physicists who "moonlight" as clowns. Now, that's scary. :)

    And, no, my guess is he had deeper questions he was posing, but I took the clown thing and ran with it. Strong feelings and all.

    Of course, there's the clowns in Washington, which has become a cliche.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    btw: I give rodeo clowns a pass. They serve a very real function.

  10. Wow! When did you see Steven King's "IT"? When you were 6 or 7? You have the fear like I do. That movie scared the S#&*! out of me.
    And the movie called with Anthony Hopkins... way before he silenced the lambs. I hate ventriloquist dolls.
    I'm with you on all of this. Clowns are scary and I don't want any part of them.
    I would have run from the clown in the poem but it's very metaphorically written and... who knows, we could all be running from ourselves.

  11. The movie was called MAGIC, with Anthony Hopkins. The last comment didn't print the name of the movie. Odd...

  12. farmlady, I didn't see "It, not that I recall, so I'm not sure when my fear took hold, but "it" always seems to have been there. "Magic, " is one of those movies I like, because I like Anthony Hopkins so much, but it scared the hell out of me, too. I am also a huge William Goldman fan, so loved his book, "Magic," on which it was based. The image of the doll above is THE doll from it.

    And, yes, I agree, there's more in that poem than clowns, it's just the context he chose to ask the questions. And they are interesting to look at. He's such a good poet. Thanks for commenting.

  13. An excellent post Teresa. I too find clowns somewhat frightening. Equally, I take the dog for a walk most days through the Crematorium and often pass a funeral procession led by an undertaker dressed in tall black hat and tails in order to portray solemnity .... and I can never resist laughing at the sight.

  14. Thanks, Alan. Is that sort of like whistling past the graveyard? I'm chuckling at your walk, what a great sight.

  15. They give me the creeps too. It's the reason I avoid the circus Teresa...

  16. Paul, I try to avoid the circus, that's why I don't turn on the news...

  17. First of all, I love Stephen Dunn.

    I'd give that clown a ride, no problem. Clowns don't freak me out. I think I'd even sit at a bar and talk for awhile with him. Oh, wait a minute. I have sat at bars and talked to clowns. Oh wow.....

  18. BB, There is an array of clowns and, seemingly, no shortage.

  19. Funnily enough I watched a programme on TV about the circus and clowns only yesterday. I too never thought clowns were funny, the only one I thought was okay was Charlie Cairoli don't know if you remember him? But then....there was the clown who wore that conical hat with pom-poms,a white face and funny stiff wide-legged short trousers,and always spoke with a weird accent, now HE used to give me the 'ebbby-gebbies'! Agh!

  20. Maybe Dunn, like the rest of us, was waiting for Godot but Bozo showed up instead. Happened in 2008, didn't it?

  21. hmmm. Clowns and ventriloquist's dummies always make me laugh. Can't understand why you find them creepy.

  22. Half heard in the stillness, I always find it very interesting when these sort of "coincidences" happen. There does seem to be something else at work here. But clowns? What does it all mean? :)

    Cletis, To say we've been bamboozled would be an understatement. I keep wanting to have a wait and see attitude, but with each passing day it gets tougher. Crusty needs to come out with a strong statement. Today would be good.

  23. gigi, Well, judging by the comments here, I'm not alone in my dislike of them.

  24. Love the Dunn poem. Provides a good deal of opportunity for pondering. On clowns, can't say I've run into many of the costumed version. Rodeo clowns, yes. One of my uncles and Slim Pickens clowned it up at the rodeos. As someone mentioned, dangerous job. Probably paved the way for Slim to be able to ride that bomb with a laugh.

    I think I grew up leaning more toward enjoying clowns because of Red Skelton who did some clowning. He was such a tender fellow, it set a tone for thinking they were safe and fun.

    You asked, "who in their right mind would want to put on that crazy get-up and try to make kids laugh"? Actually, with good intentions, I did. Twenty or more years ago, for a friends (BG) daughters birthday party. Her fifth if memory serves.

    I had a blast getting into full costume. One of my husbands friends did my makeup and the crowning touch was a giant fuzzy yellow wig. I arrived at the door step with lots of helium balloons for the kids and a bag of fun "treasures". All the kids loved it, except the birthday girl. She wouldn't have anything to do with me until it was time for me to leave, because she couldn't workout the "clown" having a familiar voice.

    I swear on a stack of Dunn poems, my clown act was never repeated. The poem did leave me wondering; if my car had broken down that day...?

    Hope you can forgive me?

  25. Chris, I was a big Red Skelton fan, but not when he was in costume. I am, however, being forced to look at clowns with new eyes, thanks to your observations and your own temporary clown-ness. :) So, thank you for that. If someone I like as much as I like you was once a clown, that is alright by me. No forgiveness necessary. However, I'm not sure I'm ever going to like clowns at large. :)