Spoofs & Satire

Portrait of Rilke by Paula Modersohn-Becker

Letters to a Young Lawrence Welk

Before he became famous, Lawrence Welk was just another hoofer working for tips. Then he reached out to Rainer Maria Rilke.

Dear Mr. Welk,

Your kind letter has sat upon my nightstand, a gentle reproof of Response’s long delay. It is Sunday, and raining, and I am staying at a spa in Karlsruhe to recover from my recent American sojourn. My bones ache, but my soul sings. I am sad to say that I won’t be able to offer a pleasant reaction to your amateur performance of the venerable Bavarian Chicken Dance. It is said, in our wise old country, that you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken scat (Huenchen Salat entsteht nicht aus Huenchen Scheisse). And yet there you were, a scant fortnight ago, offering your audience, your obedient servant numbered among them, all of us desperate for chicken salad, which is a perfectly executed Chicken Dance, and there you were giving us scat, speaking here to the quality of your effort. They applauded, but I did not, and they were only being polite. It was the Christian thing to do.

Yours in Honesty,
R.M. Rilke


* * *

Lieber Welk,

Your beautiful note of Christmas arrived, and I thank you for it. My hands have been inflamed and rashy, and I’ve thus been unable to write for so long. Today, however, the sun is shining, but in outer space all is black and cold … and there are no “todays.” You claim a desire to master the Chicken Dance, which is to dinner theater entertainment as poetry is to the soul, and yet you ask my advice as to “how.” No exceptional technical ability is necessary to perform the Chicken Dance; any drunken fool can manage, as they every fall in Munich do. But: only an artist can master the dance’s moving parts in a way that transcends sober gravity; it is the difference between gibberish and poetry. You are “trying” your best, you write. Zarathustra once wrote: “There is no try, there is only do.” Find your solitude, dear Welk, and when you find that solitude, burrow within to find even more solitude, and when you find that solitude deep within, burrow, burrow, and burrow yet even further. You must burrow like the dickens to find your bedrock solitude; and if the Spirit to master the Dance is immanent, you will find it beneath the bedrock. And then no more will you ask “how,” no more will you “try,” then you will do.

Advice, sought for or no, is useless, a tragedy.

Less Offishly, I Remain Your,
Rainer Maria Rilke


* * *

Lieber Lawrence,

I was traveling to Bad Vilbel by handcart and thus couldn’t attend to your letter until today, though your letter of last year thrilled me, righteously, as a young boy thrills when swimming among his fellows in one of Schwarzwald’s icy tarns. If I may, please allow me to mention that my throat has been inflamed and harshly a-tickle ever since Spring arose from Mother Earth’s fallow lap and commenced Her yellow dance. My penury is such that I cannot purchase medicine, and thus I suck pebbles, here in Bad Homburg, where I live at the dock, itchy and alone.

So! Let us examine the Chicken Dance in its proper order.

Beaks: One raises the arms to shoulder height, elbows at precise 90-degree angles, hands shaped like beaks and snapping crisply. One should crack seed hulls, so sharp and crisp and quick are the beak-snaps. Precision in the tiniest of details is Genius’s hallmark.

Wings: One tucks the hands into the arms’ axillas, elbows a-flap, as with a common yard fowl scavenging up and down, rapidly. By way of feedback and correction, if memory serves, you had your arms akimbo, fists on hips, and were stomping around like a Bavarian Maedchen heavily laden with beer. One wishes for furious delicacy in this part of the dance.

I am practically crippled with grief, for it is cold and damp under this bridge, where I now write with pen clenched in jaw.My fingers ache from the effort of writing but I shall persevere.

Tail Feathers: Never will I regret the thousands of blisters, the hammer toes and shin splints, the arms sprained from windmilling, entire nights spent soaking my feet in Healing Salts, a balled-up rag in my mouth to stifle the harsh, coughing sobs, so that Mother and Father could get their two hours of sleep before they left for their ignorant hard-labor jobs, three jobs a piece, earning geld enough to finance my dream of dancing for Kaiser Wilhelm, which I did, because when I do Tail Feathers, it is a stylized shimmy. One holds the arms athwart the body, fists lightly balled, and moves them jauntily, while sinking slowly to the ground.

Four Distinct Claps: Properly performed, these Four Distinct Claps are a Lesser Banishing Ritual, an expulsive force that creates a vacuum into which Terpsichore and Her Angels, the Spirits of Dance, swoop down and smite with fire every bosom’s heart. Properly performed, it brings forth our Guardian Spirit, the Ruebezahl, with its Warrior Dwarves; improperly performed, it conjures Daemons.

It is here, in the conjuring, where your Chicken Dance most clearly failed, Welk, you darkened storm cloud, you rain sponge.

Then follows the conjoined Tantric Twirling, elbows linked, the repetition circles, the spinning that is Cosmos in motion. Earth courting Sun, the moon its silent bond-servant, a pet.

This is the Chicken Dance.

Der Rainer


* * *

Dearest Lawrence,

News of your success has reached me even here in the anonymous Bavarian Kurort where I languish in Healing Salts. Yes, I shall once again brave the Atlantic Travail and will arrive in Pennsylvania to watch your debut. My left leg is withered and twitchy; it reeks of old Limburger. Maggots have taken up residence in the soft regions near my knees’ patellae and poke up their heads when I whistle shrilly. I pinch them out and toss their repellent, segmented flesh into the fire. But there are always more. Always. Their bodies pop and crackle in the flames’ beaks, Nature’s Chicken Dance.

The chattering leaves outside my window tell me it is raining again.

Much Brotherly Love,
Der Rhein Mann


* * *

Dearest Lawrence,

Your dance of last night both thrilled and repelled me. Thrilled, because in your eyes I see burning the sapphire Spirits of excellence and rapture. Repelled, because—and I must be honest for an artist may never lie or he will indeed lose his gift—you are no Chicken Dance master. You are a fool, inebriated on the champagne of near-excellence, forever damned from Mastery’s Elysium.

I am practically crippled with grief, for it is cold and damp under this bridge, where I now write with pen clenched in jaw, my mouth a rictus engine of penmanship. Perhaps, dear Lawrence, your calling is different from mine. Perhaps the Gods have blessed you, as they did Tantalus, to foster Excellence in others but never to taste its sweet wines directly.

Oblivion came swiftly upon me for a moment, for I have ingested many tinctures of Opium, and only some poor fellow’s hacking roused me long enough to take up pen with tongue, to clench my teeth, and give you this last final exhortation: I imagine you in magick tail and top-hat. I see champagne bubbles. I hear your magick count: “a-one, and a-two” and abrahadabra: I see four beautiful upright mammals performing the Chicken Dance. Brilliantly, perfectly. Angels attend that terpsichorean tantra, and upon their wings’ soft touch, all mankind shall brothers be. And then the vision’s end. Tears stung my cheeks, and I whistled for pain. And then the maggots, their heads rising and cheering, much as Lazarus’s eyes blinked open when Christ told him to rise.

All My Love,