A great parody is a great tribute: To be considered worth imitating and worth laughing at is a compliment. Moreover, to be truly seen and understood is close to the pinnacle for a work of art, and no critical essay can see and understand as deeply as the best parodies.

There's an additional thrill for the reader if the object being parodied has not seemed ridiculous -- until the parody wakens the sleepy perception that, yes, even a charming and indelible work may have its ridiculous aspects. Here is a fine and famous poem by William Carlos Williams (1893-1963):

This Is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

Williams's insouciance and offhand apology, his delight in his own capricious taste, and, underlying all of that, a certain male, maybe even professional, assurance -- these qualities do not diminish the poem. Still, it is bracing to notice them here and in Williams's other work. The late Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) leads us, hilariously, to take such notice. Somehow, substituting long lines for short ones, while keeping some of the rhythms, is another satisfying part of the joke:

Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams


I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.

I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do and its wooden beams were so inviting.


We laughed at the hollyhocks together

and then sprayed them with lye.

Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.


I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.

The man who asked for it was shabby

and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.


Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.

Forgive me. I was clumsy, and

I wanted you here in the wards, where I am a doctor.

(William Carlos Williams's poem "This Is Just to Say" can be found in "The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939," edited by Christopher MacGowan. New Directions. Copyright © 1938, 1944, 1945 by William Carlos Williams. Kenneth Koch's poem "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" is from his book "Thank You and Other Poems." Grove Press. Copyright © 1962 by Kenneth Koch.)