A FOOT WALKS INTO A BAR. BARTENDER SAYS, “HEY, ARE YOU A FOOT?” FOOT SAYS, “YES, IAMB.”
For openers, a peeve: It’s highly annoying when poetry reviewers seek to praise the poetry in question by insulting other poetry.
In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals drew the following blurb as an editor’s choice: “Lockwood offers a collection at once angrier, and more fun, more attuned to our time and more bizarre, than most poetry can ever get.” I like Lockwood’s poetry, I’m happy to see it earning mainstream attention, and I do find it generally fun, angry, bizarre, attuned to our time. But she’s certainly not the only poet to whose work these labels apply.
When I see such sweeping declarations, I tend to think the reviewer probably hasn’t read much poetry since that Intro to Lit survey back in sophomore year, and is amazed that the book in his or her hands seems so different from Whitman or Wordsworth, Keats or Dickinson. (Never mind that each of those poets also wrote with their share of fun, angriness, bizarreness, attuned-to-the-times-ness.)
These no-other-poems-are-like-this pronouncements are particularly common when a reviewer comes across a poet whose work is funny. Readers seem perpetually astounded – shocked, I tell you – to discover that poems can be humorous.
But of course poems can be funny. Poets have been bringing the mirth since Shakespeare, since Chaucer, since Sappho, since – well, since poetry.
My forthcoming collection from Sundress is titled Ha Ha Ha Thump, and I guess I’m setting myself up for trouble – title like that, you’d better be funny, poet boy. Honestly, I have no idea how funny the poems are, if at all. It’s not up to me to decide, anyway. I am reminded of a story I heard Lia Purpura tell a crowded auditorium at AWP a few years ago, about calling one of her pieces a lyric essay and having someone respond, “Shouldn’t you just call it an essay? And let the reader decide whether it’s lyric?” (She got a lot of laughs with that one.)
I have to battle against an abundance of earnestness in my writing; my first drafts are often tediously heartfelt. Humor, for me, is a hedge against that, a way to temper my innate sentimentality.
David Kirby was the first poet whose work gave me permission to think of poems as possibly funny. One of my favorite poetry-memories is watching him read a poem about a summer job he once had in which he and a co-worker had to repossess wigs from delinquent housewives. The audience was roaring with laughter by the end of the poem.
I have to learn some lessons more than once. My writing ever backslides toward sincerity. Billy Collins, Mark Halliday, Tony Hoagland – these were the next poets who gave me permission to seek humor in poems. Then Bob Hicok, in particular his poem “What Would Freud Say?” The line “explosion kills asshole” belongs in the Funny Poetry Hall of Fame.
I have a distinct memory of the first time it occurred to me that I could make other people laugh. It was October of my freshman year in college, and a group of us went to a haunted house out in the country – more a haunted estate, really, with a tour guide leading us through a series of rooms and dark paths as masked people jumped out from behind bushes with roaring chainsaws, bloody cleavers and the like.
Our group included seven of us: three couples and me. So I walked up front with the guide and offered a running commentary on the events of the evening – acting like an ass, basically, I mean, I was 18 years old, I’m sure everything I said was obnoxious and juvenile. But I had people laughing. Being the funny guy at the front of the group had never been in my wheelhouse before. Still isn’t, if I’m being honest, but it was nice to know it was at least a possibility.
A classmate in the MFA program at Western Michigan, Jamie Thomas, gave me lots of insight into writing funny. He has a knack for the clever detail, the smart observation, the absurdity of the mundane, and I knew from my very first workshop with him that I wanted to steal from him.
Jamie told me that he thinks of humor in poetry more as the employment of wit than simply telling jokes. And that’s right. The humor – like metaphor, simile, form, content, truth – has to be in service of the poem, not the other way around. A poem may have much in common with a joke, from structure to content, but a poem cannot be merely a joke.
It’s hard for me to think of a contemporary poet I truly admire whose work isn’t witty: marked by word play and incisive observations about the idiosyncrasies of human behavior. Poets and standup comedians, we aren’t so different.
A friend who does improv comedy taught me the “yes, and” rule, wherein each participant works not to halt the momentum of a scene, but to elevate the stakes, heighten the absurdity of the moment, before passing it along to the next player. In other words, do not challenge or question or apologize for the world being created, but explore it, invent it, change it. Humor should arrive organically. You don’t need me to tell you all the ways the same principle applies in poetry.
So who’s funny these days in the poetry world? Kirby and Hicok, of course. Lockwood, too. Erin Keane is a personal favorite (I mean, she has a poem called “How Do You Get a Clown to Stop Smiling? Hit Him in the Face with an Axe!”; talk about your Funny Poetry Hall of Fame). Rebecca Hazelton is another favorite, as is Kiki Petrosino.
Jason Bredle and Jennifer L. Knox are deliberately, provocatively funny. Catie Rosemurgy’s poems are often darkly hilarious. Jessy Randall has a delicious sense of the domestic absurd. Besides being brilliant, Mary Ruefle is sneaky funny (check out the “mint” line in that linked poem). Matthew Olzmann and W. Todd Kaneko and Dean Rader and Jill Alexander Essbaum – I could go on and on. And on.
These are not the only funny poets, of course. Far from it. Most poets are funny at least some of the time. (Although you’re probably better off not trying to convince a class of grumpy first-year writing students of this fact. I’m just saying.)
Humor and poetry both rely on verbal surprise, the pairing of the unexpected. Humor in poetry works best when it’s juxtaposed against some other mode: anger, insight, sadness, tenderness. Poetry happens when a poet presses up against the limits of language when it comes to capturing the human condition. Poetry is utterance, is act, is disruption, is the reaching for that which is understood but previously unarticulated. Humor is these things as well.
The other thing I remember about that night at the haunted house, about that entire autumn, about my whole freshman year, is how dreadfully, desperately lonely I was. Without question, my jokes that night were a response to being the only person in the group without someone to hold onto when the bogeymen popped out of the shadows. Humor, like poetry, is how we cope with the fact of our aloneness in this world.
At the end of the night, as we walked through a field back to our cars, the jokes had run their course, we were all tired, the couples leaned against each other. My roommate and his girlfriend held hands, and she noticed me, walking apart from them. She reached over and took my hand, too, such a small, tender, generous gesture, and we walked like that, the three of us, quiet and connected in the darkness.
Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.
Sundress will be publishing his first full-length collection, Ha Ha Ha Thump, in 2015.