Bio notes on the contributors, at the end of this very long file:
K. Silem Mohammad
D. A. Powell
You can read 24 pages of poems produced by these contributors in this issue of Jacket.
This piece is about 80 (eighty) printed pages long.
It is copyright © the individual contributors and Jacket magazine 2007.
Preamble: The Humor in Poetry email discussion group (HumPo) launched on October 17, 2005, with ten participants: George Bowering, Maxine Chernoff, Katie Degentesh, Gabriel Gudding, Rachel Loden, Ange Mlinko, K. Silem (Kasey) Mohammad, D. A. (Doug) Powell, Ron Silliman, and Gary Sullivan. David Bromige was our silent dancing partner (receiving all the posts) and the involvement of other group members waxed and waned, depending on their level of interest and other responsibilities. The full record of the conversation goes on for close to 200 pages; what follows is an edited excerpt from the proceedings.
HumPo was hatched five years ago in the middle of the night, the hellspawn of a listserv notice from Ron Silliman and my own pre-dawn colloquies and confusions. The spark from Ron came in a couple of lines from his December 23, 2002 post to the POETICS list and elsewhere, “The latest on the Blog”:
On The Postmodern Wink: Why Humor Doesn’t Travel Well In Poetry
When I clicked through to his expanded consideration of these issues (Silliman’s Blog, December 15, 2002), I found something substantially more nuanced than the teaser, and I agreed with a lot of it. I agreed for instance that “Context is so important in humor &, by definition, so pliable & subject to change, that it is almost impossible to ensure that what is uproarious in one setting will remain so over time.” The key word there, it seemed to me, was almost. Wasn’t it equally impossible to ensure that what seemed “serious” in one setting would remain so over time? I thought of Oscar Wilde’s quip that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
Ron was right that most attempts at humor would not travel well, because most poetry was destined for the dunghill. None of us knew whether the good qualities with which we hoped our work was endowed would play well over time. But this was equally true of “serious” poetry. One had only to think of all the dreadful serious poetry being written today, its authors faintly trembling with the conviction of their own significance.
Poems that took on the world in its crude, unrefined state (I went on arguing to myself), could not fail to engender a certain amount of hilarity. How could one write about history, say, without a mordant — or at least a rueful — sense of humor? It could be done, of course, but only by stripping history of its rich contradictions, its complexity.
So it seemed to me that the whole notion of “seriousness” could benefit from some scrutiny, if it represented a worldview that excluded the splendid parade of paradoxes and absurdities that made up the comic underside of human life.
Was seriousness, in its myopic heart, fundamentally nonserious?
Ron’s teaser crystallized something for me: a sense in some quarters that funny poetry, or poetry that even flirted with the comic, was inevitably more perishable than its “serious” cousin and would, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect. This was as true in the “post-avant” world as it was in what Ron liked to call the School of Quietude.
Since much of the poetry that had mattered most in my own life (some of it coming down centuries and millennia) had been funny poetry that stayed funny, I wanted to take up Ron’s excellent challenge. To do that I had to kick around these issues with a group of people who could engage them in a complex way. Thus this conversation.
I asked Kasey to co-host with me and he graciously agreed, coming up with the name HumPo, a stroke of genius.
Rachel Loden: I have a question for Maxine. In an interview in Transfer 73 (Spring 1997) you’re asked about the “quirkiness and humor” of your prose poems, and how you think that translated into your longer works. Here’s some of your answer:
I was just talking about that in my MFA fiction class. A man in my class said that he’s no longer funny. I didn’t know him so I didn’t know whether that was true. I said, “Do you have children?” and he said “Yes.” I said, “That’s why you’re not funny anymore.” When I was younger, it was easier to be funny. It was easy for me to see the odd or unusual in a situation rather than its deeper ramifications. Surface is funny, not depth. But as I got older, I wanted more unity in my writing. I was less interested in an easy laugh than in looking at what makes things what they are.
Reading this now, I’m struck by how funny it is — your story about the man who isn’t funny anymore. But when I first read it, I had just written a review of your book World for Jacket. In it I had said things like “In Chernoff’s poems, wit cuts in and out of the melodic surge and flow, but rather than undermining her arguments, the effect paradoxically heightens their poignance.” And “Wherever it appears, the comic is a locus of compressed energy, providing as much delight as relief.” And “The absurdist-playlets-cum-vaudeville-skits that dominate the fourth section of World are some of the best fun ever vouchsafed to a poetry book. Each of these routines is a valiant attempt to limn the shape of human logic, a project that turns out to be both daunting and curiously satisfying.”
I immediately decided that reviews were not my bailiwick. How had I so completely misread your intentions? Was some of what I found so compelling in your work evidence of my own superficiality? Was the funny not deep? Were laughs really so easy to get, and did they not cut to the heart of “what makes things what they are”?
I thought they did — but clearly there was something I wasn’t getting. Could you possibly throw some light on this and help me with my bafflement?
Maxine Chernoff: I think I was expressing personal anxiety rather than a definitive analysis of humor. At least in my own case, it’s been true that although incidents, interpretations, snippets of conversation, the body politic, etc., remain funny, I no longer have an easy time laughing them off. The serious is deeply funny but that doesn’t inoculate one from the pain. So I guess the pain is funny too. Much humor scratches at the surface of cruelty, shock, folly, and even terror. I read somewhere that a woman in the South (this may be apocryphal) saw a life-size Jesus balloon untether itself and ascend toward the sky from a car and in response leapt out of her car to follow him into heaven and died. Funny? Awful? Both? I watch Donald Rumsfeld telling his persistent lies in his wooden, cocky, jackass manner. Funny? Awful? Both? People are dying because of him — do I have a right to laugh?
Gabriel Gudding: I liked what Maxine said about her previous formulation, and about Rumsfeld and the Jesus balloon tragedy. Reminds me of what Giordano Bruno wrote: “In hilaritas tristis, in tristitia hilaris.” The horror/sorrow nexus is deeply a part of the laughter/detachment nexus. I see the same thing in Viktor Frankl’s great account of how he survived in Auschwitz and his crediting humor’s ability to remake the world, create a future, and awaken a healthy detachment from horror in his 1963 bestseller Man’s Search For Meaning.
The formulation that comic writing is something that is more ephemeral than (what?) tragic or serious writing is, and I’m just going to say it, stupid bullshit. How is Ron’s attack on it not Aestheticist? There is nothing about the inherent structures of comedy that make them any less beholden to cultural and existential context than any other emotional mode or subgenre. Some of what has passed for profoundly serious work strikes me today as profoundly funny and self-parodic. I can’t read a whole lot of Ezra Pound, for instance, without shaking my head at the unintended goofiness of it. The emotional context of a poignant work can just as easily be cut adrift of audience expectations as a comic work. I think we just tend to notice it more when comedy does this. One of the reasons we notice comedy’s failure more is that it has much more both subversive and soteriological potential than High Serious Mode: it risks more, challenges more, and, when it rocks, it achieves more.
Bakhtin in fact went so far as to say that laughter “liberates from the fear that developed in man during thousands of years: fear of the sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power.... Laughter opened men’s eyes on that which is new, on the future.” And Bakhtin goes on to say that Medieval laughter, in challenging the church, in fact prefigured not only the Reformation but the Enlightenment. Laughter’s efficacy is on the side of revolution, health, and the casting out of the old order and irrational law. So it’s not about a “wink”: it’s about a whole fuck you. Fuck you because I love you. Fuck you because we’re better than that.
Rachel Loden: Yes, have to say I’m not much enamored with the whole notion of “the wink.” It’s so trivializing. It signals that comic poetry is minor poetry and that comic poets are precious, passionless aesthetes.
Not that I have any quarrel with beauty, you understand. It’s just that for me, comedy has so much more to do with fury than with distancing oneself from the world.
George Bowering: Wonderful turn of phrase! I am glad I got in on this. Of course, Rachel has an advantage over us, taking Richard Nixon as a subject. Has a step up on the grotesquely funny. Whoever said that the funny is at the edge of the horrible catastrophe is right, and we have grown mature while Dan Quayle and George Doubledome Bush have led the discussion.
K. Silem Mohammad: Ron Silliman has just been added to the group. Welcome!
Gabriel Gudding: Well, that’s just great. Just great. After I called Ron’s argument (the one mentioned by Rachel) “stupid bullshit,” you go and invite the guy! :) Ron, you probably better look at what I said.
Ron Silliman: That’s me, the aestheticist alright. Actually, I do like humor in poetry — in all writing, actually — it’s “funny poems” that irk, & there’s a distinction.
One thing I might want to note is my brief career — a couple of shows in June of 1964 in Newport, RI — as a professional stand-up comic. I was 17 at the time & it was a terrifying process. Even using material cribbed from Lenny Bruce & Alan Sherman (I was eclectic in what I stole at least: I would have borrowed from Lord Buckley if I could have figured out how to do so), I was utterly dreadful.
Rachel Loden: Maybe, but I would have given anything for a ringside seat. With a videotape I could control the world!
But whatever possessed you to do it?
Ron Silliman: I had hitched all the way to the Newport Folk Festival in Berkeley without the necessary rudiments: (a) a place to stay or (b) a sleeping bag. I stayed at the Y for a couple of days before the festival began, but once it started the Y was booked. The only other hotel in town, the Viking, was completely booked with performers. But there was a coffee house that offered free accommodations (as in “sleep on the stage if you can”) to volunteer performers. I knew I wasn’t a singer and I didn’t (yet) own a guitar. So it was a matter of necessity. After the first night, they let me stay for the week without further humiliations. It turned out to be a very nice little scene there where I connected up with people who took me back to the East Village, so I had accommodations there for some time as well (and then later also up in Woodstock, as it happened). My summer of bumming around.
Maxine Chernoff: So the Fibonacci Number Series walks into a bar....
Rachel Loden: Here are some questions for the group:
1. Why does funniness get no respect? “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard,” as they say in showbiz.
2. Why are you funny? On Fresh Air one of the members of Monty Python [Eric Idle as it turns out] said that he was funny because he was damaged, and that that’s why other people were funny as well.
Does funniness spring from some kind of wound?
If you disagree with this point of view, how do you explain the prevalence of Jews and other outsiders in comedy?
Ron Silliman: There is an assumption in the Python’s response that possibly there are people who are not damaged. I have never met those people.
Maxine Chernoff: On the issue of otherness and funniness: One of the funniest and most frequent circumstances to observe is ineptitude. Outsiders in general can offer a more cogent critique of ineptitude since they observe the workings of systems — organizations, cultures, governments, theories, etc. — from their outsider status.
On funniness and respect — there is a term, “light verse,” which is a pejorative. There is no contrary term such as “heavy(-handed?)” verse. If there were to be such a term, it would suggest to me the calculation of producing an effect in a reader by seriously portraying an often trivial situation without humor, in order to provoke pathos: A bird crashes into my window. Why is there pain in the world? In other words, the lyric tradition as portrayed by many of our most “respected” mainstream writers such as, say, Stanley Kunitz, who has a poem about finding a dead bird on his lawn.
D.A. Powell: Maxine, you’ve reminded me of a similar heavy-handed (I like this term!) poem, William Stafford’s “Travelling Through the Dark.” Bromige had a wonderful response to Stafford’s “thinking hard for all of us”:
“Thanks, Bill. We wouldn’t have known what to think otherwise.”
And of course the heavy-handed poem is ripe for parody. Rae Armantrout’s take on the Stafford poem is still one of my favorites. Of course, all of the above examples revolve around dead animals. I’m sure this is only a sub-genre of the heavy-handed.
Ange Mlinko: I agree so strongly with Gabe’s post (well, with each post thus far) that I wondered if there was anything left to say. After all, one can’t argue against comedy. Like colorblindness or a tin ear, one can be immune to it. Does literature self-select for the morose? The dogmatic?
I managed to get to the Poetry Project on Wednesday to see an old friend from Boston, Ed Barrett, read with one of my old teachers, August Kleinzahler. If you don’t know Ed Barrett’s work, you should try to find Sheepshead Bay (Zoland Books) or Rub Out (Pressed Wafer). At the Project, he read “Goethe Did Not Invent Physics to Murder Anyone.” That title in itself sort of encapsulates his brand of humor: a longtime teacher of game design and writing at MIT, he adapts the light, witty New York School poem to include references to science and philosophy, and his Brooklyn Irish-Catholic childhood. And in his hands the “light, witty” turns into something else — a transparent attempt to hold love and pain at arms’ length. And while that in itself may sound like a cliché, the “transparent” part is all too often missing from other poets. He is a great acknowledger of his own moves.
“Vicki said she had a child from a previous relationship, and the ocean is the Saltines of time, to find not just yourself, the single grammatical soul fluttering like a syringe above the miniature Japanese forests of scrub oak on Nantucket, certainly not clarity or truth in the cross hairs of heaven.” (“Lyrical Ballads”)
That’s a pretty great sentence.
Well, the audience response to Barrett, and of course to Kleinzahler, who, lucky him, has the timing of an actor (being funny on the page and being funny at the reading podium, whoa, that’s another topic) was overwhelming. I don’t have any of AK’s books in front of me right now, but his specialty surely lies in making the reader laugh and squirm at the same time. He writes very creepy poems in the guise of the clown.
And I think that creepiness is what saves him from being “merely” funny, at least in the eyes of critics. Someone like Connie Deanovich, whom I think publishers should be falling over themselves to publish, doesn’t seem to write with any mixed motives (philosophical, psychological) and doesn’t get as much props. Or that’s how I see it.
Rachel Loden: Hear hear. Connie is completely underrated, and at 3 a.m. I’m often talking to myself about the reasons why.
K. Silem Mohammad: Ange’s point seems right on to me: no one wants to be in the thankless position of arguing against humor, no matter how much of a sense of it one may lack. So maybe the question isn’t whether humor is a “valid” aspect of poetry; it clearly is (although I am still interested in hearing Ron further define the negative example of the “funny poem”). Maybe a clearer question would be: what can humor do in poetry that other modes can’t? And accordingly, and perhaps more to our point, what particular risks are incurred in poetic humor? What cheapenings, escapist gestures, deflations of crucial tension, etc.?
Gabriel Gudding: I’d like to bring up three principal things humor does or can do.
(1) It can democratize. Freud speaks of this in “Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious.” He says that no one is immune to the leveling aspects of comedy: hierarchy is no defense against it. This is very different from its binary bugaboo, the tragic mode, or high serious mode, which is about hierarchy wherein typically the protagonist (or poetic speaker) is wrapped in prestige or status, or a kind of lyrical coolness, or on an emotional plinth, set apart from the audience. I think twentieth century American poetry was particularly susceptible to this kind of emotional racket. Comedy does not trade individuating emotions (centripetal or self-centered emotions) for prestige. Societies in the comic mode are not formed around such emotions.
Northrop Frye says in this really cool essay, “The Mythos of Spring,” that comedies (and he’s mostly talking about plays) tend toward an appearance of a new society — one which tends to include as many people as possible, and not infrequently it can include, especially toward the end, unsavory characters. It is about, in great part, an inclusive forgiveness. And in fact, in order to laugh, we have to be willing to let go of resentments. There is one kind of laughter, then, that is at base profoundly ethical: it forgives (I am not talking about the problem of derisive laughter at this point, more on that later maybe).
(2) A chief quality of this new society is that it arrives by casting off an older order; it frees people from a society governed by an irrational law or irritable personnel. We see this with the New York School or lots of other avant-garde movements: comedy is a principal tool of the avant-garde. Throwing off an old order can often only be done through laughter.
(3) A chief attitude of humor is that it’s about enduring, not suffering. Think of Wile E. Coyote, or any slapstick mode (whether it’s Buster Keaton or Kasey’s giant squid, whose poem is, by the way, on my blog): the dude gets back up. I think of Bukowski’s poem, “Trouble with Spain”: the speaker is in the shower and burns his balls, then he gets in a fight at a party, then the poem ends with him back in the shower, burning his balls and then turning around and burning his “bunghole.” Though there is pain and misfortune (and often extreme brutality in comic poems), there is no profound suffering represented. Humor is about not cashing in on our woes, but about taking a distance on them so that a triumphal attitude can be shared. E.B. White said that Humor is about a fuckyou (not his word) to death. That is why I think of the Crucifixion as a profoundly, at heart, Comic event. And in fact, Osiris, Dionysus, Christ — all those dudes got up again, just like Buster Keaton, just like Wile E. Coyote, just like the Giant Squid. E.B. White said that comedy encourages us to live as if we were already dead: as if, that is to say, we had nothing left to lose and the whole world to gain by not taking our suffering so personally.
And that idea that suffering privatizes, whereas comedy works against privatizing emotion — is very important (to me). Nietzsche said, “Mankind has suffered so excruciatingly in the world that he was compelled to invent comedy.” Comedy is an answer to suffering, encouraging us to endure in the face of it.
I have to fart.
George Bowering: Poetry and humor.
I wonder whether we can mention some that we might know in common, and see whether we have differing tapes. I am thinking, or have been thinking, of the book that was my bible when I was a young poet, the Allen anthology (or what was its name/ The New American Poetry 1945-1960?). Who is funny in there? The first poet I think of is Gregory Corso. Poems such as “Hair” and “Marriage” and “Bomb” struck one as impertinent, and funny. Still funny, I think; and no less performative of the time than The Maximus Poems, or Creeley’s “I Know a Man,” which is pretty funny, isn’t it? Why did Creeley, whose voice is so measured and sincere, pick funny to come at us, with say, the three old ladies in a tree?
[Quoting Maxine]: “Surface is funny, not depth.” This is the nub of something I have been thinking about for these decades. In the seventies I noticed two things about hip engaged contemporary fiction (I will think later about poetry), call it “postmodern,” “anti-realist” etc. etc.
(1) All of it was comedic, humorous, from Samuel Beckett humour to Kurt Vonnegut-busting. The Modernists knew one kind of humor — irony, and you weren’t supposed to laugh.
(2) Most of the interesting stuff was happening on the surface. Realism, especially psychological realism, with all its talk about “characters,” paid heed to that protestant given (and taken) that with depth comes complexity and even truth, honest to god. So we knew that some things were “facile” or “superficial,” whereas stuff that goes in deep and spends a long time doing it (such as Freudian analysis or D.H. Lawrence), was way to heck more worthwhile.
Rachel Loden: George, can you say more about the interesting stuff that was happening on the surface? I think I know what you mean, but can you be specific? And is that interesting stuff still happening?
Also, do you include Beckett in the stuff at which we weren’t supposed to laugh? Because Beckett is laugh-out-loud funny, I think — do you disagree?
My copy of the Allen anthology is something of a religious relic at this point, held together by a rubber band — a collection of single pages and hunks of ripped spine. “Marriage” is still funny and energetic (although at moments a little dated) and I love the line “all alone in furnished room with pee stains on my underwear.” Which seems almost like something John Wieners might say, but in his poem it wouldn’t be as funny.
But the guy I think of in that anthology is Koch. “Fresh Air” is still one of my favorite poems of all time:
“Oh to be seventeen years old
Once again,” sang the red-haired man, “and not know that poetry
Is ruled with the sceptre of the dumb, the deaf, and the creepy!”
So I guess some things don’t change.
George Bowering: Well, see, when I was a kid the realists were all the thing. And psychological realism was the great accomplishment. Stuff that was
under the surface
down in the unconscious
was the real truth, was important, was the goal of the investigative fiction writer or psychologist or teacher or lover et al.
Thinking otherwise, I got called superficial i.e. a guy on the surface. Dig, they said. All the stuff on the surface is a puzzle you have to figure out, dig deep. The deeper you dig the more significance you’ll find. Remember that? So when it came to writing a novel you were supposed to make your writing surface as smooth as possible, because that was no place to bring attention to. The genius of this was Graham Greene. He had a great transparent style, and there was always something hidden. That was the nature of love. That was the means of growing intelligent.
Remember when e.e. cummings was thought to be amusing but really not very “deep”? Remember how the professors said that Vonnegut is really just a teenagers’ novelist? Because his narrating voice was not neutral, and then he started drawing on the page!
No, Sam Beckett is the hero of the twentieth century as far as I am concerned. He took the implications of Modernism and pulled them to their limit and gave us what we needed for a post-Modernist read. The Unnameable is the end of the novel’s work, that’s what I thought; it gets rid of character (now, there is something you have to dig deep to understand, eh?), setting, theme, conflict, all that stuff. From now on Beckett would be a voice in your head, and it is your voice, that is all it can be while you are reading, and it is all to be found right there on the page.
Rachel Loden: Thanks, George — reminds me of the time when the highest praise for something was that it was “shattering.”
Seems kind of quaint now.
Gabriel Gudding: Regarding your question, Rachel, about the prevalence of Jews and outsiders in comedy, here’s Isaac Bashevis Singer: “It is a fact that suppressed people show more humor than the people who rule or are at home.”
And like Ron I’ve never met those undamaged people. If damage, flaw, hamartia, is a given, I think humor is a means of dealing with damage by appreciating suffering as just another form of change.
Humor seems to be a method of equanimity. It seems to be a means of practicing and exercising that kind of equanimity some people call detachment.
Seems to me the clown and the saint are really close in having this detachment from their own wounds. (Doesn’t the Yiddish word “zelig,” as in the Woody Allen movie, mean at once holy and silly?) The ability to “be at home” (in re Singer’s quote above) is what we see in Zelig, and it speaks, to my sensibility, to a kind of ability to “be at home” in an existential sense too: if we are all damaged, including the tragic protagonist bound in his “hamartia,” the problem of humor amounts to what we do in the face of that imperfection and damage. If we can be silly in the face of it, we can be holy. Seems to me that blatantly flawed people, whom William James called “sick souls,” have been forced by circumstances to get some distance on life, to appreciate constant change as both a benison and a fact.
I mean, a clown is someone who purposefully and theatrically makes a show of debasing herself by showcasing that innate damage: a clown takes on and “owns” her own flaws and wounds — and flaunts them so triumphantly that we, the audience feel on the one hand, superior to the clown and on the other we vicariously appreciate the courage of that clown for being so triumphant and skillful in the face of said flaws (big nose, funny moustache, whathaveyou — yet funny, awkwardly brave, and finally buoyant). In the case of a verbal clown [humorous poet], that “flaw,” that damage, comes in the form of buoyant nonsense, anarchic satire, tawdry rhyming, or incessant non-sequitur:
In other words, maybe humor is a triumphant display of detachment toward the inevitability of damage.
It’s a simultaneous owning and detaching from one’s flaws (and the fact that they are inevitably and incessantly incurred) that I think makes an inspired clown useful.
Rachel Loden: Yes indeed. And it’s certainly true that there are no undamaged people. The Python in question probably didn’t use the word “damaged” at all. That was my shorthand. I remember him talking about John Cleese (he was not John Cleese) and saying that Cleese had this fantastic anger from his childhood and that for decades he was working it out in comedy. I think we can see that rage in Cleese and it is a lot of what makes him funny. As Gabe says, he debases himself by showcasing that damage, he flaunts it and makes us admire his fearlessness in doing so. I’d add that when he makes us laugh we also fall in love with him. And all of that tumbles into the strange calculation of art.
So I know it’s unfashionable to say that people are unequally damaged or that their damage drives them crazy in different ways. But I think it’s also obviously true. The forces that create a Pryor or a Berrigan or a Cleese seem pretty intractable and I’m grateful that they did battle with them and didn’t become pimps or policemen or bankers.
Don’t know whether any of you watch The Colbert Report, which debuted on the same day as this list. I was lucky enough to hear Stephen Colbert speak the other day in San Francisco about his work in comedy and the deaths of his father and brother in a plane crash when he was a child. It was clear that this had everything to do with what he became. So he seems very much the picture of what Gabe calls “a triumphant display of detachment toward the inevitability of damage.”
George Bowering: [quoting Rachel]: “How do you explain the prevalence of Jews and other outsiders in comedy?” I do not know about that. But in my correspondence with the great Canadian poet and American Biblical scholar and translator, David Rosenberg, I asked him how come God told Moses etc. that there were to be no graven or molded images, and then when it comes to ordering an ark of the covenant, he says there has to be a couple of cherubim with wings. David said that he had told me years ago: God is ironic.
Thinking about the suggestion that comedy seems somehow normal to the oppressed or marginalized. But who are the funny African-American poets, outside of Ted Joans and maybe Bob Kaufman? And I was looking through Canadian poetry for humour, and hardly any women poets there/here work with funny, maybe a few.
I do recall, down there, Levertov saying “the authentic,” rising from the toilet seat and really wondering whether she might not be being funny.
Gabriel Gudding: George — here are some funny African-American poets (tons more but don’t have books in front of me at home here): Crystal Williams, Harryette Mullen, Amiri Baraka, Tony Medina (the almost self-parodic tawdry anger in first part of his “Capitalism is a Brutal Motherfucker” is very funny), Terrence Hayes, Lucille Clifton is very funny sometimes, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez — this list is really long, especially in re hip-hop generation poets.
As regards funny women poets: in addition to present company of course, are folks like
Lara Glenum, Jennifer Knox, Shanna Compton, Barbara Barg, Connie Deanovich, Denise Duhamel, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Amy Gerstler, Sheila Murphy, Brenda Coultas, Mary Ruefle, Julie Otten, Anne Waldman, Laura Mullen, Mairéad Byrne and lots of others.
Ron Silliman: I think that Lyn Hejinian & Rae Armantrout can both be quite funny. Ditto Laura Moriarty, Rachel Blau DuPlessis. But there are some, like Susan Howe (who reminds me a lot of Levertov in this regard) who seem very suspicious of this.
George Bowering: I don’t know. I have been reading Amiri Baraka since long before he was Amiri Baraka, and I have heard him read in San Jose, Buffalo, Boston, Victoria and Maine, and have been excited to be sharing the world with him, even being in the Air Force at the same time, but I haven’t noticed his being funny a lot, though once in Buffalo I heard him being pissed off at a Volkswagen that was supposed to pick him up, calling it a “Nazi car.”
D. A. Powell: I think Lucille Clifton is a funny African-American poet. Also Ray Durem, Etheridge Knight (his “I Sing of Shine” always makes my students laugh), Tim Seibles, Crystal Williams, John Raven, Thomas Sayers Ellis.
Gary Sullivan: A whole realm of humor, satire, and/or wit strikes me as coming out of unease. Maybe more on horror and humor in a bit, but a quick note: horror always strikes me as on some level very funny, but often in a particular way. We laugh at a lot of it I suspect because we’re freaked out about our bodies, and horror exposes, brings to the surface, manipulates, and seems to simultaneously understand and even sympathize with, even as it mocks or exposes, this fear.
When I’ve seen horror films in theaters, people are usually laughing during the most disturbing parts — often much harder than they laugh during comedies. It always strikes me that that laughter — and I’m laughing along with everyone else — comes out of a general unease that these films tap and exploit. It’s often a kind of nervous laughter. Similar maybe to the kind that some of Lenny Bruce’s material makes manifest. (More on that in a bit.)
Another major unease that seems to often give rise to laughter is a general one with departures from perceived or desired social norms. Sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. jokes being one obvious manifestation. As are jokes making fun of sexist, racist, homophobic etc. behavior. Both seem to come out of an unease with those not conforming to one’s perception of social norms and/or niceties, and both seem to be a kind of attempt at shaming.
It’s been more than a decade since I’ve read any of the “age of reason” or “age of wit” writers, but my memory is that the motivation behind a lot of this writing was an attempt to “reason through” the natural world, including social systems, with the ultimate goal of controlling the social for the ultimate betterment of mankind.
My memory of reading Pope, Swift, and especially Addison & Steele, was of an underlying program, generally, to address, shame, and ultimately change aberrant behavior into something conforming to some “healthy” (e.g., Christian-but-informed-by-science-and-philosophy) ideal.
It always struck me that Pound thought a lot of his poetry was funny, or at least satirical, to the extent that he meant to expose & even at times shame those whose ideologies (political, social, aesthetic, etc.) he didn’t agree with. Some examples from Blast:
Women Before a Shop
The gewgaws of false amber and false turquoise attract them,
Like to like nature. These agglutinous yellows.
The New Cake of Soap
Lo, how it gleams and glistens in the sun
Like the cheek of a Chesterton.
Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth,
Crushed strawberries! Come let us feast our eyes.
And from the Vorticist Manifesto:
8. We set Humour at Humour’s throat. Stir up Civil War among peaceful apes.
9. We only want Humour if it has fought like Tragedy.
10. We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb.
... these examples, most obvious in the latter, being part of a general program to “Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes.”
I hate this period of Pound. I don’t find myself returning to Addison & Steele or Pope much, either, although I still read Swift.
Not that they’re all doing the same thing. But this all seems to be coming out of I guess a moral appeal of some kind.
I often wonder, with humor/satire — some of my own included — how much of it comes from some level of unease with difference and (often unexamined) need or desire for social conformity — in addition to all of the other impulses, desires, thoughts, beliefs, and so on it all may come out of.
I also wonder, given the “outsiders & comedy” thread, how much comedy by socially-perceived “outsiders” plays with this unease over difference, exploits and exposes it. I think immediately of Lenny Bruce’s “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties.” I actually think that that piece is so continually funny and brilliant not because it attacks subtle racism, but because it simply exposes it — which I suspect is not the same thing, quite. It makes the audience more of a participant, if that makes sense. You feel, in yourself, what he’s on about, as opposed to “seeing it” (in others). Ultimately, it’s a far less comfortable position to be in. Which may be why we keep laughing at or with it.
D. A. Powell: I used to think only that comedy was tragedy saved from itself — i.e. Harry Greener’s fake heart attacks in Day of the Locust are funny; his real heart attack is not. But the “is” and the “is not” of that example only apply to the context of the lives and perceptions of the other characters. For the reader, the fake heart attacks are the ones that read as pathetic and even tragic; the real one, by comparison, is almost comic relief, especially with the addition of the funeral. In fact, most of the comic moments of West’s novel are comic to the reader but not in any way funny. West (born Weinstein) practiced humor that celebrated the schtoch (“pricking”) and schlock (the “badly made”) elements of characters. The key to “getting” the joke was to know what was being deflated by the schtoch and/or to know what was being made apparent by the schlock.
Berryman’s Dream Songs employ a similar mode of humor. By staging Henry Pussycat’s life in blackface, Berryman is able to draw a comparison between Henry’s suffering and the suffering of African-Americans while at the same time showing that such a comparison is schlock because he has relied upon a faulty, irreverent, unsuitable vehicle at the outset. The schtoch occurs by saying the unsayable, and that’s given a further pathos in that it often occurs in sloshy “drunkspeech” or in minstrel show “dialect.” The humor arises as the reader perceives the deflations and (intentionally) badly made phrases, and also as the reader comprehends how close to tragic the speaker’s words are.
Jaws was not a movie that was funny when it premiered. But it’s funny now, because we’re able to look beyond the convincing to the unconvincing — the moments when the shark is so obviously mechanical, the moments when the camera is so willfully moving toward Scheider’s face to register panic. In essence, we’ve learned, through repeated viewings, to see for ourselves the schlock. The only key difference I suppose is that Spielberg didn’t intend for us to view the movie that way; and for me at least, that only adds to the pleasure. An even funnier Spielberg movie — and not for lack of trying — is The Color Purple. How in hell did he manage to get Oprah Winfrey to say “What you tell Harpo to beat me for?” without peeing her panties?
I guess, though, this line of inquiry is more about the unintentionally funny.
What are some of the great unintentionally funny funny poems? The contemporary McGonagalls?
Rachel Loden: Such a great question. This one makes me laugh, especially the ending. Maybe it’s the picture of her banging her parents together like paper dolls. And then the portentous solemnity with which she takes up her burden at the end — when I sense she is actually shivering with self-congratulatory joy.
I Go Back to May 1937
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it — she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
— Sharon Olds
D. A. Powell: It’s the “I want to live” that floors me there.
Kevin Prufer turned me on to a perfectly wretched book by someone named Neil Azevedo. His poems are funny not only because of his tin-eared formalism, but also because they’re so full of pomp without any real engagement of their subjects. This one makes me howl:
a game of hide-and-seek
Stunned by the blindfold he is lost
in this front yard suddenly fragrant,
fraught with dark, the bark-hiding moth
deep in alfalfa roiled with gnats,
the hesitations that coil in bats,
his body hedges and prepares for harm
behind the focus of his less familiar eyes,
behind the faithless, fearful and soft cloth,
feckless, haptic, dazzled and still;
he works his way through grass filled
blindly by others’ passing and their pause
and the giggles as he falls
to stupor, to gesture, to the awful rules.
He flees a sweat-bee flanking his ear,
and sightlessly searches for all of his choices
until it’s clear; he fumbles the way of their voices.
I keep thinking that the moth’s bark is somehow worse than its bite? And I can’t imagine what makes the front yard “suddenly fragrant” unless it’s dog poo. What are “less familiar eyes” if they’re his? And how high is the grass if it has to be worked through?
Of course, I also think Bishop is a scream, though she probably wouldn’t have seen her work the way I do. I mean “somebody loves us all” for Christ’s sake? Doesn’t that make you pee your britches?
Gabriel Gudding: These poems are hilarious, if read in a certain way.
I some time ago guest edited a few magazines. In doing that, I published two poems by someone whose work I thought at first was meant to be funny but later realized was probably serious. Either way, I found/find it interesting.
I still find the pieces I published very funny, even hilarious. In fact, I find the humor in one of the two poems to be so “on” as to be ingenious. I only later, after meeting the author and seeing her other work, realized that she in fact did not intend them as comical at all.
I took the pieces because I thought she was writing parodically. I think her writing would make a fascinating study of poems with seriously ambiguous emotional valences.
It’s mostly because I did not know the general emotional trend of her work that I was unable to assess its emotional content and thereby determine whether or not it was ironic, and, if ironic, whether it was parodic or satiric or what. I made an assumption, that is, about her character, her Ethos, as Aristotle would have it, and her reading of the kairotic considerations of the issue I was guest editing. A fascinating study of hermeneutics replacing authorial intent to such a degree that the work’s genre is called into question.
D. A. Powell: Yes, I do detect the same tonal qualities [in the poems Gabe published, not quoted here] that I love in Koch — a kind of histrionic performance meant to show how uninteresting emotion qua emotion really is. But I can’t tell either if she’s meaning to be funny or if she is being funny in spite of herself.
Do you know Caroline Knox’s work? Caroline is obviously working through the same modes as Koch and revelling in them. But when she performs her work, she always wears the drag of shock, as if it would never have occurred to her to think of poetry as anything but serious. Of course, this only adds to the enjoyment. I don’t think I’d derive the same pleasure if she were of the “wink, wink/nudge, nudge” school of readers.
Rachel Loden: I’m guessing “funny in spite of herself,” especially where olfactory perceptions come into play. Interesting that “this front yard suddenly fragrant” is one of the funniest lines in the Azevedo. Is there something inherently funny about the sense of smell? I bet Gabe has done a study of this.
Maxine Chernoff: I guess when we laugh at the unintentionally funny we’re laughing at ineptitude, which in poetry is often tonal or imagistic. Once at a band concert of our daughter’s, a fellow 5th-grader could only elicit monstrous, elephantine noises from her trumpet. She tried and tried again. The adults were trying so hard not to laugh that we almost died. Imagine professional ballerinas who can’t dance (see Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron”) or slow-witted comics (I guess there are plenty of those) — and an audience suffering through. Isn’t that what’s happening in a seriously bad (aka unintentionally funny) poem? Only we are “viewing” it privately and can decide to stop at any point. It lacks the social pressure of a public viewing of a seriously bad performance, which is maybe why we can respond “better” to it. We’re alone with the engagement and can disengage whenever we wish. Do people feel as inclined toward pleasure at seriously poor poetry readings?
Gabriel Gudding: Doug, yes I know Caroline Knox’s work and have enjoyed it, but have never seen her perform. I once read (tho haven’t seen it in any of her books) an “Epic Spam Haiku”: she took the contents of a can of Spam and broke it into 17 syllable haiku — went on for pages.
Rachel, no never done a study of smells and humor but I read an essay recently by Ivan Illich about smell, spiritual knowledge and social intimacy: Illich says smell holds a special place as a sense because it’s such a socially intimate one (as opposed to touch’s sexual intimacy). For me, smell is socially horrifying because we often don’t know who’s emitting it — so any questions about it are always dangerous and freighted. Its source isn’t locatable, like a sound say, so there’s a whole lot more tension about smell. Plus “suddenly” doesn’t really go well with smell: it’s a slow-moving thing, a scent, right?, so it implies that Azevedo’s speaker is himself clueless or slow.
And Maxine, the thing that I personally find so funny in the poems I published and the Azevedo (and the Olds too but less so) isn’t so much incompetence (tho I see your point) but an emotional expenditure that seems too large, as if it were slow or plodding. The poet is hanging a great deal of gravitas on something that really isn’t worth it, as if they were weeping over something that doesn’t warrant weeping. So, it is a kind of incompetence, I can agree with you there, but it’s, for me, more specifically a matter of emotional tuning — and an outsized emotional expenditure.
I really enjoy your question, Maxine, about how public/private inflects our sense of enjoyment (schadenfreude?) over a bad performance.
Maxine Chernoff: Gabe: Small point, but I’d say that over-expenditure is a tonal issue.
Gary Sullivan: For me, what makes the unintentionally funny most funny is less ineptitude, and more distinctiveness. This maybe goes back to my general belief that difference & our unease or some tension surrounding it is at the root of a lot of our laughter.
I say this for two reasons. One is that, most of the poems at http://www.poetry.com, while almost uniformly inept, are not uniformly funny. I was poking around on the site and actually disappointed at how bland most of it was. My response was mostly disinterest. The things that made me laugh out loud were very distinct to this or that person who had posted.
The hardest anyone has ever laughed at one of my own readings was when I read “The Selected Blurbs and Prefaces of Robert Creeley.” There was a time when I was doing a lot of reading through various writers and discovering that I was laughing a lot at certain things which were not necessarily “funny” in the “normative” sense. But they were things that would come up again and again in a particular writer’s body of work.
With Creeley, it was his voice, which is so unique. It required a little manipulation on my part: I categorized blurbs or preface excerpts into one of five categories: the obvious, hyperbole, the enigmatic, emphasis, and logorrhea. I didn’t rewrite anything; I just quoted. And people —most of whom I assume love Creeley as much as I do — were rolling on the floor with laughter.
Here are two examples of poems from http://www.poetry.com, both responses to 9/11, and housed in a special area of the Web site devoted to these kinds of poems (of which there are currently more than 50,000):
As the towers collapsed
and the crowds dispersed,
a rumble was heard
as a nation was cursed.
Death by the thousands
those cowards they hide,
We’ll search the world over
both far and wide.
Then justice is served
as we watch them cry,
for God is the judge
his wrath be nigh.
The Puddles Inside Me
Opening myself is easy
When i do, there is a fragment of each word i hold back
For i do not want to get trapped in that very same trap i was once in
The trap i just crawled out of, the one where time has past without the bait by my side
In that hole months past and you were there for the best of times and of course the worst
Now that i have crawled out, i’m free again from the same trap until...
another bait comes by
I sense that trap near me, should i go for the bait anyways?
Sitting here caught between night and morning
While every second goes by. a tear drops not from my eye, but from the inside
Where the puddles hides from all their eyes but yours
Inside those puddles are hate, love joy and something is missing...
Its locked from even me, someone has the key...
I’m now caught in this trap again
Remembering every moment with yu makes me want to go again
Then why am i so relentless
The puddles inside are going to flood, where will they go
Only one will know
There’s nothing funny about the first poem, which is, we will all probably recognize, not a very good poem. But the second poem is, to me, completely, outrageously, hilarious.
Now, one could argue that the second is funnier in part because it’s more inept: the first person at least can rhyme and break stuff up into stanzas of equal line-length, focuses attention on the event and her reactions to it, and doesn’t misspell a lot of words.
And I’d agree with that. But, too, the first one is much more an attempt to write a conventional poem, whereas the second is more a poem meant to be one’s own response; it hasn’t been shaped into that-which-is-socially-recognizable-as-a-poem. And it doesn’t directly reference the events. It’s more of this particular person than the first one.
Much funnier in the second one than any of the misspellings is the particular way in which the writer is obsessed. All that stuff about crawling out of the hole and then being “baited.” It’s so unique to this person, to this instance of expression.
So I would say that, in addition to a good level of “ineptitude,” what makes something unintended to be funny funny has a lot to do with how much it can be read as a distinct instance, or of a distinct person, or mind. There’s nothing distinguishing about the first poem: anyone could have written it. “Ineptness” is, in fact, a kind of marker of the individual.
There’s nothing “inept,” in other words, about conforming. So “ineptitude” might be seen as, generally, a mark of difference.
Ange Mlinko: I’m not really sure why we’re placing so much emphasis on unintentionally funny (inept) poems. It seems to me a case of condescension. Because what we’re really doing is laughing at someone’s stupidity. When that stupidity is enshrined by the powers that be, it enrages me. I remember back in the early 90s an essay in the Hudson Review or some such place gently criticizing a Mary Oliver poem for saying something patently nonsensical; the poem was “about” the “cruelty of nature” in context of a two-headed kitten. Yeah, you can laugh now, but this is a Pulitzer Prize winner, this Mary Oliver. So, I mean, mastery of basic logic is not required to win a prize in poetry, we know this.
Well, Gary, you don’t convince me of the humor of ineptitude. I will second you about the utter genius of your parodies of Creeley, Silliman, and Corbett. I think you should republish them; they’re just as funny and relevant now.
On Jordan Davis’s blog a few months ago I took note of this:
I’d forgotten Palmer’s sense of humor: “The rats outnumber the roses in our garden. That’s why we’ve named it The Rat Garden.” I suppose not everybody needs some kind of acknowledgement from the poet of our shared experience — a hostile critic could describe humor in poetry as a kind of sentimental contract with the reader — but isn’t that one of the great undecided literary battles of the last century?
I just loved that “a hostile critic could describe humor ... as a kind of sentimental contract with the reader.” I mulled that over for a long time, because it seemed to encapsulate the ways in which a poet’s stance toward humor encapsulates their stance toward humanism; and in a time where humanism is deeply suspect, it makes sense that only very aggressive humor is allowable in the avant-garde. There is a kind of humor that dehumanizes, after all. A gentle humor; a mere wittiness or lightness; an acknowledgement of the “contract”; these are humanizing and humanistic things. So, already, retrogressive, yes?
George Bowering: [quoting Ange]: “I’m not really sure why we’re placing so much emphasis on unintentionally funny (inept) poems. It seems to me a case of condescension. Because what we’re really doing is laughing at someone’s stupidity. When that stupidity is enshrined by the powers that be, it enrages me.”
I don’t understand the point here. When is stupidity enshrined by the powers that be? I mean outside the White House.
Ange Mlinko: I return triumphantly to give you the Mary Oliver poem. I don’t recall the exact nature of the reviewer’s criticism of it; I think, though, that we can discover it on our own.
More amazed than anything
I took the perfectly black
with the one large eye
in the center of its small forehead
from the house cat’s bed
and buried it in a field
behind the house.
I suppose I could have given it
to a museum,
I could have called the local
But instead I took it out into the field
and opened the earth
and put it back
saying, it was real,
saying, life is infinitely inventive,
saying what other amazements
lie in the dark seed of the earth, yes,
I think I did right to go out alone
and give it back peacefully, and covered the place
with the reckless blossoms of weeds.
D. A. Powell: And then she covered the whole scene with reckless writing.
K. Silem Mohammad: OK, shoot me, but I think this is really sad and touching. I could have done without the “reckless blossoms,” but ... no, that’s the point, isn’t it, that the kitten too is one of the reckless blossoms.
Can you tell I’ve been teaching too many student workshops? An unseemly tolerance swells within me.
George Bowering: Okay, I have to admit that I had never heard of this Mary Oliver person; but if that is an example of her poetry, I have to say that it is just really so far from an able poem as to be not funny but just pathetic. Was she trying to be funny, do you think? If so, she should have made some smart mistakes.
D. A. Powell: She’s apparently very good friends with John Waters. Perhaps she’s being
intentionally bad in the way that Waters’ early films (Desperate Living, Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos, et. al.) were intentionally bad.
I spent a couple of years writing intentionally bad poems, and I know that Dorothy Allison has been doing this recently as well. It’s liberating to sit down and willfully make a poem as awful as possible. And the results can sometimes be funny.
Ange Mlinko: I guess I only posted that Oliver poem to indicate that such a poetry, a poetry of ineptitude if you will, lies at the heart of official verse culture, and is not an anomaly. A confused metaphysics (“life is infinitely inventive” but, uh, it was stillborn?) combines with a hushed reverence in the face of nature (awe is beyond critique!) to give us decadent transcendentalism.
Or, I posted it to give you a good laugh. (Kasey, you are perverse.)
Gabriel Gudding: I’m also uncomfortable with the poetry of ineptitude label — there is a side to laughter that’s denigrative, that’s about the put-down. Thomas Hobbes called it a feeling of “sudden glory.” And he said (this is in Leviathan) that those who feel their own incapacity the most will also laugh the hardest at others. I think in some ways that’s true, but Hobbes was mistrustful of all laughter, it seems like. So, not sure Hobbes captures entirely why we laugh at someone else’s incapacity or their being brought low; I also think we laugh when a poet attempts a mood of sermonizing gravity and solemnity and they go overboard, like Oliver, Olds, or [the pieces I published] — and for me it’s like I’m laughing at outsized expenditure, like watching someone bid on a hamburger while wearing sunglasses and a cape.
Would just add another reason I’m uncomfortable with labeling the above inept: in official verse culture ineptitude implies something like “failure of craft,” as if ineptitude were merely an issue of technical insufficiencies (like an imbalance in metonymic logic or heavy-handed sonic counterpoint, etc.) — and not this issue of balanced emotion. I wonder if that’s the reason Kasey thinks the Oliver poem is okay: its movements and pacing and figurative aspects are okey dokey but it’s just out of proportion emotionally? Wait, Kasey said he felt its sadness. A cyclops kitten is kind of funny and sad. For me tho a lot of solemn hay is being made on its little eye.
The thing [about] Oliver’s poem or any poem that tries to froth into solemnity: at a certain point that solemnity can become an emotional grandstanding, an emotional monolog, a kind of pose whose purpose is the aggrandizement of the speaker/writer. It’s always, for me, at base an emotional lack of proportion (proper emotional geometry) — and comes down to something quite simple and felt with very real communal effects.
There is a kind of satire called menippean satire, or anarchic satire, in which you can’t tell what’s not being satirized, as if the very way a society thinks or is as a culture is being satirized — like in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly — but there’s always, too, a sense of the author loving some aspect of the society s/he’s dissing. Like in Erasmus there is a sense of deep appreciation for the energy behind everybody’s foolishness.
Ange Mlinko: Gabe, I just want to say I think you’re right on about emotional geometry, but I do think it’s a matter of craft too. I don’t think they can be separated. I think the poet’s job is to get certain intangibles right, like tone, register and emotional scaling.
K. Silem Mohammad: As far as the distinction between aggressive/belittling modes of humor and gentler/kinder modes, I don’t think there’s any satisfactory answer to this problem. What’s funny about “bad” poetry definitely has something to do with the fact that it’s “wrong” in some way to laugh at the poet (that it might hurt their feelings, that it betrays a perhaps unwarranted sense of superiority, etc.). It’s funny because you’re not supposed to laugh at it, for whatever reason. Does this relate to ideology? Sure, everything does. But I don’t think inappropriate humor is any more or less ideological than anything else, or that it is ideological in some specially coded political way (a way that is categorically different from the way ideology informs, say, nature poetry or war poetry or impeachment poetry or whatever).
By somewhat the same token, although Ange thinks I’m being “perverse” by finding the dead one-eyed kitten poem moving, I really don’t feel that I am: you either think poems about dead one-eyed kittens are sad or you don’t. Craft has something to do with it, but not that much; try, for example, to imagine a poem about a dead one-eyed kitten that would “succeed” in a way that would satisfy most detractors of Oliver’s poem. Those detractors may claim that the problem with the poem is that she is “inept,” whatever that might mean, but really I’m willing to bet that most of the time their problem is that she wrote a poem about such a subject in the first place. We mustn’t have sad poetic feelings about dead kittens. It’s “melodramatic” (see David Larsen’s excellent piece on melodrama as a vehicle for social shaming in his The Thorn (Faux Press 2005).
The line about nature’s infinite inventiveness, by the way, strikes me as ironic, as does the idea that the dark earth might hold other such “wonders.” Maybe Oliver was being “straight” with those lines, in which case she’s definitely very confused. But either way, it triggered a response to perceived irony on my part that constituted the most moving part of the poem. I have to say, I have no idea what the anti-ironists out there are talking about when they say that irony is some kind of escape from feeling feelings. Some of the deepest feelings find their most poignant expression through irony. And that seems pertinent to the question of humor as well. Even if Oliver’s poem makes us laugh (and I confess, I did laugh when I first read it), that laughter is an index of some tension, some discomfort, and as such is an important signifier in and of itself. As is its “appropriateness” or lack thereof.
Rachel Loden: [quoting Kasey]: “We mustn’t have sad poetic feelings about dead kittens. It’s ‘melodramatic.’” Unless of course those sad poetic feelings are blown sideways as in Ashbery’s “Our Youth,” a very poignant and romantic poem (“The dead puppies turn us back on love”). So it’s not the dead kittens per se, is it? It’s the preciousness of Oliver’s speaker, her self-dramatizing pleasure in what she wants to bury.
So I agree with Kasey that “Some of the deepest feelings find their most poignant expression through irony.” In the hands of someone like Ashbery irony is exactly the lance that drains the boil of sentiment and, paradoxically, lets the poignance through. But I think so many of Ashbery’s children don’t understand this and so their poems can seem arch and posturing. And (reading them) the knock on irony as a horror of feeling is easier to understand.
Gabe, you said something ten days ago that puzzled me: “The emotional context of a poignant work can just as easily be cut adrift of audience expectations as a comic work.” The comic predicaments in your own poems are endlessly poignant, so I can’t imagine that you want to oppose humor and feeling. Say more?
Gabriel Gudding: Thanks, Rachel. That was in response to the idea Ron (seemingly) furthered (in the “wink” piece) that there was/is something inherent to comedy that causes it to age faster (lose its cultural context faster) than other — heavier — modes. That strikes me as incorrect. I think immediately of Commedia dell’arte performance troupes: they flourished across Europe from the 16th to 18th Centuries — and we see the same plays still acted, the same scenes, the same characters. In fact, Saturday Night Live is basically Commedia dell’arte. What’s more, these plays stretch back into Rome and Greece, Plautus, Menander, Aristophanes: the same characters, concerns, complexities and problems inhering then as now. Same/Same.
And I am, yes, really suspicious of those who declare the more bourgeois modes of high seriousness and tawdry suffering are longer lasting and more culturally relevant than more comic or tragicomic modes — because (1) that assertion defies the facts of literary history (it just ain’t so), and (2) it furthers the ancient suspicion held by Official Culture against the comic mode — and belittles it into the bargain.
So my point was that, if we are going to cut the two modes apart and play them against each other, the relevance of laughter and detachment is in fact, historically, probably much stronger than the relevance of weeping and solemnity — given (1) that its need is stronger (that the comic mode is a “healthier” mode, spiritually speaking), and (2) that we can still laugh at The Lady’s Not for Burning or Much Ado or The Clouds or Lysistrata but I don’t find myself getting really teary or enraged or anxious at Hamlet, Macbeth, or even Patton. And I’m not much moved by Milton’s epics either. I think: hey, great language. But I’m not that moved. Whereas if I read Hero and Leander I will in fact find it both funny in places, and deeply sorrowful. Or Don Juan. And I am much more invested in the sadnesses inherent in those comic situations. (And by the way, I think Flarf is essentially the dramatic mode known as “farce” but relayed into a lyric structure.)
The point is — and this goes to your question more thoroughly: there seems to be more emotional range inherent to comic works, whether it’s recent dead or old white guys, the comedy and sadnesses in Ted Berrigan or in John Berryman as opposed to, say, the ever-dour and “dignified” Richard Wilbur or Robert Lowell (which seem ever to play on the same two notes: suffering and the elegiac). (But there’s also a class issue: high seriousness is about, often, money and prestige — and who gets to emote, who gets the privilege of wailing.)
The more thoroughly something stands in the comic mode, the more thorough the mix of laughter and sadness. You don’t get that mix in “heavier” modes — and that’s why, I feel, those modes are ultimately less relevant and more ephemeral.
Gary Sullivan: [quoting Rachel]: “Question for anyone: will it actually be harder to get the jokes than any of the other references?” If I remember correctly, one of Ron’s examples about the wink had to do with an ironic statement made by Stein at one point, and his concern that the irony did not carry across time. Another example was a poem by Walter Arensberg, “To Hasekawa”:
Perhaps it is no matter that you died.
Life’s an incognito which you saw through:
You never told on life — you had your pride;
But life has told on you.
...and suggesting that, the reference having been lost to history, the poem itself is flat. I actually agree with that. It reminds me of the Pound stuff I posted, but the Pound is much better written — even though I don’t like that kind of humor so much, I appreciate, say, the thing about Chesterton more than the above. (And, while I was reading a lot of Chesterton & his contemporaries at one point, and I get the reference, I think what appreciation I do have of Pound’s poem has more to do with the level of writing, which is just much stronger, more torqued, more happening, even though it’s half as long.)
But one thing that is missing from Ron’s critique is an acknowledgement that poetry lovers — at least a good subset of them — have never had a problem with arcana; in fact, that seems to be a part of the draw for some. Maybe even many. There are plenty of people who may read Stein’s ironic statement and be freaked out, but if they’re really poetry lovers — the kind I’m thinking of, anyway — they’ll probably dig around and ultimately come to some understanding of the situation in which she wrote it, and how it was originally meant.
I always liked Maya Deren’s statement about poetics: it’s a vertical, as opposed to horizontal, art. She meant, largely, emotional as opposed to narrative, but I think it goes further than that. In poetry, multiple time periods, cultures, geographies can seep into a single work. Much Chinese poetry written across the ages relies on a reader’s knowledge of, or willingness to accept, writing in the present that reaches down vertically into history.
Think, too, of the Spicer/Duncan gang. How much of that work is steeped in arcana. I spent several years reading almost nothing poetry-wise but Gerald Burns (not to be confused with Bruns), whose writing was steeped in — of all things — long-forgotten lit crit from the 18th & 19th century, as well as a lot of philosophy, art history, blah blah blah & so on. But a lot of stuff that had been forgotten, in addition to some stuff that is still read. I loved reading him. I still love reading him, although I’m no longer dutiful about checking many of the references.
Why do readers in the U.S. love Sei Shonagan so much? I think because it is so steeped in its period and place — you almost can’t get more self-contained than 10th century Japan — it makes that world come alive, at least in our imagination, even if we haven’t a clue as to all of the various social facts that are being referenced & navigated in it. And that’s largely what that book is about. Navigating that particular — to us, totally foreign — social sphere.
I think the problem with Ron’s [blog] statement might ultimately be that his emphasis is on the problem of reference and time (or culture), which is not really a problem for any poetry lovers I know of, or have read about in history. The real problem, with the Arensberg, is just that it’s not well written. It doesn’t matter if it was meant to be funny or poignant or scary or sad or whatever. It’s just flat writing, period.
Too, Ron emphasized cultural shifts in how things — or in the kinds of things that — preoccupy us. He talks about the anthology that the Arensberg poem was printed in, and mentions that it doesn’t include Loy or Stein or the Baroness or others we may appreciate today. Those lacks may have been simple literary or interpersonal politics and/or a conservative take on poetry, I don’t really know.
Ron does say too few people today don’t understand that, Ginsberg, say, was essentially a kind of satirist, but here I think that’s more a question — I mean, maybe the readers he’s thinking of are too young and/or not well read enough at this point to fully appreciate, or maybe just aren’t smart enough, period, to ever get it. I don’t know. I don’t agree, though, that Ginsberg at this point is being read much differently than he was in the 60s.
Of course time definitely does change how we read anything. Still, we all seem to laugh with Aristophanes centuries later, and while our first reading of Swift’s Modest Proposal might freak us out, most of us figure it out.
Rachel Loden: I noticed that no one answered the question “Why are you funny?” So let me try to rephrase it a bit more delicately and hope that everyone will take some sort of crack at it.
How did comic elements enter your work, if they did, or were they always present? How does humor function in your writing? What work does it do? Were you surprised by the entrance of the comic and why do you think it turned up in your work at that time and in that way?
Ange Mlinko: Well, after a very conservative college education, my re-education in my early 20s, catching up on contemporary poetry, led me to a milieu where Robert Duncan and Jacks Spicer & Kerouac were worshipped; where U Buffalo had great currency; etc. So it took me a while to find Bernadette Mayer, and that’s when I wanted to be funny — to be like her. I wanted to write a hundred “The End of Human Reign on Bashan Hill”s.
I still do, in fact. When I fail to, it’s because I find it’s getting harder and harder (as I grow older) to achieve that sublime silliness. I miss it.
Sometimes I still wish I could write Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” or his Popeye sestina, but what Mayer’s work did was show me that you could write directly and personally and still have sprezzatura, still make language central.
Maxine Chernoff: On being funny: There’s something about my brain (pre-frontal lobe?) that predisposes me. I’ve noticed around other more somber people that it’s an existing characteristic, as basic as having black hair or hazel eyes. So naturally when I chose to write, my tonal register (emotional thermostat?) was already set. In short, I can’t help it, though I’ve expressed it differently in various forms and genres and sometimes argued with it in my later work.
Gary Sullivan: It’s probably impossible to separate “the comic” out from my work and look at it as a separate element. Even when I was in grammar school I was always drawing cartoons and getting groups of kids together to perform comic plays I had written. I was nearly kicked out of high school for publishing an underground humor magazine, Retch. At the time I was reading a lot of the National Lampoon, Lenny Bruce, Robert Benchley, Woody Allen, James Thurber, Terry Southern, Richard Brautigan, and listening to Nipsey Russell and Firesign Theater. I gravitated towards this stuff even when I wasn’t getting the jokes: I think it was a recognition of similar world-view.
I studied music composition in college, but would spend a lot of time playing 33-1/3 LPs at 45 or 78 or playing, say, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony simultaneously with some pop record, and doing other fairly silly things to “subvert” what often struck me as relentlessly serious work, and the often oppressive art-historical narrative that supported it. What few compositions I wrote tended to take the rules we were being force-fed, such as “melody ascends,” and writing a melody that descended.
Ultimately, I abandoned music and studied theater writing, concentrating on farce. I basically spent three years studying the history of comedic theater, from Aristophanes, Plautus, and Terence up through Wallace Shawn, Christopher Durang, Tina Howe. But I most liked Beckett and Ionesco. I also studied Pope & Swift et al. around this time.
After college, I drew comics for the weekly paper in SF, was in a comedy troupe, and wrote farces and comedic monologues that I and/or my friends, mostly non-poets, would perform.
My poet friends at the time, especially George Albon and Dan Davidson, turned me on to poetry by loaning or recommending books they assumed I’d like: Bean Spasms, Circus Nerves, A Nest of Ninnies, The Duplications, Mayer’s Utopia, etc. A lot of New York School stuff and some language writing, too, especially Charles Bernstein. On my own I somehow discovered Philip Whalen, Paul Blackburn, Gertrude Stein (who may have actually been a George recommendation), Jerome Sala, Mina Loy, Ron Silliman (BART was the first, which I loved), etc. I also learned to appreciate, if not fully embrace, poets like Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, etc. I probably started reading pre-twentieth-century poetry around this time, falling most heavily for the Earl of Rochester and Ben Jonson.
I studied comedic writers in the same way I studied poets: looking for how lines or sentences were constructed, how images were used, how shifts in tonal register were done, and to what effect, as well as focusing on how various people used assonance & dissonance & rhythm & emphasis & so on. Most illuminating of the non-poets were Terry Southern and the Firesign Theater, from whom I stole dialog or monologue pacing. How they would even use throwaway stuff, like “ums” or “ahs” or whatever, to create more fully torqued writing. (“Ah ... Clem.”)
I was never interested in topical humor. I tended to respond to non-sequitur, torque, and juxtaposition on the formal end, and embarrassment, awkwardness, and shame on the social end.
A lot of the poems I’ve done lately, generated from misspelled words, for instance, seem to make people laugh, and although I do smile when I’m writing them, I’m not laughing at anyone. My impulse to do those comes from ideas I have about the piano and the printing press — the standardization of scale and spelling — as flattening devices, and my laughter comes from the delight of watching fairly simple, everyday language unflatten.
So, I think I can’t say that “humor” functions in my work. Rather, a particular world view and various internalized learned techniques are doing the functioning, and while the aim is not necessarily humor, the result is something that seems occasionally or even often to give rise to laughter of some kind.
K. Silem Mohammad: I’d say that humor in my work is a side-effect of distress — at least when it’s successful. I’m interested in humor that’s funny at least partly because it’s not supposed to be. Either it’s considered inappropriate to laugh at it, or it’s funny instead of whatever else it might have been intended to be. Its funniness is less an ingredient than a symptom. A classic example is the old joke, Q. “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” A. “That’s not funny.” I simultaneously object to this joke and find it funny. I can’t necessarily defend this position; I just have it. And it interests me that I have it. And I wonder whether I can intentionally produce this kind of funniness: do I have to occupy some other subjectivity — one that I find repugnant — in order to lay out the foundations? Or can it be simulated within a self-conscious removal from the mindset whose objectionability is part of my reason for finding something funny in the first place?
I was watching an old movie last night, King of the Zombies, in which the main comic-relief character, a black man, talks in that exaggerated Hollywood colored-guy dialect and gets big buggy eyes when he sees “haints” (haunts, ghosts). I found myself laughing, and not knowing whether I was laughing because it was so incorrect and uncomfortable laughter was the only possible response, or because it was “just funny.” And what does “just funny” mean in such a case? Is there a zero-degree funny, or is funny always informed by wrongness and risk and aggression, etc.?
George Bowering: I was, as what else could one be, the class cutup. Years later schoolmates would tell me they expected me to be a stand-up comedian. I think that I always had an inferiority complex, which leads, if you are cookin’, to a sense of great self-worth. That is, I thought that I was somehow special. This would be shown in wit, and wit would be the way in which one singled oneself out. I always thought that the best jokes were the ones that were pitched too high for listeners to understand. If you listen to the sentences of, say, George Bush, Pope Benedict, Jacqueline Susann, or Whitney Spears, you want to distinguish yourself from them, and as they are earnest you must be antic. Wit, remember, means a certain quickness as well as the comic. Living by one’s wits is akin to wisdom. The word wit comes from the same source as the words wise, video, witness, vision, that source being a word in Sanskrit meaning the kind of learning that comes with an aha!
In recent weeks I have been thinking about verse and the comic, and no longer have the notion that humorous poetry is a niche. I don’t know whether Rachel thought that at first, too. But now, just to consider USAmerican poets of recent times, look at all the humorous poets, some of them humorous all the time, others occasionally. Frank O’Hara, Gregory Corso, Charles Bernstein, David Bromige, Kenneth Koch, e.e. cummings, Kenward Elmslie, Ed Dorn, (William Burroughs, if he were a poet), Kenneth Patchen, Harry Mathews, Ted Berrigan, Richard Brautigan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anselm Hollo (okay, not USAmerk), Joel Oppenheimer, Tom Raworth (yeah, I know), Aram Saroyan, and the sharpest of all, Ron Padgett.
Must’ve all been cutups in school.
Gabriel Gudding: There are two edges, I guess, to the comic in stuff I’ve written: one very violent, one almost maudlin. Maxine reminded me backchannel yesterday about something that happened to her husband, Paul, when reading one of my poems several semesters ago to his class. The poem, “The Repulsive Dolphin,” is a prose narrative “about” shoving “my” fist into the blowhole of a beached dolphin, which then fights back brutally with “sea judo.”
Maxine says, “and some of the women in the class, instead of thinking it was hilarious, got highly offended and said to Paul, ‘You like this poem?’ They interpreted it as being about abuse against women.”
I guess because it could be seen to depict an inter-species rape such that, metonymically, the dolphin is coded, I suppose, as a woman.
Maxine says Paul then brought up the question of what, then, do we do with the work of an Artaud in that case.
It brings to mind Aristotle’s dictum, in the Poetics, about the comic mask: it is deformed but there is no pain represented. As soon as you cause others to feel real down-home pain, you’ve left the realm of the comic. I think the comic allows us to depict suffering as change and not suffering as pain.
And thanks for prodding, Rachel, about what I don’t like in my first book, A Defense of Poetry: the ones like “Daybook to Oyster, His Infant Daughter,” which I think is an overly “crafted,” metaphorically rococo piece lumbering under similes — or “One Petition Lofted into the Ginkgos” which strikes me as emotionally akin to the Mary Oliver poem about the cyclops kitten (this one tho has a pigeon that, with intentional dopey comedy, plucks out its own feathers so that it can kill itself by throwing itself over a cliff).
These are pieces (and a few others) that, I feel, move with an intentionally dopey emotional stageyness — as if they too much played on “being spoken” by an “emotive person” — as if I was afraid of writing out of non-ironic feeling. Out of what Aaron McCullough is starting to call a “new sincerity.”
But the fact is I was just learning to write in my first book. But I like lots from that book — it’s kinda violent — and I think the violence works for the most part in it.
The 2nd book, Rhode Island Notebook (due out with Dalkey this fall), I wrote in my car, literally, during 26 two thousand mile journeys between Normal and Providence, and it’s more or less a travelog, a recording of where I am on the road, what I see, hear, think — and it amounts to a meditation on the breakup from my former partner, a huge (1,100 mile) separation from my daughter, our attempts to keep the relationship together, then a divorce, my growing temporarily depressed and finding meditation again. So it ain’t really funny.
It’s got funny moments, maybe. On one trip I am haunted by the head of Nancy Reagan who, in a long spate of road psychosis or something, turns into an eagle, with her big fat Nancy head on the one end of her body and big flapping labia on the other end.
I liked the physical and situational constraint of writing in the car — and I think it freed me, in an almost physical or mechanically oulipian way, to write combinatorially in ways that allowed me to not give a damn and just write out of the pain — because I felt the road provided an interruptive matrix that abrogated the I-making and “self”-making nature of so much writing from grief — something besides “Me” and “My Life.”
So there’s a lot of grief in the second book, but because there’s so much road-collage in the book, it’s my sense that it’s not this grief that so many use to construct and shore up a modern sense of self. (I feel grief gets played out in our emotional economies in ways that help construct a bourgeois self — as well as a sense of national identity. Think of 9-11 and how so many traded that grief into nationalistic currency.)
Gary Sullivan: Rachel, how would you describe your connection [to Richard Nixon]?
Rachel Loden: Well, my daughter, who was born in 1970, confided in me that when she was small she thought Nixon (whom she called “The Manexion”) was a comedian, “because every time he came on TV, everybody laughed.”
I sometimes felt something like disgust (or was it pity?) for Nixon when he would go on television to explain that he was not, for instance, a crook. His obvious uneasiness with the camera, his pathetic attempts to smile, the sweat on his lips, made me laugh and groan in equal measure. It was like watching someone soil themselves in public. You wanted to look away, but you couldn’t.
But I have to say that my earliest feelings about Nixon were closer to terror than to pity or disgust. And it is probably this take on Nixon that went deepest and made him first my quarry and later my muse, because he and his ilk had wreaked unholy hell on my family. After Watergate and his resignation I had watched him carefully rehabilitate himself, campaigning for the role of respected older statesman. It was fascinating to see him come back in his crab-like way and succeed to a significant degree in reattaching himself to the body politic.
At Pat’s funeral, I’d seen his face completely fall apart and had (this is hard to admit) fallen apart a bit myself at the sight of him so verklempt. I think it was key, too, that I didn’t hate him but (in an odd way) admired and loathed and had compassion for him and for the times we had passed through.
The first Nixon poem was written when he was dying, slipping in and out of consciousness, and I started to feel that he was slipping in and out of my consciousness as well. It was very strange being the conduit for this guy who would not go gentle into any good night, would not go willingly. I decided that was okay with me. It seemed that our connection gave me access to something beyond the dark side of our national life and into time and tenderness and regret and death and that was exactly the territory I wanted to mine as a writer.
So I set aside my disgust with Nixon and decided to cohabit with him or marry him instead and that, more than anything, has given me a sense of mastery over the more menacing forces of my childhood.
Katie Degentesh: [first posts poems available in Jacket 30]:
I am still catching up with all the posts — seems as if I’ve missed a lot while in manuscript-editing mode.
In response to [the notion of] a “mechanical” kind of aggression, I think the Google-using poets differ from Andrews in that a lot of other emotions that people post freely on the internet have landed in the poems and maintain their character, and their realness, within them.
But yes, I am making a giant, floppy grab at having things both ways: both the irony and the sentiment, a la the movie Starship Troopers. If you’ve seen it, you know that the movie is both a sharp, biting satire of a space opera and a complex, emotionally involving ... space opera. The film somehow acknowledges its own complicity and belief in the same structures that it mercilessly (and hilariously) parodies.
What is the difference between racism and a joke about racism?
What is “the right to laugh” and how, exactly, does it get taken away?
Rachel Loden: I don’t think it gets taken away. But laughter is often a response to uneasiness or fear so it can appear “inappropriate” to others, and that just comes with the territory. I saw this in my early childhood when my mother, brother and I went to a playground and my mother was accosted by a guy who said something threatening and obscene about his intentions with regard to her body. There was an endless moment in which it seemed that she might be raped but we managed to get away and in the car, my brother started laughing uproariously. At first I was really pissed off at him but eventually understood that he was terrified, as we all were, and just having this (under the circumstances) somewhat unfortunate reaction.
So I guess what I’m saying is that we always have the right to laugh but others also have the right to be angered by our laughter, as people sometimes are by Don Rickles, when he tweaks them with racist clichés. I think most people have come to understand that it’s shtick and an effort to air the forbidden.
K. Silem Mohammad: Katie, what strikes me about [your poems] is that in some ways, although they are funny, that’s not their top note (or maybe it’s just their top note? I’m not sure which way I want to put it) — the overwhelming feeling I get from them is that they’re freaking scary. Like Exorcist-crossed-with-terrorism-plus-bird-flu scary. They’re about funniness, among other things, right? But lines like “As he unzips his pants I realize that I’m / what happens to us when the curtain goes down” are like the moment when the laughing at the start of the acid trip gives way to the metaphysical terrors. That’s the upper limit of hilarity, I guess: euphoria turns itself inside out and reemerges as panic.
If we wanted to continue trying to give a fuller definition to Ron’s idea of the “merely funny” poem, maybe it would be that the funniness of such poems in no way threatens to undergo that transformation....
Rachel Loden: The conventional wisdom seems to be that men like slapstick more than women do. Are there women who love the Three Stooges? How about wit — is it equally prominent in the comic poetry of both sexes?
This brings up a larger question: is wit often a response to power, and thus a weapon in the hands of those who must “outwit” their own powerlessness?
I guess this harks back to our discussion of the prominence of Jewish comics. I was always crazy about Madeline Kahn and think her death an incalculable loss, although like most actresses she didn’t get the parts she deserved as time went on. Still, anyone who saw her on Carson (or in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein or High Anxiety) isn’t likely to forget it. She had a sort of exaggerated, comic self-possession combined with a voice that seemed to teeter on the edge of hysteria, and the mixture was explosive.
Kahn’s Lili Von Shtupp, in Blazing Saddles, would be a brilliant counterexample to the theory that women don’t like (or can’t do) slapstick.
George Bowering: I was almost thinking of this earlier. Thinking about the women poets I know. I find a kind of earnestness, and sometimes no humor in some of my favourites. Except for that one instance I have noted (and expressed my ambiguity about), I hear Denise Levertov as earnest and not humorous. Same can be said of Daphne Marlatt.
Rachel Loden: But what about Stein? Not earnest. Dickinson too is very sly. But both of course absented themselves in different ways from the stays and strictures of a certain kind of life. Think of being one of the “young lady poets” in the LeRoi Jones anthology of that name, Four Young Lady Poets (Totem/Corinth, 1962). How earnest-making would that be? Imagine not being able to expect anything better, even from the raging hipsters of our time.
George Bowering: [quoting Rachel]: “Think of being one of the “young lady poets” in the LeRoi Jones anthology of that name, Four Young Lady Poets.”
Or worse, what Ed Sanders used to call it.
Rachel Loden: Well, don’t hold out on us, George — what did Ed Sanders call it?
George Bowering: Okay, but it wasn’t me that said this; it was Sanders. He always wrote Four Young Flaming Snatches, in places such as his famous mimeo mag.
Rachel Loden: A vast improvement on the original title if Bergé, Moraff, Owens, and Wakoski had named it themselves. But I guess it would be years before Queer Eye and NWA.
Not too long though before Four Young Lady Poets editor Jones would write “Black Dada Nihilismus,” in which young ladies meet terrible ends against a background of melodramatic faux-revolutionary claptrap.
But back to funny women — what about Jennifer L. Knox? Her readings seem to bring down the house. Can someone unpack the appeal of her work a bit?
Gary Sullivan: I don’t have her book on me right now (I’m at work), so maybe I’ll expand on this later, but the appeal is I guess two-fold: it’s funny, and it’s sometimes funny because it’s true. Mostly, I think that the very brashness of it is, or can be, appealing, like Don Rickles or someone.
K. Silem Mohammad: Here’s Knox’s “Chicken Bucket,” one of her biggest crowd-pleasers:
Today I turn thirteen and quit the 4-H club for good.
I smoke way too much pot for that shit.
Besides, Mama lost the rabbit and both legs
from the hip down in Vegas.
What am I supposed to do? Pretend to have a rabbit?
Bring an empty cage to the fair and say,
His name’s REO Speedwagon and he weighs eight pounds?
My teacher, Mr. Ortiz says, I’ll miss you, Cassie,
then he gives me a dime of free crank and we have sex.
I do up the crank with Mama and her boyfriend, Rick.
She throws me the keys to her wheelchair and says,
Baby, go get us a chicken bucket.
So I go and get us a chicken bucket.
On the way back to the trailer, I stop at Hardy’s liquor store.
I don’t want to look like a dork
carrying a chicken bucket into the store —
and even though Mama always says
Never leave chicken where someone could steal it —
I wrap my jacket around it and hide it
under the wheelchair in the parking lot.
I’ve got a fake ID says my name’s Sherry and I’m 22,
so I pick up a gallon of Montezuma Tequila,
a box of Whip-Its and four pornos.
Mama says, That Jerry Butler’s got a real wide dick.
But the whole time I’m in line, I’m thinking,
Please God let the chicken bucket be OK.
Please God let the chicken bucket be OK.
Please God let the chicken bucket be OK.
The guy behind me’s wearing a T-shirt
that says, Mustache Rides 10¢.
So I say, All I got’s a nickel.
He says, You’re cute,
so we go out to his van and have sex.
His dick’s OK, but I’ve seen wider.
We drink most of the tequila and I ask him,
Want a Whip-It?
He says, Fuck no — that shit rots your brain.
And when he says that, I feel kind of stupid
doing another one. But then I remember
what mama always told me:
Baby be your own person.
Well fuck yes.
So I do another Whip-It,
all by myself and it is great.
Suddenly it hits me —
Oh shit! the chicken bucket!
Sure enough, it’s gone.
Mama’s going to kill me.
Those motherfuckers even took my jacket.
I can’t buy a new chicken bucket
because I spent all the money at Hardy’s.
So I go back to the trailer, crouch outside
behind a bush, do all the Whip-Its,
puke on myself, roll in the dirt,
and throw open the screen door like a big empty wind.
Mama! Some Mexicans jumped me!
They got the chicken bucket,
plus the rest of the money!
I look around the trailer.
Someone’s taken all my old stuffed animals
and Barbies and torn them to pieces.
Fluff and arms and heads are all over the place.
I say someone did it,
but the only person around is Rick.
Mama is nowhere to be seen.
He cracks open another beer and says,
What chicken bucket?
Well, that was a long a time ago.
Rick and I got married
and we live in a trailer in Boron.
We don’t live in a trailer park though —
in fact there’s not another house around
for miles. But the baby keeps me
company. Rick says I’m becoming
quite a woman, and he’s going to let Mama know that
if we ever see her again.
Rachel Loden: Whoa, I can see how that kills live. Does she present herself between poems as a ventriloquist or as someone who’s going back to the trailer to crash?
Gary Sullivan: Katie can either verify or deny this since she was at the same reading, but my memory was that her voice doesn’t change dramatically from poem to poem. Even when she did the slam poem parody, although I think that was where her voice changed at least somewhat. But, mostly, it’s all done in a very similar voice.
Actually, Sharon Mesmer is another example of someone funny, mean, and doing “ventriloquism,” and when Sharon reads, it’s all done in the Sharon Mesmer voice. Which is hilarious.
I like Sharon’s work much more, btw. I think it’s more complex, although there are definitely areas of overlap in the two.
Rachel Loden: Is there something about our times that is stimulating the production of mean comic poetry? And is there anything new in the character of this meanness? Or is it the ancient bile (Catullus, Martial) in new bodies?
Part of a blurb for Jennifer Knox’s A Gringo Like Me:
I’ve not ever met an imagination quite like hers — even when preposterous, without aggression, and inventive without whimsy.
— Marie Ponsot
Can one be mean “without aggression”? What work does “meanness” do in the comic poems of Knox, Mesmer, Andrews, others?
D. A. Powell: Certainly one can be mean “without aggression.” Consider the character of
Lady Candor in Sheridan’s School for Scandal: “But the world is so censorious, no character escapes. Lord, now who would have suspected your friend, Miss Prim, of an indiscretion? Yet such is the ill nature of people, that they say her uncle stopped her last week, just as she was stepping into the York Mail with her dancing-master.” Here, the meanness is being imparted through a clever filter; Candor posits the offensive materials in the mouths of others, so that she can be both mean and ostensibly sympathetic at the same time.
I don’t know Knox’s work, so I can’t address her particular brand of meanness. But I think there are examples of mean poems from others besides Martial and Catullus. Ezra Pound’s “The Garden” is a mean poem. Rupert Brooke’s “Jealousy” is a mean poem. Blake’s “To the Accuser Who is the God of this World.” Jeffers’ “Ave Caesar.” Plath’s “Daddy.” Rimbaud’s “Les Assis.”
But these examples have a meanness that seems larger than the concerns of one speaker. He or she is voicing a kind of critique that seems able to shoulder the emotions of others, just as the old elegies bore the grief of a community. Contemporary writers have allowed themselves to explore the edges of petty meanness, and it sometimes allows for a bitter, self-involved tone that is perhaps a reflection of who we sometimes are, for better or for worse, at the beginning of the 21st century. A good example is the Clive James poem “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.” The speaker in the poem is clearly not intending to make a larger statement about the world; he’s wallowing in his own bile. Our cultural sensibility, though, now includes the ability to appreciate a meanness that’s completely subjective, even celebratorily so.
Rachel Loden: Doug, in your interview with Sam Witt and Sean Durkin in Poetry Flash (February/March 2000) you talk about reading Frank O’Hara in David Bromige’s classes at Sonoma State:
And I started reading O’Hara then. I read a few of his poems that were in the Donald Allen anthology. And I just thought he was the funniest poet I’d ever read. There aren’t a lot of funny poets out there, really. There are a few. But generally, humor is not allowed in poetry, unless it’s light verse, that kind of crap.
Interviewer: Why do you think that is?
D. A. Powell: I don’t know. I think poets are a sour and melancholy lot; they tend to want to write about serious things. Which is why I am not a poet, I am something else.
Anyway, I came across Frank O’Hara, and I thought, “Oh my God, here’s somebody who actually lives in the world in his poems.” He’s funny as hell; he’s keenly observant; he doesn’t take himself too seriously; he’s not posturing. What really appealed to me in Frank O’Hara’s poetry, which was already happening in my own poetry, was this sense that anything that entered the poem that was too poetic had to be undermined somehow.
Could you say more about this undermining process and how it plays out in your work?
Also — is poesy still ruled by the sceptre of sourness and melancholy?
D. A. Powell: Think I might have been a bit glib when I said “poets are a sour and melancholy lot.” I may have had particular people in mind, even, but now the discretion that comes from being a part of the problem forbids me from naming names.
But I do still try to undermine any sense of authority in my own work.
First, an example from O’Hara:
if you can’t be interesting at least you can be a legend
(but I hate all that crap)
Oh, and perhaps one more for good measure:
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don’t give her one we
don’t like terrible diseases
In the first instance, the speaker who is taking himself too seriously bursts the balloon of his own ego. In the second, a serious subject is made comic through a hyper-literal reading of someone’s language, followed by a faux earnest response. The complexities of these tones and the ways in which they tug at one another are what I enjoy most about O’Hara’s fabric, and these are the kinds of linguistic play in which one voice register can be used to undermine another.
From my own work, I’d provide this as an example:
lipodystrophy neurosthesia neutropenia mild psychosis
increased liver enzymes increased bilirubin and a sweater
don’t get me wrong: I like the sweater. though it itches
Here, in a childlike address to Santa Claus, the language takes a dark turn, both medical and violent. It’s like a plane going into a dive. And then suddenly we get the sweater. That same damned sweater that we all probably got from Aunt Whozit and we had to wear it every time we went to visit her. How we hated that sweater! But we had to pretend that we loved it. So the language has slipped back into the childlike, it has rolled its proverbial eyes, and it has also managed to make some absurd equation between symptoms of illness and this quotidian garment. The audacity! But that’s precisely why people laugh at that line. Because the poem has led them in one direction and then suddenly broken away and run off with the leash in its mouth.
I had a friend whose son, when he was just at the age that he was dating, would never bring his girlfriends home to meet his mother. She would cajole him. “Why don’t you ever bring your girlfriends to the house?” Finally, he answered her, somewhat reluctantly: “because I’m worried that you’ll say something embarrassing.” She was, of course, surprised at his answer. “What could I say that would embarrass you?” “Oh, you know,” he said, scrunching up his face, ‘pussyfarts.’”
Well, he was lovely young man, who died of AIDS in his late twenties; and his mother passed away from cancer. But I think of them so often when I’m writing, especially when I get to a place in the work that I think might shock or startle the reader. “There it is,” I think, “‘pussyfarts’.”
Gabriel Gudding: [quoting Rachel]: “Is there something about our times that is stimulating the production of mean comic poetry? And is there anything new in the character of this meanness? Or is it the ancient bile (Catullus, Martial) in new bodies?”
I’d have to say that the present age (though it feels like it) isn’t exceptional. I think of ritualized insult, imprecation, derogation, etc., in poetry as being ancient stuff. I mean, your mention of Martial and Catullus is apt, but the action of malediction in poetry is ancient, going all the way back to the Vedic texts. We have flyting verse in Old Norse, Middle Scots, Anglo-Saxon, though interestingly very little in Middle English. Then a ton of execration through Early Modern English and it just seems, with the rise of industrial capitalism, to stop. We only recently, it seems, have an advent of ritualized insult in poetry. For a while, at least in the poems of European-descent folks, it stopped. We had a lull like those crazy Englanders had back in the 13th to 16th centuries. Why? I think that when you have a hyper-controlled society, you remove the sacred from it, you remove its guts, rhythms, or something: I’m thinking (1) The Church for the Middle English era; (2) Industrial Capitalism for Europe and America. Both these things really skewed our socio-emotional interiors. Interestingly, the African-American part of letters rose up into insult and imprecation a lot sooner than white folk letters: W.E.B. DuBois’s cool book Darkwater has a lot of insult and racial anger in its poetry. It’s mixed poetry and prose.
I frankly think it has to do with a rebirth of an awareness of the sacred. Don’t ask me what I mean by that but generally I guess I’m saying that in the onslaught of Taylorism, factories, time tables, laws made to control labor, the rise of a huge class of people (middle class) who are rewarded richly for an enforced passivity, and later passivity-inducing devices and systems like TV and stuff, are in part factors.
Derek Walcott once said that he comes from a place, St. Lucia, where it’s important to be able to appropriately insult someone. It reminds me of what the State is: the repository of violence, it represents a monopoly on the use of violence — only the state is allowed to kill, etc. The same may have happened with verbal insult and meanness in letters: some entity took or monopolized — or tried to make redundant? — a part of our will that has for eons been with us: the ability to ritually cast someone down.
In comedy the activity of casting someone down, status-wise or whatever, is really common. Augustan wit, denigrative wit, was about moving someone up and someone down the chain of being, the chain of status and privilege.
The use of comedy and the readvent of insult back into letters is probably a good sign that our society is loosing itself back up, that social actors rather than social structures now have more ability to alter their world through the use of words. This kind of comedy is, in part I think, a fundamental recognition of our ability to alter the very social structures of our world by word, by thought, by will, by what Epictetus called the Divine Breath.
I think there is something holy about laughter. It is akin to the sacred. Even the seemingly mean stuff that is turned inside-out by the mirror of Irony (as in Jenn Knox’s work). In the 15th century the Church began to make a lot of proscriptions on farting, burping, and laughing — because they felt that God’s breath, the Spiritus, was too sacred to waste. It was only a short time later that Englanders began to write in a more insultive and comedic fashion (or if you will from their crotches again — as well as their Hara, their Dantien, their second Chakra.).
Rachel Loden: Gabe and others, do you see a difference between comedy that seems to redress a power imbalance, as Richard Pryor’s did, and comedy that seems to revel in its superiority? I think of Chevy Chase mocking his own smugness with his tag line, “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” Or Sarah Silverman spoofing (but also exulting in) her own sense of entitlement.
Maybe I’m skirting the edge of class and comedy. Does Jennifer Knox’s “Chicken Bucket” spectacularly inhabit its trailer-trash heroine only to sneer at her, when all is said and done? By the end of the poem she’s barefoot, pregnant, and pathetic:
Well, that was a long a time ago.
Rick and I got married
and we live in a trailer in Boron.
We don’t live in a trailer park though —
in fact there’s not another house around
for miles. But the baby keeps me
company. Rick says I’m becoming
quite a woman, and he’s going to let Mama know that
if we ever see her again.
Aren’t we laughing with relief that she’s in Boron, and we’re not?
D. A. Powell: Rachel, I think that you’ve nailed the hit on the head as to my own reaction to that “Chicken Bucket” poem: it seemed to lack the compassion that’s so important to humor. When we laugh at Chaplin’s little tramp, it’s laughter that’s also filled with an empathy for his sad-sack existence. Though we might not have been stranded in a cabin in the Yukon, certainly we’ve all been filled with hunger, real or metaphorical, at some point. The humor arises in part from our position of safety. That safe distance becomes problematic if we’re laughing at a plight that’s brought on by poverty (or some other social construct that allows us to be advantaged in comparison to others). It seems perfectly natural to laugh along with the marginalized speaker who’s making fun of the person in the power position (think of how funny, for example, the banter is in the graveyard scene in Hamlet, where it’s the gravedigger and not Hamlet who has the keener wit). But the scene wouldn’t be funny if Hamlet were trouncing the gravedigger with his verbal acuity — it would read as mean.
Rachel Loden: Yeah, it’s the power imbalance that’s key. Ritually casting someone down is great when it’s a prince or potentate or self-appointed pasha of some kind who requires comeuppance. Even then, it’s more fun when the spoofee is fleshed out enough to be ridiculously human, as in Dickens. There so much of the pleasure (and the laughter) is in seeing the Mr. Pecksniffs of the world brought low. That’s part of the reason I love writing about Nixon, obviously, but it wouldn’t be as much of a kick if he was just a cartoon.
I have to say I love meanness in poems when the playing field is level, or when some poobah is taking it in the neck. The Romans were really good at this, of course.
But when we’re in a position of safety (to use Doug’s phrase) and some drug-addled thirteen year old is knocked up in a trailer, where’s the hilarity? I must be missing something.
What I kept wondering overnight was whether perhaps Knox was not aiming at hilarity at all, or at least not mainly at hilarity. Kasey had called the poem “one of her biggest crowd-pleasers,” and I think I allowed that to color my reading. What if she’s after different game? What the poem reminded me of on first reading was Flannery O’Connor and her flaming grotesques, and that’s what I keep going back to. Nobody can claim that “Chicken Bucket” isn’t brilliantly and mercilessly observed.
Gabriel Gudding: Rachel, “Chicken Bucket” takes me back to Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium, Or, The Praise of Folly, 1511 them were the days. My students and I read parts of it last semester. It was cool. In one way it’s a very mean book: making serious unending fun of fat people, stupid people, etc. The speaker is “Folly” who says stuff like “and the merchants are the most foolish of all” — so it’s like folly is praising all these people but doing so from an inverted perspective. A lot of it is against church folk etc. and movers and shakers, but a lot of it is making fun of little folk too. He says that all children are the product of madness and oblivion.
And tho Erasmus doesn’t “say” this in the book, the thing that shines thru — and the thing that makes it a really amazing read — is that even tho this is a wholesale condemnation of all of society and its actors, there is also conveyed this sense of weird admiration for the Energy of the people. Even tho everyone is a fool, they have admirable energy — and it does turn into a kind of denigrative encomium. At the very end is a kind of coda, tho, in which Erasmus finally puts forward a grounding clavis, a key to good Christian values. “So much better are things spiritual than things corporeal, and things invisible than things visible,” he finally says toward the end, among other things, but then returns to a kind of “positive dissing” by praising madness and witlessness at the book’s close.
There is a way, I think, where the denigration can be so wholesale, mean, and scathing that one gets a sense that that wand of ire could easily be turned on (a) anyone in the audience, and (b) the poet herself. And that’s redemptive. That’s the redemptive hint — the hint that we are all damned together, we are all fools together, even the least of us.
This is what menippean satire does: it’s absolutely chaotic, destroying even those who are “lesser.” There are two kinds of satire: (1) where a select group is being destroyed on behalf of something that is being conserved, (2) where everything is being destroyed. This latter is called menippean satire or chaotic satire. If we look at Knox’s poem from the standpoint of (1), we think “she’s dissing the poor, so she must be conserving the rich,” but if we look at it as (2), we think “she’s dissing the poor now but she’ll also diss the rich later.”
If we see it as (2), which I do, then Jen Knox’s “Chicken Bucket” could only happen in an era of great openness and understanding, in a loosening, in an era that starts out knowing that the “least of us” is also dignified enough to be picked on.
The poem seems to be saying, “yuh okay this pathetic person is trapped but despite that she’s also in love (yes with a twit) but she’s still thinking of her mother, she’s still invested in it all even if what’s she’s invested in is really degraded” — and that’s positive, even tho she’s in Boron — and too the trailer girl is speaking directly to “us,” those of us not in Boron, which itself means her voice is traveling far (a positive thing).
I can give Knox that credit — because the details are (as you point out, Rachel) so carefully observed: it’s the act of observation that bespeaks a kind of patience and care, even if what’s observed is then gathered into an insult or caricature. It is not, I sense (or credit), a real insult but a ritualized one — and it’s instructive, it reminds us of the fact that we too are busting into the trailer to look at someone’s fat little titties — taking us a notch lower too because now we’re voyeurs. Watching a soap opera with fascination is not something to be proud of. :)
P.S. Don’t get me wrong, I like looking at soap operas when I go to the laundromat because it makes me feel very spiritually advanced.
George Bowering: Have to agree with Rachel; that was a hell of a post from Gabe; worth the wait. It would be an honour, wouldn’t it, to be the recipient of an insult poem from, say, Jack Spicer. But would it be as valuable to be the recipient of an insult poem from Billy Collins?
D. A. Powell: I, for one, would love to be the insultee in a Billy Collins poem. As Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
I hope that everyone will eventually write a poem insulting me. And I, for my part, shall try to do likewise.
Rachel Loden: Well, I think I may be the “rachel-bugs” that afflict the insultee in Gabe’s poem “A Defense of Poetry.” I think I remember the thing I said that might have inspired Gabe to turn me into a rachel-bug. This used to worry me but now I think it’s an honor.
And there is something jolly and Brueghelian about the notion of chaotic satire, satire as a form of mud-wrestling.
Erasmus says that all children are the product of madness and oblivion. Rae Armantrout says that “Only the very young are sane. They feel immortal and regard events with a true seriousness we cannot reach.”
But I don’t believe for a minute that Cassie, the thirteen year-old heroine of “Chicken Bucket,” is likely to be “in love” (in love?!?) with her mother’s boyfriend Rick.
I don’t see any moral equivalence between the foolishness of Cassie and the foolishness of George W. Bush.
Discuss: in the equal-opportunity idiocy of Menippean satire, the emperor’s head stays on.
And that’s why we have television. Think of shows like Jackass, which seem very Menippean in spirit but threaten no one.
George Bowering: I don’t know what kind of show Jackass is. Only thing I watch on TV is baseball and old Trevor Howard movies.
Rachel Loden: I’ve never seen it either, George, but apparently people try to write the most embarrassing poem they can and everybody watches to see whether they hurt themselves.
George Bowering: Sounds like the New York School to me.
Rachel Loden: Or maybe a really bad day in Bolinas.
At some point too it might be fun to toss Billy Collins about, since some might find it shocking that we didn’t. Also Padgett, Elmslie, Notley, Simic, so many others. And more on Koch.
Paul Hoover says that “Collins’s work represents the domestication of New York School wit,” which seems very apt to me.
Elmslie has a tummler-like quality, which is somehow very endearing especially in (what I assume is) a non-Jew.
Maxine Chernoff: Elmslie is half-Jewish — grandpa was a Pulitzer.
Rachel Loden: Wow. He goes on my list of half-Jewish people, which is to say my people.
And such an interesting tribe it is too.
D. A. Powell: I love the term half-Jewish. I think it’s the only religion that allows halvsies.
Me, I’m the Jewish equivalent of a quadroon. Would that be a quadrooj?
George Bowering: That is so cool. I am one-quarter Mennonite.
D. A. Powell: I’ve limited myself to a Menafortnite.
K. Silem Mohammad: My father was from Yemen, and my mother’s ancestry is heavily Swedish. Guess that makes me a yumpin’ Yemeni.
Here are a couple of poems, first Collins and then Padgett:
In the Evergreen Hills of Berkeley
As I paged through the photographs
of the pieces he had made,
admiring the deep wood tones
and the rich textures of the grain,
the furniture maker revealed to me
the furniture-maker’s code:
the back should be as good as the front,
the bottom should be as good as the top,
the inside should be as good as the outside.
That applies to so many things in life,
I heard myself saying
as he turned the car up another steep hill,
but even now, months later,
back in the outskirts of New York
where the trees are bare
and the stone floor is cold in the morning,
for the life of me
I cannot think of a single one.
Poet as Immortal Bird
A second ago my heart thump went
and I thought, “This would be a bad time
to have a heart attack and die, in the
middle of a poem,” then took comfort
in the idea that no one I have ever heard
of has ever died in the middle of writing
a poem, just as birds never die in mid-flight.
Is there general agreement here that the Padgett “works” better? Or not?
George Bowering: This is the first time I have ever read a poem by this Billy Collins, and I fell for Padgett when I first read him last century, so maybe comparisons by me are unfair. But it seems to me that one of the reasons I feel that the Collins poem is a crock is that it is saying all the way through: “Okay, children, this is a poem, so listen carefully and learn something.” I mean come on: how can you get a rep as a guy who speaks in real language when you use the word “cannot.” That word is saved for sententious poems. Etc.
K. Silem Mohammad: OK, but just to play devil’s advocate, and to give Collins due credit, isn’t that part of the joke? That the “I’m going to tell you something” tone is deliberately exaggerated so that he can undercut it at the end? Even the “cannot” seems like the last flourish of this gesture, almost cancelling itself out as it ushers in his anti-epiphany.
Gary Sullivan: Collins’ poem sounds like any old workshop poem, from beginning to end. Padgett’s doesn’t; it does a bit more than one can predict while reading it.
[Collins] plods through more than two stanzas, seven lines devoted to the woodworker’s piece and the woodworker’s statement. There’s no need for all those repeated “should be as good as the”s.
I think George is onto something with that final “Cannot.” That last line is very dum dum dummm, perhaps mildly surprising in its reversal of expected content, but not in terms of expected rhythm. Padgett’s reversal is very funny because it’s not just a surprising reversal (albeit not very surprising at that), but that the quickness is surprising: “I think.”
Collins’ ending is workshoppy. Ahhhh, finally, mmm, safety. We’ve wrapped it up. Padgett’s is clunky, unexpected. And “I think” is only a hint at reversal. We end on an unresolved note.
I don’t think Collins’ poem is poorly written, just lazy. I think that Padgett’s, silly as it is, has a bit more going on in it. How would Collins have written Padgett’s phrase “my heart thump went.” I mean, that’s beautifully succinct. And it’s interesting, inventive syntax, even for how simple it is, finally. Collins, if the evergreen poem is an example, would probably drag out the description, workshop style, maybe even giving it a whole stanza.
Rachel Loden: [quoting George]: “I mean come on: how can you get a rep as a guy who speaks in real language when you use the word ‘cannot.’ That word is saved for sententious poems. Etc.”
But what about Creeley? He’s chockablock with cannots. Is there a difference in the way he uses them? Are you saying that Creeley can get away with it but Collins, um, cannot?
“Love, what do I think / to say. I cannot say it.” “I cannot / be more than the man / who watches.” “But if / in the twisted / place I / cannot speak...” “I cannot change it, / the weather / occurs, the mind / is not its only witness.” And so on.
George Bowering: Yes, Creeley does do that.
Well, I wonder whether he does it early or late. Because his early poems are often imitations of Elizabethan poets, and the very late ones are all kinds of endrime stuff.
K. Silem Mohammad: I wonder if in the difference between these two poems, we don’t get at some of that original concept that this group was sparked in response to: the idea of poems that are “just” funny, and therefore not as worthy of attention. The problems many of us have with that designation might be put in perspective by positing that what we really mean when we say “just” is “not so” or “not enough” (of course that last would yield “not enough funny,” but please make all necessary syntactical adjustments).
Collins’ poem is funny — sort of. I kind of almost laughed when I read it. It’s chuckly. Ultimately, it’s a joke wearing poem’s clothing, the clothing being part of the joke. At the end of the poem, the reader is supposed to slap her head and say “D’oh! He really had me going there!” And she may in fact do just that, because it is kind of a funny joke. Once.
Now, if that were as far as it went, we might say, well, yes, that’s what we said in the first place: “just” funny, as opposed to funny plus something else (sad, deep, angry, whatever). And certainly that’s part of it. But I want to maintain that a poem that is funny “enough” is always funny “plus.” Funny that lasts amounts to more than “just” funny by definition, because in order for a joke to remain funny through repeated tellings, it must draw some of its humorous power from an element that resists full assimilation, or being completely “got.” Obviously it must be gotten to the extent that it elicits enough recognition of some insight or other to provoke laughter at all, but it must also have some degree of continued baffle-factor. An example for me of a classic joke with this kind of staying power would be the old one that Woody Allen retells at the end of Annie Hall, about the crazy relative who thought he was a chicken, but the family doesn’t have him put away because they “need the eggs.” There’s a core of maddening illogic at the heart of that joke that always suckers me, that forces me to keep reminding myself that it doesn’t make sense. Of course, I may just be easily amused. But even if that particular joke doesn’t do it for you, the principle seems to me to hold some water.
One reason the joke in Collins’ poem doesn’t have the kind of legs I’m describing, at least for me, is that it relies on a set of expectations which have been artificially constructed for the poem rather than being based on real feelings or ideas. The speaker’s thought that the furniture-maker’s code “applies to so many things in life” is, upon close consideration, not really something that one would think. The reason the speaker “cannot think of a single one” is not that some old, venerable but unexamined idea has suddenly been shown to be bankrupt, but that there is of course nothing else in life that those ridiculously banal guidelines shed any special light on, nor would we have been tempted to think that there were in the first place if not for the speaker’s sudden, arbitrary surmise that there were. The poem’s stock deployment of romantic irony is ultimately all there is: a bare rhetorical structure with a thin shell of cheap drywall hastily thrown up around it.
In Padgett’s poem, in contrast, the equivalent observation is one that bears closer inspection. I’ve certainly never seen a bird die in mid-flight (except when it’s been shot). The disturbing idea that it is nevertheless possible that they might has real weight, because the comforting notion that they don’t does as well. But when you think about it further, the actual relevance of the bird question to whether the speaker might be having a heart attack is so spurious that we feel its absurdity — or rather, we’ve felt it all along, but our awareness of it is temporarily suspended by the silly little enigma that it inspires.
I find the Padgett poem both funnier and better than the Collins poem for the same reason: that it is finally more serious. In fact, any real humor there is in the Collins poem comes not from the content of its faux “insight,” or from any accessible “truth” it presents or resists presenting to us, but from the way in which it tricks us for a moment into believing that we should take it seriously. This is a move that only works once, unless the reader is chronically gullible; it’s the equivalent of pointing at someone’s shirtfront so you can twonk their nose. Not only does the speaker’s meditation evaporate into inanity, the speaker himself is revealed as a flat cutout, a cartoon poet in a cartoon poem. There may even be some limited charm to that, but Padgett’s speaker comes off as real, vulnerable, mortal, and therefore truly funny.
Rachel Loden: The resident Finn has a woodshop and he says that the furniture-maker’s code is a crock, that if a real woodworker made the back of a dresser out of cherry or mahogany, he would be viewed as (a) a fool and (b) an ecological criminal.
I don’t know whether Collins knows this. But when Gary says that “There’s no need for all those repeated “should be as good as the’s,” that’s exactly the point. Those repetitions set up the joke, that in the evergreen hills of Berkeley people wax almost biblically about furniture. Oh those flakey Berserkleyites!
But in the cold winter light of an East Coast morning sensible people do not talk like that. Isn’t it funny that even I, Billy Collins or his doppelgänger, got pulled into it? What was I thinking hyuk hyuk.
So Kasey nails it (so to speak) when he calls the irony in the poem “a bare rhetorical structure with a thin shell of cheap drywall hastily thrown up around it.” The joke pays off, but it’s curiously flat. We don’t need to read or think about it again.
While the fear of checking out in the middle of a line... that’s going to bug me.
Gabriel Gudding: I agree with the resident Finn — and Rachel’s reading of that poem as a smug East Coast v. West Coast and sensible v. hippy thing. Part of what bugs me about the poem is I don’t believe him on two accounts: (a) The Finn points out that no furniture maker in his right mind would think that, and (b) I think the speaker’s only pretending not to think of a single one — he’s faking in his certitude, whereas Padgett’s “I think” is honest (and witty). Plus Collins plays (woodenly and stone-facedly) off wood versus stone (furniture maker versus stone floor). Who the heck has a stone floor? Like too what Kasey says here, really puts his finger on it: “not enough funny.”
The difference in Kasey’s new category (“not enough funny”) and “funny” strikes me as parallel to the difference between the categories of “pun” and “joke.” A joke can include a pun, but it can’t be a pun. That is, a pun can only be part of a joke. A pun is merely a sound with two meanings. A pun only becomes a joke if the overlay of the two meanings in some way comments or shows something of positive use to people.
A joke has utility. Whereas a pun is like the verbal equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons geeks. That’s what Collins is in this instance: the poetic equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons. Sometimes he is really on.
Rachel Loden: Our erstwhile listmate Ange is blogging at the Poetry Foundation site this week, celebrating (among other things) Wallace Stevens as a poet who “consistently wrings the comic potential from mere syllables.” Her own work is evidence enough of a humor that “comes right out of the click and crash of consonants and vowels, as if phonemes were feathers applied to a particularly ticklish part of the brain.”
But it’s a delicious irony (and one in which Ange fully partakes, I’m sure) that Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry (which is of course published by the Poetry Foundation), apparently reviles Stevens, as hilariously recounted by Ravi Shankar in “Querying the Connoisseur of Chaos,” a review of a conference on Stevens held at the University of Connecticut. What strikes me is how similar Wiman’s complaints against Stevens are to some of the knocks on flarf in the last few days — that it is “about nothing in particular and with nothing to recommend it” (Seth Abramson), that it “does not avail itself of any coherent narrative, musicality, or serious examination of the human condition” (R.J. McCaffery). Of course the same things were said and are still being said about New York School, Language Poetry, etc.
Is there something about comic poetry that drives certain people barmy?
Gabriel Gudding: Yes, there is. And especially so among those who are invested in what Bakhtin calls “official culture.” They will rightly fear its force for precisely the reasons Bakhtin outlines.
I saw Christian Wiman’s first book, The Long Home, when it came out seven years ago, and I was struck at how abysmally boring I found it. I found it so boring, in fact, and predictable, that I kept it. I still have it. As to whether it is in fact boring or predictable, or whether I just perceive it as boring and predictable, is a question maybe for phenomenologists — I just don’t dig the book. I mean I really don’t care if it’s boring or not; I don’t dislike it; I keep it only because I find it a great example of how not to write — how someone like me should never ever write. It’s a pedagogical tool for me and nothing more. It is steepled, in fact, on my left knee as I type this. The book strikes me in its blandness as singular and distinctive. We must all have such antithetical writers and books, otherwise we are probably not terribly human. In Wiman, I have met my poetic antithesis.
Along these lines I was rereading this afternoon Bakhtin’s “Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel” and loving its concluding statement. In that statement Bakhtin talks about “the common people’s creative culture of laughter.” Bakhtin says that the novel, and all novelized genres, are yoked to and influenced by an association with “the low,” by which he means speech genres that are filled with the candor that can only be found outside the official realms (presumably where intercourse is governed less by fear of loss of status, position, prestige, capital).
Anyway I got to thinking about whether laughter itself could become “stylized.” And it occurred to me that maybe this is the thing that bothers so many people about Billy Collins, or bothers Ron about certain poets who “wink”: that is to say, I think one of the reasons it has been so hard for us to formulate what the “postmodern wink” is (aside from the fact that it seems like, and in fact is, an altogether dismissive comment — sorry if that’s unfair, Ron, maybe it’s not a fair assessment of the phrase) is that it’s difficult to think about the fact that laughter too can become stylized. We have rightly an idea of laughter that it is the destroyer of stylization — that to then think of it as it obviously is sometimes — stale, incomplete, a mere gesture, the mask, rather than the meat, of hilarity and vivifying destruction — is an icky mental act.
Rachel Loden: Gabe, this is really interesting — I get irritated sometimes at what seems like the false cheer of some second-rate New York school imitators because it appears so mannered, so stylized, so much the attitude they think they’re supposed to adopt. It isn’t fresh, it isn’t a new response but simply a bland pose against a familiar aesthetic backdrop. I have the sense that even if they were deeply gloomy they would still sally forth with this hoked-up ersatz jauntiness. I hate these poems almost as much as I hate bathetic poems of the “Granpa dies on the way to the garage” variety — or even more, because so many of them are strewn in my path and retailed as “the new.”
Gabriel Gudding: I like the way you put it here: a pose “against a familiar aesthetic backdrop” — “ersatz jauntiness.”
Your great point re comedic mannerism in New York School imitators: yeah, what at one time was considered a lack of mannerism, a looseness, an I-do-this-I-do-that-ness, a purposeful avoidance of stylized emotionalism or formulaic drama — bathetic writing — also has a structure which can in turn be imitated. I think this is one of the things that can become trying or boring or blah about flarf (not to say that it’s often not fun a lot, it is). Flarf (or whatever avant-garde movement probably) very much relies upon a larger cultural and poetic backdrop of aestheticized emotionalism. But if that’s its only move — without touching the whole of the emotional palette — what you get is something that eventually parodies itself but without the knowledge of the writers themselves. So maybe flarf that is too aleatoric at base loses touch with the humane? — and kinda dips into mere haha? But I mean I think the flarfists know this already anyway — it’s obvious in reading the really great flarf: there is a sympathetic joy found in laughing at batheticism itself (thru the cloyingly awful).
The stylization of laughter does strike me as a conundrum precisely because laughter’s mode is typically to bust stylization through lampoon, burlesque, caricature, satire, sarcasm, and parody — as well as less “negative” modes like incongruity, sympathetic joy, laughter as empathic union, and the communalist moves and idealized society that comedy tends toward.
But what happens when — and what are the ways that — the comic mode in poetry is stylized? I mean, I can see the end of a Billy Collins poem after the first stanza. Question: who was Ron tweaking when he wrote that post on the pomo wink?
Rachel Loden: Gabe, it was a consideration of Jennifer Moxley that first sparked Ron’s ruminations on the postmodern wink.
The crux of his argument seems to be in the second paragraph: Moxley doesn’t blink (or wink) when confronting terrible realities:
...one can almost imagine how another poet such as Ashbery would deflect the absolute directness of this address, bringing in everything from elderly aunts to whatever he’s rescued from the Disney back lot.
So the winkers seem to be feckless joyriders who think that “the pleasure of the journey is life’s point ... For Moxley, clearly it’s not.”
It’s as if she has decided to be the bad conscience of post-avant writing, the one who reminds everybody else that “this is serious — you are doomed.”
So apparently Ashbery and the winkers are deflecting reality, essentially wimping out on what faces us — death, doom &c. I’d certainly agree that there are post-avant writers (bad ones) whose poems reek of triviality and a sort of empty cleverness and cuteness that is not transformed by its context. I wouldn’t include Ashbery among them. He can throw the whole Disney back lot at you and then somehow suffuse the scenery in a poignance intense enough to break your heart. Or that’s what reading him does for me. I never feel I am avoiding anything but rather (as with O’Hara) letting sleight of hand take my breath away.
So Gabe, where we seem to diverge from Ron’s 2002 post is in believing that it is exactly in humor — deep humor — that multi-dimensional reality lies, and that “seriousness” worn on one’s sleeve (and here I am not talking about Moxley) can lead to poems that are remarkable for their one-dimensionality, brittleness, colorlessness, lack of complexity.
That sort of seriousness is, perhaps, by our lights, not quite serious enough.
K. Silem Mohammad: Anne Boyer says that when she started reading Drew Gardner’s Petroleum Hat she wept. And not just from laughter. She sees the overall mood of the work as tragic, and somehow its funniness is what enables that tragic sense. Lines like:
Don’t go to Hello Kitty karaoke parties
in places where there’s a war
Rachel Loden: As Gabe says, “Weirdly comedy is often said to be divorced from real emotion.” And this view is embraced on both sides of the aesthetic barricades, as seen in Wiman’s view of Stevens (“little sense of how to convey something a reader might enter into, something born of blood and emotion and the shared commonalities of lived life”) and Ron’s take on poets like Ashbery who “let us off the hook” and “deflect” us from gritty realities.
Wiman’s “blood and emotion and the shared commonalities of lived life” is a particularly unfortunate turn of phrase with its obvious echoes of the German Blut und Boden (blood and soil), which has its roots in pre-Nazi literary nationalism, or as a Wikipedia entry puts it, “nostalgic, idealized depictions of German peasant life.” So the longing to turn away from the “hyper-cerebral” and back to the Volk long predates the efforts of the Poetry Foundation.
Re stylization and flarf, any school or tendency has its tics, its manners that can be imitated, and that’s going to happen (is already happening) with flarf and will inevitably leech some of the freshness from it. So the best flarf poets will move on, have already moved on, and are incorporating new and unexpected moves into their work, and those in turn will be imitated.
Maxine Chernoff: As someone said, perhaps Jung, sentimentality is repressed brutality (in reference to Wiman).
Rachel Loden: We’ve never really talked about the perils of the body in comic poetry. In other words, why is it so funny to learn that “LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!”
It’s got to be more than simple schadenfreude. It’s got to be more than what Mel Brooks says: “Tragedy is I stub my toe. Comedy is you fall in a manhole and die.”
I found one clue in an interview with Linh Dinh: “One cannot think seriously about life without contemplating the destruction of the body.”
So that’s why he’s so funny! Is comedy a sort of parody of tragedy?
George Bowering: I was thinking of this while sitting in the little room last night. I believe, as is commonly asserted, that life is tragic. This because despite all our resolutions etc., it ends with decrepitude and death. That is, we lose. Badly. I was persuaded when I read Unamuno when I was 21. Lots of people yuk it up; I know I do, trying to act as if they should be believed in their show that life is comic, because we’re little guys. Well, that is, I think, a response to the knowledge that life is tragic by nature. Look at Aristophanes. Aren’t all his plays parodies of the Tragedians?
Rachel Loden: Tragedy parodies comedy and the reverse in Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy, by A.M. Bowie, here on the push/pull between Euripides and Aristophanes:
In its use of comic motifs and material, its play with and subversion of tragic conventions, its use of illusion and recognition, and its complex intertextual relationships with a famous predecessor which it “parodies,” Helen is a striking and unusual play, which, as the struggles of commentators to deal with it show, is stretching the bounds of tragedy and using many things which comedy might have felt to be its own trademarks.
I want to suggest that Aristophanes in Thesmophoriazusae is replying in kind to this demarche by the tragedian, in which he had expanded tragedy’s range by incorporating comic features. Aristophanes produces a similar blend of the two genres using similar techniques and devices, so as to demonstrate not only that the range of comedy can be likewise extended, but also to submit tragedy and tragic conventions to a radical critique, in which a comparison of the two genres reveals comedy’s much greater flexibility and potential. The play thus becomes a continuous demonstration in various spheres of the superiority of comedy as a dramatic form, and inflicts upon Euripides, for this transgression into comic territory, a punishment no less severe than that he suffers for his meddling with the Thesmophoria.
The first area where comedy’s superiority is shown is in the matter of language. The early scenes of the play imply a preciosity in tragic language which distances it from “plain,” everyday speech but also renders it incapable of tolerating the intrusion of certain kinds of words: by contrast, it is in just such words which are destructive of tragic discourse that comic language revels....
Gabriel Gudding: Rach, George — granted there is a push/pull between genres — and sho-nuff Aristophanes was a playwright who parodied writers who wrote tragedies. That does not however mean that all comedy is a response to tragedy.
What’s more, any writer is going to respond generically (that is, to what’s been written) as well as phenomenologically or ontologically (to what cannot be written — to the unalloyed suffering of our bodies and spirits). If you wanna argue that comedy springs at bottom from a response to other kinds of literature, okay (I think that’s what you’re saying), but hey man for me it at bottom represents a response to damage, suffering, and death. It is not about parodying. It does parody at times, but that’s not its raisin debt.
So again, this does not however mean that all comedy is a response to tragedy. But that comedy is a fundamental response to suffering, to the inevitability of damage — and inasmuch as tragedy approaches suffering from a specific emotional framework, so does comedy — and yeah yeah comedy can at times comment upon the tragic mode.
Russian formalism aside, this was my point in saying that comedy does not spring from a clash of genres — a belletristic struggle — but from a particular ontological attitude, a mode of perceiving suffering in a particular way. If comedy, or any mode, is in its entirety merely a response to the world of letters, it will become stylized and empty.
And that is I think one of the key annoying features of the “postmodern wink,” or why Billy Collins is so profoundly dismissible: if we see the Pattern of the Joke in the poem, rather than a Display of Elan, we know we are witnessing something that in some way is a formulaic response to genre forces; not a lived, felt, and honestly written response to the inevitability of damage. Comedy is a refusal to let one’s spirit die. Tragedy is a refusal to let one’s pain go.
Rachel Loden: While I’m not unfamiliar with George’s musings in the little room, and take them to heart in a way that possibly only creaky people do, I get a little uncomfortable right here [quoting George]: “Lots of people yuk it up; I know I do, trying to act as if they should be believed in their show that life is comic, because we’re little guys.”
I’ve never seen comic poetry as “yukking it up” if that is (as it sounds) a sort of displacement activity, an empty exercise in holding our fears of suffering and death at arm’s length. I see comic writing as a robust response to those phenomena, not as a diversion, and I see it as often in dialogue with tragedy, not as a belletristic struggle, but because tragedy is the other (or another) rich complex response and each response informs the other.
That’s why I said a few days ago that I wondered whether we crawled out of the primordial ooze laughing, crying, or both at the same time. It certainly wasn’t then (and I think isn’t still) about genre war or literature at all but about how we process painful experiences and survive. Or don’t.
Maxine Chernoff: I don’t have a lot to say on this but cast my vote with Rachel, that humor is a far deeper and more existential response than yukking it up.
K. Silem Mohammad: Maybe this is at the heart of the original kinds of prejudices in response to which this group was formed. Because, ultimately, for me? it is all about yukking it up, as opposed to something deeper and more existential.
Yukking it up is part of what keeps poetry fresh and interesting. But it is not defensible on “aesthetic” grounds, that is, the kind of formally conservative aesthetic that makes people want to divide “serious” from “non-serious” art.
Or, to put it another way, is there anything really more deep and existential about one kind of poetic expression than another? Aren’t the very concepts of depth and existentiality themselves the most desperate kind of incitement to yuk it up?
Yukking it up is as much an aggressive, outward-directed gesture as a defensive, inward one. To make light of the unlight is magical thinking, and in that sense shares something with the impulse behind poetry and all art. It is also a way of pissing off others by desecrating their idols, and in that sense shares something with politics.
George Bowering: Here is KSM making useful discriminations as usual. I am taken with this view, and while I was searching myself for a good argument, fell on this and am shamelessly taking it for my own.
Remember who played Estragon in the US premiere of Waiting for Godot. [Note: it was Bert Lahr, born Irving Lahrheim, American comic actor.]
D. A. Powell: Some comedy is certainly full of “yuks.” But there are other kinds of comedy — the light humor of, say, Marianne Moore: “Literature is a phase of life. If one is afraid of it, the situation is irremedial; if one approaches it familiarly, what one says of it is worthless.” This is not the slapstick of Corso nor the hijinx of Tate. It is, in the end, a kind of pleasure in the exercise of wit, felt more inwardly than, say, a belly laugh. It is amusement, in the sense of being captivated by the act of rumination in oneself, startled by the joy of one’s own thoughts — and, ultimately, letting the reader into the inner circle of one’s own pleasure. In that way, it is a kind of generosity of humor — it does not beat up on anyone, much as we sometimes want for humor to beat up on people (Waugh beats up on institutions, which is perhaps the best kind of humor; and cummings does as well). Ultimately, “yukking” feels savage. Whereas, a smile at one’s own wit (or that of others) has not done the world any harm.
Maxine Chernoff: I don’t think I disagree with George or Kasey or mean to sound like a “high seriousness” kind of poet. I’m just opposed to the phrase “yukking it up,” which seems to diminish the value of humor.
George Bowering: Are you saying that we shouldn’t make fun of humour?
Maxine Chernoff: No, we should.
Rachel Loden: Hmm. I think Maxine and I should refuse to play Margaret Dumont to George and Kasey’s Marx brothers! Maxine, let’s you and I be Groucho and Harpo, yucks galore while the boys take turns as Margaret Dumont, fusty aesthetic dowager.
George Bowering: My friend’s dad said “If you are going to be one of the Three Stooges, be Moe.”
Well, let us just say that we can widen the boundaries of yukking it up. A lot of Shakespeare is guys yukking it up, isn’t it? It ain’t only Moe and Curley and the other guy that yuk it up. Think of the great actors who can, against type, yuk it up, then think of the ones you had thought were great who cannot.
Maxine Chernoff: True. I am ascribing too narrow a boundary to yukking.
Rachel Loden: The notion that one’s position “is not defensible on ‘aesthetic’ grounds” is of course one of the most venerable and ambitious aesthetic moves, long predating “R. Mutt’s” submission of a urinal to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. Duchamp in ’62: “When I discovered readymades, I thought to discourage aesthetics.... I threw the bottle rack and the urinal in their faces as a challenge, and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.”
My question actually had to do with this statement from M. Bowering: “I believe, as is commonly asserted, that life is tragic. This because despite all our resolutions etc., it ends with decrepitude and death. That is, we lose. Badly. I was persuaded when I read Unamuno when I was 21. Lots of people yuk it up; I know I do, trying to act as if they should be believed in their show that life is comic, because we’re little guys. Well, that is, I think, a response to the knowledge that life is tragic by nature.”
George Bowering: But I don’t mean to yuk it up all the time. Just when things get scary.
Rachel Loden: My point was that comedy is not a fall-back position, not something we rehearse to hide our disappointment that “life is tragic,” but rather a full-bodied engagement with suffering, stupidity, contradiction and death.
So I want to embrace all kinds of silliness, from the flarfical to the pleasurable dragons of Miss Moore.
K. Silem Mohammad: I guess I just don’t think of what Marianne Moore et al. do as “humor” in the sense of the word that originally caused the whole discussion. More like a subtle, ironic, playful wit, and one that I do indeed value, but of a different order from the kind of humor that is, after all, the one often under attack. Few critics have complained that Moore’s humor is inappropriate or vulgar or cheap or deflective or any of those things. Wit has not been the subject of distrust in modern poetry in the same way that humor has. At least not to the same degree.
Rachel Loden: Since some of you never answered the “Why are you funny?” question, let me add something to it.
Was humor a focus of your life even before you began writing? If so, why do you think you became interested in or obsessed with it? Did humor in any sense stir or provoke your nascent muse? What are the roots of humor in your life and work?
D. A. Powell: I think humor was always a part of my life before I started writing poetry, and humor was part of the armor that I carried forth into the world. I was/am fond of poking fun at serious subjects — even at poetry itself — so it came as no surprise that I went funny. What have been more surprising, actually, are the more serious moments in my work. I suppose the world got more serious for me somehow, what with AIDS and all that — the sense of mortality. And maybe there have been moments in my life when I’ve found humor to be an insufficient response to what was going on around me.
Let’s see, if I go back to early poems, I notice that I went for the quick laugh often: “you are not the skunkweed I used to suddenly find so useful.” Feh! It lacked any solidity; it was just the self-indulgent scat humor and quick swerving away from seriousness that one finds in the work of the young and disaffected. And I think even by the time I got around to writing my first book, I was still being irreverent and silly. But other tones were there; I suppose they were born of something like pain (if I can even say that anything in my life has approached suffering, which I’m not sure that it has). But in any case, I must have felt that I wanted to be — what’s the term — truthful? No, that’s not something that has ever particularly interested me. But something like truth, something that hinted at the other parts of life that just aren’t funny, no matter how much you wish they were.
Now, there are times when people tell me they think my work is full of humor and I look at them like they’re from Mars (perhaps some of them really are from Mars, so they don’t really understand how wilting my look would be, in the proper context). There are moments when I think I haven’t written one single word of humor. And that just goes to show — something. Maybe it shows that I’m off my gourd. But I think it might also show that my irreverence has become so much a part of me that I don’t recognize it as a trope.
Oh, hell, does anyone who means to be funny ever succeed? I think that you have to live in your own twisted reality until it supplants the external world. It might catch other people off guard, but not you. I guess I mean that humor is a kind of madness.
Sorry to be so vague. My mind has been forever altered by antiretrovirals and something called “introspection.”
Rachel Loden: Doug, you have that wonderful Quentin Crisp quote in Cocktails: “If we go to the movies often enough and in a sufficiently reverent spirit, they will become more absorbing than the outer world, and the problems of reality will cease to burden us.” But could we think about achieving pixilation rather than madness? I like to I imagine that I could become as pixilated as Elsa Lanchester (Kim Novak’s daft aunt Queenie) in Bell, Book and Candle: she makes it look like so much fun.
D. A. Powell: Damn! I thought I was Elsa Lanchester in Bell, Book and Candle. But perhaps I was really Jack Lemmon. Or that cat, what was his name? Pyewacket? Which is to say, that in general, humorists, like poets, are just a tad outside of reality. Pixilation or madness, it depends on who’s telling the tale.
Now I’m trying to remember, who was it that said the difference between comedians and humorists is that “comedians say funny things. Humorists say things funny.” Was that Will Rogers? Or Wayne Rogers? Or Roger Vadim? The point is, it’s no doubt ingrained in the language by the time we become writers; we can’t help but say things in the way that we say them. Makes me really appreciate Gracie Allen, who was then and is still one of my favorite poets.
K. Silem Mohammad: Funniness, I guess, has always been my main point of entry into some kind of enhanced consciousness. There’s that famous quote of Rilke’s, “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are still just able to bear”; I think funniness is terror — or cruelty — right at the point it starts to become unbearable. It’s like suffering from being tickled: you’re out of control, but not actually in agony — yet. If ecstasy is erotism at the point where it slips over the margin of pleasure onto a whole range of chaotic negativities (pain, disgust, insanity, horror), humor is a certain class of intellectual ecstasy.
To be clear, I’m not talking about subtle, urbane wit. I’m talking about convulsive chortling, spit flying from the mouth, tears. Stupid. The real ugly yuks.
George Bowering: Have we yet spoken about that business of humor and readings, how we make contact with audience by evoking a laugh. Yes. I recognize that. I too feel that if I lay out the wit and the audience doesn’t pick up on it, I am in front of the wrong damned audience.
Though I remember after David McFadden read to an audience in Montreal in about 1970, he said “I made them laugh. I wish I could make them cry.”
But you know, that same year George Oppen made me cry, and darn it if the way that happened wasn’t too far off the way someone can make you laugh.
When I am writing a quick funny turn to make a humorous poem, I am not thinking of any audience that would laugh.
Wit is an interesting word. It has snaky connections to humour and laughing and also to intelligence, and also to sudden “aha!”
So when a smart funny thing comes to write down, that is the supreme instance of poetry as dictated in the Spicer sense. I was an early Spicee.
Gabriel Gudding: There is something about writing the hilarious that contains or involves an anticipation of Social Explosion, an anticipation of a spontaneous moment of social cohesion. For me, the greatest kick about the Comic mode is its palliative communalism: a group of people loosening themselves into communal mindstates that, for me, seem the analog of healthy and efficacious mindstates in an individual: forgiveness, sympathetic joy, awareness of problems. The comic writer cannot make others laugh unless she brings something “up” that was previously “under.”
Rachel Loden: Yes, there is something (dare I say it) almost psychedelic about the best comic poetry. I kept “dissolving in giggles” while reading a collaboration between Ashbery and Koch yesterday, and it seemed like a particularly apt phrase when the things that worried me were falling away and vast hilarious possibilities seemed to be opening up in their place.
Isn’t this why people crave humor and will seize on any excuse to laugh — that they want what happens in their brains when they do it, and that seems to be the release of some kind of chemical that frees them for a moment from their usual rigid assumptions and miseries?
But just the other week someone was sniffing at Koch on the British & Irish Poets list, saying “... look at how fashionable Kenneth Koch was in the sixties, compared to the other New York Poets, and the way time has redealt those cards....”
Another Dangerfield moment — tiresome, but hardly unexpected at this point.
Gabriel Gudding: This morning I realized my thinking changed in the following way. I had not thought through the connection between humor and empathy much before this conversation — but Maxine’s comment about the comic mode’s relation to empathy really brought that home to me in a new way. I mean, I’d already sensed and appreciated the idea that humor had a distinct relation to hard, dark facts, to suffering. But that it has a strong and previously, to me, unseen relationship to an empathic mindstate, really struck me as beautiful. And palliative. Humor is a kind of empathy (when it’s not wholly denigrative). That’s one way my thinking’s changed — or at least deepened. Another way is that I’ve realized since our conversation that I have less and less interest in that kind of flat or thin comedy which doesn’t seem yoked to suffering: maybe it’s what Ron called the wink — kind of Ted Berrigan at his most flaccid, or Ginsberg at his flabbiest, or Billy Collins at his most predictable. So though comedy does not display pain, it must be yoked strongly to suffering. Jokes, in other words, that stem from the fictive, rather than the real, are a kind of crap. Like John Hollander writing about poodles: why??? Rochelle Owens is an example of a harrowing comedic writer who does it right — as she embraces the horror that her son is mortal, as she writes about domestic battery, a younger lover leaving. Levitas is married to gravitas or it’s crapitas. It’s just a campy dumb wink.
Maxine Chernoff: Why is it that Gabriel always says what I meant to say? Yeah, like that. Humor that deepens is what interests me as a grownup. That’s why some humorous pieces (Collins, for instance) fees like a scratchy record to me. In humor that works there’s more going on in a way that embraces the world. Embracing of things, deep affirmations — that’s what humor finally succeeds with. Not in a corny way at all. Hard-earned but not straining for something. Grace, finally, without the poodles.
K. Silem Mohammad: Thanks to everybody for participating in this project. It’s been been very instructive — and a lot of fun — to look back over all the conversations and subconversations after some elapse of time.
In retrospect, I don’t find that many of our starting questions have been answered conclusively, and of course only a fool would expect that they would be. I also find that many of my initial biases and instincts remain in place, as I would guess might be true for others as well. In my case, I have been if anything more firmly persuaded that humor is a form of cruelty. A necessary form, and one that we use sometimes to forestall more severe forms of cruelty, though of course it may also be used as an intensifier, a way of making cruelty even more cruel. Laughter, like desire and pain, doesn’t admit of degrees of abstraction (though its host forms might). It is an absolute value, at least during the time it is actually happening. Other values, like beauty, nobility, and poignancy, can never attain that level of physical immediacy. I may doubt whether I find something beautiful, but never whether I am actually laughing.
The function in art of such relatively abstract values as beauty is in many ways much easier to discuss than that of humor, partly because of this abstraction. It is a safe bet that art moves us via eloquence, that it enriches our souls with grace. Safe: because who can prove such a thing wrong? It is a harder thing to say with certainty that funniness in art does anything more than exercise our diaphragm muscles — or indeed that it does not derail art from its truer purposes.
Cruelty is so central to human behavior, and yet so clearly inimical to any coherently virtuous ethics, that it poses what may be one of the most pressing humanist dilemmas: what to do with that unpurgeable energy? Think about what kinds of things are funny: failure, stupidity, disaster, hatred, loneliness, greed, deformity, resentment, debasement. One fairly familiar explanation for humor is that it provides an acceptable outlet for certain thoughts and feelings. But this isn’t quite right. The outlet can never be completely acceptable, or if it is, the humor loses its edge. We laugh the hardest when we’re not supposed to laugh.
If I were to presume to answer the question posed to Ron early in the discussion, one definition of the “merely funny” poem might be that which fails to violate our standards sufficiently: it makes laughter too acceptable, and therefore not very strenuous.
But don’t take my word for it. Why would you trust anyone wearing this suit? (Rim shot.)
Rachel Loden: I don’t know about humor as a form of cruelty. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time around a one-year old to think that — a one-year old who seems to find lots of things hilarious, and around whom hilarity swirls, with no hint of cruelty that I can detect.
Cruelty is a school of humor, for sure, and when the late-night comics indulge in it — the gay jokes, the appearance jokes, it always seems to me like a form of laziness, the last refuge of a comedy that’s run out of ideas.
But I thought maybe I’d say something about how I happened to drag you all into this conversation, and how comedy and comedians became an obsession.
My father was funny. Time with him was spent keeping up with his constant Joycean punning and his firecracker strings of jokes. We lived on opposite coasts and saw each other for a week or two a year, if that, so in his presence I was always taking very careful notes and asking myself questions about why things were the way they were.
Some of that note-taking and questioning took place late at night, when I would lie sleepless in the upper berth of a bunk bed, one half-sister in the bunk below me and one often waking and crying in a crib a few feet away. My father would usually be downstairs with the television on, watching Jack Paar or, later, Johnny Carson. I was fascinated by this behavior. If I’d had permission I would have been downstairs with him, soaking up the atmosphere.
Apparently, it wasn’t enough to be funny; it was also necessary to study funniness and to study it day in and day out, tirelessly.
I knew he’d been an actor and radio announcer before the blacklist. Maybe these shows were a way to crawl back into the world he longed for — Hollywood, where he’d roomed with Robert Stack as a young hopeful, New York, where he was born, places full of bright patter and laughter where no aluminum lawn chairs or craft materials needed to be sold.
He died in permanent self-described exile in Canada, a few months before we launched this list. So if my quest to understand comedy and comedians has ever struck you as baffling or quixotic, or just plain absurd, now you know why.
I’m very pleased that we persisted in engaging these issues, knowing all the while that we’d never resolve them, only add interesting filigree to the latticework of our collective confusion. I’m particularly pleased and amused to notice the contradictions and inconsistencies in my own thinking — the way a certain “Chicken Bucket,” for instance, repeatedly morphed in my imagination, leaving me at last with only a wild desire to see its author perform it live.
D. A. Powell: I love the image of your father sitting and analyzing comedy late in the night. Zero Mostel was being interviewed about his participation in the film version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros; and, commenting on the project, he paraphrased Georges Braque, saying that he would be happy with the project when the idea of it had finally disappeared. I think that the analysis of comedy in poetry has been a wonderfully engaging pursuit. But I think Braques is also correct when he says that in art there’s only one thing that counts, the thing you can’t explain. I’m glad that ultimately we did little to explain humor in poetry. But we did complicate the idea of it, and I feel richer for it. Thanks for making this (all this showbiz and po-biz talk) happen.
Rachel Loden: Doug, I can only resonate with Zero and Georges. When the comic millennium comes, the need for all this chatter will wither away like the state.
Just got off the phone with our friend and listmate David Bromige. Had been meaning to call him ever since I read in Rolling Stone that Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame “spent his formative years at the private Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School near London,” which David also attended:
Dan Mazer met Baron Cohen at the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School when the two were eleven years old. “It’s basically a factory of comedy,” he says of Haberdashers’. “It’s just cocky young Jews. And because we were all too weak to fight each other, we compensated with verbal jousts.”
So I had to know whether Haberdashers’ was “a factory of comedy” when David was there, arriving in 1945 at age eleven, a scholarship student and a WASP. Not so much, apparently. “It was a factory of depression,” he says, mostly because of the war and the fact that the younger teachers were dying in it, leaving him and his fellow students with grumpy, sarcastic old masters.
I suggested that perhaps he had left his mark on the school, turning it into the comedy factory it is today. “Yes,” he says, “perhaps I left a notebook in the toilet.”
George Bowering was a member of the so-called Tish group of the sixties, young Vancouver poets who treated Don Allen’s anthology as a sacred text. He became a novelist, history writer, jackdaw and memoirist. He has recently taken to writing chapbooks. He also got dragooned into the Order of Canada.
Maxine Chernoff is the author of six books of fiction, most recently Some of Her Friends That Year (Coffee House) and eight books of poetry, most recently Among the Names (Apogee). With Paul Hoover, she edited OINK! Magazine, which ran from 1971-1985 and New American Writing, now in its 25th issue and 21st year. She chairs the Creative Writing Department at SFSU. Her translations of the German poet Hölderlin (with Paul Hoover) will be published by Omnidawn Press in 2008. She has a very handsome grandson named Dorian Michael who is 11 months old and says “Oh, wow!”
Katie Degentesh lives in New York City. Her first book, The Anger Scale, consists entirely of poems titled with questions from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and composed using Internet search engines. Other writings have appeared in Shiny, Fence, Lit, New American Writing and various other periodicals and anthologies. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis.
Gabriel Gudding is the author of two books, A Defense of Poetry (Pitt Poetry Series, 2002) and Rhode Island Notebook (Dalkey Archive Press, Nov 2007), a book he wrote in his car. His work appears in numerous periodicals and such anthologies as Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (Scribner) and as translator in such anthologies as The Oxford Anthology of Latin American Poetry, Poems for the Millennium, and The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry (University of California Press). He teaches creative writing, literature, and poetics at Illinois State University.
Rachel Loden is the author of Hotel Imperium and four chapbooks, including The Richard Nixon Snow Globe. Her work has appeared recently in New American Writing, Zoland Poetry, Best American Poetry 2005 and Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, and she has been interviewed in The Iowa Review and Jacket. Awards include a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship in Poetry from the California Arts Council, and a grant from the Fund for Poetry. She hopes to begin blogging relatively soon at http://wordstrumpet.blogspot.com/
Ange Mlinko is the author of Starred Wire (Coffee House), chosen for the National Poetry Series by Bob Holman in 2004, and Matinees (Zoland Books, 1999).
K. Silem Mohammad is the author of Deer Head Nation (Tougher Disguises, 2003), A Thousand Devils (Combo Books, 2004), and Breathalyzer (Edge Books, 2007). He maintains the blog Lime Tree ( http://lime-tree.blogspot.com ), and he lives and teaches in Ashland, OR.
D. A. Powell is the author of Tea (1998), Lunch (2000) and Cocktails (2004). He has received fellowships from the James Michener Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America. He teaches at University of San Francisco.
Ron Silliman: Zyxt is a part of The Alphabet, which will be published by the University of Alabama Press in 2008. Ron Silliman is a part of the Grand Piano collective, which is in the process of writing a ten-volume history of poetry in San Francisco in the 1970s, as viewed from the perspective of a reading series in the Haight-Ashbury. His current book is The Age of Huts (compleat). In 1964, Silliman worked briefly as a standup comic in Newport, Rhode Island.
Gary Sullivan’s books include Dead Man, How to Proceed in the Arts and, with Nada Gordon, Swoon. The first three issues of his comic book, Elsewhere, can be ordered from his blog, garysullivan.blogspot.com. He and Nada live in Brooklyn with their cats, Dante and Nemo.
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