My poetry experience has always been confined to a scholastic atmosphere, with one exception. My dad made me memorize Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Time to Rise” when I was ten. It was a very hilarious inside joke that he and my mom had about shaming me into waking up before noon. Beyond that, elementary school introduced me to a whole world of poems that rhymed with cat and bat. Most of the poems that I wrote at that time were either scary or funny, and nothing in between. I wrote a poem once called “It.” I believe it went something like, “It lay on the ground, it does not make a sound.” I remember thinking how scary it would be to give as little information as possible so that the reader’s imagination would fill in the gaps. So, by that point, poetry, for me, was either a series of ominous terror “images” or rhyming poems making fun of school lunch meat.
It wasn’t until college that my legitimate poetry experience began. I hadn’t been looking forward to my poetry classes at first, but by being forced to take them I found that certain kinds of poetry were in sync with my own writing sensibilities. For instance, haiku class was one of my favorites because it allowed for strange wording. We could write whatever we wanted within the standard haiku form. We were encouraged to mimic the greats like Buson or Bashō, and invoke natural images and subtle wisdom. I remember liking haiku quite a bit, but not necessarily for its content. I liked the sound of translation. When it was translated, it sounded almost Jedi-like. There was this famous haiku by Issa:
Don’t kill that fly!
Look—it’s wringing its hands,
wringing its feet.
I remember thinking that I wanted everything I wrote to sound like that; I liked the idea of making poems sound as though they were translated. I wanted my poems to have a Björk-like lyric quality, where everything was so oddly specific, but at the same time, inappropriately funny.
Many of my haikus went like this:
Baby in the yard.
Where is the baby’s holder?
Holding the cell phone.
Mashed cantaloupe soup
It does not taste like you’d think
There is a stupid
Stupidly stupid stupid
Stupid stupid horse.
Often I would get a laugh from one or more students, and almost always a laugh from the professor (of course, not without obligatory head shaking that signified fake admonishment). I found that most people actually appreciated humor in poems. There was a willing audience, eager to hear something that didn’t make them sad or bored. Most of the students’ poems were about death, grandma, grandma’s death, rain, or questions about life, all of which were overwrought, indulging in cliches and dramatic description. It was odd that these college-level English majors didn’t have the ability to show without telling. Many poems were thinly-veiled confessions or metaphors by way of rain or wound imagery. Sometimes it rained directly inside of the wounds. Sometimes the rain was hurtful. Sometimes the wound itself rained blood onto their cheekbones, which implied eye blood, I guess.
I think it was for lack of practice in some instances, but I couldn’t help but feel that some of it was just unbridled therapy. In our most emotional moments, we don’t tend to edit. I found that funny poetry worked well because it was all about editing and timing. Much of my time was spent whittling down the exact joke, or emotion, that I was trying to convey. The best moment from class was when I read a particularly short poem that ended with the lines, “When my dog Pepper peed in the pool. Like, a noticeable amount of pee.” It got a laugh, but the laughter felt like a big sigh of relief, as it was the last poem read aloud during a day of dead grandma poems, but more than that, it became a classroom example of solid editing.
My professor pointed to various parts of my poem where I could have elaborated and how that would have basically killed the punch line. She said that in its simplicity, the emotion was stronger, and as a result, the reaction greater. After that, we had a group discussion about editing, timing, and the word “pee.”
Learning to make poetry funny gave me some invaluable editing experience. I found an ally in poetry, and although I don’t write poetry professionally, I know that my experience with it helps to inform my editing process, and hopefully makes me a funnier writer along the way. Polonius said it best, during his ironically rambling preface in Hamlet, that “brevity is the soul of wit.” Or, as my incisive professor would say, “Brevity=Wit.” So keeping that wisdom in mind, I’ll end this in the same way: Good poetry=Edited poetry.