Humor and Poetry
I am slated to be on a panel on humor and poetry at AWP later this week. So the first question is: do I accept this premise on a personal level, is there humor in my poetry? The second question is: if so, how did that happen?
I began using humor (teasing, mocking, obnoxious situational remarks in class etc.) around the age of 9, as a way to get attention,
and also as a way of escaping my self. Those two ends seem to contradict one another: to focus attention on a self that I am evacuating, to create another persona to live in my place. My humor, my lip, my smart alecky nature began getting me in trouble by the fourth grade. It was a way for me to extract revenge on the world: mocking my elders, belittling peers who had (seemingly) wounded me.
In 1978, when I was eleven, I listened to Richard Pryor concert records most nights when going to sleep, perhaps absorbing his rhythms,
ear-swallowing the many different characters he would become.
I began writing poems when I was fifteen, in 1982, but humor didn’t really surface in my work until 1986, mostly in the form of whimsy. For instance, these lines from If I Had A Wife, written my freshman year of college: “Moonlips, your toes appear to be Gummy Bears. I will chew them.”
As I began reading the work of James Tate, Charles Simic, and Bill Knott (I was going to call them neo-surrealists, but that term isn’t quite accurate, opening more doors then it closes). In their work, I began to see new ways of utilizing humor: the confounding joy of deliberately irrational leaps and statements, the wrestling open of a cliche, the lit match of an absurd image blazing through the mind.
In 1993, I took a left turn one day out of my MFA program and found myself at the National Poetry Slam in San Francisco. There I discovered several poets who were funny for the sake of being funny. Particularly Hal Sirowitz from New York (“don’t stick your arm out the window, mother said” and Matt Cook from Milwaukee (“it was easy to write the Great American Novel, back when there were only five American novels”) Both poets initially delighted me and confounded me: There are no similes, a voice in my head said. What would Tom Lux (my first teacher) say? the voice continued. Despite my resistance, I believe those poets gave me a kind of permission to explore humor a little more vigorously in my second book, The Forgiveness Parade (1998), for "I thought the word loin and the word lion were the same thing. I thought celibate was a kind of fish". Perhaps in that book there were places where I was too vigorous in my pursuit: looking back there are a few poems that are just a little too jokey somehow, a little one-dimensional.
I am becoming aware of how some humor can set a roadblock for the poetic speaker, making it impossible for the speaker to get back to a serious place. And how some other (less frequent) uses of humor can leave that door open. I want to leave that door open
Humor has rarely been ha-ha for me. I have often been attracted to a humor with teeth, a humor that instead of rising like a balloon filled with helium, a humor that sinks, that is still there when you’re finished laughing, a humor that must be reckoned with. I am also interested in irrational humor: things that shouldn’t be funny, but are, or that spark of juxtaposition.
Maybe I also like humor when I am unsure if the person is joking or not, when the writer keeps me on the hook, plants me in the potential of the joke, but doesn't release me. (I like that in art, not so much in real life.) Maybe a good example of this is the Danish film Celebration, which continues to yank me in multiple directions.
Several poets who use humor in ways that engage me as a reader are: Etheridge Knight, John Berryman in his Dream Songs, Jim Harrison in Letters To Yesenin. Bill Knott, The Chilean Nicanor Parra. There’s a younger poet from Brooklyn named Sommer Browning, who I think is very smart and funny. She explores the fine line between poetry and comedy in exciting ways: http://asthmachronicles.blogspot.com/
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...