Books & Talks

What’s Funny About Poetry?

Pound for pound, standup comedy is the funniest of the arts because its central purpose is to elicit laughter, far more than any other medium. I scoff at other disciplines because their bar for humor is so much lower. They don’t have to do what I do: talk funny in front of strangers, in often hostile environments, with any silence signifying an undeniable and immediate rebuke. If the crowd goes quiet at a play it can still be considered a theatrical success, but if you’re not laughing at a comedy show, it’s the comic’s fault.

George Saunders said, “Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.” As a working comic who trucks in a certain brand of dumb truth daily, I find humor where I can in the other arts. The single-minded antisocial zeal of taggers like Shitbarf and Spring Break makes me grin. The Symmetry photos of Jennifer Zwick communicate a certain madcap mirth. The clear-eyed seriousness of Werner Herzog always cracks me up. Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” contains as much caricatured contempt and gawky dismay as an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

But my standup-centric bias has left me jaded, raised my comedy bar too high. It’s prevented me from appreciating funny moments in the other arts. For example: poetry. It’s close cousin to standup with its deliberate word choices, shades of ambiguity, careful use of timing, and radical, compact expressiveness. Many of my peers started out as poets, like Emmett Montgomery, who has described his jokes as “little poems.” 

I wanted to find out the ways in which poetry communicates humor, so I talked to a poet. Ed Skoog’s work has appeared in The Paris ReviewPoetry, and many other influential publications (he had a poem in the April issue of City Arts). He’s been Writer-In-Residence at the Hugo House and he’s got two well-received volumes out by Copper Canyon Press.

Skoog and I emailed back and forth from his current residency in New Orleans, where he is visiting friends and reading with former students.   

What’s funny about poetry? What makes you laugh at a poem? 
Poetry’s funny because it’s true, even when it’s ridiculous, or an outright lie. It’s a frying pan that hits me constantly, and yet I never expect it. The basic devices of poetry are the devices of any humor: wild metaphors, surprising juxtapositions, paradoxes. Poetry moves fish-quick; speakers change their minds, reverse themselves. There are always take-backs in poetry.  Embarrassment, discomfort with one’s role in society, is the starting place of many poems I like. As opposed to shame, which one endures after having done something genuinely wrong, embarrassment is just a brief pause in the charade we build and call the self, through sudden nakedness, a faux pas, a violation of race and class and gender and age expectations, but mostly nakedness, because embarrassment is mostly the revelation that you’re merely human, vulnerable, scared, and needy. And that’s hilarious. All it can take is a  slight twinge in a word to make the difference between laughter and uncontrollable crying.

Many of the poets with the gloomiest reputations are, when you re-read them, hilarious. Sylvia Plath is a card, Poe’s a cut-up. (Consequently, many casual novelty pieces are terribly sad, like “Kung-Fu Fighting” and the “Theme from Ghostbusters.” Heartbreaking, really, when you look at the lyrics the way you might look at a poem – Everybody was Kung-Fu fighting. Was. Not anymore. The days of great fighters, and valor, and dignity, they’re gone. All we have left is to moan in a minor chord and list their names. And the Ghostbusters theme is already about ghosts, therefore death, and the reasons for calling them get sadder and sadder – “an invisible man sleeping in your bed” and, finally, “if you’re all alone.” Slight twinges of words, and these happy-go-lucky tunes are revealed as calls for help.) What makes me laugh at a poem, healthily, is the unexpected, like the twists and turns of the first stanza of Tony Hoagland’s poem “Lucky”:

“If you are lucky in this life,

you will get to help your enemy

the way I got to help my mother

when she was weakened past the point of saying no.”

Ultimately, poems are funny because they tend to use the most energetic and vibrant images and words in the language, concisely, and, frequently, to praise, or at least glimpse and note, something previously overlooked, and thereby reminds us of how silly we are, going around thinking we know everything.

Is bad poetry funny to you, or merely frustrating?
I don’t have any appreciation for bad poetry. Bad poems are like beautiful people who think they’re ugly. I also can’t stand to hear a poem read aloud on the radio, whether good or bad. 

I like how you describe vulnerability and embarrassment-in comedy we call it “cringe humor,” and it’s the basis for some of the best stuff out there-The Office, Veep, etc. As a comic by vocation, I admit to conceiving of poetry as a rather stern endeavor. To an amateur reader, it can be intimidating. How can I become more receptive to the humor that a poet intends? In other words, how can I cultivate my own readerly acumen so I’m not “missing the joke?”
Perhaps we’re taught to read too much into poetry. Although poetry is, I think, the whole purpose of language, it probably shouldn’t be taught. Teaching cages poetry, then slaughters it. Most of what one needs from poetry is right on the surface. We’re taught, mysteriously, that the words in poetry don’t mean what they mean, that poems must be decoded and paraphrased, but they pretty much mean what they say, and often aren’t saying anything very difficult, though you might have to slow down. Most poems come across clearly if said out loud. A lot of poetry, like a lot of everything, is bad, so if a poem doesn’t seem to mean anything, it very well might not mean anything.

Photo credit Kelly O