"Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies."
Frank O'Hara's famous "Personism" manifesto is one of the great modern expressions of American Transcendentalism. It reminds you that poetry isn't a form but a way. Just because a piece of text is written in lines doesn't make it a poem. Nor does a poem have to take the form of words necessarily. Anything that works well, that does the thing it intends to do, is a poem.
I often find more poetic inspiration from comedians than I do from poets. After all, everything that makes a good joke makes a good poem, makes a good comedian makes a good poet. Stephen Colbert daily examines the complexities of human language, and thus nature, with "The Word" feature on his show. Colbert's introduction of words like "truthiness" into our lexicon is an accomplishment on par with Aram Saroyan's "lighght" or The Collected Typos of Aaron Tieger. Indeed, each of these examples fulfill Emerson's insistence: "Every word was once a poem."
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|The Word - Truthiness|
The Poet Colbert also echoes the Emerson of "Spiritual Laws": "I may say it of our preposterous use of books, —He knew now what to do, and so he read." The satire (and danger) comes from the fact that he's arguing from a political perspective, not a poetic one.
My love for poetry comes from the verbal acrobatics and insane logic of Looney Tunes, Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, and almost ever single show on Adult Swim
There are poets who use humor, the premise of joke, as the form of the poem. Such as Aaron Belz. Belz is a funny poet. I don't mean he's witty or amusing or humorous—though he certainly is all these things—but that he's laugh out loud funny. To wit, check out this recent poem in The Washington Post. "Thirty Illegal Moves in the Cloud-Shape Game" is funny for reasons beyond the image of an adult man denying a child her use of imagination or that said child would actually identify a cloud in the shape of Alsace-Lorraine. His book The Bird Hoverer is both hilarious and touching. It really touches you. Sometimes in places you don't like. I'm sure his next book, Lovely, Raspberry, will continue the touching.
Peter Davis is another funny poet. Each poem in his book Hitler's Mustache takes for its subject, well, you guessed it. I once had the pleasure of reading with Peter and Aaron at Zinc in New York and while everyone enjoyed it, a blond-haired couple left after only a few of his poems. We found out afterward they were German tourists. We like to think humor is universal. It also requires timing.
Another poet complained to me that Peter's next book—Poetry! Poetry! Poetry!—was too close to the tone of Jack Handey's hilarious Deep Thoughts. But if Jack Handey can write a more thought-provoking poem than most so-called poets nowadays, why wouldn't we go to him, or Jon Stewart, or Aqua Teen Hunger Force for inspiration? Davis works in the same vein as John Ashbery, by making things so personal, they're universal. Poems like "Poem Addressing My Past, Current, and Future Students Who Are Sufficiently Interested in Our Class Enough to Check Out My Work" reads, in whole: "I hope you learn something from this poem, and the powerful mystical way it concludes!" I would also urge you to download Davis's musical project, Short Hand Attila. Now.
Gabriel Gudding makes poop and other seemingly juvenile bodily functions a centerpiece of many poems in A Defense of Poetry (you can read and listen to the excellent title poem here) and there are long discourses on dung in his masterful Rhode Island Notebook. But every single one of Gudding's poems is shot through with such humanity, you are forced to recognize that we cannot separate the mire from the marvelous, and that oftentimes the mire is the marvelous.
Jennifer L. Knox's books A Gringo Like Me and Drunk By Noon boil over with the blackest humor, graffiti from the bathroom of the universal mind. The beginning of "Johns" (originally published in Coconut): "John Cafferty is not John Fogerty / and an ass is not a vagina. // The lawyer said so. O! / the slight, subtle distinctions // between perfume and a urinal cake. / Just because something works // doesn't mean everything worked / out."
A book like Harlot from Jill Alexander Essbaum (published by my fellow Benningtonian, the sharp-witted Reb Livingston) announces itself at first glance, then proceeds to cut you in a million hilarious (and sexy) ways. Mike Hauser's Samples are mash-ups in extremis, Dan Nester's "Queries" are voices from the wilderness, and Kasey Mohammad's Sonnagrams are already one of the great achievements in 21st-century American poetry.
(That people are outraged over Flarf is outrageous. It's nothing more than an update of Modernism's collage style, which isn't even Modernism's, so there's your tradition for you, what Modernism was against.)
Mohammad explains: "Each Sonnagram, including its title, is an anagram of a standard modern-spelling version of one of Shakespeare's Sonnets, containing exactly the same letters in the same distribution as the original. The title is composed last, using whatever letters are left over once I've assembled a working sonnet in iambic pentameter with an Elizabethan rhyme scheme." While the Sonnagrams are wildly vulgar, they're also hilarious, moving philosophies in form and argument, and illustrate once more that, to a true poet, nothing is sacred, nothing profane. Here's Mohammad's take on Sonnet 81 (“Or I shall live your epitaph to make”), which he's giddily forced to title: "How Few Unravel Homer! Hear Them: 'Hunt, Raw Honor, Huh! Heel, Bare Valor, Heel! Huh!" (original published in Boo)
Anonymous in Bethlehem I lie,
A cryogenic Minotaur cadet:
Three gentlemanly vultures get me high
And gaily comb my germfree alphabet.
Mutated eyeless clones use neutron strobes
They’ve mounted on their deer head handlebars
To recombat the evil homophobes
Who tainted all their homonyms with SARS.
Alliterative turtles of Monroe
Lack literary luck: film at eleven.
The lilies of the valley do not sow;
And neither do they go to pussy heaven.
New operas bloom hugely into flame
When your urethra screams my Christian name.
"The Second Coming," anyone?
Nonsense is an essential element in American poetry, as Carl Sandburg and Constance Rourke do testify. We're indoctrinated into poetry at an early age through joke-telling, yarn-spinning, tale tales. The limerick is cousin to the mad song, but whereas the limerick is bawdy, the mad song is visionary. Both forms speak truth to power. Then, of course, there's the poem that everyone knows, a dead-pan joke as well as a philosophical inquiry that William Carlos Williams no doubt admired
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get to the other side.