Writing poetry to get laughs is like becoming a nun to get laid: it’s absolutely the wrong way to go about it. Young people start writing poems to convey their loneliness. But when they ask to read their poems to friends, that loneliness only gets worse, so they write more poems, and the vicious cycle continues.
We poets have a reputation of taking ourselves [cough] fairly seriously. We experience life, feel things, then write poems about it. If we didn’t take the feelings seriously—didn’t value them in some way—we would let them disappear like coins into the dark water at the bottom of a wishing well. Some poets believe that, because they write poetry, they’re somehow authorized, more qualified, to describe feelings than other people. Which reminds me of something Gerald Stern said in a workshop: “Everyone has the exact same feelings. Fear, love, grief, passion: we all feel these things. Hitler was a vegetarian who loved his dogs. In other words, he cared deeply about the sanctity of life. You’re making a work of art—that’s bigger than feelings.”The funny poet questions the sanctity of our medium’s most revered trope: gravity. The graver the poem, the more important. Does the just plain stupid, irrational, ashamed, or lazy have any place in a poem? Never ever? I feel those feelings all the time. In his essay, “Cut the Comedy,” the funny Charles Simic wrote, “The vainglorious want the world to tiptoe around them and draw near only to gaze at them in wordless admiration. The whole notion of hierarchy and its various supporting institutions depends on the absence of humor.”
Because funny poets get people to laugh at—or near—them, they indict the validity of the Poet as an Authority, and of Authority as inherent to the Poet identity. In response, the language poets said, “The notion of ‘Authority’ is egotistical bullshit, and to prove it, I’m going to write 100 tankas using letters on a Boggle board, take all the vowels out, then create 100 poems in a new four-line form I invented called a Fizzette, in which each line begins with a word that correspond to the first letter of every line in the Speedy Alka Seltzer jingle. Authorize that.”
It’s the notion of authority that sends young poets scrambling to find their own authoritative, “true voice.” I once asked RuPaul at a Grosse Point garden party if she’d ever found her “true voice,” to which she replied, “Hunh?”
The very funny poets Barbara Hamby and David Kirby’s introduction to the anthology, Seriously Funny: Poems About Love, death, Religion. Art. Politics, Sex, and Everything Else, notes that poetic humor works best when “in contrast with a darker mood….the humor in these poems can glow with a starry sheen, but often that’s because there’s a black sky behind it.” As Mark Twain put it, “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in heaven.”
In life, no tone is constant, the line of thought always interrupted—the crucial by mundane, shame by egocentrism, peace by chaos. One moment, you’re sobbing in your living room, the next, remembering there’s a sale at the Gap. When John Cage establishes a mood by playing a set of notes over and over, it’s the contrast, or shift, or the anticipation of a shift, from the known that excites. Few good poems sustain funny as long as sadness because funny is bouncier, and louder—the molecular structure more erratic. In a poem’s sea of violins, bassoons, and flutes, funny is a Theramin, tuba or whatever made that bwomp! sound in the theme from “What’s Happening.”
Truly brilliant comedians who can deliver hour-long sets are dubbed geniuses because they can wire a slow burning fuse to their manic, nitroglycerine-filled brains. But comics eat poets’ dark dust. We don’t have chairs to fill, or a two drink minimum. Name one comic who’s darker than a poet? Lenny Bruce? Please. Dana Levin could whip Lenny Bruce in a cage match of darkness before she’s had her coffee, and with both hands cuffed behind her back.
Always being funny is a kind of lie—not to mention annoying. But does that make the adverse true? That unwaveringly serious poems are also a kind of lie of constancy—that the poet’s ignoring constant shifts in tone with a kind of morbid deafness? Simic said, “If you seek true seriousness, you must make room for both the comic and tragic vision.” Then again, saying that there’s no truth in unwavering seriousness reminds me of something else Gerald Stern said: “Tell that to the Jew hanging on the pole at Auschwitz.” Gerald Stern is a very funny poet. Ah, contradictions.
The incongruity theory states, “humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept.” We use the incongruity theory in story telling and poems all the time, but it’s not always funny. Like that urban legend about the couple who brings the little dog home from Mexico and finds out it’s a giant rat. That bit of unfunny is your incongruity theory dollars at work. And get this: the first formulation of the incongruity theory is attributed to the Scottish poet, James Beattie. A poet! How cool is that? I love Wikipedia.
Some people/poets just aren’t funny. Some people/poets don’t want to be funny. Hopefully the ones who aren’t, don’t want to be, because that would be tragic.
Over several improvised cocktails made from stale Xmas candy-infused green apple vodka over diet raspberry Fanta (we named it “The Hee-Haw), one of the funniest women I know, Jaime Corbacho, explained to me the tragedy of Keanu Reeves. Keanu Reeves yearns to be a brilliant actor. But nobody wants Keanu Reeves to be a brilliant actor. They want him to be an action star. Keanu Reeves is, in a reality, a terrible actor. But he keeps trying, taking roles in tiny movies where he gets to talk—which looks like a dog trying to talk—along with parts in billion $ Hollywood blockbusters. This, said Jaime, is what makes him a Willy Loman–caliber tragic figure. “Maybe knowing that would make him a better actor! We should email him!” I slurred, sloshing my drink. “I already have. Several times,” Jaime assured me, then fell off the arm of the couch.
What’s the point? Are there no funny poets, or should more poets be funny…er? No, there are tons of funny poets, but not as many as the other kind. For every ten million deaths in American poems every year, fewer than 50 farts. In a genre where the primary colors are sadness, grief, and longing, funny is metallic opalescence. Are funny poets, like funny people, compensating for an ability to be intimate? Er, I don’t really feel comfortable answering such personal questions, but as a wise man once said, “If I can’t be the love of your life, I’ll be the life of your party.”
Every day this week, I’ll be interviewing a very funny woman poet. And by funny, I’m talking about a broad who dives for the joke like a professional beach volleyball player, wipes out, pops back up with a bloody split lip, thrusts a victorious fist in the air, and roars, “YESSSSSS!” A poet who lets a joke loose even though it makes her look stupid, and totally unf*ckable. A poet who can make you wet your pants, and enjoy the long walk home afterwards. Tomorrow: Amy Lawless.
I’ll also be conversating with Kazim Ali, who believes, in his jasmine-scented, lyric-loving hearts, that funny poems are invalid.
Have fun, but you won’t want to be there when the laughter stops [sob].
Clown painting: John Wayne GacyJennifer L. Knox's latest book of poems,The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, is available from Bloof Books. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and four times in The Best American Poetry series. She is working on her first novel. Find out more about Jennifer here and follow her on twitter @jenniferlknox.