Wednesday, October 03, 2007


I've been reading the Jacket discussion about humor in poetry, and apart from the entire thing getting bogged down in the question of what is "unintentionally bad" poetry, I've noticed that this and many other discussions of said topic seem to center on whether humor and poetry can be reconciled. But I like Kenneth Koch's quote, which can be read at right under the title of Jonathan Mayhew's blog: "The very existence of poetry should make us laugh. What is it all about? What is it for?" (Completely off-topic, I was never a student of Kenneth Koch's, but having an insight such as this must be a big part of what made him a great teacher.) Another idea Koch had was that the most absurd thing he could write was better than the most serious or solemn thing another poet could write, and so (my shakey interpretation anyway) we get a poetics of most absurd thought-best thought.

The problem with the perception of humor in poetry seems to be bound up in a tendency to approach humor from the perspective of seriousness. Whereas, as he himself points out, a person like Gary Sullivan came from humor to write works that, in the scariness of the truth that is illuminated, approach seriousness. Much the same way Lenny Bruce had material that was literally funny and scary. Thanks perhaps more to Kenneth Koch than anyone else, there is now a real indentifiable tradition of humor in American poetry.

Please understand that I'm not accusing the people were involved in that Jacket discussion of not having a sense of humor with relation to poetry, a sense of how humor relates to poetry, or a sense of how poetry in and of itself is humorous. But Silliman suggesting that (corrrect me if I'm wrong) humor has less staying power because it relies too much on a specific context, lit up a big WTF in my noggin, and seemed to steer the discussion for longer than it should have. If that's true, it would have to apply to all poetry.

The elements of humor, from irony to nonsequiter to satire to juxtaposition are so central to my own sense of poetry that I can't imagine what kind of dreadful tripe I'd be writing without them. And there's comedy abound in a work like Tjanting, tho not the same kind of humor in say The Simpsons. Coolidge? Hilarious. Rae Armantrout? Ditto. Likewise Berrigan, Ashbery, Notley, hell even Niedecker has a sense of humor, even if her work isn't always high-larious. (Though I could find some passages that are.) And of course there's Ron Padgett, who has the reputation of being a "funny poet". Two people on the guest list at my dream dinner would definitely be him and Steven Wright. Having no sense of humor is just not an option in poetry.

1 comment:

kevin.thurston said...

But Silliman suggesting that (corrrect me if I'm wrong) humor has less staying power because it relies too much on a specific context, lit up a big WTF in my noggin

ugh, yes, those proclamations
as opposed to, say, political policy which is just transcendent?