I know that this blog is about examining a single piece to show how it works, but I’m going to go ahead and look at a collection. I’ll throw on my hair shirt later. Promise.
Barbara Hamby and David Kirby were asked to put an anthology of contemporary, funny poetry together by the University of Georgia Press. They worked to find and select poems that are funny because of their seriousness, because of the stark truth behind the laugh. They sought poems that “feature a central self, someone who is creating a reality through language rather than describing what already exists” (xv). The realities in these poems are varied, even though most are from the last twenty to thirty years (the earliest are by Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg), as are their brands of humor.
In the section titled “I Was Alone When It Hit Me: The Self,” the poem “How to Like It” by Stephen Dobyns explores the human prospect of getting up in the morning, day after day. How do we, as humans, learn to like our lives when we are so often faced with unwanted change? With mindless repetition? With the desire to escape? Dobyns compares the human condition to that of a pet dog. The dog, when faced with unwanted change, says, “Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk. / Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find” (72). While the man in the poem broods about his past, the dog says, “Let’s dig holes everywhere” (72). When the man is faced with difficulty and with feeling like an automaton, the dog says, “Let’s go make a sandwich” (73). The dog’s responses, while obviously simplistic and non-human, do humorously point out how, many times, we make things harder than they need to be. Perhaps a good drunk, or a large sandwich, are indeed what are needed from time to time.
The speaker in “How to Like It” wants to get into a car and drive without stopping and without looking back. In short, he wants to escape his mundane life. Dobyns’ use of the dog’s simple joys as counterpoint to man’s complications make this poem funny. Most readers see themselves in the man who, at the end of the poem, has not driven off into the night, but instead has his head in the fridge, dog at his side, searching for the makings of a late-night snack.
Another poem that tackles a serious human issue with humor is Angelo Verga’s “My Wife’s Therapist” from the section titled “The Heart is a Lonely Perineum: Love, Marriage, Divorce, and Hatred.” The speaker is in a therapy session with his wife and his wife’s therapist. The reader understands from the title that the speaker is in the session against his will. It is not his therapist, after all. The calm voice of the therapist begins the poem. She explains that anger is not good in a relationship, and that “Flying into tirades can cause others to withdraw” (120). She gives an example. The therapist had a run-in with the owner of an office she was trying to buy. Instead of becoming angry, she “examines [her] feelings,” and she cries (120). At this example, the speaker points out that “My wife is breathing deeply so I know she is being moved” (120). This is humorous because the speaker obviously knows that his wife is getting something out of the session, but he himself is obviously not. One does not have to have been to a therapist to see the dark humor in total lack of understanding, but trying to remain serious for the sake of the others in the room.
When the speaker finally seems to understand, the therapist asks what he has learned. He says, “would you like me to go over there and fuck with them for you? I could yell and curse. I could make them treat you good. I could scare the piss out of them” (120-121). The speaker has learned nothing from the therapist because he does not want to be there; he does not think much of her methods. For the speaker, examining feelings and crying are not options. This gangster mentality response is funny in itself for its sheer audacity, but when the therapist responds with “No…Let’s begin again…Anger is bad. / Understand?” it is difficult not to laugh and to side, at least a little bit, with the speaker (121). Most people do not want to be told that their way of doing things is wrong. The speaker’s defiance is darkly humorous. And his response? “I nod my head” (121).
Lynne McMahon’s “We Take Our Children to Ireland” appears in the section titled “Mothers of America Let Your Kids Go to the Movies: Family Life and Strife.” What is funny in this poem is the cultural difference in language that is acceptable to use in front of, and directed at, children. In America, we tend to try to shield children from all unpleasantries, for ill or for good, and if a parent swears in front of or at a child, it is considered borderline if not actual child abuse. McMahon shows the opposite trend in Ireland. “[T]he nicely dressed matrons / pushing prams, brushing away their older kids / with a Fuck off, will ye?” (161). She shows the Irish “mundane hyperbole of rebuke – / you little puke, I’ll tear your arm off / and beat you with it, I’ll row you out to sea / and drop you, I’ll bury you in sand / and top you off with rocks – / to which the toddler would contentedly nod” (161-162). This is not only funny because of the little shock most Americans would feel hearing this kind of language used between mother and child, but also because she writes that these phrases will be the only things her children will remember of their visit to Ireland. It won’t be the barbed wire of Northern Ireland, and it won’t be the castles, the things parents want their children to remember.
In Jeffrey Harrison’s poem “Fork,” the humor is serious indeed. Included in the section “We Who Love Precise Language: Poems about Writing and Literature,” “Fork” tells the tale of a college writing student who is rebuked and bullied by his teacher. She tells him that he will never become a writer, that he is worthless, all the while touting her own writing greatness. His reponse? He steals one of her forks. He takes the fork to Europe, takes pictures of it with all of the great monuments, sends them to her one at a time anonymously. He keeps the fork with him as an impetus to write, and to write well. Bad teachers are a very serious issue. Nearly everyone has had one, and nearly everyone has either gotten over their abuse or succumbed to it. At the end of the poem, the speaker realizes he no longer needs the fork. He is independently successful. He says, “You might even say your fork / made me a writer. Not you, your fork. / You are still the worst teacher I ever had. / You should have been fired but instead got tenure” (301). The humor here holds a message, not only for the student – keep going regardless of what one bad teacher might say – but also for teachers.
Each of the poems in this collection creates its own reality. The reality of the late-night escape plan, the unwanted therapy session, the kids’ memories from their trip to Ireland, and the power of the teacher in her classroom – all of these realities reveal their own, individual brand of serious humor. It is the humor in each poem that allows the reader access to the humanity in the uncomfortable situations discussed.
Hamby, Barbara and David Kirby, eds. Seriously Funny Poems about Love, Death, Religion, Art, Politics, Sex, and Everything Else. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2010.