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Serious Art That's Funny: Humor in Poetry

Written by

Matthew Rohrer
Contributor Page

Year

2005

Type

Debates & Manifestos

Why is John Ashbery considered a serious poet? His poems are often ridiculously funny and campy satires of all we hold sacred. Yet Helen Vendler says "in short, he comes from Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Stevens, Eliot; his poems are about love, or time, or age." And Harold Bloom claims that "Ashbery has been misunderstood because of his association with the 'New York School' of Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara and other comedians of the spirit." There's a suspicious double standard applied to certain humorous poets who have, for mysterious reasons, been welcomed into or excluded from the canon of serious art. Ashbery's critics obviously find his idea of funny funnier than Frank O'Hara's funny or Ron Padgett's really funny funny. Padgett and O'Hara have written scores of poems about "love, or time, or age," and some of them have been funny, and some have been serious, but they are written off as "comedians of the spirit."

Some people seem to think that writing humorous poetry is a terrible crime, like pissing on Plymouth Rock. Certainly there are lame poems out there that just tell jokes, poems that are just elongated puns or which simply fulfill a first line's jokey promise. Criticizing these poems is easy, but it's a slippery slope: if these poems with jokes in them are dull and unserious, then all poems with other kinds of humor must also be unserious. But there's a kind of humor that is bigger than a giggle, bigger than a laugh. There's a kind of humor that is as serious as the most earnest exhortation to support the troops. I'm talking about satire and irony. Satire and irony make people laugh. But they're serious and multidimensional in a way that earnestness often just can't be, and to discount them is to be blind to the possibility of serious art that's funny.

Carolyn Forché, someone who has never been accused of being a funny poet, has said "irony, paradox, surrealism . . . might well be both the answer and a restatement of [Theodor] Adorno's often quoted and difficult contention that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." But what did the philosopher and critic Adorno mean by this fatuous statement? No poetry? Or just a very, very serious and earnest poetry? Because, let's face it--earnestness is almost always bad art. Good art makes us think; it has more questions than answers. Often, but not always, satire does this too. But earnestness almost never does this--that's not its job. Earnestness is comforting. It wants to hug us. And we want to be hugged sometimes. But sometimes we want to laugh while poking holes in self-righteousness and oppression, whether it be literal political oppression or oppression of a quieter sort – cultural and aesthetic oppression. Irony and satire are such a good antidote to oppression because oppression needs to be earnest (or at least look earnest) in order to be feared by those it seeks to cow. Oppression cannot work alongside irony because it believes in its own righteousness and a monolithic concept of truth that must be asserted to the oppressed with a straight face. Irony and satire are the tools by which the oppressed get to make fun of the oppressors without the oppressors getting it.

This year, according to a press release from the Poetry Foundation, "Billy Collins received the Mark Twain Poetry Award of $25,000, recognizing a poet's contribution to humor in American poetry. The Award is given in the belief that humorous poetry can also be seriously good poetry, and in the hope that American poetry will in time produce its own Mark Twain. [Foundation president John] Barr noted that ‘Billy Collins has brought laughter back to a melancholy art. He shows us that good poetry need not always be somber poetry.'" What sad situation are we in that we need to be told this? Obviously I agree that "good poetry need not always be somber poetry." But I question this way of going about it. This seems like a good way to install humorous poetry in the same literary ghetto that's currently occupied by cowboy poetry. It might be hard for people to think of Billy Collins as anything but a humorous poet now that he's so well paid for it.

Readers who are unable or unwilling to understand that satire and irony can and do serve in the interests of great artistic and social seriousness are apes--shaved apes who have been taught to read. When I want to read poetry that approaches art and society with dead seriousness, I sit down and read W. S. Merwin. There's a guy who's a great writer, and whose book The Lice in particular is brilliant, both formally and substantively. But who can read a lot of his poetry straight through without rolling his eyes a little? It is remarkably, emotionally monovocal. To defend Merwin (or someone like Jorie Graham, another writer who is supposed to be taken seriously because she writes almost exclusively in the voices of the Classics or the great philosophers) for writing these heavy poems simply because they're dealing with serious subjects is to miss entirely how poets like Padgett or Charles Simic, or even a prankster like Heather McHugh, can apply their whole personas to the same subjects – "love, or time, or age," and let's throw in experiences with genocide and emotional wreckage. I have a deep distrust of artists who so systematically refuse to incorporate whole parts of their living personalities into their artistic work, giving us a take on complicated issues that is pale and one dimensional, and just downright suspicious.