By Poetry Co-Editor, Elizabeth Petersen
Sometimes I think, “How can you write anything sad and mean it and not also laugh at yourself?” I think that almost whenever I read submissions or the Sexy New Litmag or Best American Whatever. Come on, people, laugh at yourselves. Am I alone in this club?
Reality Bites taught me that “irony” is saying one thing and meaning the opposite. It’s double talk. Anti-sincerity. But my naïve voice says, “How can anyone know what you mean without you saying what you mean?” Maybe I should stop letting Reality Bites inform me.
Humor in poetry does not have to be limited to some sort of cool-guy-irony where the self-conscious writer knows he’s being sentimental, and will be the first to say it—though that works, too. Moments like in Matthew Zapruder’s “Schwinn” fromCome on All You Ghosts: “Do you remember/ how easy and sad it was to be young/ and defined by our bicycles?”
I like this cool guy, but I wonder, aren’t there other ways? I think humor can do lots of things. Maybe the problem is that most of these things, I find at least, get reduced in conversation to the word “irony.” Irony, sometimes, feels like just anything funny trying to do more. Punch line with a bruise, a cliché inflected silly, to talk bizarre. We need more words for funny.
Because really, isn’t it the poem’s duty to play? Can’t it all be called funny, just a little? Seriously funny.
Which brings me to James Tate, whose funny is all about nonsense. Really, nonsense that, funny enough, makes sense. Most of the time.
My favorite, an early poem from The Oblivion Ha-Ha, “The Eagle Exterminating Company,” is funny because it makes too much sense. At first it’s strange, other-worldly, but then the real in surreal creeps in. I find myself thinking, “Yes, in fact, there must be birds bigger than us. Yes, if you were a runt bird, your mother would have to kill you.” Depressing, but the delivery is deadpan, matter-of-fact. Hilarious. The poem continues:
Everywhere you walk there are feathers, you can try
to hop over and between them but then
you look like a bird. You are too small to be one.
The poem is severely weird, absurdly dangerous. But also grounded in a kind of world many of us participate in—that is, we can understand.
Tate’s way isn’t the only way to funny. There are always the lewd and self-loathing poems in Berryman’s Dreamsongs. The texture of language, both bluesy and erudite, affects a strange humor like in “Dreamsong #14,” which I imagine many people are familiar with:
‘…Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.’ I conclude, I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Tate has an explanation for this sort of humor: “It’s a tragic story, but that’s what’s so funny about it,” as Charles Simic cites in their Paris Review interview.
But here comes the real tragedy: The Oblivion Ha-Ha is out of print. James Tate, A Pulitzer Prize winning poet on his second selected, only has a few of those earlier poems in reproduction, with many of their brothers and sisters left behind.
If you want to read “The Eagle Exterminating Company,” you will have to go to his Selected Poems put out by Wesleyan in 1991, or your local library, which undoubtedly never carried The Oblivion Ha-Ha to begin with. For any of the other poems from this collection, you’ll have to storm some old poet’s house and sneak a peek. There are other greats in there too: “The Wheelchair Butterfly” and the “Tree Surgeon.” You can find “Cryptozoa” on Poetry’s website.
But the early books of the “great poets,” can fill a purpose other than a good time, a hearty laugh. Those books can be real textbooks for us younger readers, writers, and amateur humorists. Where the later, more distinguished work from a famous poet may intimidate or confuse, the early books provide a road map to them. You get to see how a poet changed, learned. You get context. I don’t recommend starting with Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror if you want to get Ashbery. Go earlier. Then hit the portrait. For Tate, this early book shows his tendency toward narrative and character early on, but also, it’s just a mean book. Tate, “He is one of our great comic masters,”—that’s Charles Simic again.
What I am trying to say is this: Can we bring back the funny? Is it hiding somewhere? But also:
Publishers, I know it’s a stiff bet to put out a book of poems—but consider The Oblivion Ha-Ha, it’s a sure thing. And the 77 Dreamsongs, go snag yourself a copy S.T.A.T.
And all your oddball poems and otherwise, send them to Sycamore’s 2012 Wabash Poetry Prize with judge Nikky Finney.