Saturday, June 08, 2013

Humor and Poetry

A recent question was posed centered on Kierkegaard's sentiment that the "comical is present in every stage of life, for wherever there is life there is contradiction." I was asked what my thoughts were on humor in poetry?

Having given numerous lectures over the years with Suzanne Nielsen's classes on writing on humor, I've had time to consider the matter frequently. The specifics of my talks have varied from year to year, but certain common ideas prevail.

I would find a poet's body of work emotionally stunted and often monotone if they don't incorporate a wide range of themes, subjects, and depths into their pieces. To that end, I keep in mind the old joke "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," especially within speculative poetry, and further, within Southeast Asian American speculative poetry. 

A survey of contemporary Southeast Asian American poetry lamentably shows very little deliberate humor. More often the tone is serious, tinged with tragedy, memory, and morbid pathos. Even I have a good number of early works that have been afflicted by this.

Julian Gough's 2007 essay, "Divine Comedy" in Prospect reminded me some time ago to reassess such an approach.  He was examining the novel, but I found much of his work applies to poetry, too. Gough's essay was predicated upon the idea that "the Greeks understood that comedy (the gods’ view of life) is superior to tragedy (the merely human). But since the middle ages, western culture has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. This is why fiction today is so full of anxiety and suffering." He argued that "It’s time writers got back to the serious business of making us laugh."

I think comedic poems are essential, both for the individual poet and their culture. To even attempt, let alone successfully compose truly comedic verse pushes the limits of our language, our experience, our imagination. How poor our cultures would be without it!

To Gough, "comedy was the gods’ view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it. The big, drunk, flawed, horny Greek gods watched us for entertainment, like a dirty, funny, violent, repetitive cartoon."  Bearing that in mind, I think good speculative poetry benefits from a playful engagement with dark comedy. It's not the only element that should be in poetry, but I think we need to revise our appreciation of poetry. So many critics do not respect poems unless they are ponderous, urgent, and 'deep'. But it has not always been so.

For Lao writers, I think we need to come to terms with the fact that, broadly speaking, many of us historically and presently see the world as a comic place, especially in the aftermath of the absurd wars of the 1800s and 1900s.  When we hold back that humor, when we try to be overly "serious" our output suffers. Which is ridiculous considering how many of the beloved novels of the last three centuries in the Western canon are rife with humor.

Humorous verse should not be something you avoid writing, but I have known many beginning poets who were afraid to have their words laughed at, from taking themselves so seriously. That, tragically, holds so many people back as writers.

One can go at it from so many different traditions, such as the buffoon, the trickster, and so many other classic archetypes. Observations can range from an appreciation of the grand cosmic comedy to the local vulgar mutterings of a modern-day grognard across the way, and so many more in between and beyond.

I'll keep this note short, but in closing I always consider Bertolt Brecht's darkly comic note, to keep me grounded:

"In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”

Life is short. So, laugh away, laugh in as many ways as you can, but laugh on.

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