This Week’s Column:


The history of really funny poetry reads like, well, a comedy . . .

a MobyLives guest column

by Scott Bradfield

15 AUGUST 2005 — Let's face it: poetry has never been very funny; and it doesn't look like it's going to get funny anytime soon. It's certainly established a pretty humorless tradition stretching back thousands of years.

Beowulf, for instance. I don't know if you've ever read it, but Beowulf wasn't funny at all. I realize the title sounds funny, but that's actually very misleading. Basically, Beowulf contains lots of glowering brows and dark forebodings and so forth, but hardly any jokes whatsoever. In fact, if you were to read this wholly miserable, so–called "epic" out loud (actually, I think I read the Cliff Notes version back as an undergraduate, or just enough of it to get by on the final) it's just really sonorous and apocalyptic, like being in church with your grandparents. And personally, I don't find apocalypse very funny. Or church. Or grandparents. But then maybe you do. Maybe you're even a poet — which, if we follow my thesis to it's logical conclusion, means that you aren't very funny, either.

Over the centuries, poetry didn't get any funnier. Like, say, "Dream of the Rood", which I think I also read back as an undergraduate, but then I drew a lot of absences that term, so maybe I just read the introduction. I definitely recall that it had to do with crucifixion, and personally, I don't find crucifixion very funny. Then, historically–speaking, there was this long lapse in poetry until we got to John Donne, and while I realize that some people actually consider John Donne quite funny (they may even have written their dissertations about him) personally, I'm still trying to figure out that whole two–legged compass deal. The only thing I did figure out about the two–legged compass deal is that it wasn't funny — not laugh–out–loud funny, anyway, which is the only kind of funny I rate. And while we're at it, people who write their dissertations about John Donne aren't very funny either. Not that I've actually met any of them; but then, I'm not looking to meet any of them. I've got better things to do.

Or take Emily Dickinson. What's so funny about Emily Dickinson? Buzzing flies and death stopping in a hansom cab or whatever, let's face it, the girl needed a man. I know that's not a very funny thing to say since, well, 1966 or something, but Emily Dickinson needed a man, and she definitely needed to get out of that house. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that getting out of the house (and possibly even laid) on a regular basis would have made Emily Dickinson any funnier, but could she have gotten any less funny? I think not. I think you see my point.

Things got continually less–amusing up through the so–called modern age, so maybe we shouldn't dwell on it. Like Sylvia Plath and Hart Crane and John Berryman and those characters — how many laughs can you expect from a crowd like that? Sticking their heads in ovens and jumping off bridges and all that useless medication, I'm sorry, my sense of humor just doesn't get that dark. I like to laugh, but not at the expense of other people.

Here's something else that I don't find very funny about poetry, and that's poetry readings. How many times have you laughed out loud at a poetry reading – as in really busted a gut? It just doesn't happen. The best you can expect are these occasional moments when the poet makes a sort of joke – or what might be more accurately described as an "amusing observation" — that everybody classifies as "wry and clever," causing them to turn and smile and nod at one another in this very wry, clever, I–get–it sort of way, just so everybody else knows that they aren't stupid. But nobody actually gags on their pretzels or Teddy Grahams, or whatever cheap snacks are being served at this reading since (as we all know) poetry readings don't actually bring out the chow.

For example, when was the last time you laughed so hard at a poetry reading that you coughed punch through your nose? Never? But now think back to the first time you saw Jim Carey speak through his bottom in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. I'm pretty sure the first time I saw that immortally–comic scene in a movie theater, I blew Sprite all over a group of kids in the front row. Now Jim Carey speaking through his bottom — that's funny. Not that you'll ever see one of these holier–than–thou, egghead–types writing their dissertation on the subject. Oh no. It's all look–down–your–nose–time when it comes to Jim Carey.

In fact, to be brutally honest (and as you can probably tell, I've been pulling my punches up to now), do you really believe that anybody with a decent sense of humor really wants to spend sixty or seventy minutes in some tweedy little bookstore, numbing their butts on those uncomfortable aluminum folding–chairs, while pretending to titter at poems that aren't funny? Personally, I'd rather be a photographer for Playboy. I know that's kind of dated, and maybe even off–subject, but wanting to be a photographer for Playboy has been on my mind a lot lately. Especially since I turned fifty.

Look, I like poets; I really do. I even like poetry, though I don't actually pick it off the shelf when I'm looking to bust a gut, or blow juice through my nose in an orgy of laughter, or anything like that. But let's face it, poets aren't a lot of laughs to begin with. For example, if I see a poet coming down my aisle of the local Stop and Shop? Well, I hate to admit this, but I turn my cart around and head straight for the parking lot, because the last thing I need is to hear yet another poet wittering on endlessly about how poorly their last book sold, or how they got screwed at their TPR hearing, or how that asshole at Poetry Magazine didn't have the brains to buy their latest (and, I might add, deeply unfunny) poem.

Poetry, I'm sorry to say, will continue being unfunny for an awfully long time to come — especially when you consider the current poetry crowd. I mean, have you ever brought up the subject of Jim Carey to these people? They just don't get it. They look down their nose at you and get all "He's so crass and vulgar" and so forth. But no matter what they say, Jim Carey talking through his bottom is still a hell of a lot funnier than, say, Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead." Jim Carey: funny. Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead": not funny. It seems so obvious to anybody with half a brain.

Look, I'll tell you what's funny — any movie about forty–something guys who go back to college and live in a dorm — now that's what I call funny, especially if you had, say, Jim Carey in it, or maybe that Elf guy, I never remember his name, that Will Somebody. For some reason — like they'll lose their inheritance if they don't or something — these guys have to sit in really boring classes about Beowulf and Emily Dickinson all over again, and go to dorm parties and frat parties, and watch beautiful young women climb out of swimming pools in soaking wet T–shirts and stuff like that, and maybe they start shotgunning beers and running around campus without any pants on and peeing in the Provost's pool, stuff like that, now that would be pretty funny.

Okay, maybe not funny to you — but we settled that already. You're probably a poet. And while I wish I could help you, I'm afraid nobody can help you anymore. Probably not even yourself.

Scott Bradfield is the author of Good Girl Wants It Bad, The History of Luminous Motion, and What's Wrong With America His newest book is Hot Animal Love: Tales of Modern Romance (Carrol & Graf). He is a professor of English at the University of Connecticut.

©2005 Scott Bradfield

Previous columns:

THE VARIETIES OF WRITERLY DISSIDENCE . . Guest columnist Wayne Miller says criticisms of Ismail Kadare's claims to dissidence arent' exactly wrong. They aren't exactly right, either. . .

AT THE FAMOUS WRITERS' CONFERENCE . . In a guest column, Marie Myung–Ok Lee describes being feted as an ethnic writer at a famous writers conference — when she isn't that ethnicity after all.

WHY ROBBER BARONS SELF–PUBLISH . . In a guest column, historian Edward J. Renehan, Jr. discusses why one of American history's leading financiers, Jay Gould, advised smart people to stay out of the publishing business.

KADARE IS NO SOLZHENITSYN . . The winner of the first Booker International Prize trashed "untrue" dissident writers for keeping silent. Guest columnist Renata Dumitrascu asks if he was really part of their suppression.<

GOOGLIZATION AND YOU . . Librarian Christopher Allen Waldrop says in a guest column that Google Print does more than break copyright laws — it opens the records of patrons up to more widespread scrutiny than the PATRIOT Act.

BOOKSELLER AT LARGE . . Guest commentator Dan Bloom says he moved to Taiwan and wrote a book that sold thousands of copies — after he took to the streets yelling, "Buy my book!"


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.