With Apologies to E.B. White

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
E.B. White

I do, however, want to consider — or at least pose some questions about — humor in poetry. First, I’d like to draw a distinction between humorous and funny because humor and comedy are (to me, anyway) not exactly the same thing. I say exactly because, even as I typed that sentence, I could already see the distinction breaking down by the end of this post. Anyway. Comedy is its own…thing. I almost typed genre, but that would break down even sooner, require a great deal of parsing and justifying, and I have leaves to rake.

Anyway. We approach comedy with the expectation that we will laugh. Laughter is its purpose, first and foremost. Comedy is not humorous; it is funny.

I like rice. I cook it when I want to eat a thousand of something.
Mitch Hedberg

But — it seems to me, I think, maybe — that we don’t approach humor at all (unless you’re a fan of Family Circus or Prairie Home Companion, in which case, seek help); rather, it approaches us in the service of something else, which is why I rarely find poems that are called “funny” funny. This is not to denigrate those poets — Kenneth Koch, Bob Hicok, Billy Collins, to name a few — who employ humor in their work, only to say that, even at their funniest, their poems rarely — if ever — elicit my genuine laughter. This is because I know — or suspect, or have been taught, or simply choose to believe — that because I am reading a poem there is something larger going on, something that is not funny but actually quite serious, perhaps not Milton-level serious (John, not Berle), but serious nonetheless.

The Toy-Maker 

A toy-maker made a toy wife and a toy child.

He made a toy house and some toy years.

He made a getting old toy, and he made a dying toy.

The toy-maker made a toy heaven and a toy god.

But, best of all, he liked making toy shit.

Russell Edson

Edson is a personal favorite, and among the pantheon of “funny” poets I find him the funniest (see, it’s breaking down already), right up until the exact moment the poem ends and I realize its rather dark implications, the moment when Edson stops being Steven Wright and starts being Sartre.

Here’s where it breaks down even further — fiction. I find some fiction writers funny, flat out fuckin’ funny, even on second reading. Vonnegut comes to mind, as do Nicholson Baker and Percival Everett (if you haven’t read Baker’s The Fermata or Everett’s Erasure, please cancel your weekend plans and do so). Clearly, neither Baker nor Everett is a comedian first and foremost, nor are their novels merely stand-up routines in print. So, what’s the difference?  Is there a difference? Is it just me? More importantly, will you rake my lawn?

With Apologies to E.B. White

3 thoughts on “With Apologies to E.B. White

  1. Reading Don Quixote esta noche reminds me to add here that fiction very often had humor as a major function at the start. One “serious” (and dreadfully dull) novel at the start was that awful Clarissa. But Don Quixote, Lazarillo de Tormes, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, all funny. Maybe Orinoco is the first readable novel in which humor is not a driving force, or at least the first one that the canon has recommended to us.


  2. dmarshall58 says:

    E. B. White is probably right about the frog, but that won’t stop us from dissecting. Besides, when it’s done well–as here–it’s illuminating in its own way. When I was teaching Twelfth Night last semester, I learned there are all sorts of theories of humor (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/), but none ultimately satisfy me. I wonder if the mystery of laughter–as much fun as it is to investigate the mystery–is its essential characteristic.


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