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

Thanks, Bill

I am ill-equipped to write an eloquent, moving, personal tribute to Bill Harrison of the sort which — I’m confident — many, many others are writing at this very moment, and for which Steve Yates has already set the bar (not that it’s a competition, of course, but if it were, Steve’s playoff berth would be a lock).

The reason I am ill-equipped for that kind of tribute is that I never studied with Bill directly. Bill wrote and taught fiction; I wrote and studied poetry. The Form and Theory of Fiction course I did take was taught by Skip Hays that semester. I knew Bill, of course, but any conversation I had with him would have been in the corridors of Kimpel Hall between classes or at a post-reading party at his or another faculty member’s house. If he said anything profound to me at those times, I was either too young and dumb to perceive it or too drunk to remember it.

What I did gain from Bill was the opportunity to write, read, study, and live in the writing program he created — an M.F.A. program that, for those of us without M.A.s already in hand, took four years and 60 credit hours to complete. In addition to workshops, we were required to take two Form and Theory courses in our chosen genre and one in the other, at least 12 hours of lit courses, seminars, and a Composition for Teachers course in which a “C” was failing. All of this was capped with a thesis, an oral defense, and a Comprehensive Final Exam which, if memory serves, was approximately 12 hours and 12 pots of coffee long. On top of all that, we taught two sections of Comp every semester, remuneration for which was tuition (nice) plus the kingly sum of $719/month. Summers? You’re on your own, student.

So, here’s my tribute: Thanks, Bill. I loved it. And I stayed for the summers. Because being broke in Fayetteville was better than having it easy anywhere else.



Thanks, Bill

Sound Criticism

The fonts say it all?
The fonts say it all?

Of all the plaints about contemporary poetry that have come down the pike, this one by Arthur Krystal strikes me as among the most reasonable, particularly this paragraph:

Ultimately, of course, it boils down to the personal, so let me say straight-out that the exquisite spareness of poets like Ryan and Armantrout, or the roll call of colloquial references favored by Ashbery, makes me work too hard. Yes, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens also made me work, but at least I could hear their lines playing in my head. So what I’m asking is: Do I really want to spend time figuring out the associations among words on a page and the experiences they’re meant to distill if the sound of the poem doesn’t please me?

Hear, hear.

The unacknowledged elephant here is that for a very long time now music in poetry has been associated with (and is dependent upon) meter, and meter with form, and form with politics. And with that word, politics, begins a post I do not have time to even contemplate now. Though I hope to — perhaps when I’m done reading the least-pleasing writing ever conceived, freshman essays.


Sound Criticism

The Artlessness of the Interview

Carl_Spitzweg_-_Der_arme_Poet_(Neue_Pinakothek)I generally don’t care for most poet-interviews. Not because of the answers so much as the often meaningless, softball questions. Do you write longhand, or at the keyboard? What time of day do you write? Describe your writing routine. The answer to all of these questions is, of course, who cares?, but the subject – usually generous and accommodating – is forced to dignify them with thoughtful answers, and so the myth of the poet communing with the gods in his or her drafty garret lives on. Equally annoying is the question that presupposes poetry’s worthlessness to the culture at large, usually some variation of What can we do, as poets and as a society, to recover the language of poetry? The answer to which is, of course, recover from where? The language of poetry is the language of to-do lists, conversations, menus, dictionaries… just (if we’re doing our jobs) more interestingly arranged. This style of interview is not a recent development, nor is it limited to poets, as this 1961 interview with Henry Miller demonstrates. The man had just gotten his first novel published in his home country, nearly thirty years after it was published in Europe, and the interviewer asks him about (what else?) pencil-sharpening. Not far into the interview, Miller finally says, “I think these questions are meaningless.” Yes, and they still are. Here, then, I humbly submit to anyone who conducts interviews, particularly with poets, a list of questions that might yield more interesting and instructive answers:

  • Please describe your poetic. 
The Artlessness of the Interview

Garbage In…

tumblr_mpez3opHfn1ssr2ilo1_500As I see it, Kenneth Goldsmith’s latest project — printing out the internet — will serve as a bookend to conceptualist poetry. Not that others in that camp won’t continue to “uncreate” works, but since his endeavor (if he pulls it off) will include damn near everything, and because he’s already generated a lot of attention, criticism, and even a petition to keep him from doing it, what could possibly come next?

If I understand conceptualism correctly, it’s all about process, and all the attention being devoted to POTI is — or will be — automatically part of the process and, in this case, literally part of the final product. You can object to POTI on environmental grounds, but if you write a blog post about that, you’ve contributed another piece of paper to it (just as I’m doing now). It’s all very clever, but merely so. The spectacle of this is really the thing, so in a sense the work is already done, and I can’t imagine the unveiling of this pile of paper being anything but anti-climactic. I could be wrong, of course, but I do have back-up:

There is nothing so ancient and so dead as human novelty. The latest is always stillborn. It never even manages to arrive. –Thomas Merton


Update (August 7): I’ve posted links in this post’s comments section to a couple worthwhile pieces that address literary Conceptualism far more deeply than I have here, but Seth Abramson’s piece at The Volta is a must-read.


Garbage In…

Not Another Response to Mark Edmundson (I Promise)

Harpers-1307-302x410In fact, I won’t even say who Edmundson is or what he did, because if you clicked your way here, you already know. I’m glad a dozen or so others have already taken Edmundson to task (links below), because, well, someone has to point out the falseness of Edmundson’s premise — that American poetry is a monolithic structure that can be attacked on one or two fronts. How can it be something else when it’s already everything? (OK, I said something about it). But I’d rather see the editors at Harper’s get the upbraiding. They should know better. In fact, I’m confident that they do know better, in which case they’re simply shit-stirring.










Not Another Response to Mark Edmundson (I Promise)

Ugly, Ugly Words

artichoke - Big HeartLately I’ve stumbled across a few lists like this one, featuring obsolete words the blogger thinks deserve a comeback. They don’t. Not because of their meanings but because they are ugly. Snoutfair? This word was hideous even before I read the definition (n. an attractive person) and became even more hideous when I did. Good riddance, I say. And I’d like to recommend hunting out of existence a few other words that, while hardly common, still crop up to offend from time to time:

Vouchsafe: I probably first read this word in a high school literature class, then again in at least two college literature classes. No doubt I looked up its definition on each occasion — then immediately forgot it, so horrible is its sound. I refuse to even look it up for this post because I will probably never type it again, much less say it.

Mellifluous: This word hardly lives up to its definition: smooth-flowing, sweet-sounding. It is simply impossible to be mellifluous while saying it. Melodious isn’t much better. It’s, well, odious.

Gainsay: What’s wrong with oppose? All the other gain- words are dead (gainbuy: redeem; gaintake: retake). Let’s finish off this species.

Pithy: as in, a pithy comment. It sounds like it should mean insubstantial or worthless but means the opposite, and it leaves the mouth like chicken gristle.

I’m confident that all writers and/or avid readers harbor a hatred for certain words. Beyond those that are ugly by what they represent (mucous, phlegm, crap, etc.), cliche (game-changer, resilient) or not words at all (irregardless, TXT, YOLO), what words grate your ear the most?

Ugly, Ugly Words