Monday, February 6, 2012
Poetry, A Serious Joke
There is something about a joke well-told that feels like poetry to me. And a poem, lean, with every word weighed and a zinger to punch you in the gut, that reminds me of a joke.
Maybe not a giggle or belly laugh but even a grimace lights a dim bulb with illumination that could be a serious delight. Both the poet and comedian use juxtaposition to great advantage transporting the reader to unimaginable places.
An extra word can kill it, a giveaway makes it stumble. The way a poem breathes, the pregnant pause, inflection, a gesture all arrest attention. If the teller/author doesn’t believe it, it shows.
Jerry Seinfeld spoke about a joke he had told hundreds of times which always got a laugh. One night doing his stand-up monologue he started to doubt it in the middle of the story. He thought to himself that it really wasn’t very funny but he knew the words so well he would tell it anyway because it led into his next joke. When he got to the punch-line nobody laughed. His doubt crept in between the words. The teller cultivates his own voice and cannot falter…. just as in poetry.
The poem also lives between the words in inexplicable ways. The line breaks, enjambments and how it is laid out on the page can all be crucial elements, even by omission.
Great poets, like Emily Dickinson, celebrated life from her remote perch. It took society decades to catch up with her unpunctuated exuberance.
Poets approach their material obliquely, with a certain frisson, often with irony, using language in unexpected ways. Transformation can be an elongated, demanding stretch or leap, landing in the realm of the absurd. The serious joke re-states and affirms the conundrum, I can’t go on. I’ll go on; funny the way Beckett is funny.
Many contemporary poems are simple anecdotes with a jagged right-hand margin. Even if the subject is contemplative or grim there is a tension built up in the telling and a final release…just like a short tale told with wit. Neither a poem or a joke can be explained; it loses everything in translation. As T.S. Eliot said, the genius of poetry is that it can communicate before it is understood...just like a well-told joke.