Serious Poets At Play

Inventive poets often build humor into the darkest of their works, making odd, funny constructions around secret, hidden places.

April 17, 2005|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

The first line that Sir Patrick red,

a loud lauch lauched he;

The next line that Sir Patrick red,

the teir blinded his ee.

"The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,"


The old ballad-makers knew it, those nameless singers who time-machined the 14th century to us via Appalachia: Laughter and tears are twins.

Shakespeare knew it: Here's Mercutio, from Act III of Romeo and Juliet, on the subject of the sword wound from which he's dying: "...'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man."

John Donne knew it, which is why I got so hot for him in college that I became an English major: A wry laugh lurks just under the surface of his most passionately frustrated love poems -- including his shortest, occasioned by his fiancee's family's disinheriting her for taking up with a wild man:

John Donne

Anne Donne


William Blake showed that he knew how laughter can heighten, not reduce, the seriousness of a poem when he packaged a diatribe against hypocrisy in a subversive grin:

I asked a thief to steal me a peach;

He turned up his eyes.

I ask'd a lithe lady to lay her down;

Holy and meek she cries.

As soon as I went an angel came:

He wink'd at the thief

And smil'd at the dame,

And without one word spoke

Had a peach from the tree

And 'twixt earnest & joke

Enjoy'd the lady.

We're 'twixt earnest and joke in some of the best poetry of Now. Fast forward. I've been having a good time reading recent books by poets who can be classified as "younger" in the sense of not yet canonized, and I'm struck by how many of them understand that no form of humor is too low for a serious poet.

Take Harryette Mullen. Her 1995 Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse Press) kept me good company during a 12-hour layover in a Brazilian airport. I was utterly silenced (I knew exactly one Brazilian-Portuguese word, feijoada, and there were only so many times I could usefully say, "a dish made with black beans and pork.") But I found that Mullen's language magicked away my boredom and loneliness. This book-length ballad sings about finding one's black female voice in the noise / white-noise of America, about finding love in a cheating world: heavy subjects. But it made me howl (laughter, admiration for the sheer outrageousness) with its puns, supposedly humor's barrel-bottom. Four-line stanzas take their cue from the blues and jump-rope rhymes like "Miss Mary Mack":

what makes tough muffins

pat Juba on the back

Miz Mary takes a mack truck in

trade for her slick black Cadillac

. . . .

back dating double dutch

fresh out of bubble gum

halfstep in the grave

on banana peels of love

devils dancing on a dime

cut a rug in ragtime

jitterbug squat diddly bow

stark strangled banjo

. . . .

Say that last line aloud and see what runs up the flagpole. There in the Sao Paulo terminal, I could almost hear an anguished Hendrix riff.

I like it when a poet makes my mouth do funny things. In her latest book, Verso (Apogee Press), Pattie McCarthy made me shape a catlike yawn at the end of a section on lethargy or entropy, the whole of which I find cosmically comic and wise:

laziness gave us ampersand & I am happier for it.

were we to wake very early to observe

staccato in the music of spheres or a prowler.

were we to discover therein the lack--all

the indignity, advances & indifference one

must muster. you start

the day at odd angles & predestination

selects the coffeemugs. more spontaneous & less

superstitious, please. if not lazy, then a slur--in several

senses, a great unending existential schwa.

Footnote 1: "Schwa" is that funny little upside-down "e" that linguists use to name the blah sound of most unstressed vowels, such as the "e" in "agent" or the "a" in "ago" -- a lazy nothing of a noise.

Footnote 2: Blake used an ampersand in the poem I quoted above, and "I am happier for it."

Footnote 3: See what I mean about how funny things in a poem haunt you?

There's a poem by Gail Wronsky, from her Poems for Infidels (Red Hen Press) that haunted the whole day it took me to connect the title, "The Story of O as Told by E," with the fact that "e" is the only vowel in the whole 7-section, 18-line poem. Fun and games? Yes, dead-serious ones, as is clear from the beginning:


Ever enter her eyes, Stephen?


ever seen her bed sheeted,

ever seen her leg wrecked where she

squeezes the Lethe-needles?

I say it again: No poet is too serious for wordplay. A whole theory of aesthetics, called, in fact, the Play Theory, is on my side. By this theory, every work of art is an outward and visible sign that the artist had a really good time while creating the particular work, be it a medieval Crucifixion; a Goya or Picasso on the horrors of war; a poem by Solomon, Milton or Dante (he of The Divine Comedy -- See? He called it a comedy himself!)

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