I can vividly remember the first time I read a poem in public. It was at a writing workshop at the University of Warwick, full of earnest young women and men who sat around in the cafeteria between lectures dressed in black, discussing the work of the Modernists and stroking their beautiful chins.
We’d been set the week before a task to write a sonnet which convinced someone to lend us money. I went to the library every day for a week, taking copious notes from the works of the greats and convincing myself I was writing a poem. Then, on the day before the work was due, I stayed up all night, fuelled by Pot Noodle and wafer thin roll-ups, and an hour or so after finishing I was reading in front of my peers what I considered words dredged from my very soul. Their reaction to my performance was simple, shocking and inspirational. They laughed and laughed and laughed.
A lesser mortal, at this point, would have concluded that writing poetry was probably not for them. But me, I loved the feeling that reaction to my writing gave me, and have been chasing that feeling ever since. Over the years, I’ve loved reading poets who make me laugh out loud, but don’t just make me laugh out loud. I’ve just got back from the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, where I saw one of my biggest poetry superheroes, Thomas Lux, reading for the first time and launching his Bloodaxe Selected Poems. He’s exactly the sort of poet I mean, and someone whose work has been so inspirational in my writing. A poem like ‘Wife Hits Moose,’ for example, creates comedy through the outlandish, cartoonish incident it describes, and the way in which the moose is characterised, but in doing so gets to half-serious meditation upon the nature of God. Does the comedy surprise us into a new way of looking at the serious, or does the introduction of the serious deepen the level of comedy? Who cares? It makes for a brilliant poem whichever way you cut it, and it’s poems that grow out of that relationship between the comic and the serious which have always fascinated me.
A later discovery was Roddy Lumsden, who I was drawn to initially because of his incredible use of the sonnet. Early Lumsden sonnets like ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ and ‘An Older Woman’ show how the turn in thought of the sonnet – that volta, that twist in the tale – can be appropriated for comic purposes, as the concluding couplet comments in a darkly comic fashion on the situation which has been developed. ‘Lithium,’ similarly, shows us how an outlandishly comic metaphor in the couplet takes the bone-dry situation of the sonnet into hilarious territory. In such poems the couplets might be considered punch lines, but if they are they’re punch lines to the best and darkest jokes I’ve ever known.
From a centuries-old form to what was on the TV five minutes ago. One of the reasons I love comic poems is the fact that we live in a world in which someone might choose to read a poem or watch The Simpsons. In fact, if I could write the sort of poem which someone reads during the advertising break in The Simpsons I reckon I’d be a happy man. I’ve always loved Jo Shapcott’s surreal poems, and the way they use the everyday, the trivial and pop culture, for this very reason. Poems like ‘Superman Sounds Depressed’ and ‘Tom and Jerry Visit England’ are exemplary in the way they use moments in pop culture to get us to look at the world anew, often by adopting crazy points of view. Unlike Lumsden, who treats dark moments and scenarios with the most hilarious approach, such Shapcott poems treat potentially trivial material with great seriousness, thereby creating both comedy and emotion.
The British sense of humour is a good one, then. We often think we have the best sense of humour in the world, but is this really true? In poetry terms, it’s often difficult to argue with the idea that it’s the Americans who really do humour best, and not just because of Thomas Lux. James Tate’s classic collection Return to the City of White Donkeys must have a place in any serious discussion of comic poems. Here it’s often the outlandishness of the ideas which generates both the comedy and a new way of looking at the serious. A man feeding pigeons in the park is astonished to find that the park has a statue of him. A man standing outside St Cecilia’s Rectory is joined suddenly by a goat, who follows him as he walks away. An incompetent and neurotic no-goodnik turns out, in an astonishing punch line, to be the President of the United States. The only person who can top Tate for ideas is arguably Charles Simic; it’s difficult to think of a more perfect combination of the comic and the dark than ‘Popular Mechanics,’ from his Faber Selected Poems 1963-2001. Who knew that a poem about someone trying to crucify himself could be so hilarious?
So the Americans are good. But maybe we Brits are best after all. I was teaching the poems of Simon Armitage a couple of years ago and had one girl in the class who just couldn’t get her head around his writing. Then we listened to a recording of Armitage reading ‘Great Sporting Moments: The Treble’ from Kid and, when he reached, in his distinctive Northern voice, that line, ‘I said, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. OK, come on then,’ she fell about laughing. From there, she was an Armitage fan, and this opens out the way in which the vernacular, the regional and the spoken can create humour and create life. The vernacular energy of poems like ‘The Stuff’ from Zoom! take us into the comic but often troubling world of local scallywags, while ‘Not the Furniture Game,’ from Kid, amuses through its outlandish metaphors before breaking our hearts with its conclusion. It’s that sort of focus on local people, local knowledge and local stories, which has always fuelled my writing.
Moving further into the relationship between poetry and the spoken, I can remember first discovering the work of John Cooper Clarke, through a BBC Four programme on his life just a couple of years ago. The poem which made me fall in love with his work was ‘Beasley Street.’ Its rhythms and rhymes, and the passion of his performance, were extraordinary, and the way in which the conventions of performance poetry were exploited often generated brilliant humour. But that wasn’t why I loved it. The thing was – and is – that the poem is authentic, that it captures life absolutely. I think it’s often the authenticity and energy of performance poetry, the way it’s rooted in a real and everyday life we can all relate to, which makes it so powerful.
I often go to poetry readings where there is little to smile about. The poet from the highly-respected press reads seriously into a stony-faced crowd about their deepest emotions or their greatest thoughts, often achieving, no doubt, some of the highest levels of our art. I don’t know how other people feel when they attend such readings, but I’ll dare here to say how I feel. Bored. The pomposity and seriousness of some poems and poetry events seems to me incredible. I’m not saying for a second that poetry shouldn’t be serious, but it is true that most of the poems and readings I find most memorable have been those that have made me laugh the most. When I think about why, I tend also to think about what poetry is for. At some point in a hectic Aldeburgh weekend, where event after event went by in a beautiful whirr, someone – I think in a close reading session – quoted Maya Angelou: ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Because funny poems are often accessible and relevant to our own lives, they have the power to make us all feel something – even if our feeling is simply something which might be best articulated as ‘Good God, that poem’s funny.’ But proper funny poems have the power to hit a much wider emotional range, and it’s that power which makes me excited about teaching next term a course on comic poetry for The Poetry School. We will set out on the course to write poems which make people laugh. But in the process, I hope – I really do hope – that we will be writing poems that make people feel.
Want to write comic verse that will delight serious and not-so-serious poets alike? Book your place on Jonathan’s new online course ‘No laughs please, we’re poets – can comic poetry be good poetry?’ or ring us on 0207 582 1679.