Last weekend I attended workshops sponsored by the League of Vermont Writers and the Poetry Society of Vermont and which took place at River Arts Gallery in Morrisville, Vermont. During the first portion of the day, Vermont poet Julia Shipley discussed “brevity” and how verbs, voice, confidence, and often times humor are especially important when writing brief poems and prose. She shared with us many terrific resources such as
The Quiet Eye, A Way of Looking at Pictures by Sylvia Shaw Judson
The Sea and the Honeycomb, A Book of Tiny Poems edited by Robert Bly
420 Characters by Lou Beech
The Most Brilliant Thoughts of All Time (in Two Lines or Less) edited by John M. Shanahan
River of Stars: Selected Poems of Yosano Akiko by Yosano Akiko, Sam Hamill, and Keiko Matsui Gibson
The Singing by CK Williams, and
The Smallest Talk by Michael McFee (a collection of one-lined poems)
Much of the material Julia shared was humorous, and that set the stage for another Vermont poet, Geof Hewitt. Not only is Geof an amazing poet, he is one of the funniest guys I know. He led us through his workshop, using a couple of 7-minute writes to get us revved up and primed for the afternoon slam. Geof, of course, moderated the slam as only Geof can do. And although I didn’t win the slam (Ina from England deservedly did with her quick-witted quick-write of drunken pigs and front loaders), it was great to be able to spend a few hours laughing and egging each other on.
I have two poems today. One (the second one) is the one I intended to include in today’s post, but then, something funny happened on the way to the forum pub. Actually something ridiculous happened at the pub Friday night.
At The Pub
So, he says to me, “You told me that,”
and I say, “No, I didn’t. I didn’t
know that before now to tell you,”
and he says, “You did know; you told me
that a long time ago before
you forgot it.” And I say, “I never knew
it,” and take a sip of my half-
pint of Guinness, and he says, “Yes,
yes you did ‘cause I remember
you telling me,” and I say, “Never
told you before because I never
knew it; I just learned it the other
day, and he says, ”Yes, you knew it
‘cause the same thing that got you to tell me
this time got you to tell me last time.
I remember,” and he wipes the foam
from his upper lip while I say, “No,
I know I didn’t know it. If I knew it
I’d remember it,” and he says,
“You just don’t know you knew it ‘cause
you forgot you knew it.” And always
the eternal optimist, he adds, “Isn’t
it great how we get to know everything
twice now?” And me being the realist,
brings him down to earth again,
and say, “I know everything
once; it’s you who don’t know what
you know, so now know everything twice,”
and he says, “What’ll the girls think,
us knowing everything once and then
again?” and since I was wondering
the same thing, I say, “I know
they know about how we know
things, but I don’t know what
they think about us knowing or not.
It sure is a whole new life for us
to know now, isn’t it?” We laugh and shake
our heads, and have another sip
before calling it an early
night, and heading home to bed.
Dinner With Children
One pleasant summer evening,
my daughter, only 3,
came to dinner in her dress
and promptly ate her peas.
She moved on to her mashed
potatoes, spooning them
with care, and without so much a glance
at me, asked, “Do princesses
wear underwear?” No time
nor need to think, I said,
“All the time, my dear.” She drank
some milk, turned to her chicken,
and gobbled every bite.
Then quite content, slipped off
her chair, flashed me her rump, and grinned,
“I’m not a princess then!”
Humor is funny. No, I don’t mean ha-ha funny (although, of course, it is), I mean interesting funny. It’s interesting because humor is complex and circumstantial. What I mean by this is that something is only funny under the right circumstances. In fact, under the right circumstances, even terrible things can be funny. I happened to see the movie Sleepwalk With Me last night and it poked fun at serious sleep disorders. It was pretty funny. Maybe a 7.5 out of a scale of 10. I also find humor interesting to think about because it seems as though some people are naturally funny while others have no sense of humor at all. Personally, I find it difficult to be around people who don’t laugh easily. And they probably find me quite obnoxious.
One of the elements of humor is surprise. Often what makes us laugh is a departure from the expected. For example, if you are expecting a person’s pet to be a dog from the way she describes it, and it turns out to be a hamster, that could be funny. The element of surprise is why some babies will laugh hysterically at a jack-in-the-box popping up or at a peek-a-boo game. Surprise is what makes the second poem, “Dinner With Children,” funny. This is actually based on a true event, and for those of you who know my two daughters, well, you could probably imagine either one of them doing it.
The absurd is another often-present ingredient to humor. Absurdity is the pairing of two things that are incongruent. Take someone, say a businessman, walking down a busy city street wearing swimming flippers on his feet. That has some potential for being funny. Another example would be the day that my mother’s car started honking every time the gas pedal was pushed. It happened to be the evening before Thanksgiving and my sister Monica was driving our mother through town, Sioux City, Iowa, to be precise. Suddenly, the car started honking every time Monica stepped on the gas pedal of the car. It became funnier when she stopped behind a car at a red light. When the light turned green, what did she have to do? That’s right, step on the gas pedal and HONK! The car in front proceeded through the intersection, and soon the driver began looking in the rearview mirror to see what all the noise was about. HONK! The car pulled over and my sister kept driving; she had to get the hell home! As she went through town, the situation became funnier still when she was faced with climbing a big hill. With no choice but to head up it, there she went, HONK, HONK, HONK all the way home, past the retirement home with the big plate glass window with the residents gathering at it to see what all the noise was about. There could be a funny poem in that, but to be honest, funny poems are really hard to write.
In my poem above, “At The Pub,” the conversation is absurd because two incongruent things are paired: the serious topic of fading memory as we age with the ridiculous circuitous conversation of the two people at the pub. The news one has shared with the other (for the second time, apparently) has become irrelevant, and the couple has moved on to a serious topic: how much they can – or can’t – remember. The repetition of “you know” and “I know,” the insistence of each speaker being right, and the persistence of each speaker also make it absurd. Ah, life!
The hyperbolic, or exaggerated, is another form of the absurd. This is why caricatures are humorous or at least amusing. Metaphors and similes that are exaggerated are funny as well. For example, a mean-looking woman isn’t so funny, but saying “She is so cross-looking, she must have been weaned on a sour pickle” is pretty entertaining. (That metaphor comes from the book As Sweet As Apple Cider, Vermont Expressions collected by Wolfgang Mieder with woodcuts by Mary Azarian). Some of the most clever and funny metaphors and similes come from uneducated, yet quick-witted and observant people. My father is particularly good at these, but most of them I could never share on such a public post due to their inappropriateness.
There is also physical comedy, but I have to admit, I rarely find this humorous (unless it’s the original Three Stooges – click the link to watch “Disorder in the Court”). Physical comedy usually means laughing at the expense of someone getting hurt, and I don’t find that humorous or entertaining at all. I had a friend in high school that rolled on the floor laughing every time I got hurt. She was probably really laughing at my reaction to being hurt as I tended to get angry, make faces and curse from the pain, but her laughter bugged me and hurt me nonetheless. Physical comedy involving “private parts” is about the least humorous of all physical comedy. You find it all the time in movies now and it’s just stupid. That doesn’t mean that personal issues surrounding these parts can’t be funny; they often are the funniest things that happen to us, but it’s funny only if the person isn’t hurt or humiliated in public.
Sarcasm is another type of “humor” although when sarcasm is used there is always a “victim.” Again, it’s humor at the expense of someone else, and is only funny among the closest of friends whose relationship is solid. Teachers, acquaintances, those just starting out in a relationship, and other partnerships in which one party has authority and power over another (i.e. bosses to their employees, parents to their children) should never use sarcasm, unless for some bizarre reason they want to humiliate someone else.
The physical comedy form of sarcasm is parody, and I happen to love parody. How can this be if I don’t enjoy physical comedy or sarcasm? Let me qualify my love of it. It all depends on the time and place (like all humor). A parody of an argument that my husband and I have had after we resolved the issue could be funny. Or a parody of me falling down at the bowling alley while trying to throw the ball could be funny (since my kneecaps weren’t shattered after all) after a sufficient amount of time, say a few years, has passed.
My youngest brother, Jesse, is one of the most hilarious persons on the planet. Besides his talents of the quick comeback, the ability to tell a good story, and his eye for the ironic and absurd, he does great parody. Check out these audio recordings of his “Al Gore Baby Tips of the Day” to see what I mean: For tip one click: A.G. Baby Tip 1; tip two: A.G. Baby Tip 2, and tip three: A.G Baby Tips 3. If you don’t laugh at these, I’m not so sure about your sense of humor.
RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
History of Humor: click this to download a powerpoint by Don L.F. Nilsen and Aleen Pace Nilsen, Arizona State University (unfortunately, this only looks at humor in western civilization, but is interesting, nonetheless).
Funny Quotes from Monty Python and The Holy Grail (only funny if you’ve seen the movie, and if so, then hilarious)
Building Bridges Across Cultures with Cross Cultural Humor – with Uma Thakar, comedienne, playing a tough crowd.
And last but not least, the hilarious, contagious, baby laugh: