The peerless American poet Jack Gilbert (1925-2012) has a short poem where he, in as few words as possible, distils his ars poetica:
The Greek fishermen do not
play on the beach and I don’t
write funny poems. (‘Métier’)
You might say he’s being a bit arch here, a bit tongue-in-cheek because after all the poem is calculated to make you laugh. I’ve long toyed with the idea of prefixing one of my poetry readings by reciting this poem. However, I’ve resisted the urge in case it turned the audience against me from the very start. And yet, to attend a poetry reading these days, it seems to me, is to take part in an activity that is suffering something of an identity crisis. Is this a poet we are listening to, or a stand-up wag, or is it a hybrid of both?
I’m not talking here about the patter and craic that happens between poems – this is often the place to texture a reading, if you are reading solemn poems, you might try to lighten the mood here. No, what I mean is the poems themselves, there seems to be an in-built a priori assumption on the part of poets and audiences that poems should be funny, or at least contain lots of elements of humour. To read a set of unapologetically serious poems is to make the listeners fidget and squirm in their seats a little. You often, in such circumstances, find the audience straining to find a scintilla of laughter in anything that is read out. I used to read out a poem which was about my mother suffering a series of miscarriages (‘Spinning Plates’), and I would find people in the audience bizarrely chortling at certain lines.
What I want to know is, when did poetry in public acquire this obligatorily ludic face? Why is it the case that the poet who wants to read serious or sad poems is often made to feel a self-indulgent pariah? I’m not saying all this to be contrarian or get a reaction – I really mean that I think there is a serious psychological / sociological study to be made of it – this unquestioning assumption that the audience must be pandered to and placated with humour if they are to sit through a poetry reading. But if poetry must then be comic, then why don’t we just go to listen to a stand-up gig? I’m all for interdisciplinariness, but the tyranny of facetiousness in poetry is a bit much for me.
I’ve been to readings where ‘funny’ poems have brought the house down, but they have often felt contrived with the sole purpose of raising a few laughs, not poems I will remember and draw from in times of need. Another trick I am suspicious of is when people use swear-words. Now, before you think I’m a censorious prude, let me tell you that I love swear-words, use them liberally each and every day, all day (almost to the point of them losing all power to shock or startle). But how many times have I sworn in a poem? The answer is that in all the poems I’ve written (300+) I’ve only ever cussed in three poems (x2 ‘shits’ and x1 word which I can only write here in its Chaucerian precursor form of ‘queynte’), and in retrospect I think only one of these uses was truly justified and still stands. But, I’ve listened to very plummy voices recite poems and there comes a pregnant pause when the poet prepares to drop an f-bomb and you can tell that it is deployed for a cynical, cheap-laugh effect.
I think the only really satisfactory answer as to why we have a culture of comedy in poetry now is the art’s proximity to death and the loss of religion for solace over the last century. Like Iain Crichton Smith once said – perhaps all poems are love poems and elegies as well, and mortality is the bedrock that underpins more or less every poem. The other day I went to see Harry Dean Stanton’s brilliant valedictory performance in the film Lucky where he plays a nonagenarian bachelor cowboy who is trying to grapple with the prospect of his imminent end. Towards the end of the film he comes to the conclusion that when you are confronted with the infinite void, all you can do is smile, there is nothing else left to you. Perhaps laughter and humour is a much needed escape valve in poetry readings that can sometimes overwhelm us with too much, too soon.