Columns > Published on December 12th, 2019

Why Isn't More Poetry Funny?

Can poetry be funny?

Most of you are saying, “Of course it can.”

And most of you are wrong.

Okay, yes, in theory, poetry CAN be funny. The problem I have is that it seems like, for the most part, that’s the ONLY time poetry is funny: in theory. In theory, I should be able to put batteries in a flashlight correctly 50% of the time just by guessing at their orientation. In theory, I can bench 400 lbs. I could go on listing things that I can only do in theory, but it's pretty close to getting sad. Let's agree to spare me the embarrassment. 

Theory ain’t shit.

And while you’ll get the occasional funny poetry collection, the stray poem here and there, the proportions are all wrong. There are fewer kneeslappin' poems than there are funny novels, funny essays, funny plays, funny TV shows, funny movies, funny YouTube videos.

WHY!? Why is poetry lacking in the funny?

Funny Is Risky

If you “succeed” you make about 10% of the population laugh. If you fail, you are the worst person of all time.

Humor is probably the hardest thing to get right. It’s just so personal. The thing one person finds funny, another probably won’t. Something considered “universally funny” is funny to like 10% of the population. You’ll never get a consensus on funny the way you do on other things like “important”  or “prescient” or “moving.” Or “poetic.”

Humor also tends to walk a line. It’s very difficult to be funny without being offensive to someone, in some way, in some context. Or, to put it another way, it’s a lot easier to write a “moving” novel that’s inoffensive than it is to write a genuinely funny novel that’s inoffensive. 

The risk of failing in writing a “prescient” novel is that you don’t really do a good job talking about the topics you’ve covered. The risk of failing with your nonfiction is most likely that you don’t craft a compelling narrative. The risk in failing with your jokes is that you piss a lot of people off.

This sets up comedic poetry for a terrible risk/reward ratio. If you “succeed” you make about 10% of the population laugh. If you fail, you are the worst person of all time. 

Written and Spoken

Poetry is meant to be spoken. Read aloud at the least, but it’s best when it’s performed by its creator.

When I asked about funny poems on Twitter, I got an answer of “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins.

When I read the poem to myself, I was devastated. It was funny, and I think the humor existed to make the heartbreak that much more affecting.

When I listened to Billy Collins read the same poem out loud (and when I heard him read other stuff, which you should DEFINITELY do if you get the chance), it was a different thing entirely. 

Yes, because you hear his inflection, his tempo. But also because of the environment. You can see Collins there, reading. He’s okay. He’s not in tears. There’s an audience who recognizes what’s happening and laughs.

Hearing all writing out loud, from the creator, is a great way to experience it. With poetry, it’s more of a need than a preference.

We rarely experience poetry this way. We’re used to reading poetry as dour. As readers, when it comes to poetry, we have those dialogs with our game faces on. Serious. Created to display a scar or to mark a tough occasion. Even when it's admittedly pretty funny.

Right Now

Here’s a bigger question: Is there room for humor in poetry right now?

A recent article told of the rise in poetry sales and the likely reasons. Namely, people are looking for ways to make sense of the world, which many see as a horrific place at the moment.

If you look at the top sellers in poetry, you’ll see people asserting their humanity. Poems about the Holocaust. Lost love. All-consuming love. “Darkness...longing and anxiety…” Funerals. Death and death and death.

No offense to anyone working in those modes. I get it. We all like to be taken seriously. But.

Some of us make sense of the world through humor. Some of us get through tough times by joking. By laughing at it. Or by laughing at something else.

Humor has been my coping mechanism for a long time. When you’ve got some questionable parenting going on at home, humor is a way to cope. Jokes are free even when running the furnace isn't. Being funny is a way to overcome the fact that you don’t have nice clothes when you walk into high school. 

I don't see humor as being opposed to serious topics. I see it as one way we deal with the serious shit, and it's a method of dealing with serious shit that's underrepresented in verse. Its presence in poetry doesn't make the format less important, less real. 

There’s not just room for humor. There’s a need.

Nobody Puts Poetry In The Corner

Never put a format in a box.

Poetry isn’t a genre of writing. It’s a format. And a format can try anything. A format can be about anything.

As a format, poetry is incredibly flexible. There are standard forms that can create wonderful, new things, and there are freeform versions that can also create new things. There are completely different ways of looking at the same situation, distilled down into a few lines.

When we sit down to write poetry, let's admit it, there's a leaning towards talking about serious shit in a serious way. But it doesn't always have to be that way. 

Next time you work on some poems, try to make people cry. Try to teach them something about how you see the world. And try to make it funny.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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