About two centuries ago Napoleon said, “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a single step.” Well, actually, he said it in French, so it probably sounded more impressive, but my high school French is limited, to say the least, so were going to stick with English here. When I think about truly ridiculous poetry, I think of the greats: Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Shel Silverstein, Calvin Trillin, Lewis Carrol, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walt Kelly, and Edward Lear.
But poetry doesn’t have to be ridiculous to be funny, and often a funny poem can move someone who is leery of being moved by a more serious poem. And there are a lot of people like that. I blame fifth grade teachers.
Do not misunderstand me. I applaud the long hard labor of grammar school teachers. I admire their endless patience and willingness to work with Other People’s Children at an age when kids still have too much energy to sit still all day. However, as an English teacher in college for the last two decades, I have seen that a lot of damage gets done to kids by teachers who think they know what poetry and writing should be, even though by definition they probably don’t have time to do much of it themselves.
Whenever I teach a literature class, I first ask my students to raise their hands if they hate poetry. Usually a third raise their hands and one or two say, “Well, I don’t hate it but I don’t understand it.”
To them I promise that they might come to feel differently about poetry, hopefully better. The rest of the students I promise that they will not come to hate poetry because of me. Because I guarantee that if a person hates poetry, it is because a particular person made them hate it. Some teacher, most likely, either insisted that her/his reading of a poem was the Only One Allowable, or she/he insisted that a poem could mean anything at all (which any ten year old can tell you means that the poem means nothing). Neither of these readings is really useful.
And if I have students who Really Detest Poetry, then I give them a copy of Marge Piercy’s “Attack of the Squash People,” which begins:
“And thus the people every year
in the valley of humid July
did sacrifice themselves
to the long green phallic god
and eat and eat and eat.
They’re coming, they’re on us
the long striped gourds, the silky
babies, the hairy adolescents,
the lumpy vast adults
like the trunks of green elephants.
Recite fifty zucchini recipes!”
Now a lot of my students grew up in urban environments, but still most people know the trope of planting “a few vegetables” and ending up with a whole lot more than they bargained for, a whole lot more than they, their families, friends, and neighbors can eat. And the poem isn’t just about the humor of overabundance. It ends with something worth remembering:
“You give and give
too much, like summer days
limp with heat, thunderstorms
bursting their bags on our heads,
as we salt and pickle and freeze
for the too little to come.”
Another lesson that can be taught with a funny poem is how less is, yes, more. My favorite example of this is Lucille Clifton’s “wishes for sons,” which begins like this:
“i wish them cramps.
i wish them a strange town
and the last tampon.
i wish them no 7-11.
i wish them one week early
and wearing a white skirt.
i wish them one week late.”
Understatement gets the job done. No extra details are necessary. We see the speaker’s sons learning the hard way what it is like to be a woman. This kind of gentle humor, stripped-down form and simple diction are characteristic of Clifton’s work. I love how the poem ends:
“let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them gynecologists
not unlike themselves.”
This one inevitably wins over the women. I have other poems to help with winning over the men.
Clifton, Lucille. Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988 2000. New York: BOA Editions, 2000.
Piercy, Marge. Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy. New York: Knopf, 1982.
“And if I laugh at any mortal thing,/’Tis that I may not weep.” –Byron