Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why midgets aren't allowed in Poetry

David Sedaris doesn't write poetry. Well, not under the heading of bard or poetess, but I must admit I have more of his visual descriptions logged in my head than any other writer. I can tell you exactly where I was the first time I read Me Talk Pretty One Day. I was standing in a small book store with my brother when I picked it up and both of us laughed so hard we had to buy the book because we had cried all over it. From completely exposing his family, even his own grandma, glorifying and gloating their neuroses and adding in his own painful childhood memories--Sedaris basically does what any poet tries to do, but really, he's much more sly. He draws you in with vivid and quirky descriptions and secretly--while you are too busy laughing --does Sedaris dare to also include--sentimentality. Sure, he uses humor, hyperbole and even throws in midgets, but what attracts me most to his poetic ability is his fearlessness inclusion of saying something, saying something simple about love, loss, depression, loneliness and even death. But he does this by doing what few poets dare to do, he does this through humor. Maybe humor is just too hard or maybe we find it hard to place in poetry. But maybe, poetry needs some humor.

I've mentioned previously about Jack Gilbert and his daringness to go into darkness with more attention to light than any poet I have yet to read. He has years of dedication to this task of not shying away from what is ugly or unfortunate, but rising like some old dusty phoenix to remind us to "risk delight." Yet in his own words about humor, Gilbert states in "Metier" from his book, Refusing Heaven.

The Greek fisherman do not
play on the beach and I don't
write funny poems.

And it is true, his forte or metier, is not humor. (but this is sort of funny, no? I mean can you really imagine a group of men in all black with white hair playing with a beach ball?) When asked directly in an NPR interview as to why Gilbert doesn't write "funny poems" he responded, "because so many people who write poems make it easy on you. it's not getting to the inside of things." This I might argue. Humor, if done well, can get so far deeply into "things" that we laugh by our surprise. Perhaps our laughter is but a response to a shock of how true something is, we laugh because we can relate. Good comedians make unlikely connections find some similarity. Sound familiar? Like the definition of metaphor, maybe? Maybe humor is just the layman's use of metaphor. Maybe.

No, don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about limericks, bawdy verse or jokes for that matter, but poetry that uses humor as a means to mask the fact that the poet is daring to say something perhaps even sentimental, is truly rare. Yet, truly needed. Richard Hugo once wrote, "a poet must dare to risk sentimentality," it is a means of connecting to the audience and why not say something that hopefully might mean something to someone, especially someone beyond your own family who has been thankfully gracing you with their patience in reading your writing for years. But more importantly than audience is the fact that Poetry usually makes a really bad first impression on people. Poetry comes in all dressed in scarves, ascots, and tweed heavy with allusions on its breath. It is time to wear a new cocktail dress Poetry.

Even worse than the genre are the first impressions by the ones who write poetry. Most people think of poets as sad people, alone in their houses with cats on their laps who just respond to phone calls in rhyming couplets. Hell, how do you think I felt living alone for years, short and dark haired with a first name of Emily? Tough. Poets are people too and they can even be funny. Does anyone remember Dr. Suess or do we just think of that as childish gibberish? Didn't he say a lot more than just green eggs and ham? Didn't he start so many of us as budding poets sounding out silly rhymes marching up and down our stairs. Where did we go? Did we all end up attending conferences with people who are terribly malnourished, heavily medicated and well, as you might guess, not very funny? I confess, I have been to writing conferences and had I not gone with my dear friend Eric Smith, I would have come down with a four day bout of boredom and intimidation.

We attended an AWP conference in Austin, Texas, together and selected to go to a session titled "Humor in Poetry." We went mostly to see one poet, who is not only funny, but down right hilarious. Like Sedaris, I laugh out loud while I am reading him, yet the beauty in his lines like "cats are nothing but lizards in fur suits," is the fact that by the time you end a Bob Hicok poem you are surprised by the risks of sentimentality and emotive quality that you are also feeling besides a sore stomach. Yet sadly, Bob Hicok did not show up. I think I may have known why, no one else there was really funny. Sure, they were clever and really liked how clever they were, but they didn't risk anything. They were as Gilbert stated, "making it easy" on the audience. There were some chuckles from the crowd, but certainly no tears or moments of pain in the reality of what they were saying. Nope, just really smart people showing how smart they are, which is really never funny. Luckily, Eric and I practiced first lines all having the word side-ponytail in them. Something, to distract us and to practice our own attempt at humor in verse.

And so I may have dug myself too deep with my litany of what is or isn't funny. I wish I could unearth one of those side-ponytail poems instead, but this poem will do. But if you can, find Bob Hicok, Tony Hoagland, Austin Hummell, and Gabriel Gudding and introduce yourself to a version of poetry worth falling in love with and laughing too.  

Scent of Newlyweds

I keep my windows open at night in late April,
smell the honeysuckle down  my side 

street, and let it cloud by head as I sleep.
When my boyfriend come over and stands

outside my window, I poke my head out
for the heady scent and hear his voice

mingling the way bees meet, head deep
in pollen with their stingers hidden

but alert. His hand waves and falls
and I think of my father's hands parting hair

from my brow. My boyfriend, virtual husband, pushes
our olive skinned child in a pram,

sings over cars and exhaust. I say, meeting him,
"that scent is too heavy, the word honeysuckle clogs

my throat." Happy to have been clever,
I see him squint. "This isn't honeysuckle,

it's jasmine," he keeps walking. Suddenly, the flowers,
I mean the jasmine, smell like a garland of fish heads

around my neck. Now they keep me up
at night, alone and awake to the drone 

of the newlyweds who live below me,
who seem so much louder with the windows shut.

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