Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Poetry Ha Ha: Notes on the Comic in Poetry

If you look at the photos of of themselves most poets approve for their book jackets, you wouldn't get the sense that these are, you know, people much given to laughter.  Solemn-eyed and self-serious looks dominate—sometimes so much so that the seriousness comes out the other side of the continuum as just a little bit comic by accident.  But there is certainly a comic element to some poetry—indeed, some poets seem primarily comic (Kenneth Koch, anyone?).  So I took some time to think about comedy in poetry, and came up with a little essay that makes particular reference to Henri Bergson's theory of comedy and Aaron Belz's book of poems Glitter Bomb.  It starts like this:

Comedy is a funny kind of art: much loved, but rarely held in the highest esteem. Aristotle ranked it lower than tragedy, and the last unambiguously genre-specific comedy to win the Oscar for best picture was Annie Hall, in 1977. Comic poetry suffers a similar fate: it is under-represented in anthologies and rarely given systematic critical consideration. But do we even know what comic poetry is? Well, it’s poetry, for starters, although the worms that spill out of the can when we ask what constitutes poetry are too numerous to count. As for what constitutes comedy, the theories are a bit more manageable, and fall into three main categories: incongruity theory; relief theory; and superiority theory. All of these are encompassed, implicitly or otherwise, by Henri Bergson’s treatise Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, which forms the basis of Aaron Belz’s theoretical speculations on comedy.  If I’m not mistaken, though, Belz warps Bergson’s theory in interesting ways, ways that help us understand the very serious intent—and rather dark view of the world—of the comic poetry in Belz’s book Glitter Bomb.
Theories of comedy are no more comic in themselves than theories of sexuality are sexy.  Immanuel Kant, for example, is no one’s idea of a comic writer, but he is the great promulgator of the incongruity theory of humor. 
The whole essay can be found in the latest installment of the journal At Length.