I have spent all my previous columns on the mechanics and cultures of poetry, but have yet to discuss a lighter form, humor as an essential topic for poetry. I am not talking about limericks, puns, or cowboy poetry doggerel, but the type of humorous poetry whose principal role is make the reader smile. Who writes that? For starters, Billy Collins and Garrison Keillor come to mind for modern day writers. Even back in the early centuries of poetry there has been much “lighter-hearted” compositions. Think Shakespeare as the quintessential reference.
But let us discuss modern times. How can we persuade our reading public that poets can be funny, amusing, memorable in a “smiley” kind of way? We can try adventurous rhymes, heavy alliteration, bizarre visuals, and tongue-in-cheek wordsmithing. In fact, we can gain readers’ attention with a book title like The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins. He has a poem in there, “On Rhyme,” that pokes fun at the old rhyme scheme for remembering which months have thirty days or where in Spain rain pours. But this poem has no rhyme to it! This poem is really a lighter approach to a wonderful memory he had about a trip. Another poet, Patrick Chewning, has a chapbook, Chicken-Fried Escargot. What a title, right? His poem, “Priorities,” from this book, speaks to his love of fishing and his love of writing poetry. I love this line, “If someone doesn’t like your fish poem, he probably can’t fish.” When we talk of love of nature and can see humor and humanity in it, then we are offering up a great connection.
One of my favorites, Nikki Giovanni, in her poem: “Letting the Air Out (of my tires)” offers right at the start, “This is not / a country song // I am not / a dixie chick/… I am smiling at this point because I know she is going to make a big point later in the piece.
And she delivers eloquently how the humanness of us all makes us forgive and move on, appreciating the frailty of mankind.
So, humor in our poetry can give us an opportunity to present strong messages in a less intimidating and serious way. Smile, this is only a movie.
Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, is poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. In addition to publication in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), and Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017); journals: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica, she is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013), and Stones for Words (2014). Her latest poetry book, Sometimes the Little Town, released in February 2016, was a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award.
The subtle power and intense imagination in these poems will certainly appeal to all readers. The most impressive quality of these poems is that the poet is able to fill the reader’s mind with illumination, which is the mark of genius and the guarantee of truth.