Jennifer Michael Hecht, at the end of her poetry collection Funny, writes, “Jokes are one part suddenness and one part grief. That’s why jokes are the most important thing in the universe.” (Hecht’s book, by the way, has an amazing cover: a bowl of soup, maybe cream of tomato, with only a knife and fork for silverware.) So let’s agree—for the length of this post, anyway—that jokes are the most important thing in the universe. Who would be so foolish as to doubt a joke’s power? (E. B. White: “A despot doesn’t fear eloquent writers preaching freedom—he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold.”) It’s a lesson that standup comics, and even a few poets, learn early: jokes can kill.
Kim Addonizio’s “Ha” begins, “A man walks into a bar. You think that’s some kind of joke?”—and then, after running through bar jokes and banana peel jokes, ends, “Two losers stand on a corner. / One turns to the other and says, Why did our love end? / The other can’t answer. Why do they torment me? he says. / The snowstorm begins in earnest but still they stand there, / determined to stay put until they finally get it.”
That’s my favorite way to use jokes in poetry: not as an opportunity to create an easy laugh, but as a way to create a difficult emotional moment. David Berman does something similar in “Cantos for James Michener: Part II”:
And this fight starts with a Polish joke that a man
at the bar begins to tell, but it’s not funny
as it concerns a stillborn child and an alcoholic
slain by the last European wolf, and even after
three hours there is no punch line in sight.
(“Punch line” derives from Punchinello, the bullying clown from the commedia dell’arte of the sixteenth century. He evolves into Punch, the not-better half of “Punch and Judy.”)
Few contemporary poets mix suddenness and grief better than Catherine Wing. I’ll let a poem from her first collection, Enter Invisible, carry us out:
TOM & JERRY GIVE CONTINUAL CHASE
Same is in and out and old. This sorrow
rinsed, wrung, and hung out to dry for tomorrow.
It’s care that kills Mister Thomas Cat.
Whether blue ocean or black, Muscat
Beaumes de Venise by his side, or
Toodles feeding him grapes and idle
chatter, he dies. There are eighty-eight
modern constellations and five that circulate
without sinking below the earth’s horizon.
It’s Tom who Jerry’s got his eyes on.
Despite it all, Tom knows the formula for a joke:
it’s a noun, a verb, a yoke.