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Filtering by Tag: humor

Laughing in Class

Jill Reid

L0003910 Carved ivory upper and lower denture It’s the first day of the poetry unit for my freshmen composition class. All morning, I rehearse my opening lines like a high school invitation to prom: Would you like to read poetry with me? I promise we’ll have a good time. After a few minutes, I advance to the break-up speech: No really, it’s not you. It’s me. I can’t help it. I just really love poetry. It’s ok. You can admit it—I know you hate it. Maybe we should just break up.

Of course, I don’t say any of this. What I actually offer my class is a poem. I tell them that I’ve even chosen a funny poem. I tell them I’ve done this because poetry is often funny. And I avert my gaze in an attempt to ignore the dubious glances that follow.

At this point each year, I get worried. The problem is that in over ten years of teaching in both high school and college, I am not surprised when my students express their past experiences with poetry as sterile and cold, overly academic and irrelevant to their everyday lives.

Dana Gioia famously wrote in his highly lauded essay, “Can Poetry Matter?,” that poetry’s readership has been severely divided into classes of academic and common readers, noting that “outside the classroom—where society demands that the two groups interact—poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms.” I realize despite all their years of being tested on literature, many of my students have yet to engage with a poem in any sort of personally meaningful way. However, I know poetry is more than what they’ve experienced so far; good poetry establishes a meeting point between the poem and the reader that, at its best, is both warmly and meaningfully human. I want them to find even one poem they can hold against their humanity until it illuminates something about what it means to be human in a particular skin, in a particular moment, and in a particular place. I want that for them more than I want them to write a decent paragraph.

And I’m counting on a “funny” poem to wedge open the door between my passion and their doubt. So, anxiously, excitedly, I begin reading this poem.

Prof of Profs BY GEOFFREY BROCK For Allison Hogge, in memory of Brian Wilkie

I was a math major—fond of all things rational. It was the first day of my first poetry class. The prof, with the air of a priest at Latin mass, told us that we could “make great poetry personal,”

could own it, since poetry we memorize sings inside us always. By way of illustration he began reciting Shelley with real passion, but stopped at “Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”— because, with that last plosive, his top denture popped from his mouth and bounced off an empty chair.

He blinked, then offered, as postscript to his lecture, a promise so splendid it made me give up math: “More thingth like that will happen in thith clath.” Source: Poetry (July/August 2008).

When the first giggle emerges beneath the bill of a baseball cap in the corner of the classroom, I exhale and think that nothing really terrible can happen for the rest of the day because a student laughed at a poem in my 8:00 class. Apparently, I have nailed the lisp. Also, I discover that my students enjoy the poem. They tell me that they would love to read more poems like this. They ask me if any more exist. I am giddy. Yes. YES, I say, working hard to stifle the middle-schoolish glee I feel manifesting itself in a snort laugh.

Anne Sexton once wrote: “Watch out for intellect,/because it knows so much it knows nothing/and leaves you hanging upside down,/mouthing knowledge as your heart/falls out of your mouth.” Her poem indicates the danger in courting the intellect at the exclusion of the heart. Her words further illustrate what “Prof of Profs” so humorously acknowledges. Bock’s poem emphasizes the intersection between the academic and the “ordinary,” and the poem shines with the playful way the two worlds inform each other, contrasting their concerns and realities in a “plosive” and humorous tone. A studied engagement with art should not nullify our human-ness but rather increase our awareness of it. There is no checking humor at the classroom door because humor belongs to the experience of being human both inside and outside the world of the poem and classroom. Truly, art often makes space for such worlds to collide. And for a brief moment, in the grip of a good poem, my students and I bear witness to the glimmers and sparks that follow such collisions.

That's a Good One, Emily Dickinson

Brad Fruhauff

Poetry Editor Brad Fruhauff, pictured with flower Editor-in-Chief Brad Fruhauff just figured out that Emily Dickinson was a funny lady. Sometimes.

The Dover edition of Emily Dickinson's Selected Poems contains only 109 of her 1,700 known "poems."1 The other night, I sat down to select those I thought my students should study for the first week of our American Lit class this August. Mind, 109 poems by Emily Dickinson only amount to 49 pages of poetry, all of which features her idiosyncratic style of deceptively simple diction warped into complex syntax within a simple song-like meter. That means you could read it in about an hour and feel pretty good about yourself.

But if poetry is good for anything these days, it teaches us to slow down. The condensation and ordering of language in poetry requires more thought and attention than reading a blog or watching most a film. My need to cull the collection for the "gems worth studying" was additional incentive to take my time and pay attention.

What I found was a new side of Emily Dickinson. I tend to think of her as the poet of death - "I heard a funeral in my brain," "I heard a fly buzz when I died," for instance. But she also writes on nature, love, and the spiritual life, and, most surprisingly, is occasionally even funny.

Granted, it's often a Coen brothers kind of dark humor. Take this poem, for instance, in which a meditation on how death takes us beyond our decadent desires turns suddenly into a biting satire on our vanity:

The dying need but little, dear, -- A glass of water's all, A flower's unobtrusive face To punctuate the wall,

A fan, perhaps, a friend's regret, And certainly that one No color in the rainbow Perceives when you are gone.

Or, in another poem, the speaker imagines being carried through town in her coffin, thinking on all the things and people she'll miss:

'Twas just this time last year I died. I know I heard the corn, When I was carried by the farms,-- It had the tassels on. ............................................ I wondered which would miss me least, And when Thanksgiving came, If father'd multiply the plates To make an even sum.

But since that upsets her, she switches tactics and imagines those she's leaving from another perspective:

But this sort grieved myself, and so I thought how it would be When just this time, some perfect year, Themselves should come to me.

In yet another she apostrophizes the letter she is writing to a lover, asking it to tell him everything that went into the composition of the letter - or, almost everything:

"Tell him the night finished before we finished, And the old clock kept neighing 'day!' And you got sleepy and begged to be ended-- What could it hinder so, to say? Tell him just how she sealed you, cautious, But if he ask where you are hid Until to-morrow,--happy letter! Gesture, coquette, and shake your head!"

For you good Christians out there, she's implying the letter will be kept "next to her heart" (i.e., her breasts, if you're still lost).

I was quite pleased to discover Dickinson's playful side; it gave me license to imagine even the darker poems being written with a certain twinkle in her eye. This is the joy of really studying something--each new approach can reveal something new even in a poem you've read a dozen times.

Incidentally, I think I'll assign the whole book to my students, in two chunks. I want them to look for the patterns and develop a more sophisticated picture of Dickinson than focusing on a few popular poems can accomplish. Plus, it will be a good introduction to the challenge of reading well while reading widely, a skill so hard to practice in our hypertext world.

I'll end with one more poem that I haven't decided whether it's playful in this way or not. If it's not, then it tends toward didacticism. If it is, then it's in that human comedy way.

So proud she was to die It made us all ashamed That what we cherished, so unknown To her desire seemed.

So satisfied to go Where none of us should be, Immediately, that anguish stooped Almost to jealousy.

Brad Fruhauff is Interim Editor-in-Chief of Relief. He has published fiction in The Ankeny Briefcase, poetry in Relief, Salt, and catapult, and reviews in Burnside Writers’ Collective and The Englewood Review of Books. He teaches English at Trinity International University.

1. Many of her poems were actually lines from letters that editors extracted, lineated, and published as we now know them. Incidentally, the Dover edition is a great sampler, but if you're more ambitious, the authoritative complete works is the one edited by Thomas H. Johnson.