In this series thus far, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps best viewed as a literary prankster or practical joker. In Part 1, I argued that the great theorist of “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” was also, in his various works, a master “diddler,” frequently putting one over on his readers. In Part 2, I discussed the “poet as prankster,” suggesting that even Poe’s poetry is not always as serious as it seems, while examining one poem (“O Tempora! O Mores!”) that was itself composed and presented as part of an elaborate practical joke. In Part 3, I argued that many of Poe’s most well-known stories, which are usually read as Gothic horror or mystery, might be considered as humorous, frequently functioning as comical send-ups of popular fictions of the era. In this entry, I want to consider another genre of writing for which Poe was quite famous in his own time: literary criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe’s literary criticism bears the mark of the prankster’s spirit, as his book reviews and essays are often filled with sardonic humor.
As a literary critic and book reviewer for a number of magazines, Poe developed an infamous reputation as a “tomahawk-man,” a harsh critic who, in the words of his great contemporary James Russell Lowell, “seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand.” Lowell’s own humorous aside does not detract from his judgement, stated one line earlier, of Poe as “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.” Perhaps because of this discriminating, philosophical fearlessness, Poe-the-critic was loathe to suffer fools gladly or even at all, and some of his best known zingers have come at the expense of his fellow poets and fiction writers.
For example, in an 1843 review of William Ellery Channing’s Our Amateur Poets, Poe writes: “His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all.” A paragraph later he calls for the author to be hanged, but—out of deference to his good name (Channing Sr. having been a “great essayist”)—Poe urges that the hangman “observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord.” Presumably, the remainder of the book review represents that figurative execution.
Happy Birthday, Robin Williams.
Originally posted on Humor in America:
He’s either one of your favorite actor-comedians or one of your least favorite. Polarizing funnyman Robin Williams turned 62 on July 21, which is almost hard to believe given his continued manic energy in person and on screen. Williams rose to fame as “Mork from Ork” on the ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy, which premiered 35 years ago this fall.
It was the request by an ABC executive’s son that launched the new show and William’s career as we know it. In 1978, the Star Wars was the biggest hit in cinematic history. The network exec’s son asked him to “do a show about an alien,” and thus, Mork from Ork’s cameo on ABC’s Happy Days became a new show.
Williams first appeared as Mork on an episode of Happy Days, a not-uncommon tactic to raise awareness of a new spin-off from an established show. While…
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Originally posted on Humor in America:
For reasons that are uninteresting and irrelevant, I recently had my photograph taken. I was kind of joking when I asked the photographer “Should I be causal or regular?” and only later realized that the question was much less funny than it was accurate: “casual” is not my default setting, but is something that I have learned to relentlessly effect in order to appear fit for human interaction. Which is to say that I worry a lot, and about everything. I am literally worrying now, because as the newest contributing editor to Humor in America – Visual Humor, check it – I would love to be writing a really stellar and memorable and job-keeping first post.
In lieu of a lengthy biography, then, let’s just say that the joke with which I most resonate is Woody Allen’s quip about his boyhood stint on a all-neurotic softball team: “I used to…
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If you are a college instructor as I am, the last thing you need is someone advising you of yet another strategy for enhancing your lessons. Nevertheless, I am going to do just that because I must write about something having to do with humor, and this is it.
I teach history at a community college. One of the requirements of history and other rhetoric-based classes is that we have to assign a term paper of 2,000 words per the Gordon Rule. I have found a way to make the assignment less of a burden on my students and less tedious for me.
Since I teach Early American History (descent of man to about 1870), I assign political cartoons that were drawn contemporaneously to the time that the students are studying. I bring in copies of various cartoons that were published in Punch, Harper’s Weekly, Vanity Fair, and Leslie’s Illustrated prior to 1870—and there were many. Not only that, the subject matter of the cartoons is quite varied. I lay out copies of the cartoons on a desk during the first week of class, and the students choose which cartoon they will write on. I am fascinated by the cartoons the students pick and why they pick them. Most of them have no idea what the cartoon is about, but something in the illustration gets their attention.
After all of the cartoons have been chosen by the students, I project each cartoon on the screen in front of the class and briefly tell each student what direction s/he should go in the way of researching the subject matter. I only give them a thumbnail idea of what I expect; the rest is up to them. Because I go over all the cartoons in front of the entire class, all students get ideas of how to look at their cartoons and better understand the
In a fourteen-week course, I assign the topics during the first week (second day of class). Students are responsible for turning in a rough draft by the ninth week. I tell them that the rough draft should be the best research and writing they are capable of. I even encourage them to get help from a friend, relative, or the Writing Center. I correct the rough draft and direct them on how to write at a higher level. One thing that I stress is Robert Graves’s aphorism: There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.
Because each student has a unique cartoon, I do not have to read the same term paper with pretty much the same content from thirty different students. Not only that, because the students have to write about seven pages, they must go into detail on the subject matter that they have chosen fairly deeply and some of them find information that I was not aware of. I end up learning from the students. That is a treat for me, and it usually helps the student get a better grade if s/he can find obscure and interesting information.
What price emancipation?
Not only do I require the term paper, but students are also required to present their cartoon and what it is about to the class during the last week. The presentation must be between five and ten minutes long. Some students get up in front of the class and stammer for five minutes. Others prepare a Powerpoint or use Prezi Presentations to help tell about their cartoon. Yes, they are graded.
Most of the feedback I have received on the project has been positive. The main reason is that the students feel that they have accomplished something positive. Another reason is that some of the students have told me that they enjoy seeing political cartoons of issues in the present and understand them better than they had in the past. The way I see it is that it is a win for me as an instructor and a win for the students as well.
This summer I’m in a writers residency at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico in Taos. When I arrived, my childhood friend, Amy Beebe, contacted me from Denver to tell me her Aunt Lois Beebe Hayna––an award winning poet, now 101 years old and with yet another book coming out––once lived and wrote in these very casitas, and later served on the jury to select new writers. By all accounts, Lois and her works are loved and admired.
I’m only beginning to delve into her many poems, but my favorite, so far, (Courtesy of The Regis University Library), is below. Not a “funny” poem per se, but ingenious, haunting, and visceral . . . with a bit of gallows humor.
A poem I believe everyone should read. ENJOY!!
My mother surely knew the world
lurked along that path.
She had to know the world’s
filled with wolves, that their special
habitat is a forest
where little girls walk alone.
She dressed me
in the color of raw meat, she filled
my basket with warm-scented goodies
and sent me specifically
into the woods. A long way
into the woods. For years I believed
it was wolves that I had to beware.
Red Alert was Originally published in:
Keeping Still, 2005 and
Casting Two Shadows, 2010