This distinguished thinker from Pulaski, Tennessee was a poet, essayist, editor, and professor known for both depth and levity.
Below are a three of his humorous poems.
Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.
Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.
Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.
For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
I know a quite religious man
Who utters praises when he can.
Now I find God in bard and book,
In school and temple, bird and brook.
But he says God is sweetest of all
Discovered in a drinking-hall.
For God requires no costly wine
But comes on the foam of a crockery stein.
And when that foam is on the lips,
Begin then God’s good fellowships.
Cathedrals, synagogues, and kirks
May go to the devil, and all their works.
And as for Christian charity,
It’s made out of hilarity.
He gives the beggar all his dimes,
Forgives his brother seven times.
‘I love the rain,’ says thirsty clod;
So this religious man of God.
For God has come, and is it odd
He praises all the works of God?
‘For God has come, and there’s no sorrow,’
He sings all night–will he sing to-morrow?
— John Crowe Ransom
And wagged my wicked tongue so well,
My friends were listening close to hear
The wickedest tales that I could tell.
For many a fond youth waits, I said,
On many a worthless damozel;
But every trusting fool shall learn
To wish them heartily in hell.And when your name was spoken too,
I did not change, I did not start,
And when they only praised and loved,
I still could play my secret part,
Cursing and lies upon my tongue,
And songs and shouting in my heart.
But when you came and looked at me,
You tried my poor pretence too much.
O love, do you know the secret now
Of one who would not tell nor touch?
Must I confess before the pack
Of babblers, idiots, and such?
Do they not hear the burst of bells,
Pealing at every step you make?
Are not their eyelids winking too,
Feeling your sudden brightness break?
O too much glory shut with us!
O walls too narrow and opaque!
O come into the night with me
And let me speak, for Jesus’ sake.
Several years ago, we posted a collection of humorous responses to President Obama’s change to support gay marriage. For a follow up, here are some of the humorous responses to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize marriage across the country.
Responses seem to fall into a few general categories:
1) Celebration of the ruling
2) Comments on the Supreme Court, pro and con, but with no real connection to the recent Obamacare decision (see bottom for examples of responses to that)
3) Connections to the questions of race and the Confederate flag
4) Satire on the institution of marriage
4) Reactions of opponents
Here are a few cartoons and memes that show examples of these trends.
And here are some web-based humorous responses:
Rue Gît le Coeur: street where lies the heart. On a tiny street in Paris, about a quarter of the length of a New York City block and just a little wider than a Venice passageway, lies a minuscule hotel. Its rooms, replete with medieval-era wooden beams and matching pastoral designs on the wallpaper and curtains, are just as tiny; only one person can move around in the room at a time. The elevator, too, can manage only one person per trip. Charming and minute, there is no space in this hotel for oversized couches and exercise rooms; there is barely space enough to stretch out your arms and yawn, let alone sing.
When I visited this sequestered street last year—almost hidden in the midst of a crowded tourist district—I was amused and surprised to see the plaques, figured prominently on the hotel’s front façade, and the photographs displayed proudly in the lobby, honoring several Beat-era poets who had stayed there more than half a century ago. According to one of the plaques, William S. Burroughs supposedly wrote Naked Lunch there.
This hotel is to architecture what haiku is to literature: charming, ancient, and airtight—“no room for petty furniture,” as Emily Dickinson writes of compressed poetry. If there is a general view of Beat-era poetry, it is that it rides the force of Whitman’s barbaric yawp and delights in expansiveness, open vistas, and freedom. So it is a little unexpected and amusing to imagine multiple Beat poets writing productively in this very cozy, well-appointed hotel, just as there is something unexpected about the Beat poet who ventures into the space of haiku.
Jack Kerouac did not join his colleagues at this hotel, but he did spend considerable time within the small chamber of the haiku, testing its edges, poking fun at its purpose, and stumbling into very sweet encounters with its essence. Yet what stands out in his playful attempts with the form (which he renamed “Pop”) is their humor.
In his Book of Haikus, edited in 2003 by Regina Weinreich, Kerouac toys with nature. In the Japanese tradition of seventeenth-century poet Matsuo Basho, haiku juxtaposes something man-made with something from the natural world. Generally in Basho’s poetry, nature complements if not soothes loneliness.
without flowers or moon
one is alone.
(Matsuo Basho, The Complete Haiku, translated by Jane Reichhold (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008)
However, in Kerouac’s haiku, man and nature collide, confront one another, or fumble towards connection.
A raindrop from
Fell in my beer
(New York: Penguin Poets, 2003), 30
Where Basho’s natural elements blend with or serve to illuminate the human situations in his haiku, Kerouac’s speakers sometimes come off as annoyed with nature.
don’t be like me
even though we’re like the melon
split in two.
Nature is a not a metaphor in Kerouac’s haiku, but an encounter—even a clash:
Bee, why are you
staring at me?
I’m not a flower!
The earth winked
In the john
In his imitations of the Japanese model, Kerouac produces humor by reversing the direction of the metaphor: human experience is no longer compared to something beautiful in nature; rather, nature interferes with or is pitted against man-made entities.
even in Kyoto
longing for Kyoto
Run over by my lawnmower,
waiting for me to leave,
Kerouac’s speaker is in nature’s midst, and nature also crosses over into his domain. His speakers often use human measures to engage with nature:
A bird on
the branch out there
—I waved (33)
When the moon sinks
down to the power line,
I’ll go in.
Occasionally, he personifies nature, though his human vantage point, as a viewer in a car passing by along the American highway, for example, is vividly apparent in these examples:
Grain elevators, waiting
For the road
To approach them (7)
The windmills of
In every direction (6)
Nodding against the wall,
Sometimes nature succeeds in inspiring an almost surrealist burst of ecstasy for Kerouac, but Kerouac again inverts the formula; the ecstasy is not expressed through delight in nature but through delight in something manmade:
whiter than peaches
White roses with red
Vanilla ice cream cherry!
In the sun
the butterfly wings
Like a church window
In some haiku, Kerouac shows a picture of American life that is out of sink with nature; in others, nature is oblivious to the man-made world.
August in Salinas—
Autumn leaves in
Clothing store displays
The sleeping moth—
he doesn’t know
The lamp’s turned up again.
Yet Kerouac does not exactly parody the form, even in these more comical examples. At times he uses its conventions with elegance, subtly embedding a seasonal clue within a tender or sensual image of everyday life.
The office girl
unloosing her scarf (32)
The bottoms of my shoes
From walking in the rain (7)
Elsewhere, Kerouac abandons imagery altogether and confronts the haiku form as a source of both frustration and fun in his philosophical meditation:
Haiku, shmaiku, I cant
understand the intention
Of reality (71)
Wild to sit on a haypile,
Drinking wine (70)
In the chair,
I decided to call Haiku
By the name of Pop
Do you know why my name is Jack?
Kerouac is well known as a funny author yet not always as a precise comic. He was, steadily, a public drunk, which, however understandably, unfairly sullies his reputation as a meticulous artist, suggesting a more chaotic, accidental humor.
In the above interview with William F. Buckley, a drunk Kerouac clearly states his aesthetic philosophy: “I believe in order, tenderness, and piety.” If we are surprised to hear this, Kerouac himself is partly responsible for that surprise; what he calls elsewhere in the interview his Dionysian way of life creates the impression of a reckless genius, making him, as his friend Allen Ginsberg explains in this follow-up interview, an unwelcome if misunderstood guest on Buckley’s show.
In these later years of Kerouac’s career, his outward exuberance seems to have been tinged with melancholy and exasperation. At a photography exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. several years ago, I was struck by the sadness in so many of the Kerouac portraits:
Yet if haiku derives force from the juxtaposition of incongruous elements, then Kerouac seems to have mastered its essence, embodying the weight of a true poet’s melancholy as well as a quality of silliness and humor, light as air.
Ezra Pound’s American haiku (most famous is his 1912 “In a Station of a Metro” based on the Paris metro) bring visual power to haiku in English but do not explore the form’s levity nor the bubbly, tender, and weird opportunities for humor through basic juxtaposition. Yet, just as a few Beat poets once crowded into an elegant but rowboat-sized hotel in Paris—just as Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore sits, juxtaposed, at a straight diagonal shot from a Franciscan holy site in San Francisco’s North Beach––so, too, the road-broadening Jack Kerouac honors the essence of haiku and goes one step further. In taking the metaphorical juxtaposition between man and nature literally, Kerouac uncovers humor in the form while maintaining order, tenderness, and his own special brand of piety. Thanks to Kerouac, we might say that humor is now an American stamp on the haiku form. In Kerouac’s hands, everyday American commercial items from ice cream to windmills are captured in a meditative light and subjected to a wily but tender philosophy.
John Oliver got rid of Sepp Blatter. That would be a bold statement if I cared at all about Sepp Blatter or FIFA. I do not. I do care, however, about John Oliver, my favorite funny person from Great Britain (currently; it is a long list). More importantly, for this venue, is the contribution that John Oliver with his work on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) is making to American humor. As one who has been distraught over the loss of The Colbert Report and the impending departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, I have been worried that we were facing the end of a golden age in American television political and social satire. I think it will last a bit longer, and I am sure that John Oliver is key to its future.
The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore is solid, and Trevor Noah may prove to reinvigorate the Daily Show, so my worries may be overblown. It is Last Week Tonight, however, that holds the most promise. Quite simply, it transforms the basic formula codified by The Daily Show under Jon Stewart (and applied to a specific parodic context by Colbert) and makes it decidedly more argumentative. Last Week Tonight is thesis-driven humor, which marks a dramatic shift in ambition, or, perhaps, confidence. In either case, Oliver will not admit it.
Oliver is nonetheless catching fire. On a recent appearance on CBS This Morning , Charlie Rose asked one question that seemed clear and concise (if you can believe it): “What is the intent of this ‘dumb’ show?” (Oliver had already called it “dumb” based on the introductory clips).
“Just to make people laugh.” OK, John, you get a pass since this is the standard answer for any such discussion of humor. Why a duck? Because ducks are funny, that’s why. But you are lying.
Oliver’s self-deprecation notwithstanding, the fact is that no one in American television has ever put together satirically charged arguments in segments ranging from 12 to 20 minutes (easily 2 to 4 times as long as standard Daily Show bits) that are focused on one issue with such depth and humor. Never. There are easier ways to make people laugh.
In the interview, Oliver would not assert a more elaborate purpose and underplayed any major role for satire itself. As to whether satire served a deeper purpose in his work, he simply said, “I have no idea. Ideally, satire would do no better than anyone.” He went on to explain the show’s long form, weekly approach: “It’s some slow cooking, what we do.”
Yes, slow cooking. It took a year to get Sepp Blatter. That is the pace of satire. C’mon, John, admit it.
To begin a closer look at the Last Week Tonight formula, let’s stick with Blatter and the two episodes that most directly skewer FIFA, the first of which aired on 8 June 2014 and the second on 1 June 2015. A brief look at these two episodes should provide a good indication of the power of Oliver’s thesis-driven comedy and the potential of long-form television satire. Both episodes feature FIFA as the main topic, and each segment runs just over 13 minutes. Here are links to each:
The key to Oliver’s approach could be understood best, perhaps, by considering it as a model for clear, argumentative writing. In fact, I urge all freshman composition instructors in the nation to drop all textbooks and simply use Last Week Tonight to teach the modes of argumentative writing. Let’s consider the most basic element of building effective arguments: Write clear and concise topic sentences. Note the few examples below:
–“FIFA is a comically grotesque organization.” (8 June 2014).
–“There is a certain irony in FIFA setting up any kind of justice system given the scandals that have dogged it over the years.” (8 June 2014).
–“The problem is: all the arrests in the world are going to change nothing as long as Blatter is still there.” (1 June 2015)
–“When your rainy day fund is so big that you’ve got to check it for swimming cartoon ducks, you might not be a non-profit anymore.” (8 June 2014)
–“Peanut butter and jelly are supposed to go together; FIFA and bribery should go together like peanut butter and a child with a deadly nut allergy.” (8 June 2014)
–“That is perfect because hotel sheets are very much like FIFA officials; they really should be clean, but they are actually unspeakably filthy, and deep down everybody knows that.” (1 June 2015)
Note the clarity of the argumentative position in each statement above. They assert positions, all followed by multiple levels of support within the show (follow the links). That, dear readers, is how you build good essays! It is also how to build fresh, ambitious humor.
Unlike predecessors, Last Week Tonight does not avoid stating a clear argumentative position. That is not to say there is no position taken by Stewart or Colbert; rather, I simply mean that they do not offer statements of purpose–ie. Sepp Blatter must go. They prefer inference and comic performance to imply the argument, which is consistently geared towards the choir. Last Week Tonight, on the other hand, provides the thesis and then uses comedy to make the imperative of that thesis abundantly clear. And funny. The show makes both Aristotle and Harpo proud.
Last Week Tonight is on to something, and folks interested in American humor as well as folks who teach expository writing should take note. Topic sentences are making a comeback, and they can be very funny.
Some days you just have two choices. You can laugh, or you can cry. Both of these actions define us as human beings. While crying can be cathartic, laughing is what we do in order to assert some form of control over circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us. In the study of Native American humor, the term “survival humor” is quite common; but I have yet to find a working definition of this term. What I did find a definition of is a term I had never heard used as a literary term: snark.
This is how “snark” is literarily defined:
Snark can be used for different purposes. However, mostly it is utilized as a mask. Others might use it as a defensive device. When bitterness is not easy to express in an agreeable way, snark is used without hurting anyone directly.[i]
This seems as good a term as any for the purpose here. In general usage, it tends to have a more negative connotation, but it does describe what you will see if you read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Every story in the collection is guaranteed to have a reader laughing and crying at the same time. Many of the stories are sad; however, the ways that Alexie’s characters view and think about them reflect an essential humor that belies the gravity and pain.
The Spokane/Ceour d’Alene author shows his readers how to both laugh and cry at the same time, and in doing so:
- takes some of the sting out of reservation life for indigenous people
- shows whites what reservation life is and how it affects those who live there
- tries to make peace with what history has dealt Indians in general and his own tribe in particular
This first short story collection reached the “legal” age of 21 last year. When the collection was published in 1993, Alexie was a 27 year old resident of the Spokane Indian reservation. His first book, a collection of poems called The Business of Fancydancing, had received critical praise and awards. In the New York Times Book Review, James Kincaid (University of Southern California) “declared [him] one of the major lyric voices of our time” (xix). [ii] In his Prologue to the 20th Anniversary edition, Alexie reflects on his career since and his uneasy fit into the world of authors and book publishing. He remembers, for example, stepping out of a penthouse elevator at a New Yorker magazine party to see Stephen King and Salman Rushdie hugging each other. Pretty heady stuff for a rez boy, as he says. In the twenty-some years since its publication, Alexie has written more poetry, novels, and short stories, all of which contain this signature humor, and I have read most of them; but this one stays with me as one of the best.
In “Because My Father Always Said that He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” he describes his father as a young man who was photographed demonstrating against Vietnam. His father is wearing bell-bottoms and a flowered shirt, his hair is in braids, and his face painted with peace symbols in red like war paint. The image ran in several newspapers with varied captions. Alexie says, “The one I like best is from the Seattle Times: Demonstrator goes to war for peace. Capitalizing on his father’s native heritage, others read things like “One Warrior against War” and “Peaceful gathering Turns into Native Uprising.”
The photograph won a Pulitzer for the photographer. The character’s father goes to jail for attempted murder. He is released just in time to see that epic version of the national anthem, and twenty years later continues to play it as the backdrop to his drinking—Alexie says: “My father and Jimi became drinking buddies” (26). Like many of the stories in this collection, he relates both heartache and humor in the alcoholism he sees around him.
“The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” showcases white authorities’ fear and fascination with Indians by creating a “trial” in which Thomas is accused of “making small noises, form[ing] syllables that contained more emotion and meaning than entire sentences constructed by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs].” His previous infraction against authority, “holding the reservation postmaster hostage for eight hours with the idea of a gun and ha[ving] also threatened to make significant changes in the tribal vision. But that crisis was resolved years ago; Thomas surrendered voluntarily and agreed to remain silent. Thomas had not spoken in nearly twenty years”[iii]
In effect, Thomas is arrested for speaking—speaking stories that reflect an oral tradition and a belief that words hold power. Clearly words do—other members of the tribe hear the sounds and the words effect change on the reservation. In trying to decide upon what charges to bring against him, the BIA representatives state that “It has to be a felony charge. We don’t need his kind around here anymore.”[iv]
Alexie ranges across present day social issues associated with reservation life, as well as historical wrongs the tribe has endured, and emphasizes the importance of keeping those issues alive through speech and the language of stories.
This story ends with Thomas being sentenced to two life sentences in Wall Walla State Penitentiary, where he continues to tell his stories to the men of color with whom he shares the bus to prison.
These two short pieces are representative examples. Some tell of love, some of history, some of life (and death). But all demonstrate humor in the face of adversity, and a will to survive the stolen land, the broken treaties, the broken promises, and the aftermath of assimilation, allotment, and hunger. Snark may define the literary device Alexie uses here—but survival humor is the end result.
Other works by Sherman Alexie that you might also enjoy reading are two other short story collections: Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians, and novels: Reservation Blues, Indian Killer, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. More recent editions of the short stories contain discussion questions as an afterward as a guide for reading groups. These are primarily of interest to teachers, but also to reading groups. They offer some historical information and questions that help readers understand and discuss the texts from an indigenous viewpoint.
So if you like your humor laced with irony and, yes, a bit of snark, these all make great summer reads.
[ii] Alexie quotes here come from the 20th Anniversary edition of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, New York/ Grove Press, 2013.
[iii] Page 94.
Who Invented The Rube Goldberg Invention?
The Rube Goldberg invention is a complex device that achieves a simple objective. Entering the American lexicon in 1931, it defines the adjective “Rube Goldberg,” a staple of most American English dictionaries. “Rube Goldberg,” of course, is only the adjective, but it is followed by “invention,” “contraption,” “device,” or a plethora of other synonyms of those words that “Rube Goldberg” modifies. But who is Rube Goldberg and where does the convention of the Rube Goldberg invention come from?
Ruben Lucius Goldberg was born in San Francisco, California on July 4, 1883. He received a degree in engineering from UC Berkeley in 1904, but in 1907 he moved to New York City and became a cartoonist for the New York Evening Mail. He was very popular, and by the time America entered World War I, Goldberg was nationally syndicated and, true to the journalistic standards of the time, William Randolph Hearst had already begun a bidding war to lure Goldberg from the Evening Mail to the New York Journal. The Evening Mail was able to keep Goldberg until 1934, at which time he continued syndicating cartoons until his death in 1970.
According to Charles Keller in his book, The Best of Rube Goldberg, Goldberg began drawing the iconic inventions in 1915 and they became a weekly institution in American journalism. In fact, there are innumerable imitations of the motif in various aspects of popular culture including television (especially animated features), movies, and games. His name is also given to the cartoonist of the year award (Ruben Award), by the National Cartoonists Society. There are even Rube Goldberg Machine Contests for high school and college students around the United States. The idea of creating fanciful machines to complete simple tasks taps into human imagination and foolish inefficiency at the same time.
Above: Rube Goldberg improves the game of golf.
William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) also drew complex machines that completed tasks in Britain at about the same time as Goldberg. Robinson began his art career by illustrating books. He did several of them from 1897 to 1916. In the 19-teens, Robinson began drawing cartoons satirizing World War I for British media specializing in drawing impossible secret weapons that the enemy might use. This morphed into drawing the complex machines, and by 1917, the Oxford English Dictionary listed “Heath Robinson contraption” as a noun.
Robinson began drawing the absurd devices in children’s book illustrations and continued in several media until he died in 1944. During his lifetime he, as did Goldberg, published several books of cartoons including the machines. Both of their legacies have continued. For Robinson, it is an improvised device that was engineered by the British Air Force for its chaff dispensing mechanism called a Heath Robinson Chaff Modification.
So, who invented the Rube Goldberg Invention? As Robinson, being 11 years older than Goldberg got started drawing his machines first, there is a good chance that he was the first of the two to do it, but because those contraptions got their start in children’s books, it is unlikely that Goldberg saw them and was inspired. Goldberg’s methodology for drawing his inventions includes a step-by-step instruction of how the thing works. Those steps often utilize an item in the news at the time, a difference between him and Robinson.
Eventually, of course, both cartoonists became aware of the other’s work, but there was a big world full of many new products that were ripe for satire during the industrial age. Between the two of them they had enough material to keep themselves and scores of other cartoonists busy on a daily basis. Not only that, there was a big ocean between them, and American media did not print the Robinson cartoons any more than the British media ran the Goldberg variations on the Robinson theme.
Above: Heath Robinson simplifies atomic fission.
In my inaugural post for this website I discussed the subtle humor of the blues, and how that humor helps to give the blues its healing power. Last week we lost an American icon, a musician who is perhaps the best-known blues musician of them all.
B.B. King was neither the most versatile nor the most emotionally impactful blues musician. The ever-amiable master displayed little of the hellhounds that cast tortured shadows over the early delta players, the sheer frightening force of Howlin’ Wolf or the commandeering magnetism of Muddy Waters. But the “Blues Boy” developed his own influential style of fluid, single note guitar leads – moving seamlessly through his very being and out through his fingertips – which became the defining sound that many think of when they think of the blues. He spoke through his fingers. Tone flowed through his veins. His immense popularity and consistency made him the unquestionable ambassador of the blues to the world, and for that he rightly earned the title of King.
B.B. King defined his long and impressive career with class, sophistication and an effortless grace. But he wasn’t above a little good-natured humor, and had no reservations about making music with any artist from any genre, human or otherwise.
Here is a clip of the “King of the Blues” sitting in with the gang from Sesame Street, singing a song about the importance of the letter B. It’s a fun, humorous clip, but it underscores a deeper truth. Without the letter B, so the song goes, there would be no birds, no Berts and, most importantly, no blues. And without the blues, there would be no spirituals, no jazz, no honky tonk country, no R&B, no Rock ‘n’ Roll, no soul music, no funk, no hip-hop, not even pop. Without the blues there would be no anecdote for life’s unbearable heft. There could be no healing. Without the blues there is no American music. There is no America.
Play on, Blues Boy.