Thom Gunn wasn’t an overtly humorous poet, but his sharp wit, incisive irony and visceral imagery were brilliant. His poetry has been described as capturing “the experience, not the idea.”
His is a voice of isolation and existentialism with overtones of nihilism––so vividly evoked that we’re apt to see glimpses of ourselves at odd moments. Perhaps, therein lies the humor.
Gunn’s subject matter isn’t for sissies. It includes his mother’s suicide, drug use, gay erotica and the AIDs deaths of his friends. (Lest you get the wrong impression, his personality has been described as upbeat –– not morose.)
Below are two of his tamer masterpieces: “Considering the Snail” as performed by Gary of SpongeBob fame, and a text version of “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death.”
The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death
Across the open countryside,
Into the walls of rain I ride.
It beats my cheek, drenches my knees,
But I am being what I please.
The firm heath stops, and marsh begins.
Now we’re at war: whichever wins
My Human will cannot submit
To nature, though brought out of it.
The wheels sink deep; the clear sound blurs:
Still, bent on the handle-bars,
I urge my chosen instrument
Against the mere embodiment.
The front wheel wedges fast between
Two shrubs of glazed insensate green
– Gigantic order in the rim
Of each flat leaf. Black eddies brim
Around my heel which, pressing deep,
Accelerates the waiting sleep.
I used to live in sound, and lacked
Knowledge of still or creeping fact.
But now the stagnant strips my breath,
Leant on my cheek in weight of death.
Though so oppressed I find I may
Through substance move. I pick my way,
Where death and life in one combine,
Through the dark earth that is not mine,
Crowded with fragments, blunt, unformed;
While past my ear where noises swarmed
The marsh plant’s white extremities,
Slow without patience, spread at ease
Invulnerable and soft, extend
With a quiet grasping toward their end.
And though the tubers, once I rot,
Reflesh my bones with pallid knot,
Till swelling out my clothes they feign
This dummy is a man again,
It is as servants they insist,
Without volition that they twist;
And habit does not leave them tired,
By men laboriously acquired.
Cell after cell the plants convert
My special richness in the dirt:
All that they get, they get by chance
And multiply in ignorance.
—- Thom Gunn
Editors of Humor in America
As many of us prep our syllabi and get ready to head back to school, some of our readers will be so lucky as to get to teach humor to their students–either in a specifically focused class or in a more general context. One of the founding goals of this website was the importance of the pedagogical discussion of humor. Amy Wright, Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman, and Tracy Wuster discussed some of these issues in An Educated Sense of Humor.
Our writers have taken on a number of topics related to teaching humor. Sharon McCoy and Tracy Wuster have both taken up E.B. White’s famous saying about humor and dissecting a frog (here, here, and here). Jeff Melton and Sharon McCoy have written on teaching satire:
Jeff has also started a series about teaching humor:
To which we could add Sharon McCoy’s pieces:
Other pieces on the site aren’t specifically focused on pedagogy, but they do touch on related questions. Tom Inge’s Politics and the American Sense of Humor launched the website just over 2 years (and 185k views) ago. Michael Kiskis’s The Critics Dream Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also helped launch our site. Both pieces offer insight into the cultural roles of American humor, and both have proved to be popular over the course of the site’s life.
In perusing the list of pieces on the site over these last two years, there are too many strong discussions of humor to list here. Pieces of interest in relation to teaching humor might be:
The Muppets: An Exercise in Humorous Metacinematic Irony by Michael Purgason
REMEMBERING DICK GREGORY by Sam Sackett
Humor, Irony and Modern Native American Poetry by Caroline Sposto
The Funny Thing about Cancer by Sharon McCoy
Parody: A Lesson by Don and Alleen Nilsen
The Onion and How Comedy Deals with Tragedy (Or Not) by Matthew Daube
Meta-Racist Airplane Jokes: The Foolish Audience and Didactic Humor by Philip Scepanski
Mojo Medicine: Humor, Healing and the Blues by Matt Powell
The Pitfalls of Activist Humor by Bonnie Applebeet
In the Archives: Mr. Dooley in Peace and War, “On the Indian War” by Luke Deitrich
And so many others… if you wish to write something about humor and learnin’, please write the editor. We’d love to have more.
Today, we are reposting Sharon McCoy’s piece from several years ago on Mark Twain and blackface minstrelsy. Enjoy.
Mark Twain caused all kinds of trouble. In fact, he reveled in it.
He famously advertised his lectures with the tag line, “The Trouble Begins at 8,” and was apparently delighted to share that line with his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels. Both Twain and the minstrel troupe played around with variations—”The Insurrection Begins . . . ,” “The Orgies Commence . . .,” “The Inspiration will begin to gush . . . ,” “The Trouble Commences . . .”—but both used the more famous version for years without interruption. One thing is sure. The phrase was indelibly associated with both: “trouble” was their trademark.
The San Francisco Minstrels were not what we expect when we think of blackface performance—at least, they weren’t what I expected when I first began researching them—for their popularity was based in part on their political satire. They were satirists who believed…
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Gather ‘round fellows I’ll tell you some tales about murder and blueberry pies
And heroes and hells and bottomless wells and lullabies, legends and lies
And gather round ladies come sit at my feet I’ll sing about warm sunny skies
There’s mermaids and beans and lovin’ machines in my lullabies, legends and lies
I’ll sing you a song then I’ll shuffle along with my lullabies, legends and lies
There is a philosophy to Shel Silverstein. The uninhibited way in which he lived his life, as well as his insatiable thirst for it, permeates the tone of his work. There is an adultness to his acclaimed books of children’s poems and stories, which elevates them to the universally recognized status they enjoy to this day. Rather than pandering down to children, he spoke to them on their level, unashamedly employing occasional crude humor to bolster morals and learning lessons. As a weird and bearded, dope-smoking, bohemian songwriter of adult country music, he resorted to colorful childlike humor to tell tales of loss, substance abuse, neglect, and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. In Shel Silverstein’s world nothing is conventional and everything is possible.
This philosophy clearly resonates with the world. In his rich career, Shel Silverstein released 21 books of cartoons, stories, and poems, 12 solo albums of original songs, including multiple movie soundtracks, several plays, a screenplay, countless award-winning and hit singles and album cuts by other artists, and was the subject of a tribute album released in 2010, Twistable Turnable Man.
The famed children’s cartoonist first gained notoriety not for his children’s books but for his work in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine. He contributed to the men’s lifestyle magazine from the mid-1950’s until the mid-1970’s as a cartoonist and travel correspondent, often interjecting himself into his cartoons and dispatches in a manner that foreshadowed the New Journalism movement that would be defined by such writers as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.
In 1964, Silverstein published his first children’s book. The Giving Tree is a poignant parable about the ambiguous relationship between a boy and a tree. The menacing black and white photograph of Silverstein’s bald and bearded giant head on the back cover only accentuates the ambiguity in the tone of the work.
It would be a decade before he would write his masterpiece, 1974’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. The title invokes the excitement and mystery found past the fringes of societal norms and conventional thinking. Silverstein was a master at presenting children with the perception to think outside of the box, to inspire all the goodness and innovation and creativity that lie somewhere off the beaten path.
If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in! Come in!
Lies and lying are a prevalent theme throughout his work. In the preamble to Where the Sidewalk Ends, he essentially equates lying with dreaming. In a way, dreams are lies. Storytelling is certainly a form of lying and lying is, by definition, a form of creativity.
1981’s A Light in the Attic would serve as a companion piece to Where the Sidewalk Ends with its urge for intellectual pursuit and curiosity – the “light in the attic” every child has, just waiting to be turned on.
There’s a light on in the attic.
Though the house is dark and shuttered,
I can see a flickerin’ flutter,
And I know what it’s about.
There’s a light on in the attic.
I can see it from the outside.
And I know you’re on the inside… lookin’ out.
That simple but crucial philosophy, which has touched the lives of over 20 million children in 30 different languages, just might make Shel Silverstein the most influential writer of the latter half of the 20th Century.
Silverstein’s career as a songwriter, while lesser known than his children’s books, is every bit as rich and possibly more prolific. Continue reading →
It is fun to teach humor. Laughter keeps students awake more effectively than most things. The promise of relief or diversion from the cultural and personal stresses implicit in all humor (and explicit in much of it), to my mind, not only makes for more pleasant classroom discussions but also helps to make those discussions more productive. This I believe.
But I have my doubts when it comes to exploring satire. I have revealed my misgivings in this spot before (Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically); see also Sharon McCoy’s excellent response: Embracing the Ambiguity of Satire).
Within the overall umbrella of my courses on American Humor, satire demands its space, and rightfully so. But it’s harder to get through the material, and methinks many students pick up on my hesitations here and there. I don’t mind the difficulty factor, it’s the pain of the subject matter that wears me out. The suffering underlying much of humor in general stands foregrounded in satire. This is the nature of the art form. Satire cannot hide its rage, or its hopelessness, and as a result there is very little room for the pleasant relief of laughter. Satire is rarely funny “ha ha,” or funny “weird.” It’s just painful.
I have just read what I consider to be one of the most engaging pieces of satire on political and cultural intransigence that I have encountered since first reading Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” a work by the American master that is perfect both in its conciseness and its artistic vision.
Twain’s short piece, which has a stranger translate the prayers of a people on the verge of war, is powerful for its accuracy as a comment on the human capacity for making war in the name of god and its recognition that the commentary is timeless because the war making machine is timeless, and unending. Students will always study it because they will always understand its targets. The Onion has just provided another piece that seems, to me, worthy of being taught alongside Twain’s work.
It is an “Editorial Opinion” that first appeared on August 13, 2013 (Issues 49.33). The title is: “The Onion” Encourages Israel and Palestine Not to Give a Single, Goddamn Inch.”
Here is a link to the article: http://www.theonion.com/articles/the-onion-encourages-israel-and-palestine-not-to-g,33473/
Standing in opposition to “the international community” which has pleaded with the two sides to meet to discuss peace, The Onion satirically asks the sides to remain steadfast and persist in absolutist positions:
“Israelis and Palestinians, you must accept nothing short of total victory against those who threaten your religion and way of life. Sacrificing just one of your ideals would at this point be tantamount to compete and utter failure.”
The writers of The Onion then follow this assertion with details that simply recount the history of the last 60 years (and by implication 2,000 years?) in four concise sentences:
“If a settlement is built, you must attack it. If a settlement is attacked, you must rebuild it. Rocks must be met with bullets; bullets must be met with rocket fire; rocket fire must be met with helicopter assaults. This is the only noble way forward for either side.”
Noble. Forward. The writers know, and readers know, the words “noble” and “forward” serve as the key bits of irony here. There is nothing noble in the bloodshed, nothing forward looking about continued intransigence.
Building on this sardonic tone, the satire gets heavier and heavier, and the reader wants relief while at the same time knowing that none is forthcoming. As with Twain’s work, the writers are devoted to the point of the satire, which is the grotesque pointlessness of continued aggression. The secondary target of the piece, though, may also be the ever-present demands from the international community to urge the parties to sue for peace. Pointless. I don’t really believe that peace efforts are pointless, by the way, but it seems the accurate thing to say here in the context of The Onion satire, the art. If we are to teach such aggressive and unnerving satire, we must be ready to accept the full brunt of the hopelessness the piece addresses. And thus figure out a way to help students talk about it. I am open to suggestions.
I just know that as I read this, I wanted an outlet, some peek from behind the curtain from the jester. But it is not there because there is no peace ready to peek out from behind any curtains either. The article ends concisely and with a key repetition:
“Remain steadfast. Remain strong. And never give up your noble fight, even if it takes several more generations.”
That, my gentle readers, is first-rate satire. It is exhausting and no fun at all.
It was seven years ago. June 13, 2006. After watching the Mark Twain Forum rage for a week about a neocon skeleton’s consideration as the next Mark Twain, I offered no additional comment as my first contribution to the listserv, but a link (no longer active) identifying direct passages of her work lifted from others. I’m not controversial, just contextual. Within an hour I received an email from my father, copying my text with a forward:
Be careful what you say the walls have ears.
Long before the NSA, but steeped in George Orwell, I was dumbfounded. Not by the sentiment but the speed of reaction. Where did—How was—Who? My dad does not participate in socialist academia. He appreciates baseball, Goldwater republicanism, and the mafia (don’t ask)—all of them stoically. And John Wayne in one particular movie. That’s it. So whence came my inoffensive copy with such haste?
The answer came from mom—my father’s publicist—who revealed my network of expansive relatives connected an interest in Mark Twain with that of a family friend. My dad’s twin brother knew a guy named Larry. Larry grew up working in my grandfather’s tool and die preaching progressive reform during the summer of love while my father supported the Vietnam War with the Young Republicans. Larry was part of the Forum, recognized the last name—a rarity outside of Brazil—and forwarded the message to my uncle with a “Hey, is he one of yours?” My uncle turned it around to my father, and suddenly I was worried about over-sharing.
Clearly that didn’t last. I cut out the middlemen and contacted Larry, and thus began a three-year direct correspondence about Mark Twain that finally put a face to liberal sentiment when we both attended the Sixth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, held in Elmira, New York.
Many of us are recovering from Mark Twain Summer Camp–the intellectual conversations, the great papers, the food, the wine, the food… ABE will be up with a post on that subject this week, but in the meantime, enjoy this piece on Mark Twain and the Jumping Frog.
One of the key moments in the career of Mark Twain was the tremendous success of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” first published in the Saturday Post on August 12, 1865. The reputation of this magazine as a key New York periodical, different in tone but of similar importance in its own literary culture as the Atlantic Monthly was in Boston, was certainly a boon to Twain’s East Coast reputation. But as James Caron has argued in Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter, the importance of the jumping frog story in establishing Twain’s reputation may be overstated. Instead of a sudden burst into public consciousness, the piece represents the culmination of more than a year of success on both coasts, where newspapers had published Mark Twain’s writings for the Californian, a magazine aimed at national and international, rather than…
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We lost this prolific Pulitzer Prize winning green-house-worker-turned-poet fifty years ago today.
Theodore Roethke was a master of both free verse and formal verse. He penned serious poems, light verse and children’s verse, too.
Here are four of his summertime gems. Enjoy!
By day the bat is cousin to the mouse.
He likes the attic of an aging house.
His fingers make a hat about his head.
His pulse beat is so slow we think him dead.
He loops in crazy figures half the night
Among the trees that face the corner light.
But when he brushes up against a screen,
We are afraid of what our eyes have seen:
For something is amiss or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face.
— from Collected poems of Theodore Roethke
My Doubleday, 1938
Long Live the Weeds
Long live the weeds that overwhelm
My narrow vegetable realm-
The bitter rock, the barren soil
That force the son of man to toil;
All things unholy, marked by curse,
The ugly of the universe.
The rough, the wicked, and the wild
That keep the spitit undefiled.
With these I match my little wit
And earn the right to stand or sit,
Hope, look, create, or drink and die:
These shape the creature that is I
Under the concrete benches,
Hacking at black hairy roots,-
Those lewd monkey-tails hanging from drainholes,-
Digging into the soft rubble underneath,
Webs and weeds,
Grubs and snails and sharp sticks,
Or yanking tough fern-shapes,
Coiled green and thick, like dripping smilax,
Tugging all day at perverse life:
The indignity of it!-
With everything blooming above me,
Lilies, pale-pink cyclamen, roses,
Whole fields lovely and inviolate,-
Me down in that fetor of weeds,
Crawling on all fours,
Alive, in a slippery grave
There was a Serpent who had to sing.
There was. There was.
He simply gave up Serpenting.
He didn’t like his Kind of Life;
He couldn’t find a proper Wife;
He was a Serpent with a soul;
He got no Pleasure down his Hole.
And so, of course, he had to Sing,
And Sing he did, like Anything!
The Birds, they were, they were Astounded;
And various Measures Propounded
To stop the Serpent’s Awful Racket:
They bought a Drum. He wouldn’t Whack it.
They sent, —you always send, —to Cuba
And got a Most Commodious Tuba;
They got a Horn, they got a Flute,
But Nothing would suit.
He said, “Look, Birds, all this is futile:
I do not like to Bang or Tootle.”
And then he cut loose with a Horrible Note
That practically split the Top of his Throat.
“You see,” he said, with a Serpent’s Leer,
“I’m Serious about my Singing Career!”
And the Woods Resounded with many a Shriek
As the Birds flew off to the end of Next Week.