Saturday, 4 October 2014

Is Experimental Poetry Funny?

Absolutely, say Jonathan Ball and Ryan Fitzpatrick. In their introduction to the anthology Why Poetry Sucks, the two editors try to define—as a partial reply to one of my remarks—the special characteristics of "avant" humour:
Carmine Starnino, constant critic, has declared that “humourlessness” is “the most galling failure of our current crop of experimental phenoms” in an essay otherwise surprisingly generous to experimental phenom bpNichol. Complaints like Starnino’s are common and, in many ways, true. While poetry as a cultural activity is funny, and the idea that we should take poetry seriously is funny, actually taking poetry seriously isn’t very funny at all—and neither are most poems.

At the risk of not being funny. we should complain that Starnino is correct only in a technical sense. Humourlessness is the most galling failure of experimental poets, because it is the most galling failure of poets and poetry overall. We balk at Starnino’s implicit suggestion, which is that experimental poetry is, in a general sense, more humourless than conventional poetry. In fact, when conventional poetry is funny, it is often funny because it has incorporated lessons from experimental poetry (usually, earlier avant-gardes). Often, these avant-garde movements and authors take themselves seriously, or too seriously, but then lighten up and begin to fall into self-parody as their assumptions and techniques are incorporated (or mocked) by the mainstream—Surrealism is the most obvious example. More recently, we have seen the opposite trajectory with the American post-avant Flarf writers, who began by parodying bad conventional poetry but ended up taking the joke more seriously and more politically as bad conventional poetry became a primary way to address the national trauma of 9/11.

In other words, galling humourlessness is not a defining trait of experimental poetry—the work is often intentionally funny, because it uses humour in particular ways, or unintentionally funny, due to its relative strangeness or how removed it seems from something we should take seriously. As a result of its emphasis on attentive and playful work with the material of language, experimental poetry may even have a different, perhaps closer, relationship to humour
Michael Lista isn't buying it:
When, in high school, I briefly took a comedy class at Second City, our teacher got right to it and explained how jokes work: “Working from the Lacanian idea of the point de capiton or quilting point, the idea that meaning is retroactively determined by the final word in a statement, Alenka Zupancic frames the punch line in terms of this Lacanian operation.” JK — no, that was written by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Ball, in their introduction to Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry … an essay that I’m confident is the least funny thing ever written about what makes things funny. There’s only one rule in comedy and every comic knows it: Never explain your jokes using 
Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and/or Baltic post-structuralism. You should sooner try getting turned on listening to an artificially intelligent garburator explain the mechanics of oral sex—in German. 
He continues:
What makes humour work—how to elicit the laugh that’s utterly immune to explicative theory—is diametrically opposed to what unites many of the experimental poets in Why Poetry Sucks, a suspicion of meaning-making. With the bathwater of form went the baby of sense. But Fitzpatrick and Ball try to square the circle with—you guessed it—theory. “Both the joke and poetry,” they argue by way of Victor Shklovsky, operate “by making our language and our social operations strange. Thus, defamiliarization is, arguably, the basic gesture of poetry.” Both poetry and humour “estrange us from language and its transparent, communicative capacity.” Some poetry, maybe, but never jokes, which are as likely to elicit a laugh this way as by a tickler who doesn’t believe in touch.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ryan Fitzpatrick. Might want to do a quick edit before you post :).