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Ah, Letterman! Ah, Comic Confusion!

Scrolling through reactions to the Letterman Affair, I’m struck by how closely they align with my obsessions about poetry and comedy. I’m reading about Letterman, but I’m reminded of John Berryman, Joe Wenderoth, and C. D. Wright. I’m thinking of Eric McHenry‘s “Joke,” which goes,

Guy walks into a bar, says what do you recommend.
Bartender says I’ve got bitters, pearl onions and fizz.
The jukebox plays only national anthems
and the dartboard can experience pain.
Guy says I’m not sure I’m comfortable
with that. Bartender says make yourself comfortable.

* In the Times, Alessandra Stanley writes that Letterman “has long had a disconcerting habit of weaving deadly serious statements into humorous performances.”

* On Slate, Troy Patterson describes the audience’s response to Letterman after the host admits to having had sex with women who work on his show: “Cathartic laughter and extended nervous applause, the latter all the more fascinating because the producers couldn’t have been so indecent as to light an applause sign.”

* Josh Levin, also on Slate, notes that the “segment — coming as it did after a monologue packed with bad skunk jokes — was so unexpected and internally incoherent that it was impossible to tell what was supposed to be a laugh line and what wasn’t.”

Great, I want to say: give me the impossible. Give me the disconcerting, the internally incoherent. Surprise me, as McHenry does with his bar exchange, as Berryman does in the first of his Dream Songs, where lines such as “It was the thought that they thought / they could do it made Henry wicked & away” coexist with more lyrical lines: “Hard on the land wears the strong sea / and empty grows every bed.” Or in Dream Song 13, where the hijinks of “My lass is braking. / My brass is aching” lead immediately to the gorgeous (but, on its own, perhaps too poetic) “Come & diminish me, & map my way.”

Joe Wenderoth skitter-steps similarly in Letters to Wendy’s. The entry dated “September 18, 1996” serves as a kind of ars poetica for his entire project:

I don’t think Wendy’s coffee has such a good taste. This is not to say I don’t like it. I like it very much. Its poor taste keeps my intentions clear; I drink coffee for the enthusiasm-prod, not for the taste. The taste, then, when it is too pleasant, can distract one from what matters most — the deep writhing jolt. Of course, some taste is necessary so that the jolt seems, at bottom, inadvertent.

The deep writhing jolt — that’s the moment that Wenderoth’s poetics are obsessed with. To get to the jolt, though, “some taste is necessary” — a chuckle, an end run, a quirk of imagination. It’s the same method that Berryman uses to reclaim High Romantic diction: distract the reader with mumbling, with jazz-talk, and then (pow!): “Hard on the land wears the strong sea / and empty grows every bed.”

C. D. Wright’s “Personals” includes the half-joking lines “Since 1971 or before, I have hunted a bench / where I could eat my pimento cheese in peace” and “Stranger, to tell the truth, in dog years I am up there.” But the poem, as a whole, is achingly sad. (I first ran across it in The Handbook of Heartbreak.) A work of art, as we know, can do two things at once: make us laugh, make us flinch. So can a late-night semi-confession.

In Laurie Stone’s Laughing in the Dark: A Decade of Subversive Comedy, Letterman is portrayed as a striver who’s conflicted over what exactly he’s striving to obtain. In a 1992 open letter to the newly installed CBS host, Stone writes,

Some people think a person has to be a little bit of a masochist to go on your show if they are anything other than a babe who makes you drool or a comedian who makes you feel like you can make or break their career. And you’d be the last one to contradict that, because you know how you like to look right in the camera and say you’re not interested in anything, really, and how you make us believe you, even though you’re trying to be humorous. That’s what you’re trying to do, isn’t it?

The Letterman aesthetic relies on trying and not trying, on revealing and tightening up. In his review of “Late Show” sidekick Paul Shaffer’s new memoir, Peter Keepnews refers to the bandleader’s “ability to celebrate old-school showbiz shtick while simultaneously parodying it.” Shaffer’s boss practices a similar kind of simultaneity. So do many of my favorite poets.

As Berryman writes in Dream Song 271, “to make laugh, and to hurt, / is and was all he ever intended.”

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