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You Used To Make Fun Of Things

“And then there is saving laughter,” writes Barbara Guest in Forces of the Imagination. Humor in poetry is release, liberation, wit, awareness, reprieve. And Merwin, our Merwin, is not funny. He is serious in instinct, purpose, words, form, and approach, and also in subject matter: death, age, destruction, memory, fault, the earth, damage, and debt. When considering the conversation started by my fellow Merwinites this week, I found myself wondering what other kinds of turns, surprises, or oppositions to seriousness might work in a similar way to humor. In other words, I agree with Darcie that one tone, one note, or (as Zach says) one pose can result in a sustained, mundane pitch–too bleary to continue with. And yet, as Andy suggests, this isn’t the effect of Merwin’s poetry at its best; he is not range-less. And–why not? What can disrupt with flush or flare the otherwise straight face?

The Shadow of Sirius is a lengthy book, and some poems do dull in their repeated melancholic gestures (“Here it is once again this one note“”) or autobiographical detail. Some, though, break away, and are not just grim or grave or gloomy but strange, quirky, uncanny, imaginative, silly (““little drifter/ now where will you stay/ all pale and all alone/ after the way/ you used to make fun of things.”) So my question, I guess, is what else, besides humor and irony, can provide recess from bleakness?

Here is a starting place, from a Paris Review interview with Merwin:


You once wrote that “absolute despair has no art. I imagine that the writing of poems, in whatever form, still betrays the existence of hope.” That seems to be part of a more optimistic and celebratory turn after The Lice.


As I was talking about these two dimensions of language, I realized that I also think this is true of existence and life, too. We know perfectly well from the moment that we know anything about mortal existence, that it is mortal, in the sense that there’s no hope–you’re going to die. And yet, we go on, our hope is involved in what happens every day as we wake up and go through it and meet friends and talk and read poems and see the light come and go. Our hope is not a thing in the future; it’s a way of seeing the present.

With Halloween (my favorite holiday) just around the corner, it makes sense to ask in what ways we “dress up” or don certain personalities in our poetry. Should we maintain an expression throughout a single poem, or book, or career (and go to the funny poets for fun, the serious for dread)? Do we desire, as writers, to present a consistent personae, or is variety something worth proving (we have more than one “side,” or concern, or form, or behavior)? Are poets, like actors, best served perfecting the same complex role (Hamlet) or an assortment of appealing performances?

Humor, to me, indicates potential, a reframing, or an expanding sense of what’s possible. The parts of Merwin’s poetry that keep it from being too stuffy or precious or boring are the parts where his imagination invokes the impossible. The dead speak. Time is compressed. He listens and acts accordingly. And, although in moments this seems metaphorical, it is also physical and real in an impossible (imaginative) way. The narrator summons ghosts completely, and the hope, love, and weirdness that follows invokes the same circus-scale or bizarre self-awareness that humor might. “The greater the distance, the clearer the view,” writes W.G. Sebald. “Something is waiting for me inside this experiment,” writes Sabrina Orah Mark. Only in vision or hindsight (indicates Merwin) can we accurately draw upon our powers of seriousness and gravity–the present (when it occurs in The Shadow of Sirius) is the hopeful, mysterious moment.

Am I just adding to the “noise of questions”?

On my way out, an excerpt from an essay that speaks to why these conversations are so relevant, and why its awesome to write poetry of any sort: funny, somber, crazy, baffling, dangerous, or beautiful. And why it is also awesome to read poetry of any sort. The essay, “Why?” is by Richard Siken, and comes from Poets on Teaching (spoiler alert, ZS):

“Because poetry is the language of the imagination and you need a larger imagination. Because you need more than a gun and a jug of water… Because the loss of the imagination is the loss of the human. Because undigested biography is boring. Because what we call sincerity is an oversimplification“ Because nostalgia is always creepy and it makes you seem helpless. Because you can evoke instead of recount. Because you can trace the path of the mind as well as the way the body drags through the mud“ Because poetry can move the fulcrum of the mind just enough so that the world, this same world, becomes electrified and bewildering“”