May 3, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReading

Clowns and Poetry (Part Two)

A few days ago, each student in my clown class submitted a new course syllabus as part of a final portfolio. How, I had asked them, might the class be reimagined, rebuilt? How might it be made better, stronger, faster than it was before? The students happily swapped out my text and film selections for choices of their own. See ya later, He Who Gets Slapped! Hello, Billy Madison!

To be fair, many of their suggestions were wonderful; I plan to steal lots of them when I teach the class again in the fall. One point of interest: No one suggested any changes to the poetry unit. Most likely this was due to the fact that my students have little background in poetry (and thus few resources to draw on). But then there’s an added reason: “Clowns and Poetry” is kind of a niche market. (Trust me, I’ve scoured the aisles.) At the start of the semester, I assembled the fifteen or so poems I could find that feature clowns or clowning; I mentioned several of them in Part One of this post. And I’ve written about Stephen Dunn’s “If a Clown” at other times on this blog. (When I read Dunn’s poem to kick off an English Department meeting a few months ago, our Department Chair said that he detected a “thundering allegory” at work.)

Let’s look at some of the remaining poems from the “Clowns and Poetry” unit. If He Who Gets Slapped loses its place on the syllabus, Lon Chaney Sr. won’t be entirely jettisoned. Chaney provides the epigraph for the title poem in Andrew Hudgins’s 2013 collection A Clown at Midnight: “The essence of true horror is a clown at midnight.” Hudgins’s villanelle locates us immediately in the world of shadow and white paint: “Down these mean streets a bad joke walks alone, / bruised head held low, chin tucked in tight, eyes down, / defiant.” It ends:

He doesn’t want to rub your funny bone.
He wants to break it—break it, then skip town.
Down these mean streets a bad joke walks alone
but defiant. He laughs and it turns to a moan.

The laugh that turns to a moan—the difficult laugh—is one that I’m always eager to track. Chaney executes it (silently, perfectly) in this clip from 1924. (The clip is accompanied by a fantastic live score by the UK band Helictite.)

Moving from the tortured to the deadpan, we arrive at Chelsey Minnis’s “Clown.” “It seems like I’m growing more and more like a clown,” the speaker begins. “First of all, I’m always sad. Secondly, all my knives are made out of rubber. Thirdly, it’s like my house is on fire.” Later in the prose poem, we learn: “People don’t understand how you turn into a clown. You turn into a clown because you feel more and more like putting on a clown suit.” (This calls to mind my favorite moment in Daniel Alarcón’s “City of Clowns”: “It’s like this: you wake up one morning, and boom! you’re a clown.”) Minnis’s poem ends with a prophecy that’s also a shrug: “I don’t want to be a clown but I’m sure to be one. My mother was a clown.”

Passing over other estimable clown poems—by Langston Hughes, by Simon Armitage—we land on Jennifer L. Knox’s “I Cast the Shadow of a Sword over Sky & Sea.” (The poem isn’t available online—but you can read it in Knox’s remarkable new collection Days of Shame & Failure.) “Police found a sixty-nine-year-old volunteer clown sodomizing a rare Siberian tiger in an earthquake-ravaged apartment,” Knox begins. Can I tell you how much I love the word “volunteer” in that sentence? After a scattershot of details (including “albino bearded dragons” and “Hubba Hubba Heinies”), the poem ends with a Knoxian flourish:

In his statement to the press, the clown denied any wrongdoing: “I are a peaceful man. We be conducting a full investigation into this matter. We half the utmost respect for animals—for lactating women—for Italian-Americans—for the mentally challenged—for the dead.” In lieu of an official statement, his wife preferred to let a Bundt cake do the talking.