March 07, 2007

Tenuous and Precarious: the Comic Muse

Tom and Jerry

Gwyneth Lewis comments here on the escapology of poetry and the joke. She writes that there are similarities between the joke and the poem:

Both require an unusually masochistic degree of self-revelation or, even, exhibitionism. A certain universality of subject matter is necessary for broad appeal. Topicality helps, but with reliance on older archetypes behind the occasion for satire. The joker must have an ear for common speech. Timing is everything. (17)

Memory is another factor mentioned by Lewis as is a convincing story and characters. Lewis tells a riddle which, she thinks, captures the trick of the joke or poem aptly:

You’re in a sealed room with nothing in it but a table and a mirror. How do you get out? The answer is: You look in the mirror, see what you saw. Take the saw, cut the table in half. Put the two into a whole. Escape through the hole. This kind of wit is an effort to loosen the buckles on the straight-jacket of ordinary thinking. It’s a punning Houdini trick. You could argue that such a play on words is a tautology but I’d say grappling with slightly different spellings of the same word gives you that little half-inch that can change your perspective and allow you to effect an escape from isolation into hilarity. (17)

Rhyme can be an important part of humour in poems and Lewis describes it as, ‘a divining rod straight into our unconscious fears and obsessions’, which is often used as, ‘an attempt to impose order on a chaotic world’ (17, 18). Jokes and poems can, ‘deal with tricky subjects so that the mind can grasp solutions way out to the left of its normal field of vision’ (18).

Lewis compares the relationship of pain and poetry to a Tom and Jerry cartoon, in which the pair have to play/dance together: ‘The minute the music stops the two are mortal enemies again’ (18). Lewis adds: ‘Miserable poets don’t make better art, but writing can have a therapeutic effect on neurosis if we’re given the safety of rhythm, metre and rhyme to pacify the potentially destructive side-effects of introspection’ (18).

Lewis, Gwyneth. ‘Tenuous and Precarious: The Comic Muse’. Poetry Review (Fanfare for the Comic Muse). 88.3 (Autumn 1998). 17-19.

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