On ‘funny’ poems

Partly due to the pressure of the old toad work, I’ve been in the poetry doldrums for much of this year, so it was nice to get a short piece up on The Friday Poem again, here – a 100-word response to a poem by Geoff Hattersley as one of a series of brief commentaries on ‘funny’ poems. The poem I chose is, as you’ll see, both funny and deeply serious at the same time, which is no mean feat to pull off. I could’ve chosen any number of his poems, in the same way that I could’ve chosen numerous Matthew Sweeney poems, but that thar Mat Riches got there before me, here. (I’m reminded at this point that, a week or two ago, I heard Paul Stephenson – another brilliantly funny yet serious poet, like Mat himself – read a poem entitled ‘Not Matthew’.)

Had Mat not quite rightly alighted on Sweeney, I might’ve chosen ‘Upstairs’, first published in the LRB – here – and collected in The Bridal Suite, Cape, 1997. It’s typical of Sweeney’s very quirky narrative style, moving from funny to very dark within a heartbeat. His poems and worldview were often described as ‘surreal’, but that’s a lazy label. It’s surely just a recognition that if you live life with your senses tuned to high-ish alert you will notice that it’s chocker with non sequiturs, which paradoxically make more sense than not. There’s tremendous artistry at work beneath the surface of Sweeney’s poetry too: in ‘Upstairs’, the consonance between ‘X’, ‘brass’ ‘Voss’, ‘undressing’ and even ‘Iceland’ isn’t coincidental; and ‘Voss’ isn’t chosen purely for that purpose: Sweeney would’ve known that it‘s the German word for ‘Valentine’.

As someone who has often been accused of writing ‘funny poems’, I find it bemusing that the underlying seriousness isn’t obviously apparent; but I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, since everyone reads poems differently and, initially at least, picks out what appeals to them. For me, though, it‘s just the case that the line between funny and serious is invariably so cigarette-paper-thin that it‘s barely visible. No wonder the Buddha always had a smile on his face.

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