Scene4 Magazine: Life Among The Heffalumps
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

July 2010

Take My Iambic Pentameter....Please!

Why Poetry, Art and Life, Need the Politically Incorrect, the Perverse and the Profane.

Recently, I listened as a friend on the phone recounted her health and job woes. Before hanging up, she told me {dismissing any other attributes I might have from beauty to empathy}, "...well, you're good for a few laughs."

What would you do after receiving such an assessment?

I went to see the engaging and revealing documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."  The film, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, takes you inside the head of Rivers, the 77-year-old comedy icon, celeb, TV personality and actress.  The doc (in an entertaining way) brings you face-to-face with the dialectic that fuels creativity and that we often encounter in our life: the ying and yang between the politically correct and the politically incorrect; the cross-fertilization between the tragic and the comic and our craving for both the sweet and the sour.  Everyone should see this flick–especially poets and prigs.

Beginning in 2008, the filmmakers shadowed Rivers for 14 months.  We see the comedy queen in her gorgeous apartment, performing in Mid-western dives and trying out her play "Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress By A Life In Progress" in London.  We're brought along for the ride as Rivers seeks love, money and fame by doing what she loves best–work.

Why I am, a purveyor of the so-called high art of poetry, so enamored of this film that I want to drag my brother and sister bards by the neck and thrust them into the muck and mire of the usually dismissed art of comedy?  Because the doc's up close and personal profile of Rivers' life and work illuminates truths that make many high art savants uncomfortable: the tragic and the comic are inexorably intertwined; humor is an indelible part of the human condition; and comedy is a part of art, not a blemish that must be covered up or apologized for.

Renowned humorists E.B. White and James Thurber lamented that critical laurels are seldom bestowed on humorists.  Though White and Thurber wrote memorably, gracefully, lucidly, and engagingly (check out White's essay collection "One Man's Meat" or Thurber's "Fables for Our Time"); their work was (and is) often dismissed because it is humorous.

I can't help but wonder what White and Thurber would make of the contemporary poetry scene – of the "po biz," where humor is often viewed as a fly (or maybe gadfly) to be shooed away or as dog poop to be picked up from the sidewalk. "Well, you have a sense of humor," a Very Serious Poet sounding as if she'd sipped sour milk, told me after I read at a poetry reading.

"But how does that {a sense of humor} fit into poetry?" the woman then asked me.

I don't mean to be churlish here.  Everyone is entitled to his or her taste in poetry, and (though I'd love it if every line of my poetry was universally loved), I welcome criticism of my work.  But, the woman's remarks to me are representative of the dismissive attitude that so many poets have regarding humor and poetry.

I'm not saying that poetry should be "light" verse or not tackle serious subjects. Poets, like other creative artists from novelists to sculptors, make art out of our struggles to deal with the big questions–from love to illness to social injustice to death.

But, the big questions and how we deal with them are infused with comedy.  "Bad things happen to good people," Rivers says in the documentary, "and I'm angry about that."

The anger, Rivers adds, fuels comedy.

In "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," there's a scene of Rivers performing at a club. "The only child I'd like," she jokes, "is Helen Keller because she wouldn't talk."  An audience member, a man with a deaf son, yells out that this "isn't funny."  Rivers masterfully puts the heckler in his place and shows how her joke is funny. She has a mother who's deaf, Rivers says.  (In the film, Rivers also reveals that she lived for nine years with a man who had one leg.).

I loved how Rivers handled this encounter.  Helen Keller, who had a wicked sense of humor, would have laughed at Rivers' joke.  Then, Keller would have upped the ante and cracked a "Joan Rivers" joke.    

Humor, as Rivers shows in the film, is essential for coping with the pain of life. "Where would we have been after 9/11 without laughter?" Rivers asks.

Poets from Shakespeare (think of the fools in his tragedies) to Frank O'Hara (think of his poem entitled "Ava Maria") have connected comedy and tragedy in their work. I doubt if they worry about having to atone for their humor or about not having "gravitas."

I don't want poets to become comedians (not, as Seinfeld would say that there's anything wrong with that).  I'd just like all of us poets and creative artists to not to dis the human comedy.

I leave you with a politically incorrect, but I hope humorous poem that I wrote about Helen Keller.          

Kathi Wolfe

If I Drove Drunk

I'd sing Gershwin in Greek,
fishtail my way
through a sea of booze,
smile at the cops
and ever-so-politely
rip up their sober tickets.

I'd ride to Fredonia,
eat duck soup, pinch
Margaret Dumont's buttom,
and look surprised
when she jumps higher
than Bugs Bunny in flight
from Elmer Fudd.

In a Braille parking lot,
I'd jump-start the dots,
stop by Oz, take Dorothy
to Kansas, and sweet-talk
Auntie Em into giving me
a shot of Scotch.  How's
that for a Helen Keller trick?

Originally published in Helen Takes The Stage: The Helen Keller Poems by Kathi Wolfe (Pudding House)


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©2010 Kathi Wolfe
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

July 2010

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