I’ve seen some posts online this week railing against jokes about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the possibility of WW III. Those telling these jokes include Ukrainian citizens and President Zelensky, and I’m with them– humor is an essential human survival tool, important in good times and crucial in terrible times. Humor in poetry ranges from playful limericks to dark humor that reflects the absurdity of what it is to be mortal, to live our lives in the shadow of the knowledge that we’re going to die. I need it all, from the belly laughs to the winces–from distraction to painful insight.
The first poem, by Ogden Nash, is a terrible earworm for me–almost any time my phone rings I think, “if it’s a panther/ don’t anther.” Maybe by including it here I can pass it along to you. I think I’ve posted “What a Friend We Have in Cheeses” before–it cracks me up every time. Read it aloud, preferably with others. James Tate is one of my favorite poets, has been from the beginning. Just reading through his poem titles will make you laugh. Charles Simic won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his book of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End. He was a child in Yugoslavia during WW II, so he comes by his sense of the absurd naturally. I highly recommend his prose memoir in Wonderful Words, Silent Truth. Edward Gorey was a brilliant artist, author, and eccentric, whose dark humor appeals to me. Margaret Atwood’s first books were poetry. The poem here is from Power Politics.
The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn’t been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
What a Friend We Have in Cheeses! or Sing a Song of Liederkranz
Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
G. K. Chesterton
William Ross Cole
What a friend we have in cheeses!
For no food more subtly pleases,
Nor plays so grand a gastronomic part;
Cheese imported — not domestic —
For we all get indigestic
From the pasteurizer’s Kraft and sodden art.
No poem we shall ever see is
Quite as lovely as a Brie is,
For ” the queen of cheese ” is what they call the Brie;
If you pay sufficient money
You will get one nice and runny,
And you’ll understand what foods these morsels be!
How we covet all the skills it
Takes in making Chevre or Tilset,
But if getting basic Pot Cheese is your aim,
Take some simple curds and wheys, a
Bit of rennet — Lo! you’ve Käse!
(Which is what, in German, is a cheese’s name.)
Good lasagna, it’s a-gotta
Mozzarella and Ricotta
And a lotta freshly grated Parmesan;
With the latter any pasta
Will be eaten up much faster,
For with Parmesan an added charm is on.
Ask Ignacio Silone
What he thinks of Provolone,
And the very word will set his eyes a flame;
Then go ask the bounteous Gina
Her reaction to Fontina —
If you’ll raise your eyes you’ll see she feels the same.
A Pont-l’Evêque au point! What ho!
How our juices all will flow!
But don’t touch a Pont-l’Evêque beyond that stage,
For what you’ll have, you’ll surely find
Is just an over-fragrant rind —
There’s no benefit to this fromage from age.
Claret, dear, not Coca Cola,
When you’re having Gorgonzola —
Be particular to serve the proper wines;
Likewise pick a Beaune, not Coke for
Pointing up a Bleu or Roquefort —
Bless the products of the bovines and the vines!
Ave Gouda! Ave Boursault!
Ave Oka even more so!
Ave Neufchâtel, Saluto Port salut!
And another thing with cheeses —
Every allied prospect pleases —
Ah cheese blintzes! Ah Welsh rabbit! Ah fondue!
And we all know that ” Say cheese ” is
How a cameraman unfreezes
A subject in a stiff, or shy, or dour way;
There’s no other food so useful,
So bring on a whole cabooseful
Of the stuff of life! The cheeses of the gourmet!
Thinking Ahead to Possible Options and a Worst-Case Scenario
I swerved to avoid hitting a squirrel
in the center of the road and that’s when
the deer came charging out of the forest
and forced me to hit the brakes for all I
was worth and I careened back to the other
side of the road just as a skunk came toddling
out of Mrs. Bancroft’s front yard and I swung
back perhaps just grazing it a bit. I glanced
quickly in the rearview mirror and in that
instant a groundhog waddled from the side
of the road and I zigzagged madly and don’t
know if I nipped it or not because up ahead I
could see a coyote stalking the Collier’s
cat. Oh well, I said, and drove the rest
of the way home without incident.
We were so poor I had to take the place of the
bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I
could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turn-
ing in their beds. “These are dark and evil days,”
the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years
passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which
she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.
from Edward Gorey’s Gashleycrumb Tinies, an alphabet:
K is for Kate, who was struck with an axe
L is for Leo, who swallowed some tacks
M is for Maud who was swept out to sea
N is for Neville who died of ennui….
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
My favorite Ogden Nash piece is a couplet:
In the world of mules
There are no rules
Made me laugh out loud.
by Russell Edson
An elephant went to bed and pulled a crazy quilt up under
But just as the great gray head began filling with the gray
wrinkles of sleep it was awakened by the thud of its tail
falling out of bed.
Would you get my tail? said the elephant to another
elephant also tucked up under a crazy quilt.
I was just in the gray wrinkles of my sleep, sighed the other
But I can’t sleep without my tail, said the first elephant, I
like it stuck just above my anus; I feel more secure that way,
that it holds my anus from drifting out to heaven.
Thanks for this! I love Russell Edson, and it also reminds me to re-read Michael Benedikt.
I love Benedikt! Do you remember the surrealist anthology he edited? Now I want to find and reread him, and that anthology!
I have his prose poem anthology, still refer to it sometimes. Makes me laugh just thinking of him and his work, and that whole crowd.
I found Benedikt’s prose poems, the Surrealist anthology, and his book Sky. Here’s a poem from there:
Go away, go away, and as soon as you come back
Be something better.
For example, a shell–one that has lain for days on the edge of a
beach, overturned and sparkling, light captured on an edge,
An oak-leaf like cluster of sunlight that filters through elm branches,
An earring bobbing, like a float at high tide, against the neck of
somebody very sweet,
A weatherbeaten motheaten coverlet,
Or the arrows on the arm of a diving suit or a space suit indicating
where to thrust through the arms.
Think: in reference to the mainstream of human desires and wishes
What would you know now, if you briefly waved goodbye to the world?