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Hark, Dumbass: Humor in Contemporary American Poetry

by Eric Weinstein


Fall Higher
by Dean Young. 120 pgs. Copper Canyon Press, 2012. $16.00.


Hark, dumbass, // the error is not to fall / but to fall from no height —Dean Young, Fall Higher

In their introduction to Dean Young’s work in their anthology of contemporary poetry American Hybrid, Cole Swensen and David St. John come right out with it: “Dean Young has revolutionized the use of humor in American poetry.” This humor draws from an almost unparalleled gift for subverting expectation: “You can read almost anything / about angels, how they bite off / the heads first, copulate with tigers” begins “Lucifer,” the opening poem of Fall Higher. The same poem inverts our understanding of the night sky, calling out “the impurities of darkness / sometimes called stars.” Later, Young reanimates Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in “Demon Cycle,” writing: “How do I love thee, let me count the strays. / I mean lays. Scratch that. Who are you anyway?” As Young unveils an array of hybrid identities and juxtapositions of perceived extremes—joy and grief, the mundane and the fantastic, koan and wisecrack, myth and mathematical proof, we readers are constantly reoriented. This is the case even—especially—when our expectations are deflated, thwarted, or turned inside out. We’re so taken with the new direction that we don’t mind the sudden shift. To the contrary: we embrace it.

Young was hospitalized and in need of a heart transplant during the composition of Fall Higher, and many of the poems deal with his illness and the surgery that saved his life: “Should I worry / people have stopped saying how skinny / and pale I am?” (“Red Glove Thrown in Rosebush”); “there’s no statue that won’t eventually dissolve in rain” (“Madrigal”); “Because I will die soon, I fall asleep / during the lecture on the ongoing / emergency” (“Vintage”); “They use silver clamps to pluck the bad heart out then install the next” (“Instant Recognition Between Strangers”). Despite these bodily disintegrations, however, the visceral urgency of the language remains intact. As the speaker focuses more and more on his physical attenuation, the force of the language and its inclination toward humor increases. The failing of Young’s heart seems to the reader—and to Young himself—utterly at odds with poetry, with the work and vitality of poetry. This is neither to say that the integrity of the body and the integrity of the work are diametrically opposed, nor that this particular event in Young’s life defines his work. Instead, it points to the belief that the force of the writing can—or at least, should be able to—compensate for the frailty of the body, and this tension often leads to humor overlaying seriousness within each poem. In his poem “Dragonfly,” Young describes this intertwining of absurd humor and sobering reality in a recent donation to a homeless shelter:

Remember when the college donated
the marching band’s old uniforms to the shelter?
For awhile the schizo spare-changers
and filthy sleepers on steam grates
in vermilion waistcoats with two rows
of golden buttons, epaulets and tails.

The linguistic alchemy involved is impressive: the image of devastatingly poor people dressed as high school band geeks is simultaneously hilarious and depressing, fanciful and run-of-the-mill. Or consider this, from “Selected Recent and New Errors”:

Do you think the dictionary ever says to itself
I’ve got these words that mean completely
different things inside myself
and it’s tearing me apart?

This tension marks the question of Fall Higher in particular and Young’s poetry in general: how can poetry bear the colossal self-contradiction, the impossibly varied spectra of image and emotion, it entails? For Dean Young, the answer lies in the superposition of one extreme over the other: nothing is more serious than a joke. Humor is a way of defusing terror, of confronting it, and the tension of this confrontation, our laughter in the Janus-like faces of death and absurdity, is what strings us along from poem to poem. But how does this humor work? What powers it? If we’re trading in hearts, what lies at the heart of humor in Young’s poetry and in poetry writ large?

Young’s constant modification and remodulation of the reader’s expectations contribute tothe successful inclusion of humor and irreverence in his poetry. The constant reimaginings, the polyphonic choruses comprising so many varied voices, direct our attention to the hubbub of daily life and reawaken us to the absurdity of it, building to the constant retuning of our expectations that makes us aware of what we understand and what we (intentionally or not) misunderstand: “There are designs that seem like chaos / only because you are so close” (“Tangle”); “I confused the word career / with careen” (“My Brief Careers”); “Finish the bottle, even the worm / with a toast to self-extermination. / I mean determination hic” (“Flamenco”). In his poetic manifesto The Art of Recklessness, Young mentions mishearing “depth perception” as “death perception” and loving the speaker for it. At another point, he states directly: “your genius is your error.” Misunderstanding, then—error—should not be avoided, but is instead something to seek out actively. To err, after all, is human, and to err harder, to fall higher, is to be more human.

Young is not alone in this tradition of playful misunderstanding in contemporary American poetry. Matthew Rohrer also relies on the uncertainty of communication, the translation from English to English, in his own work: “When you try to make a joke / in a bank / it falls flat,” Rohrer writes in “Poem for Starlings,” from his most recent collection Destroyer and Preserver: “no one laughs / in fact my intentions / are misunderstood.” Like Young’s, Rohrer’s poems grapple with serious, emotionally salient issues by way of humor, and this approach simultaneously renders the subject matter more approachable and more complex. Is Rohrer’s speaker drawing our attention to the humor of this moment, or to the larger problem of speech being cut down to one monochromatic dimension inside the atmosphere of a bank? Is laughter the desired result or the uncomfortable realization that our speech isn’t really free? Why can’t we make jokes to the TSA, the IRS, the postal service, the President? Are we Rohrer’s speaker cracking a joke or the guard against whom the joke, like an inflatable bat, is cracked? The answer is both: misunderstanding is an engine for comedy as well as disappointment, and if you’ve ever laughed at the losing team, you know the significant overlap between the two.

Young's poetry relies on misunderstanding, which often shows up in the juxtaposition of extremes and tangentially related objects; it’s a process by which the absurd is elevated and misunderstanding is made not only possible, but probable: “Oh, orgasm, ice-cream headache” (“Song”), “My tyrannosaurus skull still / trying to poke through a mouse hole in the cosmos” (“Flamenco”). Young’s facility with juxtaposition is among the greatest of any American poet writing today, and perfectly evokes Ducasse’s Surrealist observation of the beauty inherent in “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” The reader may understand or misunderstand the relationship between the objects on Young’s dissecting table, but a relationship nonetheless exists, if only by virtue of the reader assimilating the words on the page.

In this three-ring circus of Young’s work, misunderstanding and juxtaposition occupy two overlapping arenas, but these do not account for Young’s knowledge of, and nods to, his own poetic antecedents. This is accomplished in a third ring: the repurposing, the reappropriation, the reanimation of language.

“Do you have trouble falling?” Young asks in “Sleeping Aid,” alluding to the commercial language that saturates late-night TV ads. This attention echoes a sentiment once expressed to me by the poet David Silverstein, who joked that when short, punchy writing is sad, it’s poetry; when it’s upbeat, it’s advertising copy. This not only points to the inherent doubletalk of language on which Young so successfully capitalizes, but provides the landscape in which that work/play can be performed. This simultaneous division between and attention to work and play mirrors the relationship between seriousness and humor in Young's work, further underscoring two disparate yet deeply related modes of thought that complement one another to generate a complete identity.

Again, Young is neither the first nor the only poet to explore this territory. In her collection Sleeping with the Dictionary, Harryette Mullen recycles all sorts of “canned” language—advertising copy, legal documents, fairy tales—to generate new work that both sources from and comments on the original. This remodeling is a two-way process: the new work reflected in the light of the old, and vice-versa. As Young does in “Demon Cycle,” Mullen also riffs on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130: “Variations on a Theme Park” transforms Shakespeare’s own subversion of the reckless metaphor of his day into a meditation on the natural (Walt Whitman/the outdoors) and unnatural (Mickey Mouse/Disneyland): “My Mickey Mouse ears are nothing like sonar. / Colorado is far less rusty than Walt’s lyric riddles.” Another poem in Sleeping with the Dictionary, “Dim Lady,” plays with the same sonnet, this time updating the language of Shakespeare’s original “Dark Lady” poem while maintaining the grounded, even playful nature of the original: “My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser.” Like Young’s dictionary in “Selected Recent and New Errors,” Mullen’s Dictionary is struggling to contain itself, its many voices, its myriad dictions and contradictions. In the end, the voice of both poets, both poems, is Whitman’s: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself; / (I am large—I contain multitudes.)”

The epigraph to Dean Young’s Fall Higher—“Hark, dumbass, // the error is not to fall / but to fall from no height”—speaks to the need to take ownership of these multitudes, to embrace misunderstanding and absurdity, to make any error save the error of forgoing the attempt. Even here, Young’s hybridity shows in this Zen koan/fortune cookie note where “hark” is at home alongside “dumbass.” Out of this juxtaposition, this recognition of simultaneous (be)longing and not (be)longing, arises the humor that powers the grief that powers the humor. “Impossible / to cut out your own heart but if you do, / maybe you’ll grow another,” Young writes in “The Usual Decision-Making Process.” Here, the poet looks beyond his illness and toward what's at stake in this cycle of comedy and gravity, both for him as an individual and as a member of a community of poets: a complete expression of our inner lives. Humor becomes more than a defense mechanism against the specter of death—it complements solemnity and reflects a holistic, human response to the seemingly chaotic events that comprise our lives.

Given the unorthodoxy of his approach, we have to ask: is contemporary poetry too serious for Dean Young? Insofar as the answer is yes, it’s because the risks inherent to using humor in poetry are both manifold and subtle, which dissuades the majority of writers from driving at it the way Young does. As is the case with all forms of humor, it’s easy to lose the audience, offend them, go over their heads, go too far. It requires extraordinary care to employ humor to the desired effect, and in Young’s case, his humor succeeds by subverting the reader’s expectations in ways that are delightful rather than alienating, powered by vivid juxtaposition and a quick wit that doesn’t seek to injure in order to get a laugh.

At its heart, Young’s poetry is dizzying yet awe-inspiring, turning our attention toward absurdity after irony, poking us in the chest, jubilant even in the face of grief and death. It wins us over because by exploring the full spectrum of human emotion, by thrusting forward phrases and images that are chosen not for their traditionally poetic merit but for their truthfulness, it communicates something true about what it means to be an emotional, frail, mortal thing. We laugh not always out of joy, but recognition. Dean Young’s poems triumph because they take such bold risks in the attempt to make us laugh: they refuse to fall from no height, and for this, we’re willing to follow them wherever they may lead.

 

Eric Weinstein’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Believer, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, and others. He lives in New York City. (8/2013)


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