Jennifer Michael Hecht, Funny (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005)
Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, and a gorilla walk into a bookstore and come across Jennifer Michael Hecht's new book of poems, Funny.
The Bard hardly gives it a chance. He takes one look at the first page and says, "An infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters could say it just as fair. No offense, gorilla."
Freud examines things more closely. He scans the table of contents, reads a couple of poems, and studies the author's bio before delivering his diagnosis: "The book represents the cumulative sublimation of the poet's feelings for her father. Says here it also won the Felix Pollack Penis—PRIZE! I mean PRIZE!"
Then it's the gorilla's turn. He reads the entire book cover to cover, including the author's afterword, which takes a while even if you're not a knuckle-walking ape. Finally, he looks up and says, "Actually, I kinda like it."
Whereupon Shakespeare and Freud run screaming from the store, "Ahhh! A talking gorilla!"
I just made that up. I'm sorry, I couldn't help it. Reading this book will do that to you. And if the endorsement of one gorilla, plus the wholesome-goodness seal of approval of Pollack Prize judge Billy Collins (okay, make that two gorillas), aren't exactly what you go looking for in a book of poems, trust me about one thing: Hecht's delivery is a lot better, and more original, than mine.
Funny is, in the first place, just that. And what a relief it is! May we speak frankly, dear reader? Flag-bearer for the small press and small fry that I am, I confess I've tossed aside many an earnest new book by an earnest young writer who deserved my earnest attention simply because I wasn't in the mood. Who hasn't? The sheer volume of printed matter that confronts us at every turn imposes such choices, and who can be faulted for coming down more often on the side of funny?
Yet funny can just as often fall flat and waste our time. That's why when a book comes along that manages to balance the essentials—call them comic and tragic, or prosaic and lyric, or coffee and wine—this reader can't help but receive it with immense gratitude, like a breath of fresh air in a room full of farts.
All this is not to give Funny the name of light verse. Quite the opposite, here's a book of serious poems cleverly pretending to be jokes. Take "Horse Makes a Decision," which begins:
Horse walks into a bar, orders a scotch.
Bartender says, Hey, why the long face?
It's who I am. Once I was coltish,
for a while I was a bit of a mare;
I cannot sit to the right of myself
at the bar; I cannot opt
to step over into something
else-ness. This is my long
strange moment of uncertainty,
that I can bend from what
This is the hangdog of doubt.
What starts out as another bar joke develops over several pages into a poem about the burden of choice. Many of the poems in the book follow this simple strategy: lead with a joke, hold it until it releases some hidden idea, and see where the associations lead. Despite what you might think, it's a technique that doesn't get old. In fact, it generates a kind of playful momentum that makes you want to keep listening. After all, the basic equipment a poet needs is not so different from that of a good stand-up comic: a striking voice, a good sense of pace, and the willingness to say the first thing that comes to mind and run with it.
But Funny is also about what's funny, and why, and inasmuch as which. Indeed, the book sets itself up as a kind of Montaignesque treatise in three parts on what makes us laugh. Each part is prefaced by a sonnet that introduces some of the project's larger philosophical questions by way of a kind of mock-classical, didactic tone. It's a clever marriage of form and content, since so many jokes rely on wordplay, rhyme, substitution, and the surprising associations that can spring from simple convergences of sound. Consider these representative lines from "Sonnet on Mirth," which reflects on what to make of the fact that we have a sense of humor to begin with:
Of mirth the poets counsel little after
that present it be loved for present laughter.
Also that fool hearts, alone, let themselves belong in
the house of it; the wise, the house of mourning.
Why such divergent answers from such teachers?
Life seemed cruelly short to bard; cruelly long to preacher.
This is risky business. It's hard to be funny and meta-funny at the same time, let alone both of those AND pull off a good poem. But Hecht mostly manages. And in the process, she pays tribute to a host of intellectual and comedic forbears who bequeathed to posterity some real zingers. There's the Bard again, along with Plato, Groucho Marx, Darwin, the author of Ecclesiastes, and Freud (and yes, there's even a gorilla). They're all palpably present in these lines, the way our fathers are present in the jokes we learned from them.
Readers who like context—especially on the "grand scheme of things" level—will appreciate Hecht's afterword, which traces how she developed the idea for the book and what lessons from philosophy, psychology, history, religion, poetry, and other areas of learning informed her thinking on the subject. (Hecht is also the author of Doubt: A History, a chronicle of skepticism, freethinking, and nonconformity from antiquity to modern times, which gives you some idea of her panoramic perspective on these things.)
Then again, there's an argument to be made against too much information, and readers who'd rather stick to the poems won't miss much by skipping all the post-verse pillow talk—and might even enjoy the book all the more for it. Some would say that jokes and poems have that in common: they tend to suffer with explanation.
Which might be a good note to end on. Why not simply leave the rest unsaid and let you see for yourself what all the gorillas are talking about? It's funnier that way. No joke.