Poetry and laughter

One of the most peculiar aspects of [spasmodic dysphonia] is that victims are typically unable to have conversations in their normal voice. Yet they can speak under different circumstances, such as just after sneezing or laughing, or in an exaggerated falsetto or baritone, or while reciting poetry…

–Rachel Konrad, “Hampered by rare syndrome, Dilbert cartoonist talks again” (Associated Press, Oct. 27, 2006)

I have always felt that much of the best poetry is funny. Who can read Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” for instance, and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh? I suppose there has got to be some line where one might say about a poem, “That’s too much nonsense,” but I think it is a line worth tempting. I am sure that there is a giggly aquifer under poetry.

Right now I am thinking of something unlikely that I saw a few days ago, the morning after my town had experienced a major winter flood. In the middle of a residential street, a cast iron manhole cover was dancing in its iron collar, driven up three or four inches by such an excess of underground water that it balanced above the street, tipping and bobbing like a flower, producing an occasional bell-like chime as it touched against the metal ring. This has much to say about poetry.

For I do not want to suggest in any way that this aquifer under poetry is something silly or undangerous; it is great and a causer of every sort of damage. And I do not want to say either that the poem that prompts me to laughter is silly or light; no, it can be as heavy as a manhole cover, but it is forced up. You can see it would take an exquisite set of circumstances to ever get this right.

–Kay Ryan, “A Consideration of Poetry” (Poetry, May 2006)

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

8 Comments


  1. I love Kay Ryan’s suggestion that poetry is both as heavy and light — and also as comic — as a dancing manhole cover.

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  2. Yeah! I was going to add quotes from Gadamer and Huizinga on the theme of poetry and art as forms of play, but ultimately decided that the Ryan quote was better without them, being (of course) much more poetic than either philosopher’s take on the issue.

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  3. I was very interested in this story and the power it imputed to rhyme… he says in his original blog entry that it was a “rhyme” he repeated over and over which “remapped” the neural pathways of speech in his brain. I ran this past Dr T the neurolinguist and he’d never come across such a thing. It’s a really fascinating story.

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  4. Yeah, it seemed like something straight out of Garcia Marquez.

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  5. It’s a small door to a room full of gold that we can have any time we go through the door, but that we can’t take away.

    That’s a fun essay! It’s also gratifying to find someone else who finds “The Windhover” terribly funny, sort of a monkish Jabberwocky.

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  6. She’s a very fun poet, too, if you haven’t read her. Ryan is doing quite a lot to bring the pun back into its rightful spot as an equal partner with metaphor. Also someone who wears her immense erudition very lightly.

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  7. What a fascinating pairing of quotes. I don’t suppose many people have studied how poetry affects the brain or why, for example, it can help circumvent certain symptoms of SD. Whenever I start to discuss the scientific side of poetry on my own blog, I find people have an almost visceral reaction — as if that would somehow tarnish the mystique of poetry. Ultimately, though, language lives in the brain — as do all the delights and poignancies of poetry.

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  8. Right on, Robert! The world will buzz and shimmer with mystique regardless of our attempts to explain and categorize it. That doesn’t mean we need to choose between science and mystery, since the best science always confounds our expectations and reminds us of how much lies beyond our knowing.

    The only thing I quibble with in your comment is your reference to brain rather than mind, which encompasses the entire nervous system and all bodily systems it permeates. Given poetry’s link with heatbeat and breath, among other things, I prefer to think of it as (ideally) a fully embodied form of linguistic expression, as opposed to many more cerebral forms, such as (to pick an extreme example) modern managerial discourse.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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