Altered Carbon  
Comic Poems  


Since the appearance of secular art in ancient cultures, tragedy has always taken precedence over comedy in the minds of both authors and audiences. It is considered more noble, perhaps more attuned to the lives most are forced to live. Everyone dies, even if nothing particularly funny happens along the way. It is, however, almost impossible to exaggerate the difficulties of writing comedy. It presents its own hurdles and limitations. While nearly all audiences will sympathize with the death of an infant, not all will agree that a dig on a politician is deserving of a laugh, particularly if they voted for him. The sheen of irony fades very quickly as one moves away from its source. One requires a full understanding of a subject before irony, in any of its forms, will be successful; thus one is greeted with "I guess you had to be there" or simply a blank-faced "I don't get it," every comedian's nightmare. Comedy has less historical and societal range than tragedy, which asserts itself through universal experiences such as betrayal, hardship, and death. Aside from the more obvious types of comedy, such as slapstick and invective, very little comedy sustains its nerve over time. The ancient Greek Menander or Roman Plautus won't keep even the most cultivated of cliques in stitches for very long. Shakespeare comes closer, and can even surprise with a very funny joke or situation; but Ben Jonson, faddishly funny in his own day, regularly falls flat now. Oscar Wilde will still win a smile, but the comedy of manners only succeeds when the audience knows which manners are being sent up. It's difficult to be transgressive when the boundaries have been effaced. Lewis Carol is whimsical, even oddly disturbing at times, but never really funny. Even T.S. Eliot's disarmingly amusing Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is more cute than necessarily funny. Most of the time Eliot's humor (when not downright vicious) is dreary and mean.

Then there are the more base facets of comedy. A burp can be funny, if well timed, whether it issues from Falstaff or Homer Simpson. It's hard to suppress a smile when an otherwise elegant model stumbles slightly on the runway. Her preferred status is compromised, and it is funny so long as she isn't injured in any serious way. Shakespeare's invective remains among the most acutely felt of his comedic strengths. Even if the insults seem a bit archaic, it is the intensity and clarity of the slur that remains with us. We might say "boorish" and "meat-headed" instead of "churlish" and "dizzy-eyed," but the sentiment still stings. Many of the forms familiar to the ancients remain with us, often in very popular settings, most notably on television: satire (The Simpsons), parody (Saturday Night Live), buffoonery (America's Funniest Home Videos), and invective (Sanford and Son). There is also comedy as way of saying "Fuck You". This type has been popular in America, in one way or another, since the 1960s. Lenny Bruce shares some things in common with other mutinous intellects like William Burroughs.

Poetry, particularly in its shorter, tightly organized forms, can carry a comic punch rarely found elsewhere, as with A.R. Ammons's gem, 'Their Sex Life': "One failure on / Top of another." A combination of precision and catchy rhyme can result in an epigraph worthy of both library shelf and bathroom stall. Peter Washington's selection of Comic Poems for Knopf is far-reaching, surprising, and vastly enjoyable. One will encounter the usual conspirators, Ogden Nash, Cole Porter, John Updike, Dorothy Parker, Stevie Smith, the cocktail party crowd; there are also what could be thought of as deep album cuts by Lucilius, Palladas, Martial, and Robert Herrick; some unexpected visitors like Thomas Traherne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Les Murray, Heinrich Heine, and G.K. Chesterton (who is, however, known for some extraordinary one liners). Alexander Pope and John Dryden, the Age of Enlightenment satirists hold court as well. This is fine powder room reading, and may be used to tame any crowd and lighten any event.

—Ernest Hilbert

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