Comedy is a funny kind of art: much loved, but rarely held in the highest esteem. Aristotle ranked it lower than tragedy, and the last unambiguously genre-specific comedy to win the Oscar for best picture was Annie Hall, in 1977. Comic poetry suffers a similar fate: it is under-represented in anthologies and rarely given systematic critical consideration. But do we even know what comic poetry is? Well, it’s poetry, for starters, although the worms that spill out of the can when we ask what constitutes poetry are too numerous to count. As for what constitutes comedy, the theories are a bit more manageable, and fall into three main categories: incongruity theory; relief theory; and superiority theory. All of these are encompassed, implicitly or otherwise, by Henri Bergson’s treatise Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, which forms the basis of Aaron Belz’s theoretical speculations on comedy. If I’m not mistaken, though, Belz warps Bergson’s theory in interesting ways, ways that help us understand the very serious intent—and rather dark view of the world—of the comic poetry in Belz’s book Glitter Bomb.
Theories of comedy are no more comic in themselves than theories of sexuality are sexy. Immanuel Kant, for example, is no one’s idea of a comic writer, but he is the great promulgator of the incongruity theory of humor. “In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh,” he writes, “there must be something absurd,” something that thwarts our expectation, that for some reason just doesn’t fit. Kant provides several examples, none of which undermine our sense that he’d make a lousy Saturday Night Live host. The least bad involves an Indian dining at the table of a British merchant in Surat, who
…saw a bottle of ale opened and all the beer turned into froth and overflowing, testified his great astonishment with many exclamations. When the Englishman asked him, “What is there in this to astonish you so much?” he answered, “I am not at all astonished that it should flow out, but I do wonder how you ever got it in.”
We (and by “we” I mean “we eighteenth century Europeans, with our condescending attitudes to other cultures”) were expecting the Indian to marvel at one thing, but he marvels at another, and our expectations are dashed.. Mikhail Bakhtin makes much of a more specialized notion of incongruity, claiming that comedy is to be found in the treatment of the highly regarded in terms of, or in proximity to, the low and bodily—the transcoding of the one upon the other. Aeschylus’s depiction of Odysseus, mid-heroic quest, being conked on the head by a hurled chamber pot presents a case in point, and provides evidence that the practice of comic transcoding existed long before the theory.
For Bergson, though, incongruities of all kinds are incidental to comedy. The core of laughter, he tells us, resides in the principle of something mechanical imposed upon life. We laugh at the absentminded professor putting a tea cozy on instead of his hat because we find it funny that he is on a kind of auto-pilot; we laugh at an orator who predictably thumps the lectern to emphasize each point because of the rigidity of his gesture; we laugh at a pratfall because where we’d hope for bodily gracefulness we see bodily rigidity, and so forth. When incongruity comes into play, it is simply a way of drawing our attention to the still or mechanical nature of things: all solemn ceremonies are ridiculously artificial, but we have become habituated to this, and it is only when something incongruous happens—a graduation speaker in full academic regalia farts audibly near a microphone, for example—that the laughably mechanistic nature of the situation is made evident to our jaded eyes. The situation is doubly funny, since in addition to this, we laugh at the manifestation of bodily needs that appear when a more intellectual or spiritual context is meant to prevail. Bakhtin’s notion of transcoding is one way to describe the phenomenon—the farting graduation speaker has made an incongruously low noise at an occasion of high sentiment—but for Bergson, the root of the comic lies deeper, in the way the needs of the body are mechanical, and impose themselves on other aspects of life.
For Freud, the various permutations of laughter are matters of relief: we constantly expend psychic energy, but things that make us laugh relieve us from having to do so, and the excess energy manifests as laughter. Jokes that let us talk openly about sex or various vices, for example, let us stop repressing our forbidden thoughts and urges, and the energy that had gone into repression dissipates in giggles and guffaws. Bergson, too, sees a release of energy in comic situations, but again it becomes a manifestation of his central idea of the mechanical imposed upon the living. What, wonders Bergson, accounts for the affection we feel for comic characters—those laughable characters we surely wouldn’t want to be? A part of us, as it turns out, would like to be them, because a part of us wants to give up the effort of trying to be gracious and socially acceptable and lapse into the automatism of our urges. We’d like to let ourselves go and be as gluttonous as Falstaff; we have moments when we’d like to stop repressing our anger and scream like Yosemite Sam. A part of what happens when we laugh is that we allow those automatic urges a place: we acknowledge the things we usually repress.
This is not to say that we fully embrace comic characters. Indeed, if Hobbes is correct, the central fact of comedy is our superiority to the objects of our laughter. “The passion which maketh those Grimaces we call LAUGHTER” wrote Hobbes in Leviathan, occurs when either when people experience some sense of self-satisfaction, or “by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another,” in either case it is a matter of “comparison, whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.” Casting as cold an eye on comedy as he casts on politics, Hobbes maintains that we laugh because we feel better than the people at whom we laugh. Despite his understanding of our affectionate impulses toward comic characters, Bergson sees the truth in this Hobbesian observation: for him, laughter has a kind of cruelty to it—and it is in its very cruelty that its importance lies. In mocking rigidity of mind and morals, comedy encourages the kind of fluidity and adaptability that we need to live well together. It polices against traits that we, as a society, wish to discourage. “Laughter,” says Bergson, “is, above all, a corrective” and its function is to “intimidate by humiliating.” Those who fail to attain a certain fluid gracefulness—those who allow mechanical habits or automatic urges to take over—will be punished, and laughter is the scourge. At the conclusion of his essay Bergson compares laughter to the delightful froth generated by ocean waves lapping up against the shore—it delights, but is “a froth with a saline base. Like froth, it sparkles. It is gaiety itself. But the philosopher who gathers a handful to taste may find that the substance is scanty, and the after-taste bitter.” (We might experience another kind of bitter after-taste when we consider how overwhelmingly male the theory of comedy has been in our tradition—but an amelioration may be underway, especially if the brilliant Sianne Ngai expands her theory of the zany from the study Our Aesthetic Categories into a full-scale theory of the comic).
Bergson’s theory goes a long way to explaining a great deal of poetic comedy. Consider Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams,” which riffs on Williams’ famous “This is Just to Say”:
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.
I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.
Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!
Firstly, there’s the simple fact of imitability: we are imitable only inasmuch as we are predictable, and our gestures automatic or mechanical. Here, it’s less that Williams himself has mechanically gone about writing the same poem over and over, but that two of his poems (this and “The Red Wheelbarrow”) have been repeated and anthologized and taught and cited so relentlessly that we come to associate them automatically with Williams, and the recognizable nature of the tropes forms a big part of the comedy. Then there’s the speaker’s mechanical repetition of similar actions, his refusal to grow or learn (“I simply do not know what I am doing”), which, combined with the way his urges govern him, freezes him into a comic type. For Bergson, the root of our laughter is social, even when we’re as far from political satire as we are in Koch’s poem. We don’t need to be reading Bertolt Brecht’s bitterly funny poems about capitalists or T.S. Eliot’s early satires of the anemic culture of Boston Brahmins for laughter to function socially. When we laugh, we’re policing against the undesirable. In Koch’s poem, the implicitly undesirable things include a narrow sense of poetic canon as well as a failure to learn from our actions and the inability to stop our urges from ruling us.
Even something as dissimilar from Koch’s poem as Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” makes sense in light of Bergson’s theory of the comic. It’s easy to be delighted by lines like these, but what exactly makes us smile when we read them?
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
There’s a distinction, says Bergson, between comedy expressed by language, and comedy created by language. The first type has to do with actions and scenes, but the second, which is untranslatable, “does not set forth, by means of language, special cases of absentmindedness in man or in events. It lays stress on lapses of attention in language itself. In this case, it is the language itself that becomes comic,” rather than anything to which the language may refer. Lewis Carroll’s poem traffics in this second type of comedy, in which language seems inattentive to its own content. When a poem gives us absurd words in a well-established poetic form like Carroll’s rhythmic quatrain, it isn’t merely the incongruity of semiotic disorder and prosodic order that amuses: it is the automatism, the sense of language filling out its regularities (ABAB iambics, here) while forgetting to cohere into meaning. Moreover, the nonsense words remind us of the material body of language as sound, giving precedence to this over the meaning we’d expected—and we’re amused just as we are when bodily needs take precedence over more elevated aspirations. We’re not all that far from the farting graduation speaker.
The human body, like the body of words, is funny when it draws our attention in contexts where we’d like the moral or spiritual to come to the fore—and so, says Bergson, “we laugh every time a person gives us the impression of becoming a thing.” Much of the comedy in Belz’s early poetry comes from a kind of deadpan execution of this principle, as we see in “Pioneers at the Foot of the Rockies”:
“Bit of an impasse” says one—
hardy farm gentleman, six horses
pulling all his possessions.
“Maybe we head north a while,”
says another. And just as he says
it, a fierce wind descends upon
them, and their hats sail away
into the twilight. “Lost our hats,”
says one, patiently. “Believe
you may be right about heading
north a while,” he adds, scratching
his forehead and chewing a bit
of leather, patiently. “Believe
you’re right,” he says, more quietly,
scanning the horizon to the north
and just as he gets back on his horse,
another fierce wind comes down
upon the two gentlemen and blows
away their families and wagons,
so now it is just them sitting
on their horses at the foot
of the Rockies. Says the other, “I
think we’re alone now.”
It goes on, leading to a comic homily about the founding of the city of Denver. But it’s the fatalism of the men, their automatic acceptance of the loss of their hats, combined with the reduction of their families to mere things, bits of litter blown by the wind, that gives the poem its odd, goofy feel.
Readers of poems like “Pioneers at the Foot of the Rockies” wouldn’t be surprised, if they were to delve into a research library’s stacks and crack the pages of Belz’s unpublished doctoral dissertation, to find that it is the body/spirit dichotomy that most fascinates Belz in Bergson’s work. Something Mechanical: Popular Comedy’s Influence on Modern American Poetry, 1900-1960 is a Bergsonian study of comic poetry, its chapters pairing up modern poets with pop culture figures—e.e. cummings with the now-forgotten Henry Wheeler Shaw; T.S. Eliot with Groucho Marx; Gertrude Stein with Charlie Chaplain; and Jacques Tati with John Ashbery. Belz is drawn to the Bergson who wrote passages like this:
…a living body ought to be the perfection of suppleness, the ever alert activity of a principle always at work. But this activity would really belong to the soul rather than the body. It would be the very flame of life, kindled within us by a higher principle and perceived through the body, as if through a glass. When we see only gracefulness in a body, it is because we disregard in it the elements of weight, of resistance, in a word of matter; we forget its materiality and think only of its vitality, a vitality which we regard as derived from the very principle of intellectual and moral life.
“Rigidity, or resistance between body and soul,” Belz argues, is corrected through laughter.” And the purpose of Bergson’s essay, Belz goes on to say, “is to propose an ever-elusive telos for laughter: to reunite body and soul.” Bergson’s theory of laughter, then, has “a redemptive dimension.” Comedy reminds us of just how far from grace and gracefulness we have fallen by providing negative examples: we infer from them what a redeemed condition might be.
This is a strange conclusion to draw from a philosopher whose essay ends with an image of the bitter, saline base beneath the froth of laughter. Certainly there’s a telos to comedy: as Bergson sees it, the social usefulness of comedy is what makes it an impure art. But the telos of comedy has to do with the somewhat cruel policing of human behavior, about which Bergson is clearly ambivalent. Belz repositions Bergson—one might even say Belz reinvents Bergson as someone with a more Christian outlook, whose laughter seeks to bring our fallen lives closer to the world of the redeemed soul. In his doctoral dissertation, then, Belz proves himself a true poet, not a critic who writes poetry: the true poet never met a theory he couldn’t bend to suit the needs of his own temperament. And Belz’s temperament, for all of its goofball, deadpan, witty affect, inclines toward a sense of the fallen nature of the world, and the distant hope of redemption. The blending of this affect with these inclinations is the genius of the poems collected in Belz’s Glitter Bomb.
Life, says Bergson, progresses and evolves. It does not repeat or reverse itself—but when it appears to do so, it seems rigid, mechanical, and comic. Belz applies this principle to language itself, as in these palindromes from Glitter Bomb:
I caught this
minion, then gushed
“Suh tail a loss
olg deh sug neht!
My girlfriend has a freaking weird name:
We’re expecting wit, here: a palindrome promises that the reversed letters of the initial phrase will cleverly create a new phrase in the manner of the famous palindrome about Napoleon, “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” But instead we get flat-footed repetitions of letters, mere nonsense, and built-in justifications for nonsense as glossolalia’s speaking-in-tongues, or as a “freaking weird name.” Bergson would see it as a mechanical fulfilling of formal requirements without an accompanying attention to sense—a comedy much in the manner of “Jabberwocky,” and like that poem it is essentially untranslatable.
The comedy of Glitter Bomb often involves a warping of a received phrase, one of Bergson’s classic forms of the comedy in the absentmindedness of language. In fact, Belz seems to have invented a form I call the two- or three-line one-liner, a quick little squishing or mashing of something we’ve heard a million times (these bump up against the outer border of what some would consider poetry, but if we think of them as drawing attention to idioms as idioms, they stand squarely in the middle of what linguist Roman Jakonson considered the poetic function). Belz’s poem “Ice Cream,” for example, reads “I scream, you scream, we all scream/when we get stabbed in the heart” and his “Michael Jashbery” mashes up a John Ashbery title with a Michael Jackson lyric “I’m starting with the man/in the convex mirror.” The goofiness here cuts against a certain darkness: the literal or emotional pain of “Ice Cream,” or the hints at hopelessness in “Michael Jashbery.” The Jackson lyric is, after all about self-transformation coming from the insights of self-examination. But what insights, what transformations, can we hope for if our reflection is only the distorted one we find in Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror? The darkness underlying this side of Belz’s writing is clear enough in a similar poem, “Team,”: “There’s no I in team,/but there’s one in bitterness/and one in failure.”
The mashing up of familiar bits of language we see in “Michael Jashbery” gets a fuller treatment in “Thomas Hardy the Tank Engine,” which also begins to hint at the redemptive urge in in Belz’s poetry, its sense of how we can survive bleakness by turning toward the not-quite-serious. To the best of my knowledge, Hardy attempted comedy only once in his poetry, in the utterly ghastly “The Ruined Maid,” which rivals Wordsworth’s flat-footed failure “The Idiot Boy” as the most powerful evidence that sincere poets of English rural life should keep the comic urge at bay with a pitchfork. Otherwise, Hardy’s poetry stuck to the kind of bleak hopelessness that has crushed the spirit of many a reader of Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure. And it is to this kind of poetry that Belz appears to pledge himself in the opening stanzas of the poem:
From now on my poetry
shall be like Thomas Hardy’s—
I shall write about ponds
and about dying trees
and the sadness that creeps
into love, over time
and that life is absurd
and death sublime.
Soon, though, Belz speaks of the differences he plans on cultivating vis-à-vis his great English model. “But I shall not grow/a broad mustache/and wax it each day,” he writes, “or wear a starchy shirt.” Nor, he adds, at the poem’s end,
shall I bother
to refer to myself as “the tank engine.”
People already know
I’m a tank engine.
It’s not just the incongruity of the juxtaposition—the tragic author set against the plucky animated train engine from the beloved children’s show—that matters here. That certainly plays a big role in the poem’s comedy, as does the preposterous suggestion that Hardy called himself “the tank engine.” There’s also the notion that Belz himself is somehow known as the tank engine—something tough, something unstoppable, but, in the context of Thomas the Tank Engine, something childish and lovable, too. He’s as familiar with pain as Hardy (the bitterness and failure Belz jokes about in “Team” are real; the book ends with a poignant evocation of a loss, in which “the last words she spoke” haunt “like a bell/whose peal continues to echo down dreams”). But Belz’s characteristic move is to warp the kind of sadness and tragic absurdity that obsess Hardy into something else, something odd and funny, and in so doing give himself a way to endure, if not transcend. If we’ve been reading Belz’s poetry for a while, what he says in this poem rings true: we’ve seen him depict himself as he chugs on stoically or with a brave smile through various kinds of disappointment and adversity, and in that sense we do already know he’s a tank engine.
The divided self haunts the poems of Glitter Bomb, a figure both amused and choked with morbid sorrow, a figure in search of some kind of redemption, often an absurd one. This is what we see, for example, in “Song of Myself”:
As usual, I dined alone.
I went to pay the bill
and saw a printed sign:
“We don’t split checks.”
I told the woman at the till
that the sad and happy
parts of me wanted to
go Dutch today,
and could she make an exception?
She suggested, “Perhaps
the happy part could treat.”
I said, “He’s broke.”
She seemed to understand
but still refused to split
the check. I stole
the toothpick dispenser.
Walt Whitman may be large and contain multitudes, but Belz’s psyche only seats two, the happy and the sad man. There’s a kind of Groucho Marx charm to the line “he’s broke,” but what interests me more here is the final sentence: an act of pointless revenge against the universe, an attempt to make things right, to redeem them through misguided external aggression while the real problem goes unaddressed: in his low-key way Belz is giving us the drama of the angry spirit flailing, helpless and petty, no closer to wholeness and happiness than a character of Thomas Hardy’s.
It is in the poem “Your Objective” that we see most clearly the nature of the divided self in Belz’s poetry, and his sense of the comic as redemptive. It is here, too, that we see how he differs from Bergson about the nature of the comic:
In a given situation
Your objective should be
To act as much like yourself
As possible. Just imagine
How you would act
And act that way.
A good rule of thumb
Is, try to be similar
To who you really are.
But keep in mind
That there’s no way
To perfectly replicate
Yourself at all times.
The comedy here seems Bergsonian enough: the mechanical imposition of something upon life. The imposition, in this case, is of the strict rule to behave as you yourself would, for Belz to impose Belzian actions upon Belz; or for Archambeau to foist Archambeau-identity upon Archambeau, and for the concerned party to police against deviation. The tragedy behind the comedy lies in how we are never able to simply be ourselves, how we fall short of self-identity. And the fall has to do with self-consciousness: when we try to think of what we would do, we are seeing an image of ourselves separate from ourselves, and that very act divides us, makes us non-identical with ourselves. It’s an old trope, at least as old as Romanticism’s psychologizing of the old myth of the fall when, after eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve suddenly discover their nakedness, and with it their self-consciousness. So we continue, fallen, self-conscious and divided, unable to “perfectly replicate” ourselves. For Belz, the redeeming quality of comedy has to do with the reuniting of the self—its “ever-elusive telos,” as he argued in Something Mechanical, being the perfect union of our earthly bodies and our eternal souls. Comedy’s redemptive dimension lies in exposing division of these things and implying—purely by virtue of the portrayal of the division as ridiculous—that some higher reunion is possible, or at least desirable, to be striven for. Division is (according Belz’s logic and Belz’s Bergson) beneath us, something to be ridiculed—therefore unity hovers above us, and is something to which we might aspire.
Bergson, of course, saw it otherwise. “A really living life should never repeat itself,” he avers, and we are laughable exactly inasmuch as we are imitable. To be ourselves, then, is not so much to achieve unity or self-identity as it is to unfold in ever-evolving diversity. Here lies the misapprehension of Bergson in Belz’s critical writing. But if the idiosyncratic reading of Bergson in Something Mechanical helped Belz create the sorrow and laughter of Glitter Bomb, we’re better off for the idiosyncrasy. After all, a poet’s criticism is a funny kind of art.
Robert Archambeau is a poet and critic whose books include Home and Variations, Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, and The Kafka Sutra, as well as several edited volumes. He teaches at Lake Forest College and blogs at Samizdat Blog.