BY this stairway narrow, steep, Thou shalt climb from song to sleep; From sleep to dream and song once more;— Sleep well, sweet friend, sleep well, dream deep.
Antigonish [I met a man who wasn’t there]
Hughes Mearns (1875 – 1965)
Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there He wasn’t there again today I wish, I wish he’d go away…
When I came home last night at three The man was waiting there for me But when I looked around the hall I couldn’t see him there at all! Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more! Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)
Last night I saw upon the stair A little man who wasn’t there He wasn’t there again today Oh, how I wish he’d go away..
The concept of a one-hit wonder is usually applied to pop-songs, but the same can be said of novelists and poets. Hughes Mearns’ poem Antigonish, is an example of a one hit wonder, as I can’t find any other poems attributed to him that have survived in the common domain. This little nursery rhyme like poem apparently had quite an influence on some children in the English speaking world, maybe because of its slightly scary imagery and the fact that children and adults are sometimes afraid of things that don’t exist in the dark. Antigonish is about the bogeyman who makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up. David Bowie’s rock song is rumored to have been influenced by this poem and if you listen to the lyrics, there are similarities, whether it is intentional or by coincidence is up for debate.
By Jack Prelutsky
In the desolate depths of a perilous place
the bogeyman lurks, with a snarl on his face.
Never dare, never dare to approach his dark lair
for he’s waiting . . . just waiting . . . to get you.
He skulks in the shadows, relentless and wild
in his search for a tender, delectable child.
With his steely sharp claws and his slavering jaws
oh he’s waiting . . . just waiting . . . to get you.
Many have entered his dreary domain
but not even one has been heard from again.
They no doubt made a feast for the butchering beast
and he’s waiting . . . just waiting . . . to get you.
In that sulphurous, sunless and sinister place
he’ll crumple your bones in his bogey embrace.
Never never go near if you hold your life dear,
for oh! . . . what he’ll do . . . when he gets you!
For most of us, our first introduction to poetry are nursery rhymes and rhyming children’s books. It’s a shame then, we grow up and forget about humor in poetry. I think there is a misconception that poetry is a very serious business. I think that misconception arises from the fact that so many poets write about such gloomy themes and the humor is dark. In the past 5 years, I have gotten a whole new perspective on reading poetry by writing poetry. I have come to realize that humor abounds, but you have to understand that poets often embed the humor as an inside joke and unless you know something about their personal life the joke is often missed.
Let’s take Wallace Stevens as an example. The guy was a lawyer for gosh sake, who worked in the insurance business, about the least humorous of professions, he looks scary in every photograph ever taken of him and his wife didn’t consider him to be funny one bit. But read this poem and tell me how you can’t find the humor in it if you approach it as a poem that is meant to be funny.
The Rabbit As King of The Ghosts
by Wallace Stevens
The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When shapless shadows covers the sun
And nothing is left excpet light on your fur –
There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.
To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;
And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;
Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full
And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,
You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,
You are humped higher and higher, black as stone-
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.
In my opinion sonnets by their very nature have a bit of whimsy and humor. First its the rather strict construction that puts the poet on the defensive right from the start, so a bit of word play and humor is almost inevitable to break the tension of writing the darn thing. Second, they are rather short in terms of space so they are a bit like writing punch lines. The poet has to get to the joke fast, so it’s generally a little easier to spot. Third, I think people who are really talented at writing sonnets generally see the world from a twisted perspective and they have left little clues hidden all through their writing as to their sense of humor. If you don’t believe me, read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets from a perspective that this is one big joke on his part, not serious English hoity toity literature, and I think you’ll find it a much more enjoyable experience.
If you are still left mystified by poetry and generally bamboozled by where the humor is hiding, then just head to a poet who leads with humor right from the start. You can’t miss the humor in Robert Service, Ogden Nash, Shel Silverstein, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde or Jack Prelutsky poems. But then don’t make the second mistake of thinking that their humorous poetry isn’t deadly serious.
If you have a favorite funny poem that doesn’t start with “There once was a man from Nantucket”, I would love to hear from you. Drop me a line in the comments section with your recommendation or even better share it in its entirety.
Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face
by Jack Prelutsky
Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
for if it were where it is not,
you might dislike your nose a lot.
Imagine if your precious nose
were sandwiched in between your toes,
that clearly would not be a treat,
for you’d be forced to smell your feet.
Your nose would be a source of dread
were it attached atop your head,
it soon would drive you to despair,
forever tickled by your hair.
Within your ear, your nose would be
an absolute catastrophe,
for when you were obliged to sneeze,
your brain would rattle from the breeze.
Your nose, instead, through thick and thin,
remains between your eyes and chin,
not pasted on some other place—
be glad your nose is on your face!