by Timothy Green
[This essay first appeared in Byline Magazine, October 2007.]
Stand-up comics don’t just fail when they fail, they “bomb.” They “die.” There’s nothing more awkward than watching a comedian throw every bit he’s got into a room full of yawning silence – except maybe watching a poet do the same. As an editor, I see countless people submit their poems to magazine after magazine as the rejection slips pile up like so many rolling eyes.
This comparison is rooted in more than just humiliation. The comic’s routine must have worked at some point – the jokes must have made someone laugh, or why would he have risked the embarrassment of sharing them on stage? Similarly, the poet’s work must have moved someone, if only the poet himself. Why does some material work in private, but fall flat as soon as it leaves the house?
Sell it to the Fifth Wheel
We’ve all been in this situation: You find yourself amongst a group of close friends who don’t know you very well. Maybe your spouse drags you to a high school reunion; everyone is laughing hysterically about Billy Thompson’s bowling bag while you finger your martini and pretend to laugh. What’s so funny about a leather sack?
The problem is obvious – you have no frame of reference. In comedy this is called the setup, the crucial half of a joke that tells you what you need to know in order to get the other half, the punch line. Even a Henny Youngman one-liner needs both (“Take my wife…please!”). At the high school reunion, you’re treading water in a sea of punch lines, with no back-story to ground you. These are private jokes, inside jokes, and all they make you feel is left out.
Most likely this is our bombing comic’s problem, too – his jokes are too private to be understood by the general public. They require an understanding of personal references that the average bum off the street has no way of accessing. The successful comic needs to make his joke work for everyone, and that means providing the necessary context, in as few words as possible.
Speaking of Average Bums Off the Street
Here’s a secret: Editors, like all readers, are really just average bums off the street. We don’t know what we’re stumbling into as we open a submission or crack a book; we don’t know you or your background, or the context of any of the relationships or philosophies you’re bringing to the table. When we read your poem, we have to experience it for the first time, every time. If you want your poem to work for a general audience, you need to provide all of the context necessary for us to get the proverbial punch line. Otherwise you’re just reading “private poems” to a room full of rejection slips.
Digression #1: The Giggly Aquifer
I know. A poem isn’t the same as a joke. You don’t just want your readers to laugh, sometimes you want them to cry or to gasp, to have their heart flutter for just a moment as their eyes scan back up the page to read the poem again. But really, it’s all the same – a sudden outburst of uncontrolled emotion, a quick exhalation of air. What’s the difference between “ah!” and “ha!”, other than a bit of perspective? In her essay “Laugh While You Can” (POETRY, May 2006), the poet Kay Ryan calls this universal response the “impossible pang.” She compares it to the senseless joy of a baby playing peek-a-boo, and says she’s “sure that there is a giggly aquifer underneath poetry.”
Well, I am too. When reading a poem – whether it’s as a submission or on my own time – that’s really all I’m looking for.
Cleaning House for the Guided Tour
So how do you ensure that your impossible pang is felt by others? The first task in cleaning house is deciding whether or not you need to do so in the first place. Are you trying to sell private poems to the general public?
A major clue is often the topic itself. A private joke is “private” because it’s only understandable to a select group of people, sometimes a group of just one. A private poem works in the same way, and so they appear often as love poems, eulogies, and commemorative poems. Are you writing the poem for a specific person or occasion, or in response to a personal event?
If so, try to step back and be objective – is everything one needs to appreciate the poem contained within its lines? Is it clear, who, what, why, when, and where? As readers, we don’t know if the speaker in the poem has been married for years, or widowed. We don’t know if the person who died was a jerk or a saint. If background events aren’t common knowledge, we need at least enough of a hint that we’re able to piece them together.
Remember that it’s not the subject matter itself that makes a private poem, but rather the lack of a proper setup – a lack of context. If all the details required to understand the poem aren’t there yet, you need to add them.
Digression #2: The Devil in the Details
One of the common misconceptions for a writer is that generalities are especially relatable, because a more vague description is less likely to conflict with the reader’s own experience. Thus, a “breaking heart” is seen as a universal truth – who doesn’t know that feeling?
In reality, details work in the opposite way – the more specific they are, the better they are at conveying emotion. There are neurological reasons for this – the coupling of particular mental objects is more likely to form novel interconnections in the brain, and is thus, literally, more stimulating in terms of electrochemistry. But also, think again of a good stand-up comic. They don’t present themselves as indeterminate everymen; they become distinct, and often neurotic, personas when on stage. It’s the distinct rendering of character that draws the audience in.
Poetry works the same way – a few specific details paint a vivid picture so that readers can suspend their disbelief long enough to laugh, or to sigh.
There’s No Place Like Home
Any poem that has a self-contained setup – that has contextual detail – is a public poem. It might not be a good poem, but at least it’s a poem that’s ready for a response from the world at large. Another question arises, however. Does a poem have to be public to be good? A poem has to be public to be publishable, of course – no one wants to read a poem that can’t be understood on its own. But does publication equate to value?
A friend of mine from high school is the king of the inside joke. His inside jokes riff on decades-old inside jokes in a swirling vortex of hilarity that only five people on the planet might understand. But he has those five people rolling on the floor laughing whenever we see him. If he turned this material into a stand-up routine, there’s no doubt he’d bomb the room back to singularity. That doesn’t mean his jokes have no value.
Relative examples in poetry are boundless. I know someone who wrote his girlfriend an entire 100-page book of bilingual love poems for Valentine’s Day. Does it matter to either of them that we would all fall asleep trying to read it?
In a more somber example, one of the most moving moments of the year was Nikki Giovanni addressing the student body of Virginia Tech, after the slayings there. “We Are Virginia Tech” is the quintessential example of a private poem – there is no setup; it has little meaning without a context that it barely mentions. The details are vague because they can be – everyone knew what had just happened. It was written for a select group of people, but given the size of the tragedy, that group is very large, and the poem had an effect on more lives than any in years.
I think that the private poem has come to be undervalued in literary culture. Giovanni and few others aside, published poets tend to scoff at the commemorative poem, calling it amateur or “Hallmark verse.” But as a vehicle of intense communication, both public and private poetry have their value. Poets, like comedians, just need to keep their audience in mind. A comedy club might be a factory for laughs, but no one squirts milk from their nose like a group of old friends sitting around the kitchen table. One doesn’t supersede the other; cherish your private poems – and if you want to make them public, be sure to make them public first.