- Humor in Modern American Poetry ed. by Rachel Trousdale
Perhaps one of the most productive—and most revealing—ways of addressing humor is to gather the ideas of ten quite different writers, as this marvelous collection does. Taking this approach gets at the sprawling contradictions of comedy and allows perspectives to interact at countless points. Presenting a variety of ways of thinking about and writing about humor, these essays cover high modernists and light verse, formalists and objectivists; there are chapters on single poems and others that span several periods. When Rachel Trousdale, the book's editor, sums up its inevitable omissions as "invitations to join the [End Page 259] conversation" (15), the phrase is genuinely apt: Humor in Modern American Poetry offers ample demonstration of what a conversation about humor can do.
In fact, the collection's multiplicity of voices itself acts as evidence for the book's emphasis on humor as interpersonal, as relating to "fellow-feeling and mutual understanding" (12); ideas of exchange and understanding, variously construed, run through each of its valuable essays. The volume centers on the roles humor plays in the self's interactions with others and with groups. Acknowledging that neither the social nor the dialogic (nor humor) are ideas we tend to associate with twentieth-century poetry, this book advances an idea of an "interpersonal humor in which laughter becomes both the instigation and the proof of shared values, of insight, and of originality" (15), as Trousdale's introduction frames it.
As is fitting for a new conversation about humor, this introduction also responds to earlier stances; it lays out an extremely readable account of how humor has been explained over the centuries, up through recent critiques by feminist theorists of comedy like Hélène Cixous and Regina Barreca. It would be an excellent overview for students new to studying humor and especially for those seeking a model of how to bring philosophy and literary studies together.
The first four essays of the book suggest its range of sensibilities and questions. It begins with a subject that might seem unpromising for a book centered on humor and sympathy—"what [Ezra] Pound considers to be humor" (35), as Joel Slotkin matter-of-factly puts it. But this unexpected beginning, which necessarily involves examining a frequently racist sense of humor, both shows how far humor is bound up with the interpersonal and accepts that humor has ethical limits. Slotkin argues that Pound's drastic changes of register in The Cantos demonstrate his need to make his own voice superior in every passage. By "controlling who speaks language clearly and by making sure that he is on the right side of every joke, Pound maintains his own authority to speak to the reader" (36). There's another counterintuitive point at work in the next essay, an examination of E. E. Cummings's "erotic humor." While humor—especially brassy or gross-out humor—is not usually seen as an aphrodisiac, William Solomon makes use of Victor Shklovsky's idea that bizarre metaphors can stop "the automatizing behavior whereby we take the bodies of loved ones for granted" (40). Solomon proposes that such defamiliarization is at work in Cummings's early images of sexual activity: cement mixing, a car being driven for the first time, and "genital foreplay [characterized] in terms better suited to describing the impact of seasonal change on an urban milieu" (46). [End Page 260]
In a third surprising chapter, Marta Figlerowicz emphasizes the subdued humor of Lorine Niedecker's "For Paul": Niedecker "uses conventions of comic verse to draw attention to how little her speaker, and with her perhaps any other person, can do to transcend or increase the narrow span of her knowledge and her cares" (61). Here humor emerges in self-aware gaps of communication and contrasts of tone. Figlerowicz's attention to despaired-of but dreamt-of understanding offers a generative way of discussing humor amid seriousness in other twentieth-century American poets. Lena Hill's exploration of Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery is another rich essay, setting out...