reviewed by Brooke Clark
Only confident literary cultures produce comic poetry. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, only confident literary cultures can acknowledge that they produce comic poetry. The authors whose work ended up being collected in The Greek Anthology were certain enough about the accomplishments of their forerunners, such as Homer and Sappho, that they didn’t think twice about dashing off a squib about a man with a giant nose or a woman too old to be attractive – poetry was well enough established as an art form that they weren’t worried their poems would somehow be counted against it. Similarly, the Latin epigrammatist Martial recognized he was living and working a short time after Latin verse had reached its pinnacle in Virgil, Horace and Ovid; their achievements were secure, and no one would think less of them because he cast crude jokes into (perfect) elegiac couplets.
Given poetry’s marginal (at best) status in our culture, it’s not surprising that the contemporary poetry world doesn’t acknowledge the existence of comic poetry, since it could threaten whatever remains of poetry’s reputation as a ‘serious’ art. Current poetry shows little interest in being funny: it mostly alternates between cataloguing the uninteresting ephemera of the poet’s daily life and a humourless performance of virtue, in which poets express ideas in fashion among the faction of other poets who make up essentially one hundred per cent of their audience, and in return are told how ‘radical’ they are for boldly reciting opinions that everyone in the room already agrees with. (One is reminded of Tom Lehrer’s comment on the folk scene: ‘It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee house or a college auditorium and come out in favour of the things that everyone in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on.’)
Why this tendency to parrot the audience’s pre-existing views? The lyric mode has become so dominant in contemporary poetry, and the ‘I’ of the poem so closely associated with the poem’s author, that it is almost always assumed that poems written in the first person express the experiences and beliefs of the poet. In such an environment, disapproval is not merely an aesthetic judgment that one has written a bad poem, but a moral judgment that one is a bad person.
Sometimes we don’t realize how pious we are until something shocks us out of our intellectual languor. A book like A.M. Juster’s Sleaze & Slander carries just such a salutary shock. (Full disclosure: a couple of poems from this book appeared on an epigrams website I edit.) Simply in its style and tone, it defines itself against the dominant poetic tradition (as comic poetry often does), and in its content it rejects the platitudinous recitation of the poetry community’s idées reçues and challenges the straight-faced orthodoxies of the moment.
Sleaze & Slander covers such a wide range of styles that it could almost be read as an encyclopedia of comic verse. There are occasional poems like the ‘Panegyric for President’s Day’ and the ‘Prayer to Bill Gates’; there are parodies of other poets and styles, including the modernist rave-up ‘Prufrock’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Red Wheelbarrow Glazed with Rain beside White Chickens’, and a tribute to Swift in the form of another birthday poem to ‘Stella’. There are also five note-perfect exercises in the style of Billy Collins, selected from Juster’s collection of Collins parodies, The Billy Collins Experience.
‘Letter to Auden’, modelled on Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, offers Juster’s take on the contemporary poetry scene:
A partial consolation on bad days
Is no contemporary can compete
With you at all. Downtrodden MFAs
Denounce the Audenesque as obsolete
Oppression by your dead-white-male-elite,
But then they go on to become depressed
Because there’s nothing left to be confessed.
Only a few eccentrics still support
Those poets who can scan lines properly.
However, I’m delighted to report
That you became a hot pop property
When Four Weddings exhumed your poetry.
You would have been amused to see its star
Arrested with a hooker in his car
But shocked that we remain so schizophrenic.
Our sordid scandals rarely stay concealed
Although we want things guiltless and hygienic.
Gay Studies has developed as a field
In which great writers’ lovers are revealed;
You lose some points for marrying a Mann
And your diversity of goings-on.
This isn’t just an exercise in Auden’s rhyme royal metre: it also captures his relaxed, discursive tone while providing sharp commentary on the ways society has changed (and hasn’t) since the addressee’s time.
Much of the book is devoted to Juster’s translations of comic poetry: two Satires of Horace, the ‘Epitaph to a Drunken Twit’, by Erasmus, and the Middle Welsh ‘Poem of the Prick’ and its – companion piece, I suppose you could say – ‘Poem of the Pussy’. Sleaze & Slander is clearly also inspired, at least partly, by the tradition of classical epigram, and there is a large selection of Martial here, as well as some other Latin epigrams and a section of Juster’s original epigrams. Among the Martial poems we find:
Your ass in the sink
is making it stink.
For a fouler smell,
dunk your head as well. (2.42)
You pine for bards of old
And poets safely cold.
Excuse me for ignoring your advice,
But good reviews from you aren’t worth the price. (8.69)
Your wife declares you crave
her girlish slave,
while she herself enjoys
your litter boys.
Alauda, this seems fair;
you’re quite a pair. (12.58)
There are a few translations from Ausonius, including this one:
Gray-haired Myron begged Lisa for sex,
But his pleas were promptly denied.
Since her thinking was hardly complex,
His white locks were hastily dyed.
With new hair but the same tired face,
He returned to reargue his case,
But upon her new suitor’s arrival,
She was struck that he looked like the rival,
Then said, ‘Idiot don’t even bother –
I have already kissed off your father.’
And one by Luxorius:
If his words could equal his penis,
He’d be known as a legal genius.
He is up half the night
Missing laws he should cite
While joined by his servant of Venus.
As for Juster’s own epigrams, they tend to the pungently Martialesque:
You found yourself, but at an awful cost.
We liked you better when you were lost.
Your tattoo artist was a jerk
And sloppy in his spelling,
But given where he put his work,
Nobody will be telling.
If you believe our liturgies,
no marriage may be sundered,
But lawyers say six-figure fees
can fix what God has blundered.
The standard argument against poems like this is that they are inconsequential. On the one hand, we can dismiss this by simply pointing out that those who feel this way don’t understand the charm of epigram. Why have we been trained to see funny poems as not ‘real’ poetry? Until relatively recently – up to, say, Pound’s epigrams at least – comic poetry was a part of the poetic tradition, and it was accepted that if a poem could make you laugh, then it had done enough.
But the poems in this volume also raise larger questions, not least of which is what makes a particular utterance ‘poetic’, especially given how widely their content diverges from what is now usually defined as poetry. Juster’s answer, clearly, is form, and his use of rhyme and metre shapes his content into something memorable and gives point to his jokes. He shares this quality with the classical authors who provide his inspiration: Martial’s subject matter may be grotesque, filthy, and (at times) even rather tiresome, but his poems always scan. And while epigrams can seem frivolous at first glance, the good ones take essential truths about society and human nature and express them with such perfect concision that they become a part of the reader’s own view of the world.
In a way, Sleaze & Slander can be read as an argument for inclusion: it brings back a tone that is missing in poetry, and suggests that poetry is resilient enough as a form to risk being funny now and then, and large enough to include more than just free verse personal lyrics.
And perhaps the distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘comic’ poetry is just a red herring anyway. In truth, there are only two kinds of poetry: good and bad. Good poetry conjures feelings and expresses ideas in language that is sharply etched and memorable, and the question of whether it makes you laugh or not is irrelevant. The best of the poems in Sleaze & Slander will make you laugh, and they will also stay with you.
Brooke Clark edits the epigrams website The Asses of Parnassus. His work has appeared in print and online journals including Arion, Literary Imagination, Able Muse, The Rotary Dial, The Tangerine and Partisan. Twitter: @thatbrookeclark
Image credit: Measure Press