Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Funny Poetry Conundrum

As y'all have seen, I've been participating in Ed DeCaria's March Poetry Madness these last two weeks. It's been a lot of fun, and I'm grateful to it and the other poets there because the whole thing has gotten me writing a lot, helped me make new friends, and given me tons to think about, both in terms of poetry and social media. But I want to focus on poetry for a moment... and a conundrum. Or really, a few related questions:

Does funny trump serious? Does serious trump funny? Is it possible to compare the craft in two vastly different styles of poetry (assuming both are well realized)? Do kids care about the nitty gritty, or is it all about a reaction: a laugh, an emotion, a story?

I realize a poetry "competition" is an artificial construct and that final vote tallies are not answers to the above questions since too many factors are in play. Still, in the last two rounds, I've had my funny poems up against a lovely, lyrical pantoum by Susan Taylor Brown and a pitch-perfect free verse poem by Mary Lee Hahn. In both cases, our poems could not have been more different. And I wonder how, if you're a person approaching the poems themselves, you end up picking one over the other.

So, I'm curious - do you have a bias towards funny over not? Do you think funny is easier/harder/the same as other types of poetry? Do you, when working with kids, find they have a bias? Do you bring your own bias with you when reading with kids?

Every year, during 30 Poets/30 Days, I feature 30 totally different poems and poets... and each one of those poems ends up being someone's favorite of the month. So, I suspect there's no real answer to the conundrum. Instead, we're all just individuals reacting in the moment to what we've read... funny or not.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Heather said...

I was over reading and voting on this contest and, for me, it came down to whether or not a poem flowed when I read it out loud. At times it ended up being a silly piece, other times it was a more serious work. I think if something is written for kids, it needs to hold up as a read aloud because there is a good chance that's how the piece will be presented.

Nikki Grimes said...

Humor seems to be the poetry go-to for young readers, so I'm partial to the serious variety, myself. I enjoy the challenge of tugging the heart of a child, rather than always going for the funny-bone. But that's just me.

Greg Pincus said...

Heather - I think that makes sense in poetry for younger children, in particular. But what about novels in verse? Certainly the language and flow matter, but is it the readaloudability or how it impacts you internally?

I also have voted for funny and not funny poems in the competition. For me, it's about my reaction to what I read (plus some purely subjective "quality" issues that I'm sure I look at). I think I do have a bias for laughter, but it certainly doesn't always win out.

Greg Pincus said...

Nikki - you succeed in tugging hearts! You also are funny. I read a lot of poetry out loud to elementary school kids, and it's clear that they react to both styles. I often wonder, though, if it's not about the reader - or in many cases the one who reads it aloud - rather than the poem. A clear punchline can tell you who a whole poem should be read. With something that's less clear, I've heard readers struggle. I wonder if that's not also true of the silent reading process?

Regardless, keep going for the heartstrings! I think it's working :-)

IfallslibraryDiane said...

As far as the contest, it depended on whether or not I could get the poem to flow as I read it aloud several times. It was a fairly quick visceral response before I voted. And it did vary as to whether it was the serious or silly poem.

Personally, I tend to go with readability if I'm working with kids.

My own personal tastes tend toward serious, but not always. I guess it depends on where I am in my day and my mood and what has happened.

Renee LaTulippe said...

For the competition, I was definitely drawn first to the humorous poems because I often felt the serious poems weren't really for children. But a humorous poem really has to be funny for me to vote for it - and we all know how subjective funny is. I love poems that tell a story, I like quirky, and I crave great meter and rhythm. The read-aloud for both funny and serious was a big factor - if the poem didn't scan, or the subject matter didn't grab me, I probably voted for the other one.

As a writer, I've always been a humorist, and even my very few grown-up poems are humorous. That's my forte, so that's what I do, but of course I appreciate and admire the work of poets who write serious stuff. Whether one or the other is harder to write depends on who the writer is. :)

As a read-alouder, I like to be transported (and help transport others through reading aloud) by wonderful language, funny or not, and I think kids are the same. I believe that if you read to kids with conviction and enthusiasm and a real appreciation for the words, they will respond positively whether it's serious or funny. Kids are deep! I plan on reading a good mix to my kids.

Susan Taylor Brown said...

Most of the time serious wins over funny for me because that's where my writing and reading loves both fall.

Generalization to follow: There are times when funny poems make me giggle but after reading them a couple of times, I'm usually done. Serious poems make me want to go back and savor them over and over again.

But like I said, I don't seek out funny stuff to read and honestly, a lot of things some people/kids find funny don't make me smile. And that was the case when I first started reading poetry as a kid. I was always drawn toward the angsty stuff but then I was an angsty kind of kid who took life way too seriously.

Though I write both middle grade and YA my poetry falls more toward high MG to YA or YA to adult.

Dan Holloway said...

Very interesting. I'm a performance poet and I have definitely noticed a preference for humour. Humour and politics delivered with a certain flair and panache. My own preference is for lyrical Beatnik style cries from the heart so I'm totally out of step, but it feels like delivery trumps content sometimes to some audiences, I guess because in the frenetic surrounds of a live show it's easier to respond to humour, though I find it less easy to engage - in other words, I'll belly laugh at a well-delivered funny poem but it won't wake me up in the night thinking unless it's other things as well.

Greg Pincus said...

Thanks, y'all. Interesting thoughts.

Dan and Susan raise an interesting point, I think. Do "funny" poems stick with us the same way as others? I know that sometimes, I write to get a laugh, and I hope I succeed, but that some of those poems are like potato chips: you eat 'em and forget. Sometimes, there's more to even the funny poems, and I think those tend to be stickier. Although... heck, I remember jokes from when I was a single digit child!

We can broaden this convo out beyond poetry, too, of course. Comedy generally seems to get less respect no matter the media.

tanita✿davis said...

This is a good question.

I gravitated toward funny, clever poetry and thought, "Oh, for kids!" and then I thought, "Wait. I wrote stuff when I was eleven that was not funny or light," and so read more carefully.

It came down to how things scanned and what caught my heart first - whether the language would be something which challenged or confused, whether thematically the poem was relevant to a young adult or child's life.

...and sometimes it was RIDICULOUSLY hard. I can't believe how much work the host put into it, and how much fun it was.

Greg Pincus said...

J. Patrick Lewis weighed in via email and allowed me to share what he wrote:

Does funny trump serious? Does serious trump funny? Is it possible to compare the craft
in two vastly different styles of poetry (assuming both are well realized)?

No, it's apples and broccoli.

Anonymous said...

Children, like us all, enjoy the immediate - and there is nothing like laughing for releasing all those endorphins. In fact, laughter is a release of stress. Is it any wonder that our stressed children enjoy a humorous poem more than a more serious one? Of course not. But no-one can live on a diet of relentless hilarity, any more than a diet of iced cherry buns! I think children enjoy thoughtful poems better for the juxtaposition with those which are fun.

Janet Wong said...

Apples and broccoli: So there it is, our answer! Funny poems at breakfast and lunch, serious poems at lunch and dinner.

Anonymous said...

That was me, Liz Brownlee, by the way, Greg - I'm afraid Blogger will never accept my identity!

Hannah Ruth Wilde said...

Apples to oranges…what is delicious for the individual reader is a varied as the taste of the individual writers. When I teach, I try to bring a basket of fruit.

Hannah Ruth Wilde said...

Oh, and some broccoli too!

skanny17 said...

As a teacher for 40 plus years I have seen kids gravitate to both funny and meaningful (serious) poetry. It depends. I agree with what Heather and others have said about the "roll off your tongue" readability factor which can apply to both types of poems mentioned here. For me it is not either or (we need our fruits and our veggies as Pat wrote!), rather, do we stop and say, "oh" when the poem is it a laugh, a feel good moment, a tug at the heartstrings, a chance to reflect on a serious topic or an opportunity to be enlightened. I also like how a poem looks on the page. For March Madness, I went with how the overall meaning/flow/enjoyment of the poem captured me. Sometimes the right amount of humor tucked in among words that resonate make a funny poem captivate and sometimes not. I also happen to think the ending of a poem is something that grabs me. As a teacher what I love about reading so many poems by so many poets at the contest, on blogs and in books, is thinking about how I can use that poem to bring children to the tasty, enriching table that the poetry buffet offers. There can never be too much poetry; the choir here just needs to gather more members!!

Charles Waters said...

It all depends on the person. Some tilt one way or the other OR are even. In my case I can tell you I started off reading and writing more funny children's poems but as I've matured it's an complete even split. I will say (hopefully I won't get in trouble for this) that for me I get more of a personal satisfaction in making a kid think vs. making them laugh.