Stand up poetry

Paul Constant

May 02, 2017

Funny poems are tough to pull off. I’m not talking, here, about poems with humor in them; almost every good poem has at least one funny thing smuggled inside of it. No, I mean poems with punchlines, poems written with the intent of making readers laugh out loud. Those are very hard to get right; too often, funny poems veer into dad joke territory. They try too hard, they screech too loud, and they flop gracelessly. Along the same lines, political poems are almost impossible to get right. Politicians wallow in clichés and current events, waterlogged as they are in the banality of the familiar, tend to resist the spark of poetry.

So Cody Walker’s latest chapbook, a small collection of humorous political poems titled The Trumpiad, is an especially difficult sell. An incompetent president is a treacherous muse; Calvin Trillin published scads of comic poems about George W. Bush, and they were almost all vapid, obvious, and unfunny. But Walker does the impossible with The Trumpiad; he makes a book of funny political poems that’s worth reading.

The reason The Trumpiad works so well is its inventiveness. Walker fires out a spray of poems, in many different styles: anywhere from one to fifty-something lines, both rhymed and unrhymed. (Yes, he rhymed “Trump” with “hump.” And “penis pump.” But really, how could you not?) It’s less a manifesto and more a constraint-based exercise, a kind of poetic version of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould starring a narcissistic empty suit held up on a flimsy wire framework of lies.

The poem “Wonder of Wonders,” for instance, is an “Ozymandias”-style character study, witnessed from a great distance: “Trump Tower’s/host glowers/from the topmost floor./He’s plundered everything; he wants more.” Other poems evoke Trump’s language with a sorrowful chuckle: “Here is the church, here is the steeple,/Here are the Second Amendment people.”

The gallows humor and the desperate search to uncover new ways to express disgust and outrage perfectly mirrors our national mood right now, and the variety and energy in The Trumpiad is enough to keep you happily flipping through the (happily, short) length of the book. As a time capsule for the early Trump presidency, it’s surprisingly spot-on. And Walker and publisher Waywiser Press are donating all proceeds from sales of The Trumpiad to the ACLU, making this an entirely guilt-free purchase.

While Walker’s Trumpiad is a book of funny poems clearly produced to respond to this immediate moment in history, Seattle poet Jason Whitmarsh’s The Histories is a more thoughtful book of funny poems. Whitmarsh didn’t throw these poems together in a mad blush of creation; these are crafted works, designed with a greater balance and narrative arc in mind.

And they are funny. Whitmarsh has a special knack for finding a single image that can slap the reader across the face with all the shock and wobbly force of a fatty raw trout. Much of the book is made up of prose poems relaying creation myths for everyday concepts: Robotics, Therapy, soda machines, MacGyver, fear, Los Angeles.

“The first title was just the story itself, but in a bigger font,” Whitmarsh writes in “The History of Titles.” He continues, “The second title was the first title, followed by a two. Title three was untitled, but written out: ‘Untitled.’ And so on, for a couple thousand years.” This idea of cavemen struggling with the concept of titles is especially rich. And the last line, which gets to the idea of what a title is, stabs the silly idea of titles straight in the left ventricle: “You must picture a version of yourself 30% smaller and suspended in the air halfway above your head.” Because, really, titles are fucking weird when you think about them.

Whitmarsh’s poems are funny all the way through, and meticulously entertaining. What he does is he picks at an idea until he strips away all but the meat at the center. He writes a poem about a machine humanity built “for getting angry.” Naturally, we immediately regret our decision to construct a machine to inspire anger, because “there’s too many days lost to this humming.” The next time you get a Facebook notification on your phone, you might find yourself glaring at the screen in a different way.

Whitmarsh and Walker both came from Seattle’s poetry scene, and they’re both storied Seattle performers. (There’s a poem about Wayward Coffee’s open mic stage, which, in its old location was so bad that it “rendered” Whitmarsh “illiterate.”) You can see their performances resonate through their work. Walker is the kind of poet who embraces his mistakes onstage, who’ll change an entire poem because the audience laughs harder at a line than he expected.

Whitmarsh, though, is the Brainiac who crafts every line to work perfectly with the one before. His poems have a heft and a structure and a craft to them that seems effortless but which requires an inordinate amount of work. Even when he’s sharing a prose poem about a subject as mundane as Aquaman’s self-seriousness, Whitmarsh keeps a straight face. You’ve got to admire that kind of commitment to a joke.

Books in this review:
  • The Trumpiad
    by Cody Walker

    April 29, 2017
    32 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • The Histories
    by Jason Whitmarsh
    Carnegie-Mellon University Press
    February 13, 2017
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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