I like funny poetry best but there’s a difference between “jokes” and “poetry jokes.” A joke is shaped like this: There’s an initial incongruity that disrupts normal expectations, and behind it a different level of congruity that makes things make sense again. A poetry joke is shaped like a normal joke, except it doesn’t have the second level, or the second level it has is malformed, it doesn’t quite make things make sense again or it doesn’t make any more sense than the first level. A normal joke is ruined if you explain it; a poetry joke can’t be explained and thus can’t be ruined.
So poetry jokes often stay funny longer than regular jokes. But then again they’re funny “for no reason,” you read them and start to laugh and then you wonder why, and worry maybe it’s just because you saw something shaped like a joke.
Here’s some examples. Neither of these is particularly funny, but they have the advantage of being sort of parallel.
A waste is a terrible thing to mind.
That’s a joke. It disrupts normal expectations because it reverses two words in the common saying A mind is a terrible thing to waste. But the reversed sentence makes just as much sense as the original, while also kind of reversing that sense, in that the original is sort of optimistic and inclusive and the inversion is sort of cynical and mean. Invert the words and you also invert the meaning; scratch the surface of something optimistic and you get something mean. It’s easy to fairly exhaustively explain, it disrupts your normal expectations for a second but then it’s based on premises that feel just as familiar. There’s a kind of conservation of meaning going on.
Now here’s a quote from a Charles Bernstein poem (“Lives of the Toll Takers” from Dark City) (This should have some crazy indentations but they’re not going to show up right in your browser no matter what so screw it) (Charles Bernstein might be one of the pioneers of the poetry joke as we know it).
mind is a terrible thing to steal:
intellectual property is also
“A / mind is a terrible thing to steal” doesn’t make a lot of sense; adding “intellectually property is also / theft” kind of just makes it worse. The only reason to substitute “steal” for “waste” is that “crime” almost rhymes with “mind”—in other words no reason, really. It’s maybe not any funnier than the regular joke, but it doesn’t conserve logic. It creates the same moment of confusion as the joke and then it just hangs there, so even if you successfully explain it once you can come back later and laugh for different reasons, and then explain it again. Poetry joke. Okay?
So: Everything Was Fine Until Whatever has a few more jokes than I usually like in my funny poetry (“She seemed maternal to me because she cursed a lot and always asked me if I was pregnant”); but then they’re mostly really good jokes, so I won’t complain.