A real laugh riot; or On Cleverness or Humor in a Poem

A recent critiquer of a poem of mine averred that in two particular places I had “substituted cleverness for humor.”

This gave me paws. Ha ha, see what I did there? Isn’t cleverness humor? Humorous? Humor-ish? Is it a lesser form of humor?

It could be said to be superficial, perhaps — wordplay, for example, whereas humor, perhaps, should dig deep, have a little of its tragedian partner. Is there not room for cleverness in a poem?

The first place the critiquer red-penned in this way was indeed wordplay. I was trying to reconsider the meanings of a word. But maybe I had made my point with the image I presented, and didn’t need to emphasize it with the wordplay. In which case, it wasn’t the cleverness at fault but the redundancy. Fair enough.

The second offense was a quick lightening of the mood — I used an old song lyric to describe a situation. I’m not quite so convinced cleverness was a problem there (or indeed, anywhere). In the poem in question there are a few lighter moments in a poem otherwise taking itself seriously, and this was one of them. Can’t a little levity allow the reader to take a breath, to share with the writer a chuckle?

But maybe such cleverness calls too much attention to the writer. Look at me and my cleverness, it may say, and take the reader out of the poem in a way that is harmful to the poem and its atmosphere. Do we really need to share a wink, you and I?

If I want to inject humor, shouldn’t it be of the deeper kind and arise from the poem itself, not from the author’s ego?

I don’t know. I like to laugh. But when is humor organic to a poem and when is it hiding something or asserting itself in a show-offy way? I just don’t know, in the case of my poem; although I may recognize it immediately in someone else’s.

At any rate, I think it’s an interesting question.

4 thoughts on “A real laugh riot; or On Cleverness or Humor in a Poem

  1. My understanding of the difference between humor and cleverness is that humor works by misdirection — it leads you in one direction then rips the rug out from underneath you or quickly changes direction, leaving you in an unexpected place — with a new understanding or with a hidden assumption revealed. Puns are clever — and usually draw a groan — because they merely show two meanings of something –but it’s not necessarily surprising or or revealing. However, a well placed pun can draw a laugh it achieves the above.

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    • I like this idea of misdirection. Or I prefer to think of humor as something that turns you around a bit. But puns are one type of cleverness and wordplay; not all wordplay is punny, as it were.

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      • Although, maybe I’m wrong. The more I think about what a pun is, the more everything I think of as clever wordplay could be considered a pun. That’s the problem with humor — the closer you examine it, the more mysterious and miraculous it seems.

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  2. Have you read Alan Dugan’s work? He often uses cleverness and humor and various plays on words. Sometimes the results are too clever by half. Sometimes the results are utterly amazing. He wasn’t afraid to mess around with satire and puns. Not to everyone’s taste, but I learn a lot from his work. Here’s one that wows me with its awfulness of topic, its wry speaker, its play on the wounded hero trope, and its wordplay and repetition. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/29186/fabrication-of-ancestors

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