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Seriously Funny: The Role of Humor in Poetry

“The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living,” said Viktor Frankl. While poetry is often taken as a serious art form, the role of humor cannot be overlooked. In fact, Billy Collins was awarded the Mark Twain Award for Poetry in 2004, which recognizes a poet’s contributions to humor in American poetry. Humor, in poetry or any other art form, gives us a chance to view the world through a different lens and approach truths that may be too difficult to face in earnest. Tools like irony, satire, and surrealism can help us understand and cope with life’s absurdities, injustices, and complications. To show how it’s done, we’ve selected four examples of our favorite humorous poems. 

 

Beyoncé in Third Person” by Morgan Parker

In the news today Beyoncé went

to brunch this weekend. Two

neighborhoods over, dressed in all black.

Comparing salad recipes

and third-wheeling weekend dinners

dog kibble in my loafers

seducing my self in sweatpants

is not how I envisioned my 20s

or is it. 

 

Pushcart-prize-winning poet Morgan Parker juxtaposes the superstar status of Beyoncé with the speaker’s day-to-day life, creating a balance of humor and realism. “I am very complicated and so is Beyoncé,” she writes as she takes on the difficult themes of grief, fear, and sadness. 

 

poem I wrote after I woke up at 6 a.m. as a joke” by Catherine Cohen

in the future everyone will be 25 minutes late

to their 45 minute therapy session

in the future restaurants won’t make you wait

for the whole party to arrive before they seat you

I can’t wait to check my phone

I can’t wait to hear my daughter’s first podcast

I ask my therapist why should I want to grow

she says I will suffer less

what is she trying to prove? 

 

Writer and comedian Catherine Cohen’s debut poetry collection, God I feel Modern Tonight (2021), brings a sense of self-awareness to the table by taking on themes of heartbreak, sex, self-love, and ennui with a sense of humor. By setting us in a not-so-distant future, Cohen points out the absurdities of modern life without taking them—or herself—too seriously. 

 

The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World” by Rita Ann Higgins

When he says to you:

You look so beautiful

you smell so nice –

how I’ve missed you –

and did you come yet?

It means nothing,

and he is smaller

than a mouse’s fart.

These are

the did-you-come-yets of the western world,

the feather and fin rufflers.

Pity for them they have no wisdom.

Others will bite at any bait.

Maggot, suspender, or dead worm.

Throw them to the sharks.

In time one will crawl

out from under thigh-land.

Although drowning he will say,

‘Woman I am terrified, why is this house

shaking?

And you’ll know he’s the one.

 

Sex can be a taboo topic, but Irish poet Rita Ann Higgins uses a frank and wry tone to approach the subject unabashedly. Her poem pulls no punches when addressing the orgasm gap, or pleasure gap, which refers to a general disparity between heterosexual men and women in reaching orgasm. At the same time, the poet discusses female sexuality openly and honestly. 

 

Survivor Guilt” by Ron Padgett

It’s very easy to get.

Just keep living and you’ll find yourself

getting more and more of it.

You can keep it or pass it on,

but it’s a good idea to keep a small portion

for those nights when you’re feeling so good

you forget you’re human. 

 

The award-winning poet Ron Padgett is well known for his friendly and truthful tone and his sense of humor for life’s small and large moments. In this poem, Padgett discusses the rarity, absurdity, and temporality of human life—but his sense of humor softens the blow. Rather than lamenting these thoughts, the poem encourages readers to think deeply and reminds them that being human can feel strange and lonely, but we are not alone.