Full disclosure: I have a vested interest in funny poetry. Last year I was delightfully surprised to win a competition for limericks in Limerick with a Trump and Brexit-mocking, last minute entry that I freely admit was the product of a few drinks. I find funny poems enjoyable to write and read, but more importantly, I think funny poetry serves a key function.
Any art form designed to make people laugh is an instant target for snobs. The highbrow among us, at least those who like to think they’re highbrow, dismiss limericks (dirty or otherwise) along with all kinds of comic verses. This attitude not only betrays a misunderstanding of literature’s purpose but ruins the fun for the rest of us, which is unforgivable.
Good comic verses also let people express things more accurately and succinctly than other forms. A little comedy can put tragedy in a shockingly effective contest. Take one of my favourites:
An obviously hideous incident is first robbed of its power and then transformed into something even more powerful. Call it black humour if you must, but the ability to laugh at the awful isn’t just a comedic niche. The understanding that we can laugh at tragedy is a testament to the variety and complexity of human experience. The fact that the tragedy is not lessened by its comic effect re-affirms our basic humanity. We can feel sad and happy at the same time; we can see the beauty in the midst of life’s frequent ugliness.
A word about puns. I’m the first to cringe at cheesy puns, I camembert them. But we’re looking lucky to speak a language where puns are easy, plentiful and informative. Puns remind us that the English language is funny in and of itself. Without topical humour, without tragicomedy, English can make us laugh. The mere sounds, coincidences and grammatical constructions of English subvert its seriousness.
Just like poems that remind us of life’s horrors by making us chuckle at them, puns let us know that no matter how powerful and world-changing words can be in the mouths of tyrants, freedom fighter and genius wordsmiths, the very nature of language can make us laugh. That power to stir in us all our complex, contradictory and interdependent emotions is the real beauty of language. Comic poetry takes the English language, cheese puns and all, and makes it so much feta.