Thursday, December 17, 2009

epigrammy

There's a chance I'll be able to publish a book of these, but I need to write a bunch more and they need to be good. So I welcome comments. Please don't worry about my feelings -- I just want to know what's working. Thanks.


“Evan is seven. You are two.
So give me one good reason you
should get to do the things he does.”
Sage rubbed her brow and sighed. “Because
of what you said yourself. It’s true:
Evan is seven. I am too.”


***


“Mommy, Daddy,” Evan said,
“When S-a-g-e goes to bed,
let’s watch an m-o-v-i-e.”
Sage scoffed, “I know that spells TV!”


***


Evan pointed to where, in the snow,
tiny legs were beginning to show,
and he said, “What a beautiful thing:
It’s the first action figure of spring.”

18 comments:

Elaine said...

I love the first two.

Gavin said...

There was one last year (or so) that I thought might have been your greatest written work to date. I wish I could remember what it was.

(Can you add 2 or 4 lines to M-O-V-I-E?)

Eric said...

Thanks, E & G. Everybody's favorite from the earlier batches seems to be the one in which Eva is upset because someone stole the 'n' from the end of his name, and the culprit turns out to be Snage. Is that the one you're thinking of, Gavin?

JP said...

The first ones are great. I certainly love the metaphor punch line of the last one, but the music is sort of off, maybe?

Eric said...

Thanks, too, JP. If it helps, I actually intended the third one to be read as anapestic trimeter. But I think anyone who's just read the first two will have trouble hearing it that way. Four lines isn't a lot of space in which to establish an unorthodox meter.

JP said...

I hear you. But I still think, in those four lines, starting several lines on a stress (Evan, tiny) doesn't help your case for anapestic trimeter. (Even action becomes questionable without a solidified rhythm behind it already, no?) Anyway, the third line is perfect metrically, of course, but you'd need more than that to help me read it right even without the first few poems in a different rhythm. (I might be a bad reader here, I know, but since I usually hear meter pretty well these days, I'm maybe not the worst.)

JP said...

Also, I love them. If I didn't make it clear. And: GO BOOK!

Eric said...

No, JP, you put your finger right on it. Precedent is everything. Dr. Seuss could pull this off, even at the start of a poem ("Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot"). But I think readers had been conditioned by Clement Clarke Moore to expect Christmas poems in anapestic tetrameter. That was the precedent. I'll see if I can't do something about those initial stresses. Thanks for the keen ear and the support.

Jonas said...

Eric:

I know it might be a fun challenge for you to see how excellent you can become at driving a nail into a board with a screwdriver. But I have to ask WHY do this when the hammer is right in front of you?

I told you over a year ago, and I will say it again: This blog is dialogue for a cartoon strip. All you need to do is pick the best bits and get an artist to fill in the rest.

The comedy was right the first time, (when it came out of Evan's mouth, (or Sage)).

After you make a million bucks off the idea above, (and entertain the masses), then you can dork with a good thing and ruin the comedy for the sake of craft.

Kirk

Eric said...

An interesting point, Kirk, especially given that the illustrator my publisher has talked about using is an editorial cartoonist. The last thing I want to do is take something that's funny ha-ha and make it funny ho-ho, which is what formal poetry often does to humor. I remember when a literary journal published a "classic jokes" issue, dedicated entirely to old chestnuts retold in rhymed pentameter and whatnot. The poems were all impressively written, but my overwhelming impression was that the jokes were funnier before they became poems. It may have something to do with the difficulty of taking speech rhythms and recasting them as verse.

My model for this whole project is Richard Wilbur's children's poem "The Disappearing Alphabet." The poem's premise is that if letters were to vanish, so would the world, since it's words that allow us to apprehend the world. Some examples (from memory):

Hail letter F! If it were not for you,
Our raincoats would be merely waterproo,
And that is such a stupid word I doubt
That it would help to keep the water out.

No N? In such a state of things,
Birds would have wigs instead of wings,
And though a wig might suit the owl,
Who is a staid and judge-like fowl,
Most birds would rather fly than wear
A mat of artificial hair.
What would our proud bald eagle say
If he were offered a toupée?
I think it would be better, then,
For us to keep the letter N.

How odd that the banana's slippery peel,
Without its P, would be a slippery eel.
It makes you think. However, it is not
Profound enough to think about a lot.

The letter X can never disappear.
The more you cross it out, the more it's here.
And should it vanish, treasure maps would not
Have anything with which to "mark the spot,"
And treasure isles would ring with the despair
Of puzzled pirates digging everywhere.

Mine aren't in that league, obviously, but to my ear those lines prove the point that poetry and humor are compatible. And the verse gives other pleasures, apart from the humor, and has other qualities: memorability, for one. Music. The challenge is capturing those qualities without compromising the humor. Your comment makes me think for the first time about the distinction between my poems, which try to carry speech and dialogue over into verse, and Wilbur's poem, which doesn't, really. Maybe that's a meaningful difference. (I know that the difference between Wilbur's talent and mine is meaningful, too.)

I would say that the funniest poems in the series I've written, which stands at 17 poems now, didn't come from anything the kids said, and I'm not sure I would've written them if I were relying on the blog for material. This one, for example, I just made up:

“Rats!” said Sage, whose magic marker
refused to color any darker.
“Uh-oh. I think I hear them comin’,”
I said. “Be careful what you summon.
Rats are responsive. If you call
too loudly you might get them all.
Are you prepared to deal with that?”
She scratched her head. “I guess not. Rat.”

Would that have been as funny if written as speech-balloon text for a comic strip? Possibly. Funnier? Possibly. Less funny? Possibly. Would the overall aesthetic experience, of which humor is just one part, be better without the artifices of meter and rhyme? Good question.

Jonas said...

I think the ultimate question here is this: WHO is my target audience?

Believe me, comedy is NOT universal across the ages. (unless you just want to get on stage and make fart noises, farts are funny from 8 to 88.)

You are not going to like the following, so sit down in a comfy chair first. Puns: Puns are NOT funny. People are conditioned to laugh at puns. Puns are clever, and people will laugh at them so to demonstrate to the pack that they "get it" and are not a stupid person. Do not confuse this response as genuine laughter, because it is NOT. True humor is a primal response, it is uncontrollable. Do puns pass this test? No. Not unless you have really REALLY been conditioned by your society to react that way.

To me, puns are in the same camp as witty meter and rhyme. They are craft for craft's sake. Meter and rhyme do help comedy songs, but they do not MAKE them.

And no, illustrating these poems will not help, for this is also craft and by itself will not MAKE any comedy arise from where none was planted. When I said it needs an illustrator, I meant the unaltered dialogue from Evan, because this IS where the comedy foundation rests. The illustrations here would still be craft, BUT they would serve the purpose of context to the words. (Otherwise you have to add to Evans words to get proper context and you risk ruining the comdey.)

You mentioned a year ago that the blog might be a childrens book. This pained me to hear. The reasons why the blog is funny to adults is LOST on children. Trying to modify Evan's words to fit into these confines of "childrens book", is a loosing battle from the start because this is the WRONG audience for the seeds of this type of humor.

The opposite is true too, and equally annoying: Sitcom writers that put sly adult dialogue in a kids part. Kids saying witty things is NOT what makes a kid funny. Again, here the writer has a perfectly good hammer to drive in the comedy nail, and he uses a screwdriver instead.

Maybe I should blame Dr. Seuss for this. I didn't like those books as a kid because I though the witty prose was funny. I liked the acid trip inspired illustrations. The alphabet book you site is not a kids book, it's a book for adults, so it DAMN well BETTER have some kick ass drawings in it for the little ones!

One last thought: Warner Brothers cartoons. They VERY skillfully played to BOTH audiences. This is extremely hard to do, (to do well). Pixar knew this from the start, and that is why you aren't saying 'Pix what?" right now. Pixar made their name the brand it is because they knew their audience, they knew what was funny to each audience, the cut the fat, and the craft of the animation at that point was icing on the cake. It was NOT the comedy cake.

Gavin said...

Once again, comedy is ruined by graduate school. [Fog horn]

Eric said...

I think I’m going to have to soldier on without your blessing, Kirk. It was never my intention to turn the blog into a children’s book, and I don’t believe I ever said it was. The blog will still be here, and if someone wants to adapt it into a comic strip they’re welcome to. You’re right that the blog and the poems speak to somewhat different audiences, although I don’t necessarily assume a distinction between adult and child readers (I don’t assume a lot of the distinctions you take for granted — between craft and content, humor and wit, etc. I think the experience of being entertained is too subtle and complex to be broken down into binaries like that). Children and adults can enjoy Warner Bros cartoons, can enjoy Dr. Seuss, can enjoy “The Disappearing Alphabet,” can enjoy these poems and can even enjoy this blog. Often they enjoy these things together, sometimes for the same reasons, sometimes for different ones. What audience am I pitching the book to? I don’t know – adults and precocious children who like to be read to? For what it’s worth, children do laugh at the poems I’ve written so far, and not just out of politeness, I don’t think, because children aren’t very good at polite laughter. As to puns (and, maybe more broadly, to wordplay), I think people’s response to them is every bit as primal as it is to other sources of humor. People like coincidence, like surprise, etc. The first jokes most kids learn and like are puns (think of every dumb Laffy Taffy punchline you’ve ever seen, or any joke a 6-year-old has told you). It’s true that one’s response to puns is rarely uproarious laughter — it is a different species of humor in that respect; more like amusement. But that doesn’t make it unworthy. It’s just a different kind of satisfaction one takes in it. I actually suspect it’s the aversion to puns, not the appreciation of them, that we’re conditioned to feel — both by people who make puns all the time with no discriminating between good ones and bad ones, and by the people who assume that the existence of lame puns proves that puns are lame. About meter and rhyme being “craft for craft’s sake”: nonsense. Why would we even assume craft has a sake? Meter and rhyme are about the oldest sources of pleasure and entertainment out there — as primal as primal gets. The iamb (ba-BOOM) is the first sound you experience, in the form of your mother’s heartbeat. Listen to kids on a playground and you’ll hear four-beat lines all day long, with plenty of rhyme thrown in. There’s pleasure in form and recurrence, pleasure in the departure from form, pleasure in the return to it. There’s pleasure in the surprise of a good rhyme, and in the reassurance of it. Did you laugh in Spinal Tap when Michael McKean sang “Big bottom drive me out of my mind. / How can I leave this behind?” Because if you did, you were laughing at a rhyme and a pun. For the purposes of these poems, I think the question you pose — is some of the comedy compromised in order to make the meter and rhyme work? — is exactly the right one. And I’m going to have to address it poem by poem. But I think your objection to the larger project may be a case of trying to drive screws with a hammer.

Jonas said...

“….The first jokes most kids learn and like are puns….”

Keyword here: LEARN. Conditioned. Adults teach children these “jokes”. Kids come up with fart jokes on their own.

“….Meter and rhyme are about the oldest sources of pleasure and entertainment out there — as primal as primal gets….”

Really? What do you have to back this up? (Before you answer that, I have a photograph of an ancient cave painting of what is believed to be the first joke, ((and it doesn’t rhyme.)) And anyway, when I say “primal”, I am not saying this is as a call back to any kind of human history. I mean the “primal” base part of the brain. The lizard brain. If you could talk to the animals, lizards would be the first to tell you that they think fart jokes are funny. Then they would tell you they hate puns. (Sometimes the order on that is reversed.)

“….The iamb (ba-BOOM) is the first sound you experience, in the form of your mother’s heartbeat. Listen to kids on a playground and you’ll hear four-beat lines all day long, with plenty of rhyme thrown in….”

Two things. First, does this hold up across cultures? Do Chinese kids use four beats? Considering the fact that EVERY damn human has been exposed to this heartbeat sound makes it impossible to test your theory. There is no control group. Second, each of those children also heard bowel sounds in the womb, so you could just as easily use THAT to argue my point that the fart is first bit of humour a human gets and enjoys!

“….Did you laugh in Spinal Tap when Michael McKean sang “Big bottom drive me out of my mind. / How can I leave this behind?” Because if you did, you were laughing at a rhyme and a pun….”

Eric, Eric, Eric. This is a terrible example. At its core, this is a SEX joke, (and these aren’t far off from fart jokes). Do you think anyone would have thought those two lines were a classic if the subject matter was a cleaver play on the alphabet? Also, do you think if you replaced McKean with LL Cool J, and instead of this being a song at a mock rock concert it was just LL sitting on a stool rapping these lines at some gay poetry slam and a coffee house, WOULD I STILL BE LAUGHING AT THESE TWO LINES??!!! Okay, now replace the subject matter with “hopping on pop”, and take out the sex and fat woman’s butt parts. Have LL read this back. Laughs anyone? No. See, this Spinal Tap “joke” you cite is made up of a LOT of parts, only a couple of which are rhyme and meter.

Steven Wright does songs in his act. Most people don’t know that. His songs do not follow any rules, (standard meter and rhyme craft you would expect in a song from a Western point of view). Stephen Lynch, well his songs follow all kinds of rhyme and meter rules. Wright, (as most who practice this craft will tell you), CRUSHES Lynch. One Wright song, (no pun intended!!!) will trump all the evil lame songs of Lynches whole show. And Wright seldom rhymes anything. Years ago, I would close my set with a question, “how would Bob Dylan’s music be different, if he grew up in South Central L.A. around rap stars?” The song that followed, at times DID rhyme, and at times did not. The laughs were not dependent on this. This was a parody of “Blowin in the Wind”, so parody was one part, but the juxtapositions of rap attitudes versus hippie idealism was the main meat of the joke. Now my parody of Garth Brooks “Friend in low places”, “(I’ve done girls with) Leg Braces”, follows the original in meter and rhyme. For that song, it does add to the joke, but, again, the sexual content is the meat of the joke here, (crap, again, NO pun in-freakin-tended!!).

God, I feel like I’ve had the pleasure of arguing with you for 20 years, because I know your Brother so well! If you were a vegan, this would be even more fun for me.

Eric said...

I'd much rather be using my few free minutes to write these poems than to defend them, so I'll try to keep this brief:

1. Let the record to reflect that "comedy is a complex experience" was my point originally, not yours.

2. Comedy is not the only thing I'm going for, here.

3. There are a million big-butt jokes in the world. It is patently, obviously the pun that makes McKean's transcendent.

4. Meter is measure. Measure is rhythm. Rhythm is hardwired into us. It is a source of pleasure and, done right, conducive not only to comedy but to a host of other pleasures. What do I have to back this up? A hundred thousand years of human history, about 500 years of scholarship, and the fact that you're a drummer. (Rim-shot.)

5. If your main point is that this book will never sell to people who have written songs called "I've Done Girls in Leg Braces," I'm going to concede it.

Eric said...

P.S. I encourage the mocking of poetry slams. But no more using "gay" as a pejorative, please, or I'll be forced to use my comment-deleting superpower. This is a family blog.

Jonas said...

Ha! Fair enough Eric. But surely I meant poetry slams were “happy”. I recall you using your “comment-deleting superpower” on your Facebook page a few months ago, when you deleted the funniest thing ever to grace it. (Something about flies, and pooh, and the fruitless question of which part of that pooh to land on. It wasn’t a joke as much as it was a warning and a parable. But this prophet is without honour in his hometown, and so you deleted it, and moved to Topeka anyway.) Concede what you will, Captain Smug, but if you think Leg Braces doesn’t completely kill in a club full of strangers, you are mistaken. Honestly, it ticks me off that audiences react so positively to blue material. People romanticize the material of Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks and Carlin, et cetera, but they tend to forget that 97% of what they did on stage to make Americans laugh was blue material that contained no edgy social commentary and criticism at ALL, (and material that surely the “Family Friendly Blogster” would instantly censor and delete!).

My whole point of all of this was this: I saw a guy that was taking something I consider sacred, (the funniest blog I have ever read), and was diluting the comedy by throwing poetry into the mix. And mind you, this guy then ASKED everyone to tell him how he was doing, and not to hold back because he wanted it to be GOOD. Well, don’t cry when someone tells you the comedy suffers from what you are doing to it with the craft you enjoy and excel at practicing. Sure, I know comedy is only part of this mix, but I’m a comedian so I’m coming from the comedy point of view, and the whole reason I was here reading your blog to begin with, is because it was very funny as it was in the raw.

I did not say the book would not sell, but it’s funny you bring that up. Do you want it to sell? Why? Only three reasons I can think of. 1. For money. 2. For affirmation. 3. To entertain. Everything I have told you this last week is criticism that would help TWO out of those three points. (According to Meat Loaf, that ain’t bad.) I can’t help you with reason #2. See, the other people were already commenting and “helping” you with that for the most part. But them telling you “good job Eric” is not going to make your project any better. You understand that, and that is why you told everyone not to hold back. Did you forget that? Maybe you did, since you would:

“….much rather be using my few free minutes to write these poems than to defend them….”

(Are you sure you and Andrew aren’t twins? Are you a vegetarian too? If you are, that is going to completely make my day!)

Eric said...

I'm sure that song does kill. I've done a fair amount of standup, and have heard material so blue it would make your leg braces look pink (I'm sure you have, too). And I'm grateful that humor is a country big enough to have room for both Sacha Baron Cohen and Ogden Nash. I appreciate your enthusiasm for the blog, Kirk. I really do. And I agree that the poems I'm writing will never be as bracingly laugh-out-loud funny as the things that come out of Evan and Sage's mouths. But children's verse has other, quieter qualities that I like. And as I've said, it was never my intention to replicate the blog in poetry form, or to improve the blog by adding poetry to it, or anything like that. The blog is the blog. I'm just trying to write a book of poems that can be appreciated by children and the adults who read to them, and I'm using the blog as an occasional source of material and as a place to post my drafts. My competition here is Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky and Dr. Seuss, not Steven Wright or Lenny Bruce or Sarah Silverman. So when I asked for feedback that might help me make the poems better, I was hoping for comments like JP's, about rhythm in a particular poem. That was help (without scare-quotes). The response I didn't expect was "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON'T DO THIS!" I appreciate your desire to help me be more entertaining, but there's only so much good you can do yelling at a hamburger for not being a better taco. You've said you're indifferent to the verse in Dr. Seuss's books, that you don't find wordplay funny and that you think meter and rhyme are technical exercises with no real aesthetic value. You're entitled to those opinions. But I think you err in assuming that everyone else secretly holds them as well.

Yes, Andrew and I are twins. The reason we look so different is that meat-deprivation has stunted his growth.