Last month’s Writing Magazine featured an article about writing humorous poetry. Disappointingly, it turned out to be full of advice worthy of Pippa Middleton (’Make sure you edit your poem carefully before submission…’) and nothing about whether plosives are funnier than fricatives or amphibrachs are funnier than anapaests. It didn’t quote a single line of comic verse, nor did it raise the slightest trace of a smile. I thought: I could do better than that after half an hour’s research on Wikipedia. And here is the proof: a decidedly amateur view, and probably a complete waste of time, since I suspect that humorous poetry is one of those things that you either write naturally, or not at all. And, as everyone knows, if you have to explain the joke, it isn’t funny. But I’m going to have a go anyway.
So, firstly, where does humour come from? Well, it comes from all sorts of things. Incongruous juxtapositions – like cute things which are also scary and evil (think of Catbert, or the rabbit of Caerbannog). Flawed but superficially attractive reasoning (’if one glass is good for you, two glasses must be twice as good!’). The surreal and the unexpected. Breaking taboos. Mocking the pomposity of others. Sources of humour are all around you, all the time. Next time something makes you laugh, note it down, then come back to it later to see if you can use it to make others laugh.
The next question is, why a poem? What’s so funny about poetry? Plenty, it turns out. You can create elaborate rhymes: ‘I would I were a cassowary/On the plains of Timbuctoo/ I’d catch and eat a missionary/Legs and arms and hymn-book too’. You can make up your own funny words like ‘runcible’. You can set up and then confound expectations with subverted rhymes and missing lines: ‘There once was a man from the sticks/ Who liked to compose limericks/ But he failed at the sport/For he wrote ’em too short.’ You can use repeated lines to establish a running joke (‘Macavity’s not there!’). You can pun to your art’s content. You can even derive humour from those curses of the poet, awkward rhymes and scans. In short, poetry is naturally amusing, it’s only those tedious po-faced ‘romantics’ who insist on taking it seriously.
What forms of poetry are the funniest? Limericks are obvious, but then ‘the good ones I’ve seen/so seldom are clean/and the clean ones so seldom are comical’. Another comic form is the clerihew, a potted biography: ‘Sir Christopher Wren/went to dine with some men/he said, “If anyone calls, say I’m designing St Paul’s’. Or there’s the double dactyl: ‘Long-short-short, long-short-short/Dactyls in dimeter/ Verse form with choriambs/ masculine rhyme/One sentence (two stanzas)/hexasyllabically/challenges poets who/don’t have the time.’ But there’s really no reason to confine yourself – there are humorous ballads, villanelles, sonnets… have a play around with different formats and see what works for you. Just remember: dactyls (DUM-da-da) and anapaests (da-da-DUM) are the most naturally amusing metrical feet. Oh, and free verse is not funny.
The great thing about writing humorous poetry is that, when you’re done, it is very easy to work out if it’s any good or not. Just read it out loud to someone and see if they laugh. If they do, congratulations! If they don’t, well it’s not too late to go back to that unfinished tragic elegy. Or the day job.
Footnote: it has been scientifically established that ‘k’ sounds (voiceless velar plosives) are the funniest. Now you know.