Poet William Trowbridge gave a lecture as part of the Living Writers Series on Monday and explained why the poetry genre needs to lighten up. In his view, literature has traditionally put the serious, lofty and epic strains of poetry up on a pedestal, relegating humor to the bottom of the hierarchy, just scarcely above satirical writing. He says the use of humor is seen as a flippant thing, which people aspiring to become great writers will abandon for fear of being considered trivial.
Trowbridge’s brand of comic poetry stands in stark opposition to these sentiments. He wants to see more contemporary poetry break the confines of somber, serious language and unlock the power of humor, as it is used in prose. He distinguishes his work from the category of light verse poetry, which he called “wit for its own sake.” Trowbridge’s approach intertwines humor and absurdity with serious and often dark topics. He says his aim is not just to entertain, as light verse does, but to elicit reactions in the heart and gut of a reader. He also finds it tragic that many people still dismiss the feasibility of comedy coexisting with the deadly serious in poetry. He praises comedy’s power and its ability to break through artificial sentimentality.
“Humor is an imposer of realism,” Trowbridge said.
Though there is a tendency for other poets to romanticize events, Trowbridge uses humor to remind us that life is not entirely pure and noble.
Trowbridge also advised students on the key elements of using humor, noting how breaking down a joke tends to kill the hilarity. His talk was highlighted by excerpts from his most recent book, the compilation of poems called Ship of Fool. The book tells countless stories about Fool, a time traveling angel. He is an eternal, archetypal character that appears in every culture.
“The fool represents something hardwired into human nature,” Trowbridge said.
Trowbridge describes his fool in Yiddish terms, as both a Shlemiel, or goofy klutz and a Shlemozzle, the laughable victim of misfortune. Fool has a myriad of experiences throughout human history, from medieval times, to Nazi Germany, and into the entirety of the cosmos and heaven. Even God is not safe from parody. Trowbridge uses Fool’s earthly incarnations to explore aspects of our culture and condition, especially the unsavory ones. Many stories involve Fool being burned, crushed, tortured, or otherwise hideously obliterated. Trowbridge discussed pain, both physical and emotional, as an important part of comedy.
“We are amused by pain as long as it’s not ours,” he said.
Talking about the prominence of bullying and, on a larger level, societal oppression and brutality as themes in his work, Trowbridge said his inspirations came from his childhood exposure to bullying, as both victim and bystander.
“It’s an element in human nature, bullying, and even after you’re bullied you might bully someone else who is weaker than you,” Trowbridge said.
He said he is disturbed by the rising severity of bullying incidents amongst young people, and hopes to draw attention to the phenomenon. He also feels humor is the best way for people to deal with horrible things.
Trowbridge said he believes there is a fool in all of us, and brought up one of his own foolish habits, motorcycling. He attributes his love of riding to James Dean, who died in a car crash as a result of speeding, but was able to look good doing it, and served as the inspiration for a generation. Besides the aura of Dean, Trowbridge said he loves the feeling he gets from achieving the absolute limit of tire adhesio. He said he will keep riding, no matter how foolish it might be.