Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 7: Combining Pathos and Humor

The poet Kip Zegers and I were watching a mutual friend read poems, back when I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The friend was reading a series of confessional poems about difficult times in his life. It was difficult to hear that much pain in one sitting. And then the poet interrupted the sequence to insert a light-hearted poem that had the audience laughing. You could feel a palpable sigh of relief among those in attendance, a physical reaction of comfort.
Kip leaned over and said to me, “Audiences need to laugh.”
I’ll never forget that, because at that moment I witnessed firsthand the way that listeners or readers relax and concentrate again when humor enters into a serious piece of writing.
It’s as if you’re at a party and a person you’ve just met starts telling you a story about something awful, like satanic cults torturing canaries. You might start to wonder if the individual recounting the story is a bit nutty, since he or she is telling you something so intense and upsetting without much introduction or warning. If that person inserts a humorous remark, though, suddenly the whole dynamic changes. You realize that even though this is a serious story, the person telling it still has perspective, and that the storyteller does not expect you to burst into tears before you fish your next beer out of the cooler, or snarf a Dorito from the bowl on the coffee table.
I’m not suggesting that Hamlet should be revised to include knock-knock jokes. But there is broad humor even in Hamlet, in the gravediggers’ scene, for instance (Act V, Scene 1, for those keeping score at home). The gravediggers are arguing about a terribly serious subject—whether suicide is a sin, in response to Ophelia’s death. One of them says, “if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes—mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself.” Pretty silly stuff, to argue that water would come along and drown someone, but Shakespeare knew that sort of wacky comedy was necessary to hold an audience if he wanted to prepare them for the deeply tragic ending of Hamlet.
Humor has to be spontaneous for it to work, but you can leave space for humor to enter your writing. The more serious the project, the more important it is for light-hearted landings that allow us a literal breather before we climb the next flight.
Just as tragedy needs humor, humor also needs pathos. If you’re writing a comic piece, full of laughs, it’s crucial for it to have an edge of seriousness. That’s what makes it art, and not just a TV sitcom. For instance, Billy Collins has that hilarious poem “Forgetfulness” about not remembering details of favorite books and other names. It’s a wonderful send-up of the way we lose information as we age:

…one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Lots of great one-liners in this poem, but at the end, Billy Collins veers toward pathos:

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

The poet reminds how funny it is that we forget all these details, but the poem is also achingly poignant, because we see that we are also losing everything that matters to us as we age and move toward death.
Humor and pathos are yin and yang. One can’t exist to its fullest extent without the other. The greatest writers are the ones who know how to weave the two, tastefully and artfully.

Other recent posts on writing topics:
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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