Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Humor as a Serious Strategy

Billy Collins

Lesson time 09:56 min

Billy shares how humor is an essential part of his persona and teaches you how to use humor in your poetry for serious reasons.

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Topics include: Humor in “The Swan at Edgewater Park” by Ruth L. Schwartz


[TITLE MUSIC PLAYING] - One of the key moments or transitions in my development as a poet was when I discovered, in the-- in around the 1950s-- the 1950s, of course, were a very quiet decade. You know, all you had-- the only thing you had to worry about was polio, which is waking up completely paralyzed, or the atomic bomb. Apart from those two worries, everything was pretty much go steady and put on some more rock and roll. But that's when I started writing poetry. And one thing I knew is that I couldn't-- you couldn't be funny in poetry. Poetry was serious, dead serious. I was funny, my father was very funny, most of my friends were funny. But I didn't let that into my poems because that was right-- you couldn't be funny. And it's interesting that, when I look back, it seems that humor is a very, actually, an authentic position. You can always-- what I mean is you can pretend to be serious. I am pretending to be serious right now, quite frankly. If you've ever had a job interview or sat in a classroom, it's easy to pretend to be serious. You just take a clipboard or whatever-- hmm, that's very interesting-- and you look serious. You cannot pretend to be funny. You're either funny or you're not. And if you're not funny, people are standing at you and they're not laughing. You know that very quickly. That's why people who do stand-up say they "died." English poetry found a place for humor right from its beginnings. Many of Chaucer's tales are funny, "The Miller's Tale," particularly. Shakespeare wrote-- I believe they're comedies. When we move into the metaphysical poets, they relied on wit. The Augustine poets that followed them relied on satire. And then we get to the romantic poets, and that's when all-- all of it stopped. The party was over, friends. Wordsworth and Shelley and Coleridge went into a room-- this is what I imagine-- and they drew the blinds and sat around this table with a couple of candles lit. And they said, here's what we're going to do. We're going to eliminate sex and humor from poetry, and we're going to substitute landscape. Now that sounds like a bad deal to me, but it actually occurred. There was very little sex through the 19th century-- well, at least in poetry-- and really no humor until about the 1950s. If you wrote humorous poetry, from the Romantics to about 1950, you would be consigned to a little paddock called light verse, like Ogden Nash. I love Ogden Nash, but as Bill Matthew says, the trouble with light poetry is it wants to be funny all the way through, from the first line to the last line. So I started reading poets like Kenneth Koch, some of the other New York School poets, particularly Philip Larkin, west coast poets like Ron Koertge and others. And Ferlinghetti, to a certain extent, has got a funny-- is funny-boned. And those poets told me, it's OK, you can be funny without being silly, and just clownish, and jokey. You can use humor to serious intents. When you laugh at ...

About the Instructor

Known for his wit and wisdom, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins is one of America’s most beloved contemporary poets. In his MasterClass, Billy teaches you to appreciate the emotional pull of poetry. Learn his approach to exploring subjects, incorporating humor, and finding your voice. Discover the profound in the everyday, and let poetry lead you to the unexpected.

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Billy Collins

In his first-ever online class, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins teaches you how to find joy, humor, and humanity in reading and writing poetry.

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