You Gotta Laugh!


You Gotta Laugh!

 Posted by Susan Shand on January 12, 2013 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (4)

You Gotta Laugh!


Do haiku have to be serious? Does poetry in general have to focus on serious subjects, be composed in serious terms, presented in serious tones…  before it will be considered *serious poetry* which can then be taken seriously? You will find people in the bazaars delineating between haiku and senryu on the basis of how serious the poems are. As though REAL haiku must be serious and anything outside of that division must be senryu. After all, no one takes Pam Ayers seriously, many people weren’t sure about Stevie Smith, and they were confused about John Betjeman until he was legitimised by Laureateship. Ted Hughes has never, as far as I know, written a funny poem. There is a long tradition of ‘taking it seriously’ equating to ‘being serious’ in English poetry.


However, just a brief look at the literature of haiku reveals many poems which prompt our laughter. Like this one from Issa. [1]

my hut’s firefly

still hasn’t starved

to death


which has the qualities of a modern stand-up comic’s one-line joke. It works because of what it doesn’t say. We realise after a moment, that it is an ironic and self-effacing comment on Issa’s own poverty which overstates his poverty to the extremes of there being so little food available that even the tiny firefly barely sustains itself.


In the utter simplicity of this well known Kerouac haiku [2], which echoes Issa,

In my medicine cabinet,

the winter fly

has died of old age


Kerouac, in simple words without artifice, places us beside him. He opens the door of his medicine cabinet and discovers the dead fly. Perhaps Kerouac has been healthy all winter so hasn’t opened the door and perhaps he now again needs the medicine. The irony of the fly who has died surrounded by medicine does not escape us. The winter fly has died of old age waiting for him to fall ill …and that is funny! Comic both in the ludicrous pathos of a cartoon fly impatiently longing for Kerouac’s illness – and in Kerouac’s childish pathos and call for sympathy. We can look deeper into this haiku and read it metaphorically as though in his cabinet of solutions, the irritating thing of winter has resolved itself. Not through any positive decision or event, but through long, tedious, and futile wrangling. It has become so old and tired that he has finally given up trying to solve it. In “it has died of old age” is the comedy of our own futile struggles with the unsolvable; and in the fly waiting impatiently for the world to be as it wishes, our own ironies.


Here is another modern one by H Gene Murtha, [3] 

spring mist –-

a mallard paddles

through our stillborn’s ashes


Watch what happens here,


– spring mist –

we are in a spring morning, the mist is still blanketing much of the world around us, deadening sounds and colours.


– a mallard paddles –

close to water then, it may be a lake or river, a pond or canal, but we can’t really see for the mist, we just know that we must be at the waters edge. A short fat duck with short legs and big webbed feet paddles, and waddles rather comically across the scene.


So far we have very little to go on but then Gene hits us with,



– through our stillborn’s ashes –

we drop immediately (or at least I do, you might not, it depends) into the appropriate emotional state of sad respect. The image of this young couple scattering the ashes of their stillborn child at the water’s edge demands a well understood social demeanor. This couple might have imagined feeding the ducks with the loved and looked forward to child, who sadly has never taken a breath. Now they are having this painful moment of release together, in the privacy of the mist, to scatter the baby’s ashes. We watch them from a little distance away and the mist seems to intensify the mood of enclosed sadness. It is a very private moment of grief to which we are spectators in appropriately matching emotional clothing.


Then, in a recursive jump, the duck waddles through the scene again. The comical cartoon-like paddle of the duck – straight through the scattered ashes.


At this point something happens inside me. My adopted seriousness and sympathetic pathos explodes – and I laugh. I laugh because it is funny. The duck is no respector of funereal moments, it doesn’t know the significance or the loaded emotion of this scene, it is just doing what ducks do. It bursts the bubble of the emotional state which has been assumed for this occasion. In my laughter is the knowledge of its complete innapropriateness to the scene which I am observing, we are not supposed to laugh at funerals. Yet how can you not laugh at this comical little duck completely subverting the intense emotion with its naturalness. The laughter catches me, it is so inappropriate in social terms that there is a little guilt and self-reproach. Then I swing a bit between trying not to laugh and trying not to feign a sadness which is not mine but which I know is what is right to the situation. Until I realise, as the duck reveals, that the natural thing is the right thing. Then I can really enjoy the comedy of the bursting of my own bubble and I can revel in the deeper message of the duck; which paddles through our own play-acting, assumed poses, and feigned seriousness to show us ourselves.


 So perhaps it isn’t so much the presence of humour but the quality of it which counts? Perhaps it depends WHAT we find funny that really matters and how, as writers we use the lighthearted to reveal something deeper about what it is to be human, and foolish.



(stardate 20130111)




[2] Scattered Poems by Jack Kerouac, City Lights Books, 1970

 [3] first published THN Nov. 2002, vol 4:11,



4 thoughts on “You Gotta Laugh!

  1. Reply
    Johannes S. H. Bjerg 10:20 AM on January 12, 2013
    if poetry is a mirror/extension/expression of life no emotion/temper/state of mind is excluded. Unless, of course, you restrain/cultivate/deny/suppress and poetry should question our rituals/habits/”as usuals” which the appearance of the duck does so well.

    As always, a joy to read.

  2. Reply
    Susan Shand 12:40 PM on January 12, 2013
    Thank you Johannes. I hope you are looking forward to your month of blogging in February?

  3. John Irvine 08:26 PM on January 13, 2013
    Hey, Susan. I write a lot of haiku, senryu, tanka and haibun. I have subjects ranging from bagging the medical profession to vampires. I’ve written sci fi haiku. I say that Western haiku et al can be about anything. I believe a lot of writers now consider the lines between haiku and senryu very blurred indeed.

  4. Susan Shand 10:52 PM on January 13, 2013
    John Irvine says…
    Hey, Susan. I write a lot of haiku, senryu, tanka and haibun. I have subjects ranging from bagging the medical profession to vampires. I’ve written sci fi haiku. I say that Western haiku et al can be about anything. I believe a lot of writers now consider the lines between haiku and senryu very blurred indeed.

    Thank you John. It is a broad debate this one, with many differing opinions on where and how to make a distinction. The fact that it is a distinction made within Japanese culture for historic cultural reasons only makes the attempt at a western distinction more confused.

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