Especially Alive

On humor in poems.

Two people wearing masks, one smiling, one frowning.
USA. Untitled. From the Mask Series with Saul Steinberg, 1962. Photograph by Inge Morath/Magnum Photos.
Masks by Saul Steinberg © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/ARS, NY

This essay is excerpted from Jonathan Farmer’s book That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems, out now from Stephen F. Austin State University Press.

“The Universal is the goal of jokes,” Robert Pinsky writes in his beautiful, meandering elegy, “Impossible to Tell.” I’m not sure I believe that, not entirely. But I’m fascinated by how the line becomes one part of the poem’s veering through contingencies, with some of the same snap as the punchline in a joke, and then becomes the setup for the next swerve. That overlap is, I think, a part of what Pinsky has in mind: the way joking, like storytelling, roots deep in human traditions, the way the forms persist, the way in our erasable particularity we long for something more lasting (though we want, at the same time, to preserve our particularity as well).


There are universals, of course—death, for instance, though we understand it in very different ways. And—although it’s not quite universal—friendship, or at least the longing for it. Elliot Gilbert, whom the poem elegizes, “had in his memory so many jokes/ They seemed to breed like microbes in a culture/ Inside his brain.” But the poem is, the epigraph notes, not only a memorial to Gilbert but also written to Robert Hass, about whom he notes, just before explaining how Gilbert died:

In the first months when I had moved back East

From California and had to leave a message


On Bob’s machine, I used to make a habit

Of telling the tape a joke; and part-way through,

I would pretend that I forgot the punchline,


Or make believe that I was interrupted—

As though he’d be so eager to hear the end

He’d have to call me back. The joke was Elliot’s,


More often than not. 


“Impossible to Tell” isn’t really social—by which I mean, it doesn’t really act at any point like an interaction between two people. It is, instead, like most poems, openly putting on a show, creating an act that moves through time as a reliable medium but does not seem to be taking place in the time of its movement. It is, to put it another way, obviously artificial—and if all of our social life is at least a little artificial, it nonetheless depends for its depth on a sense of immediacy, of the form falling away in favor of awareness of the other person with whom we are engaged. And yet …


Pinsky’s practice of telling jokes into Hass’ answering machine and then stopping before he delivers the punchline is also a reminder that putting on a show for another is a kind of care, and has its own immediacy. The poem opens, just before it introduces Elliot:


Slow dulcimer, gavotte and bow, in autumn,

Bashō and his friends go out to view the moon;

In summer, gasoline rainbow in the gutter,


The secret courtesy that courses like ichor

Through the old form of the rude, full-scale joke,

Impossible to tell in writing. “Bashō


He named himself, “Banana Tree”: banana

After the plant some grateful students gave him,

Maybe in appreciation of his guidance


Threading a long night through the rules and channels

Of their collaborative linking-poem

Scored in their teacher’s heart: live, rigid, fluid


Like passages etched in a microscopic circuit. 

The whole time I’ve been writing this essay, I’ve been thinking of my friend Sean. For almost 15 years, we mostly lived in the same place—first Southern California, then New York. Sean intimidated me when we first met. He seemed a little slick. His quick wit outran me. He seemed like a sophisticated adult when I still felt like an awkward child. I was uptight, anxious, stiff, judgmental. He was—I felt certain of it—the kind of person who would judge me for those things.


That I was wrong about that last part is probably too obvious to dwell on. What’s been on my mind here is how often, how hard, he made me laugh. And how awful his life was at the moment when I started feeling safe with him, and how important that sense of safety was in helping me learn to feel safe more often with others. And how, for a while, I valued the friendship less as that became more possible for me. Sean was—and is—an exceptional performer. It bothered me sometimes, at first: seeing how fast he read a room, each person an audience, and how quickly, how fully, how effectively, he bent himself toward what that person wanted from him, often before the person had even thought to want it. For a long time I missed the loneliness at the heart of it, of him. I missed, too, the courtliness of it, “The secret courtesy that courses like ichor,” Pinsky writes.


For a few stanzas, “Impossible to Tell” delves into what seems like memoir, describing Pinsky’s own beginnings as a performer:

Imagine a court of one: the queen a young mother,

Unhappy, alone all day with her firstborn child

And her new baby in a squalid apartment


Of too few rooms, a different race from her neighbors.

She tells the child she’s going to kill herself.

She broods, she rages. Hoping to distract her,


The child cuts capers, he sings, he does imitations

Of different people in the building, he jokes,

He feels if he keeps her alive until the father


Gets home from work, they’ll be okay till morning.

It’s laughter versus the bedroom and the pills.

What is he in his efforts but a courtier? 


Later in the poem, he admits, speaking of that child:

The cover of That Peculiar Affirmative.
Stephen F. Austin State University Press

That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems

By Jonathan Farmer. Stephen F. Austin State University Press.

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Or maybe he became

The author of these lines, a one-man renga


The one for whom it seems to be impossible

To tell a story straight. 


It’s hard to capture the feeling of that meandering in excerpts. The poem’s movements are longer, the stories slower to return after they wander offstage. And of course all this ties in to the poem’s title, which is also its refrain, and the implication that there is no sufficient way to remember Gilbert. But then again: “The movement// Of linking renga coursing from moment to moment/ Is meaning, Bob says in his Haiku book.” Maybe the actual goal of most jokes is movement, a circuit in which our essential medium, time, takes shape. Maybe the goal of most jokes is just pleasure—the pleasure of being in motion, a kind of athleticism, really, and the pleasure of giving someone else pleasure, too. Of moving someone, in a nearly literal sense of the term.


I think of how generous Sean was—and still is—in trying to heal himself through others. How little, besides our happiness, he asked of us in return. And I think of how unlikely it is, sometimes, the fluency that can take over a room, that all of our complexities can find a form in which we are all at once especially alive. The gift of that, even if it does not answer the appetites that make it possible. It’s possible, I think, that part of the encounter with another in a poem, part of the person we find when we read, is simply that hunger to make something, and how that hunger must bend to reach us, to become something that can live in the circuits that can be inscribed on a page. So, too, with jokes, whose goal is also to usher us, however cloaked, however burdened, a little farther toward people we do and do not know.