Richard Prince, “Joke on You,” 2008
Jokes replace form.
—Ron Silliman, out of Ketjak (1978)
I was eating eggs
And anticipating (anticipation is always dependent on the senses)
A spunkier texture than I’d been used to, whereas each new parenthesis
paused to introduce . . . a joke, nothing structural,
Although contingent—sudden, but to the point—or, rather, now that I
think about it, missing the point, but intentionally, so as to defer
As it were, the bestowal of a middle name on Relativity Theory, and all
Thinning of (horse-like) atmosphere,
In which it seems that anything can be compared to anything, and yet
nothing is captured
Since it wriggles through a few hands and over the fence it goes
To look back. Lacking power, ‘nothing’ watches.
—Jack Collom and Lyn Hejinian, out of Sunflower (2000)
Is a ghost
How can you love that mortal creature
Everytime he speaks
—Jack Spicer, out of “Blood” (The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, 1960)
And if I could explain
And if I could explain
If I could,
You would probably consider
the river more
not what you think
But more river
or just more.
This code is no joke—it’s impossible to end the recounting of
the activities of the human mind but nothing is new.
—Bernadette Mayer, out of “This Is a Problem-Solving Dream Where the Group
Attempts to Change the Language” (Scarlet Tanager, 2005)
Trees are like clothes, they . . . No. From the point of a pen things stand for a time. As long as one goes on with it, going on being eventually to forget what one started out to do. I think of soap, alone, no use, for no reason in the world I can tell. Secrets are locked up everywhere in procedure. Tell me the time and I’ll tell you an unkempt joke. The hours are like clouds, their coming and going directions obvious. But, as far as I can tell, writing, like its poor cousin speech, has no beginning.
—Clark Coolidge, out of Mine: The One That Enters the Stories (1982)
In the lighter time of year words arrived
concealed in branches. Flaubert exchanged
himself for words, night became a night of
words and a journey a journey of words, and
Words became “a superior joke,” I trembled
under a revolutionary weight, a coward fleeing
from a cloud. The ego of words stretched to
the room’s borders assuming the sonorous
movement of a poem.
—Barbara Guest, out of “The Screen of Distance” (Fair Realism, 1989)
Practical Jokes. Always play practical jokes when going on a picnic with ladies.
Practice. Superior to theory.
—Gustave Flaubert, out of The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, translated by
Jacques Barzun (1954)
Reason does not joke, and men of reason do not; a prophet, in whom the moral sentiment predominates, or a philosopher, in whom the love of truth predominates, these do not joke, but they bring the standard, the ideal whole, exposing all actual defect; and hence the best of all jokes is the sympathetic contemplation of things by the understanding from the philosopher’s point of view. There is no joke so true and deep in actual life as when some pure idealist goes up and down among the institutions of society, attended by a man who knows the world, and who, sympathizing with the philosopher’s scrutiny, sympathizes also with the confusion and indignation of the detected, skulking institutions. His perception of disparity, his eye wandering perpetually from the rule to the crooked, lying, thieving fact, makes the eyes run over with laughter.
This is the radical joke of life and then of literature. The presence of the ideal of right and of truth in all action makes the yawning delinquencies of practice remorseful to the conscience, tragic to the interest, but droll to the intellect.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, out of “The Comic” (1843)
In my house, every cloud
has a silver lining
there is only one cloud in my house
Inside that cloud is a joke
it is not an inside joke
—Ted Berrigan, out of “Tambourine Life” (Many Happy Returns, 1969)
My mother’s sending us a dirty joke in the mail.
He’s on the rag now because he took too many pinkies.
—Alice Notley, out of “As You Like It” (Margaret & Dusty, 1985)
someone told an
elephant joke: how do
you kill a blue elephant?
blue-elephant gun: how
do you kill a white
elephant? with a
white-elephant gun? no,
you tie a string around
his trunk and when it
you shoot him with a
—A. R. Ammons, out of Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965)
“What do you get
when you cross
an onion with a jackass?
Most of the time
you get a hairy onion
but sometimes you get a piece of ass
that’ll make your eyes water.”
—Edward Dorn, out of “MLA cocktail joke” (Captain Jack’s Chaps / Houston MLA, 1983)
Filler. Nostalgia filler. Shelve inconsequential nostalgia filler.
Failure. Shelve inconsequential go-go. Americana go-go. Failure.
Failure. Tourist Cabin. Joke hoax brands in joke Icebox. Failure.
—Kenward Elmslie, out of “Fiscal Nonsense”
(Routine Disruptions: Selected Poems & Lyrics 1960-1998, 1998)
Hank D. Thoreau
too seldom used eau
and was asked to live at Walden on his own.
Sir Edward Elgar
was never vulgar,
though why—in mixed company—he made jokes about smegma
was certainly an enigma.
—Jonathan Williams, out of “Clerihews” (Jubilant Thicket, 2005)
When the Vitalità nell’ arte catalog came in the mail I laughed
thinking it was Perspectives USA but it wasn’t it
was vitality nellie arty ho ho that’s a joke pop
“I never had to see I just kept looking at the pictures”
—Frank O’Hara, out of “Biotherm” (The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, 1971)
I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
splashed picture—bug, leaf,
caricature of Teacher
on paper held together now by little more than ink
& their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.
—Philip Whalen, “Hymnus ad Patrem Sinensis”
(The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, 2007)
Hark! There’s laughter! These fight and draw nearer, we—fight and draw apart. They know the things they say are true bothways, we miss the joke—try to—Oh, try to. Let it go at that. There again! Real laughter. At least we have each other in the ring of that music. “He saved a little then had to go and die.” But isn’t it the same with all of us? Not at all. Some laugh and laugh, with little grey eyes looking out through the chinks but not brown eyes rolled up in a full roar. One can’t have everything.
Going along an illworn dirt road on the outskirts of a mill town one Sunday afternoon two lovers who have quarreled hear the loud cursing and shouts of drunken laborers and their women, followed by loud laughter and wish that their bodies were two fluids in the same vessel. Then they fall to twitting each other on the many ways of laughing.
—William Carlos Williams, out of Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920)
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker.
—Herman Melville, out of Moby Dick; or, The Whale (1851)
And one day he said: Henry, you can have it,
On condition, you can have it: for four months
You’ll stand any reasonable joke that I play on you,
And you can joke back
provided you don’t get too ornry.
And they put it all down in writing:
For a green cloak with silver brocade
Actum in Castro Sigismundo, presente Roberto de Valturibus
. . sponte et ex certa scienta . . . to Enricho de Aquabello.
—Ezra Pound, out of “Canto XI” (A Draft of XXX Cantos, 1930)
That was a good joke you played on the other guests.
A joke of silence.
One seizes these moments as they come along, afraid
To believe too much in the happiness that might result
Or confide too much of one’s love and fear, even in
The spring, though mild, is incredibly wet.
I have spent the afternoon blowing soap bubbles
And it is with a feeling of delight I realize I am
All alone in the skittish darkness.
—John Ashbery, out of “The Skaters” (Rivers and Mountains, 1966)
No, no joke, titbit of wit can save you a bit:
when luxurious dawn comes to the bookstalls
I’ll run, screen them off—Caesii, Aquini,
Suffenus, the whole venomous lot of them,
and with these subtleties remunerate you.
Void, vile, now be interred, and goodbye to you
ill look into hell where your dead feet led you,
incommodious cycle, pests of poets.
—Louis Zukofsky, out of Catullus (Gai Valeri Catulli Veronensis Liber),
translated with Celia Zukofsky (1969)
Yes it is quite funny
to drink our fill
so that it burns the throat
the catch is apologetic
as fun slakes the will
so far so quite that
and the joke metal turns
just out of sight
for ever and ever and ever.
What do you say then
well yes and no
about four times of day
sick and nonplussed
by the thought of less
you say stuff it.
—J. H. Prynne, out of Down Where Changed (1979)