Poetry Sunday: 'Used Book,' 'Unplanned Obsolescence,' and 'Plea Bargain' by Julie Kane

Comedic timing is likewise perfectly controlled in “Plea Bargain,” a poem whose tension is sustained and propelled by its three-beat meter and 2nd- and 4th-line end rhymes, ratcheting up with each stanza. A big turn happens in the third with “But when the doctors tell you” and the full alternating rhymes of that quatrain create a briefly buoyant resting point, rather like a float in a lake, from which the poem can launch its punch line in the form of the speaker’s utter (and hilarious) change of heart.
All three poems also show restraint, not giving away the joke until the end and delivering doses of humor without ever going over the top all along the way to the punch line. Let’s think for a moment about that term, “punch line.” We were reminded in class that humor often (some would say always) contains an element of aggression and that it’s important to manage that aggression with restraint to avoid tipping into audience sympathy for the person or thing being targeted. In the words of one instructor, it’s better “to punch up, not down,” and shooting fish in a barrel is a sure recipe for having a joke go sour. The easy target is not the funny target. The hardest of hard targets is the self, and that’s who bears the butt of the humor in all three of today’s poems: the slightly arrogant, oblivious poet put in her place in “Used Book;” the poet chagrined by (but still repeating) her anachronisms in “Unplanned Obsolescence;” and the anxious-to-make-a-deal patient undergoing an MRI in “Plea Bargain.”
Most good comics use self-deprecating humor or at the very least do not hold themselves above their subjects, and this brings up the last thing I want to discuss: how empathy works in light verse in general and in these poems in particular. All three of Kane’s poems employ what is called a fallible narrator, one who is not self-aware and does not always realize she’s the butt of the joke. In the first poem, the narrator is oblivious to her own pretensions and narcissism until the last line and its balloon-puncturing revelation. In the second, the narrator never does come to full consciousness, as the poem repeats and repeats the very error the poet laments making. In the last, the person telling the joke is earnest throughout, and although we realize at the end that her protestations of altruism were empty ones, she apparently does not. In all three cases, the person telling the “joke” is implicated in and targeted by the humor. When speakers do not implicate themselves in the joke, it can create an unpleasant sneering effect (think Alexander Pope); we may still laugh, but it’s a snickering kind of laughter with an element of uncertainty that ultimately lessons the power of release an unrestrained guffaw can bring. It may strike us as mean, or make us feel guilty or even dirty.
Comedian Jon Stewart once said that a joke isn’t funny if it is a lie (or words to that effect). Jokes tell the truth, we learned at West Chester, and the best ones tell universal truths. Here, “Used Book” communicates the truth that all self-delusion will be pierced. “Unplanned Obsolescence” reminds us that we mortals are doomed to go out-of-date, and “Plea Bargain” that much human altruism is motivated by crass self-interest. The best jokes are expansive and allow us to laugh without inhibition, and in the end they tell us something true that implicates our perennially favorite subject: ourselves.
So, enjoy these poems, maybe even laughing out loud like I did and still do when I read them. But also, appreciate what it took to write them and don’t make the mistake of equating light verse with simplicity or mindlessness. If nothing else, I hope I’ve communicated what I learned in my class—that writing this kind of poetry demands great intelligence, discipline, and expertise. And also talent in the form of intangibles like timing, restraint, humility, and of course, a sense of humor. Not everyone has one, especially when it comes to poetry. To paraphrase Seinfeld on Pop-Tarts, we need humorless poets like we need wedges of frozen gluten shaped like the box they come in and with the same nutritional value, and I for one am grateful for the chance, now and then, to enjoy a good laugh along with my medicinal doses of universal truth.]]>

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