In the musical Life After, a teenager coping with the loss of her father struggles with the limitations of conventional speech for expressing the complex emotions that surge through the mourning process. “I’ve never been much of a poet,” she sings, “I’ve always just thought that we should say things how we see them. The sun is hot. The sky is blue. But suddenly I’m out of words….”
The oldest literary medium, poetry now sits somewhere between opera and interpretive dance, near the bottom of the list of popular art forms. Because it doesn’t tend to conform to the rules of grammar or logic, its often elusive meaning can be alienating to modern ears attuned to cut and dry communication. Poets themselves seem conscious of this. Even one of the all time greats, T.S. Eliot, rationalized the medium’s emotion over cognition by saying, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
Perhaps, as Life After’s song implies, the emotions need to already be there, inside the listener, for poetry to resonate. It could be that an internet dominated contemporary culture running short on empathy and compassion inures most of us to the impact of great poetry, until such time as difficult-to-express emotions such as guilt, love, and loss are acutely and personally felt. (Short-form prose can describe the existence of these emotions more than it can convey them.) But when it comes to expressing the intangible, poetry has stiff competition today from a far more popular art form: music.
“Poetry is emotion put into measure,” wrote turn-of-the-20th-century poet Thomas Hardy at a time when music recording technology was in its infancy. To experience music then, one had to witness a live performance. Poetry was far more portable, so its lyricism and syncopation met friendlier ears. But music has always had an emotional edge over poetry, because songs may capture the evocative imagery of verse, but with more immediately felt tuneful and harmonious accompaniment supporting whatever emotional weight the words might carry. Now that we can easily carry a century’s worth of music in our pockets wherever we go, unaccompanied poetry sounds lacking in comparison.
Maybe the most successful poetry of 21st century America is actually joke writing. Not limericks, or the tame humor written in iambs by smirking poets. Actual comedy. Any successful stand up will tell you that wording a joke just right is crucial to his or her craft. At least as important is timing. Whether simple or complex, a good joke evokes a scene, sets up an expectation, then after giving the audience a beat to absorb it, lands a punchline. What is good comic timing, if not a properly honed sense of poetic interval?
Traditionally, poems have been bemusing rather than amusing. But the fact that a punchline inspires laughter only illustrates its keener-than-modern-poetry ability to tap into universal emotions. It was one of America’s earliest comics, Groucho Marx, who postulated, “The only real laughter comes from despair.” He was speaking of the cathartic, even healing, gut laugh, which erupts from a well of emotion we may or may not know lurks beneath our collective surface. Grief, despair, frustration, fear: a joke may not embody these emotions, but it can exorcise them.
Along with music and poetry, Life After likewise employs humor to navigate its grief. It plays at the Old Globe til April 28.