Here is something I have sometimes thought about and discussed with students. It is the elementary question of what makes something a poem. We start from the most obvious apparent signs. The text in the poem being divided into lines. The prevalence of some form of patterning - stanzas, metres, rhymes. The heightened use of language in the form of alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc. Relative lack of narrative (though this depends on what kind of poem we mean). And more.
And then we might say something about jokes, about how it's the way we tell them that matters. What is the way we tell them? What are the good ways? Well, we say, we might look for features such as timing, emphasis, detail. We expect relative brevity and relative compression.
Yes, but all that applies to poems too, so what's the difference? Is it the punch line? Poems don't have punch lines. They do however have exit lines, a point at which the poem stops. At this stage I might introduce one of my patent wise saws: Enter firmly, step off lightly, meaning: establish place and tone quickly and don't make a huge fuss in letting the poem go. No drum rolls please. No morals. No heavy closures.
Nevertheless, though this does for a start, things are rarely so simple. So what makes one thing a joke, the other a poem? Take this from yesterday's Python clip:
We were evicted from our hole in the ground. We had to go and live in a lake...
You were lucky to have a lake. There were 150 of us living in a shoe box in the middle of the road... We used to have to get up out of the shoe box in the middle of the night and lick the road clean with our tongues... and when we got home our dad would slice us in two with a breadknife.
I had to get up at ten o'clock at night half an hour before I went to bed eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down t'pit and pay t'millowner for permission to go to work and when we got home our dad would kill us and dance about on our graves singing hallelujah.
and this, again, from yesterday's Simic:
We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turning in their beds. “These are dark and evil days,” the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.
The Python is a cut and paste from different parts of the mounting, trump-the-man-before conversation between the four Yorkshiremen.
The first sentence of the Simic is no different in kind from 'We had to go and live in a lake...' or 'There were 150 of us living in a shoe box in the middle of the road'. We recognise both the Simic and the Python as ventures into the absurd. Entering firmly.
Nor is the second sentence of the Simic wildly different from the Python equivalent, though by the standards of comic writing '...I could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turning in their beds' is potentially an embellishment (the tossing and turning in the beds) too far. Simic is aiming at unease. Python for the absurd.
Licking the road clean with the tongue works principally on one comic principle, the one the Python joke generally does work on, that is by piling on ever more unlikely detail, until maximum crescendo has been reached at which point the whole balloon-machinery either explodes or rapidly deflates. The exploding toad principle. The narrative line is straight but remains interesting because we cannot tell how far the toad can expand before it blows up. There is suspense and relief involved, suspense and relief being one of the key elements in humour. So licking the road clean is a step up (a little step) from living in a shoe-box. Although, having said that, I am not quite sure. There are photographs during the Nazi persecution of elderly Jews on their hands and knees being forced to polish the road with a toothbrush. One touch of darkness for Python there, a serious risk. It is the risk that might well be heightening expectation, blowing the toad out that extra degree, not the extra touch of the absurd.
Simic then does three quick turns. First we hear a voice saying something portentous, whether serious or comical it is hard to gauge at first hearing, but then, still within the same sentence, he presents us, perfectly naturally, with the information that the speaker is a mouse (that is to say one of the kind for whom the trap was intended). Let us assume this is a cartoon mouse for now since real mice do not speak except in fairy tales or in cartoons, though Tom and Jerry's Jerry tends not to utter dark prophecies like: These are dark and evil days. So maybe it is a fairy tale mouse after all, fairy tales being open to mysteriously dark, cloudy pronouncements hinting at violence whereas cartoons - especially Tom and Jerry, tend to concentrate on the violence.
Then, in the third act of the sentence, he shows us the mouse nibbling the speaker's ear. Under what circumstances do we find our ears being nibbled? There is a faintly erotic turn here, odd for a comic mouse, albeit a prophetic one with a Jeremiah complex.
None of this is registered immediately or distinctly, but if we listen, we hear, and hearing poems is to do with a specially focussed kind of listening. Simic has suddenly expanded the field of operations. To put it another way, there is no longer one toad in the room but three or four at once.
Python meanwhile is busily pumping air into its own more single-focus toad. It escapes from the predictability of the process by suddenly introducing a wonderfully absurd yet graphic act of violence: '..and when we got home our dad would slice us in two with a breadknife'.
Now that sort of thing does happen in fairy tales (see The Juniper Tree for similar acts of grotesque violence). At this point Python is seriously flirting with poetry. We know that it would be impossible to be surgically sliced in two. With a breadknife. The fact that our dad is doing it invites nicely Oedipal echoes. Or there is the Goya image of Saturn Devouring His Own Children. Violence visited by the father. It was touches like these that made Python into a great inventive comical force.
But it is, after all, comedy, not poetry they are after: laughter not haunting. The trumping of the breadknife with pure absurdism (getting up before we've gone to bed, working 29 hours a day) reduces the haunting. We are back with reason. Reason is the only victim here. Comedy is safe landings. Poetry is not landing at all just being aware of the ground.
And Simic goes on touching various buttons. The cat-fur collar relates to the mouse of course, but stroking cat fur and producing static electricity keys in lightly with the light, childlike, eroticism of the whole. I don't want to get too Freudian about the cat-furred mother figure. Just a little. As Simic does.
The Pythons have a clearly definable aim, which is to produce laughter. Their exit line about the youth of today is a bit feeble but the sketch has to end somehow. Jokes end. It is the poetry of the joke that remains hanging in the air, not quite landing, unable to land.
Simic has no such clearly defined state of mind to aim at. He invents as he goes along, feeling his way along touching the buttons that seem appropriate for reasons he himself cannot quite articulate while in the act. His joke cannot afford to finish or land. The text has to stop at just the right awkward point that explains nothing but holds the machinery in the air. The landing place is in our own heads, and God knows where our heads are. Stroking cat fur, it seems, and watching the sparks. Stepping off lightly. Still in the air.