Dark Humor & Smarts in the Same Poem
I love a good funny poem, but it can’t just be funny; it has to be well-written. Humor for humor’s sake usually doesn’t quite work in a poem.
Like the love poem I featured last month, a dark humor poem needs detail—images you can see, taste, feel or smell and just-right metaphors or similes that make you laugh or say “oh yes.” I also prefer a narrative or thread that pulls me through the poem, and I like a poem to mean more than just its humorous elements.
Here’s a dark humor poem that succeeds in all these ways. It’s also a good example of how a poet can successfully use nostalgia or childhood memories to add humor and meaning without stepping into sticky sentimentality. You can also hear Rupert Fike read this poem here.
We used it every day, never got sick—
a scooped glob into the iron skillet
for fried grits, a grilled cheese, anything really,
its jar on the stove a vertical Rothko,
top creamy layers melding first
to ochres then a burnt speckled brown,
the mysterious pre-Cambrian band
we never got to since there was always
a new pour-off from each morning’s bacon,
a father’s job, two hands on the handle,
two tendons rising off his forearm,
today’s hot fat dissolving yesterday’s
but not for long. By lunch the bubbling
had reverted to its stasis of gel,
an arterial caution we never heeded
because this was my great aunt’s kitchen,
under her protection, this was the place
where things were kept as they always were.
And once the pan was hot, the grease crackling,
raw chicken was touched with hands that then touched
whatever they wanted – fridge door handles,
mouths, knives in flaking lead-paint drawers.
Under the sink an open rat poison box,
its skull and crossbones so very normal.
Rare pork chops for dinner, thermometers
broken to retrieve the toy of quicksilver,
mercury rolled from one child’s palm to the next.
Smoke trails from both parents’ Camels at dinner,
summer’s rotating fan always cageless,
its cord frayed at the overloaded plug,
pennies in the fuse box, metal garbage can
bottoms writhing with afternoon maggots,
my great aunt drawing the line at that one,
prescribing a pour of bleach then hot water.
That was my job – kill all those baby flies.
—Rupert Fike from Hello the House (Snake Nation Press, 2018)
Even before Rupert Fike and I became friends (through a poetry critique group), I admired his work because it’s so dang intelligent and well-crafted, often combining humor with a look back to a past that wasn’t always glamorous. When he uses self-deprecating humor or calls himself out on things of which he’s not so proud, his poems have an honesty that I admire and enjoy.
Dark Humor Poem: Taking a closer look
Fike strove for a blank verse rhythm in this poem, because, as he says, It’s a comfortable pace for the human voice and lungs. He pays pay attention to sounds and creating just the right image with an economy of syllables. Examples I especially like in stanza one are:
“a scooped glop”
“a new pour-off”
“stasis of gel”
“arterial caution” (the medical term deserving of its four syllables because it says so much)
“toy of quicksilver”
the skull and crossbones “so very normal” (I certainly can see that scary symbol on items under my mother’s sink).
Smart & Unexpected metaphor
The Rothko and the “pre-Cambrian band” comparisons are such a nice surprise in this domestic scene. In a shorthand way, along with color descriptions, they help us to really see this jar.
The Detailed List in Stanza 2
After immediately moving away from the bacon grease, he lists a dozen or so dangerous things. I like the fact that he pushed the list like this. Another poet may have included just a few items (sometimes poetry “wisdom” says use only a list of three), but Fike builds humor with the exaggerated length of the list. Because truth is better than fiction, he doesn’t have to make this stuff up. These dangers really were common in the world some of us grew up in. (I’m guessing younger folks can appreciate the humor and story of this poem too). I also end up asking myself, Are we too paranoid today in our everyday lives where it seems each day we learn of a new danger that we thought nothing of yesterday?
Hello the House, poet David Kirby (also known for his humorous, intelligent poems) wrote, “It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as enjoyable as this one. It took me forever to finish because Fike’s poems made me want to sneak off and write my own.” The book won the publisher’s contest and was also selected as a “Book All Georgians Should Read, 2018″ by the Georgia Center for the Book.
Your Turn: A Dark Humor Poem
Have you written a dark humor poem or have you read one lately that especially worked for you? Please link to it or post it in the comments.
(Note, if you plan on submitting your unpublished poem to a journal, please be advised it will be considered previously published if you post it here. Publications like Every Day Poems, however, gladly welcome previously published work! A good poem is a good poem, after all. Worthy of being experienced again.)