I understand her weariness with gallows humor, although I don't always share it when the hangman (or is it the hanging man or woman) leaves us with uncertainties about the larger order that set the death-platform stubbornly in place. Here's a poem that accomplishes that feat of gallows legerdemain (apologies for wrapped lines, which defeat me in html with all the different browsers and text sizes out there):
War Has Been Given a Bad Name
I am told that the best people have begun saying
How, from a moral point of view, the Second World War
Fell below the standard of the First. The Wehrmacht
Allegedly deplores the methods by which the SS effected
The extermination of certain peoples. The
Are said to regret the bloody manhunts
Which filled their mines and factories with slave workers. The intellectuals
So I heard, condemn industry's demand for slave workers
Likewise their unfair treatment. Even the bishops
Dissociate themselves from this way of waging war; in short the feeling
Prevails in every quarter that the Nazis did the Fatherland
A lamentably bad turn, and that war
While in itself natural and necessary, has, thanks to the
Unduly uninhibited and positively inhuman
Way in which it was conducted on this occasion, been
Discredited for some time to come.
— Bertolt Brecht (tr. John Willett)
Ben Lerner’s “Twenty-One Gun Salute for Ronald Reagan,” from his 2006 book Angle of Yaw (
I am wearing a Mikhail Gorbachev Halloween mask.
Blood is a vegetable when it forms part of a school lunch.
Tell the boys to go out there and win one for me.
The former president entered my room at night.
We celebrated by breaking off pieces of the wall.
I want the tone to have a very broad surface in relation to its depth.
I want a gun for protection.
I want the form to enact the numbing it describes.
I would shoot myself only in self-defense.
Like Ange I do sometimes find it hard going when a poetic performance seems to teeter on the edge of nihilism, when the poet speaks from a seemingly airless cultural room in which the objects of his or her loathing loom triumphant, with no possibility of resistance in sight. This is clearly not the case with books of incendiary satire like
I’d be very interested in hearing more from Ange or others about dark-humored books or oeuvres that seem rooted in unreconstructed hopelessness, or tack against it. I’m sure Ange would not include excitable boys and girls Ron Padgett, Bernadette Mayer, Kenward Elmslie, Maxine Chernoff, and Kenneth Koch among the grimly hilarious, for instance, but who else might we put forward among our contemporaries or recent contemporaries?
Who, in other words, is writing funny poems that set nihilism on its ear? And where do we run into a thick, unmoving, windless sea of despair, that Nietzschean Silenus wanting to sleep and never wake again?