Essay: “Am I Supposed to Laugh or Not?” (On the Poetry of Rodney Jones)

The poet Rodney Jones is one of my favorites. Originally from Hartselle, Alabama, Jones’s wry wit and complex storytelling combine to bring out what I believe is best about poetry: nuance and insight. I wrote this somewhat academic essay around 2010 and 2011, hoping to have it published in a literary or scholarly journal. Jones had then-recently published his new and selected poems in 2006, and the essay was meant to be one-part critical analysis and one part homage from a fan. When the essay didn’t find a home among the pages of a publication, I went back and rewrote it, taking much of the academic formality out of the style, which made it even less suitable for publication— it became too academic for the general readership and not academic enough for the academics. So, in celebration of National Poetry Month 2023, I am sharing it here.

Am I Supposed to Laugh or Not?
Humor and Harshness in Rodney Jones’ Poetry

Appreciating humor in poetry, especially subtle humor or humor that is built into a dark context, is an acquired taste, and possibly a kind of taste that few readers have. When my high school creative writing students don’t laugh at things that I think are funny, I understand in a way; they may well have been taught, or possibly have inferred from the formality of the classroom setting, that poetry is to be taken seriously. From their English teachers’ classroom readings pulled from the Great Works of the Western World – think about the poems you read in grades 7 through 12 – they learn that poetry is deep and life-changing and eternal and that they should never, never, never laugh at anything in a great poem. They have been trained not laugh at poetry just like they were trained not to laugh at the Bible. So, I usually have to explain why I find some things funny, possibly because the students in a classroom aren’t looking for or expecting anything to be funny.

Like in Rodney Jones’ poem “Advice.” The speaker’s ninety-eight-year-old Aunt Zettie “in a fit of chuckling” tells a story about a one-armed uncle who got a job as a bicycle messenger after having his arm cut off in a sawmill accident, but that isn’t all: this one-armed uncle also can’t get any peace because his severed arm still hurts him, until finally the “town crackpot” explains the importance behind burying a severed body part properly. This poor guy, who has gotten his arm cut off and can’t sleep from pain he can’t cure, can get some rest after the local nut-job teaches him how to re-bury his arm vertically, not horizontally, “the way an arm should be buried.” Of course, I’m not doing the poem justice, but maybe you’re still with me. Even with the poem in hand, most of my students still don’t laugh at all, and I have to exist for a moment in that awkward social limbo when you have to explain a joke: Get it . . .? So, I try again, continuing by asking if they have ever tried to start off on a bicycle one-handed, only holding on to one grip, and by then asking, “So if it’s hard to start off one-handed, then how’s he going to ride bicycle and hold the packages, too? He’s a bike messenger . . . with one arm.”  A few students in the class mockingly berate me for being mean about someone who is disabled, and few others miss the point entirely by replying, “Maybe he has a basket.” To me, the poem and the story in it are funny, and, I think, to Rodney Jones they probably are, too.

Rodney Jones poetry booksJones, a native of northern Alabama, has been recognized widely for his poetry, and I have to think that an appreciation of his humor has played a part in achieving that recognition. I took note of Rodney Jones when I began to think about how much attention is garnered on Harper Lee, who refuses most attention, and Rick Bragg too, both of them damn fine writers, but here’s this poet, winning awards, and we barely hear about him in the mainstream of Alabama culture. Among the honors for his poetry, Jones’ 1999 collection, Elegy for the Southern Drawl, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and his 2006 collection, Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, a volume of selected and new poems, won the Kingsley Tufts Award. Within the pages of his books of poetry, the acknowledgments pages list the publications that any poet would be pleased with: Poetry, The Atlantic, The Southern Review. Alabama has produced some great poets – Birmingham alone can lay claim to being the birthplace of Margaret Walker, Sonia Sanchez, Andrew Glaze, and Harryette Mullen – and Jones has contributed as well to the state’s diverse poetic tradition.

Another poet with Alabama ties, Andrew Hudgins, once wrote, in a short memoir piece called “Alabama Breakdown,” a list of features of the Southern personality, among them “cruel humor.” I usually call it dark humor, because, being a Southerner myself, I see his point but don’t like to think of myself as cruel. Being dark is far more intriguing and far less despicable than being cruel, but whatever anyone wants to call it, humor of this nature, which is rooted in discomfort or harshness or irony, is definitely present in some of Rodney Jones’ poetry.

The humor that Rodney Jones uses in some of his poems is what drew me to seek out more of his work after I had read a little of it. In fairness to the poet, I feel like I should take a minute, for the sake of any readers who may not be as familiar with his poetry, to acknowledge that Jones’ range of subjects and tones is wide. For example, about midway through the early collection The Unborn, Jones has a first-person contemplation (that has nothing to do with the girls or sex or cemeteries that I’m about to discuss) in which the speaker has visions of nineteenth century American writer Henry David Thoreau while repairing his old Volvo. The poem, simply titled “Thoreau,” reeks of exasperation while connecting some not-so-obvious dots between fixing an old car and a man known best for wanting a simple life in which material things did not cause him problems. However, “Thoreau” is very different in subject and tone from a poem like “Pastoral for Derrida” in the final section of the collection, Transparent Gestures; the latter poem uses images of a ewe whose lamb has been eaten by a coyote with metaphorical comparisons to readings of texts in a somber reminder that words of consolation are often useless in situations of pain and loss. “Pastoral for Derrida,” whose title juxtaposes the idea of a religious allegorical poem containing bucolic imagery (the lamb) with the name of the most modern of European intellectuals, reminds the reader, “it does no good to cry.” Just to be clear, I’m not being mean – as some of my students have said – and don’t find that poem funny. But quite a few of Rodney Jones’ poems them are funny, even if that humor is dark or maybe even a little cruel.

Jones’ second full-length collection, The Unborn, was released in 1985 by The Atlantic Monthly Press. The third poem in the book, “I Find Joy in Cemetery Trees,” examines a scene where workers from a construction company, who are building a wall, stop to “unwrap their cheese and bologna” under the trees “whose roots are in our hearts.” Instead of displaying honor for the dead people in the cemetery, the workers have their mundane lunches and their “gossip about fistfights and big breasts,” yet they “probably do not think / of our grandmothers who are pierced.”  The speaker then goes on to de-sanctify the scene himself: “Anyway / the only spirits I can call in this place / are the stench of a possum/ suppurating in secret weeds/ and the flies, who are marvelous / because their appetite is our revulsion.” The speaker begins by pointing at the behavior of the construction workers who go on with their daily lives with no reverence for the deeper meanings of the cemetery, but then joins in with comments about stinky possum corpses in the weeds and the “marvelous” flies that are eating them being the only things he can see himself.  And for anyone who has not yet gone to a dictionary, the word “suppurate” means to become filled with pus, or to fester.

Although, in this early collection there are enough examples of what I’m describing, we’ll go with one on a different subject, “Two Girls at the Hartselle, Alabama Municipal Swimming Pool.” If you’ve never heard of Hartselle, Alabama it is with good reason, since this town in Morgan County only has about 20,000 residents, double what it had thirty years ago. In the poem, the two girls at the swimming pool have to walk through “a clot of local boys” to go “up / slippery wrungs to the high board.” Sounds common enough, right? Just wait. After we read about their “bodies oiled” and that they are “flipping away / casually the menthol cigarettes, / tossing back their bleached hair,” we get to find out, in the fourth and final stanza, what makes this scene a little harsh and also bizarrely comical: they are “both twelve or thirteen years old” and “entering the cold, strange waters.” After Jones has had us to picture two girls walking seductively through a crowd of boys to the highest diving board . . . he makes us feel like perverts: they’re twelve! Man, that guy had me thinking about a couple of bleached blondes with oiled-up bodies, and he waited until the end to tell me they are barely teenagers, just children, and scared children at that. Yet, Jones won’t let us off that easy, with a simple pulling of the rug from under us, when he ends the poem by making us think about how unprepared these girls are for what they are seeking to enter: the “cold, strange waters” of being wanted in that way. Are we supposed to laugh or not?

In his 1989 collection, Transparent Gestures, Jones continues to include poems that contain some of this humor that I enjoy. Exhibit one, the poem “Pussy” placed strategically in the section titled “Who Runs the Country.” The poem begins:

Not yet have I seen it published in 18-point bold.
Neither in the British nor the American anthologies.

Yet, rather than writing a poem that is little more than exaltation of putting dirty words in print, Jones takes the point in another direction, after stopping for a moment just to admonish himself with mock seriousness: “Long ago my mother told me to write uplifting things.” The first story the reader gets in the poem tells how the speaker first learned the word when “five black boys smuggled it across the bottoms” to where they were all fishing, but even though the speaker does not really know the boys, the dark history of the South is looming there, too, waiting to come out in the next story told in the poem:

Long ago my grandfather’s grandfather took the ferry
Across the Tennessee River and brought back Reba,
Their grandmother’s grandmother.

He had paid “four hundred dollars” for her, and Jones ends his poem with his grim assessment of the situation, bringing this story of the five boys’ roots in slavery – and his own family’s roots as slave owners – back to the original point raised in the poem’s titled:

Even if I had told it badly, being a man. I know
The scrawniest women were worth more than the strongest men.

We are not left to wonder, in a poem titled “Pussy,” why that would be the case. If we begin by laughing at the poet’s comments about the rarity of seeing such a title in print, about defying the manners of Pollyannaish ladies, or about groups of boys fishing and sharing the dirty words they know, then we are left somewhat ashamed at the poem’s ending, which reminds us how African-American women were often bought and used for sexual purposes, in addition to their duties in farm labor or household chores.

“On the Bearing of Waitresses” also starts off with a good chuckle but leaves the reader in similar circumstances. The poem begins with imagery of the generalizations and myths about Waffle House waitresses: living in trailer parks with pregnant little sisters, evangelical mothers, and lazy fathers. Jones calls them “apostles in the gospel of stereotypes,” yet reminds us that despite “the imperium of our disregard,” they have distinct and unique form of power: “ . . . Spit / in the salad, wet socks wrung into soup.” I use the word power, because, once again, if you haven’t gone for your dictionary yet, the word “imperium” means absolute power. In Jones’ poem, he reminds us that, where we might believe that we hold absolute power in the waitress-customer paradigm, we actually do not. They have power over us, too.

Moving to the latter half of the poem, the speaker’s anecdote of a time when a “half-Filipino waitress . . . singled me out of the crowd of would-be bikers / and drunken husbands” is not a successful conquest story, not an opportunity to tell tales; instead “what I had waited for was no charm of flesh,” just a night of listening to lies “by the filthy city lake” about how she was supposedly wanted by the FBI and the CIA. Again, as Rodney Jones starts us out chuckling in “Pussy,” he does the same thing to us in this poem that he does in others, leaving us in a state of similar perplexity as his waitress is “filling the air with her glamour and her shame.” We had been led into hoping this might be a story of him picking up some diner waitress  – we’ve seen her, maybe even wanted her for some reason – but this poem won’t give us that. What may have started out with humor, albeit humor that had traces of cruelty in it, ends in harshness. But, if setting up humor with generalizations about Waffle House waitresses seems like finding it in dark places, just wait.

In the 1993 collection, Apocalyptic Narrative and Other Poems, Rodney Jones offers us “Romance of the Poor,” a poem that begins with a line steeped in very dark and ironic humor: “The poor people in Springfield go to Dayton to be miserable in style.” The reader will quickly recognize that the subject revolves around homeless and otherwise destitute people, as the first stanza continues with its ironies: the people can “luxuriate in one red bean held under the tongue” and a “discarded refrigerator crate, tipped on its side and lined with plastic bags / is the green shore of an island and a palace’s velvet halls.” Once again, we are not sure whether to laugh with Jones or not. There seems to be little sympathy . . . but it will come.

In the third stanza, we learn more, as the speaker lets us know that he has “come as a tourist to their woe,” as a hitch-hiker with ill-fated plans that didn’t work out after he quit his job:

And I thought I could live by the grace of hippies or priests or failing that,
Prey on park squirrel and the ducks from municipal ponds.

In a twist of fate, our hero wakes up with another man next to him under the highway overpass where they both have sought shelter. Having “talked a stupid dream of burglary,” the man proposes a scheme to rob and stab someone at the nearby truck stop and steal one the eighteen-wheelers to get away. Our speaker moves on instead. Though we don’t get any direct moralizing in “Romance of the Poor,” we get from the poem that our speaker knew better than to go along with a murder-robbery-auto theft plan to obtain “three hundred dollars,” which his unfortunate crony thought was a good idea.

Yet, the lack of overt sympathy that allowed the ironic humor in the beginning of the poem is replaced at the end of the poem with complete a seriousness that provides what we have been waiting for. As the stanza begins, “Tonight the steaks frown up at me through the odor of blood, / And the poor need no help from poems to limp down the valley and up into the van,” we get the deep moral of the story in the last four lines:

Whatever it is, it is not much that makes a man more than a scrap of paper
Torn out of a notebook and thrown from the window of a bus, but it is more than nothing.
If he holds himself straight up and does not take the life
Next to his own, give him that much. Leave him to his joy.

After giving himself a little time for one last ironic word on the bleak nature of people who are truly suffering from destitution and for some anecdote about the pathetic means and ends of a desperate man, Jones discusses the fleeting nature of life, finally waxing philosophic about the respect earned by the man who refuses to commit murder even though he understands this transitory reality. “Leave him to his joy,” the poem ends.

“On Pickiness” is one of my favorites from the 1996 collection, Things that Happen Once. The poem is built on commingling the varying meanings of the words pick or picky. Building his contemplation around images of his mother’s insistence that their family and the other farm workers pick every single, tiny strand of cotton – she was picky about it, in fact – with his own rumination about the nature of poetry and revision, and how a poet must be picky about what he picks to stay in a poem or remove from it. Although this poem is at no point laugh-out-loud funny, the subtlety of his playful picking at his mother’s pickiness about picking cotton and his comments about how her ways have influenced his own writing exhibit Jones’ sense of humor about certain aspects of life – work, literature, creativity, and God – that are often taken very seriously.

After she has gone back over the field that already been picked by the mechanical cotton gin, his mother who “could not console herself to the waste” had only picked a comparatively little more cotton; Jones writes: “She worried it the way I’ve worried with extra words.” In carrying the comparison forward, Jones puts his “pickiness” in the context of ideas about in two of the basis of Western culture:

The Hebrews distrusted Greek poetry (which embodied
Harmony and symmetry, and, therefore, revision)

Not for aesthetic reasons, but because they believed
That to change the first words, which rose unsmelted
From the trance, amounted to sacrilege against God.

Is Rodney Jones, who admits that he has “worried with extra words,” really calling himself blasphemer, someone who dares to tinker with the divine “unsmelted” words that come to him as a poet from God? Not really. No more than he is criticizing his mother for being picky about her picking. In a way, he is even kind of saying, Thanks, Mom, for “the practice / Of her ideas and the intelligence of her hands,” both passed-down traits that are helping this playful poet do his work, just as she did hers.

Of the poems I chose as examples showing Rodney Jones’ often-dark humor, “On Pickiness” may seem the least obvious. Jones is not being “cruel” to his mother here, and this is where I prefer not to think of it like Andrew Hudgins does, as “cruel humor.” In “On Pickiness,” Jones is playing around with the nature of poetry, the nature of creativity, the nature of God’s role in the poet’s work, and also the nature of traits we found to be a little silly in our parents coming in handy in our lives when we recognize the same traits in ourselves. too. While Rodney Jones sides pretty clearly with the Greeks, who favored revision, over the Hebrews, who favored untouched divine inspiration, he also sides with his mother, who gave him his “pickiness.”

I’ve already mentioned the poem “Advice,” in the 1999 collection, Elegy for the Southern Drawl, but in a discussion of Jones’ dark humor, there is no way to omit “The Poetry Reading.” Poems about poetry or about being a poet are too often a lot like the Grateful Dead’s “Playing in the Band” or Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band.” Songs like those and poems like these too often come off as tooting the old horn a little bit, reminding us down here on planet Earth that we’re in the audience, not on the stage. However, Rodney Jones begins from the first lines making fun of the whole thing, the whole idea, the underlying concept and the people who administrate and perpetuate it:

And this is the way it had been done for years in the provinces,
With a nice young assistant decked out in tweed and denim
Standing up at the beginning to evoke some rusty quiddity
Or baroque valentine of the curriculum vitae
To tweak the vanity of the esteemed visitor,
Who would just then be wringing from a backpack
A handful of faded books and the new precious one

If the humor in “On Pickiness” was too subtle for you, then here you go. Get it . . .? Anyone who has been to a few poetry readings or regularly attends them ought to be laughing by now.

As the poem continues, Jones gives us a version of “WTF.” Why does it have to be this way? Of the dozen-and-a-half people in his audience, a few are there on purpose, a few “knew the name but not the work,” and “two had blundered into the wrong room.” And certainly the event would have been better attended if it hadn’t conflicted with other events that people would rather attend . . . “But perhaps the university is not the place for poetry,” he writes to begin the next-to-last stanza; maybe the stagnant atmosphere of the college campus is not the place for poets, whose richness is derived from the fluid and uncertain world outside . . . but who else is out there offering to “tweak the vanity of the esteemed visitor”?

The poems ends with something like a wish or a hope – “And yet those who are here hear, don’t they [?]” Jones seems to plead: Please tell me I’m not wasting my time, offering this work up to people who may not even get what I’m saying. I’ve already written that anyone who has gone to many poetry readings ought to be laughing, but to anyone who gives poetry readings, he nailed it.

Rodney Jones doesn’t reserve his most spirited caricatures for the literary world either. How do you not laugh at a poem title like “Small Lower-Middle-Class White Southern Male”? The title alone evokes the butt of many jokes. The man we will read about is not powerful in the sense of being big and strong; he is not poor and will not incite our pity on that account. He is Southern and white and male, the stereotype of the person that modern civil rights movements were trying to defeat. Go ahead, cut him some slack, find some reason to defend him . . . Jones’ poem can’t seem to either.

If Jones incorporated some measure of cruelty in “Romance of the Poor” by making the difficult lives of poor objects of humor through the use of irony, in this poem, which appears in Kingdom of the Instant, published in 2003, he uses metaphors and similes to let loose on this poor bastard. At the end of the first stanza and beginning of the second, he writes:

it cannot even be said now that you exist

except as a spittoon exists in an antique store
or as a tedious example fogs a lucid speech.

The poem goes on to serve as a witness to this character’s lowly status, including in “novels” and “recent cinema.” Yet, in the ultimate jibe, in the ultimate insult, Rodney Jones ends his poem by reminding the “Small Lower-Middle-Class White Southern Male” that he will not even find his place among the black people he is widely known to detest:

They hear your voice and see Jim Crow.
But the brothers wait. Any brother knows
That there are no honorary negroes.

Seeking out the historical stereotypes, whereby working-class white men were the henchmen of Jim Crow, sent out to do the dirty work of the wealthier whites who wanted a certain kid of order to be maintained, Jones reminds the reader that history judges few people kindly, but especially not bigots and other servants of an unjust ideals.

So where is the humor? If I began talking about humor that could be dark, you could say that this poem put the dark in dark humor. Are we sorry that this person is being denigrated? No. Are we sorry that we aren’t sorry? Probably not. In some way, this poem says to this person what our culture says to him on a regular basis, reminding him and us that in the end everything turns the way it should.

In 2006, Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems was published, and it marked another kind of accolade for Rodney Jones: the publication of a volume of new and selected poems. Including poems from every collection except his very first, The Story They Told Us of Light (1980), Salvation Blues also includes twenty-four new poems, including poems with titles like “The State-Line Stripper,” “Post-Modern Christians,” and “Vision of the End of the World in the Valdosta Holiday Inn.” So he hasn’t cut it out yet.  And I, for one, hope he doesn’t.


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