Friday 10 July 2009

Getting the joke

The Migraine Hotel, by Luke Kennard (Salt)

’The rewards of being sane may not be very many, but knowing what’s funny is one of them. And that’s the end of the matter.’

It’s typical of Kingsley Amis that one of his most incisive lines comes in one of his most obnoxious novels, Stanley and the Women. Often cited as one of his most misogynistic works and written during difficult personal circumstances, it is the subject of much controversy – it was almost certainly one of the books Terry Eagleton had in mind when he dismissed Kingsley as ‘a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals’. While the book is certainly difficult reading for a modern reader, and bears many of the hallmarks of the tiresomely contrarian lefty-baiting which became a feature of his later work, Amis remains one of the most gifted comic writers of the post-war generation. He may not have been likeable in many aspects, but Amis knew what was funny – and, crucially, he knew how to draw the reader in on the joke.

Perhaps Luke Kennard himself, the youngest ever nominee for the Forward Prize in 2007, fresh-faced poster boy of the New Absurdist movement and an extremely affable young man too boot, may not relish the comparison to a cantankerous, womanising and reactionary old Tory novelist, but it is one which sprang to mind while reading his third prose-poetry collection The Migraine Hotel. Amis, of course, began his career as a fresh faced poster boy of the Angry Young Men movement and as a young academic at a provincial university, but there Kennard may wish the comparison to stop.

But what Kennard should be happy he shares with Amis is the ability to transform a well-developed sense of humour into a meaningful poetic voice. Many young poets seem to hide behind gags: partly you feel this is down to the fact many exist as performers, and jokes go down well in the unusual atmosphere of live literature evenings, where the intense and private concentration poetry demands is in conflict with the inherent sociability of a reading, especially those held in pubs. While this injection of humour is well-used by some talented young poets – Ross Sutherland’s recent Things to Do Before You Leave Town springs to mind – there is often a sense that these poets lack confidence in their ability to hold a reader’s attention without jokes. People don’t get metre, but they do get jokes.

Kennard, though, brings the poetic sensibilities of rhythm and metre to bear on the linguistic inventions which mark out the best comic writing. For example, in one poem he describes the ‘most miserable crustacean’, the crab:

He is an action hero miscast in a romantic comedy
(The sea is a romantic comedy)
His mouth is like nervous fingers, or a hungry biomechanical coin slot;
Move in a flat, still plane – a terrorist, maybe, with his children.
(‘A Terrorist, Maybe, With His Children’)

The skill here is the humour of reaching for the profound and not connecting: from the failed simile which needs parenthetical explanation and awkward metre forced by ‘biomechanical’ through to the clunking pun finished off which a striking image. Of course the image doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but it forces the reader into a double-take, just like the punchline to a clever joke. Having pulled this off successfully, Kennard offers us a glimpse of what happens when a joke is mis-judged:

He walks sideways, like a man who’s just made an offensive joke
Sidles out of the conversation to get another mojito

This human failure to connect is one of Kennard’s recurring motifs. Other poems are filled with jokes which do not have the desired effect: either because the listener is over-literal (the hyper-intelligent Wolf, a returning character from the last collection), humourless (the jaded, post-ironic artist girlfriend in ‘A Sure-Fire Sign’) or because the signification system has collapsed so far in his absurdist universe that even those laughing aren’t sure:

Humility? A diving-rod? Uncreated light?
I do not understand my own laughter.
Tell me what I am to make of all the repetition.

It’s difficult to buy too heavily into claims that Kennard is at the forefront of any emerging New Absurdist movement. It’s true that he has been smart enough to avoid the political sloganeering or confessionalism of his contemporaries, and at the same time the label has given him breathing room as a young and erudite writer to avoid the anxiety of being profound. The effect is that it has necessitated the sharpening up and development of his technique: notably the fact that he writes predominantly in an unusual form (prose poetry) and largely eschews rhyme (often the standard device of witty poets) points to an original approach. But as an end in itself, the device can become self-indulgent.

The wonderful paradox is that the less he engages in the world around him, the more he engages the reader in the oddities of social interaction: its agonies and consolations alike. At the start of ‘Pleasure Beach’ the narrator meets a pilgrim reading Thus Spake Zarathustra:

‘Know your enemy,’ I say, approvingly.
Love your enemy,’ he corrects. ‘Prick.’

It’s a poem which seems to show Kennard at his worst: full of in-jokey academic references, images of urban decay, and glimpses of dystopian postmodern capitalism. But later on, after watching two boys drown, he offers us,

I am laughing –
Because the Category Assessment Form
I have to fill in to report the accident
Is abbreviated to CAT ASS.
‘Do you think that’s funny,’ I ask the pilgrim.

‘Cat ass,’ he chuckles. ‘Yeah, that’s funny.’
The pilgrim and I have the same sense of humour.

In the hands of a less careful writer you might assume you’re being lectured on something: state bureaucracy, perhaps, or indifference to suffering, or even just being bombarded with images with no attempt to organise or interpret. But if you contrast this to the concluding lines of the otherwise relatively straight-faced ‘Forms of Despair’ you get a different perspective:

We described the funny pages to Simon – who had lost both his eyes
But the jokes didn’t work so well in description.

In The Migraine Hotel, the ability to get the joke, to share momentarily in someone’s sense of humour and view of the world represents one of the few moments of genuine connection and understanding between people: Kennard turns a moderately amusing joke into something much more humane. His may be a mad, absurdist universe, but he never loses sight of how to share his sense of humour.

Kennard still has a long way to go: too much of this third collection already feels self-parodic, and the intellectual in-jokes genuinely start to grate. He is at his worst when playing just for laughs – performing for a crowd absent from these pages. But The Migraine Hotel marks the continued development of a serious talent and one which his publishers Salt, for all their spirited response to financial woes, should take considerable pride in having nurtured.


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See poetry-queen Shirley Dent’s Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog

Published poet, Ion Martea, defends poetry for pleasure, in a Battle in Print, Of one who must be happy: an argument for poetry in relationship to please

James Wilkes gives a response to the Battle of Ideas debate, Should Poetry Please?

Bloodaxe Books

Hear poets read their work at the online poetry archive

Listen to Radio 4’s Poetry Please and the BBC’s poetry out loud

Penned in the Margins puts on UK-wide literature events, along with resident poet and Culture Wars contributor, Tom Chivers

See also Salt Publishing

Monthly contemporary poetry at Poetry Magazine

The Poetry Society

The Poetry Book Society

The Poetry Book Foundation

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