Once in graduate school, a friend complained to me that our professor had chided him for employing “humor as a defense mechanism” in his poems. We laughed together at how stupid we thought this was and how smart we thought we were. Now though, I think perhaps the critique itself was accurate, and it was just the attending implied emotional hollowness that was cheap analysis. Really, this aphorism suggests that humor exists alongside—as shield or balm—something darker, something from which we seek solace in lightness.
Mark Leidner, in his latest poetry collection, Returning the Sword to the Stone, from Fonograf Editions writes that “all the ironies of literature are a dam against … despair.” Humor as a primary engine in a form as sincere as poetry suggests turning one’s back to that ever-looming despair in search of levity—and doing so acknowledges both the despair itself and the natural human instinct to resist it. Humor may indeed be a defense mechanism, but it is perhaps one of the only defenses we have in this hopeless and strange world where “anything is possible / but everything is too expensive.”
Leidner builds these dams and simultaneously resists their sweeping conclusions and lofty metaphorical resonance. Instead, he proves the value of humor for humor’s sake—this is poetry that rails against canonical tradition and mocks the serene solemnity often found in today’s most “necessary” literature. “Returning the Sword to the Stone,” similar in form to the poem “Blackouts” in his first collection, Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Us, suggests metaphor without actually identifying a tenor—what exactly can be compared to “getting chased by velociraptors wearing turtlenecks and yin-yang necklaces, and the yin-yang necklaces are bouncing up and down on the outsides of their turtlenecks”? The precision of this absurd and hilarious scene juxtaposes the open-ended space that precedes it; metaphor is used to provide a better description of a thing, but in this case, the image of the vehicle overtakes its nonexistent tenor entirely. The ridiculous image is employed not to elucidate a specific experience or to make some larger point about the state of U.S. politics—Leidner teases at this idea with the vague anaphora, but instead he turns his attention fully to the image—those turtlenecked velociraptors—to absurdity, to humor.
Leidner’s tone is certain, though often conversational, and declarative: “A pill that makes you think you’ve voted.” In “Salad On The Wind,” each line is measured and sure even though the speaker actually seems full of shit (and that seems at least partly the point—the sanctity of poetry reduced to the most ridiculous combination of words imaginable). And yet the short lines multiply, creating sonnet-like sections of these strange assertions. Each wildly disparate image replaces the one before it, giving the reader no longer than a line (on rare occasion, two) to accept the statement and move on to the next. Whether the reader accepts it as truth or not is beside the point—here is a shiny new version of it, here is another.
The poem “Being With You” contains the same anaphora as the titular poem, but it’s evident that each metaphor—and these ones are longer, they spread across lines and imply more the sense of an ongoing story than the entrance of many small rooms like the more condensed and concise metaphors of “Returning the Sword to the Stone”—refers to the experience of “being with you.” Each metaphor contains a world; the love between the speaker and “you” is expansive and absurd. Leidner compares it to discovering the cure for global poverty, finding refuge in a spider’s made-to-measure “gossamer throne,” and
……………… conceding an election
you didn’t even really want to win
and only ran in as a favor to a friend
who really, really loves democracy
and now that your debt has been paid
you get to revel in the double pleasure
of being debt-free and never having to govern.
To me there is something very humble and very genuine in the decision to foreground humor in poetry. It is as though one is admitting to the impossibility of ever saying, exactly, the pure, true thing one means and instead of despairing, reveling in the impure, false, almost thing one is trying (and failing) to convey. Humor may be an insincere engine, but it nonetheless travels on, it nonetheless gets us somewhere far from where we started.
To put it another way, humor works throughout this collection in a similar way as Leidner describes the “musical instrument” at the end of “Being With You,” which is shattered and then remade through a complex negotiation of humming fragments and spells,
a cracked, magical version of the original instrument
and every note the reformed instrument makes
is heretofore in the world an unheard thing
In Henri Bergson’s “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” he writes of a timber merchant in a Eugène Marin Labiche play who cannot imagine having any other profession. “Vanity here tends to merge into SOLEMNITY, in proportion to the degree of quackery there is in the profession under consideration,” Bergson writes. (And poetry certainly has a higher “degree of quackery” than the timber industry—less environmental destruction, though one could argue the two are related.) He goes on: “For it is a remarkable fact that the more questionable an art, science or occupation is, the more those who practice it are inclined to regard themselves as invested with a kind of priesthood and to claim that all should bow before its mysteries.”
Humility is a surprising byproduct of Leidner’s bold humor—rhyme, repetition, and a deft sense of rhythm make it clear this is an artist who takes his work seriously. And yet, the wildness of the content here suggests Leidner’s steadfast self-awareness—a recognition not only of the “quackery” inherent in this “questionable” art form, but also the way in which many poets assume themselves the ethereal keepers of truth and beauty. Leidner makes a mockery of this kind of posturing in the claim that “when the moon is out / every buffoon is a poet,” the eight-page spoonerism poem, and the feigned gravitas of an elaborate myth about a “jeansed horse” who
………. prances through heaven
its big stupid meadow
of empty beauty
in its pockets
like cosmic maracas.
Not only does this poet admit to knowing little about truth or beauty, he flaunts his ignorance so brazenly, so blatantly, so infectiously that we all get caught up in that unknowingness, which itself becomes a new, stranger kind of truth, a truer beauty.
If Leidner’s humor is a defense mechanism, so be it. There are many ways of obfuscating the truth, one of which being that it is difficult or impossible to know it. I say at least five things I don’t mean every day. Leidner resists succumbing to the vanity of contemporary poetry’s indistinct blob of self-proclaimed truth-tellers, and instead remains loyal to irony—wherein lies his own subtle and idiosyncratic truths. He does not break open humor’s defense but instead lets it protect him as he travels deeper and deeper into the strange dark halls of despair where “all the diaper-changing stations / in the bathrooms of casual restaurants … look like elongated, wall-clinging ghosts.”
Emily Alexander eats food and lives in Idaho. Her poems have been published in Hobart Pulp, Puerto del Sol, and Penn Review.