A funny thing happened on the way to the poetry workshop ...

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Humour in poetry is a funny thing. No, scrub that. Try again. Writing about a workshop on comedy in poetry … no, that doesn’t work either as an intro. Start again. One of the poems we looked at the day workshop on Sunday in London run by Katherine Lockton, co-editor of South Bank Poetry magazine, was the Billy Collins poem ‘Workshop’. If you don’t know it, here’s a taster:


     Maybe it’s just me,

     But the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.

     I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?

     And what’s an obligatto of snow?

     Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.

     At that point I’m lost. I need help.


This magnificent poem is affectionate and poignant, even as it skewers. Most of us have been there.

I’ve never written about a workshop before. I haven’t even been on that many. But South Bank Poetry run one most months of the year, and Katherine suggested I come along, to see what I thought. Humour just happened to be the topic, although it is one that I am very interested in, and am trying to work into my own poetry a little more. Contemporary practitioners such as Roger McGough have claimed that it is not taken seriously enough by the critics. 

We looked at classic purveyors of poetic comedy such as Lewis Carroll (‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ and ‘Jabberwocky’) and AA Milne (‘Teddy Bear’ and ‘Lines and Squares’). I wondered aloud if use of rhyme and meter helped to emphasise the jokes. But there are all kinds of humour, of course. The Billy Collins poem is written in free verse, and we also looked at ‘Spiritual Chickens’ by Stephen Dobyns, which seemed closer to prose but is nevertheless remarkable;  the prose-poem Frivolity’ by Stephen Dunn; and the very enjoyable ‘The Secret Life of Barbie and Mr Potato Head’ by Nin Andrews.

South Bank Poetry’s founder and co-editor, Peter Ebsworth, was at Katherine’s side to lend support and to add his own insights, which included pointing out the difference between “funny” and “witty”.  Katherine is very interested in line breaks, and how they affect a poem, and we spent some time on that. We did a limbering-up exercise in word association about our journey to the workshop; tried to compose a poem incorporating humour, including a joke that we might have brought along; wrote another poem about toy animals that were distributed to us; went in to have one of our previously written poems analysed by Katherine in a 10-minute, one-to-one session; and finally workshopped another one of our own poems within the group, with response guidelines that ruled out any devastating critiques of the Billy Collins variety. Katherine’s advice? Writing a poem was like sculpting, she said: “Don’t be too scared to remould.”

Poetry is a communal activity, thank the Lord, with groups, open mic nights, and workshops throughout the land; and one of the nicest things about taking part in a workshop is meeting other poets. I encountered performance poet and singer Ivy Davies, who sang some of the lines in her group-workshop poem; Anne-Marie Liburd, a newcomer to poetry; Alan Murrell, who reads at Croydon’s Poets Anonymous, and reckons he writes more than 10 poems a month; and 89-year-old Sylvia Rowbottom, a regularly published poet who still attends a weekly class at City Lit, and whose reading aloud of Lewis Carroll and AA Milne was a joy to hear.

We were sent away with a homework task, with Katherine promising feedback on it. The next SBP workshop in August continues the humour theme, with the focus this time on adult humour. Workshops are a big part of South Bank Poetry’s activities, with five more lined up before the end of 2017 .

Meanwhile I can’t resist concluding this piece with another quote from that wonderful poem by Billy Collins:


     In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here

     is really two poems, or three, or four,

     or possibly none.


I leave you with that thought. Not a bad, if sobering punchline!

Greg Freeman

◄ Write Out Loud at Bolton Socialist Club tonight

Spotting Joy! Poet becomes the 'face' of Nationwide ►


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M.C. Newberry

Fri 14th Jul 2017 15:33

As with jazz - so with humour. As the great Louis Armstrong was quoted as saying in his inimitable phrasing:
"If you has to ask you don't know".

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John Coopey

Tue 11th Jul 2017 09:06

There's a rather good test for a funny poem and it's this - does anybody laugh?

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