Literary Shelf

Humour in Poetry

Let me first of all confess that I just don’t qualify as a poet because I have absolutely no technical knowledge of poetry writing. From the serious business of banking where my mind was conditioned to a six-column thinking called Date, Particulars, Debit, Credit, Balance and F10 to authorise a transaction, and where we were experts in filling in the blanks in pre-structured forms or at best we were used to reading balance sheets which too we often misread and ended up giving loans that became bad - Non-performing Assets. I was expected to look important and serious in the bank to command respect from my clients and colleagues and impress my superiors. While in the bank, the only fun I had was in thinking of my customers as Kashtamars. So, help me God!

After three decades + of some very non-creative form fillings, and once my son started getting a regular salary, I quit banking and quite by some quirk I think, began writing what I believed were poems – funny ones at that!. No wonder, people thought them funny because my so called funny poems didn’t conform to any norms, forms, structure or rules! My evolution as a writer of poems involved besides frequent stumbles, a process of fumbling, bumbling, bungling and even sometimes mumbling to myself...I was never sure whether people were laughing at me or over my poems in enjoyment...

The most wonderfulthing about writing humorous poetry is that it is as enjoyable to write a witty poem as it is toread one!! The best thing about it is that we can playfully mock, chide, tease, undermine and debunk the mostimportant, the most popular, or the most sacred subjects – the politicians, the taxes, the celebrities, the family, and even death, and oh yes, love too! We can even mock or make fun of the daily news that appears in the papers. I’ve done that quite a bit. Earlier I used to pick up some news item that interested and amused me and would write a short piece. Here’s a sampling – you all night have heard or read a few years back about the Shilpa Shetty-Richard Gere kiss on camera and the moral police making a hue and cry about it (as usual) and the relentless media hounding a sulking Shilpa. Here was my take on it then:

"So what if Gere kissed me
In jest and style filmy?",
Thus fumed the spunky Shilpa
Refusing to say "mea culpa"
At a press meet quite stormy!

In my bumbling, stumbling ways, I discovered that there is actually no defined genre in English Literature for humorous poetry. In fact, literary scholars haven’t really bothered to undertake a study of humorous poetry-writing as an art. They often club all funny poems into a vague category called Light Verse and view them as undeserving of any serious consideration...

Some of the poets of the yore, spiced up their poems with wit and humour and became famous for it. These include Edward Lear(the father of Limericks that were compiled in his Book of Nonsense),Ogden Nash, Arther Guiterman, Harry Grahamand Dorothy parker, to name a few. As this piece progresses along, I’ll quote something from each of these poets and may be, some more too. These poets were known for their humorous poetic styles and the innovative devices they employed to convey the underlying wit in their poesy. Here are some really nice ones by Ogden Nash:

A fly and a flea in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, ”Let us flee!”
“Let us fly!”, said the flea
So they flew through a flaw in the flue

A tutor who tooted the flute
Tried to tutor two tooters to toot
Said the two to the tutor,
“Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?”

All decidedly mind boggling but interesting and funny tongue twisters! And here’s another one, whose authorship continues to be debatable but most believe that this one too is another Ogden Nash special:

There was a young lady of Munich
Whose appetite simply was unique.
She contentedly cooed,
“There’s nothing like food,”
As she let out a tuck in her tunic.

If we know our intended audience, then we could tailor the language andreferences—the “jokes”— according to their interests or fields they work for. Here’s one by Dr. A H Reginald Buller (A botanist himself) that would amuse someone interested in Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity:

There was a young lady named Bright
Whose speed was faster than light.
She started one day
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

So, What is humourous poetry really?

Witty and humorous poems usually,

  • Tickle our funny bone
  • Bring a smile to our face.
  • Have us laughing out loud.
  • Are natural and playful
  • Most have some underlying wit and wisdom
  • Generally amuse us...

Sadly, Some consider writing of humorous poetry as some kind of a terrible crime – something flippant and undeserving of any serious attention. But if you ask the film folks they’ll tell you comedy is serious business as it is easier to churn out a tearjerker than a rib-tickler!

What are the key elements of humourous poems?

RHYME: Rhyme is an important tool for creating light verse . Almost all the humorous poems written inEnglish have a pattern of end-rhymes. Rhyme delights the reader’s senses and also makes the poem easier to understand.

RHYTHM: In comedy, timing is everything. The poetic element of rhythm is often used cleverly in witty verses. Writers can skilfully andpurposefully use rhythm,

· To propel the reader along in a fast gallop or
· To slow down the reader for a longer look, or
· To surprise thereader with something sudden and unexpected at the end of the ride.

Here’s an example in a short poem called “My Papa's Waltz” by Theodore Roethke

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchenshelf;
Mymother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

Here’s another example of good rhythm in a short poem called “Because I could not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickison:

Because Icould not stopforDeath,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

REFRAIN: Another element used in humorous poetry is repetition and is called Refrain. A Refrain is:

· A repeated line, or
· A repeated part of aline, that is used throughout a poem.

Refrains can be used to repeat a silly phrase, or a funny name, to reinforce the light tone.

An example of this is in the poem "Macavity: The Mystery Cat"by T. S. Eliot, that includes two refrains that employ the cat’s name throughout the poem.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!

Refrain Forms: Refrains can be used for puns or silly phrases as a part of the rhyme scheme. Two popular Refrain forms are the Triolet and the Villanelle.


Triolet is used in English poetry exclusively for humor and has eight lines. Here is an example of “Triolet” by G.K. Chesterton:

I wish I were a jelly fish
That cannot fall downstairs:
Of all the things I wish to wish
I wish I were a jelly fish
That hasn’t any cares,
And doesn’t even have to wish
“I wish I were a jelly fish
That cannot fall downstairs.”

The Villanelle is another refrain form. It is used for both serious poetry and light verses. It has stanzas of three lines (tercets). The most common form in English is the Passerat model, which has nineteen lines. Traditionally, all the lines have the same meter and length. A modern example of this form of witty poetry using thetwo refrains for humor is "Voice Mail Villanelle"by Dan Skwire:

We're grateful that you called today
And sorry that we're occupied.
We will be with you right away.

Press one if you would like to stay,
Press two if you cannot decide.
We're grateful that you called today.

Press three to end this brief delay,
Press four if you believe we've lied.
We will be with you right away.

Press five to hear some music play,
Press six to speak with someone snide.
We're grateful that you called today.

Press seven if your hair's turned gray,
Press eight if you've already died.
We will be with you right away.

Press nine to hear recordings say
That service is our greatest pride.
We're grateful that you called today.
We will be with you right away.

Terse Verse: Terse verse is a form of poetry with just a few lines and rhymes to makea single point. The title of the poem may or may not be an important part of the humor. Types of terse verse include the Epigram andthe Epitaph.

Epigram: An epigram imparts wisdom or a memorable message in a few words in an impactful manner. It canbe serious or funny. Epigrams are carefully written. The title too may be a part of the joke. A famous humorous epigram is by Dorothy Parker titled “News Item” and it goes thus:

“News Item”

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

This may not be that applicable in the 21st century when most women wear contact lense – yours truly excepted!

An Epitaph is a poem which could go on the tombstone of a dead person. Funny ones do rhyme, but the meter may not be exact. Some poets like to write their ownfunny epitaph before they die!John Gray's“My Own Epitaph” is an example:

Life is a jest, and all things show it;
I thought so once, but now I know it.

I too tried to write an epitaph for myself in a poem called “A Riff Raff’s Epitaph” which concludes thus:

Amidst a growth of unruly weed,
My epitaph shall thus aptly read:
“Here lies a silly, stupid riff-raff
Who doesn’t need an epitaph”!!!

Satire: Satire is a serious art that’s funny and is often employed to ridicule something or someone. Satire and irony make people laugh. But they're also serious, thought-provoking and multidimensional in a hard-hitting but humorous way.

I believe politics and politicians are easily and perhaps deservedly too, the butt of a lot of witty poems with satire. Here’s my own take on who else but NaMo and RaGa, who are so much in news these days with the 2014 elections not so far away - titled “Toms & Jerrys” And it goes thus:

There is this confused Tom
With a scheming super mom,
Who’s willing to go to any length
To give her Tom political strength
And holds a powerful RaGa bomb.

And then there’s this Tom on the prowl,
Who does not mew but lets out a growl.
The rise of this NaMo from a nano
Boasting of much political ammo,
Has all his opponents crying foul...

As the wily Toms try their luck,
The scared Jerrys run amuck.
Not knowing which Tom to trust
And which Tom’s plans to bust,
Jerrys now feel like a lame duck.

A very funny and delightful form of humour is self-effacing humour. In fact, there was one politician, the redoubtable Woodrow Wilson the 18th President of USA who self-effacingly said this often about himself, so much so that people also credited him of its authorship I can’t think of a better example of self-effacing humour than this one...

As a beauty, I’m not a great star
There are others more handsome by far
But my face, I don’t mind it
Because I am behind it -
It’s the people in the front that I jar!

Later it came to be known that this piece called “The Face” was written by a minor poet named Anthony Euwer who also wrote this one called “The Hands”:

The hands, they are made to assist
In supplying the features with grist,
There are only a few-
As a rule about two-
And are hitched to the end of the wrist.

Euwer is also credited with writing this nice piece called “The Smile”:

No matter how grouchy you are feeling,
You’ll find the smile more or less healing.
It grows in a wreath
All around the front teeth –
Thus preserving the face from congealing.

There is also a genre of poetry writing that is light hearted, naughty and leans slightly towards a mild shade of blue or raunchy. Here’s are a few examples:

A bather whose clothing was strewed
By winds that had left her quite nude
Saw a young man come along...
And unless we are wrong,
You thought the next line would be lewd.

There was a young man from Bengal
Who went to a fancy dress ball
He went for fun
Dressed as a bun
And a dog ate him up in the hall.

There was a pert lass from Madras
Who had a remarkable ass –
Not rounded and pink
As you probably think.
It was gray, had long ears and ate grass.

Then, there is a style of humourous poetry that reflects black humour:

Here is one of my own called The Nine Lives of a Cat:

A cat on despondency side,
Decided to commit suicide.
She went under the wheels
Of eight automobiles.
Under the ninth, she died.

And here’s one by the irrepressible Edward Lear (1812-1888):

A cute debutante from St. Paul
Wore a newspaper dress to a ball.
The dress caught fire
And burnt her entire
Front page, sporting section, and all!

One more:

There was a young fellow of Lyme
Who lived with three wives at a time.
When asked,” Why the third?”
He said, “One is absurd,
And bigamy, sir is a crime”.

And here’s another:

An amoeba named Sam and his brother
Were having a drink with each other;
In the midst of their quaffing
They split their sides laughing
And each of them is now a mother.

And in passing, the 19th Century humorist Gelett Burgess who added to the English Language words like “blurb” and “bromide”, wrote the famous “Purple Cow”:

I never saw a purple cow,
I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you anyhow,
That I’d rather see than be one!

Burgess became somewhat exasperated with the success of this poem, of which he was constantly reminded. A few years later, he penned a riposte that became almost as well known as the original:

Ah, yes, I wrote the "Purple Cow"—
I'm Sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I'll Kill you if you Quote it!

Here’s another from the same poet:

I’d rather have fingers than toes,
I’d rather have ears than a nose;
And as for my hair
I’m glad it’s still there.
I’ll be awfully sad when it goes.

William Cosmo Monkhouse, another 19th century poet wrote this classic one:

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled and rode on a tiger.
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside –
And smile on the face of the tiger.

Here is another popular one:

There was an old man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket
His daughter named Nan
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

It is quite evident from the above quoted poems that limericks have contributed hugely to funny or humorous poetry.

In conclusion, I’d like to quote Alan Alexander Milne, the writer who popularized Teddy Bear, Winnie the Pooh and a whole lot of children’s poetry and stories. And here’s what he said of light verse:

“it is the supreme exhibition of somebody’s definition of art, the concealment of art. In the result, itobserves the most exact laws of rhythm and metre as if by a happy accident, and in a sort of nonchalant spirit of mockery at the realpoets who do it on purpose.” The best writers of humorous poetry or the light verse are indeed masters of this poetic form.

Here’s a must-read, cute and naughty poem by Joanne Bailey Baxter, Ohio.

When I'm an Old Lady

When I'm an old lady, I'll live with each kid,
and bring so much happiness, just as they did.
I want to pay back all the joy they've provided.
Returning each deed! Oh, they'll be so excited!
(When I'm an old lady and live with my kids)

I'll write on the wall with reds, whites and blues,
and I'll bounce on the furniture wearing my shoes.
I'll drink from the carton and then leave it out.
I'll stuff all the toilets and oh, how they'll shout!
(When I'm an old lady and live with my kids)

When they're on the phone and just out of reach,
I'll get into things like sugar and bleach.
Oh, they'll snap their fingers and then shake their head,
and when that is done, I'll hide under the bed!
(When I'm an old lady and live with my kids)

When they cook dinner and call me to eat,
I'll not eat my green beans or salad or meat,
I'll gag on my okra, spill milk on the table,
And when they get angry. I'll run. if I'm able!
(When I'm an old lady and live with my kids)

I'll sit close to the TV, through the channels I'll click,
I'll cross both eyes just to see if they stick.
I'll take off my socks and throw one away,
and play in the mud till the end of the day!
(When I'm an old lady and live with my kids)

And later in bed, I'll lay back and sigh,
I'll thank God in prayer and then close my eyes.
My kids will look down with a smile slowly creeping,
and say with a groan, "She's so sweet when she's sleeping!"


More by :  Padmaja Iyengar-Paddy

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Views: 3729      Comments: 9

Comment Thanks a ton Manjari for making the time to read this one and for liking it.

19-Feb-2014 22:15 PM

Comment Humorous poetry is a way of not only saying the 'unsayable' but saying it with a smile.

Brilliant work!! Joke on!!

01-Feb-2014 00:19 AM

Comment Thanks ksrblogs for liking this one and for the limerick:-)

Padmaja Iyengar
22-Dec-2013 11:28 AM

Comment Dear Padmaja, Thanks for the nice and entertaining article. Let me add a funny limerick to the list.

Newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Kelly
were found glued bely to belly,
for in first night's haste,
they used library paste
instead of petroleum jelly.

21-Dec-2013 20:49 PM

Comment Thanks rdasshby ji for your insightful observations on humour in poetry. Nairji, thanks very much for your generous praise that encourages and inspires me to write further.

Padmaja Iyengar
21-Dec-2013 04:21 AM

Comment I enjoy humour in verse, and have written a few myself - not to be quoted here, but merely to examine the psychology. It was Christ who said that anything but a statement of fact came from the evil one. And we can concede that humour in poems is of a mendacious nature; but the difference between a joke and a false statement is that in the former case the lie is revealed, and for that reason causes the sensation we experience and identify as humour. It is said, laughter is the best medicine, the kind stimulated by jokes. A good joke cheers one up, and acts as a morale booster in a difficult situation. Yet, one can think of no religious quotes (in any religion) that are jokes, even as humorous verse. This is because the joke is a closed circuit of nonsense - it says nothing, except to revel itself as a lie, which is the ticklish point, the mastery of which is an art in itself.

19-Dec-2013 22:03 PM

Comment Thanks for this feast. I can't accept your confession that you have no technical knowledge of poetry writing. You do have a lot and this article is proof. Beyond all that, you are too good at writing humorous poetry.

Madathil Rajendran Nair
19-Dec-2013 19:59 PM

Comment Thanks Kulbir for your appreciation.

Padmaja Iyengar
19-Dec-2013 00:00 AM

Comment Padmaja,

Thanks for enlightening us, and making us smile.

18-Dec-2013 16:37 PM

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