Humour in Poetry: A dying art

It was November 12th, 2016. In my desperate need for validation after a fairly traumatic breakup, I signed up for “The Bombay Slam #1”, an event I’ve since come to love even though that particular performance was horrifying. You see, “The Bombay Slam” is Words Tell Stories’ premiere Poetry Slam and pits Bombay’s finest poets to compete against one another. A fact that I had nonchalantly overlooked while registering my name against stellar poets like Aishwarya Kamat, Neha Raghani, Subodh Chaubey and artists that could school my wannabe poet ass like Laxmi Krishnan and EMF. It was a tall order for a first-time poet!

Also, did I mention this was my first time on stage since high school? As expected, stage fright got the best of me and I tanked. Tanked, with a capital T. There were fumbles and tremors and stammers galore and I barely managed to finish my piece. To my dejection, I burnt out in the first round itself. It was one of the worst feelings ever and I could barely make eye contact for the rest of the evening.

Today, I look back at that first slam with some fondness. That day gave me a lot of good friends. Some of whom are now like family. For me, that night defines the poetry community in Mumbai. A group of encouraging, loving, socially aware individuals who help you grow, despite how much you suck. I got hugs. That’s the beautiful thing about poetry meets, there’s always free hugs to be doled out. Even for strangers. Over the next few months, this constant support made me a better performer and eventually, even gave me the confidence to venture into the uber-competitive Indian comedy stand-up scene.

That’s right, for the last 6 months or so, I’ve had the rare honour (or tribulation?) of observing both the spoken word and stand-up comedy scene from close quarters. (Comics wondering ki tribulation kya hota hai: It means yeh poets bhi padh rahe hai isliye thode bade words use kar raha hoon. Baadmein mazaak udaa lena, kamino.)

I’m often asked the question, “Why do comedians hate poets so much?” In my opinion, the point can be made that poets don’t particularly endear themselves to comics’ psyche. Especially with their “holier than thou” approach to societal issues and sometimes deliberately preachy themes.

While at the core, poetry is certainly about expressing an emotion, lately there seems to be a clear favouritism towards socially relevant topics. Apart from the always popular love, loss and anguish, buzzworthy topics like “rant about government”, “rant about feminism” and even “rant about how there’s too little ranting happening about societal issues” seem to have taken over. I won’t deny it, I’ve been guilty of this myself.

On the bright side, there are some exceptional poets who’ve made great strides through this form of poetry by shedding light on important issues. However, for every Aranya, there’s a girl who ABSOLUTELY SHOULD NOT have picked up a pen to narrate her asinine views on ISIS beheadings. And for every Simar, there’s a fairly ill-informed boy whose motivations to write hate-speech about Kashmir are purely to get views and some YouTube fame. The double-edged sword of socially conscious poetry is well and truly out of its scabbard. For better or worse.

In all this, there’s one emotion that poets on the scene today are overlooking in a big way: Humour. Think about this; how often do you hear a good chuckle or even a light-hearted woot at a poetry event? Is it that we’ve succumbed to the age-old tradition of expecting only finger-snaps? Or have we, as a community, chosen to focus only on the serious issues while forsaking our sense of humour? Have we chosen to become the over-pretentious caricatures that lesser-informed sects of society make us out to be? Glass of wine, pinky-up-tea-sips et all?

It’s gratifying that some on the circuit like Sudeep Pagedar, Nadeem Raj, Rakesh Tiwari, Prachee Mashru, Navaldeep, Mohammad bhai, Isha Joshi and more continue to regularly incorporate humour into their pieces and to my great delight, it’s usually well received. However, these instances are few and far between. When I go to a Tuning Fork (now The Habitat) on a Monday or even a Words Tell Stories or Open Sky Slam, the content I come across is 85% emotionally draining, preachy and sometimes just seems like a desperate attempt to validate one’s views through needlessly verbose stanzas. The other 15 percent can be passed off as light-hearted humour, most of which is unintentional.

Considering India’s rich heritage of satirical poetry or “Hasya Kavita”, this ratio is abysmal. Social causes are great but in the bloodlust for views and virality, have we forgotten to write and perform for fun?

There’s no element of surprise and rarely do we rely on spontaneity. We aren’t bleeding on a page and we most certainly aren’t upholding a sense of uniqueness in our performances. Lessons that we can learn from our brethren on the comedy circuit. Perhaps there’s hope to co-exist, after all?

In closing, I’ll admit that most comedians’ hatred for poets is somewhat hypocritical. For all the hue and cry comics make about poetry not being a legitimate form of entertainment, they tend to forget that about a decade or so ago, even stand-up comedy wasn’t considered a monetizable form of entertainment in this country.

And if every art form goes through some growing pains, then may be our current poetry scene is going through its “social-cause nerd who is also an emo hippie teen that takes themselves too seriously” phase. And that’s okay. As long as this emo hippie teenager keeps growing.

And lastly, I urge my fellow spoken word performers to not be clichés. Sure, keep writing and performing pieces that stir the soul and make minds ponder; it’s what makes this art form so amazing. But also, don’t forget to write a piece for your own amusement once in a while. Explore your sense of humour and write something funny and expressive; even if it’s only funny in your head. Leave social consciousness aside for a bit and set yourself apart with wise quips, limericks and maybe even the odd juvenile innuendo. It’ll only make you a better performer!

And if all else fails, you can always just ask for a hug.

– Jackie Thakkar




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