Humor, Empathy, and Community in Twentieth-Century American Poetry

ISBN : 9780192895714

Rachel Trousdale
288 Pages
156 x 234 mm
Pub date
Dec 2021
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Humor, Empathy, and Community in Twentieth-Century American Poetry explores how American poets of the last hundred years have used laughter to create communities of readers and writers. For poets slightly outside of the literary or social mainstream, humor encourages mutual understanding and empathic insight among artist, audience, and subject. As a result, laughter helps poets reframe and reject literary, political, and discursive hierarchies-whether to overturn those hierarchies, or to place themselves at the top. While theorists like Freud and Bergson argue that laughter patrols and maintains the boundary between in-group and out-group, this volume shows how laughter helps us cross or re-draw those boundaries. Poets who practice such constructive humor promote a more democratic approach to laughter. Humor reveals their beliefs about their audiences and their attitudes toward the Romantic notion that poets are exceptional figures. When poets use humor to promote empathy, they suggest that poetry's ethical function is tied to its structure: empathy, humor, and poetry identify shared patterns among apparently disparate objects. This book explores a broad range of serious approaches to laughter: the inclusive, community-building humor of W. H. Auden and Marianne Moore; the self-aggrandizing humor of Ezra Pound; the self-critical humor of T. S. Eliot; Sterling Brown's antihierarchical comedy; Elizabeth Bishop's attempts to balance mockery with sympathy; and the comic epistemologies of Lucille Clifton, Stephanie Burt, Cathy Park Hong, and other contemporary poets. It charts a developing poetics of laughter in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, showing how humor can be deployed to embrace, to exclude, and to transform.


Introduction: Humor and Empathy
1 Tell me the Truth: Humor, Love, and Community in Auden's Late-Thirties Poetry
2 Humor Saves Steps: Laughter and Humanity in Marianne Moore
3 Distance, and Intimacy, and T. S. Eliot's Self-Critical Laughter
4 Shocked at my Levity: Humor and Immortality in Ezra Pound
5 Sterling Brown's Laughter Out of Hell
6 Elizabeth Bishop's Equivocal Communions
7 Laughter and Knowledge in Contemporary Poetry

About the author: 

Rachel Trousdale is an Associate Professor of English at Framingham State University. She is the author of Nabokov, Rushdie, and the Transnational Imagination and editor of Humor in Modern American Poetry.

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