Mathias Svalina: This is Mathias Svalina from the MFA program of Virginia Commonwealth University. It's Wednesday, February 13, 2002, and I'm at American University, speaking with Henry Taylor.
What is it about Brother Dave Gardner that compels you to continue writing in his voice?
Henry Taylor: That's a very difficult question
for me to answer with any great precision. It's partly mysterious to me.
The process, so far, has been a matter of my suddenly having jump into
my head whole little sketches, which, when I first think of them, I can
say without visualizing where the line ends might end up being. And so
I take them home and I write them down and look at them and think about
where the line breaks would go. I think it's fair to say that I probably
first conceive of them in prose. I think I conceive of them pretty much
in the voice of Brother Dave Gardner and it's been suggested that I'm
just channeling, that he's speaking to all of us through me, and I have
limited ability to be completely sympathetic with that view of thingsI'm
a little bit of a left-brain sort of person. But there is a convincing
aspect of it, which is that these things jump into my head almost fully
formed. They don't require a lot of work.
Now, the question that you ask also seems to me to imply some curiosity about why a fellow like Brother Dave Gardner would be of interest to a fellow like me. And that's where some of the mystery lies. I think he was some kind of a comic genius. I think he had a gift for a certain kind of surrealistic slant on life and the sort of out-of-left-field one-liner that make me laugh. I'm also aware, though, that there's a very racist side to his humor, which I think is very unfortunate.
MS: What's your personal connection to Brother Dave Gardner?
HT: I have very little personal connection with him. I saw him live once, near the end of his career, or near the end of the first phase of his career. He was at the peak of his popularity, I suppose, in the late fifties and early sixties. At that time, he was appearing on The Jack Paar Show which was a forerunner of The Tonight Show, and he was making stand-up-type monologue recordings with RCA Victor, and they were doing pretty well. Sometime in the late sixties, he came through Roanoke, Virginia, and I went to see him there.
A minute ago I was saying that there is this racist side to his humor, which I think is very unfortunate. I'm not willing to declare his entire effort off-limits for that reason. I know that there are people who think that, for example, we should dismiss Thomas Jefferson because he was a slave-owner. I can't go there. I wish he were not a racist. I try myself not to be. It's a matter that requires effort, I'm afraid. That's not the fault of the races; it's the way the situation is. If I'm walking down the street at night, I would like not to have my pulse rate change in a strange part of town among a suddenly-arriving group of young African-American males. I'm not sure that I can pull that off.
MS: You mentioned that the poems in Brother Dave Gardner's voice come to you as sketches, and I'm wondering how those kinds of comedic forms fit into your formal sense of poetry? And how formal considerations bring humor out in your work?
HT: In my experience, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of predictable affinity between traditional forms and humor or free verse and humor. My early poetrywhen I first began to write "snapshots," as George Garrett taught me to call them, little anecdotes with punch linesthey tend on the whole to be free verse. Even if they're metrical, they're unrhymed. Much more recently, I've done an entire book of clerihews, which are rhymed. In between, there's a group of poems that have been appearing very intermittently and in various disguises that make them hard to identify. But they're sonnets, spoken by or about an imaginary character that I developed back in the 1970sa fellow named Desperado. I don't know what his real name is, but Desperado is what it says on the bug shield on the hood of his pickup truck. And of the sonnets in The Flying ChangeI think there are maybe a half a dozen or so sonnets in The Flying Changethere's one about my son climbing on the stairs and stuff called "Green Springs the Tree." It's not part of the Desperado series, but all the other sonnets that are in that book, I believe, are part of that series; they just don't happen to mention him by name or seem to need the other poems to be intelligible. But there's a kind of rapscallious smart-assed quality to those poems that I think is related to Brother Dave Gardner. So it would appear that at some leveldespite the fact that I'm a university professor and wear neckties and stuff like thatthere is something about a back-country, reckless humor that appeals to me at some very deep level.
MS: Do you differentiate between humor in that way and literary wit in poetry?
HT: Yes, I do. I think that wit is not necessarily humorous. And I value it and like to think that, from time to time, I use it. But if I want to write a poem that is primarily funny, really that's all I'm trying to do. I don't do this exclusively, of course. It's not the only kind of poetry I write. I was talking not too long ago to my friend Billy Collins about the fact that it's very, very surprising to people who come to hear a poetry reading to discover that the poet is able to be funny, and there's a kind of huge relief about that. So the effect is that it takes a very small proportion of humor in a poetry reading to make people think the whole reading was funny as hell. Now you read for fifteen minutes and if ten of those minutes make people laugh, then they will go away thinking, "Boy, that's a really funny poet." It's an odd phenomenon. If a comedian had that kind of proportion, he'd be an absolute failure.
MS: Do you think bringing humor to poetry causes the listener or reader to have a different mindset in accepting the poetry?
HT: Quite possibly. I'm not interested in that
question as a strategy for composition. I mean, it's an interesting question
to be asked by a reader, but it's not related to my goals. When I write
a poem that I hope will be funny, of course I hope that the reader will
laugh at it when it's done. It's like telling a joke and hoping that people
will find it funny. What I'm up to, though, has to do with the way I think
the world works. I think that the world is funny more often than a lot
of serious artists have found ways of demonstrating that it is. There's
something about being a serious artist that calls forthon some occasions,
anywaya kind of solemnity. I remember noticinga poet whose
work I admire enormously is Galway Kinnelland if you go through
the whole sweep of Kinnell's work, you notice that it takes him rather
a while to get to be funny. And then, it's as if he suddenly thought to
himself, "Hey, this is all right." And it coincides more or
less with his becoming the father of the boy Fergus, who is now, obviously,
a man; but in the old days, he was a little boy. But some of the things
that Galway writes about him are beautifully combined observations arising
from the profound love and nearly inexpressible hopes that one has about
one's children, along with the basic hilarity of the present situation,
whatever it may be. "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps" is
the poem that comes to mind.
I think that finding a way to get the funny part into an ordinary experience, instead of straining out the serious part and leaving the funny part behindI've always just found it an interesting technical challenge.
MS: You said just now that you find the world funny in a way that not many artists have been able to convey. Is there a divide between what can be said well in poetry with a humorous intent and what can be said well with serious intent? Are there subjects that don't warrant a humorous approach?
HT: Well, obviously there are things that it would be very difficult to be funny about. That's true whether you were talking about poetry or ordinary conversation. And there's a kind of humor that is thought in some quarters to be reprehensible. A number of years ago there was that terrible disaster with the Challenger space vehicle, when the astronauts and Christa McAuliffe were killed, and the speed with which jokes about that accident traveled across the country is remarkable. It's almost as if some of them were in the air before the craft hit the water. Now, some people found them funny, and some people found them extremely distasteful and that's neither here nor there in terms of my point, which is that there's a kind of consensus about when it's okay to start being funny about something. I can't imagineat this stage of the gameI can't imagine anything funny to say about the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers, but I think it's beginning to be okay to make jokes about President Bush.
MS: I think that might have been what I was trying to approach from the back door. Do you think that there's a sort of humor in even such tragic topics that you would be interested in delving into in poetry?
HT: Sure. Not every time. I mean, I have plenty
of poems that are, on the whole, straight-faced. I don't think of them
as "humorless," because that's another quality, that's
a quality of not being able to admit of humor, which is different. But
to exclude humor on purpose I think is a legitimate thing to do from time
to time, maybe often. But the task as I see it is to try to be honest
about the shape of the world and the kind of experience that comes my
way and I happen to have the cast of mind that makes more of that stuff
funny than happens to some people that I know.
A while ago you used the phrasesomething about artists being able or not being able to render the humorous elements in a situation. Ability is not quite this issue. It's a matter of temperament, in terms of how you see things, how you feel about things, what strikes you. I teach a course at The Writer's Center, here in Bethesda, in traditional forms, and I think The Writer's Center is a great thing. I really salute the people who got it off the ground and made it go, and it's been going on now for twenty-five years, but, when they first started asking me if I would teach workshops there, I wouldn't do it. Because what they wanted me to do was teach workshops on how to write funny poems, and I don't think I could teach such a workshop. My position on that is, if you don't already know what's funny, I can't help you.
MS: I guess you can't teach a sense of humor?
HT: I don't think you can.
MS: You cited Galway Kinnell as going through a process of discovering his ability to be humorous in writing.
HT: Well, that's the way reading through the whole body of work looks. I don't know what the process actually was, but there's a moment in his career when suddenly humor becomes much more plentiful.
MS: Did you have a moment like that in your career?
HT: No, I started off finding that every now and then a funny poem seemed like a good idea.
MS: Would you say that your inclination towards humor in poetry comes out of what is called the Southern Tradition?
HT: I think the short answer would be, "Yes." You bring up concepts of really extraordinary fuzziness. What the Southern Tradition is, is a topic that occupies professional literary studies, organizations with great regularity. But there is a style of storytelling, a stance toward the storyteller and the sound of the voice and a kind of dignity undercut by a sense of the comic that might be thought of as typically Southern.
MS: Do you feel that, with the laureate status of Billy Collins and what I see as a groundswell of overtly humorous, borderline-comic poets, that humor is becoming more important in contemporary poetry?
HT: I think that's been happening for probably about thirty years. There's been a huge increase in the last thirty years in the number of poets who could be taken seriously enough that they could charge money to go around and give readings. And, over those three decades the awareness has trickled down that fifty minutes is rather a long time to stand in front of people and be profoundly boring. Not everybody has figured out how to avoid that. But they're working on it. And so more and more people have found that a little humor at a poetry reading is a helpful thing.
MS: Do you see your humorous workand this might be obvious for the Brother Dave Gardner poemsdo you see this work as influenced by the rise of respect for comedians?
HT: Well, I don't know. I haven't made a close
study of this. But I think it may be that what we see is not so much an
increase in the importance of comedy as an increase in the availability
of comedy. Television is a relatively young medium. Before there was television,
there was comedy on the radio, and there were comedians who recorded their
work, and some of them continued to be people whose effects are felt.
The late Richard Buckley, who called himself Lord Buckley and died in
1959 and so had very limited experience with television, if anyhe
was mostly a club comedianbut if you listen closely to Lenny Bruce
or Brother Dave Gardner or to several other people, you will hearif
you're familiar with Buckleyyou will hear him in the background,
having had an effect.
There are a lot more peoplethere's Comedy Central on cable TV, because now we have, whatever it is, 350 channels that there's nothing on; and so, of course, there is more comedy, but there's also more movies, also more infomercials and so on.
MS: Do you laugh at your own humorous poems?
HT: Yeah. I get over it quicker than maybe
I hope others will; but, when they first occur to me, they strike me as
funny. This was particularly true of the clerihew book. Maybe I should
say very quickly what a clerihew is: It's a four-lined, raggedly-metered
pair of rhymed couplets in which the first line either is or ends with
a person's namea real person's name. So the first thing you have
to do is rhyme. In the second line you have to find a rhyme for somebody's
name. And then you write another pair of couplets that somehow sums it
And I told myself on several occasions, "Okay, I'm going to do such-and-such a group of people." Having written a clerihew about Clarence Thomas, I decided to do the other eight currently-sitting Justices of the Supreme Court. I wasn't even sure I could name all of them when I decided that. And I got to people like Rehnquist, and there's a finite number of things you can do. So sometimes the result of my cogitations would make me laugh.
MS: Who are the poets who you think write poetry that is comic in nature while also accomplishing more? Who do you like in humorous verse?
HT: There are two ways of looking at this. There's a term, "light verse," which denotes particular delicacy not only with humor but also with difficult technical challenges of meter and rhyme. In that connection, I would mention William J. Smith, who was one of my teachers in graduate school. And in fact, it was from William J. Smith that I learned about the clerihew. I'd never heard of one until he told me about it or showed me one that he had written or something.
In the light-verse mode, a couple of people who are
no longer practicing it were some of the best light verse writers in the
English language at one time. One is still alive: John Updike. In the
early sixties he wrote light-verse that's as good as anybody's. I'm not
altogether certain why he has stopped, but I gather it's because he feels
the market for it has gone west. George Starbuck, who is no longer living,
was also a great practitioner of light verse.
The poem that is terrifically funny without being
intricately rhymed is a slightly scarcer phenomenon. Of course, we both
have mentioned Billy Collins a couple of times and he certainly has that
ability to look at the startlingly humorous side of things. As, for example
in a poem that has a rather long title which I'm not going to be able
to remember in its entirety, "Peeling Onions While Listening to Art
Blakey's 'Three Blind Mice,'" something like that. [Editor's note:
The title is "I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey's
Version of 'Three Blind Mice.'"] And the title leads right into the
first line, which is, "And I begin to wonder how they came to be
blind." And once you're off on that, you see, then the logic of the
poem takes you where you need to go. Like, "Well, were they born
together and congenitally blind? If not, how in the world could they have
found each other?" and so on. That's one kind of thing.
But there has also been around for quite a while something wilder. I think of Gregory Corso's great masterpiece, "Marriage," which I think has probably influenced me in some ways. The kind of wild extravagance of that poem. It's a masterpiece, is what it is. It's one of the really splendid efforts of the postwar period. And Corso was too strung out to maybe put together an entire book of pretty good poems, but he struck gold that time.
MS: It's interesting that you say that the beginning of Collins' poem opens up a new territory. Do you think a more humorous approach opens up new territory that has not been delved into by previous, more solemn writers?
HT: Maybe. But I really think it's just a matter
of individual temperament. There have been funny writers ever since there
have been writers. A close acquaintance with somebody like Aristophanes,
for example, will demonstrate that just because you're a classical Greek
doesn't mean that you can't be tasteless and rude. And also very funny.
There always is, of course, the question of, "What is tasteful and what is going to offend somebody?" I'm grateful to say that I've never tried to write anything in the hope that it would offend no one. This does not seem to me to be a profitable way to approach the writing business. Somebody's going to be irritated almost every time. Let's hope so, anyway.
MS: Maybe it will be those who worship Cleanth Brooks' idea of high seriousness in art.
HT: I wonder about how serious Cleanth Brooks was sometimes. I had an encounter with him one time that I've not been able to solve. He came and gave a lecture at the Library of Congress during the Poetry Consultantship of Maxine Kumin. And Maxine is a dear friend of mine, and I told her that I possessed a button which I had made, a lapel button that said, "Cleanth is next to Godth." And she persuaded me to wear it to the Library that evening and then she introduced Mr. Brooks to me and all but took hold of the back of his neck and aimed him so that he could see it. And his response was either humorless or a brilliantly low-key, funny thing to do. He launched into a little lecture about the origins of the name Cleanth. "I'm sure you may recall," he said, "Moliere's character Cleanth." Of course I did. And so on. And he went on just long enough to feel that he had had his revenge.
MS: Thank you very much for speaking with me.
This is part five of In Memory of Brother Dave Gardner, an assortment of short poems of which there are now, I think, six.
In Memory of Brother Dave Gardner (Continued)
Now, here's a weird
Yeah! Like it was a fit topic!
Cocked that old bad
Bless her heart.
Got herself some extraordinary shoes to fill.
Old Jesse said he didn't have the health for it no more.
He'll still surprise
Aide said, "You
Said "I'm practicin for turnin over in my grave."
I wrote a bunch of clerihews. I wrote thirteen about disciples. One thinks of disciples as numbering twelve, but after Judas, well
And he was replaced by a thirteenth man who sort of came off the bench:
Not too long ago, I wrote one that's not in the book:
I'll read maybe one more Brother Dave. This is number four.
The world is full, these
These folks like to say
All right, then, here you