“In the early moments of his new memoir, “The Joker,” the poet Andrew Hudgins tells a story about his first summer teaching at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, alongside such mandarin eminences as Anthony Hecht and John Hollander, whose standoffishness Hudgins interpreted as “ ‘distaste for me and for my poems … the unrefined product of an unrefined mind. And by God, when people think I’m a vulgarian, I’ll do my damnedest to prove them right.’ ”
“ ‘So after Hollander and Hecht paused to sip water during their poetry readings — each remarking that the poet Randall Jarrell had once observed that “sipping water during a poetry reading was the single most pretentious thing a poet can do,’ ” Hudgins decided to do them one better. When it was his turn to read, Hudgins held up a glass of water, repeated Jarrell’s admonishment, then “speculated that Jarrell might not have known there is a pretentious side of the glass and a non-pretentious side.”
“He showed the crowd which side was which, and asked if they knew why the far side of the glass was the unpretentious side. Then he tipped that side to his mouth, and let the water pour “out the lower lip of the glass and down my shirt and pants.”
“The audience laughed, but not the whole audience, and Hollander and Hecht were among those who didn’t think the joke was funny. Hudgins says that they ‘perceived my buffoonery as a barely concealed way of calling them pretentious … But as I put the glass to my mouth, when I was already committed to the act and couldn’t back down, I understood that I was as likely to annoy people as amuse them, though I only wanted to entertain, to jest.’ ”
That story captures the bravery – and endearing buffoonery – that informs this memoir. Andrew – the author of eight volumes of poetry and two previous collections of essays who has been a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize – just can’t help himself. A true artist, he has to share the truth as he sees it.
The truth for him is that despite his high-minded calling, he loves jokes. And not just any jokes, but those that offend every politically correct fiber of our minds. When he was young he liked jokes about black people, homosexuals and the disabled. Today he still enjoys jokes about religion, bestiality, adultery, crude sex, disabled people and child molesters (he also likes silly ones including this, this, and this).
His memoir is brave because unlike most thoughtful books about politically incorrect humor, Andrew does little to distance himself from his offensive material. He does not hear these jokes, he tells them.
In truth, many of even the most offensive jokes he shares will be familiar to many white Americans older than 30. It is brave of Andrew to acknowledge this reality publicly. It is also brave of him not to disown this history – just as he does not disown his racist grandmother. Instead, he reflects upon why thought they were funny and why he thinks such humor, while it has diminished greatly in recent years, persists.
Andrew provides part of the answer in his very personal story about growing up as an Army brat with a strict, religious father who was often stationed in the South. Humor allowed him to test boundaries in a strict world, to show off in front of girls who scared him and to build himself up by putting other people down.
One thing Andrew doesn’t address at length is the connection between jokes and poetry. Good jokes, like good poems, display a mastery of language. Every word counts. An extra word, or the wrong word, ruins the whole enchilada. I bet many other poets started as jokers.
· Read an excerpt from “The Joker.”
· Read James Sullivan’s review in the Boston Globe.
· Read Christopher Kelly’s review in the Dallas Morning News.
· Read Ben Greenman’s review in the New York Times Book Review.
Andrew Hudgins’ Top Ten List
1. The Bible.
2. The Odyssey by Homer (ninth century b.c.e.?).
3. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1321).
4. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1380s?).
5. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1600).
6. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749).
7. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, 1735).
8. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72).
9. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936).
10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925).
Appreciation of the Bible by Andrew Hudgins
The Bible is both a holy book and a work of supreme fiction; those of us who read it both ways are doubly blessed. One does not need to believe in God to hear the majesty of the story that begins, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” A great story itself, the Bible is also the source of great stories, by geniuses from Dante to Dostoevsky, Faulkner to Thomas Mann, and the poetry of the Psalms echoes through great poetry from William Blake to Walt Whitman to T. S. Eliot.
One does not have to believe Jesus is the Son of God to understand that his parables are penetrating works of fiction that embody complex truths about human nature. One need not believe Adam and Eve existed to see Genesis is, whatever else it is, a philosophically sophisticated and psychologically acute story about people’s innate response to authority, even loving authority. And it is perfectly possible to believe Moses and King David are fictional, and yet find true to life the Bible’s stories of these flawed men who succeed greatly, if only partially, while failing God time and again.
And what of Jesus —a god entering history as a man and living as a mortal? True or not true, “the greatest story ever told,” in the majesty of its telling and the power of its message, has taught an entire culture how to think about love, suffering, and transcendence, and it has fundamentally colored the language by which we talk about everything.