Rachel Trousdale answered a few questions for us about the new edited collection Humor in Modern American Poetry.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
A wide-ranging collection of essays on the role of humor in modern American poetry, examining texts from light verse to the Cantos.
What drew to you writing about this subject?
I’m fascinated by the complexity of humor—and by the way we often deny it. People are always saying something is “just a joke,” as though the things that provoke laughter were somehow free of meaning. But that’s the opposite of the truth: jokes condense meaning, they boil down our ideas and show us our contradictions and commitments and confusions. Just like poems! So looking at poetry and humor turns out to be a very natural pairing.
How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?
I’ve been interested in both humor and in poetry my whole life, but I started putting them together a few years ago when I began doing research on Auden. I initially meant to write about his conception of nationhood; it was going to be a very serious consideration of his anti-fascist approach to community. You can imagine my surprise (and pleasure) when that turned out to be the essay on his humor in this collection.
What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?
I think all of these essays break new ground. There has been very little work on humor in modernist poetry, though there is good criticism out there on humor and play in modernist fiction. I’m particularly excited about Stephanie Burt’s essay on James Merrill, and how Merrill connects love and marriage to comedy. Many of our existing models of humor are oppositional, zero-sum, and that essay does a really beautiful job of showing how laughter can also be constructive and emotionally rich.
What initially drew you to Literary Studies?
I have always thought that the study of literature is the best of all possible worlds, because it can contain so many different disciplines at once. If you want to do it well, you end up trying to be a scientist, an historian, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a philosopher as well as a literary critic. (That’s my list so far—who knows what’s next?) Of course, I don’t pretend that I succeed at all those things, but I chose to study literature because it meant that I didn’t have to choose.
Which Bloomsbury Lit Studies books have you read? Which are your favorites, and why?
Robert Eaglestone’s Salman Rushdie has some really helpful new approaches to Rushdie scholarship. Juliette Wells’ Reading Austen in America is a fascinating history (and a fun read). And I’m excited to read Emmett Stinson’s Satirizing Modernism!
Rachel Trousdale is Assistant Professor of English at Framingham State University, USA. She is the author of Nabokov, Rushdie, and the Transnational Imagination: Novels of Exile and Alternate Worlds (2010) and the editor of Humor in Modern American Poetry, now available from Bloomsbury.