Interview with Jeff Morgan (’99)

We’ve probably all found ourselves falling into the abyss while explaining a joke. Comedy is hard. Comic theory is harder.”

1. Why does comic poetry make people uncomfortable? If someone says comic poetry to me, I think of something like “jest ‘fore Christmas I’m as good as I kin be!” by Eugene Field, a 19th-century author best known for his children’s poetry. Do you think this point of introduction and association with childhood reading contributes to people’s dismissal or devaluing of comic poetry? Is it poets that feel this way or the general public?
I find comic poetry makes people comfortable. I hear them laugh. I see their smiling faces. There is a psychological side to a lot of comic poetry that stems from degradation. The superior laugh at the degraded. If one happens to be either the one degraded or in a degraded group, comic poetry can make such a person uncomfortable.Dismissing or devaluing comic poetry may stem from the holiday it give us from reason. In a practical society, that which devalues reason may have a tough go of it. Individuals may have loved poems in childhood that as an adult they dismiss. In my book I emphasize that comic poetry appeals to our reason if we take the time to analyze it once we’re done laughing.

We’ve probably all found ourselves falling into the abyss while explaining a joke. Comedy is hard. Comic theory is harder. The more, though, that one knows about comic theory, the greater respect that person will have for the sophistication of comedy. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of people out there who know comic theory. Comic poetry certainly doesn’t get a lot of scholarly attention, which may be why Thomas Lux has repeatedly warned me that my work in this vein will get me fired.

2. What makes us laugh? Is there a compile-able list? Driven by wordplay? persona? form? unlikelihood?

If anyone laughed at that, think degradation. But, degradation is not the root of what makes us laugh. That would be irony, an incongruence, the expectation of one thing and getting another. In fact, some mathematicians characterize this anticipation and surprise scenario as a drop, and the farther the drop, from what we expect and what we get, the greater the laugh, which might be another reason why comic poetry isn’t thought smart by some since the more I know the more I can anticipate, all too often disarming the potential surprise. As it turns out, fortunate for me, I never grew up.

3. Is comic poetry the same as light verse? Are there fads or cyclic changes in the comic poetry of different eras?

Comic poetry is not the same as light verse, at least it shouldn’t be. One thing that can give it heft is satire. This functional view of comedy raises the art to nobility in my mind. Satirical comic poetry can work as a social corrective. It can poke fun at a problem so that we can fix it or, perhaps, avoid it in the future. There’s another psychological side to comic poetry that works like therapy. When the laughter allows us to release some taboo thought that we’ve been repressing, that’s healthy. There is light verse that may simply make us laugh because of that root of laughter, but there can be other effects that can raise the reputation of comic poetry , such as these functional, satirical effects and these psychological effects. I happen to think that some of the comic poetry coming out in America today shreds the label of light verse. Poets such as Billy Collins, Thomas Lux, and Tony Hoagland come to mind, each getting a chapter in the book.

4. Could you sketch Marcel Gurtwirth’s three-pronged approach to comic analysis that you use in approaching the topic?

In Laughing Matter, Marcel Gutwirth calls the ironic starting point of laughter the intellectual approach. That satirical side to comedy he labels as the functional approach, and the psychological side to comic theory addresses a Freudian release of repressed thoughts and a Hobbesian degradation/superiority dynamic. None of this is new. Gutwirth posits that we combine all three for a fuller analysis and, more intriguing, fuses them with what he calls the “brief victory” that all three share, the break from reason.

5. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?

Two Case professors are integral to my book. Marilyn Samuels exposed me to Gutwirth. I remember my first attempt to apply his theory in her class as I stumbled through an analysis of a couple of Hardy poems. Undeterred, I ventured forth with Gutwirth in arm and began applying him to Twain for a dissertation. After three months, Roger Salomon and I came to an understanding that it wasn’t working, and we fell back on an old paper I had written in one of his classes, expanding on it for the dissertation. That was my first book, Sarah Orne Jewett’s Feminine Pastoral Vision: The Country of the Pointed Firs, published by Mellen. This is my third, published by McFarland. Who knows what I’ll mine next out of my time at Case.

Jeff Morgan came to Lynn University in 1999 and became interim chair of the English Department in fall 2000 and full time chair the next academic year. Since his arrival, the department has been built into a major program, graduating twelve majors to date, seven just last year. Morgan has served on the American Studies and Appeals committees and currently serves on the Rank and Promotion committee; he also created a poetry coffeehouse on campus; revived the annual literary and arts journal, “Quest;” pioneered the Liberal Arts Student Symposium; moderated several interdisciplinary panels; edited the college newsletter; coached the Debate Team; organized the Distinguished Author Lecture Series; and brought the inaugural Palm Beach Poetry Festival to Lynn’s campus.

Off campus, Morgan has judged poetry contests for the festival and for The Poets of the Palm Beaches. He has served on two Student Advisory Councils within the Palm Beach County School District and has served as a lecturer for the Delray City Library. He is a member of the Boynton Beach Historical Society, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, and the Florida College English Association, for whom he has served as poetry editor for their publication, Florida English. Additionally, he is an associate editor of the International Journal for Interdisciplinary Social Sciences.

Morgan is the author of Sarah Orne Jewett’s Feminine Pastoral Vision: The Country of the Pointed Firs (Mellen). He also edited for Mellen a new edition of Jewett’s novel, providing an introduction, notes, and a bibliography. Morgan’s essays and poems have appeared in numerous publications.