by Rick Bursky
Great clowns move seamlessly between sadness and humor and understand the influence they exert on each other. A clown is grotesque, colorful, outlandish. Isn’t a poem? Though few people have ever hired a poet to read at a birthday party. In medieval Europe clowns could say things poets would be executed for. They probably still could.
I was in a bank in Hollywood, California. Standing in line next to me, a man with a white painted face, red rubber ball on his nose and shoes that extended six inches past the toes and curved up. Other than that the rest of his clothes were typical—khaki pants and white collarless shirt. In most other cities the police would have been called. I’ve unsuccessfully attempted to write a poem about this on at three occasions. I wonder if a clown, after reading one of my poems, ever attempted to perform in the smaller ring at a three ring circus while a man poked at a lion with a chair in the largest ring and a chimpanzee juggled in the other. Clowns seems to exercise better sense than poets. And unlike poets, most clowns have little to say. Body language, expressions, and props carry the performance. The narrative is based in image. Often there’s music like in a poem, music does more than contribute noise.
A poet is like a clown except not nearly as brave.
“Writers are a little below clowns and little above trained seals,” John Steinbeck.
The white-faced clown is often the serious member of the troop. A sonnet would be this clown. A traditional sonnet is in iambic pentameter as a traditional white-faced clown has red ears. The similarities between clowns and poems are numerous. Prose poems would be Auguste type clowns, he is the fool and lower, much lower, down the clown social scale than white-face. As there are forms of poems there are other forms of clowns.
I considered compiling a list of poems about clowns but what would be the point? Though I did compile a list of poets who at one time or another performed as clowns, make-up and all. The length of the list did not surprise me. Subsequently, each wrote to me asking not to be included on this list. This also did not surprise me.
The oldest clown registry in the world is the Clown Egg Register in England; hundreds of years older than the International Poetry Registry and Administration in Geneva, Switzerland. Fear of clowns is called coulrophobia. Fear of poetry is more prevalent though without a name. I plan to create one soon.
There is much to be said for location. One of my favorite places to write is at the kitchen table at night. Something should be said about dress. What if put on baggy pants held up by suspenders and painted my face? What if I dressed like that while I wrote?
The man holding defibrillator paddles hunched over the heart attack victim has bright orange hair, a bold striped shirt and sad black lips painted on the bottom of his face. Saturday night, two clowns sit in a movie theater holding hands. In the jury box, three people in white-face with red ears and rubber noses. Without saying a word, image changes narrative.
The expression “clowning around” deserves more respect.
“A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast,” Groucho Marx. A poem is like an anti-depressant except it has more side-effects. A poem is liquor except the hangover lasts longer.
A man wearing a white shirt with a large frilly red color stands at the back of a bus slowly making its way through the early evening traffic in Brooklyn. He juggles bowling ball pins. Everyone on the bus watches. Three rows up from him a woman is writing a poem in a notebook. Just a guess, she could be writing a story or the explanation as to why she’s leaving her boyfriend. I am convinced she was writing a poem. The way her face lifted from the notebook and momentarily started at the passing streets, a poet looking for an image. I missed my stop, was busy watching her write.
Rick Bursky teaches poetry for the Writer’s Program at UCLA Extension. His most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By the Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions; the previous book Death Obscura, was published by Sarabande Books. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.