Magnetic Irony

23 February 2018 on Blog, Poetry, Storystorm  

Future generations may define our period style by its pervasive sincerity. Irony is what's missing from much contemporary poetry. For example, the popular political poems are earnest, if angry, and any use of irony tends toward the embittered variety. This sarcasm is the most common form of verbal irony.

Verbal irony, at its most basic, is saying one thing but meaning another. For it to work, the speaker's true-unspoken-attitude toward the subject must be clear. The kind of character building and contextual background necessary to pull off verbal irony can be challenging to achieve in a fingerful of sentences. Frost's famously misunderstood "Road Not Takes" is an example of verbal irony so subtle it's taken for earnestness: how ironic. Situationally ironic.

Situational irony is when the opposite of what's expected occurs. Rain on a wedding day is not ironic; it's common and unfortunate. Divorce on a wedding day is. Situational irony occasionally shows up in contemporary poetry, but often with a doomsday feeling: The dolphin is freed by SeaWorld only to be killed by an oil spill, a hen sitting on plastic eggs, fires in Waterville Valley. This kind of irony works primarily to accentuate the speaker's main point.

Why use irony for more than emphasis? Because if you have a noble and serious agenda, one of the best ways to win your reader's respect and attention is through laughter or surprise. Shared laughter proves mutual understanding, which is the strongest cable in the bridge of compassion. Plus, situational irony is unexpected by definition, and therefor acts as slayer of cliché. Verbal irony can also work as a via negativa, meaning one thing but getting the idea of the other thing in the audience's mind, which is a powerful tool if you want your poem to work on multiple levels. Finally, irony can obscure the speaker's feelings by destabilizing the poem and forcing the reader into a state of uncertainty. If you're a postmodernist, uncertainty is a good thing.

So, you want to inject a little irony into your anemic prose; what are some risks of using this tool? First, as noted above, verbal irony can be too subtle and come off as serious, causing your poem to go in the opposite direction intended. Secondly, the voice of the poem can become so ironic the real feelings of the speaker are completely obscured, which (for the post postmodern) can make for a frustrating reading; few readers pick up a poem to be held at arm's length, most want to be embraced. Finally, one approach used over the whole poem can get dull.

The next time you're struggling with a poem that isn't quite working or is perhaps a trifle too serious, try adding in some irony and see what happens.

Katie Brunero is a poetry reader for Barnstorm. 

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