Once, my husband and his poker buddies teased me by claiming that, earlier that summer, they’d shaved my cat one night while I was out of town.
“Sure,” Steve said, going into detail about it — the “here, kitty-kitty,” the cat on his lap, the shaving cream, the towel. I smiled politely; it was cute, but not really funny.
Rick, who had been listening all this time, suddenly said, “It made her swim faster.”
That was funny.
Steve’s joke retreaded ground I already knew was under my feet; Rick’s took me to an Olympic-sized pool, my cat frantic and bald, flailing her paws as fast as she could. Fast-er implied that they had done it before.
Rick did something I once heard Matt Groening say that humor writers do: he skipped a step. Rick eliminated information and let my brain fill it in. In the end, what made me laugh was not what he said, but what I saw in my mind’s eye during the mental leap. He let me have it: he prompted the visual, but I filled in the story, I created the image, and that gave me pleasure.
I like jokes that aren’t made at a listener’s expense, and poems that take me along for the ride. I like jokes and poems that are generous, or else a little wicked — like the “desire for irreverence” Charles Simic says first brought him to poetry. I like poems that let me do some of the work. I like the way a well-constructed poem seems full of empty space. I’m not the only poet who thinks about the ways poems and jokes are alike. Cody Walker thinks about it. Robert Pinsky does, too: he writes, in his essay, “Poetry and Pleasure,” about the ways that poems are like jokes, songs, and personal letters — that jokes and poems share what he calls “an alert social texture.” I like the way good jokes and poems are compact, rely on shorthand and association, skip steps.