Sep. 14, 2001

the joke

by Charles Bukowski

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Poem: "the joke," by Charles Bukowski from Bone Palace Ballet (Black Sparrow Press).

the joke

it often happens when the party is
going well,
somebody will say, "wait a minute, that
reminds me, I heard this
joke, it will only take a minute and I
promise not to tell
more than one."

he leans forward and begins to tell
it, and this is the worst part because
you know it will not be funny, and even worse
than that, not even plausible, but he goes
on as your stomach feels as if you had
eaten a rotten egg, your reach the punch
line long before he gets to it, then he
looks about.

there is silence, no laughter, not even
a smile.

"wait," he says, "don't you get it?"

"I understand," I tell him.

then he leans back, thinks that I
have no sense of humor, have had a
bad day, or that he has overestimated my

he could be right on all counts, I know
that I often watch famous comedians
who make millions tell awful jokes
while the audience roars with
appreciation and across the nation
numberless others join in from their
living rooms
as I sit there and think, this
stuff is bad, very bad, there's
little doubt about

yet some drunk sits in a room
with me
and is offended because I
don't roll on the rug
when he lays a
dead egg that makes even
the gods

but they are never offended
enough not to return
and toss in a new joke as bad
as the first, or worse,
returning to the first,
having forgotten the previous

in all my decades of joke-
I've only heard one that is
it goes like this—
no wait, I've forgotten


It was on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" aboard a ship in Chesapeake Bay, having spent the night watching the British shell Fort McHenry, and having seen in the morning that the United States flag was still flying. The poem was published the next day in Baltimore, then set to the tune of a British drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven," and became very popular, though it was only in 1931 that it officially became the national anthem.

George Friedrich Handel finished writing his famous oratorio, Messiah, on this day in 1840, 24 days after he had started out, with blank paper and a quill pen. He then went on to write the first act of the oratorio Samson before the end of September.

It's the birthday of the Czech writer Ivan Klima, born in Prague (1931). When he was 14, he wrote a memoir of his three- year stay at the Nazi concentration camp Terezin. His first play was The Castle (1964), which got him in trouble with the government, but he continued to write stories, novels, and plays, many of which were circulated as photocopies until the old regime fell in the early 1990s. Klima wrote three novels in the past decade: Love and Garbage (1991), Waiting for Dark, Waiting for Light (1994), and The Ultimate Intimacy (1997).

It's the birthday of the drama critic Eric Bentley, born in Bolton, Lancashire, England, (1916), best known for his advocacy of the plays of Bertolt Brecht, which he also translated from German.

It's the birthday in Corning, New York (1883) of Margaret Sanger, who worked as a nurse on New York's lower east side, was appalled by the high rates of infant and maternal mortality, and in 1916, in Brooklyn, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, for which she was arrested.

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