The Nervous Tic: dark humour and the surreal in poetry

Shirley, Victoria Louise (2023). The Nervous Tic: dark humour and the surreal in poetry. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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In the creative part of my project, titled \(\textit{The Nervous Tic}\), I have written poems using dark humour and the surreal to explore subjects that may be considered dark or depressing. Many of the poems demonstrate what happens when you play with the things that you are afraid of, and, by doing this, in line with Freud’s \(\textit{Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious}\), I turn my store of unpleasure, feelings already in reserve for response to unpleasant things, into pleasure. With a practice that chimes with theories from Camus, Breton and Bergson, using material or topics, such as death, to play with, I demonstrate how laughing at something first before it can hurt you can work effectively as a defence mechanism and generate laughter, which is therapeutic. My poems are a reaction to life's injustice and trauma, and in that way, I see them as a tic, or an anxiety, in themselves, something triggered by life. They explore mortality, failure, fear, resentment, insecurities, self-loathing, jealousy, anxieties, feelings of inadequacy, regrets, and all those foibles that make up the human experience. Purposely avoiding writing poems specifically about things, working with the same anti-method as Russell Edson by never coming to the page with any preconceived ideas, I worked in a constant state of surprise, experimenting and delving into the subconscious to create these surreal pieces.

In my critical work, a thesis on Dark Humour and the Surreal in Poetry, I work through three major areas. Chapter One is based on the Grotesque, in which I look at the work of the Russian Absurdist Daniil Kharms, his miniatures written at the time of Stalin’s Great Terror, then the dream-like psychological mock-fables of the American prose poet Russell Edson, and finally the sardonic, occasionally masochistic, poems of the French painter and poet Henri Michaux. In Chapter Two, I focus on female poets, who together encapsulate The Female Grotesque, The Gurlesque, and One-of-the Guys Surrealism, strongly working against common expectations and misconceptions around women and poetry. Satirical American poets Chelsey Minnis and Jennifer L. Knox, and the South Korean Feminist poet, Kim Hyesoon, feature here. In Chapter Three, I investigate the Surreal Narrative, looking at two contemporary UK poets, Tom Jenks and Luke Kennard, and the master of the Surreal Narrative poem, the American poet James Tate. I consider my own work alongside these poets in all these chapters.

In conclusion, this thesis shows how dark humour and the surreal work as a double protection, enabling us to explore difficult subjects by ironic distancing and help us to cope with the anxieties of being human and the existential panic often caused simply by living in the world. Through these poets, the thesis also establishes the potential of joyfully refusing to write about serious issues directly, and in this rejection, how powerful the poetry can become.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: School of English, Drama and Creative Studies, Department of Film and Creative Writing
Funders: None/not applicable


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