To the usual five stages of grief, poet Taylor Mali adds a sixth–humor.
These days, many of us are progressing through the five stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross named: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Sure, Shakespeare wrote, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.” But what about laughter? With his poem “My Deepest Condiments,” Mali poses that humor can help one endure grief.
A four-time National Poetry Slam champion who studied at Oxford with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mali hit it big with his poem “What Teachers Make.”
The New York Times called him “a ranting comic showman and literary provocateur.”
In his Writing Life interview, Mali cited Latin poet Horace, and his declaration that the task of the poet was to either instruct or to delight. The greatest praise, Horace said, should be reserved for those who can do both.
“I try to delight and I try to instruct. If I can’t do both of those, let me be merely delightful,” Mali explained. “The truth is that people are going to listen to the beauty of your words, and your words will find a deeper place and stay there if people can enjoy them on the way down.”
“My Deepest Condiments,” recited during his interview on The Writing Life, lingers on the small reprieves in grief that can sometimes arise.
The poem’s language–like “condiments” rhyming with “sentiments”–is playful, but the subject is serious, Mali’s father’s death. A friend’s letter of condolence arrives at Mali’s home, sending her “deepest condiments.” No one knows what to write in a sympathy card, but “deepest condiments” is probably not the best choice.
To Mali, riffing on the found poem of the card’s mistake, the gesture was “sweet relief.”
Laughter is the best medicine, so the saying goes, and this poem brings the funny, but in a bittersweet way. Because by the end, after the laughter, Mali returns to cry just a bit more.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer