The Comic Turn

A poem for Sunday

A black and white photo of boys playing drums in Belfast in 1991
Belfast, 1991 (Patrick Zachmann / Magnum)

On April 10, 1998, political leaders signed the Good Friday Agreement, a peace deal largely ending the Troubles, a violent 30-year conflict between British unionists and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland. I wrote “The Comic Turn” to acknowledge the 25th anniversary of the signing.

— Stephen Sexton

In the cave-dark days  
of tribes and spears,
one of us made

the image of a hand
blowing ochre and spit
through a bone pipe.

Someone was the first
to notice a chevron of geese
flies with a hundred quills.

Someone ran her fingers
along her father’s horse’s tail
and thought of music.

But however crude or fine
or ingenious it is,
the instrument is not the art.

These many generations,
tragedy has been our art:
the fatally flawed song

of a goat, the sorry ends
of great and decent people
bullied by circumstance.

What describes us now,
better than tragedy,
is comedy:

the song of a village,
its ordinary greatnesses,
trials and private griefs;

a story of the young
bewildered by the old,
by tradition’s glittery yoke.

In the comedy, jokes aside,
the past says yes to the future,
disguises are unraveled,

the warlike are pacified,
banquets, wine, marriages
follow lovers into history.

Whatever way it plays,
we know comedy by how
it must end: happiness.

And if its indefinite,
sure trajectory is happiness,
let us all be comedians

destined for it, who improvise,
who wing it on the hoof
according to our most

modest golden rule, which is
to say Yes and—? Yes and—?
while forever listens in.