Today’s poem is “A rabbi, a minister, and a priest walk into a bar—” by Betsy Sholl, who was Maine’s third poet laureate. She has published nine books of poetry, most recently House of Sparrows, New & Selected Poems (University of Wisconsin Press 2019). She lives in Portland, Maine, and teaches in the MFA Program of Vermont College.
She writes, “I first heard this joke told expertly at a Haystack Mountain School of Crafts auction several years ago, and it has stayed in my mind ever since. Writing a poem with a joke in it is something I always wanted to do. This one seemed to have just enough potential of a counter-mood, something darker and more serious to play against, that I thought I’d try. It’s such a deadpan joke, I hoped it would actually be funny once the punchline finally arrived.”
A rabbi, a minister, and a priest walk into a bar—
by Betsy Sholl
and in that brief gap before punch line,
how many thoughts run through your head—
preachers of abstinence come to shut down
the place? three men losing their religion
in gin? paragons of morality
holding hell over our heads while they pick
our pockets? Could they be three anythings—
undertakers, doctors, English profs?
Or does the joke need that long history
of wars, pogroms, Pales, need to recall that
a minister, a rabbi, a priest once
wouldn’t have been funny at all, given
the old murderous urgencies. Now,
to meet at day’s end for a civil drink,
for friendship and inside jokes—it all seems
so tame, some will think it’s the end,
while others just the beginning of faith.
Some will say love thinned to nothing,
others that it’s finally grown deep. “God
only knows,” one of the three might sigh,
and raise his glass. So, a priest, a rabbi,
a minister walk into a bar, and—
of all the ways it could go—the bartender
looks up, says,” Is this a joke”?
Poem copyright © 2018 Betsy Sholl.