Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, June 18, 2006

A problem with self-deprecating comedy is that it is often a flimsy disguise for complacency. Like the TV anchorman's guffaw, light verse about the poet's defects or limitations can be a form of preening, or self-congratulation: "Everything's fine, we're all fine," it seems to say, and (covertly) "-- especially me."

Really wonderful writers, such as Max Beerbohm, Mark Twain and Edward Lear, cut deeper than that, to actual anxieties and defects, no matter how modest or domestic the scale. Ogden Nash's long lines, wandering to their unexpected terminal rhymes, artfully express a real sense of flailing, nervous improvisation. The great W.S. Gilbert's song from Iolanthe begins:

When you're lying awake with a dismal headache and repose is taboo'd by anxiety,

I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in without impropriety.

I find the writing genuinely funny because the petty misery feels genuine, with the inventive rhyme and the jangling words like "taboo'd" expressive of a mind racing helplessly along the treadmill of insomnia.

The contemporary poet Charles Harper Webb belongs in such honorable company. Webb is sometimes funny in his poems, which often present the author's defects, but he rises above the kind of modesty -- often described as "wry" -- that asks to be admired. The ordinary, quotidian dread that is the subject of Webb's poem "Pumpkin-Envy" feels real to me: a set of fears that seem barely contained by his four-line stanzas, an artful effect of those four-square units nearly overflowed altogether by uneasy questions:


How many hours did I lie in bed, thought stapling

my sixteen-year-old arms to the sheets,

thought's curare, when I finally did dial Tami Jamison,

numbing my lips too much to speak?

How often did I think, "I'm dead," feeling

my strength leak away, phlegm drown my lungs,

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