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,

sarcomas thrust like red toads up out of my skin

in the three days between the blood-drawing

and the doctor's benediction: "Negative."

Thought is a rope that pulls the kite out of the sky --

a cramp that locks the boxer's chin as fists hiss

toward his head. "What sharks?" my friend demands,

launching the sea-kayak that gives him so much fun.

How many odes would Keats have traded for one

night with Fanny Brawne? What did understanding do

for Nietzsche, but make him more insane?

Thought is more deadly than crack or heroin.

Its pipe to my lips, its needle in my vein,

I loll in my dark room, and envy pumpkin vines.

Whatever's in their way, they overrun. Unafraid

of blight, birds, drought, or humans' being,

they stretch out in the heat, let their roots drink deep

and -- never giving a thought to anything --

make a million copies of the sun.

The rhetorical questions about Fanny Brawne, Nietzsche, sharks and the over-the-top, hyperbolic imagery of staples, curare, red toads, heroin needles are comic and heartfelt: Their energy expresses authentic, intelligent neurosis. The way "Unafraid" hangs pointedly above the final stanza is as expressive in its way as Gilbert's rhymes. And the effortless creativity of the pumpkins, making their "million copies" is a fitting close for this poem that touches in its central stanza on John Keats and the subject of writing itself. An ambition to find the right words begins the poem, with that failed phone call; it is the ambition that touchingly, as well as amusingly, haunts every line.

(Charles Harper Webb's poem "Pumpkin-Envy" is from his book "Amplified Dog." Red Hen Press. Copyright © 2006 by Charles Harper Webb.)

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