“Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems” by Charles Harper Webb

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Charles Harper Webb’s “SHADOW BALL”

I had a job teaching fiction writing at Idyllwild Arts during the summer from 1995 til 2014, so I had a chance to hear Charles Harper Webb read at the Idyllwild Poetry Festival every time he taught there. The consistently high quality of his poems during the decade that Cecilia Woloch ran the festival was truly extraordinary. On each occasion on which I heard him, at least one of the poems he read deserved to appear in Best Poems of the Year. Here are some of those poems I was fortunate enough to hear back then:

“Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72”
“In Praise of Pliny”
“The Shape of History”
“Biblical Also-Rans”
“Love Poetry”
“Cocksucker”
“To Make My Countrymen Love Poetry”
“Rat Defeated in a Landslide”
“Conan the Barbarian”
“Superman, Old”
“The Animals Are Leaving”
“A Grand Opening of Hearts”
“The Open-Air Recital Survived a Shaky Start”
“You Missed the Earthquake, Bill”

I’m working from memory, it must be said, and if one were to review the tapes made of the Idyllwild readings, one might find that Webb did not read one or two of these poems. In point of fact, the rendition by Webb of “In Praise of Pliny” that I most clearly remember was at the Long Beach Poetry Festival a half-dozen or so years ago. Regardless of whether he read them at Idyllwild, every one of these poems contributed towards the establishment of Webb as a formidably comic presence in American poetry, and make no mistake about it: the poems as a whole have an extremely unusual amount of humor rumbling around in the basement.

That poetry should accommodate the comic spirit is hardly a revolutionary proposal, though perhaps Chaucer was rebuked more than we are aware of for the high-jinks in “The Miller’s Tale”; and it is the case that contemporary poetry on the whole regards itself as a solemn art. As I pointed out in my previous post, Webb was a late arrival in Los Angeles in terms of the emphasis on humor in the poetry of the “local scene,” so his role in the development of this particular poetics has been more akin to that of a real estate developer who realizes how a neighborhood is undervalued – considerably undervalued, in fact – and sets about making it “neighborhip.” And to his credit, he has indeed pulled it off, though ironically he has not received the credit that is his due, except in Laurence Goldstein’s masterful study of Southern California poetry, POETRY LOS ANGELES: Reading the Essential Poems of the City (University of Michigan Press, 2014).

Goldstein is perhaps the first critic to point out the Stand Up school’s affiliation with the New York School of Poets: “it, too, goes on its nerve, to cite Frank O’Hara’s description of his poetics, and delights in performance style and structure.” Nerve, in this poetics, also contains a sense of audaciousness, the willingness to say what appears to be an inappropriate sentiment. In an extended commentary on “You Missed the Earthquake, Bill,” Goldstein quotes Webb’s “farcical language in the opening stanzas” and notes that “Webb seeks to effect a subversion of discursive style and good taste by means of an extravagant rhetoric suited to the occasion” (269). The rambunctiousness of the earthquake, Goldstein argues, and the existential sense of contingent outcomes it engenders, Goldstein argues, give Webb free rein to play with “excessive simile” as a psychological counterweight to help establish an internal equilibrium.
Goldstein emphasizes that the elegiac turn of this poem is only “putatively consolatory”; underlying this characterization and Webb’s poetics

in general is an imaginative strategy best described by Norman Holland in The Dynamics of Literary Response. Although Fredric Jameson has tantalizingly extrapolated from Holland’s updating of Freudian analysis a model though which to critique mass culture, Holland’s scheme remains very useful as a way to understand the less commodified efforts of individual poems and poets. “The psychic function of the work of art,” according to Jameson’s account of Holland’s paradigm, involves a reconciliation of a pair of “inconsistent and even incompatible features of aesthetic gratification – on the one hand, its wish-fulfilling function, but on the other the necessity that its symbolic structure protect the psyche against the frightening and potentially damaging eruption of powerful archaic desire and wish-material…. the vocation of the work of art (is) to manage the raw material of the drives and the archaic wish or fantasy material.” Webb’s comic management of this “raw material” takes the less traveled road in contemporary poetry. The allure of his poetry depends on this dialectic of wish-fulfillment and symbol-producing affect, and it is a mark of his achievement that he is successful enough in managing his material’s emotional turbulence that readers can forget that the resolutions embedded in the closures of his poems yield only “purely symbolic satisfaction” in which the “psychic compromise” leaves provoked desires only “momentarily stilled” (“Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”).

Webb’s choice of symbolic figures is highly unusual, and quite frequently reinforces the fantasized desire behind the wish. If we find ourselves filled with self-loathing about our appearances and how they have hindered our chances at worldly success, then Webb has just the ticket: “Rat Defeated in a Landscape” will deflate the grandiosity of our ambition and remind us of the all consuming fate of those who are too easily manipulated by the powers behind the throne. Aristophanes could not manage a better satire of our political perversity.
If one were to ferret out one central tension in Webb’s themes, it would be the desire for strength and the fear of weakness. That this tension enfolds itself in primarily a masculine domain contributes to the comic resilience of his poems and prose poems. In one of his best prose poems, for instance, “Conan the Barbarian,” Webb’s appropriation of a popular culture character provides the reader with the chance to indulge in an anecdotal reverie of infantile revenge. It’s a road rage joke in which Conan is the passenger, not the driver, and he is all the more sympathetic for his desire to blend in finally with all of his fellow travelers. Alas, the futility of hoping that ordinary objects simply do their job launches Conan back into his most familiar habits of instantaneous requital.

Webb can cover more than the average number of topics in his poems. These often seem like “one-off” efforts, as if he aware that it wouldn’t hurt his repertoire if he included an ecological poem. “The Animals Are Leaving”: check; and how about a poem that addresses the social environment of casual homophobia in which so many young men grow up? “Cocksucker”: check. These poems are masterfully adept at fulfilling their assignments, as is another examination of the strength-weakness binary in his poem, “Tenderness in Men.”

In his best poems, Webb handles the spatial cartography of his images with a fine touch of its inherent plasticity. His skill in this area, in fact, tends to hide a fairly pedestrian sense of rhythm. “Rhythm is the total sound of the line’s movement,” said Karl Shapiro in a book on prosody, and the total sound of Webb’s lines falls short of the cumulative resonance that one can find in another American master of sardonic narrative, E. A. Robinson, whose vowel-consonant combinations (when he’s at this best) are superbly backed by the backbeat. When Webb’s topic plays it safe with an imaginative counter-attack, his poems falter and quickly fade from memory’s reading list. “Losing My Hair,” for instance, is self-interrogation with too much rhetorical urgency and too little dramatic imagination.

It should also be noted that he seems to lack, almost by predisposition, any interest in the long poem. This is not a major failing in itself. Elizabeth Bishop is not in any danger of being thought of as an unimportant poet simply because she did not write a long poem. Indeed, Webb might well earn an equivalent stature in the field of stand up poetry.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that I have yet to read Webb’s latest book, Brain Camp, and while I would like to wrap up this commentary on his poetry with this posting, it would seem only fair to him and any assessment of his writing to include some reaction to this new volume. Therefore, let us pause at this point and return here soon.