“Sidebend World” — Charles Harper Webb’s Return to Stand-Up Form

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

I was recently putting together a syllabus for a “survey of poetry” course and had arrived at the spot where I was going to discuss the students’ final project, a paper on a single volume of poems. The book had to be a distinct installation of one poet’s efforts in a discrete period. No “New and Selected”! No “Collected Poems”! I wanted students to have the experience of reading an entire book of poems, ranging from 48 pages to 82, in the same way that one might listen to an entire album of music. In this era of downloading individual songs, this might seem an outmoded apprehension of a songwriter’s efforts, but many of our best artists still work on a scale that interweaves their songs around a given trope, and it behooves us to encounter it on their terms.

When I typed “Robert Frost” into that list of recommended candidates for specific volumes, I realized how rarely anyone refers to one of his specific books. Individual poems are cited at a rate far above the canonical average, but today’s working poets don’t bring up his books of poems as inspiring models for their own work. Frost is probably the single most important influence in academic American poetry of the past century; his skill in recounting compelling stories in conversational meter that dances with an ingenue’s pluck is unparalleled. Yet somehow, even though North of Boston is at least the equal of any novella ever written in English, and far surpasses most novels, the book as a book somehow fails to gain pervasive traction among anyone other than specialists in Frost’s poetry.

I fear that may well be the fate of Charles Harper Webb’s books of poems. Among contemporary poets, he is the prime popularizer of comic poems, and he is frequently anthologized. I wonder, though, if his individual books will end up being templates for future poets. Jim Daniels, in a back-cover blurb, claims that Webb’s most recent volume, Sidebend World, is “his best collection to date.” I’d have to disagree with Daniels, if by that assessment he means that the best poems in this new collection displace the best poems from previous volumes. There isn’t any new poem that seems a major advance for Webb. On the other hand, there are poems that will enrich his poetry readings for years to come. For instance, a poem such as “Snails” would make the perfect follow-up poem to his poignant commentary on species extinction, “The Animals Are Leaving.” In its own way, “Snails” is a poem of hope, an insurrection against the ecological genocide perpetrated by those for whom the playful imagination is equally an enemy. Then, to complete the “trifecta,” he could slam it home at a reading with “Animals in the News,” which is an equally fine poem.

I’m pleased to say that Sidebend World does represent a serious bounce-back volume. Brain Camp, his previous book was as weak a collection as I’ve ever read by a major poet. It was almost on a par with James Tate’s nadir, Viper Jazz. Sidebend World demonstrates that he is as capable as ever of producing memorable poems. Some of my other favorites in this collection are “Parasites,” “Stinging Tree,” “Daddy,” and the last four stanzas of “A Far Cry from Eli Whitney.” I would also give a special round of applause to “Turtle-Hunt,” which circles back to “Building a Turtle,” a poem in an early section of the book.

Since a significant part of Webb’s poetic vitality comes from his unyielding faith in the idea of a poem having a theme, one benefit of reading Sidebend World a second time is that one notices how this book is perhaps his most integrated in a thematic sense. His tropes weave in and out, in an intriguing choreography. “Isn’t the concept of subject out of date?” is a comment overheard at an AWP convention that Webb uses for an epigraph. “Yeah, sure it is,” I want to say, “and that’s why so many poems in current lit periodicals meander into meaningless recitals of self-absorbed pondering.” Webb counters this diffidence with an undaunted enthusiasm for his subjects and leaves us more knowledgeable than we anticipated.