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Charles Harper Webb

 12-09-2013

 
Charles Harper Webb
 
Nostalgia's Not What It Used To Be

I'm well aware it's problematic to miss the ice cream trucks
that clinked and tinkled down Candlelight Lane. The name
"Good Humor" privileged bourgeois affability, and valorized
consumption. Songs the trucks played-"Daisy, Daisy,"
and "Dixie"-legitimized patriarchy, women's oppression,
and the Mariana Trench of slavery. My memory of Sterling

Roig, Bobbi Jo Smith, Carol Kamas, Clarkie Lauderdale
blasting from houses, clutching dimes and clamoring,
present as facts subjective impressions of friends who may
have cared nothing for me, or cared because of under-
theorized notions of neighborhood and kinship-of-the-same.
The products sold reinforced a Capitalist hegemony-

Fudgesicle (racist), Eskimo (not Inuit) Pies, Torpedo
(military-industrial imperialist), Popsicle (no Momsicle), etc.
The sugar in our treats deconstructed sweetness into cavities,
obesity, diabetes. The (always) man in (always) white-
who pulled, from the back of his condensation-smoking-truck,
products iced with polluted air which our tongues melted,

loving the cold jolt-may have been a child-molester,
exploited immigrant, or untreated dyslexic. What I remember
as a smile, a laugh like Santa's, could have been a sneer,
leer, or consumptive hack. The bond of signifier / signified,
which I thought solid as Galveston's seawall,
was slithery as New York City slush. No one involved

understood anyone else, which explains the time I asked
for a red Torpedo, and got green. Red, by the way, evokes
strawberry (a bruise), and farting raspberries, as well
as Communism, which evokes the rapacious USA, its sacred texts
indeterminate as the location of electrons in a quantum world
where "truth" shifts like ants on the Klondike (raped

environment) Bar I dropped, so the vendor gave me (liberated
from his corporate slave-master) another one. Maybe
he cursed me covertly as the spoiled spawn of world-despoilers.
Still, I picture how he climbed back in his truck, waved,
and drove off, grinning, as dusk sifted gently down,
while we exploiters of the proletariat, bellies stuffed with Mom's

counter-revolutionary cooking, licked our pelf, and resumed
our games of jump-rope, doctor, Who's the Prettiest?,
or Grand Slam, and on the last pitch of the day, I sent the ball
sailing over Clarkie's house, through the warm suburban dark
into a black-hole future that had been always already sucking
what I thought was happiness away.


Trouble With The Law

           -Expect it when you least expect it.

A potato beetle buzzes up the nostril of a drag queen

walking a Shih Tzu. The drag queen grabs her nose
and drops the leash, tripping a bag-hag, whose heart stops.

The Shih Tzu darts into the street, causing a wreck
in which a man loses a leg, a child is paralyzed,
a pregnant witness miscarries twins. The Shih Tzu,

a purebred champion, disappears. The beetle is traced
to Jim's garden, where he negligently used no pesticide.
Soon process-servers mob his door. Several are trampled.

His gate was too narrow; his sidewalk, too hard.
A serial killer/rapist/cannibalistic pedophile is freed
to open up a cell for Jim. His public defender strikes

a deal: Jim pleads guilty to one count of shaving against
the grain, all other charges to be dropped. He agrees,
then learns that, under the New Crime Bill, punishment

for his New Crime is to be hanged, flayed, cut down
while still alive, gutted, drawn, quartered, and burned.
He turns state's evidence against his neighbor who,

without a permit, added a door to his toolshed,
and his other neighbor, who called a white man niggardly,
and his other neighbor, who canoed without life vests

for two stowaway thrips. Jim's sentence is reduced
to quadruple amputation, then to one hour on parole
because his cell is needed for a man who wrote a bad

novel with someone else's pen. Lawyers relax
outside the courthouse like Sugar Baby melons, growing
fat and red-ripe in the legal sun.


Nerves of Titanium

Handcuffed and chained,
he uses a concealed
lock-pick to escape
a coffin buried in hot
sand. The chain-
wrapped cage dropped
into Arctic water
through a hole drilled
in three feet of solid ice
can't hold him. But
what yanks me upright
in my motel bed
is when-double-
cuffed, straitjacketed-
he's shoved out
of an airplane. If he
can't pull his parachute
cord in ninety seconds,
he won't need
to find a new career.

I, who get dizzy
on a curb, watch
his thin hands
probe and pluck
while skydivers film
his every twitch. I,
who absorbed calculus
with Hendrix twanging
and my roommate
banging his girl behind
a glass-bead door,
have attention deficit
disorder compared to
this freak: lock-picking
while he falls twice
as fast as if he took
the standard limbs-
spread starfish pose.
What if he breaks
his tiny pick? Or
drops it? What
if his hands shake,
or get too cold
to work a lock? (Mine
do, just watching.)

Keats, bent over
his odes; Newton,
his calculus;
Beethoven, his Ninth-
Tiger on the green,
Kobe at the line,
Rice snagging a pass
while tacklers
howitzer at his head-
all were hysterics
next to this nut
from Tennessee.
"He never hung out
much with girls.
He'd ruther play
with his handcuffs,"
his mother drawls.

"Wish he had his old
job back at Burger King,"
sighs his wife
as he begins to spin.
He's toast, I think-just
as he lifts his hands,
his orange chute
blossoms overhead,
and-see!-he comes
floating, God-like,
down to crowds
who praise him
from the ground,
or (ignoring spousal
snores, as well as sex-
squeals from next
door) cheer,
from motel beds
across this land, a man
apart. Unlike us.
Lock-pick in hand.
Free.

                                  -from What Things Are Made Of

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Charles Harper Webb is an American poet, professor, psychotherapist and former singer and guitarist. His most recent poetry collection is What Things Are Made Of (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). His honors include a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Kate Tufts Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize and inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2006. His poems have appeared in literary journals and magazines including American Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Ploughshares. Webb was born in Philadelphia, and grew up in Houston. He earned his B.A. in English from Rice University, and an M.A. in English from the University of Washington, and an M.F.A. in Professional Writing and his PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California. He teaches at California State University, Long Beach, where he received a Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award and the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award, and he lives in Long Beach, California.

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A Review of Charles Webb's What Things Are Made Of by C.L Bledso, first published by Coal Hill Review

Webb’s title implies a certain amount of realism, an engineer’s approach, and his poems certainly follow through with this idea, though frequently with a philosophical bent. His weapon of choice is humor. The collection opens with “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used To Be,” an elegy for the ice cream trucks of his youth. Webb begins by admitting the fallacy often ignored in nostalgia for the past, the idea of “privileged bourgeois affability and valorized/ consumption.” The songs played by the trucks “legitimized patriarchy, women’s oppression,/ and the Mariana Trench of slavery.” He goes on to question the relationships he remembers, the people he remembers as “friends who may/have cared nothing for me.” He admits the “Capitalist hegemony” and even the stereotypes reinforced by some products. But under the weight of all this middle-class guilt, he does manage to dig out some slight memory of untainted human interaction.

Webb tackles interesting occurrences as easily as many poets tackle life-and-death situations. “Mummies to Burn” deals with just that: the practice of burning mummies for locomotive fuel in the nineteenth century. “Duck Tape” plays with the common mispronunciation while also poking fun at the governmental placebo of the Bush era.

“Where Does Joy Come In?” Reads like a riff on one of those questionnaires one find’s in a Woman’s Day magazine:

      It sneaks through the cat-flap when you’re busy microwaving a beef-and-cheese burrito.
      It slides down a beanstalk from another galaxy.
      It overflows your clogged commode.
      It breaks into your triple-locked, burglar-barred life, just before you can bolt out the door.

Webb’s humor and verve morph what could easily be trite material into something profound and enjoyable. “Never Too Late” is a nature poem, ostensibly, but also a respite from the memento mori of life as Webb recalls his childhood. Webb’s true power, as evidenced by his humor but also demonstrated beautifully in this poem, is his ability to sneak up on the reader. He begins with a natural description:

      Doves flute in peeling eucalyptus trees.
      Rain pit-pit-pits off lance-point leaves,
      and pings into expanding bull’s-eyes

      on Descanso Pond. Redwings ride
      bucking tules at the water’s edge.
      Beside them, still as a decoy, a mallard

      rests—emerald pate, brass chest,
      pewter sides…

His language evokes elegant imagery which would be enough to make this a fine poem. But as he continues, the scene grows into something truly beautiful as flowers, wildlife, and fish all become evident, and then the turn:

      …The baking soda

      submarine I lost in 1963
      surfaces: full-sized, blowing
      like a whale. The crew flash V for Victory.

Suddenly, the poem isn’t simply a nature poem but recalls something profound from the narrator’s youth. Though in poems like “The Last Bobcat” Webb displays his ability to write a powerful, serious nature poem. He begins with the wonderful line: “The hill behind our house still wears its cape/of African daisies.”

The title poem deals with a history of physical philosophy, from Thales, who thought things were made of water, to Aristotle who added earth, wind, and fire. Though he waxes philosophic, Webb is really getting at the fragility of life. And at its heart, this collection reveals Webb as a humanistic, down-to-Earth soul trying to survive and prosper but also trying to live well and morally. The fragility of life is so absurd that one can’t help but laugh. In poems like “Manpanzee” and “Sad for the Hunchback,” Webb reveals his own moral failings while also recognizing that they are common failings; he doesn’t stand on an altar of shame or moral righteousness. There, he deals with the fragility of goodness and morality, which can shift so easily given the proper circumstance. There’s a preconception about humor: that it’s easy and that it lacks substance, but Webb shows that his humor isn’t light. There’s darkness beneath it.
 

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Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Essay - Reading

An Interview with Charles Harper Webb by Steve Davenport and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Nostalgia" tracks through a number of referents, both from your childhood and from the more recent language of critical theory. Did you start with lists to make sure the poem would be as rich with detail as it is?

Charles Harper Webb: I wrote this after teaching a class that dealt a lot with critical theory, so I had a kind of list already in my head. I may have jotted a few notes beforehand; I don't remember. I'm sure, though, that I composed the first draft in my usual way: a quick outpouring, a gush. That's the best way for me to capture the initial energy that sparks my poems. Once it's out, I go back and start crafting them, trying my best not to edit out the rush.

SD & AMK: What is it about sextets in this poem? How did you arrive at this structure when it just as easily could have been one big stanza or tercets?

CHW: I work with my poems until I get a form and shape that appeals to me, and paces the poem well as it moves down the page. I revise a lot, and try out many different things. For a poem as dense as this, I wanted some white space. One big stanza seemed off-putting, as in, "My god, do I have to read all of this?" At the same time, I wanted a sense of mock weightiness, so tercets would have looked too light. Sextets, when I worked my way to them, seemed right.

SD & AMK: What's with that final, short line? I know I'd be wracking my brains over how to keep the integrity of the poem and its lines while somehow lengthening that line a bit more to match its brothers and sisters.

CHW: After seven lines of iambic pentameter, Keats' ends "This Living Hand" with a 5 syllable, half-pentameter line which brings me up short, a lump in my throat, every time.

Last time I checked, I wasn't Keats; but I like the contrast between my last line's relative succinctness and the elongated elaborateness of what's gone before. When I read the poem aloud, the short last line seems to pack an extra wallop. This is intensified, at least for me, by the fact that it's iambic pentameter, and thus not only sounds resonant, but harkens back to a time long before the literary theory that the poem sends up.

SD & AMK: Discuss parentheticals with us, the syntax of interruption? Why these little asides? Why place them within parentheticals in particular?

CHW: I know that use of parentheticals is discouraged in many writing classes-and often for good reason. In this case, though, the parentheses mirror the way the speaker's mind works in this poem: have a thought, then qualify / clarify/ undercut it. Parentheses allowed me to get in more ideas without going on even longer than I did. I don't see any other grammar / punctuation that would have done as well. If I had, I might have used it.

SD & AMK: "Trouble with the Law" is a hilarious poem packed, line by line, with little jokes. Two questions, might it also be read as one extended joke? If so, what's the stated or unstated punch line?

CHW: I've never thought of the poem in those terms. However-if the poem is an extended joke, it's probably about the often-illusory sense of cause / effect that comforts us and allows us to assign blame via a "justice" system that pretends to be logical, and is, to those ensnared by it, a most unfunny joke. Lawyers are the punch line, I guess, happily fattening on others' misery.

SD & AMK: As someone who regularly employs humor in poetry, who are the poets you've been most influenced buy in that regard?

CHW: Way back in grad school, Edward Field showed me the way. Then James Tate, Russell Edson, and Ron Koertge (whose editorial scalpel has helped me for years). Plenty of other fine poets use humor, and have influenced me, but these were the first. William Trowbridge, with whom I regularly exchange poems, is a very funny poet, and in the course of our exchanges, influences my poems in very concrete ways.

AMK: Charles, this question comes specifically from me (Andrew): I'm always suspicious of humor in poetry and, now that I think about it, humor in anything "literary." That doesn't mean I don't like it... I think it means I often find it diversionary... more silly than serious. And there's something about silliness that makes me start to lose trust in a writer. What say you?

CHW: T.S. Eliot himself said, "Humor is a way of saying something serious." It certainly is for me. Though I actively seek laughter in my life, and don't much care how I get it, in my poems, I insist that humor advance some fundamental insight/truth. To exclude humor from literary work is, it seems to me, to exclude one of the most memorable, entertaining, powerful, imaginative, and redemptive means of expressing our humanity. As I've said elsewhere, humor lifts our spirits even as it brings us the bad news.

I find it hard to trust a writer whose work lacks humor. Something fundamental is being held back in the writing, or is missing in the writer. To exclude humor from my writing would not only be to lie to my readers, but to limp into the verbal arena with my hands cuffed and my legs in a potato sack. Shakespeare uses humor even in his tragedies. If it's good enough for him . . .

As for I silliness-I think it's in the eye of the beholder; ie, people call humor "silly" when it seems to them to be more stupid than funny. (I find some French humor-the venerated Jacques Tati's films, for instance-silly, and not in a good way.) Sometimes "silliness" is an expression of high spirits that may seem forced to those whose spirits don't rise so high, or not in the same way. James Tate's work is a case in point. I'm delighted by its exuberance and imaginative play. I've heard other people call it silly, and even an affront to poetry. Personally, I think that Monty Python's Minister of Silly Walks is a more devastating commentary on government than even Anthony Weiner.

All this being said, the issue of humor in writing may be largely temperamental. I can give you plenty of intellectual reasons for using it; but basically, it just appeals to me.

SD & AMK: There's the short final line again....

CHW: Yep, and it's iambic pentameter too.

SD & AMK: Would you talk about the decision to go with short lines in "Nerves of Titanium"? It really sticks out in this book.

CHW: Since the poem is about a man in free-fall, I used as long column of short lines to give a sense of speed and a long fall. I hoped that the longer-lined poems in the book would make the statement even more emphatic.

SD & AMK: How much do you "enjoy" writing poetry? It's hard to read your work without a smile on one's face. How do you manage to keep that sort of joy in your work and in the doing of that work?

CHW: I believe that the creative act--whether it's science, sex, or art--is, if it's done right, inherently joyful. Writing poems, for me, is just great fun. Musicians "play" when they make art. I played hard when I was a musician; and I play hard when I write. I write to make discoveries; and I love at least some of the discoveries I make. I get frustrated, discouraged, tired, chagrined, even enraged; but overall, writing is fun, and writing poems is the most fun of all. If it weren't, I wouldn't do it. The money's not great; and the last thing the world needs is more poems to ignore.

I also try to write poems that are fresh, entertaining, energetic, and in some way or another, life-affirming. A few years back, I wrote an essay with the premise that contemporary American poetry, taken as a whole, was clinically depressed. If anything, it's more depressed today. I'm far from a Pollyanna; but for me, morose poems are just too easy-and for the most part, uninteresting. Poems of delicate beauty are fine; but do they all have to be SO delicate, so tinged with gauzy sorrow? Life's unfair, pain is rampant, loss is constant, time grinds forward, we're all going to die, and maybe horribly-what else is new? For some reason-Puritan roots?-a doleful or at least unsmiling poetic countenance is seen as evidence of intelligence, sensitivity, and depth. But any 13-year-old can find a million reasons to be bummed. For me, at least, it's far more challenging, as a person and a writer, to celebrate-or if I must say no, to say it (with thanks to Melville) "in thunder."

 

What Things Are Made Of: An Interview with Charles Harper Webb by Nathan Moore, first published by Heavy Feather Review

Nathan Moore: One of the first things that strikes me about What Things Are Made Of is the predominance of the first person. What are some of your thoughts about this point of view? What's gained? What are some of the drawbacks, if any?

Charles Harper Webb: I know that some poets avoid the first person for a number of reasons, including that it can seem self-involved and egotistical. If a writer truly is truly self-involved and egotistical, though, I don't think that fact can be disguised simply by writing in third person, or trying to write "objectively" in no person at all.

My intent in writing is to communicate with my audience in the most intimate, direct, and believable way that I can. I think that first person is the most intimate point of view, and carries, potentially, the highest credibility. "I was there. I saw that." First person is often the most efficient way to write, as well, involving the least confusion of pronouns and antecedents.

Writing in first person is almost always the best way for me to inhabit a character. I draft nearly every poem in first person, even if the speaker is a serial killer and a sadist (which, for the record, I am not), or lived hundreds of years ago, which I also did not. There may be good reasons for me to switch from first person after the first draft is written; but if there are not, I usually leave the poem in first.

Good readers understand that the first person "I" is no more or less a fiction than the third person "he" or "she," and does not mean that I-the-speaker am equivalent to I-the-writer, or that everything related actually happened to me. If my poems speak to the human condition, and not just my particular one, I believe that the reader will participate in the poem as fully, and perhaps more fully, than if I wrote from some other point of view. If my poems do not speak to the human condition, only my mother will be interested, anyway.

NM: One of the things that's so fascinating about a work of art (and the poems in this book demonstrate this consistently) is the move from intimate detail to an insight into something large like "the human condition." While the poems don't shrink from the bleaker side of human experience, one of the things I'm most surprised by is the sense of gratitude I find here. I'm thinking of "At Lamaze" and "The Best Moment of My Life" in particular. What part does gratitude play in your work?

CHW: Ed Hirsch, in his preface to my book Reading the Water, called me, among other things, "a poet of praise." I think that's true. One of the things that moves me to write is the sheer amazingness of the world and being alive in it. Life is so compellingly wonderful and strange. The odds against any one of us being here are beyond astronomical. We've lucked into the chance to experience consciousness. Why not celebrate the fact, and be grateful?

Life is also, of course, nasty, brutal and (even at 100 years) short, not to mention frequently horrible, disgusting, unjust, tedious, and always tragic in the end. But that just makes it more important to be grateful when, where, and about what we can. The "default" position for any moderately intelligent person over the age of about 10 is depression and anger. Adolescents "discover" hypocrisy, unfairness, and heartbreak, and believe that expressing sadness and outrage at these things makes them special. But it takes no unusual intelligence/insight/imagination/awareness to be sad or outraged. Since good poetry should, I think, display unusual intelligence/insight/imagination/awareness, I don't think that just being bummed out warrants a poem. Talk about "Been there, done that."

My awareness of the world can't support a Candide-like optimism, or the sunny disposition of a Polyanna, but I find the pursuit of the positive to be more challenging and more worthy than wallowing in the negative. (Humor, by the way, is an enormous positive-especially in the face of despair.) In "At Lamaze," the speaker ends by celebrating things that "evolved" people are supposed to despise. He even celebrates the act of complaining. So yes, gratitude plays a big part in my work. I hope it always will.

NM: I'm glad you bring up humor. It seems kind of rare to find it done well in a poem. What Things are Made Of is full of various kinds of humor that work. The poems "Nostalgia's Not What It Used to Be" and "Jackass: The Viewer" both find the humorous in tension with a kind of "official" language or culture. Do you find humor difficult to write?

CHW: I'm glad that the humor in What Things...works for you. Writing well is always hard; but I don't find humor harder to write than seriousness. It would be hard for me to write without humor. It seems so fundamental to human consciousness-certainly to mine-that to lose it would reduce me to the proverbial one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

I've always seen the world through humorous lenses. One reason, I'm sure, is that humor is a way to gain a brief ascendance over the tragic, oppressive, irritating, and awful. It's a way to strike back against the ridiculous or the More Powerful. Another reason is that humor makes the world a more interesting and entertaining place-not to mention that laughter is one of the great pleasures of being human. Since I want my poems to give pleasure, I like it when humor appears. I rarely start out trying to be funny; I write what I see through my particular lenses, and sometimes what comes out is funny.

NM: How do you see your work participating in its cultural context? What I mean is that in both the poems mentioned (and in "Liar's Ball") there's a sense that humor can assert personal freedom when aspects of the culture at large are repressive. I was wondering if you see your work in these terms-as making a claim for freedom.

CHW: I absolutely see my poems as making a claim for freedom, humor being one way to express and achieve that freedom. (If we can't be free when writing in a non-commercial form like poetry, when can we be?)

I love humor's subversive quality. When any sacred cow remains un-tipped, I think artists aren't doing their job. It seems to me, too, that humor speaks to many of the "post-modern issues" that avant-garde poetry works so hard to address, but humor does it in a more readable and entertaining way.

A lot of American poets, young and old, seem virtually seminarian in their wish to be "good." I miss the Id in their poems. I miss what Robert Bly calls "wildness." Humor is great way to express wildness. I love the Monty Python sketch where morticians convince a man that they should cook and eat his deceased mum. I love the scene in The Trial where K gets a look at his judge's law books, and finds one to be a pornographic novel, and the other to contain nude pictures too poorly drawn even to be good pornography. I feel closer in spirit to Monty Python and Kafka than to many of America's most respected poets, who rarely if ever take real risks or say anything truly surprising, dangerous-or funny.

Every day, Law and Government prove themselves at least as inadequate as religion to deal effectively with the modern world. We're surrounded by crassness, greed, self-satisfied stupidity, and idiotic rules, all trying to imprison our spirits and control our lives. The brilliant and gifted among us, of which there are many, are all too often either rendered powerless by the non-brilliant and non-gifted, or find ways to grab a good life for themselves, and drop out of the fray.

What can we do about these facts, and our own impotence to change much of anything large-scale? We can point out absurdities. And, if we have the courage to be free in our own minds (as the father in "Liar's Ball" advises his son to be), we can laugh.

NM: I love it when a work of art can surprise with its absurdity or "wildness." You mention Kafka and Monty Python. What poems do you turn to for this sense of the wild?

CHW: The first poem I read that truly reveled in the wild was "Howl." It led me to "America," and Corso's "Marriage," which also had Ginsberg's wild feel-the sense that no holds were barred-that anything could happen, even something shocking, antisocial, dangerous. I was in high school, playing in rock bands, and those poems felt very close to rock-and-roll. A couple of years later, I encountered Edward Field's "The Bride of Frankenstein," Ron Koertge's "Lilith," Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," and-more formal, but still wild-Dylan Thomas' "Lament." James Tate, Russell Edson, Thomas Lux, Tony Hoagland, and Dean Young are a few of the poets I turn to for a wildness fix today.

NM: Yes! I think it was Edson who said in an interview "Poetry is uncomfortable in language." This seems to me, in one sense, to be getting to a crucial interaction between poetry and music. The power of music figures heavily in many of the poems in your book. I'm thinking especially of the poem "Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh, Dah-Dah-Dah! Doesn't Look Like Much in Print." There's a real sense of the conjunction and the conflict between the linguistic and the non-linguistic. As a writer and a musician, how would you describe the interaction of these endeavors?

CHW: Music and poetry have both had a huge impact on my life; and music has had a huge impact on my poetry. I think, though, that there is a lot of confusion about the relationship between music and poetry.

Music and poetry are often assumed to be the same, or close to it. This misconception holds just enough truth to keep it floating. (Plus, as "all art aspires to the condition of music," most poets aspire to the condition of musicians.) It's true that the word lyric is used for both poetry and song, and that both poetry and music count "beats." Both arts also involve using sound effectively. But the sound-resources they deploy are very different. Poetry in English uses the rhythm and sound of words, but not pitch (to any major degree), and certainly not the range of rhythms and dynamics that music has at its disposal. Metered poetry is counted differently from music, too. The "music" of poetry is, in fact, best understood as a metaphor.

Song lyrics may be important to the overall impact of a song, or they may be incidental. In either case, they're energized by the enormous sonic power of music, which plays on the emotions more directly and intensely than any other art. A song-especially a rock song-can have inane lyrics, and still be a terrific song. The words in poems, though, stand alone. If any heavy emotional/artistic lifting gets done, the words have to do it by themselves.

I've played music in front of thousands, and know first hand the handicaps under which poetry labors, by comparison. "Nuh-nuh-nuh..." acknowledges and tries to have fun with the fact that, for pure excitement and unmediated emotional wallop, words fall short of what music can do. On the other hand, when it comes to taking us deep into the human mind-its thoughts, feelings, and psychology-words have the edge. And good poems-powered by sound and strong imagery-can hit hard too, as "Nuh-nuh-nuh," even as it pleads inadequacy, tries to do.

Click here for an interview with Charles Harper Webb and Brian Brodeur at How A Poem Happens

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