Charles Harper Webb - SPRING 2006 FEATURE  



The Cortland Review

William Palmer
An interview and reading with William Palmer. Grace Cavalieri hosts this special one-hour program.

Charles Harper Webb
  "The Pleasure of Their Company: Voice and Poetry," an essay on the personal in the poem.

Charles Harper Webb
  5 New poems

Miles A. Coon
  A review of Desire Path, four chapbook-length collections by Myrna Goodman, Maxine Silverman, Meredith Trede and Jennifer Wallace, with a foreword by Thomas Lux.

Tony Hoagland
  "To Tell the Truth: Tony Hoagland Through Three Collections of Poems,"
a review by Ginger Murchison

Charles Harper Webb

Charles Harper Webb is a rock singer turned psychotherapist, specializing in work with creative artists, and Professor of English at CSU, Long Beach. His book of poems Reading the Water (Northeastern University Press), winner of the 1997 Morse Poetry Prize and the 1998 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and Liver (University of Wisconsin Press), winner of the 1999 Felix Pollack Prize, are followed by Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies (BOA Editions, 2001), Hot Popsicles (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005) and Amplified Dog, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Prize, published in February of this year by Red Hen Press. Additionally, he is recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize, a Whiting Writer's Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and both the Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award and the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award.
The Pleasure Of Their Company: Voice And Poetry    

Beginning poets who interpret criticism of their poems as criticism of themselves are onto something. However loudly we proclaim the poem to be separate from the poet, people respond to poems as if they are real people speaking. New Critics and post-structuralists, unreliable narrators, personae, slipping signifiers, and self-deconstructing "I"s notwithstanding, this is true. The poetical is personal.

A good poem speaks in a voice I like to hear. Though not entirely unfamiliar, the voice is like none I've heard before. It inspires confidence, demands and rewards attention, offering entry into a psyche that intrigues, and may delight.

T.S. Eliot was wrong to declare poetry "not the expression of personality but an escape from personality."1  It's true that the speaker of a poem by X is not identical to the X who orders chicken-with-chef's-special-sauce at Panda Inn. It's also true that many bad poems lean too heavily on personality. Yet where can poems come from, if not the poet's pesonality? Poems don't spring, full-blown, from Language's side—despite theorists who seem to think that their own wind will breathe life into their inanimate god. To play Hamlet effectively, an actor must locate the part of himself that resonates with Hamlet. Similarly, a good poet writes from that part of his/her personality able to inhabit the speaker of the poem.

No poem can express the poet's entire personality; still, a good poem conveys a fair-sized chunk. The poet's voice is that chunk, expressed on the page.

The most learned among us has not spent more than a few decades studying literature. Our ancestors, though, spent hundreds of millennia evolving the ability to size up their own kind, sensing whether to like them, trust them, hate them, follow them. Hominids who could not accurately assess the character, intentions, and competence of their fellows carried a big handicap into the evolutionary games. Their genes likely did not survive.

"A good poem speaks in a voice I like to hear. Though not entirely unfamiliar, the voice is like none I've heard before."

Poet Louis Simpson states, "I cannot explain my aversion to [James Merrill's] style except as an aversion to the personality it presents. The style is the man."2

Interesting, likable (or unlikable in an interesting way), insightful, bright, truthful, pompous, preening, muddle-headed, dull—all of these qualities and more are conveyed through a poet's voice. People evolved to respond favorably to certain voices—to accept their owners as leaders, experts—or in any case, worth listening to. The success and proliferation of dull poetry is at least partly due to the tendency to second-guess and override one's "gut" response to voice.3

Poems that I like are spoken by voices that compel my attention in some pleasing, primal way. I enjoy the poems' and, by extension, the poets' company.4  If T.S. Eliot's personality did not come through in his poems—if he lacked, that is, a compelling voice—no one would care what he thought about poetry. To speak powerfully, as Eliot does, to readers who can't know him personally, the poet's voice must be compelling, and it must be unique.

The voice may shift as a writer changes points of view, and must shift somewhat as the writer ages; yet, since personality is quite stable after age five, a good poet's voice—however wide-ranging—stays recognizably his or her own. Robert Lowell's writing style shifted substantially between Lord Weary's Castle and Life Studies. The controlling personality—and therefore, at deep levels, the voice—stayed much the same.5

Gray hair and decades of practice notwithstanding, the poet who lacks a unique and compelling voice remains a novice. Yet, though every person has a unique, potentially compelling history and genetic makeup, such voices are rare. This is partly due to a lack of what we might as well call talent, and partly due to restrictions caused by socialization. The overly socialized voice may sound sophisticated, kind, efficient, even charming, but it is rarely compelling, never unique, and always hollow.

"...since personality is quite stable after age five, a good poet's voice—however wide-ranging—stays recognizably his or her own."

A poet's voice may be said to consist of four major, mutually-influencing components:

1) Diction includes vocabulary, rhythm, cadence, and characteristic patterns of syntax. Tony Hoagland's diction is pungent, down-to-earth, colloquial. Amy Gerstler's is colloquial, too, but quirky, anxious, strange. T.S. Eliot's is formal, learned, vatic, with colloquial snippets thrown in. Most people mean "diction" when they speak of a writer's "style."

2) Subject Matter. Does the poet favor romance? Sexual intrigue? Power struggles? Big game hunting? Children? Politics? What are his or her passions and obsessions?

A poet's subject matter also includes, and depends on, the memory pool which provides his or her imagery. David Kirby's memory pool is full of scenes from a suburban childhood in the South. Wanda Coleman's is full of South-Central L.A. Since everyone's personal history is unique, the poet who effectively taps his/her memory pool is well on the way to a unique voice.

3) Temperament—much of it genetically based 6—shapes the poet's world-view, helping to determine whether he/she is misanthrope or philanthrope, optimist or pessimist, wise-acre or stern moralist. It influences, too, the poet's choice of forms, since esthetics rise from temperament.

Barbara Hamby's poems seem optimistic, though with their ballast of mortality, they are in no danger of floating off the page. Mark Strand's work is darker and more pessimistic. Whatever the poet's temperament, the poems reflect it.

4) Style of thought 7 concerns the workings of the poet's mind. This includes the quality of thoughts—their incisiveness, originality, cogency, lyricism, emotional charge, and general esthetic thrust. Does the poet proceed by intuitive leaps, as Dean Young often does, or more logically and scientifically, like Lynn Emanuel? Does he or she favor realism or flights of fancy, the sledge-hammer or the rapier? What does the play of the poet's consciousness look like? And how about the unconscious?

As every human voice creates a unique pattern on an oscilloscope, so every mind shows a unique pattern of thought—the more unique the mind, the more unique, potentially, the voice.


Clearly, good writing need not come directly from the writer's personal experience. Stephen Crane did not fight in the Civil War, yet The Red Badge of Courage is as convincing as any first-hand account. Still, Eliot is wrong to declare, " . . . emotions which he [the author] has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him."8 Imagination can seem god-like in its ability to extrapolate, embellish, generalize; but it does not create out of a void. Crane knew well the emotions he depicts. A boy whose pet turtle is crushed by a truck may grow up to write movingly about death and loss. But a writer with no experience of passionate sexual love could no more write Romeo and Juliet than a person deaf from birth could write Beethoven's Fifth.

"Writing is not the act of a language or medium arranging itself into permutations. It is a purposeful act, driven by volition, which arises out of personality."

Eliot contends that ". . . the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only the medium and not the personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality."9

This approaches Barthes' post-structuralist notion that authors do not create, but only "draw upon that immense dictionary of language and culture which is 'always already written.'"10  This is an interesting notion, but unsupported by empirical evidence. While experimental writers may bypass the personality, generating text by purely mechanical manipulations, few people would rank those productions beside the best of Shakespeare, or even Danielle Steele.11

Writing is not the act of a language or medium arranging itself into permutations. It is a purposeful act, driven by volition, which arises out of personality. Every successful liar knows that the most believable lie uses what the liar knows to be true. A poet who is cruel in private life can write convincing poems of kindness and compassion by drawing on the kindness and compassion that co-exist with cruelty in his/her personality. To play King Lear requires an older actor, not for the physical attributes of age, but for the years of experience needed to under-gird the role, supporting it as breath supports the singing voice. Musical prodigies amaze with early virtuosity, but most require more living-time to play with conviction and emotional maturity.


Failures of voice may be due to problems with talent, craft, self-censorship, personality, or some combination of the four.

The poet with insufficient talent12 is like a center fielder who lacks the reflexes to chase down a fly ball or hit a curve. No amount of practice will get that player to the major leagues; and no amount of writing will give that poet a unique, compelling voice.

Problems with craft are helped by practice. Still, just as few violinists become expert enough for the concert stage, few poets develop enough craft to write masterful poems. Failing to feel a compelling authority in the voice, readers distrust and reject the poems.

Problems of self-censorship occur when the writer has talent and a unique, compelling personality, but these qualities don't reach the page. More than one poet whose voice is lively and engaging in conversation, lapses into dull anonymity when the poems begin. This problem—as if a V-8 engine were running on four cylinders—is often due to a limiting concept of poetry. For Billy Collins to change from a self-described writer of "bad imitations" into one of the more original voices in U.S. poetry, he had "to allow into my poetry aspects of my self—my sensibility and my experience—that I had been unwittingly censoring."13

The self-censoring poet may feel, as Collins did, that humor is inappropriate in poems. He or she may believe that only certain subjects and moral positions lend themselves to poetry. Such problems may be corrected by a shift in attitude (though the shift may take years). If the shift is consistently resisted, the problem may lie with the personality. By problems of personality, I don't mean the ones that drive people into psychotherapy—anxiety, depression, difficulty bonding, etc. Nor do I mean the poet is "mentally ill." The problems to which I refer are qualities of personality that keep the poet from doing his or her best work.

"Poets whose main concern is pleasing the cognoscenti will write in styles and about subjects which they think will find critical favor."

Psychological blind spots—for instance, lack of insight into other people—show up as blind spots in poetry. A man's unresolved anger toward women may show itself in poorly drawn, stereotyped female characters. Areas of blocked emotion give rise to emotionally flat poems. Psychic regions the poet has explored insufficiently—sex, violence, anger, grief—reveal themselves in a lack of clarity and penetration or in reliance on conventional thinking and cliché. Even problems with overeating may manifest in wordy poems, and difficulty in trimming them down.14

To fix these problems, psychological restrictions15 must be loosened, allowing the personality to develop and express itself more fully. The writer may become his or her own psychotherapist, or may pay for the service. In either case, the goal of therapy is not to alleviate external symptoms— these may, in fact, provide good material for poems—but to increase self-awareness and options for expression. Good poets may be cruel, egotistical, sociopathic. They may be neurotic, or even psychotic. But they must be able to see clearly from their highly personal perspective, and to tell the truth of what they see. Failure to do either of these things will cause the reader to distrust and/or dislike, not the "speaker," but the poet.

Moralizers will sound pompous and fraudulent with their insights and epiphanies, more interested in looking admirable than in offering an authentic "take" on the world.

Poets whose main concern is pleasing the cognoscenti will write in styles and about subjects which they think will find critical favor. Their poems will be forms of social one-upsmanship.

Poets who fear self-exposure will write obscurely. Those who fear being silly will write poems devoid of playfulness or fun. Grown-up teachers' pets will grind out bloodless, proper poems that merit A for effort and C for everything else.

Poets too impressed by what has been written before will repeat it in inferior form. Poets who hate the past too much will write nothing that lasts.

Poets unsure of the value of their perceptions may write timid, waffling poems full of self-defeating contradictions, or may disguise their timidity with obscurantism and gratuitous strangeness.

Poets who fear that they are not original will write poems that strain. Poets with a need to pose will write poems of empty attitude. Poets writing just to write will write inconsequentially. Poets who want to be shamans will sound like quacks. Poets too proud of being poets will write every poem in praise of themselves. Only the deluded, the masochistic, and students under duress will read more than a little of such poetry.


A good poem, like a good friend, is a pleasure to be with. It has special talents, amazing abilities, yet meets the reader as an equal. It does not flatter or condescend. It illuminates, encourages, entertains, and does not bore.

To write such a poem requires talent, mastery of craft, minimal self-censorship, and a unique, compelling personality. The personality must be risk-taking, adventurous, and confident (at least in the mental sphere). It must be rebellious, dissatisfied with received wisdom and the status quo.16  It must be strongly emotional, as well as highly intelligent, imaginative, and original. If the personality has these qualities, the voice will possess three qualities central to good poetry: wit, passion, and impropriety.


The importance to poetry of wit—meaning quickness of perception, ingenuity, keen intelligence—is self-evident. A poet who lacks this kind of wit will evince a low quality of thought.

Wit meaning humor can be important too. People who lack a sense of humor may, on first meeting, seem "nice"—even exceptionally so; but frequently, they pall. Nothing about them strikes sparks. Nothing seems fun. The imaginative leaps and unexpected connections characteristic of a first-rate mind may be absent. The sense of common humanity and the general uplift which laughter can provide are absent in the humorless person's conversation and poems.


Passionate writing makes the reader come to grips with strong emotionrisky in a culture embarrassed by emotion, and even riskier when judgements about poems are made by critics and theorists who, with no first-hand knowledge of the passions and wild enthusiasms of real scientists, cultivate what they think is scientific objectivity.

To admit passion into poetry, as to admit love into one's life, is to risk being judged excessive, undiscriminating, jejune, ridiculous—especially if that passion is high spirited and celebratory. To avoid such judgements, some poets cultivate understatement, obliqueness, and dour depressiveness. They proceed by indirection, fearing to call a spade a spade and be told, "No, fool,, that is a club."

How dreary, though, to speak with someone who lacks passion. Like humorless people, the passionless may seem agreeable at first. But how to connect with someone who is barely there? Eventually, we give up and go away.


Civilization is designed to shield people from, among other things, unsettling truths. Biology being what it is, some aspects of human life are sure to distress our "higher" consciousness. In addition, since power seeks to maintain itself, lies spring up to support the status quo. Standards of propriety help to keep unpleasant, upsetting, dangerous realities out of mind. Politeness, which means suppressing anything that could make anyone uncomfortable, rules out much humor and most passion.

Employed for its own sake, impropriety is as uninteresting as strict propriety. However, since many truths are improper, indecorous, or uncomfortable, a person who avoids impropriety must also avoid truth. The proper person, like the humorless and the passionless, will be dull. To escape controversy, such a person must censor imagination (who can tell where it will lead?), avoid penetrating insights (always potentially shocking), and keep excitement controlled (lest all hell break loose). Such a poet may create pretty pictures and artfully-disguised homilies, but not compelling art.


MRI studies of people making difficult decisions reveal that, though the subjects think they're being rational, they decide based primarily on emotion, then think of reasons why their decisions make sense. Similarly, readers of poetry may present complex and lengthy rationales to justify judgements based largely on emotional responses to the poet's voice. In "Dawn Walk,"17 Edward Hirsch expresses compassion, tenderness, and love.

Some nights when you're asleep
Deep under the covers, far away,
Slowly curling yourself back
Into a childhood no one
Living will ever remember
Now that your parents touch hands
Under the ground
As they always did upstairs
In the master bedroom . . .

The personality behind this voice seems modest, grateful, honest, and vulnerable.

                                   . . . Cars
Too, are rimmed and motionless
Under a thin blanket smoothed down
By the smooth maternal palm
Of the wind. So thanks to the
Blue morning, to the blue spirit
Of winter, to the soothing blue gift
Of powdered snow.

Through apt metaphors, the voice conveys intelligence and careful observation. It speaks gently, as if to soothe loved ones to sleep. It is anxious, but the anxiety is reasonable, born of the fear of losing those the speaker loves.

The voice is not neurotically fretful and self-involved. Nor, for all its gentleness, is it sentimental or epicene. It is not affected; it does not show off. Rather, it seems to speak truthfully about the speaker's emotions. Since those emotions and the sensibility behind them feel close to my own, it's not surprising that I find the poem moving and beautiful. Where Hirsch's poem is realistic and domestic, the voice of Brigit Pegeen Kelly in "Song"18 is eerie, mythic, and wild.

Listen: there was a goat's head hanging by ropes in a tree.
All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it
Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing
The song of a night bird . . .

Kelly's voice is shamanic, telling tales about a world of violence and sorrow, of tenderness and forgiveness, but also of punishment.

The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school
And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything . . .
                                                             What they didn't know
Was that the goat's head would go on singing, just for them . . .
                                                                       They would
Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees
Or a night bird, but their hearts beating harder. There
would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother's call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.

Kelly tells her story with passion and verve, without affectation. I find myself pulled into her mythic world, moved by its horror and beauty. The personality which her voice conveys feels different enough from mine to intrigue, but close enough not to exclude me. Her voice carries the fascination of the exotic, allowing me to experience her primal and compelling poetry.

James Tate is not a poet at all, some say; others claim that he's among our best. Certainly, the voice in "To Each His Own" conveys a personality either unconcerned with poetic convention, or actively mocking it.


When Joey returned from the war he worked
on his motorcycle in the garage most days. A
few of his old buddies were still around—Bobby
and Scooter—and once or twice a week they'd
go down to the club and have a few beers. But
Joey never talked about the war. He had a
tattoo on his right hand that said DEVI and he
wouldn't even tell what that meant. Months
passed and Joey showed no interest in getting
a job. His old Indian motorcycle ran like a
top, it gleamed, it purred. One night at dinner
he shocked us all by saying, "Devi's coming to
live with us. It's going to be difficult. She's
an elephant."

The language here is casual, chatty, even childish.There's little concrete imagery. Lines show no metrical regularity and, ranging from nine to fourteen syllables, seem broken with no purpose but to make them roughly the same length on the page. "Prose broken into lines," critics could easily say. Yet Tate's voice strikes me as poetically sophisticated in its very unpoeticness. The text contains only one simile, and that is a cliché; yet the whole poem is an effective metaphor. Joey, who loves an elephant, could be any star-crossed lover, whether a Montague pining for his Capulet, or a gay man coming out. Tate's voice does not convey noble feeling and high seriousness. The consciousness at work in this poem evokes sympathy for Joey and Devi, even as it makes fun of the whole affair.

Tate's voice conveys a wild and uninhibited imagination, and an unabashed silliness which resonates with the most fun-loving part of me. Someone else might find the voice flat, the poem ridiculous. I find both voice and poem hilarious—refreshing, entertaining, and curative. When I feel mentally waterlogged, Tate throws me a life-line.

As controversial as Tate, Sharon Olds has been lauded and pilloried for her willingness to go where few poets have gone before. In "The Unjustly Punished Child,"20 she uses vivid metaphors to express an unvarnished truth about injustice.

The child screams in his room. Rage
heats his head.
He is going through changes like metal under deep
pressure at high temperatures.

When he cools off and comes out of that door
he will not be the same child who ran in
and slammed it. An alloy has been added. Now he will
crack along different lines when tapped.

He is stronger. The long impurification
has begun this morning.

This short poem strikes me as brave, hard-hitting, thought-provoking, passionately felt, and absolutely true. I love the strength of the voice, its sense of clarity, authority, compassion, and unapologetic wisdom. The speaker seems a person whose company I would seek out. It's no wonder that I admire this poem.


Walt Whitman states in his journal, "There is no trick or cunning, no art or recipe, by which you can have in your writing what you do not possess in yourself." If this is true, as I believe it is, the only way to write with a unique and compelling voice is to have—or develop—a unique, compelling personality.

The best poets never cease to work at this. Whether they aim, like Shakespeare, to broaden their consciousness, or like Philip Larkin, to stake out a limited terrain and dig deep, these poets learn to observe carefully the outside world, as well as the inner, psychic one. They continue to experiment and try new things—maybe not in their lives, but always in their art. They don't stagnate. They strive to learn the truth and tell it, however idiosyncratic and time-limited it may be.

Good poets don't need to root out and "cure" character flaws, but must be willing to explore fully and honestly those they have. The best poets may be liars, but their poems don't lie. The best poets may not live wisely, but they are wise in their poetry. The best poets must be narcissistic enough to think their words important, but not so narcissistic as to think all their words are. Good poets may love their own poetry, but must love Poetry more.

Should a poet achieve a unique, compelling voice along with critical acclaim, he or she must battle with success from that time on. Convinced of their own genius by prizes and reviews, some poets start to go easy on themselves. When this happens, craft deteriorates. The voice sounds self-indulgent and self-involved—because it is. Success leads naturally to a wish for more. This can become a need to please which, unchecked, leads to self-censorship and fear of risk—qualities which damage and distort the voice.

The poet must not try to change the voice in hopes of becoming more popular. Even if popularity increases, the voice is compromised; the poems decline.

If Shakespeare's voice resonates with more people than Larkin's, so be it. Both voices are unique, compelling, and valid artistically. Both express what their authors had to give. Decisions concerning greatness versus goodness, major status or minor, are made by readers, change with literary fashions, and are not subject to the author's will.

The poet's job is to discover, develop, and express his or her own voice fully and well. Then let the chips fall.


1Eliot, T.S., "Tradition and the Individual Talent," from The Sacred Wood, Metheum Publishers, London, 1920

2Simpson, Louis, "Reflections on Narrative Poetry" from A Company of Poets, Univesity of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1981, 346-355

3Increased suppression of this and other intuitive responses by the rational mind is a mark of the educated person. It also helps to explain the lack of "common sense" of which intellectuals are frequently accused.

4This is no guarantee that I will like the poets themselves.

5Though Fernando Pessoa's noms de plume can be considered different people, each with a different voice, it makes more psychological sense to consider them the work of one man who, like Shakespeare, had a capacious personality.

6Psychologist Steven Pinker lists five major ways in which temperament varies genetically: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion-introversion, antagonism-agreeableness, and neuroticism. Pinker, Steven, The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature, Viking, New York, 2002, 375

7Louise Gluck equates this with voice itself. "The poem will not survive on content but through voice," she states in an interview. "By voice I mean the style of thought, for which a style of speech never convincingly substitutes."

8Eliot, T.S., "Tradition and the Individual Talent," from The Sacred Wood, Metheum Publishers, London, 1920


10Selden, Widdowson, and Brooker; A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, 4th edition, Prentice Hall, 1997: 66

11T.S. Eliot's own personality leaps out of his work, even as he denies the importance of personality. "But of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things," he writes—speaking, I'm sure, about himself.  Eliot, T.S., "Tradition and the Individual Talent," from The Sacred Wood, Metheum Publishers, London, 1920

12Many aspects of what we call talent can be learned; but no one can learn to write as well as Shakespeare.

13Collins, Billy, "The End of Boredom," New Letters Vol 70, #2, 2004, p 155

14These examples come straight from my private practice as a psychotherapist.

15Restrictions caused by temperament or other biological factors constitute failure of talent.

16"Society depends on the poet to witness something, and yet the poet can discover that thing only by looking away from what society has learned to see poetically."
Robert Pinsky, "Responsibilities of the Poet," from Poetry and the World (New York: Ecco Press, 1988) 83-98

17Hirsch, Edward, Wild Gratitude, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1990, p 77

18Kelly, Brigit Pegeen, Song, BOA Editions, Ltd., Brockport, 1995, 15

19Tate, James, Memoir of the Hawk, Ecco Press, New York, 2001, p 72

20Olds, Sharon, Satan Says, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1980, 55


© 2006 The Cortland Review