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Poem of the Week - November 8th, 2020 - 'WebMD' by John Kenney

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

This week’s poem of the week is much simpler, and that’s the way the poem’s author meant for it to be.

“WebMD” is a free verse poem written by author John Kenney. Kenney, formerly a journalist, copywriter, and novelist before he turned his pen to poetry, grew up working class in Boston and found himself drawn to writing at a young age. After getting degrees in English and Journalism in college, Kenney described himself as being ‘uniquely unfit to hold any kind of real adult job’ and took a mishmash of low-paying jobs while traveling the world for much of his early twenties. After settling back down in the U.S. in the middle of his twenties, he got to work copywriting by day and writing short stories and novels by night. A few years later, The New Yorker accepted a piece of his, and he’s been writing poems, articles, and the occasional short story for them ever since.

John Kenney is known for being a ‘humor-heavy poet,’ which means that, instead of writing big, lofty, deep poems that make people read between the lines and dive into such things as word choice, meter, alliteration, metaphors, similes, and other poetic devices, he likes to use simple language and sarcasm to get his message across. “If I’ve made someone laugh, and they don’t think my poem is God-awful, then I think I’ve done my job,” he said once in an interview.

He has published three volumes of poetry in the last two years, one based on marriage, another on raising children, and the third based on anxious people. The poems are all short, sweet, and dripping with sarcasm, and “WebMD” is the opening poem of said third collection, Love Poems (For Anxious People). It delves deep into the psyche of a person constantly suffering from self-doubt, humiliation, and anxiety-ridden thoughts at all hours of the day and night, but he presents his speakers and characters within his poems with a nuanced look at how relatable their struggles are, whether they’re slipping down the dark hole known as ‘WebMD-ing’ or spilling a coffee on the woman in front of them on the subway when the car jerks to a stop and they were too busy daydreaming to brace themselves.

Some humorists can come off as forced and stuffy, but Kenney is the exact opposite—none of the poems within his collections are more than a page or two, and they are all short and sweet and to the point, like the below “WebMD.”

I chose the opening poem from his third collection mainly because of how it speaks to many of our experiences whenever we’ve gone online to WebMD and, five minutes after clicking around, now think we are going to die of some sort of cancer or untreatable disease that we have suddenly self-diagnosed ourselves with. The short lines that the poem is constructed from also gives the reader a sense of anxiety as he or she reads it—it can be read almost like someone taking a shortened breath at the end of every line, their chest heaving with nervousness and anxiety as they go further and further down the WebMD rabbit hole, and I could picture the author sitting at his computer and going through the motions that he speaks about in the poem. The fact that he was able to convey such a distinct and real sense of several emotions with only twenty-eight short lines of poetry is something that shouldn’t be shrugged at, and the simplicity of word choice adds further to that simple-complex duality that is found throughout the piece.

However, I didn’t just choose the piece because it speaks of a mostly universal experience for anyone in the twenty-first century. This country, at this moment in time, is rife with anxiety and fear in general. There has been nervousness and anxiety on both sides of the political divide about the extended presidential election results; about the economy; about jobs; about families raising their kids and making sure there is enough food to put on the table; about the direction that this country and the world is going in general. We constantly feel the need to be connected to everyone else, whether through social media, texting, or the Internet at large, and there never seems to be a chance to slow down. So, with this poem, even though it speaks to all of our anxieties and the general sense of unease that we are feeling in 2020, it also shows that there is always humor and light poking through the dark, however dense it may be, and if we pay attention to the things that matter, we can come away with some sense of normalcy, and just maybe that tomorrow will be better and brighter.

WebMD

It started out simple enough.

A brief search.

Kanker sore.

Which I spelled wrong

and now realize is a district in India

as well as the Dutch slang

for a very bad word

and also, somehow, cancer.

Which led me to a site that linked

canker sores to cold sores

showing how oral cancer lesions

can mimic an open canker sore,

symptoms of which include

mouth pain and difficulty swallowing

(both of which I suddenly had)

as I followed a link to

the definition of head and neck cancer

which I did not know was a thing

nor did I realize I was now at risk of it

as a result of my mouth lesion/canker/cancer sore

which often causes

golf-ball-size tumors

resulting in blindness, lack of motor function,

and complete sexual dysfunction.

Which is good to know.

Then I looked up an earache I was having

and it turns out I have to months to live

or possibly a head cold.




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