Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays

I am taking the next two weeks off from blogging here at Table Music. I would like to thank everyone who has visited this site and participated in its discussions. My initial reluctance to blog was entirely unfounded as I have enjoyed many lucid conversations, both public and private, with new friends from across Canada and from south of the border.

In the spirit of the holidays, here is a poem of mine called "Darkening" from my unpublished manuscript Winter Cranes. It was included on the long list by A.F. Moritz for the anthology The Best Canadian Poetry 2009 after also being picked as an editor’s choice poem by Peter Richardson in Arc Magazine’s 2008 Poem of the Year Contest. I hope you enjoy it and I will see everyone in the new year.


The simple joy of riding with good friends
in a car coming back from a barn dance
on the edge of a great lake in mid-March,
driving through falling snow on blizzarding
country roads, past farms, silos, cattle barns
recessed in deep shadows as Stand By Me
spills from the radio. But on that night,
our car hit black ice, and skittered across
the road’s slick surface like a water-bug
twenty odd yards, before coming to rest
in a snow-bank beside an old farmhouse.
A man appeared out of the dark, walking
down his laneway. He asked if anyone
was hurt. Were we okay? Seeing the car
was undamaged, he said he could tow it
out with an old tractor. I remember that
night walking up the road, a hundred yards
or more, in the moonless dark, without so
much as a flare or a flashlight to wave down
passing cars, wondering why my friends
and I had survived the crash. Wondering
why I was not dead. I can still see myself
standing impatiently, wind barrelling
across fields, over snow-fences, the wind
licking raw the flesh beneath my jacket
trying to hail the drivers of three cars
not bothering to stop, not quite certain
whether they saw a figure half-glimpsed
in the helixing snow at that late hour,
a messenger risen up from the ground,
to warn them of some impending hazard
until too late they found an old tractor
upon the road. And what I remember
of that night will not call back anyone
from the past. Not the vehicles swerving
to carve a wide groove in a winter field
crusted with thin ice and eddying snow.
Not the old man on the tractor cursing,
his breath rising, a white scar, mixing in
plumes of diesel smoke in the chilly air.
Not even my younger self whom I see
standing roadside like an apparition
as he turns his body to stare back down
the dark hallway of a moment ago.

By Chris Banks

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Poets of the Year

Last week, the American poet Edward Byrne, whose excellent blog One Poet’s Notes was the inspiration for my own, chose W.S. Merwin as his Poet of the Year. For over fifty years now, W.S. Merwin has published nearly two dozen collections of poetry and twenty books of translation. His latest book The Shadow of Sirius published by the remarkable Copper Canyon Press won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

If I were to choose a Canadian poet worthy of the distinction Poet of the Year, I would have to say A.F. Moritz would be my choice. Having written sixteen volumes of poetry, including The Sentinel which won the 2009 Griffin Poetry Prize, Al is one of the most generous poets you are likely to find in Canada. His considerable knowledge of all facets of contemporary poetry makes him a gifted teacher and a demanding poet to read.

In addition, Moritz was at the editorial helm of The Best Canadian Poetry 2009 published by Tightrope Books. His essay prefacing this new anthology is meticulously conceived and is a pleasure beyond the fifty worthy poems he chose to include within it.

When I spoke to Al back in October, he told me he had been traveling almost every weekend to some poetry event or other, both in Canada and abroad, since winning the Griffin prize back in the spring.

Honestly, I cannot think of a better ambassador of Canadian poetry for 2009.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Poetry and Intention

Last month, I wrote a piece about aesthetic tribalism in Canada as I see it, and how such a mentality is actually dangerous when introduced into our poetry criticism, for if we are to expect other nations to take an interest in the poetry produced in Canada, the aesthetic stances of our nation’s critics need to be pushed aside and a more objective approach that takes into consideration a poet’s intentions needs to be adopted.

To my mind, we have far too many critics dismissing books under review based not on the poetry’s substance but on the poet’s style.

Zachariah Wells, a critic who puts the Neo in New Formalism, and several of his more ardent supporters followed hard on that initial post of mine with a willful misreading of the word “intention” suggesting I wanted critics to somehow divine a poet’s thoughts which they see as being divorced from the actual poetry.

To help him and others who apparently think intention and objectivity are mutually exclusive terms that cannot be applied to the analysis of poetry, here is a thoughtful piece aptly entitled “Poetry and Intention” by the American poet Mary Kinzie excerpted from her book A Poet’s Guide To Poetry (an essential resource for any serious poet):

“When we appreciate style as the subtle medium of sense, we can see how the way works are written also discloses the meanings these works of art intend. Meaning in poetry is imbedded in the saying.

Such meaning in poetry does not just happen: It is the product of a trained writer’s strength, all of which in one way or another is formed and fueled by intention. In art, it is only by intending a saying, with all of its effects of meaning, that a work in words can become a coherent piece of literature. Similarly, it is only by imagining how artistic intention grows through the work that a reader can get inside it” (34).

Poetry criticism should not be about the imposing of one aesthetic style over another, or one reviewer’s attempts to franchise his own set of poetics across a nation as if it were just another fast-food commodity. This cheapens all poetry and creates an atmosphere where literary magazines in Canada begin acting as mouthpieces for a few small presses who in turn publish those poets affiliated with those same magazines creating one giant feedback loop. Their audiences are essentially themselves.

Our criticism should be larger than that. It should not be the shallow pool of tribal politics.

As Kinzie states, to think about the intentions of a poet is one of the most important tasks for the contemporary reader for it rejoins “meaning to its fashion of saying” (34) which, any way you slice it, is an integral part of writing criticism.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Holiest of Holies

Well, at least to me it is. This is a broadside of Philip Levine’s poem “What Work Is” by Clamp Down Press. It features an original wood engraving by the artist Michael McCurdy. This is most definitely the crown jewel of my broadside collection. I bought it last summer from Bert Babcock and it arrived safe and sound at my home in Waterloo, ON shortly thereafter. Both the artist and the poet have signed it. I am hoping to get it framed over the holidays.

(This is number 90 of an edition limited to 225 copies)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Envy Of Other People’s Poems

As I said when I began this blog a few months ago, my purpose for starting it was to write about those poems by other poets that have always haunted me, that have wrestled with my own imagination, especially those with daemonic images I have carried with me for a long time out of their originating poems so I find I am never quite free of them.

Such poems are a “gift” as I talked about in my last post, but they can also be a burden if one finds himself lucky or unlucky enough to be a poet too, for there is always that spur of suggestion pricking the back of one’s intent, making it all too tempting to model one’s own poems on the inimitable, ineluctable qualities of another poet’s voice.

If one is serious about poetry, envy of other poets’ poems is unavoidable. This is how it should be.

However, if a poet merely apes or emulates another poet’s writing style and “clears [no] imaginative space” for themselves, that envy which sometimes leads to inspiration more often leads to modern derivatives. A culture of knockoffs. This is the premise of Harold Bloom's landmark work of poetry criticism The Anxiety of Influence.

I think part of the reason I have begun to talk candidly about other poet’s poems on this blog is to help me examine how much influence they may have had on my own writing. Certainly, one American poet whose poems have affected me abundantly is the poetry of Robert Hass, and one poem in particular from his latest collection Time And Materials has inspired this post. It is entitled, aptly enough, “Envy of Other People’s Poems”:

Envy of Other People's Poems

In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing.
It was only a sailor’s story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn’t hear—plungings of sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds—
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.

By Robert Hass

Not one to shy away from difficult subject matter, Hass goes right to the source and spring of all Western poetry: The Odyssey. But what makes Hass’s poem so enjoyable, quietly authentic and able to withstand the crushing weight of Homer’s legacy is the swerve he introduces into his poem through his creative misreading of the original source material.

In Hass’s version of the myth, the talismanic voices of the sirens are only a sailor’s story. It is the influence of other imaginations, and not the sirens themselves, which is the true agency of transformation in the poem. This is the harrowing music Odysseus must resist by lashing himself to his mast, and by extension, if we are to read anything into Hass’s choice of title, it is also the awful song modern poets must strain against in order to avoid having their poetic aspirations dashed upon the craggy rocks of an earlier poet’s genius.

If you are like me and find yourself a little jealous of Hass’s “Envy of Other People’s Poems”, pick up his latest collection Time and Materials published by Ecco.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Make Ready For Your Gifts

Last week, I was struck by the fervent admiration of Jacob McArthur Mooney’s championing of Deanna Young’s book Drunkard’s Path published by Gaspereau press on his blog Vox Populism, especially his concluding sentence which compares Young’s book “like a gift to a friend, as secret and personal as handmade soap. You remember such a gift, you feel compelled to.”

I found this idea of particular interest because I was already planning to do a post about the “gift economy” of poetry as described by Robert Hass in the video below which has had me thinking for well over a year now and has inspired at least a few poems in my new manuscript.

More than just another incarnation of the media-fueled bromide “paying it forward”, which suggests by its own words an economic exchange, a tallying of obligations based on what a person receives from others, the gift economy of poetry Hass is talking about in the video suggests there is no counting. No tallying. Poets simply write because somewhere along the line they were “gifted” even if they do not remember the exact circumstances.

It is this idea that put me in the mind of Mooney’s post, but also of a poem by the American poet Gerald Stern called "The Red Coal" from his book of the same name (and which you can see and hear him read here). As the poem is rather long, written in iambic tercets, and as I wish to keep my blog within the boundaries of fair use, I will quote only excerpts from Stern’s poem starting with the first section:

The Red Coal

Sometimes I sit in my blue chair trying to remember
what it was like in the spring of 1950
before the burning coal entered my life.

I study my red hand under the faucet, the left one
below the grease line consisting of four feminine angels
and one crooked broken masculine one

and the right one lying on top of the white porcelain
with skin wrinkled up like a chicken’s
beside the razor and the silver tap.

I didn’t live in Paris for nothing and walk
with Jack Gilbert down the wide sidewalks
thinking of Hart Crane and Apollinaire

and I didn’t save the picture of the two of us
moving through a crowd of stiff Frenchmen
and put it beside the one of Pound and Williams

unless I wanted to see what coals had done
to their lives too.

I think this first section of Stern’s poem is interesting for a few reasons. First, it invokes the growing burden of personal mortality as the poet examines his own hands in the kitchen and sees what both time and poetry—that catalyzing agent of change and knowledge represented by “the red coal” in the first stanza—have done to his life.

Secondly, the idea of poetry's gift economy is also woven into the poem’s dialectic here through Stern’s inclusion of Hart Crane and Apollinaire, Pound and Williams, who were gigantic figures in the younger poet’s imagination, and via their legacy the poet suggests “the burning coal entered my life”.

What is fascinating about this first section of the poem is that Stern acknowledges, yes, poetry is that rarest of gifts, as when he describes his lifelong friendship with Jack Gilbert, but he also seems to be asking himself whether he and Gilbert have been “gifted” in the sense Hass means it. Or is something else going on? He answers this question in the middle of the poem:

The coal has taken over, the red coal

is burning between us and we are at its mercy—
as if a power is finally dominating
the two of us; as if we’re huddled up

watching the black smoke and the ashes;
as if knowledge is what we needed and now
we have that knowledge. Now we have that knowledge.

In these lines, poetry is certainly a gift but it comes at the price of knowledge, and as our oldest surviving stories and myths can attest to, once knowledge is gained, we sometimes feel wretched for it can never be returned. In this sense, poetry or “the red coal” as Stern calls it, a clever reference to the classical Prometheus myth, is both a gift and a consequence. It is the language beneath language. What gives us a brief glimpse of the underlying pattern of our lives. It has the power to shape our experience providing us with exuberant joys but also well-deep sorrows for in the concluding lines of the poem Stern maintains it is the tears he is left with, most of all, as if this is what poetry had in mind all along:

what all along, the red coal had
in store for us as we moved softly,
either whistling or singing, either listening or reasoning,

on the grey sidewalks and the green ocean;
in the cars and the kitchens and the bookstores;
in the crowded restaurants, in the empty woods and libraries.

As Wendell Berry reminds us,"To lose the scar of knowledge is to renew the wound". This poem reminds us of that scar. If you like Gerald Stern’s poem "The Red Coal", you can find it in his book This Time: New and Selected Poems published by Norton.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dave Okum's illustration of "Tafelmusik"

My friend and colleague David Okum is one of my favorite people. He teaches high-school fine arts and media studies full-time while also managing to produce several graphic novels each year, most recently for Oxford University Press. But that is not all. Do you need a wall-sized oil painting of the Battle of the Planets characters to hang behind your sofa in your livingroom? A steam-punk laser gun with working laser? A flux capacitor with sound effects? If so, Dave is your man.

I swear he does not sleep. He is like a Terminator sent back from the future, not to take away mankind’s last hope, but to bring an appreciation of graphic design and comic book art to the huddled masses. He has also published several how-to draw comics books that have found readers across the globe. Anyways, his new year’s resolution last year was to produce a drawing a day on top of his other art commitments and recently he completed a really fine illustration of my poem “Tafelmusik” which appeared in my last book The Cold Panes of Surfaces. I love it and I thought I would share it with you. (Click on the image below to see the detail)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

More River Rock Press Broadsides

Here is the second broadside I designed and printed with my basement 6 x 10 Kelsey Excelsior last summer. The poem is called “Seeking Solace” by my wife Teresa Dunat-Banks and is from her award-winning chapbook Resident Alien published by Believe Your Own Press. This broadside turned out much nicer than my first one as it printed beautifully on the Canson Edition paper I purchased almost immediately with minimal trouble-shooting. I used the photopolymer plate-making services of Boxcar Press again to make the plate for this poem and was impressed how easy it was to register with my Boxcar Base that locks up easily in my Kelsey’s chase.

“Seeking Solace” A hand-printed broadside by Teresa Dunat-Banks (5 ¼ in. w by 10 in. h) typeset in Perpetua in a limited edition of 50 copies.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Open Season On The Real

Tim Bowling is a Canadian poet with extravagant gifts of association, high-powered technical dexterity, and a rich effortless voice all his own which have served him well over the course of eight volumes of poetry. His poetry is both regional and international in scope for he is equally comfortable talking about fishing for salmon in the Fraser River or writing eloquently about Thomas Hardy’s personal life, or even elegizing a forgotten collector of books, Harry Elkins Widener, who died with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, a man now the subject of the title poem in Bowling’s latest collection The Book Collector.

In his poems, memory, loss, and celebration all share bunk-space together, but always he goes back to poems about the Fraser River in British Columbia which appears to be a particular source of inspiration for Bowling. Although some poetry critics have viewed this repetition of subject matter as stasis, this is an inadequate view of Bowling’s private obsession with the Fraser River for it acts as a personal symbol or triggering subject for him.

It represents the ethos of his poetry; one that makes all those other poems he writes on different subjects possible. It helps to trigger his need for words and to create his inner life as Richard Hugo once remarked about such recurrent images an individual poet uses in his essay “The Triggering Town”:

Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering [subject] chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens. (15)

If you follow Hugo’s way of thinking, it is precisely because of Bowling’s continued private love affair with the Fraser River that ironically enables him to leap off into unknown poetic territory and to write all those other poems of his on diverse subjects. Although I love many of Bowling’s poems about the Fraser River, I thought I would veer away from its importance in his oeuvre by looking at “The Childhood Wall”, one of Bowling’s new poems from his collection The Book Collector:

The Childhood Wall

A child climbs the childhood wall
unscrews the glass eyes from
the mounted pheasants and mallards
and plays a game on kitchen tiles
over which a mother’s shadow
seeps like a tide. The stakes
are the rest of his life. For now,
he’s winning. His wild eye gazes
through the manufacture of the world
and sees another world – a man
at a desk who’s trying to rise
above the burnishments
of hunted autumns. The man
wants to see death as it is
to a child – remote, intimate,
the firelight in the glass eye
of the flocks a vitality
from the heart of flight.
Child’s play. Man’s work.
The bird the gun is always raised at.
Among the approximating instruments –
open season on the real.

What first came to mind after I read this poem a few times was the contrast of different worlds— the boy playing with the glass eyes of the stuffed birds and the taxidermist trying to approximate life—that coexist simultaneously within its lines. It is this overlapping of worlds which put me in the mind of an essay by Stanley Plumly called “The Abrupt Edge” where Plumly talks about the phrase the abrupt edge taken from ornithology to mean the edge between two different types of vegetation so birds have the advantage of “living in two worlds at once”(6). Plumly extends the idea into the realm of poetry by suggesting the abrupt edge is a doorway between endless juxtapositions:

The edge is the concept of the doorway, shadow and light, inside and outside, room and warlde’s room, where the density and variety of the plants that love the sun and the open air yield to the darker, greener, cooler interior world, at the margin. It is no surprise, then, that the greatest number of species as well as individuals live at the edge and fly the pathways and corridors and trails at the joining of the juxtaposition. (6)

In Bowling’s poem, the juxtaposition of two different worlds, the real and the imagined, is what creates its strong tension and dramatic underpinnings. It begins with the boy playing with the glass eyes of the birds on the kitchen tiles while his mother’s presence looms large nearby:

A child climbs the childhood wall
unscrews the glass eyes from
the mounted pheasants and mallards
and plays a game on kitchen tiles
over which a mother’s shadow
seeps like a tide. The stakes
are the rest of his life. For now,
he’s winning.

The phrase “childhood wall” in the first line immediately signals to the reader this is a recollection as do the lines “The stakes / are the rest of his life. For now, / he’s winning.” The idea of the abrupt edge, however, enters the poem in the next section as one of the glass eyes becomes the doorway through which this child sees the man whose hands first mounted these birds as trophies:

His wild eye gazes
through the manufacture of the world
and sees another world – a man
at a desk who’s trying to rise
above the burnishments
of hunted autumns.

This is where the element of transcendence arises in the poem as the boy imagines this other man as an artist trying to recreate the warm-blooded vitality of life from the cold matériel, the inertness of death. For the man to accomplish this task, however, he must see death as the child does, which is to say he must not recognize it; for instead, he must be negative capable, to borrow a phrase from Keats, and imagine amongst the birds “a vitality from the heart of flight”:

The man
wants to see death as it is
to a child – remote, intimate,
the firelight in the glass eye
of the flocks a vitality
from the heart of flight.

The juxtapositions that make this poem so remarkable—the child’s innocence and wonder versus the man’s dedication to his art; the stuffed bird as a symbol of life versus the always raised gun as a symbol of death—are made acute in the poem’s conclusion.

Child’s play. Man’s work.
The bird the gun is always raised at.
Among the approximating instruments –
open season on the real.

It is these several juxtapositions of different worlds which creates what I see as the abrupt edge in this poem. Or to put it another way—it is by using that image of a boy playing with glass eyes on the kitchen floor and then having the boy imagine the hard determined work of the taxidermist elsewhere that Bowling shows poetry for what it is, an act of transcendence, by declaring “open season on the real” in its last line.

If you enjoyed the poem “The Childhood Wall”, please pick up Tim Bowling’s latest volume of poetry The Book Collector published by Nightwood Editions.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

“A Science of Subjectivity” by Christian C. Thompson in the APR

Christian C. Thompson has a fascinating essay called “A Science of Subjectivity” in the November/December 2009 issue of the American Poetry Review. Thompson begins his essay with the following paragraph:

The standards for measuring numerical precision are not the same as those for judging literary accuracy. In ‘The Serious Artist,’ Pound says, ‘You can be wholly precise in representing a vagueness.’ This paradox is an example of an area of experience in which only forms of non-numerical expression are capable of precision. It is an instance within the domain of emotion. The numerical scientific method can measure physiological responses to different kinds of emotion, yet it cannot evoke emotion itself. Only the artistic manipulation of non-numerical images, symbols, or sounds can reproduce emotions. The forms of communication within the arts are not purely mathematical yet that does not mean their methods are not scientific.

Has your curiosity been piqued? Why don’t you go out to a newsstand or your local bookstore and pick up a copy of the APR for yourself? I especially love the concluding sentence of Thompson's essay: “The poet is a scientist responsible for expressing truths the other sciences are not capable of revealing.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Fiddlehead No.451 Autumn 2009

The autumn issue of The Fiddlehead, Atlantic Canada’s International Literary Journal, arrived at my door last week and I have to say I’ve been spending a lot of time with it ever since.

I think Ross Leckie, Jesse Ferguson, James Langer, and the whole staff are doing a terrific job. The American poet Norman Dubie, already a favorite poet of mine, has five poems inside.

Likewise, the Canadian poet Blaise Moritz, whose debut poetry collection Crown And Ribs I have enjoyed since it first came out two years ago, has two new sonnets in the magazine.

I also like poems in the issue by Shane Neilson, Hillel Schwartz and Paul Tyler, the latter two being new poets to me I had never heard of before. The international aspect of the magazine is also a big draw for me since I am already a wide reader of American poetry.

If you do not have a subscription already to The Fiddlehead, I would strongly urge you to get one based on this issue.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Brian Palmu Responds To Why He Snarks Books

Brian Palmu, poetry reviewer for Canadian Notes & Queries (where Zachariah Wells resides as the poetry reviews editor), writes “what the hell is wrong with some malicious fun? Gawd!” in a defense of why he snarks books.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Louise Glück’s “In The Plaza”

“It is so obviously the most miraculous thing to do” responds Louise Glück to the question of writing poetry in the short documentary film series The Poet’s View put together by the Academy of American Poets ( a great gift, by the way, for that "hard-to-buy-for-poet" in your family). I picked up her new book A Village Life published by FSG the other week and a few days later another copy of it arrived in the mail. It seems my good friend and fellow poet Paul Vermeersch had bought it too and finding it a “warm, open and generous collection”, he sent me a copy of it in the mail at his own expense. Good guy, that Paul.

In an earlier essay called "Staying News: A Defense of the Lyric" in Poets Teaching Poets: Self And The World, Joan Aleshire repudiates those who tagged Glück earlier in her career as “a confessional and idiosyncratic subjective poet” by explaining Glück “is interested in ‘gospel,’ not in ‘gossip,’ the experience itself, not the literal details.”

Aleshire goes on to talk about one of Glück’s more well known poems Mock Orange, calling it “an argument between two parts of the self: the one that needs to believe—in love, in union with another; and the one that knows such belief is self-deception, but will go on being deceived.”

This started me thinking about a new poem called “In The Plaza” from Glück’s new collection A Village Life. Here is the poem in its entirety:

In The Plaza

For two weeks he’s been watching the same girl,
someone he sees in the plaza. In her twenties maybe,
drinking coffee in the afternoon, the little dark head
bent over a magazine.
He watches from across the square, pretending
to be buying something, cigarettes, maybe a bouquet of flowers.

Because she doesn’t know it exists,
her power is very great now, fused to the needs of his imagination.
He is her prisoner. She says the words he gives her
in a voice he imagines, low-pitched and soft,
a voice from the south as the dark hair must be from the south.

Soon she will recognize him, then begin to expect him.
And perhaps then every day her hair will be freshly washed,
she will gaze outward across the plaza before looking down.
And after that they will become lovers.

But he hopes this will not happen immediately
since whatever power she exerts now over his body, over his emotions,
she will have no power once she commits herself—

she will withdraw into that private world of feeling
women enter when they love. And living there, she will become
like a person who casts no shadow, who is not present in the world;
in that sense, so little use to him
it hardly matters whether she lives or dies.

That same tension found in Mock Orange between sex and its resulting unfulfillment, the longing for union and the awareness that such union is never truly possible, situates itself again in this poem, but here Glück, in the role of omniscient narrator, conceives of a young couple in a plaza within her fictional village to play out this struggle between human desire and human folly.

In the poem’s beginning, the man is gazing at the young woman who is completely unaware of his interest in her which is the main source of her sexual allure and power over him:

Because she doesn’t know it exists,
her power is very great now, fused to the needs of his imagination.
He is her prisoner. She says the words he gives her
in a voice he imagines, low-pitched and soft,
a voice from the south as the dark hair must be from the south.

Glück lets readers know through her spare, almost clinical regard that the young woman will eventually “recognize him, then begin to expect him” and later “after that, they will become lovers”. This is when the young woman will lose her uniqueness, her great power over the man, for such a union, the consummation of desire, comes with a price—a lessening of one’s self:

she will have no power once she commits herself—

she will withdraw into that private world of feeling
women enter when they love. And living there, she will become
like a person who casts no shadow, who is not present in the world;

It is her separateness from the young man that he actually covets; her unconscious mind wholly unaware of his conscious assessment of her. It is the young woman’s essential mystery that he yearns to possess, that holds him prisoner, but once this is gone, shortly after he has possessed her, she becomes “so little use to him / it hardly matters whether she lives or dies.”

In Louise Glück’s poetry, sex and love are viewed as abandonment, the surrender of the self, but tempered by the knowledge that such surrender is always momentary, never lasting. In her essay, Joan Aleshire makes an interesting statement about the earlier poem Mock Orange but she could just as easily have been talking about this new poem: “The longing for union combined with the knowledge that union can’t be truly achieved makes the poem’s argument acutely complex and dramatic.”

If you liked this poem, treat yourself to Louise Glück’s new collection A Village Life.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

William S. Burroughs, from "A Review of the Reviewers"

"Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. (...) such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? (...) 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition."

- William S. Burroughs, "A Review of the Reviewers"

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reviews Editor of Quill & Quire Steven W. Beattie Responds To My Question of Book Reviewing Ethics But Not To The Question Of Tribal Poet-Critics

Steven W. Beattie has responded to my questioning the ethics of reviewing over at Quill & Quire, the magazine he edits for, after a debate turned nasty in the comments section of Bookninja between myself and Q&Q book reviewer Zachariah Wells. The post "On Reviewing" was about a potentially serious conflict of interest between a reviewer George Packer who allowed his personal disagreement with an author Mark Danner to enter into his review of Danner’s new book Stripping Bare The Body: Politics Violence War which appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

I agreed with the blogger Moby’s original post that book reviewers as journalists must approach the books they review both critically and objectively. Mr. Wells then made the derisive comment that an objective review is plot summary. After pressed further, Mr. Wells responded to Packer’s review of Danner’s book by saying, “why is there this burden of neutrality placed upon the review as a work of journalism?”

I found this to be an incredible bald-faced statement.

When I suggested to Mr. Wells if he does not believe in objectivity or ethical standards for book reviewing, then I would certainly like to hear from those magazine editors (Steven W. Beattie, Anita Lahey, Dan Wells) he writes reviews for because I now have serious reservations about his abilities as a reviewer for those magazines, his response was typical: ”Well, I have serious doubts about your ability to write poetry in this or any other country, so I guess we’re square on this ‘important … topic,’ dude. Toodles.”

To Steven W. Beattie’s credit, he has not taken his response to the level of ad hominem or defamation, although I do believe he has misrepresented what I originally said in my post (which for the record, you may read here) for I am not in favour of critical relativism of any sort. In fact, I think negative reviewing does have its place. What I am against, however, is poet-critics writing negative reviews as a kind of ‘terra-forming’ process to acclimatize the Canadian poetry landscape to one more hospitable to the type of poetry they themselves write or to satisfy a personal vendetta. This smacks of opportunism and conflict of interest. Anyways, I am more than happy to grant Steven W. Beattie his right of reply. This, of course, being the ethical thing to do in these circumstances.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Behold! The Evil "I"!

Every so often, I come across friends of mine or poet acquaintances who take on certain aesthetic stances which appear, at least to me, to be self-limiting or antithetical to how poems are really composed. Some will no longer write poems about poetic composition, or about place, or childhood, or gardens, or for the purpose of this post, the use of the personal pronoun “I”. Everybody is free to use whatever means that works for them but I think this kind of talk can be dangerous when it takes on an all-or-nothing orthodoxy.

I am more apt to agree with Margaret Atwood when she writes, ”I don’t want to know how I write poetry. Poetry is dangerous: talking too much about it, like naming your gods, brings bad luck…you may improve your so-called technique but only at the expense of your so-called soul.”

Thus at the expense of my so-called soul, I will simply state that for me writing in the first person point-of-view is a way to project my consciousness into a poem. It is a single grain of “the real”, what Richard Hugo might have called a known quantity in which all of the wonderful unknown quantities may collect around in a successful poem. If a poem is simply autobiography, then it is a kodak moment or a mere confession. However, if the “I” in the poem seeks to enlarge the self through thoughtful contemplation of a place or a person or a time period, something other than itself, then the “I” really acts as a “we”, and the poem suddenly takes on greater historical and cultural significance.

One of my favorite American poets Jack Gilbert talks briefly about the suspicion that has grown up around the usage of the first-person point-of-view in poetry in a fantastic interview in the January/February 2009 issue of the APR:

“And this whole absurdity about doubting the ‘I’ in poetry I don’t understand at all. The ‘I’ is the source of communication of things that matter. At least, that’s what I feel. I want to trust the speaker of the poem. It’s like biting into gold, to see if it’s true metal. Poets work by insight, not by cleverness. If not through inspiration, then through intuition.”

Needless to say, I am in complete agreement with Jack Gilbert about the use of the "I" in poetry. There is still gold in them hills.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Small Is Beautiful

Poets do not appear to be writing as many small lyric poems in Canada as they once did, probably out of a misguided notion that such poems are slight and without substance, or out of a fear they will be pounced upon, which is a terrible shame because they can be really quite lovely. The best small lyrics can be carried around in your head all day to be puzzled over like a riddle, or held up against the light like a polished gem.

In his essay Ritsos and the Metaphysical Moment, American poet and essayist Stephen Dobyns pinpoints what makes a small lyric poem truly excellent is the metaphysical connection it creates between what is known and what is unknown. Take, for instance, his consideration of the poem “Triplet” by Yannis Ritsos:

As he writes, without looking at the sea,
he feels his pencil trembling at the very tip—
it’s the moment when the lighthouses light up.

For Dobyns, the lighting of the lighthouses “is neither rational nor scientific. It is not governed by what we might think of as logical systems of cause and effect. It suggests a series of sympathetic affinities and a sensitivity to these affinities on the part of the poet.” He calls this metaphysical moment the introduction of a “mystery” but he could just as easily have described it as that aspect of the imagination or subconscious which suddenly enters a poem. Dobyns explains that this mystery “is communicated with the ripple effect of a stone dropped in a pond” and I quite agree.

One of my favorite poems that works like this one is by the fifteenth century Zen master Ikkyu as translated by Stephen Berg:

this ink painting of wind blowing through pines
who hears it?

For me, this poem ripples forward through time creating a metaphysical moment that connects the ancient poet to our present. The mystery he introduces is the larger question he poses which widens to include all poets who have ever felt "the intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem", as Roethke once described it.

Another favorite short lyric poem is by the American poetry master Hayden Carruth who passed away last year. He wrote many, many poems in every imaginable form including some marvelous haikus like this one:

Hey Basho, you there!
I’m Carruth. Isn’t it great,
so distant like this?

This poem always makes me smile because it is so full of the poet’s obvious delight but a real seriousness too. In contrast to Ikkyu’s poem, Carruth’s poem ripples backward to catch Basho unawares and they smile mischievously at one another across the great expanse of time. The metaphysical connection in this poem collapses past and present, influence and tradition, so that two poets can momentarily talk to one another as equal participants in poetry. How wonderful.

Lastly, one of my favorite collections of small lyrics is Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences by Jan Zwicky published by the terrific Gaspereau Press. Take, for instance, the ‘sympathetic affinities’ created in this poem:

Small Song

It’s the first lesson, loss.
Who hasn’t tried to learn it
at the hands of wind or thieves?
Yet my heart grows old
not knowing. Things:
their fragility, their faithfulness.
Who will love you now?

If loss is indeed the first lesson, what saves the poet from the deeper sadness that human existence is finite and our lives impermanent? The answer is the fragility and faithfulness of things. The poet has grown old having not learned loss because the writing of poetry is also an act of renewal. Things may fade from one’s life but ultimately the imagination brings new things to take their place. The question posed at the end of the poem “Who will love you now?” ripples out to include everyone and invokes what happens at the moment of writing. The poet has asked a question of the imagination and is waiting for an answer. This is the metaphysical moment. The world of sympathetic affinities. I imagine it to be the moment the lighthouses light up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Aesthetic Tribalism in Canada

In the July/August 2009 issue of the American Poetry Review, Tony Hoagland wrote a provocative essay about Dean Young and his emulators which has started me thinking about the various poetry camps we see here in Canada. In a section of his essay called “Followers”, Hoagland writes, “We are living in a time of poetic explosion; the university creative writing systems have not just trained a lot of young poets in literary craft, they have fermented these young artists in a broth of language theory, critical vocabulary and aesthetic tribalism, which the age apparently demands.”

It was the phrase “aesthetic tribalism” which jumped out at me because we are seeing this on a number of fronts here in Canada: the new formalist movement, the experimental avant-garde set, the smart-alecky surrealists, and, of course, the shadowy cabal of lyric-narrative poets which have been apparently running everything, including the CBC, since the 1970s. I jest.

In some ways, I think aesthetic tribalism in Canada is just an outgrowth of the old garrison mentality, a catchy term first coined by Northrop Frye. Today, poets choose their “forts” not based on place but based on the like-minded people they find within them. They serve as communities and communities are necessary to all poets.

I think where the real problem lies, however, is when there is little or no interaction between these various groups. I say this for once the doors of these gated communities are thrown open, the more partisan among us panic. Seeing the world outside as either indifferent or entirely hostile towards poetry, they form a kind of press gang mentality looking for fellow initiates or sycophants, cannabalizing all those who dare not agree with their point of view.

This is especially of concern when this becomes an entrenched attitude as it has been in recent years amongst some reviewers. Most poetic forms are arbitrary and anyone who attacks or trivializes another poet’s work for not working within the same set of poetic conventions or formal restraints as themselves is either a propagandist or a pretender. Such talk simply propagates the pointless form versus content argument. Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet? How well have they used image, language, metaphor, thought, musicality, emotional sensation to embody one’s consciousness within a poem, or to unfold one’s human experience, or to manifest a desire to transcend one’s circumstances, or to break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large?

Whatever the goal is of the particular poet, I think it is the duty and responsibility of any reviewer to understand how the poetry is working before passing judgment on its merits. That way, even if a book is reviewed negatively, the review will serve as a dialogue and not merely as a shallow denouncement.

We need more honest reviewers in this country who will read poetry, all poetry, with this kind of high-minded seriousness. What we do not need is anymore influence-peddlers or favour-traders or ass-kissers. We get the critical culture we demand of our critics, and of our magazines, for that matter. Besides, there are no winners when aesthetic tribalism attaches itself to critical circles. Look at any anthology from thirty years ago and you will see how quickly literary reputations die and fade away.

Ultimately, aesthetic tribalism is a useful term to describe a series of smaller communities found within the larger poetry community in Canada, but as a nationalist pursuit found within the book reviewing status quo, it is about the homogenization of literary culture, and robs poetry of its natural tendencies toward innovation and change.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Russell Thornton's "Brothers"

I first came to the poetry of Canadian poet Russsell Thornton through a poem called The Beginning of Stars from his wonderful book A Tunisian Notebook published by Seraphim Editions. I find the ending lines especially lovely:

The body is the wine flask and the wine;
the lover is the veil on the beloved’s face.
And what we hide within, and hides from us
through all our hours of light, seems dark, and yet,
now in the dark as in the one centre
of the fusions that are stars, is pure time,
when the bodies we are wake in their day,
and we taste that day’s wine, that endless beginning
of nameless fate, when we give ourselves up
to our lives, and enter another life.

This poem evoked in me that wonderful mixture of awe and envy that the more bold among us would call inspiration. Since that first encounter with his poetry, I have come to know Russell Thornton as a poet who writes some of the most skillfully crafted lyrics in Canada, poems that seek to transcend realism, but also a writer of expansive, longer-lined “story” poems which remind me a lot of the Italian poet Cesare Pavese. Take for instance, Thornton’s poem Brothers which first appeared in his book House Built of Rain published by Harbour publishing.


One spent nights on the junior high school roof.
My mother had kicked him out when the police told her
he was selling drugs, and before that, selling tires
he stole from gas stations. One stole a teacher’s car
from the senior high school parking lot at lunchtime,
got a case of beer, and drove around drunk all afternoon,
then smashed the car’s front fender when he reparked it.
One threw a Molotov cocktail into a teacher’s home
when the teacher accused him of copying an essay.
The same one beat up his P.E. teacher. One beat up
the leader of a gang. With that gang after him,
he started his own gang, he himself its only member,
and wore a red bandana and red old lady’s jacket
to school every day. No one along the gauntlet
that had been set up to stop him touched him.
Each one headed to “alternate school.” A year or two,
and the school was the bar, the drunk tank, jail.
But each one changed, and turned himself around.
Here we all are, suddenly in our mid and late thirties,
with everyone fooled. Clean-living, clean-looking,
all of us successful and good middle-class boys.
One a CEO, one a president of marketing…all
with pretty partners, nice cars, nice paid-for houses.
And smilers and jokers around a dinner table.
Until something comes out after a beer or glass of wine
too many, a note in a voice, and we are all there in a row
and looking to either side of ourselves at each other,
trying to see the thing looking out of our faces
as out of cold, dark trees it stands at the edge of
yet blends in. Each of us knowing it is there, each of us
ready to kill it, even when we know it is one of us—
though none of us knows which of us it is, only
that it is there and it is a lone, long-absent animal,
starving and afraid and ready to kill, and our father.

In an essay called “In Search of the Real Thing” from his book of essays Hunting Men, the American poet Dave Smith asks “Is there, then, a ‘real thing’, a poem independent of vagaries and fashion, a poem that fuses the felt life and percolating significance always shadow to life’s events, a poem in which the self stands forth like Whitman stating ‘I am the man, I suffered, I was there’? The poem of the ‘real thing’ will have to embrace the moving targets any man or woman is in time.”

I think this is exactly the kind of poem Russell Thorton is writing here. He takes readers deep inside the felt experience of his life and if there is a moving target in the poem, it is the implacable voice of conscience and awareness, diligently sifting facts and memories, trying to create or, at least, to restore a pattern of significance that will make this poem somehow true, that will make it, in fact, “the real thing”.

In the beginning lines, we learn the brothers as teenagers engage in all manner of self-destructive behaviour – selling drugs, getting drunk and stealing cars, throwing a molotov cocktail into a teacher’s home – as if it were this undercurrent of anger and rage, and not family ties at all, that connects them. This behaviour changes, however, for the boys are able to make the difficult transition into men later in life with their moral characters intact:

But each one changed, and turned himself around.
Here we all are, suddenly in our mid and late thirties,
with everyone fooled. Clean-living, clean-looking,
all of us successful and good middle-class boys.

But what about that “percolating significance always shadow to life’s events” Dave Smith was talking about earlier? Thornton hints it is still there breathing, lurking on the peripheries of the mens’ shared history in the lines:

Until something comes out after a beer or glass of wine
too many, a note in a voice, and we are all there in a row
and looking to either side of ourselves at each other,
trying to see the thing looking out of our faces

It is only in the poem’s conclusion that we discover what this percolating significance actually is along with the poet: “ that is there and it is a lone, long-absent animal, / starving and afraid and ready to kill, and our father.”

I can tell you unequivocally this poem is the “real thing” because I have read it many times to troubled boys in my classes who find themselves feelingly impersonated within its lines. To say they like this poem would be an understatement. They are changed. Please go seek out Russell Thorton’s books The House Built of Rain and The Human Shore, both published by Harbour Publishing.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Academy of American Poets Audio Archive

I am a big fan of the Academy of American Poets audio archive which contains hundreds of live recordings. I have bought several cds of favorite poets from Philip Levine to W.S. Merwin to Louis Gluck and I play them regularly in my vehicle as I go to and from work.

What strikes me most about each of these recordings besides the sheer excellence of the poetry and the delight of listening to the voices of poets I hugely admire, is the care in which each of these poets is introduced to an audience. Whether it be Gregory Orr introducing Larry Levis or Stanley Plumly introducing Philip Levine, each of the hosts goes well beyond a simple run-down of the poet’s biography or bibliographical information but contextualizes why each poet is important and clearly expresses what it is about the poetry itself that is remarkable and unique.

I guess what I find both refreshing and rewarding about this type of introduction of a poet to an audience is that the poetry, not the person, takes center stage.

I think we do see this kind of care and precision here in Canada at the readings for the Griffin Awards, for instance, but I would love for this idea to migrate outward to other reading series across our country. It would go along way to thawing relations between poets with different sets of poetic concerns and as a consequence, we as a nation would benefit from our poetry being taken much more seriously by all poets in our community - something I believe needs to happen first if we are to expect other countries to take our poetry seriously too.

If you would like to purchase cds from the The Academy of American poets, please order them here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

John Koethe's "From The Porch"

Every small town I have ever lived in, and I have lived in several, was divided by a Main Street. Every time I think of Stayner, ON, the town I grew up in as a teenager, the first lines of “Proem” by Mark Strand come to mind: “’This is my Main Street,‘ he said as he started off / That morning, leaving the town to the others,“.

I remember feeling back then as if life was happening somewhere else in larger cities to people far more interesting and heroic and cultured than me. I couldn’t wait to move away. That is why I find the presence of that town, that childhood landscape, over and over, so peculiar in many of my poems.

In a book of essays called The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, he contends that all private poets have certain triggering subjects “which ignite your need for words” and he uses the example of one’s hometown.

Larry Levis clarified this idea further in a brilliant essay about place and childhood in which he very astutely suggests the lion’s share of English poetry since Milton has been “preoccupied with the loss of Eden” and that poems about childhood landscapes compensate for a dramatic shift in our poetry away from this very public myth to a private one. Our hometowns, the places where we grew up, stand in for “Eden” and, if they are good poems, testify “not merely to private loss, exile and knowledge, but to a collective and generational loss, exile, and knowledge.” In essence, it is because we can never go back to those places as they existed that we write the poems that we do.

Here is a poem by John Koethe from his book Falling Water that captures this very idea:

From The Porch

The stores were bright, and not too far from home.
The school was only a half mile from downtown,
A few blocks from the Oldsmobile dealer. In the sky,
The airplanes came in low towards Lindbergh Field,
Passing overhead with a roar that shook the windows.
How inert the earth must look from far away:
The morning mail, the fantasies, the individual days
Too intimate to see, no matter how you tried:
The photos in the album of the young man leaving home.
Yet there was always time to visit them again
In a roundabout way, like the figures in the stars,
Or a life traced back to its imaginary source
In an adolescent reverie, a forgotten book—
As though one’s childhood were a small midwestern town
Some forty years ago, before the elm trees died.
September was a modern classroom and the latest cars,
That made a sort of futuristic dream, circa 1955.
The earth was still uncircled. You could set your course
On the day after tomorrow. And children fell asleep
To the lullaby of people murmuring softly in the kitchen,
While a breeze rustled the pages of Life magazine,
And the wicker chairs stood empty on the screened-in porch.

- John Koethe

The poem opens with some fixed details or knowns about the town Koethe grew up in, “The stores were bright, and not far from home. / The school was only a half mile from downtown, / A few blocks from the Oldsmobile dealer.” These images are the initial glue that holds the poem firmly together but rather quickly Koethe moves away from them allowing his imagination to take flight which helps to create the immense distance he is looking to introduce as when he says, “How inert the earth must look from far away: / The morning mail, the fantasies, the individual days / Too intimate to see, no matter how you tried:”.

Next, he reminds readers that this poem is a myth, perhaps not a public one, but a private one as profound as any of classical mythology, which he makes a connection to in the following lines, “Yet there was always time to visit them again / In a roundabout way, like the figures in the stars, / Or a life traced back to its imaginary source / In an adolescent reverie, a forgotten book— / As though one’s childhood were a small midwestern town / Some forty years ago, before the elm trees died.”

Finally in the poem’s conclusion, Koethe acknowledges that although he can faintly hear the familiar voices he associates with that period of his life, those people and those times are gone, “To the lullaby of people murmuring softly in the kitchen, / While a breeze rustled the pages of Life magazine, / And the wicker chairs stood empty on the screened-in porch”. If you enjoyed this poem, please pick up Koethe’s latest book Ninety-fifth Street published by Harper Perennial.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

TNQ and The Literary Type

The New Quarterly has started their own blog called The Literary Type and people like me are just now starting to discover it. The New Quarterly has always been a magazine dedicated to publishing new and established Canadian voices. They publish a lot of poetry, short fiction and essays that speak powerfully about what it means to be a writer in Canada, and some work which occasionally infuriates me, which in truth is probably an indicator of a well-rounded, even-keeled literary magazine. I think the editors are doing a really great job which is why TNQ is one of several Canadian magazines that I subscribe to regularly. Check out their keen new t-shirts which I am still meaning to pick up for my wife and myself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Pope of Hess Village

My good friend and Hamilton poet Adam Getty has a reading tomorrow night in Toronto, part of Edward Nixon’s livewords series, which I will be attending. Adam is one of the first readers of all my poems and his thoughts on Canadian poetry are always lively. Both philosophical and provocative, his latest book of poetry Repose is an exploration of how employment impacts our lives and our freedoms. Adam will be reading along side Sonja Greckol and Blair Trewartha. The address is Sage West, 924 College Street and it is from 7:30-10:30 pm at night. Don’t miss it!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Towards The Within

I wanted to write a little note about how much I enjoyed Don Domanski’s essay “Poetry and the Sacred” in Arc 61 that came out last year. The ideas of mindfulness and of poetry as a transcendent act are concerns found in my own work, especially in the poems from my last book The Cold Panes of Surfaces, but such ideas can sometimes fall on deaf ears.

Nowadays, poets of my particular vintage divide their time between writing poems and puffing themselves up on their web pages, or padding their CVs, or else writing the now ubiquitous snark, see here and here, that tears down the work of some senior poet in this country, the mythological implications of such attacks, it seems, totally lost on them.

It is also disheartening to find so many young people now concerned with only the surface effects of poetry, as if a poem is nothing more than a kind of puzzle or arithmetic equation that can be easily solved by counting syllables or by employing a formal rhyme scheme. What is even more troubling is to see how many are overly concerned with their own sense of prominence. Unfortunately, our culture encourages such poets by telling them it is far better to be a face on a billboard, an image in a magazine, or a name on a page than a flesh and blood person quietly concerned with the long standing relationships between the spiritual and the corporeal, consciousness and reality, imagination and metaphor.

I expect it is no wonder we have raised a generation of young poets now happily posing for photos with microphones in hand and indulging in all manners of poetic trappings without ever exploring in any truly meaningful fashion those hidden sources that animate our lives and our poetry. In fact, a good many of them would ridicule this very idea for it has become quite fashionable to do so.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

River Rock Press Broadsides

Well, I am turning forty this year so for my mid-life crisis, I elected not to buy the El Camino to “soup-up” in my garage or to start training for an Iron Man triathalon but to invest in a small reconstituted letterpress from Don Black Linecasting. Perhaps not as macho as the first options, but infinitely more practical.

Here are a few pictures of my Kelsey Excelsior 6 x10 and a broadside of a poem I wrote and printed on it called “The Old Life”. I’m not using hard type because it is too expensive and I do not have the space in my house for a large letterpress shop. I’ve opted instead to go with the photopolymer plate-making services of Boxcar Press. I bought a Boxcar Base that fits easily in my Kelsey’s chase and it has allowed me to design my broadsides using Quark without limiting me to fonts, font sizes, or spot illustrations. As I am not planning to do a lot of printing, this was easily the best option for me as the photopolymer plates ink beautifully!

Sorry about the picture quality but I still need to run out and get a tripod. Broadside projects looming on the horizon include poems by Adam Getty, Carleton Wilson and Paul Vermeersch. I also plan to hit up Todd Boss and Al Moritz for a broadside if they are game.

Chris Banks, our hero and co-proprietor of River Rock Press, printing up broadsides in the basement.

"The Old Life" A hand-printed broadside by Chris Banks (4.5 in. h x 8.5 in. w) in a limited-edition of 50 copies.


Taking a cue from Edward Byrne’s wonderful blog One Poet’s Notes, which offers crackerjack analysis and recommended readings on contemporary poetry, and from Lemonhound’s ongoing guest blogger series on how poems work, I have decided to post my impressions about poems I have especially enjoyed over the years. For starters, a poem I find myself thinking about all the time is Reginald Gibbon’s “Madrid” which I found in his new and selected poems Sparrow. I first read this poem three or four years ago but I often go back to my bookshelf to seek it out as it still haunts me. Here is the poem in its entirety:


Through stone portals and under colonnades
into the old central plaza in cold December
came gypsies and outcasts with green branches.

They had broken off boughs of pine and spruce
along their minor routes to the city.
They had stripped copses and groves and plantations.

They camped on the cobbles, they lived in tents and wagons.
They sold the branches and a few small trees; some begged.
Little fires flickered in their artificial forest.

They seemed to have brought with them into the plaza
the stillness they had torn out of the woods,
as if to sustain the peace the city had torn out of them.

Overheard, their voices sounded raw and smoky, used up.
But late, rising above the noise of cars and of children
playing at all hours, there might be a guitar and singing.

Catching my coat sleeve, their beautiful dirty children
improvised intricacies of delay, so as to praise and hawk
the scent of green, so as to implore and beguile.

I was outside their thoughts, I was outside their ways.
We judged each other, I bought the wasted pine boughs.
The children stole my money, I stole their image.
Now we are all outside that time, we are all inside this language.

- by Reginald Gibbons

What I think I like most about this poem, besides its passionate engagement with a foreign city like Madrid through visceral images like “Little fires flickered in their artificial forest”, or its fusion of sound and meaning through noteworthy alliteration like “Catching my coat sleeve, their beautiful dirty children / improvised intricacies of delay”, is its creation of a dual consciousness and its use of time.

First, we enter the poem with the speaker, as if through the speaker’s shared “I” and the shared attention of we, the listeners, the past is delivered up momentarily whole. However, midway through the poem, we become suspicious that the time-fabric of the poem is not a solid unbroken line afterall but a stitch-work of stolen moments as when Gibbons writes “They seemed to have brought with them into the plaza / the stillness they had torn out of the woods, / as if to sustain the peace the city had torn out of them.” It begins to feel as if these gypsies, and the speaker, exist outside of time’s confines.

These suspicions are confirmed in the poem’s last lines “The children stole my money, I stole their image. / Now we are all outside that time, we are all inside this language.” as it becomes clear this is only a reproduction of time and of feeling. All at once, there is the speaker experiencing the historical moment in the poem but also the mournful voice of the poet elegizing that moment which happened long, long ago. As Tess Gallagher eloquently puts it in her essay “The Poem As Time Machine” in Claims For Poetry: “This is the sadness of the photograph: knowing even as you look, it was not like this, though it was. You stand in the “was” of the present moment and you die a little with the photograph.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Happy Birthday Hannah!

Hannah Paige Banks turns one year old today!

"Make ready for your gifts. Prepare. Prepare." - Theodore Roethke

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Contemplative, the Narrative and the Lyrical

Well, I have reluctantly joined the blogosphere after swearing off blogging for years. I am a luddite when it comes to blogging, wikis, texting, and tweets so you will have to forgive me if I just ease in slowly. Even, my students at school cannot comprehend how I can go a single day, let alone an entire high-school English class, let alone five whole minutes, without ever making use of a cell phone. They look at me with a mixture of pity and bewilderment, as if they really, truly, do not understand how I am able to function without one.

I guess what I am trying to say is that we live in changing times and as such, I feel it is time to start writing about the kind of poetry that first drew me to writing poems. The contemplative, the narrative and the lyrical. Such poems are not always in favour here in Canada but I hope to remedy that.

Honestly, I am not a big fan of blogging so I don’t imagine I will be doing much of it. I have always thought blogging in Canada was more about profile-building than about any real discusssion or dialogue between poets. The early days of Bookninja were promising when it felt like George Murray had invited over a handful of poets from across the country to hang-out in his “backyard internet fort” and talk at length about poetry. I hang out there much less now that the fort has become more of a large mall.

I suppose there are places on the web where people are still openly talking about poetry that delights them. I know Sina Queyras over at Lemonhound is really trying to keep lines of communication running, pointing to favorite poets, poems, and pop culture relics, the very things that give her pleasure, while also handing the reins to guest bloggers from time to time to write about their favorite poets or poems. I think this is admirable. I also appreciate Paul Vermeersch’s blog for introducing poets, especially young people, to books they might not otherwise have heard of and for making strong arguments with real candor for the kind of poems he enjoys reading.

As for my own blog, I intend to use this space largely to talk about those poets and poems, both American and Canadian, I find most beguiling, haunting, worldly, and poignant. I also plan to post some photos of my broadside projects, which I have been printing on my Kelsey 6 x10 letterpress, and a miscellany of antiquarian books and broadsides I have been collecting over the last fifteen years.

That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by my little fort.