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In the spirit of the holidays, here is a poem of mine called "Darkening" from my unpublished manuscript Winter Cranes.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.