Thursday, December 30, 2010

Edward Hirsch’s “Execution”

Above my computer desk where I sit and do the lion-share of my writing hangs an essay written by Gregory Orr called “The Making of Poems” which has strongly influenced my thinking about the uses of poetry. I try to read lots of essays about poetry, and recently have endeavored to write my own poetic commentaries through this blog, but where Orr’s essay differs from most prose written about poetry is in the simplicity and insistence of his message.

He writes in his first sentence: “I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive.”

God knows no poet in the current climate in Canada would write something so revelatory and unfashionable for fear of internet finger-wagging, but deep down beneath our stony demeanors and gold-plated bullshit detectors, I think most of us still believe in the ultimate truth of this statement.

We would just never say so on the record.

Indeed, that word surviving has become troublesome in Canada because of its all too obvious associations with Margaret Atwood’s landmark study of Canadian literature Survival published in the 1970’s. The words survival and surviving have become a kind of shorthand for a prescriptive new generation of critics to dismiss something as purely sentimental, plain, or uninspired.

Now, I am not suggesting that poems that are clearly sentimental, plain or uninspired are nowhere to be found. Look anywhere in Canada, or the world for that matter, and you will find poems that span the whole spectrum from self-indulgent twaddle to self-effacing ostentation being written and being written badly.

However, I suppose what I am saying is that despite the various peregrinations Canadian poetry has undertaken in the last four decades, and no matter how aestheticized or self-divided the debate has become in recent years, poetry’s openness to human experience and its ability to translate that experience into something meaningful should never be forgotten. We forget this truth at our own peril.

Despite what some others would have us believe, reading a poem is not simply a surface tallying of technique, as there is always a shared emotional aspect to any worthy poem. At least, this is what I intuit from any poem that stays longer with me than the time it takes to read it.

Take for example, a poem by Ed Hirsch I first read in his book The Night Parade several years ago and can now be found among the pages of his new and selected poems The Living Fire which came out with Knopf earlier this year (click this link for a terrific interview with Hirsch).

For several months after purchasing Hirsch’s new book, I found myself thumbing through its pages looking for the poem “Execution” printed below:


The last time I saw my high school football coach

He had cancer stenciled into his face

Like pencil marks from the sun, like intricate

Drawings on the chalkboard, small x's and o's

That he copied down in a neat numerical hand

Before practice in the morning. By day's end

The board was a spiderweb of options and counters, 

Blasts and sweeps, a constellation of players

Shining under his favorite word, Execution,

Underlined in the upper right-hand corner of things.

He believed in football like a new religion

And had perfect unquestioning faith in the fundamentals 

Of blocking and tackling, the idea of warfare

Without suffering or death, the concept of teammates 

Moving in harmony like the planets — and yet

Our awkward adolescent bodies were always canceling

The flawless beauty of Saturday afternoons in September, 

Falling away from the particular grace of autumn,

The clear weather, the ideal game he imagined.

And so he drove us through punishing drills 

On weekday afternoons, and doubled our practice time,

And challenged us to hammer him with forearms,

And devised elaborate, last-second plays — a flea-

Flicker, a triple reverse — to save us from defeat. 

Almost always they worked. He despised losing 

And loved winning more than his own body, maybe even

More than himself. But the last time I saw him

He looked wobbly and stunned by illness,

And I remembered the game in my senior year

When we met a downstate team who loved hitting

More than we did, who battered us all afternoon

With a vengeance, who destroyed us with timing

And power, with deadly, impersonal authority,

Machine-like fury, perfect execution.

There is much to love about this poem: the hard-shifting rhythms, the keen perceptions and the perfectly lucid imagery. But this is not why for me I find the poem sufficiently affecting. It is also the intensity of feeling and reverential treatment of Hirsch’s own life experience, the elegizing of an old high-school coach as a subject of monumentality, which affirms the poet’s life as meaningful and the poem, an act of self-creation, as his only defense against the “impersonal authority, / Machine-like fury” of reality and death which are constantly attempting to annihilate him.

It should be said that part of poetry’s undeniable currency is in the connection it creates between poet and audience. This poem is no exception, of course, as is it reminds me of my old high-school vice-principal Ken Leyshon who was also the school’s football coach. I heard later that he died of cancer in his retirement which was troubling for me as he was the single-most physically fit person I had ever seen.

To quote from the same essay I began with, Gregory Orr writes: “An additional miracle comes to me as the maker of poems: Because poems can be shared between poet and audience, they also become a further triumph over human isolation.” I believe this unequivocally after twenty years of attempting to write poems, but I understand that others do not see it quite this way and wish to keep art separate from reality out of a belief that it makes it easier to judge a poem’s merits. To them, I say again: the writing of all poetry is personal and reducing it to mere aesthetics is empty rhetoric. A poet who truly wishes to introduce either the beautiful or the ugly, the profound or the problematic, into a poem can only do so by adding his own personal experience and private feeling to impress the language.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Basho from The Knapsack Notebook

“Within this temporal body composed of a hundred bones and nine holes there resides a spirit which, for lack of an adequate name, I think of as windblown. Like delicate drapery, it may be torn away and blown off by the least breeze. It brought me to writing poetry many years ago, initially for its own gratification, but eventually as a way of life. True, frustration and rejection were almost enough to bring this spirit to silence, and sometimes pride brought it to the brink of vanity. From the writing of the very first line, it has found no contentment as it was torn by one doubt after another. This windblown spirit considered the secularity of court life at one point: at another, it considered risking a display of its ignorance by becoming a scholar. But its passion for poetry would not permit either. Since it knows no other way than the way of poetry, it has clung to it tenaciously.

Saigyô in poetry, Sôgi in linked verse, Sesshû in painting, Rikyû in the tea ceremony—the spirit that moves them is one spirit. Achieving artistic excellence, each holds one attribute in common: each remains attuned to nature throughout the four seasons. Whatever is seen by such a heart and mind is a flower, whatever is dreamed is a moon. Only a barbarian mind could fail to see the flower; only an animal mind could fail to dream a moon. The first task for each artist is to overcome the barbarian or animal heart and mind, to become one with nature. “ (53)

Translation excerpted from Almost Paradise: New and Selected Poems & Translations by Sam Hamill published by Shambhala press.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Tale of Two Legacies

If you have a poetic bent and you are so inclined, I urge you to donate to two worthy fundraisers. I recently donated some money to the Al Purdy A-frame Trust which is attempting to preserve the house Canadian poet Al Purdy built near Ameliasburg, ON on the shores of Roblin Lake where he wrote most of his over thirty poetry collections. The building needs to be upgraded to current building codes but the long-term hope is that the property will be given an Ontario Heritage designation and an endowment will preserve the property as a poet-in-residence retreat. I am, quite frankly, a poet because I discovered Al Purdy's poems when I was sixteen so making a donation was an easy decision for me.

Another worthy fundraiser The Merwin Conservancy is strikingly similar to the A-Frame Trust in that it, too, is attempting to preserve the house and property of another poet W.S. Merwin. The Merwin Conservancy mission statement reads as follows: “Preserving the living legacy of W.S. Merwin, his home and palm forest, for future study and retreat for botanists and writers. Nineteen acres of over 800 species of palm lovingly planted by Merwin over 30 years; and a home that reflects the cultural richness and sustainability practices of one of America’s most honored poets.”

Like Al Purdy, W.S. Merwin helped to design and build the house that sits on his property where he has chosen to write poetry for over thirty years. Both men also decided early on to be poets first and foremost without compromise.

I have donated money to both causes because the words of both of these poets have made me think about the world differently. A simple reason perhaps but one that suits me fine. If you are sitting on the fence about donating funds, please consider this passage about philanthropy from Lynne Twist found on The Merwin Conservancy’s online donation page:

“Everyone wants to contribute their money to make a difference in the world-whether they have only a few Indian rupees or Zambian kwacha or they have millions of yen or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Philanthropy at any level enables people to get back in touch with that relationship with money. In philanthropic interactions, we can return to the soul of money: money as carrier of our intentions, money as energy, and money as currency for love, commitment and service; money as an opportunity to nourish those things we care most about.” – Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Larry Levis "The Sacred Home"

I have wanted to write a post for some time about the power of place, its amplitude and special relationship to poets, as this is of concern in my own poetry. For instance, the landscape of Stayner, On, insinuates itself in many of my poems which is strange when you think I lived there for only four years before going off to university. Why not Bancroft where I lived for eight years? That country north of Belleville?

Certainly I have wonderful memories of those times and experiences, but it was my teen years where I first began to feel separate from my surroundings, and to think about my own special individual position with regards to the rest of the world. In other words, this is when, for me, the incipient writer was born, and yet, it was still a time of relative ease where actual responsibilities were few and far between, something of vital importance if a place is to act as both a spiritual and a physical touchstone for one’s poetry. Larry Levis, whose own poetry is woven together by consciousness and place, wrote a fascinating essay called “Eden and My Generation” where he addressed the aesthetics of place in modern poetry:

This involvement with place, from Romantic and modernist poets to the present, has come in part I think because a poet wants to locate himself or herself somewhere, to be “a man (or woman) speaking to men (or women)”; it is also a way of testifying to the demand and limitations of lyrical experience, to say “I was the man, I suffered, I was there.” The lyric wishes to be antidogmatic, nondidactic, honest. Williams articulated the idea this way: “It is in the wide range of the local only that the general can be trusted for its one unique quality, its universality.” And “the local” is that vestige of the “oceanic” which Freud says we carry within ourselves, withered, out of childhood. And it is there, in the place recalled by the poet, the sacred home.” (47)

I highlight this excerpt because it calls attention to both the local and the universal, and how they become conjoined through a poet’s attempts at locating his experiences, with all the insoluble problems of his specific historical existence, as Auden would have put it, in some place that is considered both sacred and secular to him. I am thinking of a Canadian poet like Al Purdy whose poetry was naturally drawn to place and places, especially Roblin Lake where in July of 1957 Al and Eurithe Purdy built a tiny A-frame cottage where they lived for 43 years. Take, for instance, the end of his much loved poem “Roblin’s Mills”:

Those old ones
you can hear sometimes on a rural party line
when the copper wires
sing before the number is dialed and
then your own words stall some distance
from the house you said them in
lost in the 4th concession
or dimension of wherever
what happened still happens
a lump in your throat
an Adam’s apple half
a mile down the road
permits their voices
to join living voices
and float by
on the party line sometimes
and you hang up then
so long now—

The speaker here excavates the past by describing personal autobiographical details of Roblin’s Mills, struck suddenly by the difference between how things are and how things were, and perhaps still ought to be, which testifies to his own feelings of alienation and isolation from the sacred place of his childhood. A later poem entitled “Roblin’s Mills [II]” is a variation on the same theme as Purdy tries to reconcile the protean nature of place with the nostalgic landscape of his memory:

The black millpond
holds them
movings and reachings and fragments
the gear and tackle of living
under the water eye
all things laid aside
but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on

Here, he uses the image of the millpond as an eye; however, it is not the eye that stares blankly outward, but the one that stares inward, containing all the contradictions and materiality of a past that bears little or no resemblance to his individual present. No other poet in Canada worked so well and so long in this tradition, with perhaps the notable exceptions of John Newlove and Patrick Lane, than Al Purdy whose poetry dominated the Canadian landscape in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Purdy was perhaps a victim of his own wild success because his poetry spawned open imitation which led to an awful lot of “post-card” poetry written about place in Canada that was superficially decorative— I am thinking of the faintly picturesque over the truly profound— which later made it attractive for Purdy’s critics to throw his work into the same category.

The American poet Hayden Carruth also bears witness to the natural world and the need to locate one’s self within it, but his poetry is not always so autobiographical. One of my favorite poems of this kind by Carruth is the poem “Abandoned Ranch, Big Bend” which casts its alienated human figures as the dispossessed without any connection to the land their forbears once tirelessly worked:

Abandoned Ranch, Big Bend

Three people come where no people belong any more.
They are a woman who would be young
And good-looking if these now seemed
Real qualities, a child with yellow hair, a man
Hardened in desperate humanity. But here are only
Dry cistern, adobe flaking, a lizard. And now this
Disagreeable feeling that they were summoned. Sun
On the corrugated roof is a horse treading,
A horse with wide wings and heavy hoofs. The lizard
Is splayed head down on the wall, pulsing. They do not
Bother to lift their binoculars to the shimmering distance.
From this dead center the desert spirals away,
Traveling outward and inward, pulsing. Summoned
From half across the world, from snow and rock,
From chaos, they arrived a moment ago, they thought,
In perfect fortuity. There is a presence emerging here in
Sun dance and clicking metal, where the lizard blinks
with eyes whetted for extinction; then swirling
Outward again, outward and upward through the sky’s
White-hot funnel. Again and again among the dry
Wailing voices of displaced Yankee ghosts
This ranch is abandoned to terror and the sublime.
The man turns to the woman and the child. He has never
Said what he meant. They give him
The steady cool mercy of their unreproachful eyes.

There is a presence emerging in this place “where no people belong any more” and the three characters, who appear to comprise a typical nuclear family, feel as if they have been summoned to testify to the savage beauty of a National Park. Nonetheless, the poet also notes this presence is emanating outward from the ruins of an old ranch, “the dead center” as he calls it, which has been swept clean of humanity and which gives the male character in the poem some pause as if he felt for the first time his own mortality come upon him.

For Carruth, this is the sacred home for people can still feel that deep-seated “oceanic” connection to nature early pioneers who came before them must have felt when they first looked upon and settled this desert region. However, he is also careful to emphasize the consequence for separating ourselves from the natural world has been a tremendous fall from grace for humankind:

Again and again among the dry
Wailing voices of displaced Yankee ghosts
This ranch is abandoned to terror and the sublime.
The man turns to the woman and the child. He has never
Said what he meant. They give him
The steady cool mercy of their unreproachful eyes.

Here in the poem’s conclusion, the image of the abandoned ranch is a powerful reminder that whatever reverence or sanctity visitors may feel when they first come to this place is interrupted by "the wailing voices of displaced Yankee ghosts" who testify to the theme of exile in the poem as Carruth believes the cost of separating ourselves from the natural world has been a collective loss for humanity.

I could go on to talk about other poets and other places but I think I will simply end here. As Larry Levis says in the same essay, a place in poetry “is often spiritual, and yet it is important to note that this spiritual location clarifies itself and becomes valuable only through one’s absence from it. Eden becomes truly valuable only after a a fall, after an exile that changes it, irrecoverably, from what it once was” (44).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Alfred Corn’s “The Poem’s Heartbeat”

I have been neglecting this blog for far too long and now that a new semester at school has been safely launched and is heading out to sea, I thought I would write a little post about Alfred Corn’s beautiful little book The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody put out by Copper Canyon Press. Lacking the fustiness and impenetrability of a technical manual, Corn’s book is extremely rare as it is highly accessible with a wealth of anecdotes, connecting the study of prosody to the way we walk or to waves breaking along a shore-line. I bought this book as I have been meddling with syllabics lately, a subject Corn devotes a whole chapter to in his book, but it is interesting to note that as a teacher of prosody he also has plenty to say about the orthodoxy that disallows free verse or unmetered poetry:

“In free verse’s favor is its imposition of little restraint on the process of direct utterance. Language can be caught at its most spontaneous, with the implication that unconcious forces were more important in producing the poem than conscious ones. Strained syntax, words chosen for rhyme alone, padding out of lines so as to fill out the metrical count, or undue cutting away at the natural texture of speech can be avoided. The implicit stance behind every unmetered poem is that the author found this particular form of expression under no other constraints than the desire to follow where feeling and expression led, without bowing to preconceived, abstract formats devised in earlier eras and under a differing set of conditions from those that gave rise to the present poem. This comes close to saying that imposition of abstract form in a poem always comes at the cost of entire sincerity and authenticity.” (152)

As the above excerpt affirms, this is a great book that sets out a well-balanced argument for the study and appreciation of poetic rhythm in all its myriad forms. I also just bought The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach and The Art of Description by Mark Doty both by Graywolf Press and will be diving into those two books just as soon as I get a chance.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dave Smith's "Near The Docks"

Dave Smith is featured over at one of my favorite blogs How A Poem Happens this week. I have been a long-time admirer of Dave Smith’s poetry, having collected everything he has ever written, and he has been a tremendous influence on my own poetry in recent years. I think he is a bona-fide genius when it comes to metaphor but listen to what he has to say about the importance of narrative in his poetry:

"All poems are narratives. Some more, some less. If that is controversial, I add this: the older I have come to be the more I understand that the quality of any poem lies almost entirely in the quality of its story, how compelling, how weighty, how memorable. The best poets tell the best stories. Simply that."

If you haven’t read any of Dave Smith’s poetry, I recommend getting The Wick of Memory as a sampler but my favorite collection by far is Smith’s Goshawk, Antelope which has been a touchstone for my latest poetry collection Winter Cranes which will be published by ECW press in the Fall of 2011.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The League of Extraordinary Critics

Canadian criticism is in crisis mode right now and, as always, provocateur Zach Wells is at the epi-centre of it all. Andre Alexis wrote a polemical essay entitled The Long Decline for The Walrus Magazine about all the things he sees plaguing Canadian criticism at the moment: personal attacks and collegiate vitriol standing in for “book reviews”, the incompetence of reviewers who rely on subjective opinion rather than critical thought, and he lays the lion share of the blame at critic John Metcalf’s feet for inspiring a self-aggrandizing rhetorical style in younger critics who do not possess the same depth of knowledge as him.

There is a whole lot to chew on in this essay, and I am not sure I agree with everything, but it does articulate many things my colleagues and I have been thinking about for some time.

What is perhaps not surprising is that Zach Wells, having felt stung as he always does in such circumstances, wrote a satirical rejection letter as if Andre Alexis had first submitted the essay to CNQ magazine. He posted this response on the CNQ blog where it has spawned a “casserole of ridiculousness” as Jake Mooney has rightly pronounced on his blog Vox Populism.

It is not so much that Andre Alexis is entirely right but that the Sons of Metcalf, having gathered, are now linking arms and shouting in unison “You’re entirely wrong Mr. Alexis”. You know, like a whole tribe of critics who do not want to listen to anyone but themselves. I had already written in a previous post about the inherent dangers of aesthetic tribalism attaching itself to critical culture in Canada and here we are six months later with this wonderful public squabble with the participants proving Alexis's point and my own.

People can make their own judgments but this needs to be witnessed to be believed.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Envoy at the Crossroads

Three years ago I was asked to give a speech and a one-day workshop for the Edmonton branch of the Canadian Authors Association which I felt obliged to do as a teacher and because I took a number of creative writing workshops in university that helped me along my path to becoming a poet. I don’t advertise myself as a workshop instructor because my life is such that I do no have a lot of time to conduct them, but when I am called upon I feel a duty to lead them.

I think such workshops do not necessarily help people to write better, but they do teach people how to read poetry and they can provide resources and knowledge which may inspire people to undertake the long apprenticeship to becoming a serious poet.

I suppose what I find most striking about meeting people who have taken my workshops or else showed up at one of my readings because they read one of my books is how some of them look upon me with that eager lighted look which suggests they think I might have some special knowledge to confer upon them, or perhaps it is more they think they can use me as a key to unlock something within themselves. I don’t know. All I know is that after 24 years of trying to write poetry, I find myself at a crossroads asking what have I learned about the writing of poetry? The truth is I am not sure.

Certainly, I have learned something of craft, the economy of language, the musicality of words, etc. I have absorbed a great deal of poetry and poetic influences from many countries. I know what I like and what I do not, and I can articulate reasons for these preferences.

But writing a poem is still an exhausting task for me. Where will poetry take me and in what direction in the coming years? The path, as they say, is uncertain. However, I am still hopeful, or perhaps naïve, enough to believe that wherever poetry might lead me, people will understand the language I speak.

Here is a comprehensive list of 25 books in no particular order that have helped me to learn the difficult lingua franca of poetry:

1. Reluctantly by Hayden Carruth
2. The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo
3. Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio
4. On Poetry and Craft by Theodore Roethke
5. Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns
6. The Other Voice by Octavio Paz
7. Vis a Vis by Don McKay
8. The Friendship by Adam Sisman
9. A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
10. Argument and Song by Stanley Plumly
11. Claims For Poetry edited by Donald Hall
12. Keats by Andrew Motion
13. Selected Poems and Letters by John Keats
14. The Weather of Words by Mark Strand
15. The Verse Book of Interviews edited by Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki
16. Imagination in Place by Wendell Berry
17. Off to the Side by Jim Harrison
18. The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser
19. The Secret of Poetry by Mark Jarman
20. So Ask by Philip Levine
21. The Gazer Within by Larry Levis
22. Poets Teaching Poets edited Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryan Voight
23. Hunting Men by Dave Smith
24. The Necessary Angel by Wallace Stevens
25. Poetry and Consciousness by C.K. Williams

Thursday, July 1, 2010

W.S. Merwin Appointed Poet Laureate of the United States

A hearty congratulations goes out to W.S. Merwin who has been appointed Poet Laureate of the United States by the library of congress. His latest book The Shadow of Sirius won the Pulitzer prize for Poetry and can be purchased here. If you would like to send a personal congratulations to W.S. Merwin, Copper Canyon Press has provided the following link. His appointment is exciting for me as I have been thinking a lot about something W.S. Merwin said in an essay first published in 1956 but can be found in the more recent anthology Don’t Ask What I Mean: Poets In Their Own Words edited by Clare Brown and Don Paterson. His words, written over fifty years ago, are just as relevent today here in Canada:

"I think one of the dangers of modern poetry has been a tendancy to become inbred. Its small audience enhances the danger. It even seems possible for some poets to write as though critics, even particular schools of critics, were a fit and sufficient audience for poetry. I used to read all the articles in which critics kept working out reasons to prove how necessary and useful they are; but I don’t read those articles, or indeed critics, any more, and I can’t remember what the reasons were, even if I try very hard.

The other, main roots of my dislike, I suppose, are a distrust of generalization and abstraction; and a superstitious unwillingness to dissect the goose whose eggs, whatever their metal, are vitally important to me.

Which leads me to one of the few general statements I feel safe in making about poetry. It is a mystery. It is a metaphor of the other mysteries which comprise human experience. But like some other mysteries, it gives us a feeling of illumination…..I think of it as a way of using what we know to glimpse what we do not know.

-W.S. Merwin, Green with Beasts 1956

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Silly Wars About Free Verse

I have been rereading Donald Hall's excellent collection of essays Breakfast Served Any Time All Day and stumbled upon this gem where Hall talks about the all too familiar practise of undermining legitimate free verse by calling it "prose" which is still business as usual here in Canada:

"When a critic takes a lined poem and prints it as prose, in order to show that the poem is inferior, he tells us nothing about the poem. A reviewer in the Hudson Review tried to denigrate poems by Charles Simic and John Haines by printing them as prose. Such a critic reveals that he is ignorant or disingenuous. Back in the silly wars about free verse, toward the end of the First World War, American critics who wished to prove that free verse was only prose took poems by Ezra Pound (or Amy Lowell) and printed them as prose. 'See,' they said triumphantly, like the man in the Hudson Review, 'it’s only prose.' They only proved that they had no sense of the Line." (45)

-Donald Hall from the essay “Journal Notes”

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Writing Season

Sorry for my slow response to the updating of my blog recently but it is a busy time at work getting ready for end-of-the-year summatives. I also have to move everything out of my classroom for there is a major renovation happening at my school, the upshot of it all being I will have a classroom next year with windows. Natural light. I have taught high-school for a decade in what amounts to a box with fluorescent artificial lighting which, believe me, does wonders for one’s mood, and writing, in the dead of winter.

This Spring my wife and I have also been busy with outdoor gardening projects and planning for a basement renovation that is scheduled to begin next week, and, of course, June marks the beginning of my writing season.

Because I have two months off each summer, this is when the majority of my poems get written. My goal every summer is to write, at the very least, ten strong poems which is how my books get written.

If I write six or seven poems over the course of the school year, fine. But it is in the summer months that I make my bones as a writer because I can concentrate on my writing for several hours each day. When I have the luxury of time, I tend to read more and to take greater risks in my writing. I think most writers do.

This is all to say I am hoping to write more and post less in the next few months. Blogging is something I like to do in my writing down-time but not as a replacement for writing poems. I am still planning posts on Philip Levine, Dave Smith, Larry Levis, among others but these will appear more sporadically in the coming months. In the meantime, here is another picture of a prized broadside from my collection.

(W.S. Merwin’s “Returning Season” illustrated and designed by Dean Bornstein. Signed by Merwin. Size: 12.25 inches wide by 9.25 inches long. You can get your own copy here).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Griffin Awards 2010: Nationalism Is So Passé

With only a few short weeks left before the Griffin Poetry Prize Readings and the announcement of the winners in both the International and Canadian categories, I thought it apropos to write a post about its significance in the contemporary landscape of poetry awards and its impact on the public’s perception of poetry. For my money, the Griffin prize is recognized, at least amongst poets, as the most prestigious award a poet can be nominated for here in Canada, and not simply because of the large purse attached to it, or the red carpet gala parties, but because I would argue it is not a nationalist award at all, but an award that celebrates regionalism and internationalism in poetry.

This difference may appear slight but it is worthy of attention when, for instance, you place the Griffin Prize along side the Governor General's Awards. Where the Governor General's Awards have become an angry hornet’s nest of poetry commentators who every year decry the judge’s choices of nominated books – often hijacking the whole purpose of the award as a celebration of Canadian poetry, and turning it into a public spitting match involving self-righteousness and victimhood, indignation and insult – the minor eddies and ripples the Griffin Prize stir up are quite tame in comparison.

As for a clear explanation for why these awards are received so differently by our own community of writers, I do have some ideas.

Canadian poetry is regionalist at its very core; it grows out of a particular geography, a definitive sense of place, but because our country is so vast, and the people and the landscape so different from region to region, one poet’s native soil is not the same as another’s. Certainly, the early poetry of Canada is regionalist in nature, but population trends have changed over the last fifty years. Huge numbers of poets live in major urban centers now, and as their ties to the outlying places, smaller communities, where they grew up begin to diminish, so too does the regionalist impulse in their poems.

Other poets who have lived their entire lives in big cities have been conditioned by their own psychological makeup and relationship to place that nature poetry, for instance, is trivial, or rural motifs are anachronistic, because it does not speak directly to their own experience, or how they perceive reality to be.

This is by no means a criticism but it does explain why poets in urban centers appear more self-conscious of themselves as poets, and thus place form over content, standards of selection over subject matter, and opt for the purely surface effect or set pattern over any coherence of feeling, or emotional discoveries, when judging the worth of a poem.

However, the problem arises when one tries to define the national imagination of our poetry. What constitutes excellence in Canadian Poetry? Aye, there is the rub.

Honestly, I do not think it is possible to identify the national imagination of our poetry, and in fact all such projects have failed in the past, for such a notion does not take into account that Canada is a country of many different regions that are geographically and culturally distinct from one another, so there is no one privileged standard of excellence we all agree upon.

Despite our shared history with England, Canadian English resembles more its Southern cousin American English. In his essay “Notes On Free Verse”, Stephen Dobyns explains that American English “has no model like Oxford-Cambridge English that rises above regional differences and imposes a consistent rhythm upon the language” (114). This is equally true here in Canada. So what does this have to do with the impact of The Governor General’s Awards and The Griffin Prize on our nation’s literature?

I would argue that The Governor General Awards is promoting an outdated, ill-conceived version of nationalism which is really only an elaborate ruse while The Griffin Prize is simply promoting excellence in poetry, both in Canada and abroad, thereby side-stepping the whole nationalism trap altogether. Nationalism, by its very nature, is a magnet for fundamentalism which is why it attracts the noise-mongers and the power-players in our community who are of the mistaken belief that if they can just win, whatever that means, they will have exercised some control over the nation’s tastes when, in reality, patterns of influence are much wider than that. Such persons can no more impose their tastes upon a country, or the canon for that matter, than King Canute could hold back the sea.

Frankly, this is why The Griffin Prize has it over the GGs. It is not attempting to lasso the Canadian poetic imagination. It is not seeking to posit one aesthetic stance over another. Its primary goal is the promotion of excellence in poetry, both in Canada and internationally, and bring it to the attention of the public. I think the international judging panel consisting of one Canadian judge and two Non-Canadians also helps to foster this image.

Where the Governor General’s Awards aim to define what is excellent in Canadian poetry by safely establishing its borders, which is a mug’s game if you ask me given our various geographical regions and multicultural make-up, the Griffin Prize looks at the whole global economy of poetry to find there are many types of excellence in poetry, and such excellence transcends the boundaries of different countries. If I had to define excellence in poetry, I would say it is very close to the definition given by Donald Hall in his essay “The Unsayable Said” where he asserts, “Poetry by its bodily, mental, and emotional complex educates the sensibility, thinking and feeling appropriately melded together” (5).

Perhaps this is a whole lot of words over two very different award ceremonies but this essay does seek to understand why so many friends of mine rub their heads and steel themselves at the mere announcement of the Governor General’s Awards shortlist and, by the same token, seem so much more cheerful and full of goodwill whilst standing in line for their tickets to the Griffin Readings. Poetry should be a celebration.

As for awards in general, the stakes are always small. They do not guarantee a career nor do they guarantee a continued readership. Speaking from my own personal history after winning several awards, and after being nominated for a whole host of others, awards are a fickle business. Luckily for us, poets do not write poems to win awards. My favorite poetry award, by far, is the Griffins Lifetime Achievement Award. A lifetime of writing poetry? Yes, that is something worth celebrating.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Linda Gregg’s “A Thirst Against”

I received the latest issue of Poetry Northwest last week which to my delight had three new poems by Linda Gregg nestled amidst its table of contents. This was fortuitous as I had already been thinking about writing a blog post about her poems for the last several months. My favorite poem from the new issue is about the poet Jack Gilbert and I have copied it out in full below:

Love Song

Jack is weakening day by day.
I saw him on the other side
of a river climbing out.
Almost naked. His underpants
stuck to his body.
Doing this by himself.
I carried his once perfect
body up the bank
to a new kind of safety.
He was cold. He was alive
by will and passion.
And the intelligent animal
he is. Light overhead.
Not our favorite kind.
I thought at the end of his list
of reasons was wanting
not to leave me alone, knowing
the not being here anymore.

Everything that matters in Linda Gregg’s poetry—the ecstatic beauty, the dramatic loss, and quiet restrained language–all are found in these lines. I remember having a discussion with another poet friend in Waterloo several years ago about Linda Gregg. I was of the mind that she was a tremendous poet while my friend was skeptical about her overall worth as if her poems were “all singing but no song”.

I imagine Gregg’s poetry has inspired this kind of debate throughout her long career: on the one hand there are those who champion her personal poems interwoven with Greek and Classical references as large-minded inquiries into the nature of experience, while on the other side there are those who put forward the counter claim that such stripped-down language, personal revelations and literary allusions are the stock and trade of a poet who is simply affecting a voice. A sort of poetic ventriloquism.

For myself, I think her poetry, the way it sets its own philosophical demands in relief against the simple diction of its highly compressed sentences, some of them no more than mere fragments or phrases, courts such debate purposefully. Take for instance, her well known poem "A Thirst Against" which can be found in All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems published by Graywolf Press in 2008.

A Thirst Against

There is a hunger for order,
but a thirst against. What if
every time a flower forms in the mind,
something gives it away to time?
Leaf by petal, by leaf. As if the soul
were a blotter of this world—
of the greater, the wetter, the more
tired, the more torn. All singing,
but no song. Hamlet darker than night.
And poor Ophelia less than the flowers
she wore. Both lost. One dead,
the other to follow soon.
One too heavy, one too frail.
Both finding themselves among the fallen.
Each time I think, it is here
that God lives. Right around here,
in this terrible, ruined place
with streets made desolate by neon,
in midwinter and freezing winds.
In these Chicago avenues.

To my mind, this is a poem that carefully demonstrates the large ambition and enigmatic qualities found in all of Gregg’s best poems. In the opening lines, the poet acknowledges the self seeks connection with the world but, at the same time, is deeply suspicious of order because the countervailing tension that arises between these two modes of thinking creates spaces within a poem, and by extension our lives, where one may find transcendence amid the ordinary.

In her essay, Staying News: A Defense of the Lyric, Joan Aleshire mentions how the Greek lyric poet Pindar prized a quality called Kairos in poetry, or the ability to set “opposite points of view against one another before making a summation or resolution” (37). Gregg’s attempts at reconciling opposites places her in this same tradition which gives her poem its authority and propulsive force.

The poem as I see it becomes a justification for the way we live and experience our lives. We seek connections with the world, with something larger than ourselves, even when it seems futile to do so, for Gregg seems to be asking what other choice are we given? She proposes at the beginning of the poem:

What if
every time a flower forms in the mind,
something gives it away to time?
Leaf by petal, by leaf. As if the soul
were a blotter of this world—
of the greater, the wetter, the more
tired, the more torn. All singing,
but no song.

Here, the question posed is what if we are simply the sum of our thoughts and there is no higher purpose to our lives? What if our life’s experience is in fact “all singing, / but no song”? The next section of the poem answers this question by darkly alluding to Hamlet and Ophelia, two beloved characters who came to the conclusion that life was essentially for naught and their oppressive thoughts led to much personal suffering and tragic consequences for both of them.

Hamlet darker than night.
And poor Ophelia less than the flowers
she wore. Both lost. One dead,
the other to follow soon.
One too heavy, one too frail.
Both finding themselves among the fallen.

If we are not to find ourselves among the fallen, we need to believe in or serve some higher purpose within our lives, even if that means the great looming despair that surrounds our certain extinction and likely insignificance meets us at every turn. The ending of Gregg’s poem seems to underscore this idea for the reader:

Each time I think, it is here
that God lives. Right around here,
in this terrible, ruined place
with streets made desolate by neon,
in midwinter and freezing winds.
In these Chicago avenues.

It seems, for Gregg, God is in the details but so too is the awful insufferable fear none of us will be redeemed. If you like Linda Gregg’s poem "A Thirst Against", you can find it in her book All of It Singing: New and Selected poems published by Graywolf Press.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April is March Madness

I have to say I have been taking great pleasure in the variety of titles that this year’s National Poetry Month has on offer so far. I have bought John Steffler’s new book Lookout which I have been enjoying when I’m not nose-deep in my good friend Paul Vermeersch’s new book The Reinvention of the Human Hand. Both gentlemen launch their books along side Dionne Brand's Ossuaries at the Dora Keogh in Toronto on Monday April 19 at 6 pm. I will be in attendance so do come by and say hello.

Yesterday, my copy of Mark Callanan’s Sea Legend came from Caryl Peters at Frog Hollow Press and it may well be the prettiest chapbook I own. Other books I have yet to get my hands on are Triny Findlay’s new collection Histories Haunt Us, Ray Hsu’s Cold Sleep Permanent Afternoon and Jim Johnstone’s Patternicity, all from Nightwood Editions.

I still have not found time to finish reading Kay Ryan’s The Best of It and Edward Hirsch’s The Living Fire but nevertheless I walked into Wordsworth Books the other day and ordered Philip Schultz’s The God of Loneliness, C.K. Williams’s Dust and The Apple Trees at Olema by Robert Hass.

This coupled with the entire back poetry catalogue of Kim Addonizio I ordered from Abebooks should keep me well stocked with things to read for the next several weeks which reminds me I still need to pick up Kate Hall’s book The Certainty Dream by Coach House Press and…...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Kenneth RexRoth’s “Growing”

I have been thinking about the San Francisco poet Kenneth RexRoth who so eloquently, poem after poem, collection after collection, was able to trace the connecting lines between psyche and kosmos which he saw as fundamental to human experience.

In an essay called “Poetry and The Self: Reflections on The Discovery of the Self in Early Greek Lyrics”, Renate Woods talks about how Heracleitus from his study of Greek lyric poets, began “to see the intensely felt as more compelling than external appearance and to discover the soul as an inner realm with its own dynamics” (105).

This is an idea that put me in the mind of Kenneth RexRoth whose own strongly held beliefs placed the apprehension of reality, through the twin condensing lenses of poetry and love, as being key to his own evolving consciousness and spiritual awakening.

A perfect example would be his poem “Growing” which is about the strong feelings of self-realization and enlightenment that stem from the pure act of loving someone else, but it is also about the necessities of contemplation and shared love between two people in a century that was for Rexroth marked by unprecedented human violence. I include the poem in its entirety below:


Who are you? Who am I? Haunted
By the dead, by the dead and the past and the
Falling inertia of unreal, dead
Men and things. Haunted by the threat
Of the impersonal, that which
Never will admit the person,
The closed world of things. Who are
You? Coming up out of the
Mineral earth, one pale leaf
Unlike any other unfolding,
And then another, strange, new
Utterly different, nothing
I ever expected, growing
Up out of my warm heart’s blood.
All new, all strange, all different.
Your own leaf pattern, your own
Flower and fruit, but fed from
One root, the root of our fused flesh.
I and thou, from the one to
The dual, from the dual
To the other, the wonderful,
Unending, unfathomable
Process of becoming each
Our selves for the other.

By Kenneth RexRoth

This poem begins in an unlikely way for a love poem as it seems to ask how do you allow yourself to be vulnerable, the very thing so necessary if you are to love another or to contemplate the meaning of one’s life, when the specter of death haunts you? Rexroth, a conscientious objector during World War II, wrote this poem when he felt, as so many other writers and artists did at the time, caught between two devastating world wars and the ever growing tensions of a cold war which might possibly produce a third. That cultural paranoia finds release in the lines: “Haunted / By the dead, by the dead and the past and the / Falling inertia of unreal, dead / Men and things.”

The remedy for such cultural and historical despair it appears for RexRoth was love and deep contemplation of one’s surroundings. It is this discovery that creates a powerful sense of hope rescuing the poet from the meaninglessness of existence, or “the threat / Of the impersonal”, and admits him into “the closed world of things”.

Donald K. Gutierrez has already mentioned about another one of RexRoth’s poems (Time Is the Mercy of Eternity), “that one crosses the traditional and arbitrary line between subject (the "I") and object (the "it," Other, World) and, becoming part of one’s surroundings, transcends their and one’s own partialness towards an exalted clarity”.

The next section of "Growing" contains just such an exalted clarity: the lucid vision, the erotic images and the near mystical qualities that earmark the best of RexRoth’s poetry for it seamlessly blends the poet’s appraisal of his self and his beloved with that of nature. He asks “who are you?” which refers both to himself and to the object of his affections, but then quickly moves from a celebration of individual identity as reflected in nature, “…one pale leaf / Unlike any other unfolding,” to the transcending of individual identity through sexual union:

All new, all strange, all different.
Your own leaf pattern, your own
Flower and fruit, but fed from
One root, the root of our fused flesh.

It is the immediacy of sexual love that proves, at least for RexRoth, the underlying connection of all things which culminates in the final lines of the poem:

I and thou, from the one to
The dual, from the dual
To the other, the wonderful,
Unending, unfathomable
Process of becoming each
Our selves for the other.

From the I to the dual to the other, hope springs eternal. In his foreword to The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth published by Copper Canyon Press, Sam Hamill states RexRoth believed “that love is the sacramental expression of hope and responsibility”. This is what ultimately saves the world from the “Falling inertia of unreal, dead / Men and things” allowing an individual to grow.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

River Rock Press Broadsides

Well, I have spent the last couple of days printing broadsides in the basement and after solving a myriad of technical issues, I think they turned out quite nice. Printing on a Kelsey Excelsior is very labour intensive and quite a fitness workout—look for my new video “Rock Solid Abs Through Table-top Letterpress Printing“ (marketed towards late thirty-something middle-aging poets who are sagging around the middle) coming to a store near you! Anyways, these broadsides signal the completion of all my printing projects for the near future as it is time for me to get back to writing poems. On another note, Paul Vermeersch has conducted a little interview with me about being a novice printer over at Open Book Toronto. Enjoy the photos below!

This is a broadside I did for Carleton Wilson who is the editor of both of my books and who published my first chapbook Form Letters under his Junction Books imprint so it was with great pleasure that I was able to return the favour. I cannot take any credit for the design of the broadside as Carleton is a graphic designer by trade and the poem itself is about typography amongst other things so it was natural that he also do the design. For whatever reason, this poem was difficult to print all at once so I ended up having to cut up the plate and print it in separate runs. The typeface is Garamond PremrPro printed 8½x11 on Canson Edition paper and limited to an edition of 50 copies.

This is a broadside of Adam Getty's poem "Cain's Song" which appeared in his poetry collection Repose by Junction Books, and imprint of Nightwood Editions. Adam is one of my closest friends and I value his opinions on all things poetry. I found myself deep in the weeds with this one and really struggled which might have been the type-face I chose as some digital type-faces do not lend themselves to photopolymer printing as well as others, but also the rollers would not meet the areas of the plate I wanted to ink in red without lots of extra fiddling with the taping on my rails. For whatever reason, the printing gods were not smiling on me. The typeface is Granjon-SC on Canson Edition paper and limited to an edition of 50 copies.

This is a broadside of a poem I did for my best friend Paul Vermeersch which will appear in his upcoming fourth collection of poems The Reinvention of the Human Hand out with M&S this Spring. This was the easiest time I've had with a printing project thus far which I'm thinking had to do with the paper I used which was Rives - it prints like butter! I had only a slight problem with getting the title to align properly with the rest of the poem but my wife Teresa came to the rescue. I had to do three seperate runs with this one which took about five hours. The typeface is BaskervilleOldFacSCD printed on Rives paper and limited to an edition of 50 copies.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Paying Homage to the Pantheon: A.F. Moritz’s “The Straggler”

Poets do not invent themselves out of whole cloth; they are students of poetic composition who toil away, night and day, at their craft for many years. For the truly dedicated ones, this will last a lifetime. “Eternal apprenticeship is the life of the true poet,” as Theodore Roethke once remarked and it is a particularly pithy observation for introducing A.F. Moritz.

Both apprentice and teacher, it is hard to pinpoint what exactly characterizes his poetic style for that style has changed so often over the course of seventeen books. His tone is both complicated and passionate, his images both allusive and emblematic, his pacing both discursive and disciplined.

To read Moritz is to read many things— the surreal, the philosophical, the classical. Indeed, there is always a lot of English lurking behind his English which gives his poems their sense of high seriousness and unmistakable authority. Take, for instance, his poem “The Straggler” from his book Night Street Repairs published by Anansi press. This is a poem I find myself going back to all the time because of its pantheistic respect for poetry’s precursors:

The Straggler

It was when they all had vanished in the valley
of individual velleity that he lost them.
It was when he trailed them from an eager distance,
observing from rock ledges or high grass.
It was later when he saw them casting pots
a little differently each in the manufactory.
It was when they sang their massive denial subtly.
It was when he heard each celebrate one thumbprint
baked in the innocent clay. It was when he smelt them
cataloguing infinite many hues of umber.
It was when he felt the horn of the mighty hunter
faint in trembling coverts blossoming endlessly.
It was when a sudden edge cut the sobbing leaves,
when the vessels all were smithered by a hammer
and there were Blake and Homer, that he found them.

The spiritual undertaking in this poem—the squandering of individual possibilities; the desire for atonement and redemption through art—puts me in the mind of the prodigal son, albeit this is a non-Christian myth substituting poetry's fore-fathers for religion. The poem begins with the lines “It was when they all had vanished in the valley / of individual velleity that he lost them” suggesting that the reckless disregard of an individual’s freedom to make one’s own choices in life, to suppress and not act upon one’s personal desires, is a waste, even a sin, for it leads to solitude; an over-hanging sense of spiritual desolation that leaves one in the wilderness.

Atonement, it seems, comes through the making of art as Moritz writes, “It was later when he saw them casting pots / a little differently in the manufactory. It was later when they sang their massive denial subtly. / It was when he heard each celebrate one thumbprint / baked in the innocent clay.” How I read these lines is that poetry is about individual making—indeed, the word comes from the greek word poesis or ‘to make’—thus the “casting pots each a little differently” and the celebration of one’s “thumbprint baked in the innocent clay”. The line “they sang their massive denial subtly” appears more gnomic and lends itself to a few possible interpretations. The massive denial might be the choice not to cast pots or to make art as ‘imitation’ which is what you would find in a manufactory, but also it might be read as the refusal to subordinate one's artistic production to the demands of larger society.

The poem swerves again with the introduction of “the horn of the mighty hunter” which is both the clarion call of our own mortality, Death hot on the heels of the incipient poet, but also the powerful voice of the Imagination “blossoming endlessly” once it is heard.

Lastly, redemption comes when “the vessels were all smithered by a hammer" suggesting all one’s models for poetic composition must be done away with, at some point, if one is to write one’s own poetry and be counted among the pantheon of poets, not crushed beneath it.

As Wallace Stevens said," After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption" and certainly I take this to be the theme of Moritz's poem. If you found yourself enjoying A.F. Moritz’s poem “The Straggler” as much as I do, please pick up Night Street Repairs or his more recent Griffin award-winning collection The Sentinel, both by Anansi press.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Nature Poem...of sorts

Field Studies

“This is not a poem,” the smart dressed man with the slide rule said
as we walked across a field full of gold bees nosily excavating pollen
from the bursting flowers. Clouds were casting long shadows over
distant hills. “I assure you this is a poem,” I said, plucking a blade
of grass and watching the brittle light eat away at its green interior.
“That is nonsense,” the young man said. His brow weighed down
by too much knowledge, and not enough pure intention. “This is
a sentence,” he said, “Where is the line?” “The line is here,” I said.
“It is just a different kind of line.” At that moment, birds began to
sing and the two of us began to meditate on some deep remembered
past, bird-songs rising, and falling, and circling back to the hidden
sources we draw our lives from. “There is no such thing as a prose
lyric” the middle-aging young man said, measuring with his slide rule
a nearby branch to see if he could calculate, in syllables, its corporeal
existence. “Poetry is abundance,” I told him. “Listen to the river and
the birds and the wind. In that plenitude, that fullness, even Time
is suspended.” “There is no river, no birds, no wind, and no trees,”
the man said, touching his fingers to the scarred bark of a large tree.
“That is partly true,” I said,“These are only innuendoes”. Mistakenly
he thought I was making fun of him, and not to be outdone, the man
stomped the ground and said, “All is prosody”. “All is paraphrase”, I
calmly reminded him. “But there are no line breaks,” he said. “But
there are line continuums” I repeated. Finally, becoming a little testy
he stammered, “Nothing is happening here!” “Ah, but poetry makes
nothing happen,” I said quoting Auden back to him which is when
he grew silent, started to mutter to himself, and taking his slide rule
in hand, fell to the ground and began to measure each blade of grass.

By Chris Banks

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

From My Top Shelf

Here is another favorite prized book from my collection. This one is a small chapbook by the American poet Dave Smith who writes some of the most rigorous and imaginative narrative poetry I have ever encountered. His poetry is ruefully meditative, at times, while in other instances, tenderly poignant, and able to integrate one man’s unblinking poetic conviction to witness life as it is lived with a capacious sense of the American Southern conciousness.

His poetry is distinctly American and I envy him for it as we Canadian poets are still engaged in that wonderful enervating argument about what constitutes good poetry in this country.

I love this chapbook for Smith’s poetry, of course, but also the time and care that went into its production. I wonder why more Canadian presses are not producing such lovely little books as objects of art. The answer I’m afraid probably has something to do with cultural despair and the mistaken belief that the poetry buying public’s appetite for such beautiful little chapbooks has atrophied. Poetry books have become more shiny, more glossy, and, ultimately, more disposable which is a shame.

This chapbook is a first edition in hand-sewn wrappers with illustrations by Barry Moser.

It was published in 1981 by Tamarack Editions and limited to an edition of 300 copies. Another 36 copies were bound in cloth.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Consciousness and Sense: Chris Hutchinson and Sue Sinclair

At the very heart of what I love about poetry is its attempts to capture in a truly authentic way how we make sense of our lives. Primarily as I see it, this involves issues of identity, experience, and consciousness with our imaginations being the fulcrum the rest of these mental processes rest on in a good poem.

For me, I like poems that mediate between one’s empirical experience of what is real and one’s awareness of a self at one remove, a self that processes all thoughts and emotions through the imagination. Whether you view the imagination as the mind’s holy ghost, a faint whisper of word and image, or more cynically, as cognitive feedback produced in the brain due to overloaded sensory equipment, the imagination teaches us how to paradoxically disassociate from ourselves, while also generating new associations from this same sense of detachment which overall give us a stronger feeling of connection to the world.

It is in its special role as an intermediary between our interior selves and the larger chaos of modern life that poetry, or at least good poetry governed by the imagination, most nobly mirrors and mimics how consciousness works.

These themes I explored a little in my last book so it should be no surprise why I am drawn to poets and poems that delve into similar terrain. Two terrific Canadian poets who play in the metaphysical realm and practical philosophy are Sue Sinclair in Breaker and Chris Hutchinson in Other People’s Lives both by Brick books.

In an interview he did recently with Alessandro Porco for Open Book Toronto, Hutchinson wrote that, “perhaps this is the crux of the collection: how language, which might be the closest thing we have to telepathy, haunts the no-man’s land between interiority and exteriority, between self and other. Although the book is ostensibly ‘about’ a whole host of things: sidewalks; cockroaches; cities; Aeolian harps — I think it’s really about this liminal space where the weird abundance of the imagination pushes out into, or even back against (as W. Stevens suggests) reality (if such a thing exists).”

What Hutchinson is talking about in terms of language and imagination above is very much what C.K. Williams addresses in his book Poetry and Consciousness when he says, “poetry moves through our perceptions and our mind to a place beyond either, a place which participates concretely in both consciousness and sense”(133). A good poem of Hutchinson’s that illustrates the relationship between consciousness and sense is his sonnet “Homeless” from the first section of his book:


You weren’t here, the morning light
inside the mist-hazed park where mushrooms
flared like fleshy bells. I almost believed
my mind had grown tendrils and bloomed.

Old women disguised as crows stuttered past,
jigging upon the sleeping city’s hip bone,
flirting between the horizon and beer cans
coated with the aspic glow of moonstones.

Drunk, you slept here once, then withdrew—
your mind a sticky as a wound, reopening.
Poor pupil of homelessness, you never knew
delirium could become your dwelling—

Yes, a place of twisted hues, of doubled sight,
But a house just the same, built of light.

After reading this poem, I thought of Tu Fu and what he said about “a blood-stained spirit has no home”. Like much Chinese poetry, Hutchinson introduces the sorrow that comes with human existence amidst nature’s indifference in the first stanza when he writes “You weren’t here, the morning light / inside the misty hazed park where mushrooms / flared like fleshy bells.” The use of the second person also helps to create this sense of distance and isolation. But then in the second stanza , what saves the narrator from despair is the influence of the imagination bumping up against nature’s indifference, generating its own images, like old women “disguised as crows” and beer cans that take on “the aspic glow of moonstones.”

The third stanza reinforces that the poem is a reflection on intoxication, on the loss of ego and the feelings of heightened consciousness that attend it; however, at the time, the poet did not recognize his experience as anything transcendent for afterwards his mind was “sticky as a wound, reopening” and says “Poor pupil of homelessness, you never knew / delirium could become your dwelling—“. It is only in retrospect the relationship between consciousness and sense is elevated for in the final couplet the poet writes “Yes, a place of twisted hues, of doubled sight / but a house just the same, built of light.”

Consciousness and sense are also exalted presences in Breaker by Sue Sinclair as are language and the imagination. How Sinclair differs from Hutchinson is that she takes a less narrative and more lyrical approach, one that more directly tries to apprehend the transcendent amid the ordinary through the intensity of her gaze. Take, for instance, her poem “Joy” which figures in the third section of her new collection:


Everything leafs out as though in praise.
Beaky water lilies rise from the pond’s stirred muck.
The imagination calls to the world, its inflected echo
coming back to us as light rippling on the back of the real.
Who can say what goes on in the darkened room
from which these idle green days emerge; for all we know
being here might be another kind of absence, a hole
through which our lives come pouring as we fade slowly
in another world. But this world is the one we know,
the one we hold onto, filling ourselves with its visible truths.
We work through the hours, always too few,
packing them into our greedy bodies. Yet we fall prey
to the occasional twinge, hear faintly at our backs
a thrumming, like the bowstring of a shot arrow.
And that sound is what clinches it, our love of this place,
its thin blood penetrating to our very quick.

In this poem, Sinclair sublimates the concerns of the self and looks wholly on the world as it “leafs out in praise” for if this is all we have beyond ourselves, it is only through a concentrated engagement with the world that we are rescued from the despair of human existence, or quoting Tu fu again, the fate of the ‘homeless ghost.’ As Sinclair tells us, it is the imagination that “calls out to the world, its inflected echo / coming back to us as light rippling on the back of the real”. Again it is our imaginations, generating images and associations on the flip-side of our sense, that give us a feeling of greater intimacy and connection with the world, and thus greater ease with ourselves.

Nevertheless, even though our imaginations provide us with a strong sense of connection to a world “we hold onto, filling ourselves with its visible truths”, Sinclair reminds us that our imaginations are not enough to make us forget what awaits us for we still “fall prey/ to the occasional twinge, hear faintly at our backs a thrumming, like the bowstring of a shot arrow.” And yet, for Sinclair, it is this sense of our mortality that “clinches it, our love of this place” and pushes us to seek greater connections to a world beyond ourselves through our imaginations.

There is much more to both of these Canadian poets than I have time to share with you. If you liked these poems, I urge you to go pick up Chris Hutchinson’s Other People’s Lives and Sue Sinclair’s Breaker, both by Brick books.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Poetry: An Education (Part Three)

Great teachers are not necessarily systemic thinkers.
The very act of teaching is against this
-Theodore Roethke

What I learned as a student I have learned also as a teacher, and the most important lessons have been an acceptance of one’s failures and a willingness to take risks.

Philip Levine in my last post suggested teachers do very little but that is not always true. There are teachers who do make a difference. Perhaps it is not every day or even every term as Hollywood movies would lead us to believe but they are there. Teachers who cast a wide net over the inherited traditions of our modern poetry and weave a series of connections back and forth between poems so as to guide their students to the writers that are right for them. Teachers who are both selfless and unapologetic about challenging their students’ thoughts on what constitutes good poetic practice, and who push their students past their points of resistance to cut a line or a stanza out of a poem to see the actual being of a poem take shape.

It is my belief creative writing teachers can cultivate within their classrooms a sense of community, collegiality and criterions of excellence.

Such a teacher was Theodore Roethke who was by all accounts a brilliant teacher who taught several students — Carolyn Kizer, Richard Hugo, James Wright, Jack Gilbert, Tess Gallagher, and David Wagoner – who went on to have notable careers as poets. Carolyn Kizer’s foreword to Roethke’s book On Poetry & Craft conveys both Roethke’s famous passion for teaching and the rigorous demands he would make on his students:

“Roethke was an extraordinarily rigorous critic, and if you couldn’t take it, you didn’t learn much. For example, he said the real test was that every line of a poem should be a poem. That’s about as tough as you can get. I apply that to my own work and sometimes just throw up my hands. But I find it’s extremely useful in getting rid of connectives, passive constructions, surplus adjectives, and words that don’t have any particular energy in them.” (5)

And later from the same essay:

“One of Ted’s greatest attributes as a teacher is that none of us who studied with him write at all like Roethke. If Ted caught any of us imitating him we never did it again. He would tease us mercilessly.” (9)

Even Philip Levine who says teachers are not as important as the mix of students in a writing program left an impression upon his students, especially Larry Levis who entered his classroom at eighteen and went on to become a lifelong friend. Levis in his homage to his teacher and friend, “On Philip Levine” found in his prose collection The Gazer Within, speaks about what made Levine such a talented teacher of creative writing:

“What still strikes me as amazing, and right, and sane, was his capacity to share all that energy, that fire, with those around him: students and poets and friends. The only discernible principle I gathered from this kind of generosity seems to be this: to try to conserve one’s energy for some later use, to try to teach as if one isn’t quite there and has more important things to do, is a way to lose that energy completely, a way, quite simply, of betraying oneself. Levine was always totally there, in the poems and right there in front of me before the green sea of the blackboard.” (28)

Whenever I feel like I’m sinking in the muck and dreck of marking, paperwork and bureaucracy that attends all teachers at certain times of the year, this is the passage that returns to me, again and again, seemingly of its own volition, as if to remind me teachers do make a difference in the lives of their students.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Poetry: An Education (Part Two)

Creative writing programs are much maligned as writer-processing factories. Young talented people go in the front doors and come out two years later as Stepford automatons writing prepackaged stories and poems. Such programs breed art for easy consumption and short attention spans. Writing with a short shelf life. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

I’m not sure why everyone beats up on creative writing MFA programs as they do. I understand the arguments against them but at a time when undergraduate students are surging into business programs at universities and colleges at record rates instead of taking a liberal arts education, maybe creative writing programs are not such a bad thing. Instead of breeding an atmosphere of success, I think they teach students about failure, something they desperately need in this era of hovering parents and children exiting high-school with a worrying sense of entitlement.

Certainly, my own experience with creative writing at the university level taught me about failure. I took a few undergraduate courses in university with a few kind professors who didn’t really teach me anything about how to write, and after reading poems in local bars at open mic nights for a few years and getting a few poems published in small publications, I moved to Montreal and did a Masters degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University.

It was there that I learned to accept my short-comings as a writer. I had several professors with a real generosity of spirit, people like Robert Allen and Gary Geddes, but who also possessed the pluck to tell me when I was writing complete shit. I remember calling up Gary Geddes who was my thesis advisor at the time, and telling him I had three new poems to show him, and he responded, “Great! Meet me at my office at 10 am and I’ll pull out my chain-saw”. Hardly, a warm fuzzy.

If my professors were being cruel to be kind, my fellow students could be equally discriminating. There were real standards demanded in the workshops I took and my classmates were quick to point out any faults in poems I submitted for workshopping. I think we learned just as much from each other sitting around a table drinking pints at the Stanley Pub talking about the poets we were reading, inside and outside of class, as we did from any of our professors. I left that program three years later with a Master’s degree, a failed manuscript under my left arm, and an implacable understanding of what good writing demands of a person.

Blood, sweat, tears. And, yes, a pound of flesh.

The American poet Philip Levine, a gifted creative writing teacher himself, has given his thoughts on post secondary creative writing programs in his prose collection So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews. He suggests it is the students themselves, and their capacity for failure, and not the teachers at all, which are necessary for a creative writing program to work:

“I’ve taught at a great many schools, taught poetry writing now for twenty-five years at Fresno State, Brown, Princeton, NYU, Columbia, Vassar, UC Berkeley, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Tufts, and from all that experience I’ve learned something remarkable. The best student poets I’ve encountered were not at Tufts or Princeton or Brown; they were at Fresno State and UAB, the two lousiest schools I’ve taught at. The worst poetry writing students were at Princeton….. ……We know that everyone who tries to write poems fail at first: Keats failed, Rilke failed, Hart Crane failed, why aren’t you going to fail? My students at FSU would never weep in class. They might say, ‘Fuck you, Levine,’ but never would they weep. Why so many wonderful poets from this funny little school in central California, all of whom came as local youngsters to college, not a single one recruited—Larry Levis, Lawson Inada, Gary Soto, Roberta Spear, David St. John, Luis Omar Salinas, Greg Pape, Glover Davis, Sherley Williams, Herb Scott, Kathy Fagan, Leonard Adame, Ernesto Trejo, Jon Veinberg, Robert Vasquez, and more I’m forgetting. It’s not because of the teacher. We know how little a teacher can do. These poets could accept their failures as poets, and as people, learn from them, and go on.” (44)

I understand all of the arguments against creative writing programs, that they abase poetry by reducing it to classroom chit-chat and endless questions of technique, that they bury the sublime under an avalanche of exercises, but they also teach a fundamental truth that with writing comes failure. And if one leaves a creative writing progam and does not publish a book, nor develops a more durable writing style beyond what they were taught at school, that is hardly the fault of the creative writing program. That fault lies with the individual alone.