Wednesday, January 27, 2010

W.S. Merwin’s “River Sound Remembered”

“Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have that explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they always metaphors; they do not say this is that. They say this is. In the nineteenth century one would have said that what compelled us about them was a sense of the eternal. And it is something like that, some feeling in the arrest of the image that what perishes and what lasts forever have been brought into conjunction, and accompanying that sensation is a feeling of release from the self. “(275)

This passage from an essay called Images by Robert Hass is perhaps a strange way to introduce “River Sound Remembered” by W.S. Merwin, a poem I have read countless times but on the other hand it localizes what has always drawn me to poems which place at their center robust, transformative, world-shaking imagery. By this, I mean images connecting the physical to the metaphysical in a poem. I think this is what Hass suggests by the use of the word ‘eternal’ in the above excerpt and certainly I take this relationship, that strange affinity between imagery’s terra firma and the quiddity of poetic inspiration, to be the topic of Merwin’s poem:

River Sound Remembered

That day the huge water drowned all voices until
It seemed a kind of silence unbroken
By anything: a time unto itself and still;

So that when I turned away from its roaring, down
The path over the gully, and there were
Dogs barking as always at the edge of town,

Car horns and the cries of children coming
As though for the first time through the fading light
Of the winter dusk, my ears still sang

Like shells with the swinging current, and
Its flood echoing in me held for long
About me the same silence, by whose sound

I could hear only the quiet under the day
With the land noises floating there far-off and still;
So that even in my mind now turning away

From having listened absently but for so long
It will be the seethe and drag of the river
That I will hear longer than any mortal song.

What is so interesting about the way this poem begins is Merwin never describes the river itself. It is almost entirely absent and yet it clearly is the dominant image. The poem starts with the roar of the white water heard, at first, close by, and then later from a distance, until it becomes a white noise in the background of the poet’s consciousness:

That day the huge water drowned all voices until
It seemed a kind of silence unbroken
By anything: a time unto itself and still;

This last line sets the sound of the river apart from our every day temporal experience. It is part of the metaphysical realm, “a time unto itself and still”, which flows beneath the rest of the lines to follow, making the poem an engrossing meditation on the nature of human consciousness, imagination, and poetic inspiration.

The next few stanzas develop these themes further through Merwin’s desolate images of a human landscape empty of significance:

So that when I turned away from its roaring, down
The path over the gully, and there were
Dogs barking as always at the edge of town,

Car horns and the cries of children coming
As though for the first time through the fading light
Of the winter dusk, my ears still sang

Like shells with the swinging current, and
Its flood echoing in me held for long
About me the same silence, by whose sound

I could hear only the quiet under the day

Here, ironically, it is the poet’s imagination, specifically his memory of the river’s rushing, which is more real and vital to him than the world he sees and experiences. That imagined sound of the river, its metaphysical pull, is felt beneath the images of “dogs barking as always at the edge of town,” and "the cries of children coming as though for the first time through the fading light”.

Merwin further develops the river’s babel, its siren-like undertow of significance, through his extraordinary attention to sound and rhythm in the poem. The quiet recurrence of vowel sounds, especially all those long O sounds strung together throughout the poem and his quick shifting between assonance and consonance, generates the slow churning eddies of the poet’s mind wrestling with mystery, and by mystery, I do not mean mumbo-jumbo.

I take mystery to mean what the poet does not know, and here specifically, he asks what special power does the sound of the river have for him? The answer he finds is that it becomes a metaphor for the enigma of poetic inspiration.

It represents poetry’s percolating significance and the power that inheres in words themselves. This meaning can be gathered in the concluding lines of the poem:

So that even in my mind now turning away

From having listened absently but for so long
It will be the seethe and drag of the river
That I will hear longer than any mortal song.

That inner persistence represented by “the seethe and drag of the river” which the poet says “I will hear longer than any mortal song” is what calls to mind the use of the word eternal by Hass earlier. Here, the poet’s apprehension of the river’s sound, its presence within his imagination, is given a special place of importance over his immediate experience of the world. It is the imagined river's deep rumble that soothes and comforts the poet against what Wallace Stevens has called “the pressure of reality”.

If you like W.S. Merwin’s poem “River Sound Remembered”, you can enjoy it for yourself in his New and Selected poems Migration published by Copper Canyon Press.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Poetry: An Education (Part One)

Several weeks ago Jake Mooney hosted a terrific discussion on his blog Vox Populism about how best to teach poetry and when should it be introduced into a student’s education. As I had just arrived home from a vacation and had to prepare lessons for three classes, I withheld my thoughts on the matter but I thought I would share them now for I have a lot to say about the teaching of poetry, and of creative writing in general.

First of all, I am high-school English teacher which is a noble profession increasingly hampered by government PR campaigns disguised as education initiatives, moldering textbooks, dwindling photocopy budgets, administrations whose hands are tied by financial statements and board office directives; student IEPs, class medians, parasitic AP courses from the States, and a general lack of consensus between teachers when there is finally some money to make new changes. All of these factors place pressure on individual teachers and English departments to rubber stamp each student’s success and get them through that tattered copy of Lord of the Flies one more time.

Why do many English teachers in high school not take the time to teach their students poetry? Honestly, it is most often because their plate is already full.

This is not to say some teachers don’t go rogue and clear up some space for poetry in their classroom schedules. They do. I am one of them. However, you still have to teach the kids a full slate of prose, short fiction, novels and drama, doing the same major assignments the other sections of the course are doing, so usually a poetry unit falls in the get-to-know-your-teacher first two weeks of a class or in the dead-zone leading up to exams.

With younger grades, I tend to introduce poetry in two ways: through fun activities like relay ghazal-writing contests, Sound Poetry Olympics, group chapbooks, etc. and through some minor analysis of Canadian poetry that emphasizes sound, structure, imagery, and meaning.

With my senior grades, I have them write poetry research essays or I bring in poets that I know like Adam Getty and Paul Vermeersch who have always been a tremendous success. Years ago when Paul still smoked, I remember a few students gleefully running into my classroom after encountering him in the smoke-pit. They asked, are you a teacher? Taking a drag off his cigarette, and not looking at them, Paul said no. They asked, are you a narc? A mature student or something? Still not looking at them, Paul answered no. They asked him who was he? What was he doing there? Crushing his smoke and finally turning to look at them, Paul said he was a poet and then walked into the building. For the next seventy-five minutes, my students sat glued to their chairs listening to Paul read his combustible poems and, more importantly, they loved it! Such moments can do more to inspire a lifelong love of poetry than any teacher.

Lastly, if I have done my job properly, I have students sign up for the Writer’s Craft course I teach which is only for grade 12 students. Taking Writer’s Craft from “Banks” as the students call me has become a badge of honour for students exiting high school and majoring in English at university. In this course, students complete a short story, a one act play, a children’s book, a group school newspaper with a one week turnaround, a magazine article, a Canadian poetry presentation, a five poem chapbook (complete with a lesson on pamphlet stitch hand-binding), a contemporary fiction author study (minimum two novels), as well as a final writing project of their own design worth 20% of their final mark.

When I teach the poetry unit in Writer’s craft, any student who can write me a glosa gets a 6% bump to their overall mark for his or her poetry chapbook. When students hear the “glosa challenge” as it has been dubbed, they begin to smile, extra marks dancing in their eyes, and ask me why. I tell them writing a glosa will teach them more about writing poetry in three weeks than two years of undergrad creative writing workshops. When they come back with their glosas completed, most of the poems excellent, they look at me with a haunted knowing look that says 6% is nowhere near enough of a mark boost or a pay off for the amount of time, thought and effort expended while writing their poems. Well, that is the lesson kids.

I have been teaching poetry and creative writing to kids for ten years now and I’ve been lucky enough to teach many talented students who have gone on to university to become aspiring editors, poets, journalists and writers. My approach has always been the same: make it fun but make it also writing intensive. That way kids hopefully come out of high school with a love of literature but also a grounded understanding that there are no short cuts to good writing. It takes a lifetime of work.

(Part Two on University Creative Writing Programs coming soon!)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Do You Do With Such People?

I came across an essay by Joyce Carol Oates on the poetry of D.H. Lawrence called “Candid Revelations: The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence” which was originally published in the first issue of APR in 1972 but republished in the same publication in January/February 2008. Given the ongoing nature of discussions surrounding poetry reviewing on this blog and elsewhere, I thought I would share an excerpt of what Oates has to say about formalist critics who approached Lawrence’s poetry solely through their own blinkered expectations of what poetry must be:

But critics, especially “New Critics” and “Formalist Critics” have not understood this: that there are many kinds of art, that there may be a dozen, a hundred ways of writing, and that no single way is perfect. Lawrence was exasperated by, but not deeply influenced by the stupidity of his critics; but it may be harder for us, reading an essay like R.P Blackmur’s “Lawrence and Expressive Form” (in Language as Gesture, 1954), to restrain our impatience. Blackmur states that Lawrence is guilty of writing “fragmentary biography” instead of “poetry.” It would have been unthinkable to imagine that the two are not separate….? need not be separate….? And what does “poetry,” that elusive term, somehow punitive term, mean to Blackmur? If we read farther we see that his definition of ‘poetry’ is simply his expectation of what poetry must be, based on the poets he has evidently read, and judged worthy of the title of “poet.” One needs the “structures of art,” which are put there by something Blackmur calls a “rational imagination.” All this suggests that the critic is in control of what is rational, and if one investigates far enough he learns that this critic is unhappy because Lawrence the “craftsman” did not often enough silence Lawrence the demon of “personal outburst.” Lawrence leaves us, therefore, only with “The ruins of great intentions.” I mention all this because it is symptomatic of academic criticism at its most sinister, since it assumptions are so hidden that one can hardly discover them. But when you do discover them, you are sickened: for you see that the critic is punishing the poet for not being a form of the critic himself, a kind of analogue to his ego. How insane! But it is an insanity that passes for rational discourse, “objective criticism”: a colleague of mine one stated that Moby Dick is a “failure” because it does not “live up to” the form of the “novel.” What do you do with such people?

Friday, January 22, 2010

From My Bookshelf

My copy of the January/February issue of American Poetry Review arrived in my mailbox yesterday and with it, eight new poems by Hayden Carruth to my delight. The first poem "In Memoriam" grapples with a friend's death in 2005 and so thoroughly captures the seizures of fear and loss people feel when they lose someone so necessary to how they conceive of the world that these same lines might have applied to anyone in the poetry community who loved Hayden Carruth's writing and was surprised to hear of his passing last year:

He died. I saw his obit in the Times, and I felt
A sort of deflating gasp in my lungs, and I knew
As I had not before how lonely this life has
Become and is becoming. Tobias is gone,
And the hurricanes rage. Please, somebody. Please.

Accompanying the poems in the issue is an essay about Carruth's poetry entitled "One of Us: The Poetry of Hayden Carruth" by Ted Solotaroff which is also well worth the price of the magazine. I have been a huge fan of Hayden Carruth for the last half dozen years and have gathered a reasonable miscellany of his broadsides and poetry collections in that time. Below is a picture of his attractively done volume The Oldest Killed Lake In North America published in 1985 by Salt-Works.

This first edition is limited to 400 copies handset in Baskerville & Garamond types, treadle-printed on classic laid text, hand-sewn in classic wrappers with Grandee endsheets. Titles of poems appear in blue.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Computer Bytes The Dust

Hi everyone. My Mac mini quit this week which is why I have not posted anything new. The hard-drive had a colossal failure. All my music, wedding photos, and new manuscript are gone. Fortunately, I have most everything backed-up. I've really only lost a couple of new poems that are still just in junk drafts stages which is perhaps just as well. Anyhoo, I have a new computer winging its way here from the Apple manufactory and should arrive sometime Monday afternoon. Once I am up and running again, you can expect new posts on Sue Sinclair, Chris Hutchinson, W.S. Merwin, Linda Gregg, Jim Harrison and many, many more.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Blogosphere versus Print Magazines

I use to think of poetry blogs as a bunch of little fiefdoms from which poets proclaimed to the world their own genius or toadstools for the toadies among us to cozy up to writers or editors they thought might help further their own careers. I admit these preconceived notions are the main reasons why it took me so many years to start blogging in the first place. However, more and more, I am seeing the poetry blog, at least here in Canada, as the true marketplace of ideas. No more the spotty-faced teenage brat, the blogosphere is finally growing up.

More than just a place to staple-gun every positive review, pat on the back or passing remark someone makes about one’s poems, poetry blogs are eliciting real discussion amongst poets in a way that I have never seen before and, more importantly, I am noticing actual changes, shifts in our thinking about poetry. The internet is the great equalizer and no one voice, or group of voices, can dominate. Everyone is allowed to have their say, no matter how many choruses of mook pedants try to shout one down. You need only look at the recent hullabaloo about reviewing in Canada. Others and I have begun to raise our voices calling for a reexamination of what constitutes poetry reviewery in this country, something that is long overdue.

For instance, I wrote a piece about the dangers of aesthetic tribalism attaching itself to critical circles, for it often leads to the positing of one aesthetic stance over another under the guise of critical stewardship when really it is nothing more than personal bias or transparent agenda-setting, and was promptly denounced a critical relativist by those who have a stake in maintaining the status quo.

However, there have been many positive offshoots and ripple effects that have sprung up from these hot-topic discussions and lines drawn in the sand, the most notable being Sina Queyras’s sweeping compendium of reviewers on reviewing over on her own blog Lemon Hound which is currently garnering widespread praise here in Canada and the United States.

Where before many of my friends looked southward to U.S. publications for their poetry criticism because the readership in Canada was too small, and much of what passed itself off as “no-bullshit-hard-nosed criticism” was more often tied to a few small presses and power politics, there is now an optimistic feeling that things are finally changing for the better.

New voices are entering into the mix via the blogosphere, and hopefully many more voices are still to arrive in the coming year.

Indeed, it is my belief that poetry blogs have the advantage over print magazines in their ability to influence how we think and talk about poetry. More than just a series of inter-connected “dead letter offices” full of hyper-links, the real benefit of the poetry blogosphere is bloggers creating their own content and readers sharing their feedback. Sure there are still the self-aggrandizing “me” blogs and shameless attack blogs, but substantial poetry blogs that offer a diverse array of literary criticism, interviews, essays and social commentary are on the rise. What is more they are starting to determine what poets are talking about here in Canada.

So what are the print magazines to do? How can they keep up with the rapid exchange of ideas and commentaries offered by poetry blogs if they only publish three or four issues a year? Twice a year? I daresay it is a losing battle for them as poetry blogs are community-building in a way print magazines can only dream of being.

I suppose print magazines do not have to worry themselves too much just yet, for many still see blogs as virtual soapboxes, but with the rise of online poetry magazines such as Northern Poetry Review and Encore Literary Magazine, they might have some real cause for concern in the future. I can say unequivocally I still love print magazines and I am not willing to give up on them just yet. I subscribe to many both in Canada and the United States. The top shelf in my office is crammed to overflowing with dog-eared literary journals, their pages marked for reference or further reading.

However, I am not interested either in supporting literary magazines that purport to be national in character but are run more like club-houses or condescend to a readership which is by and large other poets. I can only imagine the days of such magazines are numbered.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Jason Shinder's "Eternity"

Well, I am back from the holidays and I having been reading Jason Shinder’s poems from his book Stupid Hope with much enthusiasm these last few days. Like many, I have a fondness for clever, audacious imagery, the kind of images that shake up your world and leave their impression so thoroughly upon your imagination that you bear their watermark in your memory. Notice, for instance, the dazzling opening lines of Shinder’s poem “The Alder Tree”:

When I think of how my mother shut down—

like the water fountain in the town square when the cold
months come—time is the nervous eye of the rat in a jar

in the laboratory of the mad scientist who everyone

goes out of their way to avoid.

How anyone can make such disparate images adhere to one another is beyond me but Shinder manages this feat with extreme delicacy in this collection of poems which was published post-humously after Jason Shinder passed away earlier last year.

The afterword written by the book’s editors – Sophie Cabot Black, Lucie Brock-Broido, Tony Hoagland and Marie Howe — explains Shinder obsessively revised and reworked his poems and the results are often tender, ironic, wistful and revelatory.

As I am a teacher by profession, I often begin teaching poetry to my students with a definition coined by the poet and essayist Stephen Dobyns who said in the preface of his book Best Words, Best Order that “a poem is a window that hangs between two or more human beings who otherwise live in darkened rooms”.

Up until a few months ago, I had not an accompanying poem I felt fully illustrated or illuminated the truth of Dobyn’s statement to my satisfaction. That is, until I read Jason Shinder’s poem “Eternity”.


A poem written three thousand years ago

about a man who walks among horses
grazing on a hill under the small stars

comes to life on a page in a book

and the woman reading the poem,
in the silence between the words,

in her kitchen, filled with a gold, metallic light

finds the experience of living in that moment
so clearly described as to make her feel finally known

by someone—and every time the poem is read,

no matter her situation or her age,
this is more or less what happens.

I find this a wonderfully adept little narrative poem and, as such, I am not going to say anything else about it as I think it speaks for itself. As the poet and critic Mark Jarman has stated so eloquently in his essay “Narrative Beauty”, “If there is a story to be told in a poem, narrative is the river it rides on. As lyric beauty is in the singing, narrative beauty is in the telling.” (174)

I urge you to go out and buy a copy of Jason Shinder’s Stupid Hope for yourself as it deserves many readers and many readings.