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.