Sunday, November 20, 2011

On Winter Cranes

I think of Winter Cranes as an homage to an invisible world. A world I take on faith and try to apprehend daily as if the divine, or some over-arching pattern, or those answers to the questions of who I am, or what is my purpose, could be found if I just took more time to look for them.

I suppose I could be called a lapsed romantic for my poems are elegies to the world as it should be lived. Not as it is lived. It comes down to my anxieties really and an inability to accept my lot in life.

I share what Theodore Roethke once called “a longing not for escape, but for a greater reality”; however, such longing is also tempered by a knowledge that any connection, any feeling of transcendence, if it does come in one’s poetry at all, is always fleeting.

Praise and mourning. These are the twin subjects of my poems. I want my experiences, my perceptions, my memories; in fact, my whole life to be changed, made meaningful, by shaping such inner observations in a way that they are made permanent fixtures. In death, Ansel Adams become those mountains he loved so dearly for we still gaze upon his photographs today. To me, he is a colossus of the imagination. I want nothing less than that for my poems but, at the same time, my poems mourn the naivety of such an idea.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thomas Lynch “Walking Papers”

I was living in Seoul South Korea teaching English to kindergarten students when my American room-mate gave me a copy of Thomas Lynch’s book of essays The Under-taking: Life Studies From The Dismal Trade. I had never heard of Lynch before, as this was long before I came to a book-by-book appreciation of his tremendous skills as a master elegist and a genius of blank verse, but those essays stuck with me. Perhaps this was because I was still ploughing through my first manuscript writing poems akin to small epitaphs to my own estranged childhood in Southwestern Ontario.

All I knew about Lynch was that he was an under-taker from a small Michigan town, and an American poet, but his cogent thoughts about the lessons the living take from the dead were a revelation. In an essay entitled “Mary & Wilbur”, Lynch accounts for people’s impulse to memorialize by saying:

“We need our witnesses and archivists to say we lived, we died, we made this difference. Where death means nothing, life is meaningless. It’s a grave arithmetic. The cairns and stone piles, the life stories drawn on cave walls, the monuments in graveyards, one and all, are the traces left of the species before us—a space that they’ve staked out in granite and bronze. And whether a pyramid or Taj Mahal, a great vault in Highgate or a name on The Wall, we let them stand. We visit them. We trace the shapes of their names and dates with our fingers. We say the little epitaphs out loud. “Together forever.” “Gone but not forgotten.” We try to reassemble their lives from the stingy details, and the exercise teaches us something about how to live” (117).

Lynch is talking here about the covenant the living make with the dead—the need to remember so we may, in turn, be remembered—but he could just as easily be talking about poetry which has traced these grand themes with its own fingers too.

What I like about Lynch’s prose, and his poetry for that matter, is his nostalgic eloquence but also the ever-present mindset of the small town undertaker. A dispassionate voice that never preaches, never sentimentalizes, and reminds us there are some things in life from which there can be no deliverance.

Take, for example, this poem called “Oh Say Grim Death” from his most recent collection Walking Papers published by W.W. Norton & Company.

Oh Say Grim Death

No doubt the Reverend Ainsworth read from Job
Over the charred corpse of the deacon’s boy
To wit: “Blessed be the name of the Lord”
Or some such comfortless dose of holy writ
That winter morning after the house fire
Put all the First Congregationalists
Of Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire
Out weeping and gnashing, out in the snow
Whilst the manse at Main street and Gilmore Pond Road
Blazed into the early Thursday morning.
God’s will is done as often without warning
As with one. Either way, Revere His laws
Is cut into the child’s monument
To rhyme with a previous sentiment:
Cease, Man, to ask the hidden cause. As if
The answers ever were forthcoming. So
Little’s known of young Isaac A. Spofford—
His father, Eleazar, his mother, Mary,
His death on the thirteenth of February
In Seventeen Hundred Eighty-eight.
A brand plucked from the ashes reads the stone
Of Rev. Laban Ainsworth’s house; which frames
The sadness in the pastor’s burning faith,
In God’s vast purposes. As if the boy
Long buried here was killed to show how God
Makes all things work together toward some good.
And yet the stone’s inquiry still haunts:
Oh say, grim death why thus destroy
The parents’ hopes, their fondest joy—
Or say, instead, grim death destroys us all
By mighty nature’s witless, random laws
Whereby old churchmen, children, everything—
All true believers, all who disbelieve,
Come to their ashen ends and life goes on.

What can one say when calamity strikes and our children meet untimely ends? A burning faith in God or the shaking of one’s fist at “nature’s witless, random laws” will accomplish very little. Whatever your belief system or lack of it, death simply does not care, for no one thing will bring back the promise of a child that has been taken too early to his grave. This is what the poem is saying. Why did this happen? Because. And life goes on.

This is not to suggest everything is quite so gloomy in Lynch’s essays and poetry for every death is also a solid affirmation life is for living. Life can be taken away at any moment. The question then becomes how to live? I will let Lynch himself answer that question from another of his remarkable essays called “All Hallow’s Eve”:

“Revision and prediction seem like wastes of time. As much as I’d like to have a handle on the past and future, the moment I live in is the one I have. Here is how the moment instructs me: clouds afloat in front of the moon’s face, lights flicker in the carved heads of pumpkins, leaves rise in the wind at random, saints go nameless, love comforts, souls sing beyond the reach of bodies” (148).

If you enjoyed the poem “Oh Say Grim Death” and the essay excerpts by Thomas Lynch, please pick up his latest collection Walking Papers and The Undertaking at your local bookstore.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ted Kooser on Too Many Poets

"A noted contemporary poet and critic has said we ought to keep poetry a secret from the masses. Another, the editor of a prestigious anthology of poetry, said that each nation ought to have no more than a handful of poets. Both sound pretty elitist, don't they? Well, we'll always have among us those who think the best should be reserved for the few. Considering the ways in which so many of us waste our time, what would be wrong with a world in which everybody were writing poems? After all, there's a significant service to humanity in spending time doing no harm. While you're writing your poem,there's one less less scoundrel in the world. And I'd like a world, wouldn't you, in which people actually took time to think about what they were saying? It would be, I'm certain, a more peaceful, more reasonable place. I don't think there could ever be too many poets. By writing poetry, even those poems that fail and fail miserably, we honor and affirm life. We say "We loved the earth but could not stay." (5) - Ted Kooser from The Poetry Home-Repair Manual

Friday, September 2, 2011

Winter Cranes

Winter Cranes

My wife saw birds pass over the frozen pond
and wondered aloud if they were cranes
desiring proof of their corporeal existence
to mark them as either a tangible reality
or a fantasy born of some lack in our lives.
Their wings beat exultantly, blossoming,
a wild spume of feathers backlit by morning sun
so they looked like more than just creatures
but symbols ferried from myth or poetry
to satisfy my wife’s wishes or my need to place
a few lines down upon the blank white sheet
of this morning’s latest offering of snow.
I said they were only herons. The same ones
from last summer come back a little early
guided by an instinct, a faint signal, hard-wired
in their brains to the earth’s magnetic fields
allowing them to navigate their way here
each year to stand like sentries, silhouettes
against the pond’s grey light, if only to teach us
how even patience can be a kind of violence.
“I want them to be cranes, “my wife said again
a little more forcefully this time so her words
were now a truth or a sacrament of experience
fully grasped, making us hungry for the dynasties
of the past we believe such birds emerge from
like after-images of a dream only now recalled.
“I wish they were cranes too”, I said, watching
the pair descending towards the farthest end
of the pond where the ice was the thinnest,
the city hardening its shell in the background
still waiting for the winter storms to come.

By Chris Banks

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Great Leap Forward : Matt Rader and Nick Thran

What people like to call poetic attention for me is the great leap forward of imagination captured in language. This is something hard for young struggling poets to comprehend and which I believe cannot be taught. However, it can be learned through daily practice and a little faith.

Matt Rader and Nick Thran are terrific Canadian poets who already in a very short span of years have grasped the intangibles of poetic attention. Their most recent books, Rader’s A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over The River Arno and Thran’s Earworm, have not left my bedside table since they were published last Spring for each one demands re-reading.

Both Rader and Thran pay close attention to their subject matter often making the speakers of their poems commentators or witnesses who wish to remain somehow in the background. However, paradoxically, their speakers are also the makers or inventors of the poems, fabulists who mine elegy and experience, anaphora and sweeping associations to quilt a vision of a conditional, patch-work world, one underlaid with a fundamental awareness that any glimpsed pattern or created order is momentary.

These poems are memorials not only to a world that is constantly in flux – people and things coming in and out of existence – but memorials to the very flow of human thoughts, which are also fleeting. A typical example is Matt Rader’s poem “Music” which is the opening poem from his new book:


I awoke on Veteran’s Day in the United States
To blue skies and a republican Cali sunshine
That made the whole town of McKinleyville
Appear lit from the inside, as if it were its own
Source of light, as if it still heard the sad music
Of its first name, Minor, and heard the minor
Third Mckinley sang when he was shot through
The stomach and the pancreas and the kidney
At the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York
In nineteen hundred and one. We were talking
Poetry, my friend and me, and what happened
To the lake in Blue Lake after the Mad River
Was leveed and how McKinley was the last
Veteran of the Civil War elected President,
How he died of gangrene because the surgeons
Had been forced to operate by reflected sun-
Light and could not find the bullet. We talked
As we drove the back roads of Humbolt County
About our faith in the persistent wellspring
Of meaning and sang along with Springsteen,
Headed north to the tall trees at Prarie Creek,
Past the beachhead at Trinidad and the casino
And the Orick gas bar, past the present moment
Into our late afternoon beer at the Fieldbrook
General Store where we sat in the dimness
And recalled things that happened long before
Us like the redwood forest and the salt marsh
In Humbolt Bay, like the Pan-American Expo
Where the first x-ray machine was on display
And President Mckinley reached out to shake
The hand of a man carrying a pistol concealed
By a hankerchief. “All my people are larger
Bodies than mine,” my friend quoted Agee,
“By some chance, here they are, all on this earth.”
These are the facts as I know them. Mckinley
Died from a lack of light and the assassin
Was executed by electricity on State Street
In Auburn, New York, on the traditional land
Of the Iroquois Confederacy, two weeks before
A wrecking crew razed the Temple of Music.

Matt Rader memorializes many things in this poem: the assassination of the 25th president of the United States, the leveeing of the Mad River, the birth of a redwood forest; the dissolution of the Iroquois Confederacy; the razing of the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York and even a late afternoon drive with a friend discussing the persistence of meaning in the face of collective losses that can never be rightly tallied.

It is a kind of eulogy to human experience, but it is no Vale of Tears either, for the thread which holds all these items together is the speaker’s capacity to create meaning; in fact, to insist upon it, even when most often the blunt instruments of words and an indifferent world resist such attempts.

Just as the speaker’s friend quotes Agee saying “All my people are larger bodies than mine”, so too is this poem larger than the sum of its own parts for what it is after is nothing less than to communicate something that lies outside of itself, and yet is at the heart of human experience, which is the mind’s capacity to make a leap towards meaning which gives life its dignity and triumph.

Likewise, Nick Thran approaches the same questions of meaning and poetic attention in his poem “Earworm”, the title of his most recent poetry collection, but he appears more hesitant to bestow any lasting significance to his words in case they distract him from what he seeks which is to describe the great leap forward itself, the precise moment, when out of the imagination’s din, images are born into language.


So there’s likely a more accurate name
for the glow of a deer’s eyes in the dark.
For the hunger that drew a python in Florida
to swallow an alligator whole. For the aura,
the swell just before the gut burst.
For why you’ve been staying up late at night
on a search engine, looking for all of the possible
names for a lump at the back of your nostril.
For the name of that girl who sold you a pill
from the basket of her bike, and rode off while
her fairy wings flapped in the breeze. And a name
for that breeze. Repetune, ohrworm,
the last song stuck in your head
which became something else. And for what else?
For not being able to say the one thing
that might have kept you from continually falling apart.
For discovering late. For replaying the video clip
of Joltin’ Joe Carter’s ninth inning blast
in the ’93 series. For the sound when the ball
hit the bat, and everyone knew they’d won
before it left the park. And for the white noise
that isn’t white noise, but a poor translation of what
the blood tries to say. And what the blood tries to say.
For the feeling of never wanting to leave the party
and then having to leave. For the ache in your legs
when you should have cabbed home, but decided to walk
and the walk was too far. But you had to keep on—
Earworm, Little One, chugging along, traveling towards a name.

The nagging tune stuck in the head of Thran’s speaker is the sibilant voice of the mind, the white noise of thought and image and imagination venting through the bedrock of human awareness, trying to explain why things are and why we do the things we do.

Unlike in Rader’s poem which is a kind of monument to life’s fragility and to the redemptive qualities of poetry to make life meaningful through its retelling, Thran’s speaker is more ironic in his attempts to formulate meaning for he knows he must use words which are for him, “a poor translation of what / the blood tries to say”.

If there is a common denominator in Thran and Rader’s poems, it is how they both seek to enact what Dave Smith has called, “the deep reverberations of living” (253). The seriousness with which both poets go about this task is shown not simply through the sundry tools of wordsmithing, but through faithful attention to thought and image, giving each poem its active sense of a mind feeling and thinking in time. If you have enjoyed these poems, please pick up copies of Matt Rader’s A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over The River Arno and Nick Thran’s Earworm at your local bookstore.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kim Addonizio “Describe This”

Kim Addonizio writes in one chapter called “Describe This” from her book Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within that, “Description is important because it’s evidence. One meaning of evidence is ‘outward sign.’ In a trial, physical objects may be entered as evidence, as proof. To follow through on ‘I can’ is to say: This happened. There is an Irish proverb: ’The most beautiful music of all is the music of what happens.’

I have been reading Addonizio’s poetry for a number of years and surely one of the things I love about it is her technical mastery of description. Bold, street-savvy and molto sexy, her writing is exhibitionistic and fearless in a way that other writing only tries to be, and underneath it all, her impeccable tailoring skills shine through as if every loose thread were cut away with a straight razor. For example, look at what she does with one of the most Xeroxed of poetic images, the human heart, in this poem from her most recent book Lucifer at the Starlite published by Norton:

My Heart

That Mississippi chicken shack.
That initial-scarred tabletop,
that tiny little dance floor to the left of the band.
That kiosk at the mall selling caramels and kitsch.
That tollbooth with its white-plastic-gloved worker
handing you your change.
That phone booth with the receiver ripped out.
That dressing room in the fetish boutique,
those curtains and mirrors.
That funhouse, that horror, that soundtrack of screams.
That putti-filled heaven raining gilt from the ceiling.
That haven for truckers, that bottomless cup.
That biome. That wilderness preserve.
That landing strip with no runway lights
where you are aiming your plane,
imagining a voice in the tower,
imagining a tower.

Delight, experience, and isolation are communicated so expertly in the first three lines of this poem that the reader forgets momentarily that this is a poem about the human heart – that throne-room of human longing and self delusion - a cliche poets have been snivelling about since they first put pen to paper. But here Addonizio makes the image new again which is no small feat. I especially love how she communicates hope, desperation, vulnerability and trust in the last few lines, “That landing strip with no runway lights / where you are aiming your plane, / imagining a voice in the tower, / imagining a tower.”

The way Addonizio employs description in this poem is very much the same idea Mark Doty articulates in his book The Art of Description when he says,

“What we want when we describe is surely complex: To solve the problem of speechlessness, which is a state without agency, so that we feel impressed upon by things but unable to push back at them? To refuse silence, so that experience will not go unspoken? To be accurate (but to what? the look of things, the feel of being here? to the strange fact of being in the face of death?)? To arrive at exactitude in order to experience the satisfaction of matching words to the world, in order to give those words to someone else, or even to just savor them for ourselves?” (9)

The best descriptions in poetry are always savory, but Addonizio seems to hold firmly to the belief that they must also be audacious and adventuresome, shaking up those ideas or objects they are attempting to explain, or translate, with a little razzle-dazzle. In her title poem “Lucifer at the Starlite”, Addonizio takes on the decline of western civilization and late-stage capitalism post-Enron and 9/11 by making the hero of her poem, Lucifer, just another splashy irresponsible corporate leader addicted to greed at the expense of the impoverished and the environment:

Lucifer at the Starlite
--after George Meredith

Here’s my bright idea for life on earth:
better management. The CEO
has lost touch with the details. I’m worth
as much, but I care; I come down here, I show
my face, I’m a real regular. A toast:
To our boys and girls in the war, grinding
through sand, to everybody here, our host
who’s mostly mist, like methane rising
from retreating ice shelves. Put me in command.
For every town, we’ll have a marching band.
For each thoroughbred, a comfortable stable;
for each worker, a place beneath the table.
For every forward step a stumbling.
A shadow over every starlit thing.

Besides being a beautifully conceived sonnet (and a clever allusion to this old chestnut), this poem describes the essence of what has happened in the last ten years to America. It offers itself up as proof of the chaotic collapse of financial institutions, the global war on terrorism, and the growing disparity between rich and poor. In Addonizio’s world, that rough beast slouching towards Bethelehem is nothing more than Citigroup or perhaps Rupert Murdoch. This is a poem “not of direct statement but of direct evocation” to paraphrase something Denise Levertov once said.

Description demands poets take the limits of our language and bend them until they take on, not so much the exact colour and shape of our shared world, but the revelation of it. Kim Addonizio’s own pleasure in describing that world is obvious in Lucifer at the Starlite.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jim Harrison “Thickets”

From poetry’s early progenitors like Rimbaud, Keats, Whitman, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Basho to our more home-grown elder poetry statesmen like Leonard Cohen or Al Purdy who went on walkabout, sometimes for years, and wrote about it famously in their books, there is something intractable and alluring about a poet’s desire to hit the road. Of my friends in the poetry community, many gleefully pack every year, boarding buses or trains, in order to go off for a few stolen weeks – or if they are especially lucky – a few stolen months on various writing sabbaticals.

Usually these retreats take place in far-flung destinations like the Banff Center in the mountains, or a small monastery in Saskatchewan, or a real honest-to-god castle in Scotland, or a writer’s colony in Mexico. The more isolated, off the beaten track, and remote a location is, the more utility it has for a writer looking for a place to write.

For myself, I only really learned to write after living in Seoul, South Korea for a year by myself and taking just two poetry books with me. Less being more. Such thoughts make me think of Jack Gilbert’s fine poem “Gift Horses” from his book The Great Fires where he writes “He lives in the barrens, in dying neighborhoods / and negligible countries. None with an address. / But still the Devil finds him. Kills the wife / or spoils the marriage. Publishes each place / and makes it popular, makes it better, makes it / unusable.”

This idea of utility in the wilderness is a romantic notion and is largely responsible for poets and writers making for the hinterlands just off the main map. In his essay “The Road” from his book Off to the Side, Jim Harrison offers reasons for why those in the writing community often find themselves north of elsewhere:

The easily perceivable motive is more life rather than less, and the simple historical fact that we lost a certain exuberance when we began to squat rather than wander. We arm ourselves early with quasi-wisdom to support our heart’s urgings. I remember my dad’s consternation when I quoted William Blake, “Still water breeds pestilence,” though he was indeed sympathetic to my “seeing the world” before I got married and settled down. (149)

This sounds about right to me. In my experience, isolation forces a person open. It pulps your life’s experience, and makes you vulnerable in ways that remind you life is not the slough of mundane thoughts seeking to distract you from seeing the world’s plenty. Life for a poet or a writer requires acute attention or as Roethke once wrote: “A poetry of longing: not for escape but for a greater reality.”

I think this is the view Jim Harrison was speaking of in the essay I quoted from earlier and which he masterfully fashions into the following poem from his collection Saving Daylight:

Patagonia Poem

Here in the first morning sunlight I’m trying
to locate myself not by latitude 31.535646 N
or longitude 110.747511 W, but by the skin
of my left hand at the edge of the breakfast plate.
This hand has the skin and fingers of an animal.
The right hand forks the egg of a bird, a chicken.
The bright yellow yolk was formerly alive
in the guts of the bird waiting for the absent rooster.
Since childhood it has been a struggle
not to run away and hide in a thicket and sometimes
I did so. Now I write “Jim” with egg yolk
on the white plate in order to remember my name,
and suddenly both hands look like
an animal’s who also hides in a remote thicket.
I feel my head and the skull ever so slightly
beneath the skin, a primate’s skull that tells
me a thicket is a good idea for my limited
intelligence, and this hand holding a pen, a truly
foreign object I love, could with its brother hand
build a shelter in which to rest awhile and take
delight in life again, to wander in the moonlight
when earth achieves its proper shape, to rest looking
out through a tangle of branches at a daylight
world that can’t see back in at this animal shape.

I suppose what first needs to be said about this poem is that the exact location in which the speaker finds himself, at least in the purely geographical sense, is not significant. In our brave new world so obsessed with GPS satellite technology, a technology that can unwittingly lead a driver off a bridge that is out, or tragically cause an older couple to be stranded in the mountains of Nevada, the exact longitude or latitude is immaterial.

The important thing is what happens inside him in that location, the mindfulness or sudden awareness that stems from walking up a dirt path, or crossing a ridge-line, or in this case having breakfast in the first morning sunlight in a place which was until that morning new and foreign to him.

It is the foreignness of the place, the costume of one’s daily life stripped away, that allows the poem’s speaker to be more attentive and to unclutter, defragment, his consciousness. It is only by placing himself in a landscape that is wholly indifferent to him, one that, in fact, has forgotten that he is there, which ironically allows him to begin to see himself anew as he does in the next section of the poem where he begins by studying his hand:

This hand has the skin and fingers of an animal.
The right hand forks the egg of a bird, a chicken.
The bright yellow yolk was formerly alive
in the guts of the bird waiting for the absent rooster.
Since childhood it has been a struggle
not to run away and hide in a thicket and sometimes
I did so. Now I write “Jim” with egg yolk
on the white plate in order to remember my name,
and suddenly both hands look like
an animal’s who also hides in a remote thicket.

Harrison’s idea of thickets, natural shelters where animals tend to hide, is enlarged in this section to include that human drive to escape into the wilderness, into the remotest regions where the world forgets us, and in that forgetting, reforges our connection to nature, and by extension, to ourselves.

This is not to say one always needs to be alone lost in the barrens, surviving only on a diet of wild rabbit and berries. Harrison hints at this in his essay when he says, “Gradually my definition of thickets came to include distant anonymous motels in remote towns and cities”(145). Harrison wants to get away from the ruckus of modern life, with all its morose addictions to mindless consumption, and find a place where a person can be made to feel vulnerable and attentive. That is all.

Isn’t this why poets and writers pack planes, trains, and automobiles each year on their way to Spain, or some cabin in Muskoka, or a writing retreat in the BC Gulf islands? It replenishes the spirit and one’s ability to write?

I like to believe so and so does Jim Harrison as he ends his poem with the belief that although we are the only animal who laughs and weeps, we are still only an animal, subject to the normal passage of time and mortality, looking for a place to stare “out through a tangle of branches at a daylight / world that can’t see back in at this animal shape”.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Grand Community of Canadian Poetry

“Despite its bloodlessness, the tradition of literature is a grand community and, much as I envy the happy and the young, I doubt they have as good a one.” (244) This sentence was written by Paul Goodman but I have excerpted it from an essay Hayden Carruth wrote in 1982 entitled “Paul Goodman and The Grand Community”. Unfortunately, the idea of a grand community within the Canadian Poetry circle has largely gone unrealized because of the bickering and back-slapping that has afflicted much of the discussion between Canadian poets online, and has been found too often in our more prominent journals.

For my part, I started this blog with the intention to shine a light on some of the influence-peddling and invisible ties between poet-critics who were busily trumpeting one aesthetic stance over another while castigating their fellow poets who were doing other work. I have tried to speak honestly and openly about such matters, even when it was unfashionable, or when I was told the “blow-back” of such talk would certainly negatively impact how people perceive me. I was asked by one person did I really want to poke the bear? I did this all because I wanted poets to stop resurrecting garrisons and have the ability to engage in authentic conversations, allowing for the free play of mind and heart, without such talk being co-opted by a handful of voices.

Then this week an announcement George Murray has launched a new poetry site called New Poetry which is meant to help tear down these garrisons and to build bridges between the members of our fractured community. At first, I was suspicious of George’s motives because when I was calling for more accountability and critical stewardship late last year, and being publicly pilloried for it, George was skeptical of such change. I don’t know what has changed for him but obviously it is for the better.

I was not asked to join his new editorial board but a whole host of other people were. Some of those people are what I would call the usual suspects while other faces make me excited to see what fruit this new site will bear. If poets are willing to put down their swords and pound them into ploughshares, then I whole-heartedly support such an endeavour. Hopefully, this is a sign of authentic change and a movement towards that grand community everyone wishes for and can envision.

I quoted a little statement Philip Levine said in his essay “Two Journeys” before on my blog, and doubtlessly I will do it again because it is something I need to be reminded of, and I believe needs to be said aloud. Levine says, “I believe the truth is we form a family with other poets, living and dead, or we risk going nowhere”.

As for myself, I believe if we break good faith with our colleagues then we have no one else to blame if we find ourselves muttering poems to an empty room. I am not sure if I will continue this blog. It appears to have served its purpose.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Words for Young Canadian Poets

Since National Poetry Month is only a day a way and since I’m now starting to think of myself as an old curmudgeon, I thought I would like to start things off with what little meager advice I might offer to young Canadian poets starting out. These are the nuggets of wisdom I would have liked someone to say to me back when I was in my twenties and first starting to write my own poems.

1) Aspire to be more than a contributor page.

2) Revising poems is like panning for gold. It won’t make you rich but delight in the few shiny grains.

3) Throw off the bondage of the fashionable. Seek your own poetry.

4) Unlike the hard coin of one’s lines, the sprezzatura of one’s personality cannot be banked on.

5) Revelation and restlessness are most often unhappily married in poetry.

6) Be neither tyrant nor toadie. Both are affectations.

7) The lesser the talent, the louder the voice.

8) A poem should be honest, true in some way, or else it is all wiring and no circuit.

9) Do not mistake arrogance for determination.

10) A poem should surprise and not explain.

11) In poetry, you may glimpse the universe but only through a keyhole.(for G.M.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Poet’s Table: Poetry and Food

Octavio Paz said, “Poetry is one of the ways to make a reconciliation between the body and the mind” which is something I believe in fervently and try to exercise on a daily basis but an appreciation of food is also a practical way to unite the burdens of consciousness with the appetites of the flesh.

Whether it be enjoying something as uncomplicated as a pint of porter and a pound of mussels on a small patio in Lunenburg Harbour as I did last summer in Nova Scotia, or devouring Ontario pheasant and fois gras on cranberry kasha with Earl Grey jus, paired with a smoky glass of Italian red wine, as I savoured last month at Opus restaurant in Yorkville, food is an immediate, all-encompassing pleasure.

A mansion with many rooms. One that resides next door to poetry.

At least, this is what I found myself thinking about after my wife Teresa and I ended up with a few stolen hours sans toddler yesterday and were able to enjoy a nice lunch together at a quiet little restaurant.

We both had the Croque Madame after seeing it listed on the menu: a classic grilled sandwich made with toasted brioche, shaved ham and a fried egg topped with Hollandaise sauce. For the rest of the afternoon, I walked around with a smug smile on my face thinking about my lunch and how food, like poetry, plays on our all too human emotions.

Teresa and I are definately foodies. We have a butcher where we buy all our meats. Throughout the summer months, we get a produce box delivered once a week from a local farm to our front door so we know the vegetables we are eating are grown right down the road from us.

Of course, what we do not know is what will be delivered and in what quantities which is part of the whole charm of the farm box. My two year-old daughter loves opening the box and discovering basil, purslane, a bag stuffed full of peas, zucchini and tomatoes.

Inevitably, when my wife and I talk together about vacationing or traveling, food more often than not plays a major role in the planning of our trips. We both lived in South Korea where we taught English and it is there that we developed a taste for foreign food and travel.

In my own memory’s larder, I associate each place where I have been with a specific type of food: Greece is huge gyros stuffed with french fries bought from street vendors and cold bottles of Heineken. Cuba is swordfish, cold shrimp and calamari salad and paella. Rome is pasta with Amatriciana sauce and red wine. That is life.

We cook too. In the last few weeks, Teresa has made egg-plant parmesan, chicken paprikash, and Thai green curry. Although I am not as skilled as my wife, I can turn out seafood linguini in white wine sauce, a pork shoulder roast in a grainy mustard sauce, and lemon and dill stuffed red snapper.

Cooking is natural aromatherapy and whenever I find the blues overtaking me on a rainy weekend, I pull out the Joy of Cooking and make a shopping list. Three hours later, the house smells magical and I have had the pleasure of cooking something new.

Since we live an hour and a half away from the Niagara wine region, my wife and I also make frequent forays into wine country, usually coming home with a box and a half of wine bottles from a half dozen little vineyards.

Like poetry, food and wine should be about discovery, taking seemingly disparate ingredients—fish and lemon, mushrooms and demi-glace, guacamole and orange supremes— and combining them to release underlying associations.

Think of it as the ordinary transmuted into the extraordinarily flavourful.

In fact, I distrust most poets who take no interest in the food they put on their dinner plates or the wine they pour into their glasses. To my mind, if your idea of cooking is popping in lean cuisine into a microwave, your poetry most likely lacks savour too. Every poet should know his or her death-row last meal.

For me, it is ojingo bokum, an unpretentious Korean dish of sautéed squid and vegetables in a spicy red pepper sauce served with white rice, and a bottle of Thirty Bench Red.

Just as poetry should be both the meal and the utensils, so should be any discussion of food. As Joyce Carol Oates has said, “When poets write about food it is usually celebratory. Food as the thing-in-itself, but also the thoughtful preparation of meals, the serving of meals, meals communally shared: a sense of the sacred in the profane.”

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Beautiful Fires

Here is a wonderful broadside of Jack Gilbert's poem "The Great Fires" I purchased last month. The run was limited to only 40 numbered copies with original calligraphy by Julio Granda. This 12 X 17 inch serigraph is silkscreen printed in 7 colors on Okawara rice paper by Jon Ahlen. The typeface is Optima Medium-Bold. The print is signed by the artist and the printer. Always a favorite poem of mine, I now have another reason to smile every time I read it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Most Anticipated Film

I just discovered this trailer for a documentary based on the life of the American poet Larry Levis whose poetry collections have been my constant companions for the last several years. The film is entitled "My Story in a Late Style of Fire" after one of Larry's poems and is directed by Michele Poulos. This documentary has very quickly risen to the top of my list of most anticipated films. If anyone knows where I might view this film or purchase a copy of it, please do let me know.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rare Public Appearance

I will be doing a rare public reading this coming Sunday February 6th at Hamilton’s Lit Live Reading Series where I will be sharing the stage with other poets Jim Johnstone, Chris Pannell, R. W. Megens, Kildare Dobbs and David Seymour.

Besides reading poems from my first two collections, I will be reading some poems from my forthcoming book Winter Cranes which will be published next fall.

The event starts at 7:30 pm at the Sky Dragon Centre, King William Street, Hamilton, ON.

I hope to see you all there.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Memory of Memory: Some Notes on Imagery

Images can be private or public but if they are any good at all, they reveal some underlying nature within us. I remember being nineteen, for instance, and reading Gwendolyn MacEwen’s signature poem “Dark Pines Under Water” and being so taken by its famous imagery evoking the Canadian Shield country of my youth, a terrain of lakes and moraines and wilderness, something I knew intimately from spending my summers in Muskoka.

I’m not sure I really understood the poem as a young man for, truthfully, I think I was much more taken with the speaker’s vatic lyricism, a frustratingly ineluctable quality present in all of MacEwen’s best work, but decades later it seems to me what this poem actually does with great ease is call into question the relationship between poetic imagery and the world at large:

This land like a mirror turns you inward

And you become a forest in a furtive lake;

The dark pines of your mind reach downward,

You dream in the green of your time,

Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for

Although it is good here, and green;

You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,

You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper

And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper

In an elementary world;

There is something down there and you want it told.

Early in the poem MacEwen contends that what we identify as the image in a poem is not merely a mental picture, but something much deeper, more akin to an archetype. It sets up this argument in the first stanza where MacEwen writes “This land like a mirror turns you inward / And you become a forest in a furtive lake; “ which suggest a few possible readings. There are the pines fallen into the water, or if you prefer, the reflections of pines cast upon the water, but then, by extension, there are also the pines we see reflected within our minds which are pure image. A representation of the world outside ourselves.

But unlike mimesis, or mere correspondence, these images are also the essence of what they represent. It is this quality, the idea that images touch upon some special inherited knowledge deep within our minds, that MacEwen interrogates in the poem’s conclusion when she writes ”There is something down there and you want it told.”

Donald Hall basically sets out this case in a brief essay entitled “Notes on the Image: Body and Soul” where he says “’Spirit and image’ meant ‘ soul and body.’ But ‘image’ has come to mean precisely not-body, not-X, because the image is an imitation or a copy of X. From a copy or representation of a thing, the word can then move to mean the essence of a thing; therefore ‘ image’ comes to mean ‘spirit,’ which began by being its opposite”(143).

I suppose this is why imagery is such a tricky thing to talk about since our definitions of what images are and what they do often break down upon closer inspection. Images interject themselves between the world out there and the mind’s capacity to ascertain our experience of that world.

Words may make up the sinews of our language, but imagery is most definitely its spirit.

Perhaps this is why poetic imagery and memory are so closely linked for poets as they both represent a kind of eddying thought, sustaining energy. On the one hand, they describe things and phenomena, i.e. objecthood, but they also mean something beyond themselves—or, at the very least, there is a nagging feeling they do because of their recurrent nature.

Just as memories, the ones we discard and the ones we keep, define our identities--our sense of who we think we are, as friends, lovers, sons, brothers--so do the sundry images that make it into our poems define how those poems look out upon the world.

Despite these trace similarities, imagery and memory are not exactly alike either for there are important distinctions to be made. In an essay called “Image and Emblem”, the American poet Stanley Plumly tasks himself with just such a critical exegesis:

The image, as form and idea, is not interested in the rhetoric of the past or even in the mimesis of memory; it wants to be new knowledge, it wants to penetrate the future—it wants, at the very least, to be the memory of memory. That is why its preferred medium is space rather than time: the whole point of the figure is to try to ascend the limitations of the linear—that unbending line of direct communication with the past—and move into the focus of the singular, kinetic moment when the truth and the shape of truth are all true at once. (214)

I like that phrase ‘the memory of memory’ because it pinpoints for me what imagery is supposed to do in a poem. It reveals something within ourselves, whether that be a special set of associations or correspondences or new knowledge as Plumly suggests, but interestingly enough in the best poems what it reveals changes with each reading. In this respect, I think poetic imagery most resembles archetypes.

This is the reason why when we read a poem about someone’s specific life experiences regardless of the subject matter, if the imagery is doing its job, what we take away from it is a strong feeling that although the images may be startlingly fresh, untried, revivifying, there is conversely something ancient, familiar and recognizable which makes the poem true. In another one of his essays “Autobiography and Archetype”, Stanley Plumly acknowledges this ambiguity when he writes: “Archetype is the machinery through which autobiography achieves something larger than the single life; and autobiography is the means by which archetypes are renewed”(154).

I think this is what MacEwen’s poem “Dark Pines Under Water” is addressing when she places the focus not on her own named experience but that of “the dark pines” appearing in the minds of her readers as they read her poem, leaving them to puzzle out the koan-like last line: “There is something down there and you want it told.”

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Falling in Love with Poetry: A Bird’s-eye View

(The essay below is one I wrote for the Summer/Fall edition of The New Quarterly (number 91) in 2004 as part of their "Falling in Love with Poetry" essay series. I was going through my bookcases and came across my copy of The New Quarterly and thought it was high time to revisit this essay. Enjoy!)

As I sit at my desk writing about poetry, that befuddling word which contains so much territory—so many untranslatable thoughts, ideas, and emotions which I still don’t have any proper definition of—I look out my window at a couple of small birds. They are swooping in and out of a metal grate, up near the roof, on the side of my neighbour’s house. They are feeding their young, whom I cannot see, but I do hear, as they chatter incessantly, from morning until night. The parents are swooping in and out of the grate, attending to the hungry mouths within, but when they are not feeding their babies, they are sitting on the side-mirror of my car, staring up at the grate. This strikes me as a particular satisfying metaphor for a discussion of poetry: for poetry is the world you see and the world you don’t, the one that is visible and the one, although hidden, which calls out to you.

I write upstairs in my one and a half-storey brick house, mostly on computer, but I do carry a notebook with me, mainly to record titles and ideas for poems, or the blessed few stray lines which come to me fully formed and intact. I write mainly in the morning, tinkering with words anywhere for two to five hours a day, depending on how well a poem is working, or how obsessed I am with the idea of finishing a particular piece. As I am a teacher by profession, I write on weekends during the school year and nearly everyday of my summer holidays. I don’t get much writing accomplished during the school year because teenagers, on the whole, are what I would term “energy vampires”. This is an irrefutable fact. Any high-school teacher will tell you so. I do, however, write extensively over the summer months because they offer two things to my mind that I feel are essential to any poet: time to think and, perhaps more importantly, time to read.

Like many, I began writing poetry in high school at a time when I had already moved several times across Ontario and I was feeling, as many teenagers do, rather jaded, disconnected and out of sorts. My family was living in Stayner, and my growing sense of myself was deeply at odds with my rural surroundings, which consisted mainly of hockey booster club punch-ups, country and western truck dances, and marathon bush parties. But it was there in a high-school classroom where I was first introduced to poetry by the way of an NFB film on the Canadian poet Earle Birney. My first impression of Birney was that he was rather old, and I honestly don’t recall paying too much attention to what he was saying, until he started to read. It was the reading that caught my interest. It was this voice that came from him, and from beyond him, what the Mexican poet Octavio Paz has coined the other voice. Whatever its name, there was something about the quality of Birney’s voice, as much as the content of his poems, that strongly resonated with me as a teenager. I began to seek out other Canadian poets; specifically those few poets I found in my tiny high school library, poets like Layton, Cohen, and Atwood, and not surprisingly, I was soon writing my own poems.

Later I moved to Guelph, where I wrote a great number of bad poems and read them rabbit-scared at open mike nights on campus. After a few years of scribbling poems furiously, I moved to Montreal to do a Master’s degree at Concordia University. There I ran smack dab into the red pen of Gary Geddes who taught me a great deal about the study of poetry, and my own limitations as a poet. My poems were still not very good but they were getting better. Knowing my poems were still not very good, however, was a hard sobering lesson, one I imagine all young poets have to face up to eventually, if they are to get better. For me, at that time, I could hear what all poets hear—that dark personal music percolating up from within, what the poet Dennis Lee has called cadence or “the living flux that poems rise out of” (31)—but somehow I could not transmute it into words, or at least, the right words yet.

What’s changed the most for me in these past twenty years is my overall dedication to the writing of poetry. I read more widely and more carefully. If my skills have grown, it is because I have become more intuitive and patient over the years. I certainly have a stronger sense of craft, of what craft is, but I also write more honestly about my life. If I had to characterize my own writing, I would say I write predominantly in three distinct veins: the personal lyric, the narrative, and the meditational modes. Simply put, I write lyric poems to express complex emotional situations; narrative poems to explore an idea, or a feeling (spinning a good yarn while I’m at it, I hope); and meditational poems to ask hard questions of my surroundings. But all of my poetry, in one form or another, is really just an attempt by me to come to a closer understanding of my life—to hear, in my own words, that other voice I first heard back in a high school classroom years ago.

Octavio Paz said, “Poetry sings of what is happening; its function is to give form to everyday life and make it visible. I do not claim that this is its only mission, although it is the oldest, most permanent, and most universal one” (133). Other poets may write for other reasons, but this is certainly why I write poetry. So let me perhaps leave off with the few words of advice that I have gleaned over the course of two decades of writing, and rewriting poetry. Reading a wide swath of poets and poetry is essential to becoming a better poet, as is a knowledge of formal technique, but I won’t say it is everything. A poem should not just be a ransacking of words. A good poem, if it is a good poem, may use assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme in considerable ways, yet these are only the joists propping up a poem’s deeper emotional or ideological centre. Where exactly this centre lies is often unknown, or at least shifting, which leads me back to those little chattering birds outside my window.

As a poet, I am constantly trying to articulate what lies just outside on the periphery of vision; to put into words the world I see and the one I hear—that place where the other voice resides. And perhaps it is this seeking, as much as any amount of reading, or study of craft, that has taught me the most of what I know of poetry today. As Paz states: “All poets in the moments, long or short, of poetry, if they are really poets, hear the other voice. It is their own, someone else’s, no one else’s, no one’s, everyone’s. Nothing distinguishes a poet from other men and women but those moments—rare yet frequent—in which, being themselves, they are the other” (151).

Further Reading

Dennis Lee. “Poetry and Unknowing” in Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays and Interviews edited by Tim Liliburn (Kingston: Quarry Press, 1995).

Octavio Paz. The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990).

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ansel Adams “Moonrise, Hernandez”

The Only Picture of Hernandez, New Mexico
in the Smithsonian Institute

A man and his son driving on Highway 84, a two lane black-top
thirty miles from Sante Fe, pull over onto the shoulder, noticing
the moon’s face poised over the snow-capped Truchas mountains;

the darkness falling over the tree-lined banks of the Rio Chama
flowing down to meet the Rio Grande, the smell of sage, burning
pinion, its woodsy fragrance, rising from the chimneys of houses

in a village sitting beside a church, a graveyard full of white crosses.
He sets up his tripod on the roof of his car, the light failing him
so he must work quickly, fumbling with lens filters, film holders,

all the variables and unknowns, estimating the moon’s luminosity,
exposure times, shutter speeds, while shadows consume the daylight
where the adobe church, a monument, stands illuminated at dusk

glowing from within. The white crosses flush, no longer ornaments
but part of the spirit’s nomenclature. Heaven and Earth conjoin
at the back of the man’s retina, a cloudbank hovering magisterially

as he snaps the photograph trying to pull back the shutter again,
but the light changes, the impetus fades, and the world is suddenly
only the world again. Weeks later, he improvises in his darkroom

half-tones of feeling, dodging and burning in areas, making the sky
endlessly dark, the sagebrush a mural of silver, the village empty
as in a child’s dream. He uses sleight of hand to extract a confession

from the land, teasing out light and darkness, so it speaks quietly,
poignantly, like a revelation. Nothing is forever but looking deeply
at the world, as it was made over fifty years ago, through a lens

ministers to man’s hope for redemption although none is coming,
for the man who took this picture has gone into those mountains
so completely he has become them. Who knows if a town existed,

or if anyone had ever lived there, until in the darkness of his room
he placed the moon to look over it, light moving through the crosses,
making us believe, if for a time, it is possible to outlast the night.

By Chris Banks