Monday, November 12, 2012

Stephen Dobyns “On Taste and Aesthetic Judgement”

I have been lamenting for years it seems the narrowing of what defines excellence in this country as a handful of angling critical voices keep making claims for a new cosmopolitan poetry which reads to me like shorthand for poems displaying decorous or ideosyncratic language, formal traditional elements, abstruse imagery, little real human emotion or strong narrative aspects, and a morbid disdain for the first person. 

This is not to say some very fine or even great poems have not been written from such a perspective, for indeed they have, but why the nagging belief any poems written outside such a confined purview or “lens” are slight and without merit? Does this not say more about the critic’s own aesthetic, his or her own tastes, than it does about how well a different kind of poem functions as a poem?

This is what I had been thinking about recently when to my delight I discovered Stephen Dobyns’ book of prose Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry where in his essay “Moral Inquiry” he tackles these issues with characteristic level-headedness. Listen to what Dobyns says about the difference between taste and aesthetic judgment which for reasons unknown to me, is still the subject of a lot of confusion in this country, and any attempt to question why this is the case is apt to get you labelled a critical relativist by the “bow-tie” set. Dobyns contends in his essay:

“To tell the difference between taste and aesthetic judgement it’s necessary to define what constitutes a “successful poem” in such a way that some elements belong and some do not. Critics and reviewers attempt to control the definition of that X. If X is not present, says the critic, then it is not a successful poem. Half a dozen years ago, a reviewer in Poetry magazine lambasted an anthology edited by Garrison Keillor entitled Good Poems. The reviewer found the poems simplistic; to his mind they offered no complexity in either form or content. Dozens of contemporary poets were represented, as well as Dickinson, Yeats, Frost, Hopkins, Blake, and other poets belonging to what used to be called the canon.

The reviewer tried to present his personal taste as aesthetic judgment and failed. The poems in the anthology were all immediately accessible, had strong narrative elements, and reflected Keillor’s taste. What Keillor saw as qualities, the reviewer saw as shortcomings. He saw the poems as middlebrow and pointed out that many great poems are not immediately accessible and are formally more interesting. What he wasn’t willing to admit was the field of poetry is vast enough to encompass both types, and what he was complaining about was their motivating concept, rather than how they were written, because, after all, they were written exactly as the poets wanted“(202).

It is this idea that somehow a poet’s motivating concept can be isolated, diagnosed as malignant, and thus whole poems or books dismissed, which I find particular troubling and business as usual here in Canada. It stacks the deck in favour of the taste-makers, which I suppose is the whole point. Culling the herd.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Waves

The Waves

On the beach, my daughter is filling a void,
holding sand in one hand, letting it out a little
at a time, taking it apart, adding it up. She builds
a sand castle with dirty fingers to be an object,
a core sample of “the real” and the measurable,
while my son wrings the air in his fierce joy,
gull-stepping, like a baby-king, into the surf;
white crests lapping against his pudgy knees.
Each time he walks out, turns, comes in again,
the whole of what he is gathers in rhythm
with the water’s rush and ebb against the shore;
his body’s pure tumult, as he claps his hands
going out further each time, his motion the wave
his sister recognizes, rushes out to greet.

By Chris Banks

Friday, August 17, 2012



A Japanese motorcycle dredged up onto the shore,
marooned on a remote beach of British Columbia,
reveals the ocean has no ending and no beginning.

Its resurrection, second-coming, is hard evidence 
of shadow addresses. Things imagination fathoms.
A reminder how the every day needs vandalizing.

Images arise, accrue on the flip-side of perception,
words flash-mob, the choreography unrehearsed,
energies gather, find release. The electrical effect

stun-guns our ennui, defibrillates natural objects
so invention comes to life. It begins with anything
wearing a halo of truth. A forgotten tree. Names.

The songs of birds, at false dawn, like clockwork.
No matter what is to blame, mere speck or spy-glass,
a gathering storm or a lantern in a battened cellar,

surprise can be counted on to rise to the surface
like a Japanese Harley. That spook of recognition,
an invisible highway to ride on through our losses.

By Chris Banks

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Anxiety of Inspiration

     What if inspiration does not come in the form of some muse-figure, or bright angel whispering in a poet’s ear late at night, but is more simply a trigger response alleviating the anxieties a poet feels? I read an interesting interview with  A.R. Ammons first conducted in The Paris Review but now found in Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, & Dialogues, in which the interviewer David Lehman asks the poet Ammons whether inspiration originates in nature, external reality, or in the self?

     Ammons responds thoughtfully with this gem of a statement about anxiety and inspiration:

"I think it comes from anxiety. That is to say, either the mind or the body is already rather highly charged and in need of some kind of expression, some way to crystallize and relieve the pressure. And it seems to me that if you’re in that condition and an idea, an insight, an association occurs to you, then that energy is released through the expression of that insight or idea, and after the poem is written, you feel a certain resolution or calmness. Well, I won’t say a “momentary stay against confusion” (Robert Frost’s phrase) but that’s what I mean. I think it comes from that. You know, Bloom says somewhere that poetry is anxiety." (89) 

     What Ammons identifies as anxiety in this passage speaks directly to an inner malady, to feelings of detachment which overwhelm many who write, especially poets who spend too much time staring down their noses at popular culture. What we are told to worship, or that has value, or is of central importance to modern life does not seem authentic to our own understanding of the "real" world. This discrepancy between representation and experience is what a poet feels most acutely.

     However, when one throws out a word like anxiety, all kinds of associations arise. To be clear, I’m not implying a poem is a kind of panic room, but more that it is a doorway where once entered into, the uncertainties of modern living dissipate, and incongruities of feeling find reconciliation.

      Is this a poetry of therapy? Of survival? I don’t think so. It is a release of energy, as Ammons has characterized it. That energy finds its home at the center of a good poem. 

     Theodore Roethke once remarked, “Energy is the soul of poetry” so perhaps this is what he was talking about. Inspiration does not come from outside of us. It is an indwelling necessity. We have to make poems happen, or they will not get written. I’m reminded of a favorite poem Mine Own Phil Levine by the American poet Dorianne Laux that pays homage to her poetry teacher Philip Levine and contains the following stanza:

His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things

     What I like about this stanza is how it places the responsibility for a poet’s vision squarely on the poet. No one can see things or write poems for you. No matter how difficult it can be juggling work and personal commitments, no matter how under-appreciated life sometimes makes you feel, it is up to you to make the poems happen.

     Looking at my own writing history, I write poems because I need to and for no other reason. This has not changed since I first started scribbling out lines in high school. Forget a poetry career. It does not exist. This is not why poets write poems anyways. As Ammons says in the same interview, the reasons for writing poetry is because it is unavoidable:

     "I couldn’t avoid being a poet. I was really having a pretty rough time of things, and I had a lot of energy, and poems were practically the only recourse I had to alleviate that energy and that anxiety. I take no credit for all the poems I’ve written. They were a way of releasing anxiety." (92) 

Monday, August 6, 2012



My wife’s grandfather’s father spent thirty years 
inside a factory, hand-polishing wooden cabinets
for RCA Victor after train-hopping across Canada
to British Columbia where he lopped off treetops 
with nothing more than a handsaw for two years.
It was the most dangerous job he could find offering
the most pay. He worked the many lumber camps
saving money to bring his family all the way over
from Hungary. During the Depression, he stood
behind the chain-link fences among the whoops,
the shouts, the troops of men looking for work,
pointing only to his callouses, as if they testified
to a man’s ability to swing a hammer all day long.
That is what salvation looks like to an ordinary man
whose curses were left behind in another country,
along with poverty, cousins, wars, social unrest.
What it takes to be happy is a willingness to work
ten hours a day, for a lifetime, doing nothing
as important as polishing light mahogany cases,
later bakelite ones, until they gleam like minted
copper pennies, so your family may grow to thrive
on a small Montreal street like any other man’s.
All those years coming home from the factories
smelling of bees-wax and lint-seed oil, hanging
up a coat in a kitchen, sitting down to a meal
of thick savoury soup, was worth it, a small price
if his son could study drafting nights, as he did
during the war. A gift of no small magnitude,
which I gather is what makes a man each shift
place a cloth in hand, and with clear practise,
polish a music box, until like some masterpiece,
he hears the overture of his own triumph.

By Chris Banks

Sunday, July 15, 2012

All Night Arcade

All-Night Arcade

I am playing Galaga in my imagination
in the last century where all around me
kids packed tighter than bees in a hive
labour to master rows of arcade games,
crowding to witness if anyone makes it
to a new level, beats an old high score,
wipes out an army of extra-terrestrials.
Time and space stand still for the price
of a quarter. The universe, a toy parlour,
enshrining the Grand Narrative of Life
and Death. Pixellated blooms burst in
neon cascades across our beatific faces
while the world drags on into the ruins
of the Eighties. Ronald Reagan is shot.
The great hurts and loves of this world
enter into us. Childhood one more urn
in History’s mausoleum. Psychedelic Furs,
My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary
Chain. Mix-tapes for a new generation
who witness the space shuttle explode,
the Exxon Valdez spill, the Berlin Wall
topple like an empire. In our twenties,
the arcades vanish. The circumference
of the planet enlarges. We leave home
for school or to work jobs in big cities,  
summers in Europe to lose ourselves,
but time is theft, and we soon ascend
to the next round, our thirties, a shiny
millennial collect-a-thon with all new
obstacles to jump over, skill challenges
to undertake. More enemies, less lives.
Nostalgia is a verdict for not living well
which is why in my forties all night long
I sit here watching myself as a teenager
play a video game with time running out,
a pilgrim trying to get to the golden city
at the last level, knowing when the game
is over, neither he nor I will continue.

By Chris Banks

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Chameleon Dreams

           William Hazlitt called poetry, “the language of the imagination; and the imagination is that faculty which represents objects, not as they are in themselves, but as they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings, into an infinite variety of shapes and combinations of power.” 

John Keats, who was a fan of Hazlitt’s lectures, took it one step further describing a Chameleon poet, a poet who must relinquish the self when contemplating an object or person, so the imagination may speak from a place in-between individual consciousness and the phenomenal world; in fact, a place where the “I” can become an “Eye” as the American poet Reginald Shepard once put it.

But this is not to say the singular first-person “I” does not make a good starting point for the writing of poetry for what houses our imaginations if not our insufferable selves? Things semi-real need “a greeting of the spirit to make them wholly exist” says Keats, which really is his cute way of saying we are stuck with ourselves. We may be the gods of the worlds we create, but we are still captives of our bodies, and of the day-to-day pressures of a shared reality. Yes, damn the ego, by all means, but to throw out the self entirely is to risk a poetry barren of any emotional complexities, any human apprehension, any lived experience, making it a mere inert puzzle or ersatz scheme. It courts anorexia of the soul.

For at least the past dozen years, I've read how the use of the first person lyric leads only to a pauper’s graveyard of easy cliches, unrestrained sentimentality and amped-up confessionalism. A cave of self-delusion and egocentrism. It’s an idea that has gained intractable popularity among younger poets for whom connotative sloppiness has become a trademark or the style du jour. In her essay entitled “Little Death of the Self” which appeared in American Poetry Review, Marianne Boruch explores the growing impatience surrounding lyric poetry written in the first person singular:

But there’s a noticeable shift from this approach, a growing wish in contemporary poetry to discredit or fracture, even rub out forever just such a speaker, a new impatience with genuinely lived experience as the source of poetry. Or it’s a need to remain as hidden as possible. Or a desire for deeper play and outright accident, to e-invent, to flarf, cleverly collaging bits from the web to leave behind the tired old real and potentially embarassing—read: sentimental—self as speaker. Whatever the reasons, I hear and overhear this sometimes: I want to kill the “I” in my poem—as if that could move any mountain. And it’s earnest, this wish, and somehow seductive though it seems like a Mobius strip, doesn’t it? Or the serpent eating its own tail since the most convincing element in such an assertion lies at the very start and keeps sticking.

          After all, who wants with such passion to do in that “I”? I do I do I do.….( p.51  May/June 2011 Vol. 40/No. 3)

As someone who reads poetry for its affective nature—its ability to teach us how to live, to be a presence in the world, to connect us with a broader, more universal human experience—it saddens me to see the first person lyric always equated with mere confessionalism. This is frustrating because we intuit the world through the “I”, but the world also brings that “I” into being, from the hodgepodge of sensory perception. It is a symbiotic relationship that has all but been forgotten, and to forget is to despair.

And why the assumption the “I” in a poem is always the poet speaking? Audiences are perfectly willing to understand the teenage narrator in a novel based on an author’s autobiographical experiences in Guatemala is a fictional character, but seem less inclined to do so when reading a book of poems. Philip Levine has many poems where the speaker mentions a sister, and yet Levine has no sister. For myself, I have written many poems based on places I have lived, and people I have known, but if readers were to believe they knew who I was based solely on a reading of my books, they would be in for a rude awakening. I have never been to confessional as I am not Catholic, and I have never gone to school with boys whose fathers were ship-builders, these being just two prime examples that come to mind from my last book.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is the first person lyric is not always private reportage or easy anecdote, for there is a difference between confessionalism and the subjective, and in all honesty, who knows truly what that “I” stands for in a poem given how conditional our lives are. If I knew, I wouldn’t write. As John Koethe has stated, ”I and here and now are ever present, but they vanish in the act of apprehension, as a poem turns into language as you write it down.” Maybe the first person lyric is a broken conduit for many young practising poets, but for me it is not so.

Poems are written by real people. Not robots. If a poem does not feel as if it were written by a flesh and blood person, even if that person is only off to the side somewhere in the poem, I will never connect with it. How else to bridge one’s own imagination with another’s except through the melting pot of the “I”? That it has to be more than a lonely wallflower standing off in a corner obsessing about the past goes without saying. It has to touch upon the collective unconscious of all people, an underworld of wailing voices, while, paradoxically, speaking from the firm ground of an individual lived experience. If the “I” in a poem dreams, it dreams chameleon dreams.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Jan Zwicky "On Criticism"

I was very happy to reread this essay by Jan Zwicky, teasing out and challenging the ethics of negative reviewing, which was just reprinted on the newly launched Cwila site, an organization meant to foster stronger critical communities of women in the literary arts. An organization I might add that will only make Canadian criticism stronger and more varied going forward. Zwicky says what I have been trying to say over the last few years regarding reviewing, but she does so with far more intelligence, immediacy and pragmatism.  Here is an excerpt:

The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture. I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity. But listening — real listening — requires that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go. As such, it is an activity requiring much more effort than the activity of proclaiming our selves through speaking our views. For we are a culture, perhaps a species, drunk on a narrow notion of assertiveness and virility. We are also a culture, perhaps a species, many of whose individuals are obsessed with rank — to the extent that knowing one is on the bottom rung is felt to be preferable to there being no rungs at all.  These twin addictions, as visible in the contemporary university as in the military, lead us to suspect those with a gift for listening as ‘soft,’ and to celebrate those with a taste for volubly dispensing judgement as ‘tough.’ My suggestion is that it is those who insist on listening nonetheless who are really tough: they have the courage to continue to serve art when everything around them is making it easy not to.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Philip Levine: Poetry Right At The Center

Here is an interview with the US Poet Laureate Philip Levine talking about his approach to poetry which now spans over fifty years. Levine’s poetry and prose has been a tremendous influence on me over the last ten years, especially his insistence on honesty and memory and reading as important strands that contribute to making him a better poet. I keep several of Levine’s interviews and poetry readings on my Ipod and often will listen to them if I feel the world’s soul-hardening politics and pretensions encroaching, or if I feel poetry is losing its priority in my life. Here is an excerpt:

I’ll go back to tennis here. Once you learn to hit a certain shot, you can hit it every day. And I constantly read poetry: often for pleasure, but also for obligation—students, fellow poets, etc. And I go back to some of the poets whose influence was powerful with me. I re-read the “Song of Myself” probably every year. I read William Carlos Williams almost every week. I read the 16th-century poet Thomas Wyatt constantly, studying how he handles the line, how he shifts in tone. And the contemporaries whose work I love—Galway Kinnell. I read some stuff for inspiration and also to see how they do it, I’m just constantly reading.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Time and Tide: The Fraser River Poetry of Tim Bowling

Of all the poets of his generation, Tim Bowling’s poetry is the most unabashedly linked to place. His poems cast a wide net over history and subject matter, but the primary influence that runs through all of his books is The Fraser River in British Columbia where he grew up and once worked as a fisherman. This should not be understated as suspicions have surfaced around the provincial, the regional, the local in Canadian poetry over the last two decades, but despite the whims of poetic fashion, Tim Bowling has held a singular course in humbly attempting to express the spirit and place of The Fraser River.

Rivers, of course, are an old image in poetry and mythology as they have been terribly important to the cultivation of human civilization, but it seems for Bowling they also constitute a condition of the mind by mirroring consciousness itself. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus may have said we can never step in the same river twice, but neither does a person think exactly the same thoughts twice. Words, sensory images, memories may often return, spring to the mind as if by their own accord, and yet the experience changes because our circumstances change.

It seems to me that far from being mere self-expression or mimesis, Tim Bowling’s river poems are less about autobiography and appearance, and more about the search for the authentic. The speaker in his poems gazes upon the surface of the river and slowly the moorings of the self slip away, and in that silence, the voice of the imagination enters which helps the speaker to transcend the limits of what he knows. The central paradox is always to get beyond the self and the world that has been built-up, imposed upon nature, to a point where the essence of the place speaks for itself through the poet.

This is what makes Tim Bowling’s poetry so shamelessly lyrical and broadly universal in its appeal. He can write of “the million perfect moons on the body of the salmon” or of the night like “the dark inside a dead whale” or of a coal train’s cry leading “its black pod a little closer to the kelp”. A time when the river “shunts ash to sea.” Never does Bowling merely describe The Fraser River, for his poetic vision is larger than that. He embodies it as a spiritual source where connections between consciousness and river, people and salmon, life and loss are renewed in his best work.

Over the course of ten poetry collections in less than two decades, Tim Bowling has shown time and time again that he knows how to write and what he is writing about. His poetry, like the Fraser River itself, gives up its secrets slowly and contains something of greatness within it.

Time and Tide

Were you ever happier, tenderman?

Two days without sleep, the catches huge,

the river slack at last and

almost closed for the season,

you were about to be removed

from consciousness, but fought it

out of the pure delight

of knowing you had emptied the net

of summer’s riches. Outside,

salmon bones brittled the oak

and maple leaves, the nights

revolved on rims of frost, the boats

waited slaughter-house cattle thick

in the harbour. If you slept

too soon, you’d lose the pleasure

of smelling the potatoes frying

in the pan, of hearing your father

ask your mother for a second cup

of tea, of feeling the armchair’s

mild swell, if you slept too soon

you might wake

to a river that never opened,

to an absence of salmon,

a silver hole in space,

to dead voices whose timbre

was fading, a buoy-bell struck

by a killer whale’s sounding

for depths suddenly shallows.

Tenderman, what is this happiness

constructed on so frail a thing

as the earth and those

who labour in it?

Yet you were happy once,

we were happy there,

fighting sleep with youth,

counting the earnings

of muscle, even as

silt filled the veins

of those we loved

and the bones snapped

in the spawned-out leaves

of the sorrowless oak

and maple.

By Tim Bowling