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