Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Prose and Poetry

Every now and then I return to thinking about how an artist uses language, especially those who write fiction and those who write poetry. Because I am so involved in poetry myself I want to express my bias right here. But that doesn't mean that I won't express admiration for a creator of fine fiction. Those who toil at the crafts that involve language will always find a special place in my awareness – poets, novelists, short fiction writers, newspaper columnists, lexicographers, editors, speech writers, story tellers, preachers, and the list goes on.

But as I said, poetry is my drug of choice. I'm hooked and I can't quit. Sometimes I envy those writers who establish a reputation as a poet and then switch (with seeming ease) to novels that gather critical and popular acclaim. Sometimes I wonder if Atwood and Ondaatje were ever as dependent on the poetry drug as I seem to be.

But back to me. Sometimes when the blood and spirit aren't being as churned by the forces of poetry as I would like, I have to turn to other disciplines to satisfy my cravings. I have been known to write reviews. This blog is also part of that. My reading becomes heavier – novels and poetry in foreign languages, for instance; history; biography; philosophy. However, usually I turn to writing fiction, short fiction to be precise.

I like short fiction. I tried constructing stories when I was beginning as a writer. In later life, during a period void of poetic inspiration, I began to write a novel, about fifty thousand words about a young person coming of age. I lost it and didn't try very hard to find or rewrite it; I recognized it was nothing special, an exercise to keep my creative side occupied. I did continue to write short fiction whenever I felt the need.

Some years ago a local publication accepted some of my short stories for publication. I had the chance to publish a few more at online sites. So when Arts Hamilton last year called for entries in their “Creative Keyboards” contest, I sent in two without great expectations. I had done the same before for other contests.

Imagine my surprise when one of my tales made the short list of the top ten of all the entries received!

Imagine my surprise when I was invited to read that story as one of the top three! (No, there is no more surprise. It placed third.) I was honoured.

Because I am a poet first, I took some time and mental space to look at the stories that placed higher than mine. The main difference I could see had nothing to do with theme, etc., but with language and how it is used, a difference in style.

My prose style seems to be very similar to the way I write my poems. That thought had never crossed my mind before; writing prose was a different craft, only using the same materials. I came to see how my writing differed from the others. My plot, my story line, is developed through characters' words and deeds. There isn't much introspection, no detailed descriptions, no psychological motivation explored, no sensitivities. You know my characters by what they are and what they do, not by what they think or feel.

And that is also the way I have learned to develop my poetry. Clearly show what is and a way to see it; let the reader/listener develop his own emotional response. That way the poem, my ideas, my creation, can become a part of him. No force, and moreover, no subtle trickery. Simplicity and honesty. It all goes back to the “show, don't tell” principle.

It works for fiction, for prose, as well as for poetry. Hemingway knew that.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Poetry, Lyrics, and Sondheim

Not long ago I was listening to an interview with Stephen Sondheim, the composer of the music and lyrics for so many great American musicals. Not having a great interest in musical theatre, I was only listening peripherally, with half an ear so to speak. Toward the end of the interview, the questioner praised him effusively for “the poetry in your lyrics. How words and the way you use them become much more meaningful.”

Sondheim claimed that the ambiguity inherent in his lyrics were not a deliberate poetic device but a means of expression demanded by the music and story or “book.” He explained that the “clowns” in his song “Send in the Clowns” from his musical A Little Night Music did not, as is commonly misperceived, refer to circus clowns or acrobats. It was especially written for the character who sings it in the musical, a woman who is an actress. He reminded the listeners that with Shakespeare as well as others, when the plot became too complicated or emotionally oppressive, the drama was lightened by the use of comic relief through a “fool” or clown, a buffoon or common character. He stated simply that “send in the fool” did not sound or feel the same; therefore he used the synonym. The actress' use of the term, with her intense feelings of anger and regret, would at once imply that theatrical reference. Those nuances are lost when the song is performed in a concert setting by singers such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins or recorded apart from the soundtrack.

He ended the discussion with a statement whose truth I immediately recognized. Just because the lyrics of a song feel like or seem to be poetic doesn't make them poetry. A song lyric is written for and with music. Its impact only holds true when the two are together. He pointed out that for something like the song from Oklahoma the words “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day” are nothing, are quite banal, until you connect them with the music they are associated with. That holds not only for musical theatre but for most pop music.

On the other hand, he pointed out, the words that make up a poem, that drive it with its own special power, are not dependent on music; instead they have an inherent sense of music within the poems' composition. A poem feels complete without ever having been dressed in melody but in a song words and music must be melded together.

I understood and was instantly enlightened. And although most songwriters understand that they are not poets, I do wish more poets were aware of those internal musical qualities that should be part of every poem, that make the poem so much more than an arrangement of words.

Friday, December 31, 2010


Wishing all of you health, happiness, and peace of mind in the coming year. Be kind, be joyful.

A Momentous Loss: Kerry Schooley and I

In 2010 we lost a mainstay in Hamilton's literary world. Kerry Schooley will be sorely missed.

By the mid-nineties when I met him, I had spent a decade and a half in the local literary scene. At a time when not much of a literary nature was happening in the city, Kerry started a new literary reading series featuring local and visiting writers at a venue in Hess Village. At its beginning it was called “First Friday” after the day of the month it was held, but soon moved to Sunday and became LitLive, the prestigious reading series that continues to be a Hamilton hallmark. I was one of the guests in that first season.

Over the years our paths crossed in many ways, basically because our ideas on writing, and especially poetry, was complimentary. As members of the Tower Poetry Society, both of us in our way tried to get the group to open up and take poetry out of enclosed spaces by taking it on the road to other towns and venues. Kerry was instrumental in developing the Tower Poetry website while I became its editor-in-chief.

He coordinated Dundas Cactus Festival's Prickly Poetry contest; I was always a semi-finalist but never won the main prize.

We shared other projects. I founded a poetry performance group called Radish; Kerry was a member of it. Kerry ran “Street,” a project for the International Village BIA featuring poetry displayed in storefront windows; I was asked to help him collect and chose the works to be used.
We both loved to perform our poetry, whether alone or with jazz accompaniment. He instituted several music groups just to enhance his performance on the stage.

Even our choice in prose were complimentary. Much time was spent discussing and evaluating noir fiction, Kerry's favorite, and in which genre he wrote two novels, numerous short stories, and edited several anthologies.

I entered several short stories in Arts Hamilton's “Creative Keyboards” competition earlier this year. One of them won third prize. Kerry Schooley was the final judge. (There is a movement to name the prize for this competition after him.)

His enthusiasm, his power, and his imagination may be missed by many, but he will not be forgotten.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Oscar Wilde - Salome

I've fallen behind in saying the things I want to say in this space. Part of the reason for my procrastination has been the production of my own collection of poetry, a small volume with a “cat” theme. I'll get to that later, but there are some things I want to mention before I forget them.

Back in November I went to see a presentation loosely based on Oscar Wilde's one act play Salome at the Pearl Company. It was subtitled a “Physical Theatre” adaptation and revolved around the interpretive dance numbers by Sergiy Shvydkyy, dancer and choreographer from the Ukraine. I personally found the production interesting but confusing and lacking.

The characters were caged in separate corners and performed almost no action; all the movement focused on Shvydkyy, the dancer. Any intercourse between Herod, Herodias, Salome and Jokanaan took place from separate corners of their world. They never seemed to interact, only provide a prelude to the next dance. With Wilde, one expects flowing and masterful language; what there was of it here was lost. When a character needed to proclaim, which seemed to be much of the time, he (or she) came across with what sounded like conversation. Conversation (as from one character to another) became lost in the shuffle. As well as the language, Wilde's moon imagery seemed so diluted as to be almost imperceptible. And for me, Wilde's language and imagery were the attraction. Dance as communication is not something I feel strongly about.

That's two strikes against it. What carried it through was the innovative approach. I do need to applaud that, and wish the producers and the Pearl Company well.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

I've always wondered about that Christmas song, the what and the why of the true love's gifts. This season I found an interpretation that suits it and makes perfect sense if you see it in the context of the persecution of Catholics in seventeenth century England. Memorizing the doctrines as a song was a perfect way of not needing incriminating religious materials.

On the 1st day of Christmas my true love gave to me...A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, whose birthday we celebrate on December 25, the first day of Christmas. In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling the expression of Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem: "Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but you would not have it so . . . ." (Luke 13:34)

On the 2nd day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Two Turtle Doves

The Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God's self-revelation in history and the creation of a people to tell the Story of God to the world.

On the 3rd day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Three French Hens

The Three Theological Virtues: 1) Faith, 2) Hope, and 3) Love (1 Corinthians 13:13)

On the 4th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Four Calling Birds

The Four Gospels: 1) Matthew, 2) Mark, 3) Luke, and 4) John, which proclaim the Good News of God's reconciliation of the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.

On the 5th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Five Gold Rings

The first Five Books of the Old Testament, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch: 1) Genesis, 2) Exodus, 3) Leviticus, 4) Numbers, and 5) Deuteronomy, which gives the history of humanity's sinful failure and God's response of grace in the creation of a people to be a light to the world.

On the 6th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Six Geese A-laying

The six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer of the world (Genesis 1).

On the 7th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Seven Swans A-swimming

The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1) prophecy, 2) ministry, 3) teaching, 4) exhortation, 5) giving, 6) leading, and 7) compassion (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11)

On the 8th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Eight Maids A-milking

The eight Beatitudes: 1) Blessed are the poor in spirit, 2) those who mourn, 3) the meek, 4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 5) the merciful, 6) the pure in heart, 7) the peacemakers, 8) those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. (Matthew 5:3-10)

On the 9th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Nine Ladies Dancing

The nine Fruit of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness,6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) self-control. (Galatians 5:22)

On the 10th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Ten Lords A-leaping

The ten commandments: 1) You shall have no other gods before me; 2) Do not make an idol; 3) Do not take God's name in vain; 4) Remember the Sabbath Day; 5) Honor your father and mother; 6) Do not murder; 7) Do not commit adultery; 8) Do not steal; 9) Do not bear false witness; 10) Do not covet. (Exodus 20:1-17)

On the 11th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Eleven Pipers Piping

The eleven Faithful Apostles: 1) Simon Peter, 2) Andrew, 3) James, 4) John, 5) Philip, 6) Bartholomew, 7) Matthew, 8) Thomas, 9) James bar Alphaeus, 10) Simon the Zealot, 11) Judas bar James. (Luke 6:14-16). The list does not include the twelfth disciple, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders and the Romans.

On the 12th day of Christmas my true love gave to me...Twelve Drummers Drumming

The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles' Creed: 1) I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 2) I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 3) He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. 4) He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell [the grave]. 5) On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 6) He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 7) I believe in the Holy Spirit, 8) the holy catholic Church, 9) the communion of saints, 10) the forgiveness of sins, 11) the resurrection of the body, 12) and life everlasting.

It's very reminiscent of another aide-memoire, the song/recitation (rewritten in 1948 by T. Texas Tyler and probably best remembered as performed in the late fifties by Wink Martindale) "Deck of Cards," about a soldier caught playing cards in church.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Haiku: a Review

It's time in this blog, to revisit my views and understanding of haiku.

Back among the first entries, I took exception to what a fellow poet called haiku. At a reading in the autumn of 2008, Brian Bartlett presented poems he referred to as haiku; personally I could not connect and stated that for me these were not “haiku” and gave my reasons. Recently Brian discussed his haiku on his facebook page and I made some response. The exchange led me to review, to revisit my understanding of haiku.

And that's always a good thing. Blindly holding onto your views simply because they are the ones you've always held stunts facets of your personal development. You are not asked to change your beliefs; it is suggested that you examine them in newer light, under other circumstances, or bringing other knowledge into the equation. Granted, this sounds like a philosophical discussion reminiscent of Socrates and his pronunciation on the “unexamined life.” But it works, even in poetry.

So what did I gain from a review? Quite a bit, even though my basic thinking on haiku hasn't changed.

Brian hinted that for him haiku became an exercise in form and language, especially that five - seven - five “syllable” count nonsense. And here we agree. That form so dear to English-speaking teachers and dilettantes neither translates properly from the Japanese script nor does it suit the spirit of English-language haiku. Both Brian and I take exception, but in different ways. I reject the syllables, using the careful selection of words and their multiple connotations to carry the purpose of the poem. Brian, on the other hand, takes the form as such, changing it, worrying it, playing with it but always keeping that form in mind. He turns it, in a way, into a game.

And games have their purpose. Even some of the earlier Japanese masters used the form to make fun, to play word games, to entertain. And much as I prefer to see haiku as an expression of spirituality, as continuing realizations on the way to final enlightenment, I accept that one way toward enlightenment is laughter, through fun and games as well as word play.

So I have been pointed to a vision of haiku different from mine but no less valid. In the same way, somebody referring to the Christian Bible as “great literature” does not take anything away from the faith of believers.

I have learned a little more tolerance. I have learned not to take myself all too seriously. I have experienced a small “enlightenment,” my own little satori.