Sunday, December 28, 2008


I woke up this morning thinking, for some unfathomable reason, about a poem I had written many years ago called "A Proposal of Marriage." For half an hour or more I lay content in my bed, alone and undisturbed, remembering not just the words but especially the emotions that produced the words and the poem.

The way I remember it, on a morning much like this I woke with my wife still curled against me, her head on my shoulder, an arm and leg reaching over my body. I marvelled at the way we fit together, not only physically but emotionally, spiritually. We each had strengths to offset the other's weaknesses: where she was hot-headed, I was cool and rational; where I was withdrawn, she was outgoing. Together we became a special entity as well as remaining the two.

We had been married well over a year, and I realized that I had never formally proposed to her. I'd asked if she wanted to marry me (in that warm time between sex and sleep) but she'd said no. After the third such (informal) request I let the question lie, but when she reopened the matter I leaped at the chance. No hesitation; no fancy words and flowers and rings and other such things: we went and got it done.
That morning, watching her sleep in the crook of my arm, I knew I had to make some sort of an effort - if not for her, certainly for me. I carefully extricated myself from her sleeping embrace and wrote an outline for a poem. I knew what I wanted: two opposing images brought to one conclusion. As usual it took a while for all the elements to fall together but they finally did.

I presented it to her on Valentine's Day. (The next option would have been her birthday, or failing that our wedding anniversary.) It was later published in a Toronto magazine and collected in my book Lunatic Hands.

Here is the poem I should have written before we married, did write after we were married, and still connects me to her and times and places.


Under my feet
streets and sidewalks crack
hard sunbaked clay
crumbles dry to dust

Wherever you touch
grasses flourish
myriads of wildflowers
leap toward the sun

Would you
walk in my footsteps?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Show or Tell

I'm somewhat confused by what I did here the other day. I posted a haiku that seemed illustrative of a photo I had taken. I felt so proud of joining illustrations with haiku that I did it again. And again. And again.

Then the question of show/tell rose again and I began to doubt my actions. Do the illustrations add to the poems or do they invalidate the reader's vision and impose mine? The Japanese masters sometimes accompanied haiku with brush stroke ink drawings; suggestive material rather than the graphic items used with mine. The question again, do the photographs tell?

Sometimes it seems necessary to connect a graphic with a poem. A friend told me how he and his wife, a painter, would sometimes picnic at out-of-the-way places; afterward she would paint and he would compose poems. Many times, he said, the painting and the poem seemed to belong together; they were expressions of the same experience embodied in different media.

I know what he meant. It happens for me, sometimes, when I'm moved to write a response to a work of art. If the artwork touches me, resonates with me, satisfying things can happen. Often the two seem to work better in each other's presence: what would this poem be without the sculpture?


and filled with self-assurance,
she combs her hair.

She sits amorphous
with the innocent guise of a child.
A woman’s shape is still obscured
in the thickness of her waist,
the solidity of her unformed hips,
the soft fat on her rib cage.

Affirmation of femininity
is already evident in the energies
flowing through arms and hair,
the slow twist of the torso.
There is grace in the curve of her neck;
in her thighs, the promise of power.

Oh, could we but capture
that timeless innocence forever,
hold it in bronze.

(both poem and image are copyrighted to the respective artists)

Well, I guess that answers no question. Maybe there is no answer. Maybe the question is often irrelevant.

It just goes to show ...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Winter Haiku

old wooden fence
three inches higher
after the snowfall


in my crimson winter coat
I whistle replies
to a cardinal

under the weight of snow
the old spruce
a weeping willow


first frost
the grass covered
with shattered stars

Friday, December 19, 2008

Show ... Tell ...

A friend trying to craft poetry came to me and expressed his frustration. "Everyone says to me," he complained, "show, don't tell. But if I show people, don't I tell? If I tell people, don't I also show? So explain to me: what's it all about then?"

I did my best, using this analogy.

You obtain a wonderful painting that moves you so much that you want to share it with all your friends. How are you going to do this? You could write a description of it; list the colours used, the figures portrayed; you might even remark on the use of light, proportion. You create a description as close to what you see as you possibly can and send it to your friends. Some close friends you might even gather together, and present your material in a lecture, with slides. Everyone knows, or should, as much about the painting as you now. You have shared it. You made it a point to TELL them all about it.

Now suppose you hang that painting on a living room wall, by itself without distractions, and illuminate it with a source that highlights it. You invite everyone to see your painting, then retire to the kitchen to supervise the refreshments. The visitors are left to themselves to experience or study your painting according to their own interpretations, take in the details that matter to them, and also keep your opinions out of their enjoyment. You simply SHOW it to them.

And that is how a poem should work. It should start with your personal reaction. If all you want to do is present a series of facts with your own impressions, write an op ed piece for the newspaper. If you want to use language and its wondrous intricacies to elicit a similar response in your reader/listener, untainted by your explanation, you might be able to present it as a poem.

A poem is like a painting in that respect. It uses different materials, but exists to elicit that individual response And not necessarily the one you expect.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Poetry In Performance

The poem in performance is not the poem on the page.

I believe that and proclaim it whenever I can; now it's your turn to listen/read.

It's that blog on Beowulf that initiated this one. In the beginning, all poetry was "spoken word" and depended on proclamation/recitation before an audience; there were no written texts; even when writing became available, there were few readers. So, poetry was delivered vocally, by the author or another, as entertainment, as a record of semi-historical events and people, whatever was needed. The custom continued in the Middle Ages when troubadors wandered from place to place, court to court, with songs, ballads and tales. Recital of one's own work or that of others remained a viable method of transmission. Even throughout the nineteenth century this continued.

Printing in itself had not changed that. What did change was the availability of printed material to the masses rather than only the educated inteligentsia, and the increased literacy of the common people. One of the main effects of the twentieth century on poetry was a split between poetry on the page, to be perused and studied carefully, and the poetry presented live before an audience. True, the two overlap often. But the division remains between accademic and populist poetry.

Now to the bit that irritates me so much: I have a difficult time understanding those people who prefer to have a copy of the poem being performed before their eyes, to "follow." The two poems, the one being developed between the speaker and the listener and the other an artifact arranged to sit motionless on a sheet of paper are not the same experience. Very few people can focus on both experiences equally. Both suffer and neither is fully received and understood.

And that is what poetry is about, the sharing of emotions, insights, experience. By imposing unnatural limitations, the poetry is lost. We are left with sounds in the air, words on a page.

I like to read poetry, to taste and feel it in my mind. But for me there is nothing as directly satisfying as to concentrate on the intricate relationships of words and sounds as they ripple between voice and ear.

Walt Whitman sang of himself; Allen Ginsberg howled; Milton Acorn shouted love; Al Purdy was the voice of the land.

They needed to be heard. Now they are no longer with us, they should be read.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Beowulf, Singing the Song

On a morning like this (fur-thick and snow-deep) I want to say a few things about the Old English epic poem, Beowulf. It certainly helps explain that I spent again an inordinate time yesterday sorting and perusing all my Beowulf material. This consists of various treatments and translations with commentary (seven of them), two film treatments on DVD (Beowulf and Grendel, and Zemeckis' Beowulf), and one audio two-CD set of Seamus Heaney reading from his translation. I sometimes revisit the poem in hypertext on the McMaster website. I can no longer find the interesting guide by Mike Walton, Beowulf-Country, which seems to have disappeared from the net.

Partly this post exists to explain, to you and to myself, my ongoing interest because I feel it on several levels. The first is historical.

It tells the story of a hero, a Geat from the Swedish peninsula, who becomes through his heroic deeds king of a tribe of Danes. Like most legends, it is probably based on some truths and portrays life and customs of that region (NW Europe) outside of Roman and later Christian influences. It fits into the same type of frame as the Norse/Icelandic and the Germanic legend poems. Though some of the tribes mentioned are unknown historically, one which figures in the narrative still exists as a distinct people today, the Frisians. I am a Frisian. This legend is probably the earliest part of our history on record.

The second level is that of language. The only language extant that is closely related to English, a near kin so to speak, is Frisian. I understand Frisian; I read it; I can speak it; I sometimes try to write in that language. I am intimately aware of the connection. As for Old English? Frisians had settled in Kent, were among the warriors imported after Roman rule disintegrated, spoke a tongue the Angles and Saxons from the mainland understood. Their basic roots were the same or very similar. Perhaps this, too, is one of the reasons for my continuing interest in language.

The third is its poetry. I have come to love the sound of the language. The rhythm of four alliterative stresses to the line, halved by a pause. The roar and the rumble, begging to be read aloud. The kennings; the deft descriptions of daily occurrences; the believable character portrayals. When I read it, it sounds like bells inside my head. The voices are distinct. All that is missing is the strum and stroke of the harp. Perhaps one day I will hear that too.

Beowulf has found a place to live within me. For me, the poem lies in the territory between my head and my heart, with strong tendrils rooted in each.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On the Eramosa Karst

The previous post about the voice of the land mentioned my hike in the new conservation area here in Hamilton, the Eramosa Karst. It is an escarpment or stone ridge on top of the massive Niagara Escarpment; because the rock is softer, it has some different qualities. There are sinkholes where running water has found a way into the rock and between layers; there are springs where it bubbles up to the surface again; and underneath that surface are miles of caves, many small and narrow but some substantial. The original settlers would curse the holes and try to fill them, but welcome the springs and brooks. Trouble is, you can't have the latter without the former.

I wrote a poem about the experience. Now I don't intend to use this space as a private publication house, but since it was sent out to several friends and posted on another site, I will share it here.

Cold Sunday on the Eramosa Karst

We have come to feel its small wonders,
to dance our minds to the land’s old hums.
Uninvited, that bitter winter sun came by,
partnered with a steel wind stone-honed
to scythe the stately dance or slap the steppers.

The undesired intrude into introductions,
make demands that should remain unasked.
Chill light and thin air battle our breaths,
chip at our fingertips.

But the music we hear will not be silenced.
Land and brush crunch whispered greetings
to the feet on the path, encourage our every
slow movement from here to there.

Movement from here to there.

Here the water slips sinking into disappearance,
in a hole blacker than space, and there
reappears in several spots bubbling
to gather together and sing a new way
through crumbling stone.

Like old fiddle tunes familiar ways reach
through the cold to the knowing heart,
the remembering feet, the undefiled faces.

At the end the comfort inside of cider heat
and our hearts’ hot desires hold close
songs of knowledge to the tunes of wisdom.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Voice Of The Land

They called Al Purdy "the voice of the land' and I know exactly what they mean. Every poem he wrote, every verse he read, was rooted in his love for the landscape where he had been born, where he grew up, and to which he always returned from his wanderings. The voice of his poetry has that country sense to it, rolling and flowing like the creeks and rivers through the hills, sometimes smooth and sometimes a little rough, but always with a basic gentleness. The country north of Belleville was more than the place he lived: it was the structure underlying all his work.

I too feel that way, have always felt that way. The land, whether a rough granite outcrop supporting nothing greater than lichen, or a hundred hectares of fertile black swamp bottom, speaks to me in ways I feel but can't hear. The land in all its guises lives in me. It is the battery that powers me. And sometimes when the power is low, I need to be recharged.

That's when I turn (or return) to the land. This afternoon I spent better than an hour in bitter December weather with a chilling wind on the hillsides, exploring the Eramosa Karst, Hamilton's most recent Conservation Area with people who were inquisitive following a few who knew. I became acquainted with another facet of the land that is me.

Land and water. They have always fascinated me. What I remember best of my childhood in the Netherlands is the earth and the water. Not the cities or industries. The same with my youth in Canada. Yonge's Falls turning the swift twists of Jones' Creek into a lazy broad reach toward the St.Lawrence. Everywhere the rush of water on stone. Later the Niagara Escarpment from great Horseshoe Falls to the dribble of Springhill; and coast to coast from this side of Fundy to the far side of the Rockies. Water wearing away the land.

This afternoon presented another view of the flowing of water wearing away the solidity of hard rock. When water goes over the lip long enough, it creates a canyon, a gorge. When the water is strong enough, and the rock weak enough, it creates sinkholes and caves and underground streams and springs and ...

Oh, the small miracles!

Many of my earliest poems dealt with that dichotomy directly. I remember the poster I had made: my poem called "Earth and Water" with a photograph my brother took at Jones Falls on the Cataraqui. Even today natural elements, the voices of the land, inspire me.

With age and infirmity, it isn't as easy as it once was to reach out to the land. Human activities - paving green space, developing farmland for commerce - also make it harder. When the opportunity comes to tune my voice in harmony with the land, I take it gladly and give thanks.

Thanks that the land still exists; thanks that people still care.

I want the land to speak to me and through me for some time yet.

Mystical Poetry

Recently I held in my hand a prepublication copy of a book supposedly of poetry in the mystical tradition as influenced by the writings and teachings of Krishnamurti. I know little of Krishnamurti, much more about the works of Christian mystics, and a good bit about poetry. For some reason, this book caused a very unpleasant reaction in me.

John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich: all wrote passionately about unification with the Divine. The Sufi mystic Rumi makes his words sing and dance. There is holiness in the Bhagavad-Gita. And so much was lacking here.

Perhaps, because it was purported to be so different, I expected too much. But under the guise of poetry, I do expect poetry, and found little here. The mystics stretched language and images as they held them up to attempt to describe and explain holy longings and sensations. Krishnamurti approached this in some ways, without the poetry. This poet repeated Krishnamurti's ideas in words that seemed trite and unexplained. They lacked poetry.

Poetry pulls one out of oneself and demands the reader share in the experience. It uses images and appropriate devices to do so. These poems lacked images, lacked anything that might tug at one's sentiments.

Words arranged on paper. No mystical pointing to the divine. No poetry pulling at the soul and heart.

I raged at the waste. I wept inside for what might have been.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

People's Poetry Prize

Another literary prize. This time my involvement is not in the receiving, but the giving. One of my volunteer activities in the literary scene is my position as Executive Director of the Acorn-Plantos Award committee, handing out an annual prize for People's Poetry written in the spirit (not necessarily the style) of Milton Acorn, Ted Plantos, Al Purdy, Irving Layton, and so many others we have lost.

The Award attempts to mirror the award given to Milton Acorn by his fellow poets on learning that his seminal work I've Tasted My Blood was disregarded by the Governor-General's Prize jury in favour of two poets whose work they deemed less worthy. One inexpensive medallion, a party at Acorn's favourite haunt, and Milton became "the People's Poet" for life.

After his death in 1986, plans were made to award a medallion in memoriam as well as celebrate with a festival in his honour in his home province, P. E. I. When the Milton Acorn Festival became defunct, the Acorn People's Poetry Award was continued by his friend Ted Plantos in Toronto. The award was given annually to a poet judged by a panel of his/her peers on a work published the previous year, in the "People's Poetry" or populist tradition .

When Ted also died in 2001, the Award seemed doomed to lapse. Several of Ted's (and Milton's) friends approached me to ask if I would take upon myself this responsibility. I considered it for a short while, spoke to some people, and decided I would if I could also honour Ted's name and effort. That was granted. I have administered the prize with help from those interested in "People's Poetry" for five years now.
Judges are not empanneled together but send me their several choices after evaluating the books as poetry in the populist tradition, using common language and imagery to enhance their experience. By evaluating the measure of their support, I formulate a short list; this goes to a final judge who makes the choice. The judges remain anonymous so no controversy arises.

This year's winner is a poet from New Brunswick, Sharon McCartney, based on her book The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The poems give distinctive and characteristic voices to people and things that are part of Wilder's "Little House" books. Any further explanation would not do it justice; you must read the poems. I return to them still.

Imagination and language. What would life be without their magic?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

HPC Presents Amabile

Last Thursday, Nov. 27, the Hamilton Poetry Centre hosted a reading by George Amabile at Bryan Prince's book store, as they did last month with Brian Bartlett. But what a difference for me! Bartlett, you may remember (see previous entries), left me dissatisfied and quite irritated. Amabile affected me quite the opposite.

Looking back on both readings, I believe the difference was in the manner of presentation. Bartlett, who teaches at St. Mary's in Halifax, came across as a professor, one who displays and explicates before a class. Amabile, who is retired from a lifetime of teaching at U of Manitoba, did not. Amabile's manner, language, his easygoing attitude of a raconteur, provided a completely different framework for the poetry.

The results? I didn't invest in any of Bartlett's books. I had considered doing so and inspected those on display before the reading. I'm sorry I didn't have enough cash to buy Amabile's latest.

Hurriedly I checked Bryan Prince's store yesterday but couldn't immediately find one on the shelf. I'll have to go back and ask for it.

Neither inspired a burst of creativity as sometimes happens, but Amabile's aftertaste is more pleasing. When he'd answered the last question from the audience, I felt as if I'd shared a drink and some conversation with a friend.

You can't ask more than that from a poetry reading.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Arts Hamilton Literary Awards

Arts Hamilton held their literary awards evening Wednesday night. Before the presentations we were given, instead of the usual speech, a video display of the plans for a permanent "Art Walk" along King William St. (See CITY and ARTS 2 below.)

My recent book In Times of Changing Seasons was nominated for poetry book of the year. It lost. The winner was A Bundle of Life by Joanna Lawson. Irony? It was published by Serengeti Press, and I provided any needed editorial work. If someone else had to win, no better choice.

I did win for one poem I submitted that had been published in the anthology Cats, Cats, Cats, and More Cats, a poem called "Sandburg's Fog" written in reply to Carl Sandburg' famous imagist poem.


The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

My poem was written as a "performance piece," and as such had been performed at many venues over the past 12 years or so but hadn't been available in hard copy until I was asked for poems for an anthology about cats. It was very disconcerting to hear the presenter read it as if it was a group of words on paper; it is so much more!

Anyway, here is the poem.

(The fog comes on little cat feet...)

Sandburg, your poem
its simplicity and quiet image
may work in your mind
in your city
but not in mine.

My black cat has oversized feet.
He never silently slips
into a room but hurls himself
under and over the furniture
with the force and roar
of a tornado.

Up and down stairs he thunders.
You keep an eye out for flying glass,
suspect the tremors of earthquakes.

And fog never sits
over this harbour and city.
It rolls, swirls, breaks
against the mountainside
and rips into its own belly with anger.

A foggy morning here, Carl,
is seldom less than full-scale war.

So much depends upon your city
and your cat’s feet.

And my older bigfoot cat:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

CITY and ARTS (2)

An update to the previous one. A plan exists to turn King William Street into an "Art Walk" modelled on the one in Rochester NY. The layout looks nice, the mood semi-optimistic, and supposedly an initiative involving Arts Hamilton, the City of Hamilton, and "local businesses." Arts Hamilton has never had major clout. The city runs hot with plans but cold with execution. The local businesses? Amity-Goodwill on one end, the derelict Lister block (that the city can't find the means or the will to preserve) at the other. The main cop shop and a nursing home in the middle; and lots of empty parking lots.

A five-block long barge with no anchors. But, it does have high-end Theater Aquarius and community centered Skydragon.

I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Monday evening I went to the City of Hamilton Arts Awards presentation ceremony with my friend Wilma. Perhaps because I was there as a former recipient, and had no special anticipation, I listened to the speeches a little closer.

The presentation was MCed by Councillor Bob Bratina, a musician and radio personality in his own right. Between his comments throughout the evening and Mayor Fred Eisenberger's opening address, we were given to understand how proud and supportive City Hall is of the arts community. Hamilton, in changing from the old Steeltown image, is being touted as a cultural Mecca, the exciting place to be. Rah, rah, rah! I'd like to jump on that bandwagon, but I've been there before.

Granted there are good (maybe great) things happenong artistically in the city. This is happening because of the artists, and in some ways in spite of city hall. City Hall provides accolades and some crumbs. Where is the energy, the planning, the money? It has to come from the artists themselves.

It happened with Barton Street. It happened with the Tivoli. Make plans, get support. But anything concrete is never there.

And writers? We were so well represented that no award was given this year. We are not the legislators, Shelly, unacknowledged or not. Poets especially are prophets crying out in the modern wilderness. Read Ginsberg, Acorn. They knew.

So we continue to howl.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hiking As Metaphor

Yesterday I went on an "advanced" hike to the base of Tews Falls with friends from the Hamilton - City of Waterfalls group. It wasn't until later while relaxing after a long warm soak, a hot meal, comfortable and dry clothes, that the realization dawned on me. In many ways this hike was for me much like the way I write a poem.

It starts with an idea, something different from the usual. For the hikers it was to experience (see, hear, feel, photograph) the falls in a way that most people do not. For me, a poem encapsulates an experience of living using those same senses to provide a recognizable other point of view.

After the idea comes the plan. The hikers planned to start just above Dundas, make their way over to the east bank of Spencer Creek, to the confluence with Logie's Creek, and follow that to the base of Tews Falls. Clear and simple. So with a poem. I have a place to start from, a certainty of what I want the poem to say, and a plan to use words and poetic devices to reach that objective.

With both endeavours the difficulty lies in the journey. The hike began on smooth ground, shifted to a recognizable trail. then faded into unmarked wilderness floor. As it progressed, obstacles became more difficult: tree trunks to clamber over, treacherous loose ground to be avoided, wet and icy terrain to be carefully negotiated. At times there were asides taken from the main journey. A scramble down to photograph the lower Tews Falls where Logie's joins Spencer. A climb up to inspect Ferguson Falls. A seemingly permanent campsite. The remains of a buiding/shack. And in all this the group remained cohesive while allowing distractions.

So too with making of a poem, although the poet is usually alone in his journey. He starts with easy simple steps; the difficulty increases as he advances. The words and phrases to express himself become harder to find. Something that he sought to say can't be comfortably said the way he had hoped. He stumbles with simile and metaphor, negotiates assonance and rhyme, trying to stay away from the banal and the ridiculous. He can't let the tempting biways of language distract him from the objective, the poem.

Yes, the objective. For most of the hikers it was the base of the falls, the roar and feel of the water, the light captured in photographs. I, the poet, did not feel the need for a close approach. I had achieved what I needed: a point from which to experience with mind and senses the glory of the falls from another vantage. The struggle had been difficult - scraped knuckle, bruised knee, barked shin, mud to the knees - and I was satisfied.

So too the end of the making, the final poem, must be satisfying. The poet who has immersed himself in the journey must believe he has achieved what he set out to. He also has to understand that others may not follow his journey exactly. Some may have no interest. Some will care to go only so far. And then some may use a glimmer the poem ignites to build and develop their own vision.

Each has his own understanding, his own interpretation.
And that's what it's all about.

And now I don't feel the need to write that poem. Even so ...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Another issue of TOWER Poetry (Volume 57, Number 2) is set and in the process pf being readied for the printer. The poems have been chosen or rejected and the authors should soon receive their notification. The Agony and the Exstacy will not be a very public matter. I remember my earliest rejection slips; I never wanted to talk about them, just seethed under a seeming calm exterior. And the acceptance notices? Inwardly I leaped with joy and shouted with glee, but the outward demeanor was strictly Joe Cool. Hah!

The problem is that a writer will never really know why his work was rejected; he has to accept the platitudes handed out by the editor. There can be so many, and most are a combination of one or more that even the editor might find difficult to explain.

The best reason to reject work is because it's awful, plain and simple garbage. How do you let a writer know without killing his creativity or bringing curses and fatwahs upon your own head? You tell lies - little ones, big ones, whatever it takes.

A second good reason is that the work is sloppy. The underlying idea may be sound but no work has been put into presentation, no attention to details (of language, grammar), no structure or flow. Sometimes an editor feels like saying "Take this back and do some work on it" but he can't be everybody's critic. A writer, a poet, must be able to see for himself.

A third reason is that the work does not fit the parameters of the place it was submitted to. Don't send your poetry just anywhere that accepts poetry for publication. If you send a three hundred line tragic epic to a magazine that publishes mainly pastoral love poems you are asking for rejection. Research your market; send what seems to you to suit. You may catch an editor's eye.

Another reason is more illusive to explain. The poem is good. It suits the general mood of the issue. Yet there may be a little something that goes against the grain, the common flow. If something such as this was apparent in another submission, a sort of support piece, it might pull at an editors attention rather than be passed over. Passed over for no real reason except that it didn't grab.

So, a bit on rejection. The thing is, acceptance works the same way, for almost the same reasons. You never can tell.

"C'est la vie," say the old folks.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

P. O. D. - Poetry On Demand

I was approached to submit some work appropriate for a collection about the late Canadian poet Al Purdy and the land he wrote about. The one aspect was not difficult. Purdy lived in the land at the edge of the Canadian Shield, that ancient gray granite slab that surrounds Hudson's Bay and covers most of Central Canada, loved it, and became part of it. I grew up in the same space, a few counties east. With both of us, our poetry lies rooted in that land. This became a matter of chosing which poems.

The other part was to write about Al. This was difficult because, although I have looked at him and his influence on my own poetry, we were never close acquaintances or friends; I had never felt moved to write to him or about him. And now someone is asking me to write a poem for a project, to write on demand. I can see no excuse and so do my best.

The thing about writing on demand is that my method is not conducive to this approach to writing. I am indifferent; it may work for others but seldom/never for me. I can remember so-called "poetry sweatshops" where a topic would be announced to "contestants" and a certain amount of time given for composition before public presentation to an audience and a panel of judges. Some were swift with fine poetic pieces under such constrictions. Not I.

The same goes for "writing exercises." Some writers thrive on being set a challenge, They grab it, worry it, shake it, shape it. Not I. The whole concept leaves me cold.

It probably has much to do with the process that for me produces the poem. My poem usually starts with a fragment: an idea, an image, the sound of a phrase, the feel of words in the mouth. Sometimes I think I have lost more good poems in this stage than have come through. I'll try to write something down, to encapsulate it for later worrying. Even then I sometimes lose the core of it.

To write a poem I need time, both mine and the poem's. If parts of the poem come together in my head I need to be able to stop and work at it. If I make time, if I set a certain amount of time each day aside for poetry, it leads to frustration. Seldom do the two come together for me.

And then, when I get a semblance of what I want on a page, it still goes through revision after revision. Some to clarify the thought and its processes. Some to shape the look of the poem on paper (or screen.) Some to modify the sounds in my mind or the sound of its presentation. Often a poem has to be set aside and reapproached at another time. It is only with enough love and craft that a poem assumes its own persona.

So I wrote a poem for Al Purdy. The idea was not difficult; I wanted to do so. The vague idea of what I wanted to say was there. And then I found the image to hang it on. It wasn't a swift production, but when things seemed to fit together the writing, the crafting the polishing for public presentation became possible.

I still don't like to write Poetry On Demand.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Found Poetry

Another of the things that irked me at Bryan Bartlet's reading for the Poetry Centre the other week was his explanation and examples of "found poetry." The way he explained it was so foreign to my understanding of it that it is no wonder I found his presentation lacking in either passion or meaning. (Am I so old that a form that was bright and exciting, one step away from pure dada when we practiced it, has become lifeless?)

This is the way he explained it. Carefully saearch through a large volume such as Tolstoy's War and Peace for words and phrases. Put them together. What you have found will be a poem. In other words, take a beautiful building and rip it apart. Take a brick from here, a cornice from there, a tile or two, and don't forget a window sill. Fit them together and you will have the beauty and the spirit of the building. This is not the way I learned and wrote "found poems" in the 1960s.

In those times, what happened first (not last) was that you found the poem. No matter where; it could be anything, anywhere. One of the finest I "found" was in a magazine ad for a newly imported whiskey. The ad's copywriter had waxed eloquent beyond standard sales hype and I recognized the underlying poetry. By cutting the references to drink and other specifics, and positioning words and phrases in an order not meant or initially apparent, an ad for whiskey became an ode to beauty.

I no longer have a copy of that poem but the finding of the poem, the crafting and the shaping, and the satisfaction of the final result stay with me, even forty years later.

This is a poem I "found" in an interview with a local musician in H Magazine for October '08.


opportunity on the floor
.......................a sitting fixture
guitar...keyboards...electronic percussion
complex meditative ideas layers counterpoint
............creative phrasings
expand into more complicated

mesmerizing pieces of sound
............swirling everchanging sounds

forever proclaim the mantra

every pair of ears
.....................deserves its own mind

.................................(jefferson 05/11/08)

The words come from the two parties to the interview; the structure and arrangement are mine.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Judging Contests (and other endeavors)

Earlier this autumn I served as judge of the poetry entries by seventeen-year-olds in the "Power of the Pen" awards run by the Hamilton Public Library. Besides picking a first and second place, I was asked to provide a positive critical remark for each entry. I picked a first and second (no honourable mentions) and provided a little praise or a pointer to all. It was not easy.

I have just been volunteered for (and accepted) a position of judge for the Cambridge Library's "Poem-a-Day" celebration for Poetry Month, April, 2009. One judge gets all the adult works, another gets all the kids' stuff (under 12), and I'm blessed with all the teenage material. Fair enough; I accept the task.

However many entries are received in each category, we are to pick the ten best. Not in order of merit or any perceived order. Thirty poems will be chosen; one per day will be publicly displayed by the Library.

Personally, I like the teen stuff. As long as they're being honest in what they do and not pompously trying to put one over on everybody, they can be surprising. If you get one who can combine an emotional experience with concrete words and a simple image it can blow you away. It has happened to me several times. The downside is wading through all the material where someone has nothing he feels deeply about but has to write a poem for some reason, or when someone struggles with an emotion and can't find original words to express it.

For me judging this level has become a "remember when." All that garbage I wrote when I was a teen, and the marvelous lift from the occasional poem that worked!

Judging can be so difficult. You can never be completely unbiased; you must recognize the bias and take it into consideration, whether it be cultural, social, or what. If you're a living human being they are there, a part of who you are. What you need to be, what those whose efforts you are judging need you to be, is to be honest rather than unbiased.

The old saying goes that honesty is the best policy. For a judge, whether on the Supreme Court or for a poetry contest, it is the only one.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

More About Haiku

Last Thursday the Poetry Centre hosted a reading at Bryan Prince, Bookseller by the East Coast poet Bryan Bartlett which left me unsastisfied and more than a little dismayed by several matters in his presentation. I want to deal with one of those here.

He read selections from what he claimed were three "haiku series." Now a lot seemed to be missing, either from his way of presentation or his understanding of "haiku" and probably a combination of the two. It certainly left this part of the audience wondering.

Because I had (and have) no copy of his material in hand I cannot comment on form or format on the page; from the way it was read, there was no sense of line or thought breaks, no pause giving emphasis. I can only criticize according to my emotional response to the material presented. And that was nil.

But this is what haiku is. By presenting an image in its strength and clarity without extraneous baggage hanging on, the haiku poet demands visceral response from his audience/reader. He uses every word carefully, saying as much as possible through the associations each word carries. This Bartlett never did. I can remember not one clear image, not one emotional note he touched. All I remember from those three separate haiku sequences he purported to lay before us was the story that he had read once in Toronto with a nephew improvising guitar lines. (I did the same twenty years ago with a professional saxophonist; the resulting combination can be mesmerizing.) Whatever magic that might have held was not present here.

About magic: much of the strength of the best haiku lies in a sense of Zen Buddhism. its essence is the capture and transmission of the "haiku moment," as North American haiku poets would have it. What that comes down to is a small sense of enlightenment, a clearer understanding of a part of existence that may have seemed insignificant, a satori if you will. The Masters create this with their choice of image, by comparing or contrasting (which must happen in the mind of the reader/listener), by presenting a small series for consideration, all leading to that point where the mind/spirit says "Aha!" This was sadly lacking.

The only thing I came away with (pertaining only to his "haiku") was the memory of several polysyllabic words which seemed as relevant to haiku as my finger to the shape of this galaxy.

I suppose it is only fair to display some of my own, hoping that they may illustrate the principles I'm talking about.

across the ravine
a deer watches silently
as my feet stumble

such an expanse of water
and one lone windsurfer
November breeze

Simple images; seasonal reference to set mood; let the reader's mind do the work.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Advice for Writers

Last Friday at the "Power of the Pen" awards for teenage writers, the assembled young authors and wannabes were addressed by Dana Robbins, the current editor of the Hamilton Spectator. In his speech he stressed a number of simple ways to help oneself develop as a writer. They are almost identical with the advice I press on younger poets. He urged them to follow these actions:

Write. No matter what, no matter how good or bad, satifying or not, by putting words down in an order determined by yourself you become a writer. Write fiction, non-fiction, letters, emails. Keep a journal. Blog.

Read. Read anything you can; you are not doing this to learn anything specific, but to keep yourself immersed in the written word. You may want to read in your favourite category, be it poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or other, but be sure to spend just as much time and effort on the others. Read what you don't care for. Read newspapers, tabloid mags, cereal boxes but read. Even the bad stuff. Tell yourself "I can do better than that!" and then do it.

Observe. The world you live in provides the basis for your thoughts and ideas, and therefore your writings. If you close your eyes and mind, you deny yourself much of the life you should be living. Watch people. Watch the intricacies of nature as things grow and change. Observe the details. These will become the subjects and objects of your written sentences.

Robbins presented several more but these were the three most important to my experience. It never hurts to reiterate them.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Public Reading

About half a dozen members of the Tower Poetry Society spent several hours yesterday at the Chapters book store in Ancaster. We manned a table just inside the main doors, offering information and copies of some of our recent issues of TOWERpoetry for sale. A microphone and seating was provided on the raised area toward the back where most of us took the opportunity to read for the bookstore patrons.
The seats were not filled with a rapt audience with open ears and eyes and mouths. There was no thundering rush of people to instantly embrace the marvelous things offered. Much to the contrary. But then, what can you expect? This is poetry.
The question, as always, arose. Why do we do this? Why do we offer our art, our craft, our selves, to the disinterested? The answer is always the same: poets are part of the community and should not hide or be hidden from that community. We are not a secret society, safeguarding esoteric knowledge the common people can not understand.
However we do it: by public reading, by publishing in books or periodicals, by broadcasting using whatever medium suits, by one-on-one presentations or discussions, we keep poetry alive and relevant. In this way it will remain that fundamental part of civilization it has always been.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


I workshopped that poem posted before at Tower and received comments both public and private that made me see the poem with a new clarity. After some serious consideration, I decided not to revise it editorially but to rewrite it. The poem as it now exists is a different entity, the sort of difference as between an Angus and a Holstein: they're both cows, both serve their purpose, but are quite separate in their identities. So, I think, are the two versions of the poem. My Angus poem wasn't producing the results I aimed for; perhaps the Holstein will.

And perhaps this is a poem in the making itself.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Under Construction

Here is a poem under construction. I workshopped it recently and got some good feedback, matters that I can see now but couldn't identify at first because I was too close to the poem.
It was suggested that the elements in the second stanza were muddled, unclear; that the distinction between the imagined (you) and the fantasized (I) in the third stanza could be sharpened. I'll try to do that, but don't promise to publish the rewrite here.


We sit on a bench overlooking the harbor.
Your eyes have lost focus,
your mouth seems to be elsewhere.
Have you ever, you say, considered
traveling by water.
I see your muscles twinge under your shirt
in empathy with the young oarsmen
before us driving their sculls.

I have not, I answer carefully
not sharing this picture of you in my mind:
you in a rowboat, frantic and lost,
by Atlantic waves overwhelmed.
Even a sail on your mast could not last.

Better to take it like me, I suppose.
Long wooden staff and a hefty back pack
and one foot in front of the other.
Straight as the gull lines over the water;
at Ireland, turn right toward Spain.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I woke up this morning 'under the weather' as they say: stuffed sinuses, runny nose, a bit of a dry cough. The thing is, my cough reminded me of a strange sound I had heard early one summer morning when the smog turned the sky a gray-tan colour and the sun a bloody red. I had to dig up the haiku I wrote then and put aside.

a new smog alert
..........the rising sun is greeted a coughing crow

Somehow this one fell into an automatic 5-7-5 form. I don't usually write that way; Japanese ideograms are not equal to English syllables. The art in English language haiku is to convey all that needs to be conveyed in as few words as possible, to keep to the spirit of haiku rather than labour under the restrictions of form.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Frost on the Windshield

I woke up this morning, looked out, and saw a good layer of frost on the cars in the street. When I opened the door to test the temperature, the usually inquisitive cat scurried away, so I closed it immediately. Still in that limerick mode from a few days ago, this came about:

This bright autumn morning our Joe's
felt the frost in his fingers and toes.
He inspected his yard 'n'
the plants in his garden
and found that his freesias had froze.

A little silly, I know. Hope it made you chuckle.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Used Books

Speaking of used books (as we were), one of my favourite ways to waste a little time no matter where is to get lost among the wares in a used book store. You get the nicest surprises sometimes. (But it hurts a little when you find your own work, not used but second hand, and in almost pristine condition.) But I digress.

At the most recent used book sale of the HPL, I came across a small vollume of E. B. Browning's SONNETS FROM THE PORTUGESE. There is a name blacked out on the inside of the front cover; the cover is cracked at the front of the spine. That's all that is wrong with it.

It is chocolate brown in color with gold lettering. It was published in New York by Avenel Books with no date given and an unattributed introductory note.

Each sonnet appears on a left page with the facing page carrying an illustration (black and white) by one Fred A. Mayer. They look very much like scissor cuttings and probably are.

This little volume has found a place in my library and my heart.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


I recently purchased a collection of limericks from a second hand book store and that set me thinking about the old form again and why I enjoy it.

Personally, I believe the limerick should follow the form as strictly as possible: the lines 3 feet, 3 feet, 2 feet, 2 feet, 3 feet; the rhyme scheme a a b b a. The best have a surprise twist toward the end (usually in the last line) and are salacious, naughty without being downright pornographic.

Here is a recent one of mine:

A handsome young fellow who chose
to board with a lady named Rose
was still quite surprised
when before his eyes
she teasingly stripped off her clothes.

Hope you enjoy!