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We each had strengths to offset the other's weaknesses: where she was hot-headed, I was cool and rational; where I was withdrawn, she was outgoing.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?