Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Beginnings of Poetry

Some time ago an older lady approached me. She explained that she had recently taken up the habit of writing down her thoughts and ideas, her observations and memories, all the little things that were important to her. These writings didn't seem to be stories or anything she could explain as such. Since I was a "well-known poet" could I look at her work and tell her if this was poetry? By then I was already holding the papers she had pushed toward me.

While I looked through her offering, the silence was interrupted only by my wordless mutterings. I knew she was looking for more than a simple yes or no; I had to find some kind explanation of the worth of her writings.

This, I told her, reminds me of the pile of stuff at the end of my garden after winter is over.Here you have a mass of stuff in no recognizable shape. There are stems and branches, some hard, some soft, some brittle. There are clumps of dry grass and old leaves in different states of decomposition. If someone only glanced at it they might consider it dead, worthless. You might get the same reaction to your writing, I warned her.

But among all that dry and brittle and worthless material, I went on, there are probably a few seeds ready to germinate in the coming warmer weather. What a gardener will do is find those seeds that are precious and will become the beautiful flowers she wants. She will carefully nurture them, probably use a compost of previously worthless stems and grasses, and give them every opportunity to become the best they can. And so it should be with your words and thoughts, your feelings and observations. It may seem like a formidable task. If you are not a gardener, you might not want to grow flowers from seed. If you are not a poet, you may not want to grub around in words until they are beautiful to many people. Just remember, there are tools available. The gardener has her seed catalogue, her different soils, her implements. The poet has books with examples and explanations, writers groups, and the traditions of those who have written poetry before. Use all the tools available and be the best gardener, be the best poet you can be.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Listening for Dylan Thomas

In my eclectic reading recently, I came across Dylan Thomas' essay on his poetics titled "Notes on the Art of Poetry." It brought to mind one of the reasons that I am so entranced by poetry, and especially the delivery of it to the audience.

In it Thomas speaks of his fascination with the sound of words, beginning with nursery rhymes as a child. The sound and substance of words came first for him; things like meaning and communication of ideas were secondary. This emphasis on the sound of language permeates most if not all of his poems; it plays a great part in his stories; it is integral to his radio plays. Under Milkwood, his famous play for voices, is probably the greatest example of prose and poetry combined in one work since Shakespeare.

If you're going to make yourself more familiar with Thomas' work, your best approach would be to hear it. Because of his experience working in broadcasting during WWII, he recorded much of his work and much of it is still available.
It is hearing him read, hearing his delivery of the sound and music of the language, that opens the way to an understanding of the meaning of his words and the ideas these words express. "I am a painstaking, conscientious, involved, and devious craftsman in words, however unsuccessful the result so often appears." Words and the way they are used, new expressions shaped from old, all may look odd on the page but resound like church bells in the air around.

Thomas is by no means the only poet who should be heard before he is read. I had but a faint grasp on the poetry of bp nichol before I heard him read it aloud. The dub poets need the voice to convey what the page can not. Any good presenter of his/her own poetry must add something more than can be found displayed in black text on white paper.

Probably because I come from a people who relied on public recitation as a form of community entertainment, on "foardragen," poetry and its presentation aloud mean so much to me. But that's not the only reason. I too love the sound of words; at times I don't care whether or not they mean. In a way it's like opera: who cares what banalities the words may mean, they sound so marvelous!

When I remember Martin Luther King proclaiming, "Let freedom ring!" I hear in my own mind, "Let poetry ring!" Sometimes freedom and poetry are expressions of the same thing.

Let's keep the words and language ringing.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Pound of Modern Poetry

For those still lamenting that modern poetry doesn't rhyme and has no rhythm, they can find the reason in the ideas and work of Ezra Pound. Don't blame the man and his "madness" for everything; too much of what is coming out today comes from misunderstanding and misinterpreting his ideas.

Sure, you can blame him for the ubiquitious "free verse" that he promoted in English poetry. He and his bunch began that thing about presenting "images" to say things rather than using good old flowery words and phrases arranged in metronomic feet and all that good old stuff. Read Shakespeare's sonnets along side Pound's Cantos: you'll have no idea what he's on about.

But already in the first decades of the twentieth century, the times they were a-changing (sorry, Bob.) Literature and poetry in English were stuck in a Victorian rut; what was happening was happening in Europe: wars and rumours of war, but also slashing decisive movements in art and literature. With the influences of French symbolism in poetry, Impressionism and Cubism in art, and Dada in everything, Pound and others began to work the new ideas into the English language, shaping some to their own use and creating others. The "Imagists" and the writers reflecting the crumbling of society began a new look in literature and the understanding of it.
He encouraged and supported T. S. Eliot's poetry. Eliot's "The Wasteland" became the premier example of modernist poetry, using all the techniques and rationales the writers proclaimed. In the field of the novel, James Joyce worked these into Ullyses and later Finnegan's Wake.

Pound would use images to say only what they could. He used quotations in other languages, footnotes, other techniques foreign to poetry. He took these images and, instead of arranging them in nice orderly rows that fit together the way poetry had for ages, scattered them seemingly haphazardly on the page without any evident relationship. Instead of writing in accented feet, Pound wrote his phrases like musical phrases, holding true to a cadence and flow. What it ends up as seems to be an interlocking mass of words, hiding any sense and meaning.
But with a critical look, the jumble of stones, the collage of different ideas and phrases, become more that what is first apparent. They point at and even carry a beauty of their own. Words and phrases, ideas and concepts, they begin to connect, to form random patterns as if tossed for the I Ching. Perhaps this is partly due to Pound's study and work with traditional Chinese poetry.
Cadence and pattern. These become for Pound and the moderns the antidotes to stale phrases and metrics. And this is where today's poets make their mistakes. Free, they proclaim, is free from those old ideas and they leave it there. They forget to use the replacements. Their jumbles of words have no connections or no cadence. A framework must exist or all will be washed away to be forgotten. Those who count syllables may carry on for a time; they have established a pattern. However, unless that pattern is translated into a discernable cadence (which does happen in the best) such poems too become unmemorable. And unmemorable is not what a poem should be.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Hip and the Hop

Right from the beginning, I never liked hip-hop: the breakdancing, the clothing, the graffiti "art," the music and its "poetry," the sideways ball cap attitude. It seemed vain and meaningless to me, rebellion for the sake of rebellion.Before I could let things settle in my mind, the music and song became nothing but (to me) shouts and epithets about crime, sex, violence, and gangsterism. What's more, the practitioners seemed to live it out in the media.

My attitude and acceptance are changing.

It began with an East Coast artist who calls himself Buck 65. I heard him on the radio one day and his lyrics, though delivered in true rap style, made sense in a way the rap and hip-hop thing never had before. But, I figured, that's just an abberation. Then at the Skydragon Mayday celebration a group calling themselves "Rhyme Travellers" performed on the stage and I got the whole thing live and in my face.
Four guys swapping rhymes among each other on stage, an easily discernable line of protest running through their words and their actions. Movement, language, attitude, all carefully orchestrated into an almost flawless presentation over a prerecorded rhythm track. It was more than enough to send me to find out what hip hop, rap, etc. was really all about.
A little research: hip hop as develloped among black urban youth has much of the same basis as Dub poetry from Jamaica; that began when DJs would rhyme their own words (dub) over the B sides, usually instrumental versions, of popular reggae songs. Take away the music but leave the rhythm and rhyme, especially when it has been taken away from extemporaneous and become finely honed set pieces. You have an accepted and understandable form of poetry that is immediate and vernacular.

So American black youth appropriated rhythm and rhyme for their own use, their own manner of expression, and built a culture around it. Sometimes money and ego cary it too far and produce that over-evident "gangsta" facade. But I believe in the poetry. I believe in the protest. I believe that hip hop is in some way a part of every artist in any medium.
With the beat in my blood and the rhymes in my mouth and the cry for justice in my heart, I too am a part of hip hop.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

In the Neighbourhood

This past Wednesday was the last one in National Poetry Month and our local Community Council (Strathcona) decided to observe it. To present nationally recognized poets who are a part of this neighbourhood, they hosted a celebration that evening at the Tapestry Bistro, the one replacing the Staircase's cafe.
When I was first approached, I was enthusiastic until I found it was to be held on a Wednesday when the Tapestry would be available. (The SCC usually holds its community events on Tuesdays.) On Wednesday evenings I have a commitment to be elsewhere. However, with a few suggestions, including one to get a musician to perform some music between sets and so fill out the program, I found that I would be able to get there toward the end and then perform. Two days beforehand, I discovered that the musician who was scheduled to perform was an old friend; he and I had shared a stage before but there wasn't enough time to make any formal arrangements. Perhaps we could improvise something.When I arrive just about intermission time, I was astonished! The place was full of people, attentive while a performer was at the mike and buzzing with fellowship when the opportunity arose. The staff was kept so busy they had difficulty satisfying everybody.

When my musician friend took to the stage to play his guitar during intermission I approached him with a request not to play two tunes. I wanted him to join me later and use those two (which I knew were in his reportoire) as background for two of the poems I intended to perform.

When my turn came I began with a formal poem followed by one dealing with a location in the neighbourhood. I then invited the guitarist to join me. He played a swaying melody to back a poem about falling rain, and a more ethereal one to back one about a ghost and an eclipse. I finished alone with a wryly humourous one.

The whole experience was excellent. It brought back for me all the old memories of poetry events at the Staircase. The food, drink, and ambience were first class. The S C C was quite pleased at the turnout; I hope the Tapestry Bistro was too. In case others were not aware of it, poetry is not necessarily a trite bit of "high" culture but a connecting voice in holding a community together, expressing its hopes and dreams. Recognition and acceptance of those facts can invigorate the life of a neighbourhood, a city, a country. The Bread & Roses Cafe should not be the only viable venue for poetry in this city.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Madness and Poetry

Since the dawn of culture, the closeness of creativity and madness has been recognized. History is filled with the lives of creative people who suffered from what now would be classed as mental or personality disorder. Plato, in his Pheadrus, classifies four types of divine madness: prophecy, religion, poetry, and love. Poetry is the only artistic domain recognized as mad. We won't go into historic annecdotal speculations, neither about poets or any other artists. What started my thought train here was the explanation of John Clare and his asylum admissions when I read one of my poems dedicated to him. It reminded me how many of our most influential poets were aberrant, deviant from the usual, though not necessarily certifiably mentally ill or insane. I've been aware of some, influenced directly by some, personally touched by some. And then I found a study of what are known as "schitzotypes," people who do not suffer from schitzoid symptoms but still don't act "normal." They seem to display more creative brain activities than either of the other two, are easier to use old tools in new ways.

William Blake had his visions. Ezra Pound spent much of his later years locked in an asylum. Emily Dickenson had her agoraphobia. Edgar Allan Poe succumbed to drugs and alcohol. Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac and others drank obsessively. Some, like Thomas Chatterton or Sylvia Plath, gave up. And, of course, my friend Walter Bevan, whose Dead Leaves and Other Flowers was published posthumously.

Schitzophrenic, paranoid, bipolar (manic/depressive), compulsive/obsessive, addictive. These are some of the more common irregularities found among us poets, especially those of us who are not "schitzotype" but have to deal with the strangeness of living and other people.

I know, have been associated, with people who would easily fall into such a category but stuffing others into niches is not something I do well. I much prefer to find one for myself, and by myself. I tried on the "schitzotype" label but found it didn't fit. Every day in some way is still a breath away from my own demons, my own addiction. I suppose in my small way, I too am mad. Just another mad poet.