Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Poetry Workshop

I just want to express a couple of thoughts on workshops, poetry workshops in particular. You know, those meetings whose main purpose is to provide a forum for a poet to present his work before an audience of his peers, and receive considered feedback rather than instant reaction.

We're not considering closed groups here. Those also have a role to play; they become intimate as the members grow together. This is about open groups, no membership required.

There are several things you should be aware of when participating. Because you approach the group for a stated purpose, to receive critical assistance, don't bring a poem which you don't believe you should change, that you think is so good that you just want to show what you can do. Your friends and peers may well cut it to ribbons to show you how they would improve it. If you don't think a poem needs improvement, don't bring it. The group is not there to heap praise; don't expect it.

Also consider this. Since it is not a closed group but open to anyone expressing an interest, making a presentation to such an audience can be considered a form of publication, especially if hard copies of your work are distributed. You have very little control over what happens to those copies in the hands of your "public."

Just a few things to consider. Remember, when you ask a friend to become a critic he also becomes an antagonist. Usually the frienship remains unharmed.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Sense of Community

Last Thursday I attended a book launch that became something other than simply that. Let me explain.

Brian Prince, Bookseller hosted an event introducing the publications of two local writers. Because the book store is also commemorating twenty years of service to the community, the event became a celebration of that community and the store as its focus.

Aside from the obvious literary connections to a bookstore, there were artists from other disciplines involved. The venue was a private art gallery with all the plastic arts represented. As well as the authors reading - one poetry, the other creative non-fiction - there was a presentation by a singer/songwriter. And the audience gathered seemed a good cross-section from different arts groups and backgrounds.

Gathered together at that event in that place and for that purpose, it was evident how vigorous the local arts community is. Truly something to celebrate, and to take note of the many diverse venues, organisations, etc. that serve as a temporary or more permanent focal point.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Inherent Rhythm of Language

The other day a lady friend of mine brought a new poem to a workshop we both attend. Her poem surprised me because it was not in her usual style, longer lines with almost no sense of a cohesive rhythm. This time she had done something completely different.

Not only were the lines short, almost all the same length, but she had marked (and left those marks on the page inadvertently) each line with the number of syllables she had used. Most lines were four syllables, with the occasional use of five or three.

Now I'm not one to advocate counting syllables in poetry instead of using and playing with established rhythms, but in this case it worked. It helped that she used a four syllable line, most usually of two words; in English it seems difficult to put four syllables together without ending up with an iambic dimeter or a close variation thereof with a trochee or spondee. There seems to be no way a unit of four syllables can stand without at least one, and more comfortably two stresses. And this becomes a natural iambic rhythm, pleasing to the ear and to the mind.

This started me reflecting on the natural rhythms of languages, especially Indo-European languages with which I'm familiar. For me, iambic feels so right for English, (much more so than for Old English and even Middle English.) daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM seems to roll so fluently from the throat. On the other hand, German, Dutch, etc. seem to come into being as a stream of trochees: DUMda DUMda DUMda DUMda.
French, again, has another and separate rhythm pattern expressed (to my ear) in anapests, dadaDUM dadaDUM dadaDUM dadaDUM (see Gilles Vigneault's "Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays c'est l'hiver.") The foot my ear finds most often in the Italian language, and I believe also in Spanish, is amphibrachic, with the stress on the penultimate of a three syllable foot, daDUMda daDUMda daDUMda daDUMda.

Ah, marvel at the subtle intricacies of the rhythms of language! Truly it is a reflection of the music of the spheres, the sound of all things working and singing together!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Recently I was honoured to receive a real introduction to the Japanese poetry form, tanka. I had been aware of it for a long time but never tried to explore it; I saw it as an extended haiku, a haiku with two unnecessary lines added, a bastardized form if you will. I was wrong, very wrong. The tanka form is the older of the two. Haiku developed from the objective part of the tanka, and developed rules about seasonal words, etc. which do not restrict tanka.

Tanka consists of two sections. One is the objective observation of something affecting the poet and often expressed almost like the haiku that derived from it. The second is the emotional and personal reaction of the poet to the described matter, a very subjective statement. The blending of these two into a cohesive whole make the tanka.
Forget about syllable counts and other frivolities. Japanese kanji and other linguistic elements do not compare closely to syllables. It is better, as in haiku, to use the smallest number of simple words.
For form's sake we continue to use a five line layout. If the first segment is the objective, the haiku observation, the latter should be the subjective and emotional expression. The middle line may often become a turning point between the two, a part of both observations, but again there is no steadfast rule.
And, as in any good poetry, show rather than tell.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Listening To Silence

I went for a walk one afternoon a week or so ago. That's nothing new; I do that now and then for several reasons. I find it takes me away from the stresses that pile up over time; if I've had more time in the company of a lot of people than I feel comfortable with, a walk is the perfect way to re-focus myself; and surrounded by the natural world, I don't need to be anyone or play any role - just be. So, I took a peaceful stroll through a semi-secluded valley beside a slow-moving stream, kept my mouth shut, and my eyes and ears and mind open.
Somehow along the ramble, a line of thinking developed. I'd been hearing my share of poetry read in the last while, but there seemed to be an integral part missing. Whether the poet who read was dramatic or bland didn't matter. It seemed that all were so intent on getting the words out there, often rattling along like gunfire, that only at the end of a long line (or even several lines) or at the end of a stanza could the poet take a short, sharp breath before continuing. And even that pause was as short as possible so it wouldn't interfere with the delivery of the words, the message.
I believe pauses, stretches of silence, are important to a poem and poetry in general. When I read a printed poem for myself, I am free to pause where I will or must to aid in the comprehension, the digestion of the poem and whatever it delivers. At a public reading or presentation this is often not the case. The better readers, in my opinion, use the weight of silence, of pauses.
Like my quiet afternoon walk, a poem also often needs the emphasis of silence to enhance its full power. We should listen to the silences in a poem as much as to words and meaning. So much of our lives are spent with the awareness of and bombardment by words and sounds that the importance of silence has been lost. We need to re-integrate it into our lives and our poetry.