Sunday, January 25, 2009

Robert Burns, poetry, and nationalism

Today is Robert Burns' birthday. Scots in Scotland and all over the Americas, Scots in Australia and a dim corner of Uzbekistan; wherever they may be they celebrate. They celebrate with dinners and speeches. They celebrate with haggis and pipers. They celebrate with Scotch whiskey. But most of all, they celebrate poetry with poetry.

What makes Burns so important? Even a Scot can't articulate precisely the what and how and why. What happened, and what many Scots began to realize when he died, is that this man captured the soul of his people and laid it out before them in all its natural wonder. He did so in language that they not only understood but also used every day. He set it to the music that whispered through their bodies in a manner they couldn't forget. They made him their national poet, even when the people had no definitive nation as such.

Every nation, every people needs a poet who becomes their soul. And especially Canada needs a poet to express the heart and soul of the people. In this time of need, the call is being answered.

Since Al Purdy's death a focus has grown around the poet and what he means and expresses about the people of Canada. He has been acclaimed as the "Voice of the Land." A greater-than-life sized statue of him has been erected in a prominent public place. The home he built out of "second hand lumber and poetry" is the object of a movement to save it for those to come.

A better national poet we could not want, a Robert Burns for us and our times. This movement is rooted much deeper than any personality cult and can become a focus of Canadian culture. an expression of we, the people.

Burns and Purdy

The twenty-first day of April should be Al Purdy Day. Make it so.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

POETRY: on demand, on the page ...

Just a short remark after that event involving poetry yesterday. I believe it proved both the points that I have made earlier in this space.
First, poetry written on demand, occasional poetry, whatever you want to call it, is seldom more than a step or so away from doggerel. Alexander's words were formulaic and uninspiring. Her poem should have been censored and something appropriate read.
Second, here was an instance that poetry should be proclaimed, not read one simple word at a time as if explaining to a kindergarten class. There was no poem off the page either.
So far, only Robert Frost got it anywhere near right, and that by accident. When he was unable to read what he had written for the occasion of Kennedy's inauguration, he scrapped it and recited from memory a poem that suited the spirit of the time. The delivery was better, and the poem he recited is much better than the one he intended to read.
So? If you want poetry at a public event, choose the voice first. Then the poem, and not necessarily the poet.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Craft and Artistry

My brother works in wood. It's an ancient craft, shaping the material from other living things into forms, tools, atrifacts that can enhance and change the way we experience living. With his hands, his knowledge of the material he shapes, and his understanding of all the tools available to him, he builds large furniture pieces, small toys and boxes, intricate little puzzles.

I am awed by the things he can create; he is a maker. And yet he doesn't see that what he does is so much like what I do. I am a writer, a poet.

Writing poetry is not that different; much of it, too, depends upon a craftsman's understanding of the materials at hand and the tools he uses. Rather than different types of wood, he depends on ideas and emotions, things that are perhaps more ephemoral bot no less alive. Rather than chisels and saws, the poet uses grammar and imagery to cut and shape.

It bothers me when a new writers entrusts me with some work and I find they have little or no understanding of the materials they are trying to shape, no familiarity with the dance of noun and verb, the rich cloth of adjectives and the swirl of adverbs, the marvelous magic of clauses and phrases. And then to refuse to see that writing, especially poetry, is much more than taking what is inside and putting it outside. That is when the work begins, the crafting and shaping.

Every artist has to know his craft intimately. Especially a poet.

Friday, January 16, 2009

On a Cold Winter's Night

Last night was bitterly cold. While on my way to my car I overheard a snippet of conversation between two young ladies at the bus stop. "Whatcha doing later?" "I'm gonna curl up with So-and So's latest, a blanket, hot chocolate ..." "Oh, yeah! She is hot!!" I didn't recognize the author's name, probably a best selling romance novelist, but I certainly could agree with the sentiment.

When I arrived home I said to myself, Since you are a poet, what poet would you curl up with on a cold winter's night? and spent some time reflecting on it. Not one who was fiery, intense and emotional. Not someone who would demand all your attention. Not someone who makes you work to follow his mental gymnastics. Someone with a slow hand and a soothing voice.

The first name that came up was Robert Frost, because of the simlicity and gentility of his poetry, not because of his name. I approved of my choice but then told myself, As a Canadian, with what Canadian poet would you share a winter evening in front of the fire?

After a lengthy pause the names came like the first slow drips of a morning icicle: Glen Sorestad; Ralph Gustafson; Emile Nelligan for a dash of French; Margaret Avison for a feminine perspective. Several more, including good friends of mine.

I have warmth, good food and drink, poetry galore.
I need only some body to cuddle.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

WORD-HOARD, or vocabularies

I guess everyone has his own vocabulary, the words and phrases he uses to express and explain himself and the world around him. A writer should be especially aware of this; after all, language and its levels of usage and meaning are the tools of his trade. I recently found reason to inspect and evaluate mine.

I find the most common of the words I use are those exchanged in everyday conversation, the nickel-and-dime stuff that gets me through my daily activities. They tend to be simple and direct. They also constitute only a small segment of my personal word-hoard, the common coinage of common transactions.

In contrast, the largest part of my word-hoard or vocabulary consists of the words I read and hear. The words I hear daily are closer to my own everyday language, but there are also words and phrases I hear in the broadcast media. Often bits and pieces of this become part of my daily vocabulary. Then, of course, there are the words I read. Because I don't assume that others read the same words and phrases as I do they only seldom become a part of the usual vocabulary. My reading and understanding have given me a wealth of language - languages, because many phrases and expressions in a number of languages not my own have been easy to grasp and assimilate into what I can read.

The most precious of my word-hoard are the words I write. They encompass a much greater part of the vocabulary I have than that which I speak, but also much smaller than the vocabulary I read. These are the words that have worth for me, the ones I carefully share with others but do not let go; they are my personal treasure.

Picture my vocabularies. On the one side is a cup filled with the common coins. On the other side is a huge tub filled with paper bills, cheques, and other instruments of exchange. But in the middle stands a small chest, heavy and well bound.

I have momentarily opened my treasure chest for you. I have written.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


I've been telling myself to explain the thought process behind the name of this column. The first entry for a new year seems like an opportune time.
It began in the mid-1980s. Around that time I noticed that a number of the poems I was writing dealt with and stemmed from my observation of birds. Eagles, hawks, crows, jays, robins, bluebirds, swallows, sparrows, starlings, gulls, loons, ducks, swans and so on, and so on. I tried to put together a manuscript with the working title In the Words of Singing Birds (but it didn't fly ... ). All punning aside, several of the better poems found other places.

One of those was a little imagist poem entitled "Birdsong." It was first published as an illustration for a "poetry calendar" and later over an image of a perched bird as a People's Poetry Poster. (Ted Plantos)

The poem began when I made a distinct effort to find the Eastern Bluebirds which had become nearly extinct but, with the help of special bird boxes, were making a comeback in the area where I grew up. (Leeds Co., Ontario) I found my first bluebird along a dirt road I had often walked to school, before the one-room schools were amalgamated. The experience moved me greatly and became that poem.

But the poem, though almost minimalist and simple, began to take on, for me, more meaning than I had ever imagined. In time it became for me my poetic statement, a distillation of my personal poetics. Here is the poem:


on the rail fence
beside the dirt road
a bluebird
fire on his breast
throws his song
to the sky

in the dust
two little whirlwinds

Now for an explanation, of sorts.

Imagine the bird as the poet, his song as the poems, his means of expression. The bird has two colours, blue and red, and each of these colours has its own connotation. The red is the emotional, the heart-feeling; the blue is the rational, the mind-shaping. The birdsong begins in the breast, in the emotional, and is shaped in the body, the rational, before it is expressed. So too, for me, the poem.

It begins as an emotional action/reaction/observation and then is carefully formulated and shaped in the rational mind. I don't remember ever writing a poem without putting it through several workings and reworkings, no matter how good I thought the first draft was. Then, like the bluebird's song, it leaves to become a separate entity.

The setting also becomes important. It is open country, fields and woods, but touched by some components of human involvement with the fence, the road: a combination therefore of the wild and the civilized. The little dust whirls are also important. You would like to think that they dance as a result of the bird's song and that the poet's expression has direct results outside himself. However, it doesn't matter. The importance is that bluebirds create song and poets create poetry.

So, you see, this place has become for me a space for my inner bluebird to fill with song.

Feel free to listen. And dance.