Thursday, April 30, 2009

Celebrating Poetry: Cambridge, ON

Before this month is over I need to comment on the celebration of poetry in Cambridge in which I took part. (I should have done so earlier, but was distracted by the theft of my car and its accompanying complications.) The poetry contest sponsored by the Cambridge Libraries concluded with a reading in the Toyota Room, the auditorium of the Cambridge Arts Center, on April 19.Gathered there to display their chosen work were a good cross section of the community: children, teens, adults, all with some interest in some aspect of poetry. The "stars" were the thirty poets whose poems were chosen to be part of the Poem-a-Day program of the libraries. The evening's celebrations worked very well. Poetry, because it is usually enjoyed in private, is not easy to present in a group setting and to gather thirty people with friends and family and other interested people together is an accomplishment. More so is keeping the program moving at a good pace; this was done. No one read more than the chosen poem (including the shortest) and the judges kept any comments short.
Nearly all the chosen writers came. There were several incentives to make the evening well-attended. Primary, of course, was the chance to present their work in public. It surprised me how most, including the youngsters, were more comfortable with a microphone than I expected. While the applause still rang, they were whisked to a room away from the auditorium to again read and have their voices recorded. This would be posted on the library's web site.
Another plus for those attending was the publication of a chapbook anthology containing all thirty poems prepared for the occasion by Serengeti Press. It provided a record of the poems and the event that will last long past electronic records, and perhaps longer than some of the memories.As a judge, I was asked to comment on the category's entries before the young adults presented their poems. I noticed the other judges had prepared comments but I had not. It didn't bother me. Sometimes comments made "off the cuff" can be just as meaningful and more immediate.

Would I do it again? Just ask me. In fact, the Hamilton Public Library just did, lining up judges for their next Power of the Pen for young adults this fall. I accepted.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Poets and Muses

Several days ago I attended a workshop where we were asked to consider the "inner poet." Most of the attendeees interpreted the term as the inspirational force that assisted them in "creating" their poetry. Often they referred to this as their "muse."
The original muses, nine in number, were minor goddesses in the Greek pantheon. They were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, Memory. At first they were not differentiated but considered as all of one mind, dedicated to dispelling sorrow and grief and bringing joy and delight. In later times they became specialized, each to her own field. Four of the nine dealt with aspects of poetry.

The interesting question is how did these divine aspects that existed outside of men become to be identified with internal urges and feelings. All those at the workshop who claimed the knowledge and inspiration of a muse were clear that his/her muse was personal rather than dedicated to a type of poetry. Such a muse would not work with or for another poet. The question then naturally arose whether such a muse was a separate personality within the poet as some seemed to affirm. Was this then a sign of what could, in some circumstances be considered schitzophrenia, incipient mental illness, a personality disorder. This wasn't explored, but no poet backed away from claiming a muse's inspiration.
Personally, I have problems with personifying a creative urge. For me the muses, all nine undifferentiated ones, touched me when I realized what I was: a poet. I experience the world and explain it to myself as a poet, not as a mathematician, not as a scientist. Whenever my poetry, its fervor and intensity, begin to flag I don't search for a personality within or without. I apply myself to another means of creative expression. But even in drama, in music, in history, I remain a poet and different from an actor, musician, historian. I remain creative as I must until the focus is reformed.
That concept has served me well. I need no separate entity within or without.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Playing With Words

I'm reading a collection of pieces by James Elroy, Destination: Morgue. Intriguing as usual, but ... The man uses so many short phrases and sentences; they come at you like alliterative headlines from the worst of the supermarket tabloids. And even when he's not in full voice tabloid mode, he still alliterates. It became too much. I had to set the book aside.Now alliteration in moderation is a good and powerful tool for the poet, more so than for any other writer (except the producer of tabloid headlines!). Old English poetry was founded in alliterative four-stress lines. The sound of a sound repeating itself is often a baby's first attempt at language. Alliteration and assonance, its concomitant construction, (two deliberate examples of alliteration) are a vital part of the language. The question still remains, When is it a game and when is it poetry? Nursery rhymes that depend on word play, are they considered lasting poems comparing favourably with Old English riddles? Lewis Carrol's "Jaberwocky" can be found in anthologies of Victorian poetry. Why then isn't Joyce's Ulysses a great poem of the twentieth century? Closer to home is Christian Bok, an experimental and "sound" poet. What makes his Eunoia such a popular and critical success? His gathering of words, divided according to their use of one vowel, is the ultimate in word play - the result of years of making lists. Sound (and assonance, therefore) is everything; sense and meaning are far down those lists!

On CBC radio they held a contest for the best haiku about Toronto; it had to be five syllables / seven syllables / five syllables. There was nothing said about the spirit of haiku, the satori or moment of enlightenment that is crucial. We are left with form but no substance, a useless exercise. We might as well arrange words on the side of the fridge.Abstract art: abstract poetry. You endow the words and sounds with whatever meaning you want to fit. So play word games. Play Scrabble, do anagrams, acrostics, crossword puzzles. I like them too. I just don't call it poetry.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Al Purdy Day, April 21

It's "Al Pudy Day" in Canada, and the league of Canadian poets suggests parties to celebrate the great poet. I'm not much of a party animal but I have been thinking of him throughout the day, leafing through his books, reading his poems. I decided I should write an entry for this space; then decided to publish here a posthumus letter I wrote to him. It's a summary of a presentation I did for last year's "Pudy Fest" in Marmora.
Hey Al,

I never knew how much your presence in my life meant to me until I was left holding your absence. Like they say, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Now you’re gone, I felt I had to inspect this poet I call myself, and look closely at the way you helped shape me.

Remember Yorkville in the sixties? With my developing thirst for poetry I was hanging out there with a bunch of out-of-towners. The others looked for folk musicians; I looked for poets. And found them.

They didn’t congregate in the Yorkville and Avenue Road clubs, they hung out at the Bohemian Embassy in an alley off Yonge. It was not only a place for musicians, it was the haunt for writers, actors, poets. One evening one of the featured readers was this Al Purdy who had won the Governor-General’s prize for poetry. When you read, I was spellbound.

You reminded me of the Beat poets I had heard in the States, rough and uncouth in appearance with the sounds of everyday words coming from your mouth. And I suddenly realized that to express myself in poetry, I didn’t need flowery language and classical allusions to gods and muses. Carefully crafting common language made your poetry feel and sound natural. I approached you afterward, got you to sign a copy of a book. I told you my name but you never spoke it.

The next time we met face to face was over dinner ― for ten. I had persuaded the local Arts Council that a reading by the great Canadian poet Al Purdy would be a wonderful way to end a week of literary celebrations, and now I was plunked among the artistic movers and shakers in a fancy restaurant. I don’t remember the dinner conversation. I remember little of the reading you did.

I did, however, come away with a concept that has stuck in my mind ever since, always connected to your words at that time. Over dinner and during the reading, you emphasized how poetry and individual poems build community: in exploring common experience they build an intrinsic, common bond that is easily recognized.

Through the years there were several of your readings and other gatherings I attended. Only one really stands out, again here in Hamilton, and that because you brought home to me another simple but vital concept.

Poetry is truth, you claimed. No, not the legal, factual definition of truth. Its strength lies in its ability to connect, to connect over distance and across time. It holds the truth that is not “out there” but inside everyone. That wasn’t the way you expressed it. I don’t remember your words, not even an approximation, but that is the lesson I retain.

Three very important and fundamental concepts for this poet’s development, and for this I thank you, Al. I never got the chance to do so in person. We never got that close.

Our paths crossed several times over the years and one small thing keeps irritating me. You never gave any indication that you recognized me or knew my name. Will you do me a favour?

The next time we meet, greet me by name.

With gratitude and respect,


And it's not just me; in some way or other he influenced most of the poets who followed him. He has become an icon in Canadian letters, but remains so human, so much a poet of the people and the voice of this land.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Halucinations of the Auditory Kind

Some time ago I suffered from auditory halucinations, hearing sounds that had no existence in the real, material world. But that's not strictly true. I did not so much suffer as enjoy them. They would always follow, although not every time, a fit of coughing. I would cough hard enough that when I regained my breath my body felt as if it was throbbing. I'd watch my arm for movement but there was never anything visible; my wife never remarked on anything but my red face. That was the outside. The effects inside my head were different, usually a cacaphony of sounds that my mind struggled to translate. After the first frightening time, I decided that such "noises" were probably the result of the blood pressure in a vein or artery pressing against or into that part which deals with hearing and/or the translation of sound waves. I convinced myself of this rational explanation and decided I did not have a mental illness.However, a goood part of this noise I was "hearing" did come through as voices, normal human voices, not spectral ghostly whispers. It sounded like a cocktail party but the language or languages being spoken were totally unrecognizable to me. I don't know if it was my mind or my imagination, but I felt as if I was at a social gathering after a poetry reading (and this is, at last, the relevance) and if I would open my mouth to speak, the most wonderful and beautiful lines of poetry would resound through the room.

Wishful ideation? Perhaps. It never happened, not even in my mind. About the time I began to worry that high blood pressure and a bulging blood vessel might end in a stroke, the coughing and the throbbing and the sounds in my head faded away.

And sometimes I miss it. The unusual and unexpected can be such fun!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Ballad: Poem and Music

In those days when we relied on word of mouth to transmit stories about our forefathers, the bard played an important part in daily and ceremonial life. He was the one who remembered and repeated the old stories. But as with all customs, things change. By the time of the middle ages we had court troubadours and minstrels who would wander, all trying to maintain themselves with their words and often with musical accompaniment. The stories they recited or sang were no longer the great epics of heroic deeds or the passions of the noble classes. Instead, the poet/performers turned to everyday concerns that were familiar to the common people, that were a part of their lives. The story poem or ballad, with or without music, became an important part of our language and literature. With it came a form, a simple method of construction, that is still very much in use today.

The story-poems as delivered were usually about happenings some distance away in time or place; they usually dealt with unknown people. Because they were not written, the facts and contexts often changed in the telling, until it no longer mattered exactly how and why the story/song-poem began its existence. A good example of this lies in the stories of Robin Hood. Some of the oldest written copies of ballads we have are about him. They seem to be based on and to incorporate parts of much older material. Still, the stories continue to be told and sung.

The attributes that made the ballad so versatile continued into the period of greater use of written language. Probably the most important was its form. The ballad was usually arranged in four-line rhymed stanzas; there is such variety in this form that it seems to become a natural pattern for poetry and one which is not difficult to master and employ.

The ballad stanza usually consists of four lines: the first and third are tetrameter (four feet) while the second and fourth are trimeter (three feet); the rhyme scheme is often a b a b. It would read:

a-dum, a-dum, a-dum, a-day,

a-dum, a-dum, a-do.

a-dum, a-dum, a-dum, a-day,

a-dum, a-dum, a-do.

This simple stanza can be easily and effectively changed. The quatrain can become four equal lines. The rhyme scheme can be changed in several ways, e.g. by not rhyming lines one and three. Or two and three can be rhymed to become a rhyming couplet between the lines of another couplet. Several other variations are easily formed. An extra line can be added. All this with a simple, four line formation, the ballad stanza. Coleridge used it in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Tennyson effectively makes it the basis of his In Memoriam; Oscar Wilde deftly uses it to condemn the penal system in The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

But about this time it becomes the foundation of another manner of expression. Poetry begins to move away from the strictures of the formal stanza. Because it has such musical and rhythmic characteristics and harks back to the ballads of the minstrels and the songs of the common folk, songs, and especially folk songs in America, use the form extensively. When used to tell stories in country music the ballad stanza is powerful.There is certainly no reason why a poet should not write in the "common measure" of the ballad stanza. In fact it should be an integral part of his knowledge and experience before he attempts to write "free verse." Without a deep understanding of rhythm and rhyme, structure and form, his writing so often becomes "free" without any hint of verse. And that can be a great loss.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Poetry and Proper Names

Some time ago a question arose in a workshop group about the use of proper names in a poem. The objection was that if the reader was unfamiliar with the location, the reference and any connotations would be irrelevant and thereby detract from the purpose of the poem. A generic reference such as "a park" rather than a specific park, or "the city" instead of Toronto would do as well and not clutter the poem with unwarranted reactions by the reader. This was only mentioned in passing because of time restraints, but the idea has bubbled around in the back of my mind since.I suppose that argument has its merrit but I tend to disagree. Throughout the history of poetry, the use of proper names has made poems stronger by their particularity and their emphasis. One example that keeps pushing to the forefront is that of Browning's "My Last Dutchess." In his poem, we never learn the lady's name; this lessens her importance and emphasizes the importance of the Duke himself. Compare that with the repeated naming of the artist, Fra Pandolf, and the impression left of the Duke as a rich man of fine artistic taste. The same still happens today: someone will claim to have a "Van Gogh" rather that a painting hanging on his wall.
By naming, by using proper names, the poet establishes a personal connection to the person/place/thing he names. In doing so he displays a connection which is important to the poem, more important than the thing named or the poet himself. It should be this connectedness that resonates with the reader; it then does not matter if the reader has knowledge of the thing/place in itself, as long as he can identify with that sense of connection in himself. Place, poet and reader become secondary to the poem and its expression; they become connotations of the primary idea.

Whew! Who thought simple poetry could become so philosophical! Anyway, continue to name that place; claim it and give it meaning.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

To the Beat of the Beats

Last night I attended the fiction authors' readings put on by gritLIT, Hamilton's literary festival under way this evening. Two of the novelists, with whose work I am acquainted, didn't surprise. The third author Ray Robertson, whom I hadn't read before, did.

Part of the subject matter of his novel What Happened Later is a trip by Jack Kerouac to Quebec in 1967 to explore his own background. Sick and alcoholic, he persuades a friend to drive him to Canada, to go "on the road" one last time. This journey is offset with a boy's first discovery and search for Kerouac. The two contrast each other throughout the book. (Young Ray. a decade or more later, knows the author is no longer alive; it is not a quest for the person.)

The subject in itself could have held my interest. I am a long time admirer of the so-called Beats, especially the poetry of Ginsberg, Snyder, Corso, Ferlinghetti, McClure, and of course Kerouac himself, since I first read and heard them in the early sixties. Aside from language and subject matter, I was struck by their use of the rhythms and improvisations thereof that I was discovering in jazz at the same time. They wrote and read in beats and breaths, cadences I could follow and fix and hear when they were long gone. Whenever I opened a work to read for myself those cadences resounded through my mind.

Imagine my surprise when Robertson began to read from his book. No, that wasn't Kerouac's voice. I know it. I have in my collection nearly all of his recorded work. But the tone and the cadences were almost, to my ears, indistinguishable from the best and most satisfying of Kerouac's writing. Here was someone who had absorbed his subject and in some way assimilated and now expressed him.
That kinetic, pent-up energy was there, coiled as if barely controlled. The music of a bebop jazz group hummed around my ears. The stacatto bursts of words whipped around the room. And I sat there with my metaphorical mouth wide open in amazement.

I sat through the rest of the program, waiting to purchase the book to take home to discover if that magic was really there. Believe me, it is.