Sunday, January 31, 2010

Religion and Poetry

I purchased a copy of Margaret Avison's Listening, the collection of her poems that she had almost finished when she died, and which was published posthumously. I have been aware of and admired her work from the beginning when she kindly consented to be included with a bunch of no-name poets in a small anthology of modern Canadian Christian poetry put together by Harry Houtman for Wedge that also included my work.

I admire how her faith shows through her work. It doesn't matter if she deals with spiritual matters openly or in a roundabout way, the strength of her convictions always shines through, even when wrapped in symbolic language. She is never sentimental nor dogmatic yet you are always aware of the spiritual values upon which she bases her life. She wrote as she lived, as a servant of God among her fellows.

Certain happenings, small and large, that have recently touched my life have made me stop and think about what I am and why I am. These are not easy questions to answer, and the answer seems to keep changing. No, not in basic ways but in small peripheral perceptions.

I consider myself a poet. That's how I express myself. But it is also the way I can share the image of God, to share our common divinity with my fellow man, express my reason for being why I am. Through a holy gift holiness may be shared.

But the gift also depends on the giver. My poetry, I feel, keeps developing and I will not let it become stagnant and trivial. Sometimes I fear my faith and my love for this Creation does not shine as strongly as it could. In times like that I turn not to Scripture or to dogma but to the writings of people like Avison.

That's when I have to reflect on my place in this creation. How I have to express the creative spirit that flows through me. How, with strength but not with force, I too can be a symbol in and to the world.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Books and Stuff

If this blog is about poetry and "related musings" we'll have to mark this entry as dealing with the tools of making poetry. If language is the software books are the hardware, especially books that help to make sense of language. Reference books. Dictionaries. Grammars. Thesauri. Even encyclopedias.

One of the reasons for this is because I picked up for my perusal and amusement three little books, part of the New Webster's Library of Practical Information, which consisted of five volumes of hard cover pocket sized volumes. I have three, in excellent condition. A joy to hold and peruse. They look good; they feel good; they carry good information. What more can you ask of a reference book?

The other reason is because Steve Jobs and Apple announced today the introduction of the iPad, another application that could interfere with good reading and writing I suppose. Some sort of hybrid of the iPhone and a laptop computer. Supposedly, because of special applications available to it, a step up from the bulky electronic readers already on the market. And it comes with its own content supplied. So, imagine your daily paper delivered as a PFD and subscribed to like iTunes. I see it and shudder.

People in the streets are dying. Drivers and pedestrians (and I wouldn't put it past cyclists) are going about with their eyes and ears electronically engaged, no longer free to function as they were meant to - to assess and appreciate the environment around them.

Soon it will be the flip side of conservationism: how many people die to save one tree?

(Sorry, this has become a rant. I love books; they are part of what I understand myself to be. Electronic devices are toys.)

Gadgets will find their places; they always have and they still do.

I don't have to like that truth.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Source of Inspiration

Some of the light has gone from my life. A source of inspiration, direct or indirect, for my poetry has been extinguished. For his own well-being and my responsibility for it, my cat Dizzy was helped to his final sleep.

So. An old man commiserates about his pet cat. Maudlin, you say? Perhaps so. But this cat among the many I have known was special, special to me and my poetry. Here I want to talk about him not as a cat, but as poetic inspiration.

Those who know me and my work know that one of the themes running through my poetry is the interconnectedness between the human and the natural. Often I will use animals and their behaviors to reflect that of people. Don't take me wrong, it's not anthropomorphic; they just become symbolic of human strengths and weaknesses.

Many of the animals I use are those I observe. The animals I know best become the most important to my poetry. Dizzy was one, perhaps the most important one. He was part of the mindset behind "Premises for a New Animal Husbandry" that won the GRAIN prize for prose poem in 1995. ("Cats are not animals.") He was the subject of my poem "Sandburg's Fog" which won several prizes. ("My black cat has oversized feet.") He inspired several more directly.

And now he's gone. Can I say I am partially blinded? So much of my view of life was based on seeing it from outside my self, and Dizzy was much of this "outside" space. I intend to get another cat. The house is too empty; there is no one to talk to, to curse at in foreign languages. No one but myself to hear my poems spoken. I need another non-critical and honest companion like Diz.

Another cat will probably not be like Dizzy; I can't expect that. All I can hope is that I can again establish a bond that is favorable to what I write.

We write what we know and love.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Foundations of Poetry

Free verse and its variations have been around long enough that every person believes he (or she) can write poetry, granting that some may be better than others. With this comes the idea that any poem written in form and meter is old fashioned and out of date. Not so. I always stress that you can not write “free verse” until you understand what verse has been freed from, and that to be good poetry it needs to retain its roots, its foundation.

Part of that foundation is rhythm. All of our speech consists of syllables that are either stressed or unstressed; it is by arranging them in a pattern pleasing to the ear that we begin to create poetry. This is the basis of the blank verse of Shakespeare and Milton, rhythmic but without rhyme. The measure of this rhythm is expressed as feet. There are a limited number of such feet; a poet would be well served to acquaint himself with them.

To build such pleasing patterns is the craft of poetry, the work that comes after the inspiration. Words and phrases that seemed so natural but will not fit into a pattern, a rhythm, need to be replaced by something that doesn’t completely alter the proposed meaning. English is a language rich in such words.

And free verse? Free verse is not constrained by such tradition, is it? Here comes the distinction between prose and poetry. Prose, whether in a novel or the daily newspaper, has never had to follow such patterns. Verse, whether free or formal, must or it may lapse into prose. The least measured of free verse must have a cadence that the ear recognizes as pleasurable even if the mind does not.

Then what about the claims of rhyme? Modern poetry, especially free verse, doesn’t rhyme so why should a poet concern himself with such an outdated concept?

True, rhyme at the endings of lines is not as prevalent or obvious as it was when it was used as an aid to memorizing poems. Most of us no longer memorize but read poems stored on the page. However, rhyme and all its many fascinating variations are such an integral part of poetry that it can not be denied its place.

We spoke of rhythm, of the patterns that make up a good poem. One of the most important ways to emphasize the recurrent patterns of sound has always been through repetition. When the repeated sound or combination of sounds came at the end of a measured line of poetry, we had “end rhyme.”

But to emphasize the pattern the poet can also repeat the sounds in other, related ways that are equally pleasing. Internal rhyme is like end rhyme but doesn’t occur at the ends of lines. The repetition of consonants at the beginning, the end, or even in the middle of words can give a sense of that pleasure the ear is listening for, the repetition of vowels more so. All these and many more go to enhance that basic pattern.

It is my belief that the poet who completely ignores the basics of poetry that have always worked is doomed to lapse into writing that no ear will recognize as poetry. Rhythm and rhyme is to poetry what time and tone are to music, what heart beat and breathing are to the body: essential.
A mastery of these fundamentals can lead you onto many new roads in language and poetry.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Poem Should . . .

A few days ago I was reading through an anthology, one of those where somebody has put together a number of poems (this time it was one hundred) without any theme or other formal structure. It could have been titled "my favourite poems of all time" but wasn't. Most of the poems were from England and North America (including Canada) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Nothing wrong with that, only it did seem a needless waste of energy and resources. But even in all its glorious blandness, it made me stop and ask myself, "What is it about a poem that would make me take such notice of it that I would go back to it time and time again?" Some time spent ruminating and reading, checking my personal "favourites," led to the conclusions I'm setting down here.

Without analyzing the poems into destruction, I discovered some common threads, characteristics of poems that made them appealing to me. I found I could distill them down to three concepts.

One, the poem must transmit or transfer an emotion. If a poem deals with feelings I have never felt or don't find important, it doesn't touch me, doesn't work for me. This doesn't make it a bad poem; it's just something I don't go back to. Take for instance the difference between a love poem and a poem about love; for me a love poem is a sharing, an experience "inside," while a poem about love leaves it all sitting in space between the author and reader, "outside."

Two, the poem should, in its way, be rational. It should catch my mind long enough to force me to think about its subject, what it is trying to say or convey. It should not be like a lightning bolt, all instant flash and nothing left behind, but more like fine whiskey of the brain, with a growing glow and an insistent warmth that continues long afterwards.

Three, the poem should make me wonder, should expose a little of the everyday miraculous that takes special effort to bring to my awareness. This is the "art" for which the craft is practiced; this is the holiness of creation - the ability of words to extend me beyond my ordinary self.

So that's how a poem works for me. It should make me feel; make me think; make me wonder. And not all to the same degree. A poem that makes me wonder may not seem as rational or emotion-based as others; the same goes for any of the three concepts. I'm just trying to say that those three must be present in some combination to work as poetry. To work for me.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Words and Pictures

The old saying goes,"A picture is worth a thousand words." How do you compare the value of words with the value of pictures?

A short time ago I bought myself a painting. For several reasons. First, it speaks to me; it has a sense about it that connects the two of us, my self and the painting. That sense is intrinsic and has little to do with the artist. I don't know her, have never met her. Second, after loooking at it on the gallery wall several times, then taking some time to inspect it closely I felt something intimate towards it, a need to take it home and live with it. Third, the price was right, something I could afford.

And that brings me to the question currently on my mind. How do artists put a price on their work? Materials + labour + time and then what about the idea, the craft, research - whether specific for this or just general to the work? Is there a measure of self-valuation, of other-valuation?

"A picture is worth a thousand words." Could I sell a thousand words on the open market and make enough to buy the picture? As an article, a review, or should it, too, be artistic: a short story, a long poem, a series or collection of poems? Does it matter if I collect the poems in a book, sell a number of copies of the book to purchase an uncopied painting?

No, let the questions chase themselves.

Because of intangible and incalculable things about the painting, I was willing to pay the price asked. It had nothing to do (for me) with "worth." Similarly when I sell my poetry, I hope it goes to someone who has a special appreciation for the poems no matter what I put into them.

And then we cut our creations loose to exist without us, in someone else's care.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Conversation Over Time

I recently held a conversation with a friend of mine, a conversation of sorts that was conducted via email. It was an unusual but nonetheless quite satisfying way to exchange ideas and comments.

Usually an exchange like that would take place face to face over a coffee or other beverage. Certainly it often takes place by way of the telephone. (I’m not familiar enough with instant messaging or texting to consider them.) I do know that it is an alternative to exchanging letters by post.

I personally prefer the email exchange, especially over the telephone conversation. It gives me, and the person on the other end of the “conversation,” time that does not seem available on the phone. On the phone a question or comment seems to demand an instant response; there is nothing more uncomfortable on the phone that silence. (“Are you there? Hello! Hello? Are you still there?”) I don’t know about others, but I like to think about what has been said to me, what and how I will respond. I don’t need an inordinate amount of time; ten or fifteen seconds will do to marshal my thoughts and words. However, for most others this seems a lifetime longer than they’re willing to give.

I have several acquaintances who carry this into their personal conversations. If you want to say anything, you have to interrupt them in the split second they use to take a breath. If you happen to refer to something they said much earlier, that point seems to have been forgotten in favor of what’s said “now.” The torrent is more important than the content. How can you exchange ideas and information without a dialogue?

So, I prefer email. I can think, order my thoughts, decide how to present them without being expected to do so instantly.

How does this connect to poetry? It has given me insight into how I write a poem. I think, order my thoughts, decide how to present them. And it all takes time. I can’t remember a poem that sprang fully formed into my consciousness; they have all needed some deliberate thought, shaping, other touches. In some ways, a poem becomes a conversation with myself.

That feels true, like a proper analogy. Inside my head I talk to myself. Some of those conversations are exciting, some are humdrum. Some drift away before they’re finished, some perhaps would have been better left unstarted.

And there is no telephone link between my heart and my head.