Saturday, February 27, 2010

Caribbean English

Just a last reflection specific to Black History month. The Artword Artbar brought Rhoma Spencer back after her successful appearance last December. This time, rather than a musician, she brought Blakka Ellis, a well-respected Jamaican stand up comic. The whole evening, then, was dedicated to language – especially the language of the Caribbean.

Among all her other accomplishments – actor, director, producer, etc. – she is an excellent storyteller. Now based in Toronto, the anecdotes she shapes and delivers have much of the ambiance of her native Trinidad. I expected a little more patois but I think she read her audience and only used phrasings that could be comprehended in context. The evening’s consistent theme was one of comparison/contrast between the Caribbean and Canadian cultures. All of the stories seemed to be still in development; there was no repeat of her previous performance.

Rhoma, of course, had thrilled me when she appeared here last fall. The other part of the program was introduced as Blakka Ellis, a comedian from Jamaica. His part of the show dovetailed nicely with Rhoma’s presentation: the same exploration of cultural differences and often similar stories, with his aimed slightly different, to elicit the laughter. (In fact Rhoma apologized for presenting material so similar; they hadn’t discussed material beforehand.) Blakka’s language too, dipped occasionally into patois but not enough to lose his audience. His comedy had the same laid-back character as Rhoma’s stories rather than the more frantic, hard edged stuff we are used to in North America.

It was not until after the show when I was speaking with the man that I discovered that he was much more than a comic. He had performed as a musician, but also had some reputation as a poet. Part of his reason for moving here from Jamaica, he said, was that he felt he was being pigeonholed as a comic and wasn’t offered the chances to broaden himself.

So, even though the audience was diminished by reason of a snowstorm outside and the Olympics on TV inside, I had a rewarding evening among the lilt and rhythms of Caribbean English.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


I went to an opening at an art gallery recently. I didn’t stay long. The series of paintings on display were not to my liking – abstract expressionist, I think you might call them. On a background of very dark colors, the artist had tossed, splashed, squirted, squiggled or otherwise applied lines and blots of paint. And none of those bits in very appealing colors or in recognizable shapes.

I understand that so-called abstract expressionists want you to observe the results of their action; and because those results are so abstract, so lacking in meaning in themselves, the viewer has to supply his own meaning without assistance from the artist. Imagine holding a conversation with yourself without being aware of what you’re saying or what you might reply. No wonder the paintings remind me of Rorschach inkblots, except that no one calls them art.

What then is art if it doesn’t communicate? I believe art is a shared experience, one that affects both the artist and his audience. (I almost said the maker and the consumer!) If the link doesn’t exist, is it art? Paint on a canvas, matter in a space, words on a page.

Words on a page. I love what James Joyce did with words in Finnegan’s Wake. That doesn’t make it a novel. I’m intrigued by what Christian Bök did with Eunoia. But that doesn’t make it poetry for me.

For me poetry is communication, a sharing of experience and vision. And if doing that, for that purpose, doesn’t make me an artist …

Sunday, February 21, 2010

In Performance

I went out the other evening to a concert, just to treat myself to something different for my birthday. There was a duo, the Undesirables, who performed mainly narrative songs. (Imagine a novel turned into song, or was that a song based on the novel?) They were enjoyable enough but were only the intro for the main attraction of the evening, C. R. Avery accompanied by the Legal Tender String Quartet. I had never heard of either act but went because the promo mentioned Tom Waits with both of them. C.R. Avery was a truly joyful birthday surprise!

Now those who have nuzzled through this site before know how I love performance art in all its forms – music, theatre, storytelling, and especially poetry. Let me tell you, Avery was a combination of the best of them all. I will try to describe his performance, but my words may be inadequate.

First of all, he is a poet, and has won the Great Canadian Poetry Face-off. He works in the poetic tradition, with rhythm, rhyme, imagery and various devices. He’s also one-third of T. O. F. U., the Tons Of Fun University group out of Vancouver that recently gave us Shane Koyczan, the poet who performed at the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremonies. He brings a beat/hip-hop sensibility to his presentation, both physically and aurally. And then the music.

Aside from the vocals and beat-box scratching and rhythm sounds with his voice, he played marvelous blues harmonica, using each to compliment the others. He was accompanied by a man who played a fine guitar with his hands and rhythm instruments with his feet. His sound was filled out by the Legal Tender String Quartet, a classically trained foursome of cello, viola, and two violins.

And now the problem lies in how to describe it. Let’s drop some performing beat (preferably Ginsberg) in a pot with early Bob Dylan imagery from his talking blues numbers. Add some Springsteen/ Mellencamp and a heap of Bukowski. Leave room for a lot of Patti Smith and enough Tom Waits to color the mixture. Don’t forget to season with Little Walter’s harp. And press it all through the best of hip-hop.

Damn. That still doesn’t do justice. That’s a poor approximation of what I experienced.

Excuse me, I’ve got to put his CD in the player. Why don’t you try it for yourself.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Orchards, Poems, and Metaphor

While on a hike not long ago, I walked by an orchard; you know, fruit trees standing in rows. It is winter. They had been pruned and just stood there in the drab dead grass, no snow to give them some semblance of promise. Almost like old soldiers on a parade ground they stood, the same size, the same shape, all neat and waiting.

It made me think of apple orchards I have experienced, especially those when I was younger and just learning about the world. Made me think, too, about poems for some reason.

When I was a schoolboy, my friends and I would often make a little extra spending money in the early fall hiring out as apple pickers on weekends. There were two orchards in the area near us which were commercial enterprises. We loved the work: all the trees were the same size and nearly the same shape; the fruit was easy to pick from the ladders. Even if we were sent to pick the windfalls off the ground, the grass beneath the trees was kept short and we didn’t have to search. I remembered this and thought about the poems we studied at school, all the words in rows of the same length and the lines neatly arranged in stanzas like those orchards.

But then there was the collection of fruit trees at home. I suppose it could be classified as an orchard; the trees were placed in a couple of rows. The trees, however, were different sizes and shapes, different ages. They didn’t even produce the same kind of apple, and one was a cherry tree. In the spaces between the rows grew potatoes and vegetables. The gaps in between the trees were filled with berry canes and bushes, or open space. Thinking back on this orchard, I began to compare it with more modern poems: still in lines, but open and the spaces filled with other bits and pieces that still seem part of the poem. The variations make it more interesting but the lack of strict regimentation makes it seem wild. You have to get to know the space and the plants to find the essence of orchard, whereas the neatly arranged rows automatically say orchard.
Both produce fruit for human consumption. Both are arranged and cared for. The difference lies in manner, how the purpose is presented. That’s all up to the gardener.
The next time you come across what looks to you as a jumble of words and broken phrases, take a careful look. It might be an orchard.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Man of Words

When is a poet more than a poet? When he's Mutabaruka.

This past Sunday, for the beginning of Black History Month, the Afro-Canadian Caribbean Association brought the renowned master of dub from Jamaica to Hamilton for a celebratory performance. I can't speak for the other people there, but he certainly exceeded my expectations.

The legendary poet delivered the poems as expected, in the manner expected: unaccompanied lines of rhyme over a perceptible reggae rhythm. Poems dealing with the socio-political and -economic subjects dub is known for. Poems of anger and rebellion, of struggle for freedom and dignity. But with Mutabaruka, much happened between and around the poems.

There was, of course, his Rasta persona - with colorful robes and bare feet and tucked-away dreadlocks. But he is a man of words, of language, and the way he used language was riveting. Between poems, no, more like literate segues into and out of the poems, came stories that made you laugh. And just when you thought the man had transformed into a stand-up comedian, he would shift into an oratorical mode, making you realize the story was not a joke just for laughs. Whether he delivered the words in lightly accented English or spoke in the heaviest patois, the stories, the exhortations, the poems, all flowed together in one seamless weave.

And the audience, black or white or in between, loved it and expressed themselves with vocal response and applause. It was only fitting that Mutabaruka was the final item on the program. After him, we had little mind or breath left to appreciate anyone or anything else.

The man is so much more than a poet. He has a wonderful touch as a storyteller, drawing his audience in with his expression. And the voice? I could hear the old time preachers and politicians ringing out.

The whole experience? Mesmerizing. I'm still astonished and a little envious. If only I could deliver my words with half that power and conviction . . .

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rhythm and Rhyme: an Example

Every now and then I hammer away at the importance of rhythm and rhyme to poetry, the cadence and tone of language put to a special use. Although I don't usually post poetry, and almost never a new poem, I want to share this recent one (the last revision, an hour or so ago, escaped accompanied by a satisfied sigh) because of its use of these fundamentals. It's not a great poem, but it works for me as a poem and a prayer.


May in your new existence every whisper
that touches you be filled with a soft light
that carries in the rhythm of soothing murmur
the promises and mysteries of night.

May grass grow ever taller than your shoulder
and fall away from your approaching face
as you explore the clean expanse of meadow
and know that you belong in that new place.

May life again turn in familiar cycles
unfettered by the linear chains of days:
action and rest, hunger and satisfaction,
while all the words you hear are words of praise.

May simple dreams become their own fulfillment.
Rest on those cushions where St. Francis sat.
And when you sing out in the heavenly chorus,
let every angel know that you are cat.

Basic iambic pentameter. The alternating lines of each stanza (2 and 4) rhyme; the other lines end in feminine rhythm with an extra unstressed syllable. And those are the obvious devices; you can find more if you try.

The poem is not only a fitting memorial, it helps me deal with the loss.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Gender, No Sex

Rather than offering a broad scope of philosophy or literature, this time I want to get down to a small but personal irritant in the English language. In its development English has overcome most of the strictures of gender and number of nouns and pronouns in the language. The most glaring anomaly is the third person singular when gender is not neuter but unknown. Even the present tense verb form changes for the third person singular.

We say that I, you (both singular and plural), and they make but he, she, or it makes. The question raises its head when we refer to a person but not his (or her) sex. See how awkward this gets?

When I was learning the English language (for it's not my mother tongue) I was blithely taught that the masculine "he (or him, his)" when used in this way presumed the inclusion of the feminine "she (or her, hers)." And that explanation of inclusiveness satisfied me for a long time. But a decade or two later the feminist social movement raised a fuss about such language, not only about the third person singular but also about non-gender specific nouns automatically being assigned the masculine singular pronoun. First they did away with suffix identifiers such as -ess, etc. There are no more actresses; they are all actors. Even God in her wisdom will take on the feminine form.

Sometimes it becomes silly and goes overboard, e. g. the use of the term "herstory" when the original "his" doesn't have any connection with gender. Or when a "manhole" becomes a "personhole." You may notice that this is never applied to already derogatory terms; you won't find anyone referred to as a "womaniac" or "personiac" no matter what the sex of the individual.

But back to the gender of person. What do you say when you don't know the gender of the person referred to? "Whatever the doctor tells you, do what he/she says." To go back to the time I was taught English, we were also told that the pronoun form "they, them, theirs" is plural and not to be used for the singular. Then the teachers threw in exceptions: you may use it in the case of singular collective nouns such as "the crowd raise their voices" or "my family always take their vacation." (Note that the verb form also becomes plural.)

I read in a neat little book that the third person plural had been used to fill this gap for a long time, by such people as Shakespeare, the authors of the King James Bible, Jane Austen and others until the latter part of the nineteenth century when there was a concerted effort to regulate the language, an effort that led to the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition and other awkwardnesses. But English with its very adaptable nature will not be regulated.

Therefore, I will end a sentence with a preposition if I need to. I intend to use "they" for the third person singular pronoun if gender is unspecified. But I'll listen to any person who thinks they can find a better way.
Sometimes you can teach this old dog a new trick.