Friday, March 26, 2010

Worker Poet

The Hamilton Poetry Centre hosted a reading by Tom Wayman. I admire his work, and since I had not heard him read in more than twenty years, I excused myself from my usual Thursday evening activity to attend. He always had the reputation of being the workers’ poet both because of his own poems and several anthologies he compiled on that theme.
He still has that reputation for that was the way he was introduced to the audience. He himself spent some time explaining the reasoning behind some of his concentration on work related poetry. Others would focus on love and death, but he found that few poets wrote about their daily work experiences. What could be more natural, he said, since we spend a third of our day at work and much more thinking and talking about work. Many people are defined, either by themselves or by others, through their work. People who can write about what they do, either blue collar jobs or professional, and then in poetry have my admiration and respect. I have tried to write “work” poems and never succeeded to my own satisfaction. I find it easier to write about others at their work.

I admired Wayman’s earlier work and have been intrigued with its development. The focus is no longer on the physical aspects of labour; years of teaching have helped morph the same sensibility into poetry about the classroom, about his relationship to the drudgeries as well as the stimulations of teaching. He can deal precisely with the relationships of students and teacher or that of each to the material. All the while he retains his sense of humour and his common manner of expression. In his poetry he speaks as one person to another without thought of educational level, experience, or any other fact that might set people apart.

No matter what suit he wears or where he walks he is still a poet of and for the people.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Music or Words, the Presentation

I recently attended a concert of Indian music performed by the local sitar master, Neeraj Prem. I have enjoyed such music for a long time, since I first heard Ravi Shankar’s work on the sound track of Pather Panchali and purchased a recording of his performance in the mid 1960s. The depth of the emotional experience this music evokes continued to amaze me.

Ravi Shankar was the main exponent of bringing the classical music of Northern India to the Western world. His understanding and ability to explain won a following of Western musicians as diverse as Yehudi Menuhin, Jean-Pierre Rampal, John Coltrane, and George Harrison. But something Prem said about the music echoed what I had learned from Shankar. Western music is written down and precise, almost mathematical in harmony and counterpoint. It is based on scores to be followed. The ragas for sitar are based in mood, colour, and emotion as expressed by a basic pattern from which the musician works. A form that approaches this is the jazz soloist improvising over and around the basic chart of his piece of music.
So often in these entries I find myself talking of music. What has this one to do with poetry?

Well, late that evening as I was lying in bed preparing for sleep it suddenly struck me that the way to appreciate the different musical performances was much the same as the way to appreciate different presentations of poetry. For poetry on the page, in a book, you need an analytical mind to see the relationships between phrases and images. The layout, line breaks, stanzas, all help to guide the mind into processing the words. But spoken word material, though coming from similar fundamentals, depends on the ear alone to register. The mind cannot take time to analyze, but must therefore react viscerally and emotionally.

This also may be a partial explanation why I have an unusual reaction when I hear someone else read my poems. Rather than the sender, I become the receiver but with a much different perspective than any one else. In a way I become both ends of a conversation.
The poem on the stage is not the poem on the page. Not even combining an audio-visual presentation would work; the visuals would overwhelm the audio. It always does.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Words and Music, Certainly

I have come to understand that the music that moves me is usually associated with language. That is to say, a composition consisting of musical notes and depending on that alone does not touch me as deeply as a well-phrased song. I am trying to understand why.

This meditation comes out of a concert I attended recently, and the comparison I make with different concerts I remember. I can listen to classical compositions and enjoy the sound patterns, perhaps even feel a vague emotional response to it. I can follow the intricacies of a jazz number and be astounded by the separate reality it may portray to the contemplating mind. But it is songs that I remember most vividly. Not necessarily the poetry of the song although that seems to be a strong component. It is the combination of words and music that touches me deepest

The concert by Big Rude Jake about ten days ago is a good illustration. I had seen him fronting a neo-swing type band about eight or so years ago but heard that he had refined his sound to more of a singer-songwriter style presentation. I enjoyed it even though I approached it somewhat skeptically. I tried to analyze what it was about his concert that impressed me and came up with these facets: he had the poetic sensibility of a Tom Waits, the musical ambiance of a Leon Redbone, and the ‘fun’ jazz styling of Big Rude Jake. I was moved and impressed.

But several days later I came across a phrase that, although here it was in a totally different context, reminded me of a song that had moved me to tears many years ago. I pawed through my extensive record collection and found the original recording. When I played it again for myself, the tears flowed again. And again, every time I played it or sang it to myself. This is one of a small number of songs that affect me that way. With each one, I can remember where I first heard it, with whom, under what circumstances. I cannot say the same about any other piece of music that has no vocal component.

So it seems my true appreciation of music depends on language. I don’t know if this is unusual, whether it is a part of my being a poet, a wordwright or something like that. The realization that such is my nature does help me understand myself.

It helps explain my affinity to old blues, story songs, and music surrounding literate imagery.

The Sound of Emptiness Revisited

Back in June of ’09 I remarked on poetry that seemed to be all flash and no substance. I want to revisit the concept because a book-length manuscript came across my desk that embodied it. Out of the sixty or more poems only two or three moved me. Those seemed to build their images around a recognizable theme; the others seemed extremely unconnected.

In fact they reminded me of the “Where’s Waldo” puzzles, you know the themed scenes populated by a multitude of human figures. The trick is to find which one has all the recognizable tributes of the “Waldo” character. Imagine how frustrating play would be if there was no Waldo included! That’s how I felt about those poems. The fact that they were devoid of any customary rhythm or rhyme scheme only emphasized their meaninglessness.

There’s nothing wrong with setting down words or sounds without a precise, discernable meaning. “Sound” poets do it all the time. But they will admit that it works better on stage than on the page. The flow of words/sounds creates a mood enhanced and emphasized by poetic devices: rhyme (both end and internal), other repetition, defined even if changing rhythms. The fundamentals that please the ear and mind.

It reminded me of a poem I wrote some years back; it was never published and was never meant to be. It’s a piece I liked to perform live on stage because the way the sounds driven by rhythm and repetitions connected with the audience. If it established a sentiment, a mood, all to the good; if it didn’t it was still a sequence of pleasing sounds. I’ll publish it here so you can see what I mean.


when craven vultures songbirds be
new babes laugh hanging in each tree
through ruby filtered light you see
one trail is free

radiance crowns the powdered rack
fishermen mourn their linen sack
and oil now burns the broken back
the clabbered hack

promises mend a shirt of snow
and buttered railways slide below
the trees fall off the wheels to know
these weights won’t go

all frozen lobsters on a kite
sing for a nose to free the night
we vanquish chip-shops in delight
and leave to write

so shine the copper lilies round
run with the growling shaded hound
the magic ice flows underground
while we resound

The poem as it exists has no obvious meaning. Its “poetry” hangs on the well defined frame of rhythm and rhyme scheme. For me the joy was in the movement of the mouth, the embouchure, as vowel slipped toward vowel and consonant shaped to the next consonant.

If that joy is not there, what are we left with? Ink spots on a page? Or from the stage a cacophony?

I have written other poems that had no obvious meaning but because the way images interacted, complimented each other, and were held by a common structure, they carried a discernable meaning that could be touched. Several of these have been published and well received.

So, does meaning have to be obvious? No. But a way must be shown that can lead to a satisfactory conclusion by the reader/listener. Otherwise you are pumping darkness into a place where there is no light.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The High and the Low

I went for a winter hike with some friends in an area known as the Niagara Glen. It’s a broad but rugged place in the Niagara gorge, a place of tumbled rocks strewn from an ancient tributary. Like so many others, I’d traveled along the edge of the gorge and never imagined that a completely other world existed there. Not that it’s unknown; people explore there, fish there, play there. It’s just that looking down from the top you focus on the river below and forget the space between. So often someone in our party would exclaim, “I never knew this was here!”

The terrain is rugged but not inhospitable. Its great attraction is in its difference: it is neither the roar and swirl of the powerful river nor the civilized parks and roads above the rim. In its way, it reminded me of poetry and what poetry should be.

I will grant that sometimes poetry will look down from the refined rim of the abyss and try to explain what lies below. Or again, poetry may be part of the raging variability of the river where it grabs the banks. But who but a poet can show and explain the one to the other, can explore the complexity that lies between and still joins them.

In the human condition it is the artist, the poet who must clamber between the highs and the lows, to seek the realities that are ecstasy and profundity. To that end nothing can be more symbolic, more metaphoric than a winter hike in the gorge of the Niagara River on a clear winter afternoon.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Poets and Legislators

Over dinner this evening, some friends and I were discussing politics: international, national, provincial, local – at every level. Somehow I must have been more eloquent or persuasive than usual. I was challenged, “If you’ve got so many brilliant ideas, why don’t you run for office and do something with them?” And then followed the reference that made me stop to think a little deeper than usual. “After all, didn’t some English poet say you guys are the unacknowledged legislators of the world?”

Oh yes. Shelley’s remark at the end of his ‘A Defence of Poetry’ taken out of context again, and misrepresented. How could anyone take that term seriously? Poets don’t make rules; they’re more likely to break rules.

Even when poets had standing with the chiefs of a tribe or head of a community, they acted as advisers, never as lawgivers. Even today, with the new trend to ‘poets laureate’ any advice they are asked to give has nothing to do with the formulation of laws, only with what may make politicians look good to their constituents. The stuff of poetry, the words and ideas, are only fans and feathers misdirecting attention from the naked dance of money. For most of the time.

That’s the reason I always give, and have for a long time. What I really mean is that I can’t see my words and ideas attracting enough financial support to gain office. And furthermore, words and ideas mean nothing against cash and reputation. Personally, I can neither sell my visions nor prostitute myself.

That doesn’t mean that poets are useless. Poets are idealists, dreamers, seers. More than any others they can imagine what can and should be. The problem, as always, is to persuade the knowledgeable legislators to seek their advice and try to make it reality.

Friday, March 5, 2010

FUCK, the Word

This simple little word has such an unsavoury reputation. For many centuries it has been considered unspeakable, even filthy and wicked. This reputation, however, is changing. It drips from the mindless lips of old men and bubbles from the mouths of infants. As far back as 1972 the Oxford Dictionary decided to include it, only noting that it was considered "vulgar."

What brought on this meditation on the word was not the "fuck you" scream of a preschooler, nor the "fucking awesome!" exclamations of jubilant adults watching the Winter Olympics. I can understand its use in times of stress and emotion, when vocabulary is not the easiest thing to access. But when a poet, a person who should be familiar with words and language, the so-called tools of their trade, calmly describes someone they don't like as a "fucking dog," something is wrong. Certainly the term expresses clearly the high level of contempt implied but the true descriptive powers of language have been completely circumscribed. And such activity should concern anyone working with words.

Fuck is such a beautiful and useful little word. It was probably used in the earliest times of the English language with the simple meaning "to breed, to fornicate." All Germanic languages have a cognate from a common root; most have not been as unfortunate in their treatment.

Two things took away the ease and familiar usage of the term. First was the heavy influx of French and Latin through the Norman conquest so that their terminology took precedence. Second, and related, was the feudal system of land ownership and power, setting administration apart from the common people. After all, "vulgar" does mean "of the common people."

So the word languished outside of the vocabulary of all those who mattered until recently. In the twentieth century, public personalities, be they revolutionaries or simply social agitators, began to slip the word into their speech and writing. But not just as a little verb. They found it so versatile that it could be used as any part of speech.

It is a verb, both transitive and intransitive, i. e. you can simply "fuck" or you can "fuck someone/something". It can be used as a noun, as "a fuck" or "a fucker." It can be used as an adjective, "the fucking car." It will serve as an adverb, "so fucking good." It becomes an interjection, "Oh, fuck!" And the use most distasteful to me, as an intensifier, "he's so fucking smart ..."

I know the language continues to change and that there are no rules that can be enforced. I am not against vulgarities: I claim to be vulgar, one of the common people. All I ask is that we don't forget the other words in the language just because this one is so versatile.

No, no! "May a swarm of honey bees build their hive in your rectum!"

That's what language is for.