Sunday, May 30, 2010

Passing It On

The other evening a friend and I were having a discussion about the artist in the community, not the worth and purpose of the artists so much as how they fit into everyday life. He’s a musician and said that the most satisfaction he gets out of public performance is not based in praise or applause but the sense that some of the audience had been “touched.” He explained that it was an awareness of sorts that what he had been doing had let someone reach into himself to find a creative spark; it need not necessarily apply to music but any way of creating something other. The artist’s role in the community, he suggested, was to pass on the knowledge that all have a talent and should display it to the best of our ability. It doesn’t matter what, just that each one create.

I told him I could understand that about musicians and their instruments in a public performance, even actors although they hid their real selves behind a character. A visual artist is exposed through the works hanging in public galleries, film makers etc. in theatres. But how do you make that work with writing, with the literary arts? “You perform words in public,” he replied. “You do readings not to simply advertise yourself and your work, however valid that purpose may be. You have to show that creating is worthwhile, that it is delighting and satisfying.”

I remember once talking of poetry to a small group of eight to ten year old children. I was explaining rhyme and the ways different words can sound not the same but alike. I would give a simple word like “cat” and ask several of the youngsters, one by one, to give me a word that sounds like it, that rhymes with it. They grasped the concept easily enough and I was ready to go on to rhyming phrases and lines when one girl’s face lit up. Unasked she began to speak out many rhymes for different words, with an ecstatic look on her face as if she had discovered something magical. Deep within her the repetition of sounds had lit a spark of joyful creativity. I don’t know if she ever went on to write or use language in other ways. I felt like a master who had just gained an apprentice. The essence of the poet had been passed on.

And then at PoeMagic, his reading/performance series, Klyde Broox touched on the same thing. Talking about the reasoning behind PoeMagic, Klyde spoke of developing a community, a gathering in time and space where poets and spoken word artists could be together and share their creativity, where the more mature artists could fan that spark in those beginning to find a voice. Schools for artist, writing courses, and such only teach basics and methods. Creativity itself can not be taught. It must be developed and the best way to ensure such development in the younger writers is to provide chances for their works to be heard and seen. So it was his intention to form such a venue where all levels of writers of any creed, colour, social status, or whatever may seem to divide us were free to grab the spark and fire up their creativity.

And I agree. Poetry readings should not be simple showcases for one person’s work but reach to build awareness, an awareness that poets can be serious and fun, even seriously funny. I don’t remember ever setting up a reading series just for development of an artistic community but the concept is intriguing. I may be a little too old to take up such a task myself, but I will support to the fullest anyone who can and will.

So if you are just beginning to write, even if not seriously, don’t judge yourself by what publication credits you may achieve. Find a writer or group you admire and write toward their approval. Most are happy to pass on their outlooks and enthusiasm.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Language in the Future

Sometimes I become very aggravated by some of the ways that people are using language today. It seems the atmosphere is full of acronyms and short cuts that take away from the beauty and meaning of full round sounds.

I suppose it is part of the normal development of speech and communication. We’ve come a long way from inflected grunts. As the human race developed, the needs and ways of communicating evolved too. Vocabulary increased, often borrowing from other languages. Meanings of words and phrases changed as need directed. Sounds could be recorded, first in the symbols of runes and alphabets, more recently as sounds themselves.

An alphabet seemed the perfect way to preserve language except for a few flaws in the system. Not every community agreed to what sound was portrayed by what character, nor on how the sounds/letters should fit together to carry a meaning all knew instantly. In the flush of the printed word attempts were made in several languages to standardize words and their usage. Language, however, will not be contained by regulations.

Change is still happening, partly through the development of new technologies for disseminating and storing language and partly through the laziness of many of us who use them. Acronyms have become so common that they have become a means of identifying things unrelated to the word the acronym spells. Text messaging and electronic “chat” demands getting the most with the least and produces short cuts in the language that sound fine but look ugly.
So what? you may ask. But the beauty of language is one of the greatest achievements of humanity. To destroy that beauty, even to neglect it just for expediency, would seem to me to be a decline back towards barbarism. Without the fullness and diversity of all the sounds we have available language becomes stunted, withers.

Change, as we all know, cannot be stopped. But at the same time what we have built needs to be preserved. Poets in a society have the responsibility to ensure the continuation of the beauty. They are the ones who work with its intricacies and possibilities in ways no other can.

So one of the first concerns of the poet is the beauty of language, of proclaiming and propagating it. It disturbs me to find poets putting forth prosaic language just because it might appeal to more people. Poems should sing as well as communicate.

Just because so many people are doing it is no reason for a poet to dilute the power of the spoken or written word.

So wht r u w8tng 4?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Poor Man's Riches

Some time ago I was listening to a BBC interview with the Australian poet Les Murray about the compilation of a distinctly Australian dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary. One of his casual remarks, one of several I would have liked to hear him expound, was that “words are the poor man’s riches.” That left it up to me to think it out for myself.

I considered where new words come from. A number come from writers for ad firms or politicians, those using language to sell goods, services, actions, or personalities to people not as linguistically nimble. (Cf. the Afghanistan war: the precision of technological weaponry vs. the dreaded roadside IED, the Improvised Explosive Devise or as the military don’t want to put it, “home-made bomb.”) But many more begin among those who are not a part of the mainstream of business, culture, government, or other such matters. A richness of words has always come from the poor.

The language is infiltrated, and usually enriched, by the acceptance of slang. I can remember when it was not proper to refer to children as young goats; now even the most refined parents will praise their “kids.” When I was young I used to laugh and sing: I was gay. I still laugh and sing but I am no longer “gay”; the primary meaning of the word has been changed. As an activist in the 1960s I found the most powerful word referring to authorities was the little word “pig.” However, it has now lost much of that ability to aggravate and irritate because it became common if not quite acceptable.

Words continue to take root among our common “word-hoard,” our treasury of language. They come from the usage of criminals and other marginalized people, or from groups who have developed a need for a common terminology that then spreads into common usage (e.g. words from the surfer and hippie subcultures, “Valley-speak,” hip-hop terminology.) Words from banking and business do occur but have far less chance of becoming part of our daily speech unless propagated through extensive media usage.

When words are the only resource you have you learn to use them with discrimination. You become aware of their strengths, what they can do for you and to you. It is only a small step from realizing the power of words to seeing their value. If money is power, then the power of words is riches. Who knows this and uses it carefully will never be poor.

Blessed are the rich in language for they are the rich in spirit.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Diminutives in Language

I just want to take a moment here to expound on one of my few bugaboos of the English language, a fact I have learned to tolerate but not to like. I think the language would be more fully rounded, in a sense more musical, more pleasing to the ear, if it had a predominant and consistent suffix to express both comparative smallness in size and familiarity or endearment. Other languages do, and I admire the way it works for them.

Let’s take a look at two different languages. Spanish, as an example of the Romance languages, employs a few diminutive forms quite readily, e. g. “–ito (m), -ita (f)” and “–illo (m), -illa (f).” Dutch, like English a Germanic language, uses “-je” (often with a preceding consonant) to designate small size or familiarity; the diminutive is used with nouns, names, adjectives and other word forms.

It’s not that English doesn’t have diminutives, it’s just that nearly all of them are borrowed from other languages: -ette (et) from the French creating words like parkette and caplet. From Old Norse comes “-ing” in duckling and darling (familiar for “dear”). The “-y” or “-ie” comes from the Scottish (who themselves use an adjective “wee” rather than a suffix.) The Germanic “-kin, -ken” is very infrequent.

The problem is that none of the suffix constructions are productive, that is, used in common word formation in daily speech. And that, in my opinion, is one of the greater flaws of the English language.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Older Poets

Last week I attended a gathering of older poets. My mind has some difficulty in referring to them. When I think “old poets” all those from Chaucer through the Victorians come to mind; when I refer myself to “senior poets” I envision those from my lifetime who have been a source of guidance and inspiration for my own poetry. How, my enquiring mind asks, do I refer to men and women who wrote little while they were heavily involved in living but now, with retirement from their usual activities, find time and ambition and ability to write?

And again, what about those poets who have been writing steadily for many years but never slowed or lost any edge of their creativity? It used to be thought that artistic productivity was the realm of the young, that it began to decline at mid-life. That theory has certainly been overturned.

This gathering was a chance to meet and share for a variety of poets whose work was included in Celebrating Poets Over 70, a new anthology produced by the McMaster Centre for Gerontological Studies (and Tower Poetry Society) in their Writing Down Our Years Series, collections of work by older adults. Some of those present had been writing and publishing poetry for many years; some had only recently begun to express themselves creatively in poetry. But they seemed to fit together; they connected not so much through their poetry as through their common life experience and worldview.

The life in the room reflected the life to be found in the book: serious and light, filled with hope as well as memories, with a calm knowledge of the basis of existence. These men and women accepted themselves and each other for their creativity. Anything else at that time was secondary. The passion, the flaming ebullience of the young may have been tamped but it was still alive and well among the old. The body might display its weaknesses but the mind and spirit exuded strength.

Over seventy. It occurs to me that I will soon achieve that plateau. If these poets are any example, there is no excuse for me to rest on my achievements. As long as ability and need is there, I can and will continue. I want to be an old poet, a senior poet, to be an elder full of “late life creativity.”

Like them, I want to be the laughter of a spring brook in the soft coming of a winter.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Poetry In Public

What is it in modern Western society that has created such a public aversion to poetry? Poetry should not be hidden, much less tucked away in some secret spot to be enjoyed only by those few who know it. Poetry has a proper place in our community, right there with music and dance. So, why can’t we find it there?

Granted that the industrial/material nature of development created great changes in all the arts: how they were perceived, delivered, appreciated. But music is an ever-popular endeavor, and dancing is still a communal activity. Literature, the novel and short story collections, is available everywhere. What about poetry?

Poetry has lost much of its populist and popular appeal. Ask a butcher, a roofer, a long distance trucker about poetry and few will light up, glad you asked. There is no sense of what they can identify as poetry in their lives except perhaps the rhymes found in greeting cards. And these, too, are being replaced by jokes and other forms of word play.

Only a minimal effort has been made to counter this. Without patrons willing to support an art so invisible as poetry, it has been left to government to represent the society’s support. So poets decide what funding crumbs go to poets. A poet laureate institutes programs for poets. The whole structure of being a poet continues to feed upon itself.

What can be done? Take poetry back to the streets, to everyday living where it belongs. For those who want to discontinue public prayers to open a meeting, replace it with a poem. Radio and television presenters, when faced with a minute or so to fill, could read a poem rather than subject us to inane and purposeless conversation. Poets could join other buskers and read random poems on street corners for tips. The list of possibilities is endlessLet’s have a poetry contest for policemen on the theme of uniforms. Urge all grocers to write imaginatively about fresh vegetables. Ask cabbies to wax poetic about the foibles of human nature. We need real people to write and dispense poetry. Poets talking to poets about poetry and letting others listen in if they want to make the effort isn’t working.

There is a program known as “Random Acts of Poetry” that is a start for what I advocate, but rather than confine it to one week in October this kind of activity should be going on all the time. Let poets bring the beauty of language to the streets and workplaces, to meeting halls and supermarkets. A poem can contain so much joy and experience. It needs to be shared.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Linked Art

Personally I’m not one for “writing exercises,” those little ideas that are supposed to enhance style or make creative juices flow. However, recently a fellow writer approached me and asked me to set him a task; he was bored and wanted to write. He just had no idea what to write about or how to start.

I had recently come into possession of a small book authored by two poets. Rather than separate sections or groupings, each poem was written in response to one of the other’s existing poems. That way, if each had sent the other ten poems the book would end up with forty, twenty originals and twenty responses. There was no specified manner to respond; it could be to the subject, to an image, an emotional or rational response, no restriction.
I have always liked the concept of linking things, works of art especially, together to form something separate and perhaps greater. For a number of years now I have taken part in a local art celebration where poets are asked to respond to a piece of visual art in poetry. The poem and the art it responds to are then displayed together in storefront windows for a week.

I have written in response to paintings, drawings, and such but also to pieces of sculpture. Some of the most challenging work was in response to crafts: glass boxes, a jar, pieces of jewelry, fabric. I find the visceral response to such things more perplexing to explain even in non-poetic concepts. The intriguing thing here is to be able to establish a link, sometimes obvious, sometimes a little obscureThe Japanese have a tradition of renga, linked verse. Over the centuries the format (subject of certain verses, segmentation of the whole, and other “rules”) became strictly observed. I understand that the modern practice, in the last half-century or so, has moved away from that meticulousness and is more open and flowing without losing spirit and purpose. It reminds me of a piece of linked or collaborative art I was involved with in the late 1970s that was called “Peace Renga.” Writers, musicians, and other artists were invited to submit work on the theme of world peace. Many, if not all, were linked together and performed several times in different venues – music was played, prose and poetry read, paintings and photographs projected on a screen for a very moving presentation. I was proud to provide a small part of the whole, to be part of a community declaration in art.

I find that most of my writing is in response to something external rather than having something burning inside demanding expression. My response is a way to better understand, to make sense of the world around me to myself and share that understanding and viewpoint with others. In this way responding to another’s response creates for me a deeper level of seeing, of knowing.But back to my friend with the demand for a writing exercise. I sent him two lines of poetry with no hint as to title or subject matter. I asked him to respond with the same, no more than three lines if he must, linking it to my original as he saw fit with no explanation needed. That was a couple of days ago; he hasn’t replied yet. If it doesn’t get him in a writing mood, at least it has served as subject for my little meditation.