Sunday, June 27, 2010

Memory and Poetry

I know someone who writes a lot of poetry using his memory of what the circumstances of his life were when he was young. I suppose such writings have their place but the more I consider it, the less I believe that poetry should be a historical record. Lets leave writings like that to the historians, the biographers, the writers of memoirs. Poetry should deal with the imagination, and sometimes when you try to get the right facts and the right feelings you sacrifice any imagination and in that way leave confusion.

I admit that this is a large step away from what I think is the root of all poetry – the transmission of valuable information from one generation to the next, the education of those not directly involved in events, as well as communal entertainment. The poet carried in his words and songs and recitations the stories, the joys and the trials of the people. The important thing to remember is that he used images, that is, imagination to carry these rather than verifiable facts.

That doesn’t mean facts don’t make poetry; rather it goes to show that good poetry makes facts. I could cite several examples of imagination in poetry creating an existence so real it becomes real. Let me take you to my own work, a chapbook titled Bailey’s Mill. The little book consists of thirteen pieces of different types of poetry but they are all part of one story, the tale of a man, Elias Bailey who came here fleeing the American Revolution to begin a new life. He built a mill to service the local farm settlement; this attracted other enterprises, became the basis for a village. He controlled the village until it was divided by a wet/dry question. When fire destroyed his mill he blamed his opponents without proof and the bitterness destroyed the whole community. It can be seen as a classic tale of the overreacher, one man who took on more than he was able to handle.

The wonderful thing about the sequence is that it is not “real.” Certainly, it was researched. Bits and pieces from different sources were used to stitch together a believable story. But there was simply no Bailey’s Mill except in my imagination. Facts and images together made for a poetry that was real, so real I still get asked where someone could find this town, where it used to be.

So a number of facts are the foundation. The poetry lies in the use of imagination to tie them together. The truth brought forth is the emotion that seem to resonate from the fictional Bailey through the writing of a poet to the feelings of the listener/reader.

More than just memory. More than a flight of imagination. Always asking for a subtle response. And that is how good poetry should work.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Poetry and Motion

We’re well into the tournament for the World Cup of association football, also known as soccer. The beautiful game. It moves me more than enough to meditate on it, to contemplate what makes it beautiful.

What really intrigues me is that you can see play developing in motion. Hockey has a similar basic flow but because the surface is so much smaller and the speed of its motion is so much faster, it becomes much more difficult for the untrained eye and mind to register all the nuances. One of the drawbacks, perhaps the only one, in televised soccer games is that you are unable to see the whole field and are bound to the view the camera offers; so much that becomes important is developing on the field but off-camera so to speak.

The beauty of shifting patterns is for me the main factor in enjoying the game. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses, but how the game is played … since I’m not personally involved in any way. Shifting patterns in attack; shifting patterns in defense; the several developments possible from a set play; the interaction is usually more important than the actions seen separately.

I’ve seen teams work a beautiful offence, controlling the ball and play with short runs and accurate passes, passing to connect with the next foot rather than passing it into an area and expecting someone to be there. I’ve seen teams work a beautiful defense, putting one or two defenders on the incoming play while other defenders formed a field toward the goal to prevent easy forward penetration.

But enough of what is basically admiration of the game. What is it that makes me think of poetry? How is a well-played soccer game like a poem? A number of years ago I wrote a poem on the beauty of moving and controlling the ball, direction and misdirection, the sudden challenge of facing a goal and its keeper. I submitted it to a place asking for poems about sports and never heard about the poem again except second hand. An acquaintance who had also submitted said an anthology had been published. I don’t know if my poem was included. What’s more, I have lost the poem: no hard copy (this was before I made electronic copies), not even hand written notes. Ah, well. So it goes.

Let me explain to you how a play develops. The goal keeper (after an attempt by the opposing team) puts the ball into play: not with a long punt up field, for in the air the ball is in no one’s control. He feeds it to a defensive player. This one and his immediate team mates in the area close to the goal have the responsibility of moving the ball out to center field and beyond without losing control or possession to an opponent. It then becomes the responsibility of those teammates in the middle of the field to take over and find a way to bring the ball into a position close enough to the opponents’ goal. The midfielder must work to give the striker, the scoring specialist, a good chance to score while maintaining position so the play remains in that end. Should the ball pop out, he must be ready to feed it back in or take a shot at the goal himself. Such is but one of the basic sequences.

Take a good look at the foregoing example. It’s not hard to see the structure of a poem reflected in the structure of the play or vice versa. Look at it as a sonnet. First the octet: one quatrain moves it away from the goal; the second quatrain carries it into opposing territory. Then the sestet: the first tercet moves the play into the opponents’ goal area; the second tercet feeds the striker or player with the best chance to score.

So the poetry lies not in the motion of the individual but lies in the cohesiveness of the whole, the team. Individual motion only enhances, the way a well-placed image enhances a poem.

When I watch soccer, whoever wins or loses is to me usually secondary. Always my first interest is in the flow, the motion, the poetry of the game.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Indulge me for a few moments; I need to get something off my chest, as they say.

An acquaintance of mine recently completed the work and was awarded a Ph D in some field of science. I congratulated him, wished him all the best. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, I suggested that all we unschooled peons would now be obligated to address him as “Doctor B-----.” To my surprise he agreed, quite adamantly in fact. At first I could not believe he was serious.

He worked very hard to attain this goal, he argued. Just like a doctor in a medical field, he should be given the respect due to him, just as it says on the diploma he will hang on his office wall. He gained a level in education, he said, but also standing in the community.

I was puzzled. I told him I could see that sort of respectful salutation from fellow scientists, etc., but certainly not from store clerks, plumbers, auto mechanics and the like. Certainly he wouldn’t ask it of friends in the pub, the guys he plays squash with? Any one who is aware of my degree, he proclaimed, to whom I was introduced as one holding such a degree, has an obligation to honor me, to show respect.

Shaking my head I slipped away, wondering how long this would last and glad he wasn’t a close friend.

However, that reminded me that I don’t like honorifics; not so much that they nauseate me but I have a strong aversion to them. Let professors be “Professors” in class or on University business; to me he is Sam from down the street. In conversation you may refer to a surgeon as “Dr. W----,” but I’ll tell you that I know Maria W----. In the office, with a professional relationship established, she is “Dr. W----.”

What’s more, it goes against my grain to use the everyday honorifics we use as courtesy. They are not inherently polite, but reflect a hierarchical social structure I would rather not propagate. Women were right when they no longer wished to be addressed as either Mistress or Miss depending on their marital status, because such status was irrelevant. They didn’t go far enough. They should have eradicated all such “honorable” forms of address rather than reduce it to a noise that is part hum, part buzz, and completely silly. Ms. “Mmmmzzzzz.”

The trouble with mister/master/mistress is that it is based in and continues to remind me of master-servant or even owner-slave relationships. I don’t recognize such and refuse to consider anyone my “master” or to be anyone’s “master.” On the other hand, I also dislike being addressed as “sir.” It too has that air of social distinction, of setting the speaker in a lower rank than the one addressed, obsequiously bending the knee and begging for a gift from a noble hand.

Most courteous honorifics are dishonorable. Even “comrade” as a form of address, as expounded by communist regimes in the past century, does not sit well in my mouth.

We had it as nearly right as we could get it at one time, I believe. In the late sixties, early seventies we addressed each other as “man.” A simple appellation and not necessarily sexist for a woman told me she considered it to be “apostrophe-man,” a contraction of “human.”

And let me tell you ‘man, it gets no better than that.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Women Poets

I love browsing around in second hand bookstores; I usually find something that catches my fancy. I even snuffle through the well-used and abused sections of second hand department stores, Salvation Army shops, Goodwill, Value Village and the rest.

Not long ago I came home with a volume titled 20th CENTURY WOMEN”S POETRY, edited by Fleur Adcock and published by Faber. What caught my attention was the blurb on the back claiming, “This anthology of women’s poetry is destined to establish a canon by which other, more partial anthologies will eventually be judged.” Inside I found a good representation of British, American, some Canadian, and a few other English language woman poets. After perusing through the contents, some familiar and some not, I carefully read Adcock’s introduction to discover the thought process behind the collection.

Adcock admits there is no special tradition in women’s poetry, nothing that should make it be seen as something different or separate. The fact remains that for many years men, men who didn’t take women seriously, dominated publishing. The feminine suffix added to poet, producing “poetess,” almost becomes a diminutive; no wonder women poets have dropped its usage.

Women were writing. Some lived in social isolation; some flourished in the limelight of a man; others gained attention by being outrageous, even scandalous. This does not take away from the power of the poetry. There is an excellent mix here of well known poets and those not well known. Some have been almost forgotten. Some seem somewhat dated. All have a quality that still appeals at the turn of another century.

Today women poets are being published without preference or reference to sex. Female poets are being read and taught. They seem to have reached a real equality in the literary world that they never had before.

Still, I believe there is some cause for concern, a trend we should watch with care. The work of women poets, of women writers, may get shunted into the lit section of “women’s bookshops.” In larger stores they may be relegated to the “women’s” section rather than with all poetry. And there is the dismaying trend in universities to make female poets part of “women’s studies,” and thereby creating an unwanted ghetto.

Men and women are one in their humanity, one in their dreams and perceptions, one in their use of language. A poem in itself has no gender. If it does it is as a result of the reader, not the writer. When the waters of two streams come together to form a creek, how can you separate them again? Women have moved from poetesses to poets. There can be no greater injustice than to marginalize them again.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Focus Point

I’ve been thinking about haiku the past couple of days and how this form and related forms can carry so much meaning. Two or three lines, a few words, a clear and untrammeled image, simply speak out. Speak out about a time of year or a time of life, the simplicity of the natural world and the complexity of the human heart, the interconnections that make the all one.

To focus the broad lens of attention on the small, and often seeming trivial, bits and parts of life as we live it and not as we imagine or contemplate it, is for me the most important purpose of poetry. Oh yes, I acknowledge the importance of the narrative, the telling and preserving of personal and communal experience where the meaning is obvious. I admire the lyrical poetry that uses the beauty of language to enhance and sing a common experience and thereby intensify the joy of living – the odes, the sonnets, and numerous forms named and unnamed.

But for me it will always be the small poems that remain the most powerful: not only the Japanese forms but also all those that present one image uncluttered and wielding a quiet strength. The best of English language imagist poetry carry as much emotion and strength as the finest work of the haiku masters.

For me, poetry can be the way I focus the light of daily living on small things, a light that should be a way to explore their meaning and their special inherent beauty.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Beautiful Ugly

We all have our individual concepts of ugliness. Usually it is something that is not pleasing to the senses, that causes an immediate reaction against it. We know a stink when we smell it, a cacophony when we hear it. We turn away from that which does not please the eye and spit out what offends the palate.

But in everything we consider ugly or distasteful there can be found touches of beauty if we make the effort to seek them out. Even the most visually unpleasant will have some combination of lines or colors, some underlying balance that can be pleasing if we ignore the rest. If we can follow the pattern of a single sound through masses of discord we may find a kernel of music.

The same goes for writing, for poetry. Poetry is by definition aesthetically pleasing; I can’t imagine anyone setting out deliberately to write an ugly poem. Even though it should be done, I don’t know many beautiful poems about ugly things or subjects. Even so, such materials should be subjects for good poetry.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say. So perhaps some poet should stop to envision the beauty in the unattractive.

Where are the poems about scrap metal in a junkyard? Who will wax lyrical about the sights of decomposing garbage? Is there an ode or a sonnet to the nature and beauty of a manure pile?

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, Keats proclaimed. Poetry makes beautiful that which is distorted, wrote Shelley. I’m asking for some appreciation of ugliness, the truths of the unpleasant.