I just realized I passed the 20,000 views mark on my blog today. I've been up to my ears in ModPo as the ten-week course nears the end. What a wild and wonderful ride it's been. I've made new cyber-friends and I'm reading a bunch of new blogs. There is a sea change happening in the world of education, and it involves educating the world. It's way too soon to say just how this is all going to work out; I can't imagine that such a high-quality course will continue to be offered free, for example, but whatever may happen, it's exciting to be part of a small part of it. ModPo (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) will be offered through Coursera again next year and I can't recommend it highly enough.
The following essay appeared in the spring 2012 issue of the New Orphic Review when I was the featured poet. I've stitched the poems that were in the issue into the body of the essay. I figure after 20,000 hits, I can afford to go on a bit. So, for anyone interested in my version of the poetic process, here it is:
One of my favourite people in the world doesn’t like poetry. She’s been forthright about that since I met her three decades ago. “Who the hell buys poetry books?” she asked the other day. I admitted I do, that in fact I have several shelves of poetry books at home. I didn’t mention the chapbooks I collect, didn’t mention that I have a new one of my own. I know it’s not her thing. “It’s too personal,” she shudders when I attempt to find out (yet again, for we’ve had this conversation more than once over the years of our friendship), why she despises it so.
What is it about poetry? Why is it so important to some of us, and so completely reviled by others?
When I was eight years old, I discovered the power poetry has to make you sit up and take notice. I was doing a puzzle on the living room floor, half-listening to CBC radio. “Here’s a poem by Eugene Field called Little Boy Blue,” said the radio voice. I expected to hear the nursery rhyme that talked of meadow sheep and haystacks. Instead, I was caught up in a story about a child who dies, leaving his toys to mourn him. As soon as the reading was over, I headed for my parents’ bookshelf to hunt down a copy of the poem that had transfixed me so. I still have the book where I found it, and I’ve been collecting poetry books ever since.
Around this time I wrote the first of my own poems, a practice I continue to hone six decades later. Occasionally words come easily, spilling out of my pen and onto the page as fast as I can get them down. Sometimes it can take months to get a poem right. Sometimes the muse is completely absent from my life and I go years without writing anything of note. This used to bother me, but I’ve come to accept it as part of my process. In order to write I crave silence, most of the time. Sometimes music is right, as long as it’s the right music. Newly forming words, I find, are very particular about what accompanies them into the light.
Poetry is a form of conversation, a language that, while it utilizes words in whichever language is employed, somehow, by an alchemy of assonance, rhythm, rhyme and metre, becomes a means of communication between the poem itself (as opposed to the poet) and the person reading or hearing it. This conversation is unique to the parties involved—the poem and its audience—and cannot always be explained to the satisfaction of a third party. I think this may be one reason there is resistance to poetry, resistance that dates back to an attitude that says, “I hated it in school because no matter what I thought a poem meant, I was always told I was wrong”.
Some poems smack the reader/listener up the side of the head, get their attention, make them sit up and take notice! They linger in the mind, provocative, brash, for long periods of time, sometimes forever. Other poems gently nudge the reader/listener towards a new awareness, a new way of thinking about the world.
Perhaps this is why some of our politicians seem to revel in arts-bashing. They fear a) what they think they don’t understand and b) anything that may cause people to question the agenda they are preaching. I’m thinking of the Poets Against the War movement, specifically the Iraq War, where thousands of poems were put on a website and subsequently into an anthology that was delivered to the Bush White House after the First Lady, Laura Bush, invited a number of poets to a symposium to celebrate “poetry and the American Voice”. One of the invited poets, Sam Hamill, declined to attend and instead invited fifty fellow poets to reconstitute a movement that began during the Viet Nam War. In four days he received protest poems from over 1500 poets.
Writing poetry allows me to poke at some of the political and ecological mysteries of our times. In How Poems Come to Be—How Come I refer to an incident in Arkansas where 3000 blackbirds fell from the sky one New Year’s Eve and to the oil-spill fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.
How Poems Come to Be—How Come
Write a poem—
as if it’s easy to lift a car off a whimpering dog
its eyes round brown clots of startled love.
Right, a poem.
Marshall pen and paper, thesaurus, mint tea,
Absinthe if the mood is right, pretty maids all in a row.
Write a poem—
as if it’s fun not to find a child who’s missing
its parents wild-eyed and wanting.
Right, a poem.
Tread water so murky it’s really treacle
as a cold hand waves you past the accident scene.
Write a poem—
as if birds raining down from the sky are enough
to fill the bellies of the homeless.
Right, a poem.
Ball up wads of paper, throw them at the wall,
that’s you, star pitcher, World Series, the finals.
Write a poem—
as if it’s a snap to cap the crap coming out of a geyser
at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Right. A poem.
What’s Best For Us is my response to the Canadian government still allowing asbestos to be sold to third-world countries even though we now know it causes a nasty form of lung cancer and no longer allow it to be used here. There is some movement on this situation, but here's the poem anyway.
What’s Best For Us
Chrysotile sounds like
a semi-precious stone
an island off the coast of South America
the name of an exotic dancer
the way it skips
on the edge of breath
to unsuspecting lungs
where it clings like a pole dancer
in tights adorned with feathers
while suits in the audience
quaff drinks, count money
convinced they know
what’s best for us
Writing poetry lets me examine my conflicted feelings around incidents that have happened to me personally, as in Arguments Were Usually Over Small Things and After the Wind.
Arguments Were Usually Over Small Things
I put a plant on your table, the one we saw
in the back of that roadside second-hand place
in the Laurentians, our first dirty weekend—
you said you were going to reel me in like a fish
but I’d already caught you.
First time I saw you quibble over the cost of something.
Hard to imagine you now, nothing but bone.
Can still hear your don’t, you’ll mar the surface,
you and your pseudo-antiques—
you and your pseudo-antiques—
bamboo umbrella stand, cradle phone,
buckets your grandmother used for sugaring off.
How I loved you at first,
our third floor walk-up in Dorval,
fake beams you installed to make it look old,
and in the bathroom, glass shelves
that always needed cleaning.
Arguments were usually over small things—
you wanting to save face, me trying to placate you,
a list of platitudes I knew by rote,
your compulsive need for drink, your raised fist
only raised, only once, and I left.
Strange how these memories surface from time to time
like kids of the kids we never conceived
cascading down the hill on their toboggans.
After the Wind
The morning after a great wind
takes my apple tree in its teeth,
worries it like a dog with a rabbit in its mouth
and spins it to the ground
I find my neighbour pulling apart
the snarled downed branches with a rake,
a gentle man whose huge mechanic’s hands
once cradled a flicker trapped in my chimney
before he let it fly.
I think too bad about the apples,
there’d have been a good crop this year
as he teases branches into a neat Pick-Up Sticks pile.
A tiny sound wafts up from the ground,
together we see the fallen nest, the fledgling robins
reaching skyward with open, stupid mouths
as if the quick, descending rake means food.
Sometimes I write a poem as a way to deal with things that concern me, as in Ten Ways I’d Prefer Not to Die.
Ten Ways I’d Prefer Not to Die
Not for me Virginia’s stony stride
through sweet-sipped waters
meant to cool the brow
slake the thirst
streaming veil the cresting waves’
white dress—white death
Not for me the sound of my own bones
crunched in some heedless mouth
wrapped ‘round my head.
Don’t care if it’s protecting young
or its next meal
let not that meal be me
No fall from trees or towers
no plummet to the ground
my fifteen minute’s fame
reduced to a couple of lines
on page fourteen of some newspaper
no one reads any more
No snow-swept hills
no avalanche for me
I carry no transceiver
No rattler will reduce my flesh to sponge
its spring-thaw poison coursing through my veins
the horror of the strike
making all that follows
the lesser nightmare
No luring me from stagnant streets
with promised treats that never come
no bits of me served up as slop
some pig’s demented entertainment
No zest, no zap
I’ll not be rooted to the ground
arrow shot from lightning’s bow
I’ll not illuminate the way
to whatever happens next
Not by the hand of another
no rope from which to dangle
no gun exploding in the dark
no blade to slice me fine
like a razor through a cat’s eye
No stampede by crowd nor beast
will crush the air from my lungs
erase the light from my eyes
No bombs, no flames, no filthy heat
to sear my skin to bone
the last thing I smell
my own self, roasting
Sometimes my surreal side takes over and I write a poem just for the fun of it, playing with disparate images that want to bounce off each other. Salty Meringue Madness and the Traveling Fair is one of those.
Salty Meringue Madness and the Traveling Fair
Tattoos forget how first the skin looks
chewed, angry, each tiny line shrieking red
as though someone forgot to close
the window that faces the sun
while an ancient speaker crackles,
rips through a cascade of songs
and the merry-go-round reels
from the weight of the joy it carries.
Mothers bake, grandchildren ridicule
each other and giggling girls show up
with stories best forgotten,
ponytails a-twirl in the carney lights.
Far from the city, horses at the edge of the ocean
wince as waves whip themselves to a salty meringue madness,
a crown for the driftwood that arrives each day with the tide.
Somewhere a son studies the perfect sandwich,
chunks of bread and cheese coming together like a kiss.
Somewhere a piece of jade admits
to loving glacier-fed lakes for their colour.
Somewhere a stream escapes the collar of its banks
and rushes off, triumphant, to the sea.
Although everything that can be written about probably has been, the never-ending quest for a fresh take on an old subject keeps me writing. Poetry serves as a kind of linguistic shorthand that allows me to engage in a conversation with the inner reaches of a mind. Sometimes the mind belongs to the reader and sometimes it’s my own.
If you've made it this far, thanks so much for reading. Comments are most welcome.