Vancouver poet and musician Catherine Owen is the author of nine books of poetry. She has also published numerous chapbooks, and her work has appeared in various publications and anthologies. She has been nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the B.C. Book Prize, and the ReLit Award, among others. She has also played bass in the metal bands Inhuman and Helgrind, and, currently, Medea.
In 2012, Owen published two books. Trobairitz (Anvil Press) is a collection of linked poems focusing on the confluence of the medieval troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz, and 21st-century metal music. Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse (Wolsak and Wynn) is a collection of essays that explores Owen’s artistic inspirations (including two pieces on the genesis of Trobairitz), as well as travel essays, reviews, and criticism.
The following e-mail interview was conducted over the holidays at the close of 2012.
Where did your interest in the culture of troubadours and trobairitz come from? What made you decide to structure an entire suite of poems around this 12th-century genre?
I must say first that the word “decide” is interesting here. I think it was more a convergence of forces that overwhelmed me utterly and compelled the eventual book: meeting a man who had the power to imaginatively replicate a medieval troubadour and who was also concurrently a metalhead, and encountering the trobairitz in 2006’s In Fine Form, a poetry anthology edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, within a footnote for the villanelle form, which was created by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel.
I had been playing in the metal scene from 2001 and yet had felt incapable of writing poetry about its complex mélange of energies. Once I began researching trobairitzes I began to see parallels between both the rebellious impetus behind many troubadour forms/modes (those opposing organized religion, for instance) and metal culture, and between the way women and men construct and deconstruct themselves on gendered terms within these scenes and eras.
Poems continued to flow throughout the period where I read everything I could find on the medieval world, courted the muse-man, played local clubs, and went to the south of France in a futile yet stirring quest for traces of these itinerant and ephemeral poet-singers. Gradually, over six or more years, Trobairitz manifested its weird blend of musics.
One aspect that both the medieval context and the metal genre share in common is a fairly evident sexism. In the former, women had to battle to find a place (and voice) of their own, and in the latter, as you point out in Trobairitz, women are often forced into a role as erotic objects for men. (This tension is particularly evident in the poem “Tenso: Between the Comtessa de Dia and Senhal Fohlia, circa 1186,” a dialogue that has been played out in one version or another in many discussions of CanLit circa 2012–13.) How entrenched do these gender roles remain today, in both writing and metal? Have you noticed signs of cultural change that would better allow women artists to be accepted for their art on a level playing field with men, or does their presence continue to amount to mere tokenism?
Perhaps it was the jarring distinction I initially experienced in the difference between being a woman writer and being a female metal musician that provoked Trobairitz. I was raised in a fairly androgynous fashion – at least until adolescent hormones kidnapped me – and as a writer/intellectual I had never actually felt any particular sexism.
The metal scene however is a different beast. The genre is still mostly shaped by mid- to lower-class males who tend to draw their inspiration from certain sources of aggression. Some of these derive from the economic system, some from imagery in video games/horror films and some, yes, from their resistance to the female gender, whether in the abstract or specific.
Many women don’t seem to need this outlet of fast, intense, ear-ripping-off music, whether due to conditioning or hormones. Thus, I don’t think that women will ever achieve gender parity with men in the metal scene. The numbers can’t really be equivalent.
However, more and more women are creating and performing metal, and though a lot continue to be defined by their sexualized image, many have transcended this superficiality (which still persists in being an aesthetic aspect of the genre for both male and female musicians, as does youth).
With any liminalized group though, the “club” mode tends to predominate and if the overtly rich, women, non-Caucasian, or homosexuals became too visible a part of the scene, there would be an outcry, undoubtedly. It’s a fierce, unyielding kind of music that can be picky about whom it admits/acknowledges. So why did it call to me at twelve years old? I can only reveal that it must have been a fusion of my Catholic upbringing, my classical violin training, and my innate desire to be other.
In Catalysts, you identify three specific muses who have influenced your writing: the Viennese painter Egon Schiele, the poet Robinson Jeffers, and an ex-partner who committed suicide. How important were these figures in shaping your artistic vision?
Crucial. Egon Schiele was my first real muse. He lunged at me from the shelf of a Burnaby library in the mid-1990s, in the form of his book of Impressionist poems/paintings called I, Eternal Child, and I was smitten. The path was laid out: research madly, become absorbed completely, and write endlessly.
Robinson Jeffers I found through the vast reading I undertook on environmental theorists for my book on extinct species, The Wrecks of Eden, which was published in 2002. I became obsessed by his lyrics, then life, then eventually, his epic poems set on the Carmel coastline, pieces imbued with his philosophy of Inhumanism. I even wrote a thesis on him.
Frank, the muse of Cusp/detritus, ran his eyes into mine in the summer of 2000 and, long after he died in 2003, gave me poems through the mind of schizophrenia, ineffable love, and music.
There have been other muses – the pioneer photographer, Mattie Gunterman, for instance, and, currently, the Fraser River – but these three represent the first five years of realizing art would be pretty much everything to me. They were dark, moving, troubled, engaged, ruptured, and powerful figures who let me in. Then let me in again.
Elsewhere in Catalysts, you write: “Too many poems are currently being written and published that emerge from an idea, a narrative impulse, a character-driven structure and little else. In other words, poems shaped by the primary considerations of prose, not poetry. Part of the diminishment of poetry’s literary and cultural viability is in this widespread adoption of prosaic modes and in the concomitant neglect of diction, linguistic musicality and form.” But you also point out that many of the short cuts poets take these days result from the distractibility of an audience in thrall to multiple screens, channels of advertising, and consumption. Is a return to a focus on diction, musicality, and form sufficient to counter the other cultural forces that seem to be conspiring to further marginalize poetry in our culture?
I don’t think poetry has to counter or compete with these cultural forces. The solution is certainly not to try to be like any one of them, turn all our poems into videos or games, say, never mind prose-texts.
I do believe that a combination on one side of an academic takeover in which the “teachable” poem becomes the poem that is written, and on the other side the pseudo-popularization of so-called poetry within avenues like the slam is responsible in part for the diminished power of true and diverse poetry. And there are too many writers and not enough readers, certainly not sufficient book buyers.
Further, the publishing scene is glutted by MFA products who seem to use their book publication as merely another addition to their CV, caring little whether it is sold, lacking interest in touring it, and being indifferent to much but cachet. It’s frankly incredibly boring.
In terms of my hopes for resurgence – not of poetry getting to the masses, but of poetry thoroughly becoming a vocation again for the few (as it always is) – they would be related to the composition of poems that attend to the means by which we work with heightened language: obsession with words, intensity of approach to form, and a prioritizing of what sings in the blood and thus is memorable.
Orality within the textual.
I am fine with being marginal. But I am not happy with poets themselves writing with numb ears and seeming content to let their makings descend into an abyss of the banal. Sure, I can be grandiose. But it keeps me waking up – the poem, the chance magic of it.
When she makes this statement, over a cup of black coffee at a café in downtown Toronto, Liz Worth appears the very antithesis of emotional. Composed and self-spoken, Worth does not exude the kind of in-your-face attitude that spawned the Toronto punk movement she chronicled in her oral history, Treat Me Like Dirt, or the searing intensity of the poems in her first full-length collection, Amphetamine Heart. She is thoughtful, pausing before speaking as if to choose precisely the correct words.
And yet she responds to questions with an honesty that is disarming, if somewhat unsurprising given the rawness of the material in Amphetamine Heart. “When alternating between vivisection / and vaginal secretions / to determine what will satisfy your / open sores faster,” she writes in “Internal Dialogue,” “take note of discolouration / versus saturation.”
“A lot of the poems in Amphetamine Heart are physical and emotional,” she says, arguably understating the case. The experience of reading the collection, which is shot through with images of injury and anxiety, boozecans and remnants of stale cigarettes (or, as Worth puts it in “Asymmetry,” “the swamp rot of this / gin and tonic mouth”), is uncomfortable, verging on voyeuristic. For this, Worth is unapologetic. “The intention,” she insists, “was never for anyone to sit there and say, ‘Oh wow, this is brightening my day.’”
Indeed, Worth is an unabashed advocate of art that disturbs its recipients. “The works that you remember are the ones that you have to put down for a while because they get too heavy or too strange or too graphic.” She admits to reading Poe at a young age: “If you’re younger, Poe is fun poetry to get into. If you’re twelve years old, it’s the kind of thing you’d pick up.” And she seems happiest, or most satisfied, when confronted with art that is in some way unsettling. “I love it when the characters die,” she says. “I love it when there’s no redemption.”
The poems in Amphetamine Heart grew out of a particular time in Worth’s twenties, something she readily admits: “There were a lot of things that were all coming to a head for me when I was writing … I don’t know whether this book could have been written five years down the road.”
Nor does she know if she could have written it had she been sleeping well at the time. “Sleeping problems dominated me so much” during the period leading up to writing Amphetamine Heart, she says. “I was preoccupied with them, I was worried all day about whether I would be able to sleep. Lots of good things came out of that insomnia, and ended up in the work.” (The book is dedicated to “my old friend insomnia.”)
Given this context, is is perhaps to be expected that the volume contains material that is fraught; what is remarkable about many of the poems in the collection is the commingling of pleasure and pain. “Second Guessing,” for example, begins with an image that is at once startling and mordantly humorous: “From this side of the door / the sounds of dry heaves / are the same as orgasms.” When asked about the affinity between pleasure and pain, Worth pauses for thought before responding. “We do a lot of things that seem really fun or seem to make us happy, but in time are damaging or there’s going to be a huge comedown,” she says, and offers as an example binge drinking. “There is pleasure in pain, and that’s just on a regular weekend.”
The word “regular” is significant for a punk aficionado who grew up in Alderwood, a neighbourhood nestled in the west Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. “Alderwood is like everywhere else,” Worth says, “where you see people who have a lot of money, and people who have no money. And then everybody else. It’s very mixed. Which I think a lot of people don’t expect when you talk about the suburbs.”
The mix of industrial and residential landscape was also influential on the young Worth’s burgeoning aesthetic. “Just looking out my bedroom window every day and seeing these little factories where people were working on assembly lines and shipping things out and everything, that really influenced the things that I was thinking about and I incorporated that into my writing.”
Worth disavows the stereotypical idea of suburbia as a field of cookie-cutter houses, strip malls, and auto-body shops. Like the David Lynch of Blue Velvet, she locates a whole world of intrigue and drama roiling beneath the polite, well-kept surface, a world she asserts can be every bit as fascinating as that of the self-conscious bohemians downtown. “I’ve often found that in some ways downtown scenes or urban scenes that people kind of associate with things that are edgy and dangerous or progressive often aren’t all that interesting.”
This kind of cultural snobbery, Worth suggests, can result in a blindness to the contours of society as it actually exists outside a self-enclosed, proscribed area.
“If you look at Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, they are not representative of how the rest of the country thinks or operates at all.” In industrial cities like Sudbury or small towns across Canada, Worth points out, the people “are not thinking about the sociology of music, they’re not thinking poetry, they’re not thinking literature.”
“If you spend enough time in Toronto,” she goes on, “you create a bubble and you forget.”
While Worth is careful to ensure that she remains cognizant of the fabric of life outside Canada’s largest city, it is clear that Toronto – or at least, a particular version of it – inhabits her down to her bones. Treat Me Like Dirt, Worth’s first full-length book (following the chapbook Eleven: Eleven), is an encyclopedic oral history of the early days of punk music in and around Toronto in the years between 1977 and 1981. In fact, Worth ran into initial difficulty finding someone to take on Treat Me Like Dirt, in part because there was a sense that it was too Toronto-centric. “That book was really hard to get published,” she says. “I shopped it a lot and a lot of people came back and said, ‘We don’t see a market for it, we don’t think we can sell it, we think it’s too Toronto.’”
The one person who was willing to take a chance on it was Roger Alfonso, former manager of the Diodes, one of the bands profiled in the book. Alfonso had since started an indie music label called Bongo Beat, and he expressed an interest in publishing Worth’s manuscript. “He pressed me along the way as I was interviewing him,” Worth says. “He said, ‘If you’re looking for someone to put it out, if you’re serious about this, keep me in mind.’ When it was done, I sent it to Ralph and he liked it.” The book was a success, and was later picked up by its current publisher, ECW Press.
“It’s in its fourth printing now,” says Worth. “After the book did so well, it was easy.”
Indeed, Treat Me Like Dirt was something of a trailblazer given the initial reluctance to touch anything dealing with punk in Toronto. “Since [Treat Me Like Dirt's initial publication], there have been two other books about Toronto punk rock. There was Don Pyle’s Trouble in the Camera Club, and that came out with ECW as well, and then Dirty, Drunk and Punk, about the BFGs, which Jennifer Morton put out. Now it seems like it’s getting easier to publish Toronto punk, because there’s obviously an interest.”
Certainly it remains a subject of abiding interest to Worth, who was deeply invested in the material from the beginning. “I didn’t really put myself into that book at all,” she says, “[but] that book would never have happened if I wasn’t really, really, really in love with the subject.”
Worth’s introduction to punk came as a result of her affinity for popular music in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “Radio and MuchMusic were so different from what they are now,” she says. “They actually played different songs every day. MuchMusic still played music videos. That was the biggest way that me and my friends would get our music. You could sit down in front of the TV for a couple of hours and watch videos and you might actually find a band that you liked.” One such session led to Worth’s punk rock road to Damascus moment: “I remember seeing the Ramones’ video for ‘Pet Sematary,’ the song that they did for the movie, and that was the first time I’d heard the Ramones.”
Although the relationship between punk and poetry may at first seem counterintuitive, Worth points out that the two art forms actually have more in common than might appear at first glance. “Patti Smith was a poet before she was a singer,” Worth says. “A few years after Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch came along, and she always had her hands in spoken word, art. She kind of did it all.” Worth also mentions Bif Naked, who put out a spoken word album in the 1990s. “I read an interview with her and she said that the poetry came first. She never saw herself as someone who would be a singer. She thought she was going to be a dancer. But she was really into poetry and she considers herself a lyricist before anything.”
Contradiction or not, Worth plans to continue writing, albeit at her own pace. She admits to having a novel in the works, but cautions, “You never know how these things will go.” At the moment, she is content to get on with the daily business of living. “Because my writing does come from personal experiences,” she says, “I have to make sure that I keep living my life and not let writing become my life.”
And does that life include remaining in Toronto, or striking out for different, uncharted environs? “When I was younger, I used to have a plan that I was going to move to London, England, by the time I was twenty-five,” she says. Now, however, “It would be really hard for me to leave.” If she were to decide to make a break, she says, “I’m more likely to move to the middle of nowhere than I am to move to another big city.”
Still, she is reluctant to rule anything out entirely. “I think that we’re always changing and evolving, right?”
How I Wrote Certain of My Books. George Bowering; $19.95 paper 978-1-894469-55-5, 168 pp., Mansfield Press
In my early days as review editor at Quill & Quire, I received an e-mail from George Bowering complaining about the number of typos that had found their way into the magazine. In particular, he singled out a reference to “Columbia” as referring to the South American country. (The fact that a TTC subway ad for the sitcom Modern Family on CITY-TV made the same mistake some years later remains cold comfort.) While being suitably embarrassed about my lack of due diligence and attention to detail, I would be lying if I didn’t confess to being a bit chuffed that George Bowering not only read the magazine I help edit, but took the time to write to me expressing his disappointment. Behind the chastisement was a very real and abiding concern for language that is everywhere in the author’s published work.
It is easy to forget that when Bowering burst onto the scene in the 1960s, CanLit as we know it today did not exist. It was largely due to the efforts of the TISH collective – Bowering, along with fellow poets Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, and Fred Wah, among others – and figures such as House of Anansi Press founders Dennis Lee and David Godfrey that Canadians began to take their national literature seriously.
Bowering has always been one of the most outspoken, irascible, and determinedly experimental writers in the Canadian literary pantheon. In his book, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, Clint Burnham claims the TISH poets “contested” the avant garde tradition of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan, but this throwaway description discredits the very real influence these poets – especially Olson and Spicer – had on Bowering’s developing aesthetic. (To be fair, it is possible, if not probable, that Burnham means “contested” in the sense of “competed with” rather than “disputed.”)
Bowering refers to both Olson and Spicer in discussing A Short Sad Book, his 1977 text that ABC Bookworld says “has been categorized as a novel only for lack of a better definition.” Along with Robert Kroetsch, Bowering is one of the Canadian writers most frequently associated with the term “postmodernism” (although Bowering has always cleaved more closely to the literary avant garde than Kroetsch ever did). Although he claims to have been writing under the influence of Gertrude Stein (who, “of all the great Modernist writers … was the one who seemed kind of postmodern”), Bowering credits Olson with introducing him to the word, meaning something “post-historical, or rather something like his ‘Special View of History.’ As Olson was a kind of lapsed Catholic, he probably first heard it as it was used by the Church around the turn of the twentieth century.” As for Spicer, in addition to pointing out allusions to his work in A Short Sad Book, Bowering also credits him as “an important source for the efforts of the book to foreground everything, thus obviating perspective, making there here.”
These are the kinds of observations one finds throughout How I Wrote Certain of My Books, a mostly congenial, chatty consideration of more than twenty-five works from the author’s impressive output. The title is cribbed from Raymond Roussel, “patron saint of the Surrealists, the nouveau roman people and especially the OuLiPo crowd”; the borrowing testifies to Bowering’s habit of incorporating lines and allusions from the work of others into his poetry and prose writing, a habit that aligns him (perhaps unexpectedly) with such au courant apologists for collage and literary appropriation as David Shields and Jonathan Lethem. The gloss on Oulipian writing also attests to Bowering’s fascination with this literary movement, inaugurated by French writer Raymond Queneau and carried on through the work of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino right down to such contemporary Canadian practitioners as Christian Bök and André Alexis. Bowering repeatedly attests to writing books based on externally imposed “constraints,” mirroring the Oulipians and anticipating the impetus behind the Lars von Trier/Jørgen Leth film The Five Obstructions:
I had to set up a constraint that was not complicated but that was strict. Well, when I was a kid my favourite number was 3. When I was a young man it was 9. Now it is 27. So Shall I Compare is a love poem to Jean Baird, and it is interested in numbers. It enumerates her attractive parts, starting with her hair and heading for her toes. Each day there is a little poem made of twenty-seven words. Each has three step-down stanzas, and each step is made of three words. 3 x 3 = 27. Go thee forth and multiply, I heard the guy say. It adds up, I say, to a loving male gaze.
The alphabet is a favourite source for Bowering’s constraints, as becomes clear in his discussion of “Irritable Reaching,” a twenty-six page work that focuses each page on an acrostic poem dedicated to a different Canadian artist. “To make this a little more difficult, I decided that each poem would be composed of two stanzas, because the subjects’ names were in two pieces – well, except for the poem about novelist C.J. Newman. Okay, that was pretty difficult.” In addition, the poems had to make use of end rhyme and metre, “a couple of the oldest constraints I know.” Bowering’s joy in all of this is infectious; other Canadian scribes could do worse than read How I Wrote Certain of My Books and take note of how frequently the author employs the word “fun” to describe his writing.
One emerges from a reading of Bowering’s book with the overwhelming sense of having been for a moment in the company of a prodigious talent who has written voluminously, but also with a kind of sadness that the author is not better known by the general public in 2011, and that, despite having twice won the Governor General’s Literary Award, his work is not more readily available. The relative lack of interest in Bowering’s work cannot entirely be explained by its experimental nature: the author is approachable enough when he wants to be, and in the chapter on his feminist neo-Western Caprice, he displays a sensibility that spans both high and popular culture. (Bowering, it should be noted, was experimenting with the clichés and tropes of the Western genre decades before Patrick DeWitt gained acclaim and award recognition for writing The Sisters Brothers.)
Perhaps his provocatively anti-American tendencies are partially to blame; how it must have rankled in some quarters when in 2002 Bowering was named Canada’s inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Or perhaps it is the impression he conveys, implicitly in some cases, more directly in others, that he is smarter than the rest of us, and that he knows it. “Oh it was fun writing this sequence,” he says at one point (and note the return of that significant “f” word), “and embedding little secrets for the Romantics teachers to find. My daughter’s name was and is Thea. Section VII, which dopily adumbrates Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab,’ claims that ‘I & Thea’ took a ride in the faerie’s car. If you get it, I apologize.” It’s little wonder those who don’t get it might feel condescended to; after five decades in the trenches of a national literature he helped to create and nurture, Bowering has arguably earned the right to a bit of this haughty tone.
Elisabeth Harvor is a poet and novelist. Her most recent book of poetry is An Open Door to the Landscape. Below, she shares with TSR some sense impressions about poetry, poetic imagery, and poetry’s lifeblood.
Words on an Abandoned Church, Feral Roses, a Bird Stepping out of a Limousine, and Troubled Eyes
In the liner notes for 1975′s The Best of Leonard Cohen, an album that includes his classic song “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Cohen says that the raincoat actually belonged to him, not to someone else. (And not, as we’ve always suspected, to his brother, his killer.)
I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959. Elizabeth thought I looked like a spider in it. That was probably why she wouldn’t go to Greece with me. It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather. Things were clear. I knew how to dress in those days. It was stolen from Marianne’s loft in New York sometime during the early seventies. I wasn’t wearing it very much toward the end.
The above quote is itself poetry, intimate and declarative and revelatory in an offhand sort of way. When I got into the habit of bringing a tape of “Famous Blue Raincoat” to the poetry workshops I used to lead at York University in the late 1980s and at Concordia University in the 1990s, I wanted my students to particularly listen for the pause between the socially grateful “thanks, for the trouble you took …” and the stunning free fall to the inspired surprise of “from her eyes.” (The lines in their entirety read: “Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good so I never tried.”)
Much later, the swerve of the thrillingly anthropomorhpic poem about a heron walking out of a river through the tall river grasses appeared on a Guardian U.K. website: “Long-legged, she steps out of her limousine of weeds.” I’ve long since lost the name of the writer, and if anyone can supply it, I would be extremely grateful to know it.
Then there’s the opening of Plath’s great “Morning Song”: “One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral.”
And a finally, in the most recent issue of Fiddlehead, a poem by Bruce Taylor called “Left Behind,” which contains the following lyrical but ominous evocation of an abandoned church in deep country, “There it stood, at the far end of our road / in a damp and bosomy luxuriance / of lilacs and feral roses.”
Jolts, swerves, contradictions, anthropomorphisms, riffs on illogic … These – for me – are the lifeblood of poetry.
Information about Elisabeth Harvor’s most recent poetry book, An Open Door in the Landscape, can be found on her Facebook page and on the website for Palimpsest Press. Information about her other books can be found on her own website.
Sina Queyras is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Expressway. A longtime friend of TSR, she is the founder and editor-in-chief of the poetry website Lemon Hound.
Why should people read poetry?
– Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning”
I have a weakness for Stevie Smith. She and Kenneth Patchen were early influences. Pleasurable. Very much alive and astute in their observations about the world and human interactions with it. “You know I don’t like those people / Who act as if a cherry / Was something they’d personally thought up” Patchen dryly concludes. The snap of thought, the Chagall-like images, the playful turns. These are poems that get inside you and never leave. Punchy and always at the ready, as Smith appears in “A Good Time Was Had By All”: “The English woman is so refined / she has no bosom and no behind.”
Smith and Patchen make up part of my poetry core. They are simple, though not simplistic touchstones. They reached off the page to a young me and said, this is possible – what you think, how you think, is possible. Even if there is nowhere in this classroom, or in this town, or in your life, where your thinking is reflected back to you in a way that you can at all recognize, these lines, this formation of thought, reflects you so beautifully that you can see a future where moments earlier there was stagnation and despair. Poetry is an escape hatch.
My father went to bed every night with a volume of French poetry by his bed. I have it now, tattered and torn, this volume that was for my father very much a door to his past, to his former tongue and land, to peace, and to sleep. I have carried Lisa Robertson around for years, and that was an education, a stimulator, a way to make myself move forward vigilantly toward a kind of thinking that shimmered before me, always out of reach. Before that it was Erin Mouré, Tim Lilburn, Dionne Brand, Christian Bök, Gertrude Stein, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Ondaatje, Mary Oliver, Rumi … and so on. When I read Dennis Lee’s Un, I cry. I can’t help it. My niece loves Robert Service. It gives her a way to march across her landscape, ballad style.
Whatever you want of poetry, it will offer you – soothing, escape hatch, appliance, machine. It is not about the poet: as Stevie Smith said, there is always another poet. It’s poetry that arrives, making its “strong communication” known, or pulling back the skin and letting a person feel the world, or arranging objects in such a way that thought, speech, images illuminate something profound or beautiful. A smart poet bears witness, lets the thunder move through her veins, notes the shade, the tenor, the time of departure, describes in detail the interior life of the bolt, its composition, trajectory, effect on her skin, where her mind went, and how, and with whom, writes this down, and passes this on.
If all is well in the world, poetry is another kind of thunderbolt.
These days, much poetry insists on looseness, on forms that allow for freedom of expression, rhythm, and meter: free verse, sound poetry, flarf, and so on. But traditional forms – villanelle, ghazal, glossa, and so on – remain intriguing, if only because their formal constraints imply a kind of poetic performance. Anyone who doubts how difficult it is to write a Shakespearean sonnet, for instance, should try it sometime. The form requires three quatrains and a final couplet, for a rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. Oh, and they have to be in iambic pentameter. Go.
When people think of Shakespeare’s sonnets, they tend to think of the pretty, romantic musings of Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) or Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”). But Shakespeare’s imagination was incapable of being constrained: it was capable of both comedy and tragedy, high mindedness and low, love and death. I discovered his Sonnet 147 by way of Harold Bloom’s new book, The Anatomy of Influence. Bloom considers Shakespeare to be at the very centre of the English literary canon, and he makes a solid case for why this should be so, beginning with what he calls the “capaciousness” of Shakespeare’s imagination. Sonnet 147 is one of the darkest, creepiest love poems I’ve come across in recent memory. It made an immediate impression on me, and underscores the power of a contained, disciplined poetic form.
My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed:
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who are as black as hell, as dark as night.
George Herbert’s poem “Jordan (I)” (1633) is, like Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” a poem about poetry, but its meaning is notoriously difficult to parse. Some critics have suggested that the poem rails against notions of pastoral poetry that were in vogue at the time Herbert was writing; other critics have suggested that what Herbert was protesting was the practice of bad poetry; still others have suggested that the poem is a condemnation of poetry itself. Certainly it appears to be a critique of metaphorical fancy in verse, of “fictions” and “false hair” that preclude direct access to truth. The reader of poetry, Herbert claims, only catches “the sense at two removes,” and the poet’s disavowal of “nightingales” can be seen as a protest against one of the most common poetic images around. (Herbert here anticipates one of Keats’s most timeless metaphors.)
And yet, Herbert himself complicates matters by referring to “shepherds” in the first line of the third stanza. Herbert was a metaphysical poet who was deeply involved in the promotion of a Christian attitude: is the word shepherds here meant to invoke the biblical shepherds, guarding their flocks in the Gospel story? Is it meant to invoke the Good Shepherd, Christ himself? Or is it, as the tenor of the time would have understood it, meant to refer to pastoral poets? Does the plea that they are “honest people,” along with the imprecation to “let them sing,” stand as a kind of veiled apologia for the practice of poetry (albeit a specific kind of poetry)?
In “Jordan (I),” Herbert has provided what one critic referred to as “attack and counterattack”: it is precisely the poem’s shifting meanings and refusal to be pinned down that render it such a fascinating piece for study and debate.
Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines pass, except they do their duty
Not to a true, but painted chair?
Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover’s loves?
Must all be veiled while he that reads, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?
Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for prime:
I envy no man nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.
Academy Award winner Kathy Bates reads Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” (1921), one of the classics in the subgenre of poems about poems.
Edward Carson is the author of the collections Scenes and Taking Shape. He has twice won the E.J. Pratt Poetry Award.
The Way a Poem Knows
Something about the way a poem knows,
something that keeps us reaching into it
from a place of dreaming not unlike this.
The poem calls and sets a path in the dark
and lights fields of our belief. The poem sees
the truth in the telling is not revealed in what
it doesn’t know, but in finding itself
released like a stream from its knowing.
Something about the way a poem finds
its place in our hearts, something that finds
the truth of what is meant to be but harder
still to say. Something about a poem that asks
and answers, setting loose the slow riddle
of its voice, something it freely confesses
to knowing, like the clear thread of this portrait
about to discover the way a poem finds its end.
D. Cole Ossandon is a multidisciplinary artist and poet whose work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies. She is currently working on her first full collection.
Why I write poetry:
A love of words (strange words, words that do or don’t sound like their meaning, words that play with your ear).
A love of art forms that push limits, push buttons, push back.
Why to read poetry:
“Why should people read poetry?”
“Poems are riddles and riddles are fun.”
“Poems are cheeky flirtations and cryptic confessions.”
“It makes me feel smart.”
“Poetry is word porn.”
“ … Um, I guess so.”
dress puppets up in words.
be the ventriloquist.
My meaning is elliptical.
I slip my tongue around eyes.
The sound, the taste, the beat.
in your way.