In defence of poesy 2011: William Shakespeare

April 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

Sonnet 147

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.

In defence of poesy 2011: George Herbert

April 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

Jordan (I)

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.

In defence of poesy 2011: Marianne Moore

April 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Academy Award winner Kathy Bates reads Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” (1921), one of the classics in the subgenre of poems about poems.

In defence of poesy 2011: Edward Carson

April 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

In defence of poesy 2011: D. Cole Ossandon

April 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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:

A conversation:

“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.”



and riddles

+++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.

In defence of poesy 2011: Brenda Schmidt

April 5, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Brenda Schmidt is the author of the poetry collections A Haunting Sun, More Than Three Feet of Ice, and most recently, Cantos from Wolverine Creek.

In defence of poesy 2011: Adebe D.A.

April 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

In 1999, the League of Canadian Poets launched the first National Poetry Month, which “brings together schools, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and poets across the country to celebrate poetry and its vital place in Canada’s culture.” This initiative is an admirable attempt to draw attention to a literary form that predates most others still extant, and yet does not command anything like a broad readership. There are many possible reasons for poetry’s marginal place in today’s reading culture: it is considered too difficult, too elitist, too boring. No doubt poetry demands much of its readers, as do short stories, which employ a similar concentration of language and imagination. (The poet Zachariah Wells has referred to the short story as “a poem with an unhealthy affinity for the right-hand margin.”) However, poetry need not appear daunting or impenetrable; much of the best verse being produced today is accessible and engaging to readers who are willing to give it a shot. (There is also a large amount of experimental and avant-garde poetry being produced these days for readers who are looking for something more iconoclastic or provocative.)

Although poetry needs no justification – it is its own justification – historically, critics and others have felt the need to defend or explain the form to a recalcitrant reading public. Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, published posthumously in 1595, is arguably the most famous attempt to explicate poetry’s merits and pleasures; in any event, it is a classic of Renaissance literature.

To mark National Poetry Month, TSR thought it might be interesting to investigate a kind of 21st century defence of poesy. Over the next few weeks, the site will look at poets and poems that illustrate both the depth and broadness of the poetic firmament. In so doing, I thought it would be nice to hear from poets themselves: what motivates them to continue crafting verse in a literary environment that seems indifferent at best and openly hostile at worst? To this end, TSR asked a group of poets to provide an answer to one (deceptively) simple question: Why should people read poetry? (Or, to turn the question on its head: Why do you write poetry?) Responses could be in prose, verse, or any other form the poet chose. They could run to a single line or an entire essay. TSR will post the responses periodically throughout the coming weeks.

To kick off, the poet Adebe D.A., author of the 2010 collection ex nihilo, offers the following endorsement of poetry’s scope and vision.


how to breathe underwater

you wondered why I
so often gave myself
to the sea
when my offering
was a life of turbulence,
unspeakable dark

but I see now
why you were confused –

I had forgotten that most of us never see
the beauty
++++++++++quiet danger
of the naked word, a sole verse
that within it can contain
an entire soul.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day 2010

March 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Under Ben Bulben

Swear by what the sages spoke
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the Witch of Atlas knew,
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.

Swear by those horsemen, by those women
Complexion and form prove superhuman,
That pale, long-visaged company
That air in immortality
Completeness of their passions won;
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.

Here’s the gist of what they mean.
Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-digger’s toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard,
“Send war in our time, O Lord!”
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.
Poet and sculptor, do the work,
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did,
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.

Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler Phidias wrought,
Michael Angelo left a proof
On the Sistine Chapel roof,
Where but half-awakened Adam
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
Till her bowels are in heat,
Proof that there’s a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.

Quattrocento put in print
On backgrounds for a God or Saint
Gardens where a soul’s at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye,
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky,
Resemble forms that are or seem
When sleepers wake and yet still dream,
And when it’s vanished still declare,
With only bed and bedstead there,
That heavens had opened.

Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer’s phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.
Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

William Butler Yeats, 1939

For Robbie Burns Night

January 25, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Scotch Drink
by Robert Burns

Gie him strong drink until he wink,
That’s sinking in despair;
An’ liquor guid to fire his bluid,
That’s prest wi’ grief and care:
There let him bouse, an’ deep carouse,
Wi’ bumpers flowing o’er,
Till he forgets his loves or debts,
An’ minds his griefs no more.
Solomon’s Proverbs, xxxi. 6, 7.

Let other poets raise a fracas
‘Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus,
An’ crabbed names an’ stories wrack us,
An’ grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.

O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink,
To sing thy name!

Let husky wheat the haughs adorn,
An’ aits set up their awnie horn,
An’ pease and beans, at e’en or morn,
Perfume the plain:
Leeze me on thee, John Barleycorn,
Thou king o’ grain!

On thee aft Scotland chows her cood,
In souple scones, the wale o’ food!
Or tumbling in the boiling flood
Wi’ kail an’ beef;
But when thou pours thy strong heart’s blood,
There thou shines chief.

Food fills the wame, an’ keeps us leevin;
Tho’ life’s a gift no worth receivin,
When heavy-dragg’d wi’ pine an’ grievin;
But, oil’d by thee,
The wheels o’ life gae down-hill, scrievin,
Wi’ rattlin glee.

Thou clears the head o’ doited Lear;
Thou cheers the heart o’ drooping Care;
Thou strings the nerves o’ Labour sair,
At’s weary toil;
Though ev’n brightens dark Despair
Wi’ gloomy smile.

Aft, clad in massy siller weed,
Wi’ gentles thou erects thy head;
Yet, humbly kind in time o’ need,
The poor man’s wine;
His weep drap pirratch, or his bread,
Thou kitchens fine.

Thou art the life o’ public haunts;
But thee, what were our fairs an’ rants?
Ev’n godly meetings o’ the saunts,
By thee inspir’d,
When gaping they besiege the tents,
Are doubly fir’d.

That merry night we get the corn in,
O sweetly, then, thou reams the horn in!
Or reekin on a New-year mornin
In cog or bicker,
An’ just a wee drap sp’ritual burn in,
An’ gusty sucker!

When Vulcan gies his bellys breath,
An’ ploughmen gather wi’ their graith,
O rare! to see thee fizz an’ freath
I’ th’ luggit caup!
Then Burnewin comes on like death
At ev’ry chap.

Nae mercy then, for airn or steel;
The brawnie, banie, ploughman chiel,
Brings hard owrehip, wi’ sturdy wheel,
The strong forehammer,
Till block an’ studdie ring an’ reel,
Wi’ dinsome clamour.

When skirling weanies see the light,
Though maks the gossips clatter bright,
How fumblin’ cuiffs their dearies slight;
Wae worth the name!
Nae howdie gets a social night,
Or plack frae them.

When neibors anger at a plea,
An’ just as wud as wud can be,
How easy can the barley brie
Cement the quarrel!
It’s aye the cheapest lawyer’s fee,
To taste the barrel.

Alake! that e’er my muse has reason,
To wyte her countrymen wi’ treason!
But mony daily weet their weason
Wi’ liquors nice,
An’ hardly, in a winter season,
E’er Spier her price.

Wae worth that brandy, burnin’ trash!
Fell source o’ mony a pain an’ brash!
Twins mony a poor, doylt, drucken hash,
O’ half his days;
An’ sends, beside, auld Scotland’s cash
To her warst faes.

Ye Scots, wha wish auld Scotland well!
Ye chief, to you my tale I tell,
Poor, plackless devils like mysel’!
It sets you ill,
Wi’ bitter, dearthfu’ wines to mell,
Or foreign gill.

May gravels round his blather wrench,
An’ gouts torment him, inch by inch,
What twists his gruntle wi’ a glunch
O’ sour disdain,
Out owre a glass o’ whisky-punch
Wi’ honest men!

O Whisky! soul o’ plays and pranks!
Accept a bardie’s gratfu’ thanks!
When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks
Are my poor verses!
Thou comes-they rattle in their ranks,
At ither’s arses!

Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland lament frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips, an’ barkin hoast
May kill us a’;
For loyal Forbes’ charter’d boast
Is ta’en awa!

Thae curst horse-leeches o’ th’ Excise,
Wha mak the whisky stills their prize!
Haud up thy han’, Deil! ance, twice, thrice!
There, seize the blinkers!
An’ bake them up in brunstane pies
For poor damn’d drinkers.

Fortune! if thou’ll but gie me still
Hale breeks, a scone, an’ whisky gill,
An’ rowth o’ rhyme to rave at will,
Tak a’ the rest,
An’ deal’t about as thy blind skill
Directs thee best.

Don’t tell me what the poets are doing

June 9, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Yesterday over at Quillblog, yr. humble correspondent published a post with the admittedly provocative title, “Why do people hate poetry?” The post began by pointing out a piece by Harry Eyres that ran in this past weekend’s Financial Times online. Eyres argues that instead of mouthing hypocritical platitudes about the benefits of poetry, it would be more honest to own up to the form’s marginalization and to address the reasons why people hate poetry:

It might be better to ask ourselves why, on the whole, we hate poetry – that is to say why we ruthlessly marginalise it and exile it to a cold place of almost total neglect – than to utter dishonest platitudes about how great it is.

Poetry is “up against it” in our modern, media-saturated culture, Eyres contends. “Unlike video games, reality television, amateur dance troupes, it is not a cultural phenomenon that is generally welcomed into people’s lives.”

In response to this, I posted an excerpt from the speech that James Wood gave at the Griffin Poetry Prize ceremony last week. The speech was reprinted in The Globe and Mail, and the passage I excerpted reads as follows:

Poetry waves a flower in the face of a highly utilitarian age. That great secular hybrid, pragmatic evolutionary psychology and neuro-aesthetics, is busy telling us that art is a slightly puzzling evolutionary superfluity. Art is defended as “cognitive play,” crucial for the evolutionary development of homo sapiens. Art, for such people, must always somehow be justified. But poetry sings the song of itself, and offers a musical gratuity. Just as no one should have to justify, in pragmatic terms, playing the piano or listening to Bach, so no one should have to justify reading Keats or Wallace Stevens. And I am not making the weak case that poetry evades or exceeds such pragmatic cost-counting, but that it challenges such utilitarianism, makes it doubt itself. It faces down the enemy.

There, I thought – I’ve presented two sides of an argument in point-counterpoint, and that should be that. Of course, I expected some reaction, if only to the aggressive title of the post, but what I didn’t expect was the vitriol hurled at Wood by people working in the field of Canadian poetry. (Remember: Wood is defending poetry here.)

Zach Wells, a highly articulate poet and critic, excoriates Wood for his “caricatures” of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience (okay, “neuro-aesthetics”) as they apply to art. Wells – an aficionado of Steven Pinker’s thought on the interstices between neuroscience and linguistics – castigates Wood for his “pseudo-religious gabble,” which, in his view, “misses the point by a barn’s width.” Jonathan Ball, a poet with a collection forthcoming from BookThug, says in response to Wells that he “could not have said it better.” Angel Guerra, a book designer, calls Wood’s comments “[s]nobbish and hectoring,” and says that “[h]is was a language aimed at an exclusive audience.” Bill Douglas, the book designer responsible for the design of A.F. Moritz’s Griffin Prize-winning collection, The Sentinel, decries Wood’s “tired lament” and implies that the critic is a “wryly funny blowhard.”

What’s interesting to me is that these are people actively involved in the Canadian poetry community, attacking someone who was offering a passionate defence of poetry. The language of this attack is all too familiar: Wood is accused of elitism (apparently because he uses big words) and exclusivity. Wells comes closer to the mark when he criticizes Wood for not recognizing the way poets are working to incorporate modern theories in neurology and linguistics into their art, but that was never Wood’s purpose. His speech was a valediction, not a critical assessment. It was a song of praise for art that exists for its own sake and does not, in his words, require justification.

Anyone who does require justification of poetry’s vast rewards need not look terribly far to find it. It does not take a “stuck-up pseudo-intellectual” like the ones another anonymous (natch) Quillblog commenter mentions to enjoy the rollicking humour in Jeramy Dodds’ definition of the word “raccoon” as “A sexual position favoured by the limbless,” or the stream of mangled clichés in his poem “The Epileptic Acupuncturist”: “People who get their rocks off / in glass houses are the same people / who’d bend you over a rain barrel / just to give you the wet T-shirts / off their backs.” Or the brutal juxtaposition of the organic and the mechanical in Sina Queyras’s image of a cancer patient “Lying on the examination table, her bowels / On the ultrasound in front of her.” Or Kevin Connolly’s paean to baseball: “It’s Posada, never an easy out, but the hook / is there for Lilly. It’s the seventh and his old team, / the 250-million-dollar Yankees, have beaten the / shit out of us all week.” Not a stuck-up pseudo-intellectual image in the bunch, just a group of poets delighting in the compression and torque of language.

So why is poetry so marginalized? Why does it sell less than even the redheaded stepchild of prose fiction, the short-story collection? Perhaps one reason is that those who are supposed to be promoting it can’t help but express knee-jerk disdain, even toward people who are in the process of defending the form.

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