Where poetry comes from

October 17th, 2015

reflectionRecently I came across that line by William Wordsworth about poetry having its origin in “emotion recollected in tranquility.” It had been so long since I’d read Wordsworth that I couldn’t recall the context of that phrase, and suspected that there was a bit more to it.

The quotation is from the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, which Wordsworth produced together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the Preface, he talks about his approach to composing poetry, his view of how poetry works, and the language of poetry. This is what he says:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of re-action, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

So really, the tranquility is the beginning of a process, not a resting place. And feeling isn’t the whole story, either. Several pages earlier in the preface, Wordsworth says this:

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.

Thus, says Wordsworth, the poet’s contemplation of feelings and thoughts in relation to each other, continued over time so that it becomes habit, helps him or her to determine what is important, and the resulting poetry will enrich both the feelings and the understanding of the reader.

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To the dictionary, and beyond

August 15th, 2015

word bookI began using an online dictionary a few years ago—not because I found it more convenient than a paper dictionary, but because my old Webster’s is just too distracting. I would open it up, intending to look up “phaeton,” and right next to it I’d see “phage,” which has nothing to do with “phaeton” but is an interesting word in itself, as is “phatic” on the opposite page. Having also glanced at “phalanstery,” “petrous,” and “petroleum jelly,” I would end up acquiring some interesting bits of assorted information but forgetting which word I’d meant to look up in the first place.

So, yes, I’m easily amused as well as easily distracted. But modern dictionaries are really just the beginning. Besides the words currently in use—400 thousand or so—there are many that have fallen by the wayside. In Forgotten English, Jeffrey Kacirk collects archaic words that are odd, fascinating, and sometimes hilarious. If you’ve read any literature from before the 20th century you may have encountered words like “ferule” or “press-gang.” But others are intriguingly obscure: “galligaskin,” “sockdolager,” “fulluht.”

The thing about Forgotten English is that it’s both a collection of words and a rambling, whimsical history book. In many cases it’s not just the words that have been forgotten, but the things they refer to: occupations, practices or beliefs that no longer exist. “Purl-men,” for instance, were itinerant beer-sellers “who plied their trade on the Thames and other navigable waterways of southern England,”  and a “bee-master” was one who “tended hives and performed the essential task of informing an estate’s bees of important household events.” So each entry is at least a paragraph, up to a page and a half long, often incorporating literary excerpts that enlarge on the definitions.  It’s fascinating, and it also makes me wonder which of our current practices and their corresponding words will go extinct over the next century or so.

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No free verse?

June 25th, 2015

I may have bitten off a rather large mouthful in tackling this subject. What I meant to do was reflect on some things I’ve read recently about the structure of poetry, but as I keep reading I’m growing further enmeshed in the larger and very sticky question of what makes a poem good. But to keep it manageable, I’ll stick with form.

The question of form and structure interests me. Like many poets today, I write in free verse, but at the same time I enjoy and admire verse that follows traditional forms. When reading free verse, I often listen for what holds it together.

Reading critical essays on the subject always reminds me of this tidbit from a letter L.M. Montgomery wrote to a longtime correspondent:

By the law of dis-association of ideas— how do you like “free verse”? I loathe it. I saw a delightful definition of it the other day — “shredded prose”— although the full delight of the definition will be lost upon you if you are not familiar with the breakfast cereal known as “shredded wheat.” Vers libre aggravates me beyond my powers of expression.

Montgomery goes on to write her own piece of vers libre, itself a fine example of shredded prose, in which she castigates its perpetrators for writing verse that is “without form/ And void” and for being too lazy to look for rhymes. (That “shredded prose” definition apparently came from American writer and editor William Dean Howells, who used the term in reviewing Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.)

T.S. Eliot, in a brief essay called “Reflections on Vers Libre,” takes an interesting view of the issue: he claims that there is no such thing as free verse. “If vers libre is a genuine verse-form,” he says, “it will have positive definition. And I can define it only in negatives: (1) absence of pattern, (2) absence of rhyme, (3) absence of metre.” He acknowledges that there can be good verse without rhyme, but insists that meter is inescapable. Some simple metre must lie behind any free verse, as a structure that the poem either approaches or departs from. Read the rest of this entry »

Publication is just the beginning

May 26th, 2015

So now I have a book! A real, official, book, my first full-length book of poetry, Eigenheim (pictured in the right sidebar), published this spring by Turnstone Press. It was launched at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, who do a fine job with these things, and although seeing my face on a poster was mildly unnerving, the event itself was quite enjoyable.

Someone asked me recently if anything had surprised me about having this book published. I had to think about that for a moment, but yes, there were some surprises. One of them came before publication, when I first saw the proofs. I expected that my poems would look more impressive laid out in book format, but was surprised at how much more impressive they looked. Hard to say why that is—maybe the fact that the poems look longer when they’re laid out on the smaller book-size pages.

Then there was the day, about a week after the book was launched, when a neighbour came to the door asking if I would sign his copy. I’d hoped and expected, of course, that people would buy and read the book, but it was the fact of someone actually coming to the door that tickled me. Read the rest of this entry »

Elise Partridge

March 14th, 2015

I was sorry to hear of Vancouver poet Elise Partridge’s death in late January. Not because I knew her—I didn’t—but because, even though a poet’s words will still exist after she dies, that death ensures that there won’t be any more words than what’s already out there. And by all accounts, it would have been a privilege to know someone who was, in the words of Damian Rogers, poetry editor at House of Anansi, both “an uncompromising artist and a kind, supportive person.”

I read through Chameleon Hours, her second book, in one sitting, and found poems that are both compassionate and forthright. She doesn’t back away from suffering or the prospect of death; in fact, it’s a constant theme throughout. Yet what’s striking is not so much the presence of this theme, but the sustained attentiveness displayed in the poems—attentiveness, and affection. Whether she’s talking about a friend, a family member, a mosquito caught in a spiderweb, the letters of the alphabet, or her own experience with illness, she shows herself to be “a close and compassionate observer” (quoting Damian Rogers again) with a real and deep love for the world.

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A great big Collage Party

February 9th, 2015

album cover2You never know what you’ll encounter at Winnipeg’s New Music Festival, and this year the festival organizers incorporated visual art in some unexpected ways. For instance, in the lobby there was a table where concert-goers could sit down and make a collage. There was a bin full of old record album covers and drawers full of materials to cut up—magazines like Woman’s Weekly, National Geographic and Rolling Stone, and even coffee-table books. You’d choose an album cover, cut out pictures or text, and go to it with a glue stick. Then you could mount the finished collage on one of the poles sticking up from the centre of the table, with the magnets provided.

Others clearly found this as much fun as I did, because at intermission the benches around the table were full of people cutting and pasting. And really, what’s not to like? It’s the same thing we did in kindergarten, only now that we’re grown up it changes from activity to art. Although I make no claims for my own creation, a lot of them were really interesting and inventive.

Collage Party PavilionThis is what the display looked like on the second night of the festival—it got better and better as the week went on.

The table, benches and display poles together make up an interactive sculpture called The Collage Party Pavilion, conceived by Winnipeg artist Paul Butler and designed by Craig Alun Smith. It’s made to accommodate The Collage Party, described on Butler’s web site as “a nomadic, collective studio where [he] invites the public to collage along side each other in a social setting.” Since 1997, he’s staged The Collage Party in several countries, in a wide range of venues. I find it intriguing because it stretches the idea of what art is and what an artist does: it’s both a work of art and a way to make space for art-making to grow.

Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour

November 27th, 2014

I’ve just been tagged by friend and fellow writer Angeline Schellenberg to join the Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour. Angeline is a poet who just had her first book manuscript accepted, for which I am quite excited. And I love the title of her blog: 37 Mice.

Some writers have compared this to a “chain letter,” but if it is, it’s a much more pleasant exercise than any chain letter I’ve ever participated in. You don’t have to foist it on ten reluctant friends, and you do get to hear from other writers about their latest work and their writing process.

So, unlike much of what I post here, this entry will be about me, answering the four questions posed to all participants on this virtual tour.

1. What am I working on?
Like Angeline, I am looking forward to the publication of my first book of poetry. Mine will appear with Turnstone Press next April. At this point the editing is done, the manuscript has moved into copy-editing and production, and it’s starting to look like a book, which is quite exciting. It’s taken a long time for this book to come together; a handful of the poems are new, or new-ish, but quite a few are ten years old and more. Ideas of home form a prominent theme, in the literal sense of looking at the place and people I come from, and in the metaphorical sense of finding one’s place in the world.

In between looking at proofs I have been trying to get back to other projects for a while. I have a second manuscript that’s been half-finished for some time now. Among other things, this one looks at places, how we live within them, how they can be familiar and strange at once, and what happens when we move between places. One section grew out of a long train trip I took with a friend, and another draws on my grandmother’s diary written while her family was en route to Canada. I also have two new series of poems that might fit into the new book, and another series that I might turn into a chapbook. And I have a stack of miscellaneous poems in various stages of revision, which I’d like to polish and send out.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Poetry is such a diverse genre that my work will be similar to many and different from many others. I never used to know what to say when people asked “What kind of poetry do you write?” and I still don’t; at least, I don’t have a short answer to that question. My poems are definitely about something—that is, although I strive for evocative language and aim to write poems that sound good when read aloud, language itself is the means rather than the subject of the poems. I like to think my poems are accessible but also interesting. They often involve narrative, and quite a few in my upcoming book use little bits of dialogue. My language and imagery tend toward the concrete and sensory rather than the abstract. A couple of people have said that my poems “make them see pictures.” I like that.

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Literature and place

November 17th, 2014

A book that I’ve recently added to my must-read list is Joan Thomas’ new novel, The Opening Sky. Lately several people have told me I should read it, because it’s a well-written story but also because parts of it take place in the neighborhood where I live.

There’s a particular pleasure in reading a book that’s set in a place you know. I thought about this recently after re-reading Barbara Nickel’s poetry collection, Domain, in which several poems talk about the Saskatchewan town where she grew up and about her family’s house. I happen to be from the same town, and reading these poems brought me back there, to the way the place looked and felt in the ’70s when I was in elementary and junior high school.

That sense of familiarity is what first attracted me to the urban fantasy novels of Charles de Lint. Several of his novels from the ’80s and early ’90s are set in Ottawa, where I lived for a time. I also lived in Regina briefly, and that contributes to the pleasure I get from Gail Bowen’s mystery novels. I have grown to like both these writers for other reasons, too, but there’s still something about being able to instantly know the landscape, what the streets look like, what the weather’s like.

But there’s a bit of strangeness in the familiarity. Reading another writer’s take on a familiar place is different from simply remembering it. The experience is a bit like meeting someone for the first time and finding out they used to live five blocks from where you grew up. Someone else’s portrayal of a city or landscape can show you things you didn’t know; you get to see the place in a different light. You see possibilities for what could happen in that place.


Catherine Winkworth: the poetry of translation

April 16th, 2014

Catherine_WinkworthTranslating hymns is no small feat. This is what I’ve concluded after making a first attempt at translating German poetry. Besides conveying the sense of the text, you have to put into metrical form, ideally preserving the meter and rhyme of the original, and do it in a way that sounds good.

So I’ve really come to appreciate the work of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). She was a prolific translator of German chorales, including “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and “Now thank we all our God.” The accounts of her life that I’ve found so far are all rather brief, but all state unequivocally that she did more than anyone to bring the German chorale tradition to English-speaking churches, and that her translations are the most widely used of any from the German.

She was an educated woman who, in addition to her translation work, advocated for higher education for women. My guess is that her family was pretty well connected, since, according to one account, it was the German ambassador to England who introduced her to German hymnody. She published her first collection of hymn translations, Lyra Germanica Series 1, in 1854 or ’55, when she was still in her twenties. She followed with Series 2 in 1858.

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One book leads to another

March 11th, 2014

How do you decide what to read? This question came up at a lunch with friends recently, and once the subject started rolling around in my head I began finding other writers who had things to say about it. One friend sent me a link to this article from Brainpickings with excerpts from an essay by Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, and at a book sale I found Robertson Davies’ The Merry Heart, a collection of pieces on reading and writing. Brodsky’s essay talks about developing an educated taste as a means to help choose what to read. On the other hand, Davies, while certainly well-educated, acknowledges in his that he read “wanderingly, capriciously, following [his] own nose.”

Davies’ approach is pretty much how I read, much of the time. I’ll follow an interesting lead, and then one book leads to another. Last November, American poet, fiction writer and essayist Thomas Lynch gave a lecture in Winnipeg, and recommended reading Seamus Heaney. I began with Human Chain, Heaney’s last book, and ended up reading certain poems over and over. I also found Lazy Bastardism, a collection of essays by Carmine Starnino, which a friend had recently read. Both books happened to mention the name of Helen Vendler, the American critic, whom I knew almost nothing about. So I found one of her books, and through it have been introduced to poems I’d never read before by Plath, Keats, and others. And after reading Starnino’s essay on Robyn Sarah, I began reading her poetry and essays, too.

In following these associative trails, I find myself agreeing with both approaches to reading. Brodsky does make an important point in saying that unless readers find a way to educate their literary tastes, choosing what to read is simply too overwhelming. This is especially true if you want to move out of your habitual reading paths, which is where other people’s recommendations are helpful. On the other hand, Davies’ point is also true: it’s often the case that you don’t find books so much as they find you.