Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

How to ruin a perfectly good poem, and why

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

The prolific American poet W.D. Snodgrass, in his book De/Compositions, asks the question: What makes a good poem good? and what happens when you remove that quality? The short answer is that you spoil the poem, but the particular ways of spoiling poems are what make this book so intriguing.

Snodgrass takes poems by W.H. Auden, Shakespeare, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and many others, and “de/composes” them. That is, he rewrites them in a way that removes some essential quality of the poem.

It’s a mischievous experiment, in a way—a bit like pulling half the legs off a spider and then seeing if it can still walk— but also an enlightening one. For instance, when you read “The Miller’s Wife” by Edwin Arlington Robinson side by side with its de/composition, you realize just how much is conveyed by hints and implications in the original, and how stating the facts baldly takes away the reader’s experience of suspicion and discovery.

Snodgrass’s treatment of “Globe” by Elizabeth Spires is an exaggerated demonstration of the maxim “show, don’t tell.” Evocative lines like “A high window let in alley light/ to a two-room apartment” are reduced to “Our home situation was dingy/ and constricted.” It is comically bad.

In other poems the de/composed version is not as obviously spoiled. Marianne Moore’s “The Mind is an Enchanting Thing” is reduced from an accomplished and beautiful poem to a merely competent one by the removal of all rhyme and, more subtly, by word choices and syntax that make the language less musical. “Like the glaze on a/ katydid-wing” becomes “like the patina on the wing/ of a katydid.”

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Out of the ordinary

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

The genius of much folk music, whether traditional or contemporary, is that it takes perfectly ordinary situations and makes them interesting, significant, even mythical. Love, friendship, birth and death, natural beauty— all these are common enough, but all feel distinctive and unique to the one experiencing them. Hearing a song about the very thing happening to you drives home the commonness of the experience and at the same time elevates it.

Poetry can have the same effect. For instance, Walter de la Mare’s poem “Five Eyes” is about something that once was perfectly common: a miller keeping cats in his flour mill to prevent rats and mice from eating the grain. Yet the poem makes it all sound quite spooky: “Whisker and claw they crouch in the night,/ their five eyes smouldering green and bright.” There’s a musical setting of “Five Eyes” by C. Armstrong Gibbs that brings out the spookiness even further.

Then there’s David O’Meara’s poem “The Throw.” It’s about throwing a ball, and particularly about that small moment when the ball is in the air and your brain is making all the complex and unconscious calculations involved in knowing how to place your hand for the catch. But O’Meara takes it further with these lines: “In that/ curved, brief flight, whatever’s/ waiting to happen might. Just/ might.” And then he spins out the possibilities that lie in that instant, that bit of time just long enough for a situation at the critical point to tip one way or the other.

You could say that de la Mare is simply enhancing what’s already there, the hint of wildness and uncanniness in the most domestic of cats. O’Meara, on the other hand, takes the commonplace off in another direction. As Louis Menand expresses it in a New Yorker article: “This is what poets do: they connect an everyday x with an unexpected y.”

Discoveries

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

I’ve been roaming through this old anthology, published in the 1920s and entitled, with great simplicity, The Canadian Poetry Book. Without even looking at the preface or the endnotes you can tell it’s a school text. The names of Doris Morgan and her sisters from Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan are written on the cover and flyleaf. One of them, clearly bored stiff, wrote her name several times and copied out all the information on the title page. Inside, you can tell exactly which poems the girls studied by the notes written on them in turquoise ink.

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This poetry is from the 19th and early 20th centuries— fairly old in terms of Canadian literature. The poets represented here have largely gone out of fashion, and some, I suspect, have been pretty well forgotten. Canadians who went to school in the 1940s and ’50s, maybe even into the ’70s, will know Bliss Carman, William Henry Drummond, E. Pauline Johnson, and Archibald Lampman, but does anyone study them now? And how many today know the names Ethelwyn Wetherald or John Hunter-Duvar?

Anthologies can be a mixed bag, of course. Not every poem in this book is a gem (there’s an especially forgettable piece on the death of Sir John A. Macdonald). But there are some real treasures here, among them Johnson’s haunting  “The Legend of Qu’Appelle Valley,” and Lampman’s “Heat” which conveys, with its alliteration and slow-swinging rhythm, the sleepiness of a summer afternoon. Until now I’d read very little of these poets— aside from Johnson’s “The Song my Paddle Sings,” which almost everyone reads— but having found their work here, I want to read more.

Poems for fall

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

So many autumn poems are melancholy. Granted, some autumn days are conducive to melancholy: dull, damp and grey. Dry leaves turn to wet brown muck in the streets and you retreat inside with thoughts of blankets and hot drinks.

Fall is equated, understandably, with old age and fading beauty. It’s linked with decay, death and loss. Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ “Summer and Fall” follows that pattern with lines like these: “Margaret, are you grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving?” It seems to liken autumn to the loss of childhood, the loss of a former self, as it ends: “It is the blight man was born for,/ It is Margaret you mourn for.” And W.H. Auden has this pair of lines in “Canzone”: “Drift, Autumn, drift; fall, colours, where you will:/ Bald melancholia minces through the world.”

Gloomy stuff. But then there’s this one, from an old children’s anthology:

I like the fall,

The mist and all…

I like the gray

November day,

And bare, dead boughs

That coldly sway

Against my pane.

I like the rain. (“The Mist and All” by Dixie Willson)

Which reminds me of my son a couple of weeks ago when I was complaining about the persistent rain: “What’s wrong with the weather?” (more…)

Poetry as compassion

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

A couple of months ago, to mark World Poetry Day, I went to hear Don Domanski give a reading and interview. He had strong opinions about why so few people read poetry these days (more about that in another post), and also had some things to say about writing poetry. It’s important, he said, to get outside oneself, to put yourself in the position of another – whether that’s another person, an animal, or a tree.

This reminded me of the words of David Milne, the Canadian painter who lived from 1882 to 1953. An exhibit of his work at the National Gallery of Canada in 1992 had quotations from his letters and other writings on the wall next to the paintings. “Art is love,” he said. Not love of anything or anyone in particular; “[i]t is just love, love without an object, a spilling of the oil of love.” He also said: “The thing is that while I write or paint with one hand I have to have someone— nature mostly— hold the other.”

I think this is some of what Domanski is getting at in reference to poetry, although he used the words “compassion” and “mindfulness.” But for both Milne and Domanski the point is that art-making has to involve a movement outward from oneself. Self-absorption is deadly; artists ultimately have to get outside their own heads if they’re going to have anything interesting to say. Strong feelings in themselves don’t make for good art.

The assumption implicit here is that poetry, and art in general, is about something other than itself. That’s certainly my own approach to poetry, but there are movements in poetry that treat language in abstract ways. Yet I think that even this kind of poetry requires getting outside one’s own head. The poet has to begin with a love for language and a willingness to listen.

You can read a poem by Don Domanski here, and a CBC Radio interview here.

See some of David Milne’s work here.

Poems for spring

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Spring is about surprise. Spring happens every year, and yet it’s possible to be amazed over and over at what the season brings with it: the smell of damp earth; shoots emerging from the ground; birds returning. I’ve been reading some poems that express the exuberance of spring wonderfully.

e.e. cummings was very good at exuberance, and wrote several spring poems. A bookstore in my neighborhood had one posted in the window: “in Just-/ spring     when the world is mud-/ luscious the little/ lame balloonman// whistles     far     and wee…” The line near the middle, “when the world is puddle-wonderful,” reminds me of my son, who views puddles (as I did, at his age) as things to be enjoyed, not avoided. (Full text of the poem here.)

In “Québec May” by Earle Birney you can sense both the energy of growing things and people’s revived spirits: “Now the snow is vanished clean/ Bo’jour, Pierre, ça va?/ skyward point the cedar billows/ birches pinken    poplars green/ magenta runs the sumach tine/ pouring down the hills like wine/ Yellow catkins on the willows/ yellow calico on line/ ‘Allo, Marie, ça va?

Of course, people have been writing poems about spring for centuries. One of the few bits of poetry I remember from a class in Middle English literature is the opening of this lyric: “Lenten is come with love to toune,/ With blosmen and with briddes roune,/ That all this blisse bringeth.” Unfortunately, all this bliss contrasts with the speaker’s unhappy love life, but there’s still a lot about the beauty of birds and flowers here.

And there’s the most famous of Middle English lyrics: “Sumer is icumen in,/ Lhude sing, cuccu!/ Groweth sed and bloweth med/ And springth the wude nu./ Sing, cuccu!” The rhythm skips merrily along, like the lambs and calves in the second stanza. (Hear a music video of this here.)

And finally, there is A.E. Housman’s “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now…”, in which the speaker thinks about how many years he may have left to live, and concludes: “And since to look at things in bloom/ Fifty springs are little room,/ About the woodlands I will go/ To see the cherry hung with snow.”

Spring has sprung. Carpe diem.

Favorite poems

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

While poetry books may not sell a lot of copies, people do still connect with poetry. U.S. poet Robert Pinsky, during his term as poet laureate, set up the Favorite Poem Project. 18,000 people sent in submissions. Fifty of them appear in videos on the project’s web site, reading their favorite poems and talking about how those poems connect with their lives– all kinds of people, reading a wide variety of poems. One young man from Boston reads “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks and says, “It just made so much sense. It was like telling my story.” A woman reads “The Sentence” by Anna Akhmatova and tells how it precisely describes what happened to her brother in the Vietnam war. These are moving stories.

Good sounds

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Why do so few people read poetry these days? Maurice Mierau, in his Winnipeg Free Press column, has one answer. (By the way, I am pleased, not to mention impressed, that the Free Press actually has a monthly poetry column in its book section. Wonder how many other newspapers can say the same.) Poets, Maurice says, tend to read their work with a complete lack of expression, and seem to think sophisticated poetry shouldn’t have rhyme or rhythm. It’s one of those things everybody knows– “everybody except anyone who published before the 20th century, which means 80 per cent of poetry in English. Everybody except Bob Dylan, Robert Frost and any half-decent rap artist.” Audiences, he says, “will never stop yearning for poems that sound good.”

There’s a reason people will always be attracted to poetry like this. Patterns are an aid to memory; a poem with rhyme or rhythm is more likely to stick in your mind than one that has none. I think– and there’s probably theoretical writing out there to confirm this– that it has to do with poetry’s connection to music, and music’s connection to the body. Just as words arranged in patterns are easier to remember, so are words set to music. That’s why I can still recite large chunks of Dr. Seuss, even though my sons don’t read those books much any more. That’s why we all learned the alphabet with the help of a song, and why people can remember advertising jingles that they haven’t heard since the age of eight.

For some recent poetry that sounds good, I recommend Domain by Barbara Nickel, The Office Tower Tales by Alice Major, and Noble Gas, Penny Black by David O’Meara.