Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

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.