Leaves on the family tree

August 18th, 2011

Summer is reunion season. On the August long weekend my mother’s family, the Klaassens, gathered in Saskatchewan to visit and to recount family history.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that our family is very fortunate in having a wealth of documents detailing its history. We have diaries and memoirs, as well as family registers that go back at least a couple of centuries. Many of these have been translated into English for the benefit of those— probably the majority, by now— who don’t read German (or don’t read enough German, at any rate). Some documents are even available online now.

The benefit of having documents like these is that through them it’s possible to see one’s ancestors as personalities rather than merely names. And larger events take on a new significance and vividness when we see how they affected particular people.

My great-grandfather’s diary, for instance. He faithfully records the weather, who preached at each church service and on what scripture text, what garden produce he took to town and the price he got for it. Not particularly riveting, at first glance. But his entry of August 6, 1934 stating that he got less than one cent per pound for his cabbages, was for me a strong illustration of the depth of the 1930s’ Depression.

My grandfather’s memoirs describe how heavy medical expenses, on top of the effects of the Depression, could completely drain a family’s finances. He admits that things might have been easier if they had applied for relief sooner, but he had scruples about it. “As it was,” he writes, “it took us all through the forties to get back on our feet financially.”

And reading the family registers brings home the fact that mortality rates were once much higher than now. It’s especially striking because, two hundred years ago, parents would re-use names: there might be two Catherines or three Johanns in the same family, but only the last survived to adulthood.

I am grateful for the previous Klaassens who first thought to record these things, and for those who saw the worth in them, who preserved the records and  and handed them on.

Naming flowers

July 15th, 2011

I’ve just returned from a week of vacation in a nearby provincial park where, among other things, I discovered many wildflowers I’d never seen before. After my initial delight and surprise I realized this was because, in other years, we’d always gone there in August, when many of these flowers were no longer in bloom, and I hadn’t even known they were there. The biggest thrill, probably, was finding wild columbine and blue flag. But there were many more, and I spent a lot of time searching through my copy of Wildflowers Across the Prairies. (An excellent reference book. Even reading the flower names is fun: lilac-flowered beardtongue, hoary puccoon, nodding onion…) In fact, I’d say flowers turned into a minor obsession on this trip.

What’s with this passion for naming and categorizing things? It’s useful to identify plants like wild raspberry, hazelnut, or Labrador tea. A person should be able to recognize poison ivy and stinging nettle, just for the sake of self-protection. But why should it matter that this yellow flower is a form of groundsel, and those other ones are yellow avens? Why would you want to distinguish among the many types of vetch?

Yet naming and classifying is important to us, whether it’s grouping plants into families, sorting minerals, or dividing history into periods according to one scheme or another. I suppose it’s a way of looking for order in the world.

Much of the pleasure of wildflowers (or birds, or rocks, or mushrooms) is in the discovery, that involuntary “oh!” at seeing something exquisite for the first time. Still, there’s also something satisfying in being able to not only describe a plant but also name it. Columbine. One more little check mark in the book.

Poetry by heart

April 4th, 2011

April is National Poetry Month, and rather than write about how we should all read more poetry (that’s just a basic assumption), I’ll suggest something more specific: go back to a poem you memorized in school, and re-learn it.

Memorizing comes with repetition, but when you no longer repeat the poem, lines tend to go missing. As late as grade 9 I had to memorize poems in school, and still remember one called “Leisure” by— Davies? No, that was the teacher’s name. Anyway, it starts like this:

What is this life if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs
and stare as long as sheep or cows

That line about cows sticks in my mind, because I’ve seen how cattle can stare. Once, on a visit to some relatives in B.C., my husband and I canoed on a small lake, going up a channel that ran along a pasture. The cattle all looked up from their grazing, then turned and ambled over to the water’s edge to give us the full benefit of their gaze.

The poem goes on:

No time to see, when woods we pass,
where squirrels hide their nuts in grass;
da dum da dum da dum da dum
(something about Beauty here)
A poor life this, if, full of care,
we have no time to stand and stare.

Clearly, there are some pieces missing. Luckily, The Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry with its huge database (accessible for free if your public library subscribes to it, as Winnipeg’s does) exists for situations just like this.

Speaking of memorizing poetry, Poetry In Voice is a new poetry recitation contest for Canadian high school students, sponsored by the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry. Actually, it’s not national yet; this year it’s a pilot project involving students at just twelve Ontario schools, but it’s supposed to become a national program in 2013. In the meantime, schools can use the materials provided on the web site as a resource for their own programs and contests.

For those involved in the official contest, there’s a nice bit of money at stake, both for individual contestants and for their school libraries. As far as media attention goes, the focus will probably be on the winners and the prizes. The real value of the program, though, will be in encouraging students and their teachers to read, speak, memorize (and enjoy) poetry.

Giving literature away

March 8th, 2011

Saskatchewan writer Don Kerr’s latest poetry collection, The dust of just beginning (2010), has two interesting things on the copyright page. First, the book is under a Creative Commons license, under the terms of which anyone can “copy, distribute and transmit the work” for non-commercial purposes, as long as the author is properly credited. Second, besides issuing the collection as a handsome paperback, the publisher (Athabasca University’s AU Press) also offers it in an electronic format. Go to their web site and there it is— a photo of the book cover and the usual button to click if you want to order it, but also a tab labelled “E-book” where you can download single sections or the entire book. It’s a PDF of the book, so not in the same format as the e-books you get for an iPad or similar device, but still— an entire brand-new book of poetry, for free!

My first reaction was “Neat!” My second was “How can they afford to do this?”

AU Press makes all its publications available for free over the Internet as a matter of policy:

AU Press operates on the model of a knowledge-based economy, to which we contribute by providing peer-reviewed publications unfettered by the desire to commodify thought or to restrict access to ideas.

They say, moreover, that academic presses find their sales actually go up when readers can sample their works online.

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How to ruin a perfectly good poem, and why

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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Winter trifles

December 13th, 2010

It is a cold day in Winnipeg, a real freeze-your-face-off day, and while walking to a nearby café to meet some friends for a late breakfast I remembered this little poem:

Oh, the cold of Canada nobody knows,
The fire burns our shoes without warming our toes;
Oh, dear, what shall we do?
Our blankets are thin, and our noses are blue—
Our noses are blue, and our blankets are thin,
It’s at zero without and we’re freezing within!

(Chorus)—Oh, dear, what shall we do?

—John Dunbar Moodie

Clearly, this was written before the days of central heating! Few of us now can complain of being so miserably cold indoors, whatever it’s like outside.

(John Dunbar Moodie, by the way, was the husband of Susanna Moodie, and this poem is quoted in her book, Roughing It In The Bush.)

And of course the “nobody knows” in the first line reminds me of this, from The House at Pooh Corner:

The more it
The more it
The more it

And nobody
How cold my
How cold my

To which Piglet eventually responds: “Pooh,… it isn’t the toes so much as the ears.”

But for me, it’s always the toes.

Odd notions

November 30th, 2010

It’s been a long time since I read Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, but one short episode sticks in my mind. An old woman, Mrs. Bentley, begins chatting with three children who pause by her yard on a summer afternoon. One is Tom Spaulding, one of the main characters of the novel; the others are two girls, Jane and Alice. Mrs. Bentley mentions having been their age once, and the girls’ reaction is startling.

‘My mother says it isn’t nice to fib,’ said Jane.
‘Of course it isn’t. It’s very bad,’ agreed Mrs. Bentley.
‘And not to listen to fibs.’
‘Who was fibbing to you, Jane?’
Jane looked at her and then glanced nervously away.
‘You were.’

The fib, it turns out, was in claiming that she was once a girl like Jane and Alice. Mrs Bentley then tries to convince the girls by showing them some of the things she’s saved: a hair comb and ring she once wore, a set of jacks, a photo of herself at age seven. They simply don’t believe her. They laugh and run away with her things.

The idea that old people were once young is an odd notion for a child, one that takes an imaginative leap to comprehend. Bradbury’s treatment of the incident makes it quite striking: the children’s sure and stubborn disbelief in the very possibility that old people could have been young, their open mockery of Mrs. Bentley.

The story turns into a sort of fable about the folly of clinging to the past. But it’s also a fine example of an author getting inside a child’s head, bringing into sharp relief the brightness and strangeness of the world as seen through a child’s eyes.

Getting a handle on the abstract

November 7th, 2010

Russell Smith’s latest column in The Globe and Mail describes a documentary called How To Explain It To My Parents, in which nine Dutch artists sit down with their parents and try to explain what they do. Not surprisingly, some of the parents don’t get it. While they take a benign interest in their children’s work, they don’t necessarily see the significance of, say, deliberately making a video with a lot of static in it. The artists do a great deal of explaining, but not in terms their parents can understand.

Abstraction in art continues to have a perception problem, despite having been around for most of the last hundred years. In mid-20th century art, abstractionism reached the point where some artists tried to keep a painting free of any connection to anything outside itself. As this YouTube profile of Quebec painter Claude Tousignant explains, it was a move away from the long tradition of representing the world in art, away from the painting as a picture of something. Tousignant himself has said: “What I wish to do is make painting objective, to bring it back to its source – where only painting remains, emptied of all extraneous matter – to the point at which painting is pure sensation.”

This will not be news to anyone who’s studied art, but it was a bit of a revelation to me. Once I actually saw this written down in black and white, many of the abstract paintings I’ve seen suddenly made more sense. Or rather, I was more comfortable with their not making sense. They are not about anything— or maybe you could say that what they are about is geometry and color.

I still don’t get certain types of art— a series of solid black panels, for instance, or videos purposely made with a lot of static. But one of the Dutch artists, Harm van den Dorpel, doesn’t think that’s always necessary. He tells his father that he doesn’t mind if viewers don’t get the full significance of his work. He’s happy if they are simply intrigued by an image they don’t fully understand.

(See some of Claude Tousignant’s paintings here.)

Out of the ordinary

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.”

Lame literature

September 13th, 2010

I was prompted to get back to this too-long-neglected blog by a friend’s posting on Facebook, a link to a site called Awful Library Books. It has an amusing selection of truly odd titles that were actually found in real libraries.

Good books tend to survive, one way or another, but unfortunately bad ones do too. Often they’re just forgotten, but they do reappear at yard sales, in thrift stores, in used bookstores, and in dusty corners of people’s houses. And, judging by Awful Library Books, some linger on library shelves despite being outdated or just plain silly.

Some bad books are so bad they’re funny. Some are loathsome. Others, especially books you enjoyed uncritically as a child, seem clumsily written and just plain uninteresting when you come back to them as an adult (apologies to anyone who still likes reading the old Nancy Drew books).

I’ve got a few Awful Examples on my  own shelves. The thing is, once they’re on the bookshelf they tend to stay there. Where else would they go? Who’d want them? Besides, I maintain a certain affection for some of these books.

There’s one called Freddy the Fox, which has been around since I was five. It survived several years in my parents’ garage, the pages are stained and it still smells a bit. The story is not particularly interesting; it has neither the whimsy of Winnie the Pooh nor the musical language of Margaret Wise Brown’s books, but I keep it because it was with this book that I learned to read. So, although some books have come and gone, this one’s going to stay for now.