Poetry as compassion

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.

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