Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Jay Macpherson

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Another Canadian poet has died recently: Jay Macpherson passed away on March 24. She was, according to Quill and Quire, one of “Canada’s finest— and arguably most underappreciated— poets.”

Reading an assessment like that always makes me want to find out more. I knew of Jay Macpherson, very peripherally (she contributed some hymn translations for the joint Anglican-United Church Hymnal [1971]) but was not aware that she was a woman (her first name was Jean) or that she had won a Governor General’s Award in 1957 for The Boatman, her third book and her best-known work. Another of her books, Welcoming Disaster, is available in a combined volume with The Boatman, titled Poems Twice Told, from Oxford University Press. She also wrote a non-fiction work on mythology for young people.

Macpherson was strongly influenced by Northrop Frye, resulting in a poetry that made use of “myth as a source of universal poetic meaning,” to quote my high school poetry text. That same textbook also calls her poetry “gnomic and difficult”— not exactly encouraging for students. The publisher’s description of The Boatman is much more inviting: “an intricate sequence of short epigrammatic poems – in which there are echoes of ballads, carols, nursery rhymes, and hymns – that bear a whole cosmos of the poet’s invention, constructed from Biblical and classical allusions.” The few poems of hers that I have read so far are compelling for their pithiness, their skilful use of form, and their resonant language.

You can read several of Jay Macpherson’s poems here, and another in the Quill and Quire article linked above.

Discoveries: Colleen Thibaudeau

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Colleen Thibaudeau’s obituary in the Feb. 9 Globe and Mail was intriguing in a couple of ways. For one thing, I had never heard her name before. This in itself is nothing new; even in the relatively small world of Canadian poetry I do encounter well-established poets I’ve never heard of. Having belatedly discovered Thibaudeau, I wanted to read her work, especially after reading, in the Canadian Encyclopedia, how her poetry celebrates “the extraordinary nature of ordinary life by combining the everyday with the otherworldly.”

Brick Books does still have some of Thibaudeau’s books in print, but otherwise her work is not easy to find. I found almost none of her poetry online, except for an excerpt in the obituary, and this one featured as Poem of the Month on the Parliamentary Poet Laureate site. And Winnipeg’s public libraries don’t have any of her books. All I found was the anthology Un Dozen: Thirteen Canadian Poets, edited by Judith Fitzgerald, which contains four pages of Thibaudeau’s poems. This small sampling is enough to make me want to find more of her work, even if it takes a bit of looking.

The other intriguing thing about Thibaudeau is that she did a master’s thesis on contemporary Canadian poetry— in 1949. I would not have expected Canadian poetry, especially contemporary poetry, to be a subject for study back then; I more or less assumed that Canadians still saw “real” literature as coming from elsewhere. Maybe that’s not entirely true… in any case, there would have been no shortage of  material to study: P.K. Page, Irving Layton, Earle Birney, A.M. Klein, Dorothy Livesay, and Elizabeth Brewster (among many others) were all writing in the ’40s. A.J.M.Smith‘s landmark anthology The Book of Canadian Poetry was published in 1943, and Ralph Gustafson’s Anthology of Canadian Poetry in 1942. Periodicals like Contemporary Verse had recently been established. It sounds like it was an exciting time to be reading and writing poetry in Canada.

Objects and memory

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

There are certain small objects packed away in a box in the attic, or tucked into the back of a desk drawer, that I will probably never get rid of, and this poem by Sharon Olds shows brilliantly the reason why. In “Toth Farry” (the spelling borrowed from a note her child once wrote to the tooth fairy) she writes of finding her children’s baby teeth after many years “in the back of the charm box, in a sack.” The poem is delightful to read for its language alone: Olds’ precise description of the teeth, now falling into shards, and her comparing them to utensils like shovel and adz.

But what struck me most was these lines:

…and the colors go from
salt, to bone, to pee on snow, to
sun on pond-ice embedded with twigs
and chipped-off skate blade. One cuspid
is like the tail of an ivory chough
on my grandmother’s whatnot in a gravure on my mother’s
bureau in my father’s house in my head…

That one baby tooth brings forth a whole chain of associations, linked images that come to mind faster than you can describe them.

Reading these lines made me think of my own baby teeth, and of my sons’, and how very tiny those teeth look once they come out. And it reminded me of why the things in my own treasure-box are still there.

Poetry by heart

Monday, 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

Tuesday, 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.


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.”


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.”


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.



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.