Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

No free verse?

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

I may have bitten off a rather large mouthful in tackling this subject. What I meant to do was reflect on some things I’ve read recently about the structure of poetry, but as I keep reading I’m growing further enmeshed in the larger and very sticky question of what makes a poem good. But to keep it manageable, I’ll stick with form.

The question of form and structure interests me. Like many poets today, I write in free verse, but at the same time I enjoy and admire verse that follows traditional forms. When reading free verse, I often listen for what holds it together.

Reading critical essays on the subject always reminds me of this tidbit from a letter L.M. Montgomery wrote to a longtime correspondent:

By the law of dis-association of ideas— how do you like “free verse”? I loathe it. I saw a delightful definition of it the other day — “shredded prose”— although the full delight of the definition will be lost upon you if you are not familiar with the breakfast cereal known as “shredded wheat.” Vers libre aggravates me beyond my powers of expression.

Montgomery goes on to write her own piece of vers libre, itself a fine example of shredded prose, in which she castigates its perpetrators for writing verse that is “without form/ And void” and for being too lazy to look for rhymes. (That “shredded prose” definition apparently came from American writer and editor William Dean Howells, who used the term in reviewing Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.)

T.S. Eliot, in a brief essay called “Reflections on Vers Libre,” takes an interesting view of the issue: he claims that there is no such thing as free verse. “If vers libre is a genuine verse-form,” he says, “it will have positive definition. And I can define it only in negatives: (1) absence of pattern, (2) absence of rhyme, (3) absence of metre.” He acknowledges that there can be good verse without rhyme, but insists that meter is inescapable. Some simple metre must lie behind any free verse, as a structure that the poem either approaches or departs from. (more…)

Publication is just the beginning

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

So now I have a book! A real, official, book, my first full-length book of poetry, Eigenheim (pictured in the right sidebar), published this spring by Turnstone Press. It was launched at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, who do a fine job with these things, and although seeing my face on a poster was mildly unnerving, the event itself was quite enjoyable.

Someone asked me recently if anything had surprised me about having this book published. I had to think about that for a moment, but yes, there were some surprises. One of them came before publication, when I first saw the proofs. I expected that my poems would look more impressive laid out in book format, but was surprised at how much more impressive they looked. Hard to say why that is—maybe the fact that the poems look longer when they’re laid out on the smaller book-size pages.

Then there was the day, about a week after the book was launched, when a neighbour came to the door asking if I would sign his copy. I’d hoped and expected, of course, that people would buy and read the book, but it was the fact of someone actually coming to the door that tickled me. (more…)

Elise Partridge

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

I was sorry to hear of Vancouver poet Elise Partridge’s death in late January. Not because I knew her—I didn’t—but because, even though a poet’s words will still exist after she dies, that death ensures that there won’t be any more words than what’s already out there. And by all accounts, it would have been a privilege to know someone who was, in the words of Damian Rogers, poetry editor at House of Anansi, both “an uncompromising artist and a kind, supportive person.”

I read through Chameleon Hours, her second book, in one sitting, and found poems that are both compassionate and forthright. She doesn’t back away from suffering or the prospect of death; in fact, it’s a constant theme throughout. Yet what’s striking is not so much the presence of this theme, but the sustained attentiveness displayed in the poems—attentiveness, and affection. Whether she’s talking about a friend, a family member, a mosquito caught in a spiderweb, the letters of the alphabet, or her own experience with illness, she shows herself to be “a close and compassionate observer” (quoting Damian Rogers again) with a real and deep love for the world.


Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

I’ve just been tagged by friend and fellow writer Angeline Schellenberg to join the Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour. Angeline is a poet who just had her first book manuscript accepted, for which I am quite excited. And I love the title of her blog: 37 Mice.

Some writers have compared this to a “chain letter,” but if it is, it’s a much more pleasant exercise than any chain letter I’ve ever participated in. You don’t have to foist it on ten reluctant friends, and you do get to hear from other writers about their latest work and their writing process.

So, unlike much of what I post here, this entry will be about me, answering the four questions posed to all participants on this virtual tour.

1. What am I working on?
Like Angeline, I am looking forward to the publication of my first book of poetry. Mine will appear with Turnstone Press next April. At this point the editing is done, the manuscript has moved into copy-editing and production, and it’s starting to look like a book, which is quite exciting. It’s taken a long time for this book to come together; a handful of the poems are new, or new-ish, but quite a few are ten years old and more. Ideas of home form a prominent theme, in the literal sense of looking at the place and people I come from, and in the metaphorical sense of finding one’s place in the world.

In between looking at proofs I have been trying to get back to other projects for a while. I have a second manuscript that’s been half-finished for some time now. Among other things, this one looks at places, how we live within them, how they can be familiar and strange at once, and what happens when we move between places. One section grew out of a long train trip I took with a friend, and another draws on my grandmother’s diary written while her family was en route to Canada. I also have two new series of poems that might fit into the new book, and another series that I might turn into a chapbook. And I have a stack of miscellaneous poems in various stages of revision, which I’d like to polish and send out.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Poetry is such a diverse genre that my work will be similar to many and different from many others. I never used to know what to say when people asked “What kind of poetry do you write?” and I still don’t; at least, I don’t have a short answer to that question. My poems are definitely about something—that is, although I strive for evocative language and aim to write poems that sound good when read aloud, language itself is the means rather than the subject of the poems. I like to think my poems are accessible but also interesting. They often involve narrative, and quite a few in my upcoming book use little bits of dialogue. My language and imagery tend toward the concrete and sensory rather than the abstract. A couple of people have said that my poems “make them see pictures.” I like that.


Literature and place

Monday, November 17th, 2014

A book that I’ve recently added to my must-read list is Joan Thomas’ new novel, The Opening Sky. Lately several people have told me I should read it, because it’s a well-written story but also because parts of it take place in the neighborhood where I live.

There’s a particular pleasure in reading a book that’s set in a place you know. I thought about this recently after re-reading Barbara Nickel’s poetry collection, Domain, in which several poems talk about the Saskatchewan town where she grew up and about her family’s house. I happen to be from the same town, and reading these poems brought me back there, to the way the place looked and felt in the ’70s when I was in elementary and junior high school.

That sense of familiarity is what first attracted me to the urban fantasy novels of Charles de Lint. Several of his novels from the ’80s and early ’90s are set in Ottawa, where I lived for a time. I also lived in Regina briefly, and that contributes to the pleasure I get from Gail Bowen’s mystery novels. I have grown to like both these writers for other reasons, too, but there’s still something about being able to instantly know the landscape, what the streets look like, what the weather’s like.

But there’s a bit of strangeness in the familiarity. Reading another writer’s take on a familiar place is different from simply remembering it. The experience is a bit like meeting someone for the first time and finding out they used to live five blocks from where you grew up. Someone else’s portrayal of a city or landscape can show you things you didn’t know; you get to see the place in a different light. You see possibilities for what could happen in that place.


Catherine Winkworth: the poetry of translation

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Catherine_WinkworthTranslating hymns is no small feat. This is what I’ve concluded after making a first attempt at translating German poetry. Besides conveying the sense of the text, you have to put into metrical form, ideally preserving the meter and rhyme of the original, and do it in a way that sounds good.

So I’ve really come to appreciate the work of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). She was a prolific translator of German chorales, including “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and “Now thank we all our God.” The accounts of her life that I’ve found so far are all rather brief, but all state unequivocally that she did more than anyone to bring the German chorale tradition to English-speaking churches, and that her translations are the most widely used of any from the German.

She was an educated woman who, in addition to her translation work, advocated for higher education for women. My guess is that her family was pretty well connected, since, according to one account, it was the German ambassador to England who introduced her to German hymnody. She published her first collection of hymn translations, Lyra Germanica Series 1, in 1854 or ’55, when she was still in her twenties. She followed with Series 2 in 1858.


One book leads to another

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

How do you decide what to read? This question came up at a lunch with friends recently, and once the subject started rolling around in my head I began finding other writers who had things to say about it. One friend sent me a link to this article from Brainpickings with excerpts from an essay by Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, and at a book sale I found Robertson Davies’ The Merry Heart, a collection of pieces on reading and writing. Brodsky’s essay talks about developing an educated taste as a means to help choose what to read. On the other hand, Davies, while certainly well-educated, acknowledges in his that he read “wanderingly, capriciously, following [his] own nose.”

Davies’ approach is pretty much how I read, much of the time. I’ll follow an interesting lead, and then one book leads to another. Last November, American poet, fiction writer and essayist Thomas Lynch gave a lecture in Winnipeg, and recommended reading Seamus Heaney. I began with Human Chain, Heaney’s last book, and ended up reading certain poems over and over. I also found Lazy Bastardism, a collection of essays by Carmine Starnino, which a friend had recently read. Both books happened to mention the name of Helen Vendler, the American critic, whom I knew almost nothing about. So I found one of her books, and through it have been introduced to poems I’d never read before by Plath, Keats, and others. And after reading Starnino’s essay on Robyn Sarah, I began reading her poetry and essays, too.

In following these associative trails, I find myself agreeing with both approaches to reading. Brodsky does make an important point in saying that unless readers find a way to educate their literary tastes, choosing what to read is simply too overwhelming. This is especially true if you want to move out of your habitual reading paths, which is where other people’s recommendations are helpful. On the other hand, Davies’ point is also true: it’s often the case that you don’t find books so much as they find you.

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.