Sunday, May 30, 2010

Writing Season

Sorry for my slow response to the updating of my blog recently but it is a busy time at work getting ready for end-of-the-year summatives. I also have to move everything out of my classroom for there is a major renovation happening at my school, the upshot of it all being I will have a classroom next year with windows. Natural light. I have taught high-school for a decade in what amounts to a box with fluorescent artificial lighting which, believe me, does wonders for one’s mood, and writing, in the dead of winter.

This Spring my wife and I have also been busy with outdoor gardening projects and planning for a basement renovation that is scheduled to begin next week, and, of course, June marks the beginning of my writing season.

Because I have two months off each summer, this is when the majority of my poems get written. My goal every summer is to write, at the very least, ten strong poems which is how my books get written.

If I write six or seven poems over the course of the school year, fine. But it is in the summer months that I make my bones as a writer because I can concentrate on my writing for several hours each day. When I have the luxury of time, I tend to read more and to take greater risks in my writing. I think most writers do.

This is all to say I am hoping to write more and post less in the next few months. Blogging is something I like to do in my writing down-time but not as a replacement for writing poems. I am still planning posts on Philip Levine, Dave Smith, Larry Levis, among others but these will appear more sporadically in the coming months. In the meantime, here is another picture of a prized broadside from my collection.



(W.S. Merwin’s “Returning Season” illustrated and designed by Dean Bornstein. Signed by Merwin. Size: 12.25 inches wide by 9.25 inches long. You can get your own copy here).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Griffin Awards 2010: Nationalism Is So Passé

With only a few short weeks left before the Griffin Poetry Prize Readings and the announcement of the winners in both the International and Canadian categories, I thought it apropos to write a post about its significance in the contemporary landscape of poetry awards and its impact on the public’s perception of poetry. For my money, the Griffin prize is recognized, at least amongst poets, as the most prestigious award a poet can be nominated for here in Canada, and not simply because of the large purse attached to it, or the red carpet gala parties, but because I would argue it is not a nationalist award at all, but an award that celebrates regionalism and internationalism in poetry.

This difference may appear slight but it is worthy of attention when, for instance, you place the Griffin Prize along side the Governor General's Awards. Where the Governor General's Awards have become an angry hornet’s nest of poetry commentators who every year decry the judge’s choices of nominated books – often hijacking the whole purpose of the award as a celebration of Canadian poetry, and turning it into a public spitting match involving self-righteousness and victimhood, indignation and insult – the minor eddies and ripples the Griffin Prize stir up are quite tame in comparison.

As for a clear explanation for why these awards are received so differently by our own community of writers, I do have some ideas.

Canadian poetry is regionalist at its very core; it grows out of a particular geography, a definitive sense of place, but because our country is so vast, and the people and the landscape so different from region to region, one poet’s native soil is not the same as another’s. Certainly, the early poetry of Canada is regionalist in nature, but population trends have changed over the last fifty years. Huge numbers of poets live in major urban centers now, and as their ties to the outlying places, smaller communities, where they grew up begin to diminish, so too does the regionalist impulse in their poems.

Other poets who have lived their entire lives in big cities have been conditioned by their own psychological makeup and relationship to place that nature poetry, for instance, is trivial, or rural motifs are anachronistic, because it does not speak directly to their own experience, or how they perceive reality to be.

This is by no means a criticism but it does explain why poets in urban centers appear more self-conscious of themselves as poets, and thus place form over content, standards of selection over subject matter, and opt for the purely surface effect or set pattern over any coherence of feeling, or emotional discoveries, when judging the worth of a poem.

However, the problem arises when one tries to define the national imagination of our poetry. What constitutes excellence in Canadian Poetry? Aye, there is the rub.

Honestly, I do not think it is possible to identify the national imagination of our poetry, and in fact all such projects have failed in the past, for such a notion does not take into account that Canada is a country of many different regions that are geographically and culturally distinct from one another, so there is no one privileged standard of excellence we all agree upon.

Despite our shared history with England, Canadian English resembles more its Southern cousin American English. In his essay “Notes On Free Verse”, Stephen Dobyns explains that American English “has no model like Oxford-Cambridge English that rises above regional differences and imposes a consistent rhythm upon the language” (114). This is equally true here in Canada. So what does this have to do with the impact of The Governor General’s Awards and The Griffin Prize on our nation’s literature?

I would argue that The Governor General Awards is promoting an outdated, ill-conceived version of nationalism which is really only an elaborate ruse while The Griffin Prize is simply promoting excellence in poetry, both in Canada and abroad, thereby side-stepping the whole nationalism trap altogether. Nationalism, by its very nature, is a magnet for fundamentalism which is why it attracts the noise-mongers and the power-players in our community who are of the mistaken belief that if they can just win, whatever that means, they will have exercised some control over the nation’s tastes when, in reality, patterns of influence are much wider than that. Such persons can no more impose their tastes upon a country, or the canon for that matter, than King Canute could hold back the sea.

Frankly, this is why The Griffin Prize has it over the GGs. It is not attempting to lasso the Canadian poetic imagination. It is not seeking to posit one aesthetic stance over another. Its primary goal is the promotion of excellence in poetry, both in Canada and internationally, and bring it to the attention of the public. I think the international judging panel consisting of one Canadian judge and two Non-Canadians also helps to foster this image.

Where the Governor General’s Awards aim to define what is excellent in Canadian poetry by safely establishing its borders, which is a mug’s game if you ask me given our various geographical regions and multicultural make-up, the Griffin Prize looks at the whole global economy of poetry to find there are many types of excellence in poetry, and such excellence transcends the boundaries of different countries. If I had to define excellence in poetry, I would say it is very close to the definition given by Donald Hall in his essay “The Unsayable Said” where he asserts, “Poetry by its bodily, mental, and emotional complex educates the sensibility, thinking and feeling appropriately melded together” (5).

Perhaps this is a whole lot of words over two very different award ceremonies but this essay does seek to understand why so many friends of mine rub their heads and steel themselves at the mere announcement of the Governor General’s Awards shortlist and, by the same token, seem so much more cheerful and full of goodwill whilst standing in line for their tickets to the Griffin Readings. Poetry should be a celebration.

As for awards in general, the stakes are always small. They do not guarantee a career nor do they guarantee a continued readership. Speaking from my own personal history after winning several awards, and after being nominated for a whole host of others, awards are a fickle business. Luckily for us, poets do not write poems to win awards. My favorite poetry award, by far, is the Griffins Lifetime Achievement Award. A lifetime of writing poetry? Yes, that is something worth celebrating.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Linda Gregg’s “A Thirst Against”

I received the latest issue of Poetry Northwest last week which to my delight had three new poems by Linda Gregg nestled amidst its table of contents. This was fortuitous as I had already been thinking about writing a blog post about her poems for the last several months. My favorite poem from the new issue is about the poet Jack Gilbert and I have copied it out in full below:

Love Song

Jack is weakening day by day.
I saw him on the other side
of a river climbing out.
Almost naked. His underpants
stuck to his body.
Doing this by himself.
I carried his once perfect
body up the bank
to a new kind of safety.
He was cold. He was alive
by will and passion.
And the intelligent animal
he is. Light overhead.
Not our favorite kind.
I thought at the end of his list
of reasons was wanting
not to leave me alone, knowing
the not being here anymore.


Everything that matters in Linda Gregg’s poetry—the ecstatic beauty, the dramatic loss, and quiet restrained language–all are found in these lines. I remember having a discussion with another poet friend in Waterloo several years ago about Linda Gregg. I was of the mind that she was a tremendous poet while my friend was skeptical about her overall worth as if her poems were “all singing but no song”.

I imagine Gregg’s poetry has inspired this kind of debate throughout her long career: on the one hand there are those who champion her personal poems interwoven with Greek and Classical references as large-minded inquiries into the nature of experience, while on the other side there are those who put forward the counter claim that such stripped-down language, personal revelations and literary allusions are the stock and trade of a poet who is simply affecting a voice. A sort of poetic ventriloquism.

For myself, I think her poetry, the way it sets its own philosophical demands in relief against the simple diction of its highly compressed sentences, some of them no more than mere fragments or phrases, courts such debate purposefully. Take for instance, her well known poem "A Thirst Against" which can be found in All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems published by Graywolf Press in 2008.

A Thirst Against

There is a hunger for order,
but a thirst against. What if
every time a flower forms in the mind,
something gives it away to time?
Leaf by petal, by leaf. As if the soul
were a blotter of this world—
of the greater, the wetter, the more
tired, the more torn. All singing,
but no song. Hamlet darker than night.
And poor Ophelia less than the flowers
she wore. Both lost. One dead,
the other to follow soon.
One too heavy, one too frail.
Both finding themselves among the fallen.
Each time I think, it is here
that God lives. Right around here,
in this terrible, ruined place
with streets made desolate by neon,
in midwinter and freezing winds.
In these Chicago avenues.

To my mind, this is a poem that carefully demonstrates the large ambition and enigmatic qualities found in all of Gregg’s best poems. In the opening lines, the poet acknowledges the self seeks connection with the world but, at the same time, is deeply suspicious of order because the countervailing tension that arises between these two modes of thinking creates spaces within a poem, and by extension our lives, where one may find transcendence amid the ordinary.

In her essay, Staying News: A Defense of the Lyric, Joan Aleshire mentions how the Greek lyric poet Pindar prized a quality called Kairos in poetry, or the ability to set “opposite points of view against one another before making a summation or resolution” (37). Gregg’s attempts at reconciling opposites places her in this same tradition which gives her poem its authority and propulsive force.

The poem as I see it becomes a justification for the way we live and experience our lives. We seek connections with the world, with something larger than ourselves, even when it seems futile to do so, for Gregg seems to be asking what other choice are we given? She proposes at the beginning of the poem:


What if
every time a flower forms in the mind,
something gives it away to time?
Leaf by petal, by leaf. As if the soul
were a blotter of this world—
of the greater, the wetter, the more
tired, the more torn. All singing,
but no song.

Here, the question posed is what if we are simply the sum of our thoughts and there is no higher purpose to our lives? What if our life’s experience is in fact “all singing, / but no song”? The next section of the poem answers this question by darkly alluding to Hamlet and Ophelia, two beloved characters who came to the conclusion that life was essentially for naught and their oppressive thoughts led to much personal suffering and tragic consequences for both of them.

Hamlet darker than night.
And poor Ophelia less than the flowers
she wore. Both lost. One dead,
the other to follow soon.
One too heavy, one too frail.
Both finding themselves among the fallen.

If we are not to find ourselves among the fallen, we need to believe in or serve some higher purpose within our lives, even if that means the great looming despair that surrounds our certain extinction and likely insignificance meets us at every turn. The ending of Gregg’s poem seems to underscore this idea for the reader:

Each time I think, it is here
that God lives. Right around here,
in this terrible, ruined place
with streets made desolate by neon,
in midwinter and freezing winds.
In these Chicago avenues.

It seems, for Gregg, God is in the details but so too is the awful insufferable fear none of us will be redeemed. If you like Linda Gregg’s poem "A Thirst Against", you can find it in her book All of It Singing: New and Selected poems published by Graywolf Press.