Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sue Sinclair "On Criticism"


The Canadian poet Sue Sinclair is this year’s Critic in Residence for CWILA or Canadian Women in the Literary Arts and she has written a compelling essay entitled “A Philosophy of Criticism”. She suggests a critic is someone who invites others to consider a work under review, rather than a person who is simply an arbiter of taste. In the essay, she discusses the need for longer format reviews which quote liberally from any book under consideration so readers can actively engage with the writing, make their own judgements as to whether or not they agree with the critic, and thus not be consigned to the lesser role of spectators.

Here is an excerpt: 

"I see the critic as someone who serves both past readers of the work and its possible future readers, as well as the writer. In a sense the critic also serves the artwork in that she takes up its invitation, engages with it. But it’s the writer I’d like to focus on for a moment. Some people think that the critic is not there to serve the writer in any capacity. But given that the writer, if he reads a review of his work, will likely be more affected by it than anyone else, I think it behooves the reviewer to consider the effect she may have on him. Some think that the writer is best served in just the way the reader is: by the critic’s truthful response. I agree. But there are different ways of telling the truth: it can be done indifferently, it can be done as a slap in the face, or it can be done kindly and with a—perhaps implicit—acknowledgement of the effort that every writer brings to their work. My experience is that the first two approaches can hamper or harm the writer and that the last one can help the writer to rise to the difficult occasion of public criticism. Not everyone thinks that truthfulness and kindness can coexist. Creating the space in which they can coexist is difficult, but I’ve seen it done. And I’m for the challenge. It’s work taking on."

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Time Matters


     If metaphor is consciousness making a connection between two disparate things, time is consciousness building a connecting line between what has happened, what is occurring now, and what is to come in the future.

     In his essay entitled “To Think of Time”, David Baker maintains time is, “an immaterial measurement of the relationships of material substances; and – this is important – it is an entity wholly of our own making”(235). I think most lyric poets already have some a priori understanding of how time permeates a poem, and choose to manipulate time for their own uses.

     I would imagine it has something to do with all poetry having a sense of line or measure, and if time is anything, it is a measure of our lives. But when poets bend or twist or rearrange time inside their poems, time no longer enacts a true chronology, does it?  Time, in fact, begins to look a lot like metaphor.

     This is because how time acts upon us, and how time is organized inside a poem are two different things. The former is a product of rational discursive thought processes, the left-brain thinking, patterning empirical information, creating a chain of events in chronological order, helping us to make sense of what we see, while the latter explains what the imagination sees; it is a consequence of right-brain thinking. Time is tamped down, stretched out, cut apart, and knotted together in just such a way to evoke a particular emotion or idea or image.

     The one is a measure of matter; the other an instrument of revelation.

     In poetry, why this is stems from a feeling time does not play fair, or in some way steals from us. Although a useful survival and patterning tool in our daily lives, time in literature most often reprises the role of the barbarian horde at the gate, which is to say a sinister force we cannot hope to withstand. Check out a poem like “Sonnet 64” by William Shakespeare that takes as its subject time’s onslaught, and the existential terror this provokes:

When I have seen by Time’s felled hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outward buried days,
When sometimes lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.”

In this poem, the speaker bears witness to time as a destroyer of worlds. Time is cast as the main villain who “will come and take my love away”, leaving the speaker to despair that nothing of value, not beauty, not civilization, not even art has lasting significance. This, of course, is a much played-on theme in poetry, and so does not require too much bearing out, but it does high-light the emotional turmoil time creates when it is viewed exclusively as a material measurement. If time leads us only to our graves, what are poets to do?

     The answer seems to be to step outside the normal flow of time by changing how time works inside a poem. As an instrument, or a product of the imagination, time mimics two processes vital to lyric poetry: myth-making and metaphor. In his essay “To Fashion the Transitory”, the late American poet Hayden Carruth argues,

“Because men and women exist both in and out of time, they possess against time’s depredations, an existential advantage that is unique (discounting angels): the abilities to remember and to dream. By these means they create their own time”(20).

The obvious question here is, what does it mean to create one’s own time? Well, by allowing the imagination to dream, to remember, to draw up from the great repository of our memories, to make its own connections, new possibilities and new understandings are created which make life more meaningful. Or as Carruth himself so eloquently puts it in his essay, “life is fabulous, and in the individual experiences of it the great events are enacted again and again, so that meaning is perpetually reinforced”(21).

     This is myth-making in its plainest form. Time in poetry is not a linear graph, or a straight chronology, but a kind of personal map: one that reveals not the territory, but the person holding it. This is why the meditative poet finds himself thinking about a time he ate a wormy crap-apple off of a black skeletal tree on a lonely hill when he was eight years old, or the lyric poet remembers a half-forgotten incident from her university days which, twenty years later, appears suddenly charged with meaning.

     The imagination recognizes time does not simply deteriorate; it resonates too.

     It is this apprehension of past, present, and indeed a possible future, all bound in a single moment, which reveals precisely how time resembles metaphor. Poets connect image A with image B, or mix some half-veiled distant memory with the now of a particular poem in an attempt to muster new knowledge. Both are examples of metaphorical thinking.

     Lyric time, or the poet’s time, is the theme of Tess Gallagher’s essay “The Poem as Time Machine” where she considers an argument that poets fold memory and the present moment in on each other because it generates rich creative possibilities. She writes,

“This conception of time as an atmosphere, as the ‘now’ of the poem, which Paz calls ‘the Historical Now’ or ‘the Archetypal Now’ is what I would like to call ‘the point of all possibilities.’ By this I mean the point at which anything that has happened to me, or any past that I can encourage to enrich my own vision, is allowed to intersect with a present moment, as in a creation, as in a poem. And its regrets or expectations or failures or any supposition I can bring to it may give significance to this moment that is the language moving in and out of my life and my life as it meets and enters the lives of others”(107).

Is time the atmosphere of a poem?  A point of possibilities? For many poets, I think it is, albeit it is not so easy to reconcile the past with the present moment, or for the matter, the next moment about to be born.

     An example of a Canadian poet who merges past and present, time and metaphor, is Alex Boyd in his latest collection The Least Important Man. See what Boyd does with time in his poem “Someday the Men with Hats Will Go”, and notice how time ripples back and forth between present, past and future:

Someday the Men with Hats Will Go


Someday all the old men in hats will go,
they already slow motion down streetcar steps
the forties, cigarettes, black and white wars
swimming behind them. They line up patiently
to get last passports in offices, wait behind youth.
They take receipts, pause to leak out the words
All the best to you, and step into oblivion.
I look for something different all the way home.
The snow is tired, deep in contours of the brain,
finally now evaporating to liquid, so much theft
a natural part of the world – the fact that I have
my father’s eyes, my body the next edition,
walking the earth in different places, impure
from smoke that went from his lungs to mine
before he quit in 1977, another detail I wrote
down after another dinner with him. This spring
my father will be seventy-four, yet another step
higher on the ladder and I cannot tell you
how much I am afraid of that red day, unlike
any other, when I’ll sail along rails alone,
when he evaporates, when both of them
will be gone, my voice or ankle part of a model
with no origin, the factory now demolished.
What will be left, but some kind of liquid dream,
the hope of knowing a father again, the two of us
back as birches. No more distances, I want
many long thin fingers in winter, holding his.

By Alex Boyd

This poem begins with a speaker observing old men in a passport office, which sets him thinking about loss and his own childhood memories of a father smoking. Next, he rushes off into the future, and speculates about an afterlife where both he and his father exist only as trees. It is a meditative poem, a personal myth, making loss palpable and, paradoxically, life more tolerable.

     Boyd’s poem reminds me of another essay entitled “Meditative Spaces” by Eric Pankey for it exemplifies what Pankey says is a primary function of meditative poetry: a preoccupation with shaping time. He writes:

“The meditative mode attempts to slow time down, to hold it still, to condense it or stretch it or twist it, without diminishing its vitality or preciousness. The gradations of time hot-wired into the medium of language allow the now, the then, and the to be to be put under the greatest pressure.

The meditative poet is not so much interested in rendering sequential experience, but in attending to the past, the present, and the conditional future as if a trinity embodied as one, as if a single moment, a single point on a plane”(145).

Time as the single moment, or single point on a plane, is the same “point of possibilities” Gallagher mentions, and Boyd uses this idea to trigger his metaphorical thinking.

     In another of Alex Boyd’s poems “For One Second at Midnight”, time is not simply the engine the words of the poem flow through, it is also the main theme. In it, Boyd emphasizes time by weaving a number of images into “a second” of his reader’s life.

For One Second at Midnight


You’re in a doorway between houses, able to spot
the slurries that hold it all together, only able
to say Um, only now aware at this time the dead
tie a thin rope to everything, and pull. The second
has a particular grain, clear as crystal we might say,
if we thought to say it. For a second at midnight
anything is possible – you dated the cheerleader
or the quarterback, and pigeons know everything.
It’s a window of opportunity, full
of luck, death and spirits – all superstitions are true
for a second, but few know that’s the moment
to blow out your birthday cake, or throw salt over
the devil on your shoulder. As for me, for a second
I came close to inventing the device you wear over
your throat to call in sick and sound like hell, no need
to see office supplies at least one day. For a second
at midnight the world is like someone right in front
of you who stops walking, turns, laughing, lighting up,
but then gives a shit about getting out of your way.

By Alex Boyd

This poem crushes past, present, and future all into one second after midnight where “anything is possible”. Things exist both in and out of time. The reader is reading the poem in real-time, or as time happens, but is also experiencing the poem’s time, or time as a measure of the imagination. The speaker calls this paradox “a doorway between houses” from which images emerge to make sense of a single moment, and if we are lucky enough, to change it.

     What is most interesting to me about metaphor and time is how they are, at once, a measure of change, fashioned from the fleeting nature of our lives, and yet simultaneously, both are products of our invention. To my mind, Canadian poet Alex Boyd blends time and metaphor with great fluency so they illuminate each other. If you enjoyed Alex Boyd’s poems, seek out The Least Important Man by Biblioasis Press at your local bookstore.