Sunday, 1 March 2015

Sunday Poem

GHOSTS: A RUINED VILLANELLE 
As if I have to watch you
A thousand times a day
Moving away from me, moving away from me, moving away 
Construction workers in bright vests, grey
Boots, hard hats in orange, white, blue
And every one of them is who 
You were—a young man—new
Dreams in his speech, all his movements, play
Moving away from me, moving away from me, moving away 
Putting in the hard hours, taking home his small pay,
Slow to admit he's still uncertain what to do
And every one of them is who 
You felt and didn't feel yourself to be: crude,
Beautiful, beyond whatever they could say
Yes, every one (every last one) of them is you
Moving away from me, moving away from me, moving away
From Designated Mourner (ECW Press, 2014) by Catherine Owen

("X-Men at Union" by Stephen Andrews)

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Metaphorically Speaking


Eavan Boland doesn't like similes:
I've come to think of them as if they were like the appendix in the body, which is said to be an outdated physical part. In that way, similes seem to me outdated. They migrated from epic structures, and the great old similes in those epics were communally accepted in a way they never could be now. When Virgil says in the Aeneid that the young dead are lying on the bank of the river like the birds that fly from the warmth to the cold, it's obvious that nobody listening could have known what the underworld looked like. But everybody in Mantua must have known what those birds looked like. In poetry, with all its progressions, we're no longer always able to avail of those communal buy-ins. That poem "As" is intended as some kind of a critique of how we use similes.

I think of metaphor in a different way. Maybe like this, to give an example: Just supposing you and I went into a room. We're anxious to see a person there that we'd known as a teacher who was important to us. Someone we looked to as knowledgeable and exemplary. So we go to this plainly furnished room. There's not much furniture except a table and chairs and a beautiful old bowl that has a crack in it. The person we've come to see is there and we begin the conversation. But as it goes on, we start to notice things. The person is forgetful, is losing key words and names, doesn't remember what we shared with them. We begin to realize that some part of the core of this personality is impaired. But we have no way of exchanging that knowledge. We can hardly access it ourselves. And then we look at the crack in the beautiful bowl. Just for that moment it carries the meaning for us, when we ourselves are only starting to process it. That I think is the power of metaphor. It works through revealed meaning, not meaning created through comparison like the simile. I think of metaphor as essential, in a way I don't think simile can be.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Re-Emergence of the Past


A Twitter discussion led Clive Thompson to take a closer look at Sara Teasdale's poetry:
Teasdale is like a remix of Tennyson and Robert Frost, obsessed with death and what the specter of nonexistence means to our earthly life, yet still slightly carrying the courtly/mawkish airs of Victorian poetry. One of the more intense sections of Flame and Shadow is an eight-poem sequence called “In a Hospital”, which is pretty clearly drawn from Teasdale’s own grim experiences of being serially hospitalized. One of the poems is bluntly called “Pain”; another compares her body to a broken field ploughed by agonies; “The Unseen” describes Death itself corporeal, drifting quietly through the corridors of the hospital, unseen by the nurses.

There are also quite a few poems devoted to war and its ravages, which makes sense when you realize she probably wrote most of these during World War I — the most brutal, horrific opera of death the planet had yet seen, when the new technologies of the tank, the machine gun and poison gas pioneered slaughter on an industrialized scale. Once I’d read and pondered these other influences on her life, “There Will Come Soft Rains” takes on a bunch of new shadings. Teasdale is clearly talking about the War, but she’s also thinking of her own war—her body against itself, the erasure that was coming when disease wore her down and the world went on without her.
Thompson muses on what his discovery of Teasdale says about how the internet has altered his reading habits:
Before the global information highway came along, I didn’t really have any easy way to stumble on Teasdale’s work. Hell, I’d half suspected she was a fiction of Ray Bradbury for decades. Now that I can look things up and scratch any itch of curiosity, I get led down some wonderful rabbit holes. But the deepest rabbit holes, I notice, have been in works of literature that are out of copyright—i.e. published before 1923—because they’re all there, not just in “snippet” format but the whole gorgeous lovely works, waiting to be read the moment I become interested.

So in the last few years, I’ve found my reading list is tilting more and more heavily to pre-1923 works. One night I stumbled across a mention of the 1706 book The Art of Memory, a wonderful description of ancient memory techniques by Marius D’Assigny. I discovered, hey,it was all there on Google Books, so I downloaded and read it. I heard about Wired Love, an awesome 19th-century novel about a woman telegraph operator who falls in love over the wires, and read that too. Last week I noticed a footnote in a book that mentioned a 1916 magazine article that claimed rural women were becoming so besotted with driving their newfangled automobiles that they were neglecting their hens. Whaddya know: That was online in full-text too.

Consider this one of the unanticipated pleasures of our modern age: The re-emergence of the past.

O Canada


Colin Coates mourns the slow death of Canadian studies:
The world of Canadian Studies, which according to the International Council for Canadian Studies includes some 7,000 scholars in 70 countries, is facing difficult times. Strangely enough, one of its chief opponents seems to be our own government. Since the 1970s successive Liberal and Progressive Conservative federal governments, along with various provincial governments, have supported the principle that targeted funding can enhance the profile of Canadian issues in academic institutions abroad. Most of the time, those governments respected the values of academic freedom, believing that scholars could research and teach about the country without attempting to control what they did. But recently, the current Canadian government has decided that it will no longer support such work.

In 2012, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), under the leadership of former Minister John Baird, entirely cancelled the “Understanding Canada” programme that cost $5 million a year, approximately 14 cents per Canadian. This programme funded academic activities abroad, helping to provide salaries for the administrators of some of the older and larger national associations (the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States, the British Association for Canadian Studies and the Association française d’études canadiennes), subsidise scholarly conferences and publications, provide research grants, and in a few cases contribute to academic salaries of a few individuals appointed to teach about Canada.

Did such funds make a difference? To take an example I know fairly well, I can assure you that without external funding NOT A SINGLE academic in the United Kingdom would be hired to teach about Canada. Of course, many UK-based scholars may choose to teach and research about Canada—but NOT A SINGLE post throughout the entire sector would be attributed solely to the study of Canada. And it should not be hard to make a case, given immigration, cultural and economic links, for at least some British universities to hire a Canadian specialist. But the importance of Canada pales in comparison to the reasonable desire in the UK to focus on other parts of the world. It is easy to take Canada for granted.
(Painting by Nora MacPhail.)

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Back to Life


Years of sitting while finishing her 2010 novel Annabel took an unexpected toll on Kathleen Winter: her legs gave out. She decided the best remedy—for both her body and her writing—was to start moving again:
I knew about ideas coming when you get up from your desk. Annabel would still be a dead manuscript under the bed if I hadn’t budged to make soup or take a shower or walk to the café. The most important metaphors and plot developments and the novel’s deepest psychological structures came to me “out of the blue” when I escaped from my desk. I’d made those escapes as last resorts, when sitting and thinking had brought me to the end of my tether. But now, trying to keep moving to heal my ruined legs, I realized movement might be my new first line of action as a writer: I could write with the body.

I’ve always known writers walked. One of my favourite books is Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, in which Dorothy and her brother cover hundreds of miles of heath before collapsing to devour boiled eggs or meat pie against boulders. So I started using every hour of daylight as my personal body-writing time. When November hit and I took out my Seasonal Affective Disorder lamp as I always do in order not to become marrow-deep dismal, I realized I didn’t need it anymore: striding around the riverbank and the city streets in the daylight hours means I have so many ideas gifted to me by the light and the environs that all I have to do is spend an hour or so standing up at home in the night, scribbling it all down. My legs, after months of this, have come back to life.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Happiness of Influence


Chad Campbell writes about six books of poetry that helped shape his debut Laws & Locks. (Read his interview here.)

1. Circadian—Joanna Klink: Penguin, 2007

Joanna Klink is stellar. The poems in Circadian limn a borderland between sense and sense impression; a series of maps that trace loss and intimacy equally through the winter landscapes of this beautiful collection. Unabashed and sonorous lyrics, the book is pure tonic.

2. Civil Elegies—Dennis Lee: Anansi, 1972

If the angel of history lost its wings and went for a walk in the wreckage left behind it, you might get something like Lee’s Civil Elegies. Tonally brilliant, this book, to me, is Lee at his most furious and vulnerable. Think the Canadian Heritage commercial version of Prufrock, but better. Even if I hadn’t grown up on Alligator Pie, I’d find this work irresistible.

3. Crow—Ted Hughes: Faber & Faber, 1970

“Imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it…turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic”, Hughes once advised. Here, in Crow, I think we see him perform his own best magic—a lucid re-envisioning of the crow into which Hughes pours his preoccupations with myth, sex, and violence in a fallen world. Not to mention the rich, rhythmic textures of the work. It’s like watching a pot of oil boil.

4. Elegy—Larry Levis: University of Pittsburg Press, 1997

Edited posthumously on Levis’ behalf by longtime friend and mentor Philip Levine, Elegy is a masterwork. Like Roethke’s Far Field, here you get the sense of a poet achieving the formal and thematic concerns they hunted for a lifetime—the result is stunning. A touchstone of a book.

5. Land to Light On—Dionne Brand: McClelland & Stewart, 1997

In terms of a poet with something to say, and a way to say it that matches, poem in and poem out, the vehemence of that something, Brand’s Land to Light On is a knockout. At once a scathing account of a continued history of racism in Canada and a refusal to settle for anything less than a fully chosen and lived identity, the book always reminds me that just as it uplifts, poetry can indict.

6. Four Quartets—T.S. Eliot: Faber & Faber, 1943

Take or leave the philosophy, Eliot’s Four Quartets is, to my mind, a tremendous performance. When you see one of those evolution of dance videos, that’s how I feel about this work—Eliot links so many of poetry’s roots in this sequence: lullaby, incantation, prayer, a dizzying combinations of meters. The shifts, formally speaking, are stunning. Not to mention the feel of relinquishment in the work, a coming to terms, as best a person can, with the prospect of death, and the terms and conditions of posterity.

Ice Cream Poetics


In conversation with Laura Bast, Molly Peacock tries to define the "Canadianness" of her new book Alphabetique:
MP: Why would you call this book “Canadian”? Other than the fact that it was written in Canada. I think you could call it Canadian because of the contract with the reader. There’s a certain faith on the part of Canadians that the writer is going to lead the reader somewhere. This is opposed to the quick culture in the United States. In the quick culture, if you don’t see what the author intends immediately, you don’t have time to stop and find out. A reader’s reaction can almost be anger at that.

LB: Where do you think that difference comes from?

MP: How about an ice cream analogy? In New York, the number of brands and flavours of ice cream in a supermarket will be extravagant. Here, the economy doesn’t support the terrifying multiplicity of that variety. A person doesn’t have so much pressure on the choice button. So what has really interested me is that the reviewers of Alphabetique got it right away. Because there isn’t the same kind of pressure, because they had time to process this unusual, beautifully illustrated abecedarian book for adults.
(Painting by Wayne Thiebaud.)