Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Here's a lovely poem by my dear friend David Scott who passed away suddenly earlier this month. Friends and family rejoice in the life he led and the love he showed to us all.
Morning Coffee
Clear as water,
Dying, being born, always.

What was it you asked me this morning?
Coffee, toast, teetering on our knees.
Yellow headed blackbird singing
Somewhere in the marsh beyond the trees.

The nonhuman informs the human,
Filled as we are with the reality of the other,
Why not rest an elbow on the moon,
Or bathe our many eyed bodies
In the wild yellow firepots of the sun?

What was it you asked me this morning?
Something about death,
Something about dried leaves?
Pale blue of the spring sky exquisite;
Slow unfurling of the new, green leaves.
Bright grass shooting up through dead yellow.
Run off water dank and fertile beneath the trees.

The reality of Death comes in its own time;
Its thought has no substance, no body.
Coffee, on the other hand, is delicious,
Filling the mouth with the taste of earth,
The taste of flowers.

And that wren singing in the poplars,
Tiny. Fierce. Wild.
Who knows what she’s up to?
Puffing herself up, throwing out trill notes,
As if she were the original, the primal being,
And you and I shadow figures
In the roaring of her throaty dream.
by D.W.E Scott

Friday, December 28, 2012

Two reviews...

Peter Sanger, John Stokes’ Horse (Gaspereau Press, 2011) Paper, 123 pp., $21.95

A dead giveaway a book of poems is not working is the struggle to return to it after only a few passes. My specific difficulty with Peter Sanger’s John Stokes' Horse stems from his failure to live up to the expectations he sets up in poems. “Don’t pity this dreamer,” he says in the opening of “The Green Knight”, “He might be digging/his grave while a grave/executioner standing/beside him tests/a blade against air. But no-one stands beside him.” It’s a riveting image this executioner poised with his blade above the poem’s main figure, conjured up from an imagination that becomes softly ironic, strewing our path with images of flowers in the midst of impending death:

chrysanthemum petals/spilled onto
his hands while silk
is unfolding,
untarnished, unstained, uncovering…

We are, in effect, set up for a deepening, possibly larger, ironic twist, of the poem’s drama and its theme. It never comes. We’re left with lovely images and the undeniable tenderness of the poem’s execution without any resolution of the enormous interest generated in the fate of the poem’s principal subject. Instead, we end up with something decidedly less interesting:

greeness, phosphorescent
as plankton, a voice
saying this
is the final chrysalis.

I’d like to suggest that nothing is “final” until both the poet and reader say so. The same lack of finish that occurs here occurs elsewhere in Sanger’s poetry. In “Gardener”, for example, we’re never entirely satisfied with Sanger’s elegy to a dead friend because Sanger’s memory of her never transforms into someone who, for a moment at least, is dear to us as well. What we’re left with (paradoxically) is the requisite detachment that too often crosses our desks of a poetry that believes words alone, without intention or purpose towards its readers, are enough. They aren’t.

In this instance, it’s all the more regrettable because of Peter Sanger’s clear ability to give us the full content of his thought when he is determined to do so. “November Blossom” is a perfect example of this, one of the best poems in the Imagist tradition that I’ve read in some time.

November is like. Rattle
of leaves in fall
is like nothing so much as
rattle of leaves in fall

or the strange bird in spring, buff
breast, blue back, cheek patch
yellow, perched in a glaze
of sky and earth.

I love Sanger’s direct assault upon our notion of metaphor at the outset of the poem, positing the limitations of simile in the opening line “Nothing is like.” The paradox is that Sanger then  juxtaposes colour and rhythm to stretch the powers of metaphor so successfully that we do indeed feel as if we are in the presence of the thing the poet is trying capture. Conjuring up fully resonant images is not just the province of painters, Sanger seems to say, but the rightful territory of poets, too. Work swiftly, work methodically, “Cast it off,” Sanger enjoins the would-be drawer of birds, and Hey, if that’s not enough let me show how a bird can actually come to life, this time in verse:

Cast it off

to fly among blossom,
three blossoms and two, painted
by brush strokes like raindrops,
tipped pink into plum,

where all through winter
it rides its weight
up by down, empty
on one sprig of air.

The reader can see the bird, better still can feel the bird tripping from branch to branch in a way only possible in poetry. It is the best poem of the lot because it is a complete poem and only complete because Sanger commits himself fully to an act of perfect verisimilitude. If nothing else Sanger deserves our support for this poem alone. More please.

John Wall Barger, Hummingbird (Kingsville: Palimpsest, 2012). Paperbound, 75pp., $18. 

Anyone who writes with the flourish and intensity of John Wall Barger deserves to be read and re-read. His ability to linger over a scene, to ruminate over its history and give himself over to the poetic impulse is complete and genuine. That capacity reaches its apex in the title poem of Hummingbird, a wild subterranean journey into the underbelly of modern Mexico that takes as its model similar descents in the works of Homer, Virgil and Dante:
…I turn to face Octavio Paz,
eyes broad & generous, he takes
my hand – where are we going? I ask,
he smiles, leads me back to market,
now a blueprint of hell, mobs of urban nomads,
lawyers, fishermen, scabby-headed urchins
converge on a man in a straw costume
panting, bleeding at the mouth…

Barger not only asks questions, but in the intemperate fashion of Dante and Virgil before him tries to participate in the assault unfolding before him, only to be held back by his guide on the journey, the much loved Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Unlike his predecessors, however, Paz remains silent and promises nothing beyond what other artists, Seamus Heaney and the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, among them, are pleased to teach Barger going forward.  No idealized Beatrice or souls of the dead await John Wall Barger by journey’s end, only a communion with great poets there to invigorate Barger’s art:

…blind Akhmatova, powerhouse
            bandaged in alpaca, with cane & jar
ploughs her way through these sleepwalkers,
I sing with her of firedogs, blindfolded horses

Together  Barger and Akhmatova “sing arm in arm of auguries/dead friends” until

            exposed, I wake outside my spiral shell
into my real life, the one that’s been waiting
on the El Rosario where slain warriors
return as hummingbirds, where this world
touches the other…

The swell and roll of images, permeating and driving the poem forward, remind me a little of Lowry’s Under the Volcano (also referenced in the poem), a drunken immersion in the chaos of modern Mexico that doesn’t hesitate to link Mexican culture and deadly contemporary politics - witness Barger’s encounter with a murdered Mexican in the street “sneakers blown/off, fly down, temple gashed, eyes open/stomach soft as a broken wing.” Barger’s poem is effective because of its commitment to the brutality of images and to a carefully conceived rhythmic strategy that meshes with that brutality. Comparatively short lines, enjambments and deep indents drive the poetry forward, give it a wonderful immediacy borne up by an abiding, fearful curiosity very much in keeping with Barger’s predecessors and the subterranean narrative tradition out of which he is writing. A fascinating poem, and well worth the journey.


(Edited verisons of these reviews originally appeared in The Malahat Review, October 23, 2012)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

I'm rather flattered by Shane's response on the subject of blogs, but I agree with much that Jacob had to say, too. Blogging's a slog when you have to produce something of value each week to an uncertain audience. Reviews seldom generate a response, unless they come with a crashing thumbs down, in which case the poet's friends are sure to chip in.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Louise Glück: American Poetry's "Silent Soldier"

There’s a moment in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (Ecco, 1994) when Louise Glück describes her father’s decision not to become a writer; Daniel Glück lacked, she writes, “the adamant need which makes it possible to ensure every form of failure: the humiliation of being overlooked, the humiliation of being found moderately interesting, the unanswerable fear of doing work that, in the end, really isn’t more than moderately interesting.”

Glück herself understood from the beginning the stakes were that high, the risks vertiginous; over the years her desire to prevail has become apparent in the fierceness of her own writing and in the measures she’s used to gauge her progress. From the age of “four or five or six” the poets Glück read were “my companions, my predecessors.” “When, as a child, I read Shakespeare’s songs, or later, Blake and Yeats and Keats and Eliot, I did not feel exiled, marginal. I felt, rather, that this was the tradition of my language: my tradition, as English was my language. My Inheritance. My wealth.”

The disposition of that wealth has been fairly consistent ever since. Across ten poetry titles Glück’s poetry has been routinely singled out for its chthonic power, spare lyricism, and iron loyalty to poetry as a particular way of understanding and expressing the world. Glück’s luminous, occasionally abrasive devotion to the lyric is only outdone by a seemingly congenital instinct to quarrel with her earlier impulses, a “swearing off” of her past work as a kind of subtle reproach to what she might be doing in the present. The key points of resistance are the ones you’d expect, the themes and “fundamental preoccupations” observed in a previous book of poems. “(Y)ou see as well the poems’ habitual gestures,” she writes, “those habits of syntax and vocabulary, the rhythmic signatures which, ideally, give the volume at hand its character but which it would be dangerous to repeat.”

Safer to repeat her objections to other people’s poetry, notably the finished rigidity in poems by Sharon Olds and Linda McCarriston, which Glück is at pains to avoid in her own poems. Glück dedicates herself to the idea that closure, thematic and aesthetic, weakens the poem and that the strongest poems defer fixed interpretation. This general openness is aided in turn by her sustained preference for the unsaid over exhaustive elaboration, by a partiality for silence. “I love white space, love the telling omission, love lacunae, and find oddly depressing that which seems to have left nothing out.”

Glück’s anxiety about closure and her emphasis on the role of silence in poetry are intimately linked to a third article of faith: that the human self, open to experience and constantly changing, constantly reinterpreting its own life narratives, remains the best material for writing great poetry. Where ordinary human beings habitually uncover, validate and reproduce habits of mind in their behaviour, the gifted poet undertakes a more signal, complex operation ending in self-redefinition: key assumptions about the self are upended, and along with them central assumptions underlying the art. If the poet is very lucky, her work changes, deepening and becoming more subtle.

Silence plays a pivotal role in that operation: no longer is it simply a technical strategy for withholding information from the poem, but a necessary condition for changes in the ground of the poet’s being that prepare her for the fresh poetic act:

“I began, thirty years ago, to chart periods of silence in the same way I dated my poems. And I have repeatedly seen silence end in speech. Moreover, the writing that begins after such a siege differs always from what went before and in ways I couldn’t through an act of will accomplish.”

A two year period of silence in the late 1960s stands out for the assault Glück felt upon her impulse towards poetry. In that time “of great panic and helplessness” she wrote nothing, she later tells graduates at Williams College; she could not remember “a time when I had been fully alive;” her “life seemed over.” Silence had been imposed upon her; she had not sought it out but in its sway her gifts, she felt, had atrophied. 

Eventually Glück would learn to draw silence closer to her, to help clear away the detritus of an earlier self and to make way for a new voice.

“...the long silence, like the silence in the valley
before the mountains send back
your own voice changed to the voice of nature.

This silence is my companion now.
I ask: of what did my soul die?
and the silence answers

If your soul died, whose life
are you living and
when did you become that person?

(From "Echoes, Averno, FSG, 2006)

Silence answers Glück’s question with a question, pressing her to better understand the shift towards a new self and its contents. If the past is dead, the silence seems to say, the demands of the present remain indefatigable.

The life and death debate around silence is cast in startlingly militaristic terms, the “siege” upon her sensibilities cited above and the “involuntary relinquishing of a self” that is all too reminiscent of the stripping away of self that occurs in marine boot camp. Conditions such as these are always imposed first upon the young. Sensing her personal authority under assault early on and her childhood eventually “closed to her”, Glück assumes the only posture remaining to her: she girds for war. Her mother, at best a failed ally, fortuitously “leaves her cross bow in the high grass”:

“A golden bow: a useful gift in wartime.

How heavy it was – no child could pick it up.

Except me: I could pick it up.” (33)

The Spartan tone, the long pauses between stanzas and the end stopped lines convey the quiet self-assurance required of the good soldier at a time of utmost engagement. War is hell, but it is also a metaphor: Glück’s bow converts into poetry, brandished over the years with precision and necessary ferocity, but like Excalibur producing other, more sanguine properties.

“…The bow
was now a harp, its strings cutting
deep into my palm. In the dream

it both makes the wound and seals the wound.” (33)

What softens the military analogy is Glück’s insistence that the changes within a poet’s life required to create anew cannot occur through an act of will. Learn despair instead, she tells us. Only through despair can a self emerge that “will not be willed back.” Moreover, “Flight from despair forfeits whatever benefit may arise in the encounter with despair.”

Like the bloodied and sometimes beaten general who returns from war, Glück’s last agony is for those going forward to fresh wars. “It is very strange to stand here, wishing you desolation,” she tells her Williams College graduates, but what succeeds the first gift of life is “the essential secondary gift of knowledge, a sense of the significance of the original gift, the scale of our privilege.”

Riding out into life poets dream of love and of a blessed future; returning, what remains is a gentler, more chastened understanding of the outer world as it engages, and so often clashes, with the inner world.

“To such endless impressions
We poets give ourselves absolutely,
Making, in silence, omen of mere event,
Until the world reflects the deepest needs of the soul.”

(From "Omens", Averno, FSG, 2006).
A collection of Louise Glück’s poetry is scheduled for release this fall.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Cracking open the poem...

This morning I am writing at my kitchen table. I am not wearing a speck of green. My coffee is the deep dark brown that one expects from a cup of Joe. With any luck the Guinness down at my local pub later today will be served up in the same way, minus that sickly hue akin to the colour of someone’s front lawn. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, a day like any other that will pass away at the stroke of midnight. May it come quickly.

St Patrick’s Day has always been one of those annoying observances mostly ignored by sensible Irish people. For the rest, the non-Irish, it’s a chance to assume the mantle of the more sanguine clichés about Irish heritage, from leprechauns to shillelaghs, without worrying too much about its darker side - the trauma of 1916, the Troubles in late century, the current state of Ireland’s rapidly dissipating economy.

But this morning other remembrances cause me to champ a little more tightly at the bit. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded that it was St. Patrick, after all, who in the 3rd century banned all references to Fionn mac Cumhail’s consumption of the salmon of wisdom conferring upon him “the three qualifications of a poet.* Fionn, as Caítlin Mathews tells us, was the original Irish nationalist who in 283 CE “defended the whole of Ireland rather than one tribe.” Get thee behind me, St. Patrick.

Fionn championed another tradition, “The Cracking Open of the Poem”, placing his thumb into his mouth as legend has it and intuiting all he needed to know. Divination and poetry are wedded together. The desire for greater knowledge – about a person or object or who should sit next on the throne – quickly gives way to beauty and drama. As when the unborn child of Fedlimid’s wife cries out from the womb, traumatizing his friends assembled for a party. The ancient druid, Cathbadh, lays a hand on her belly and then explains:

It is a woman who hath given that shriek,

Golden haired, with long tresses, and tall,

For whose love chieftains shall strive…

O Deirdruí! Thou art great cause of ruin;

Though famous, and fair and pale:

Before Fedlimid’s daughter shall part from life,

All Ulster shall wail her deeds.


*The Celtic Tradition by Caitlin Matthews, Element Books Ltd, Shaftsbury, 1989

Friday, March 9, 2012

Making it sing...

This week I asked four Canadian poets what advice they’d give young poets setting out in their craft and sullen art. Patrick Lane, Marilyn Bowering, Jason Guriel and Gary Geddes each had different takes on what it takes to craft a really fine poem.

Patrick Lane on daily practice

There are no hard and fast rules to the writing of a fine poem. There are no particular strategies unless the writer chooses to impose a structure such as the villanelle or sonnet offers, a pot to pour water into, a shape to hold words in place. There are choices, but for practice the good writer imposes them to learn how a poem is made: the short line of three to four words, the line of six or seven syllables, an insistence on end-stopped lines, the choosing of enjambed lines, and on and on. The writer chooses one or more of these in order to discipline himself.

In my writing retreats I talk about the need for what I call piano exercises. I tell the writers the story of the average piano teacher who begins to practice on her instrument when she is four or five years old and goes on with this daily practice for the next twenty years. When she is twenty-five years old she begins to teach children how to play the piano. She does this as an interpreter of other individual’s work. Thus far she or he has never composed an original piece of music.

The beginning poet begins with original work and largely ignores the work of the masters beyond the occasional cursory readings. I offer this as one of many practices: Let the poet begin each day by copying a master poem by Auden or Williams, MacEwen or Boland. Write the poem out slowly by hand with a pen and then type them out slowly, pausing a brief moment at the end of each line before going on. The traditional teaching of painting asked that young painters copy the works of the masters in order to learn the nuances of a single brush stroke, the movement of tinted water left by a moving brush.

I have stood in the Louvre in Paris and watched a young man struggle to get the skin tone on a dancer in a painting by Degas. So, too, the poet. Let the poet feel her or his way into a poem! It is one practice that can arise from the intense reading of great poems. Such daily work creates a second nature in the writer. Spend an hour a day for three months with Rachel Carson, Robert Hass, or Charles Simic, Ezra Pound or William Butler Yeats, Lorna Crozier or Tim Lilburn. We learn to write through the complex practice of reading ourselves through the templates of the masters to the blank page of our own poem.

Marilyn Bowering on formal study

I’ve noticed several changes in young poets in the last few years that have made me reconsider what I’d advise them. The most important is that all of us are accumulating a deep layer of language refuse from all the ‘noise’ in the air, and that it can take time and continuous gentle effort to work through this layer to find interesting words. Patient digging is required. Many drafts may be needed and this is often news to young poets.

Often the sincerity and depth of a potential poem will be evident in its shape and its effect on the young poet’s contemporaries (who have similar struggles) long before words with a ring of truth to them are present. Some young poets, for instance, can’t identify clichés because they don’t know there are alternatives. They need to have experiences that teach them to recognize such words. The remedies are obvious (e.g. reading poetry; practice editing poetry)—but the ‘poetry’ that matters to many beginners is in music, not on the written page.

One way to make the bridge from music to page is by recognizing that the ears of many young poets are not tuned to iambic metre but to the trochee. (Listen to contemporary independent songs and you should catch some of this.) This means that making links to formal poetry—which is essential at some point—is best done through those forms that are built with a strong initial stress and not through what (habitually) is thought of as the ‘more natural’ metres –those that rely on initial unstressed sounds . I find, for instance, that young poets can write Sapphics; and that they are comfortable with forms that use refrains (e.g. the rondeau).

The positive aspect of these changes is that these young poets are returning poetry to a musicality and memorability that had been neglected. It is important to say that if formal study is begun too soon young poets can find their trouble with finding words and meaningful thought patterns increasing, rather than decreasing. At the right point—which is once the poet has a reasonably secure sense of the ring of true words (words that actually match their intentions) in a line-- some formal study can help (paradoxically) with breaking limiting patterns. I’ve seen some really exciting new work come about this way.

I’m interested, at the moment, in the way in which formal study can also help with deepening content: briefly, I’d say that too many poets use formal verse as a way to exercise puzzle-muscle, and that there can be much more to it when the poet is alert to the implicit content of the form. Young poets, with their different ears, different handicaps and strengths, have the potential to regenerate contemporary poetry if we will help them by paying close attention to what it ‘is’ they are doing, as well as to what they are not.

Jason Guriel on metaphor

A good metaphor depends on a connection between tenor and vehicle that’s surprising (we didn’t anticipate it) but also logical (we could’ve anticipated it—if we’d had the poet’s vision). When a poet equates something vague, like the night, to something spectacularly specific and showy like

a bull

with six banderillas in its flank, a mad

wolverine caught in the corner and harassed

a dog stumbling in the last moments of rabies

we are bored because there was never a possibility for us to have come up with the bull, the wolverine, the dog. (The night is simply not like these things.) But when a different poet with better vision describes a “dark doorway” (a something with actual dimensions) as the “wall’s yawn,” we find ourselves awed because we could’ve come up with the connection!—but didn’t. Poets outside Elizabethan England should try to avoid vague tenors. Rather, they should pick something concrete, which the reader has seen a thousand times, and make her see it anew, with a surprising but logical comparison. Of course, this presumes the poet’s ability to see things anew in the first place.

Gary Geddes on lineation

After all these years of working with developing writers, as a teacher, publisher and editor, I should have some useful advice to give. Yet I find myself not wanting to lay on anyone else the preoccupations that have driven me and shaped my own writing. After all, the few successes and many failures of my poetic career don’t need repeating. I thought I knew something about the poetic line many years ago, that it ought to have something in it for the ear, eye and mind; in fact, I often chided Al Purdy for what I called his throwaway lines, the product of chopping a reasonable long line into three or more phrases. I still have a strong resistance to the throwaway and the phrasally- determined line, but I recognize that lining and line-breaks are a very subjective matter.

Early on, I favoured the short line of six or less syllables, so my Rivers Inlet poems look like stacked totem poles or the malnourished “Walking Man” sculpture by Giacometti. I think this reflected not only a strong Imagist influence, but also a basic uncertainty and unease in what I was doing. Short lines also helped a young poet stretch out rather skimpy materials by taking up more space on the page. For a while, it seemed that the breath of modern poetry came mainly in short pants. However, the longer line became quite attractive to me when I saw how useful and engaging it was in the work of A.M. Klein and Irving Layton, capable of the kind of luxurious sweep you can’t always achieve in nervous Creeleyesque short lines. The longer line worked well for me in “Sandra Lee Scheuer” and The Terracotta Army, where I had issues and historical events that needed to be examined, the kind of thing Wallace Stevens called the “pressure of the real.”

Breaking the line seemed to suffer a lack of authority or restraints. After all, the sprawl of free-verse had left many of us running off at the mouth or the typewriter and dependent on typographical gymnastics, a poem’s lining having less to do with the ear than the eye. Frost described the writing of free verse as playing tennis without a net; and Eliot insisted that no verse is free for the poet who wants to do a good job. I wanted the ‘scoring’ of my poems to be allied with the content; or the content to discover itself as the form was revealed. So I began to experiment with different kinds of enjambment, often breaking the line between an adjective and the noun it modified, on the assumption that this created more torque, a sort of forward thrust that would not be there if modifier and noun completed the line. I still favour this method, although some of my favourite poets pay no attention to this practice and seem to have survived to write brilliant poems.

Dennis Cooley has some good, wise and crazy things to say about line-breaks in one of his essays, which I recommend that you check out. So, too, James Scully in Line Break: Poetry and Social Practice and Phyllis Webb, in an essay written for 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics. I find I am more concerned with stanza-breaks in the poems I’m writing now, offering a visual impression of uniformity, within which I can exercise a lot of freedom in terms of the length and shape of utterances, whether sentences or fragments. Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” uses triplets in the same way, giving her narrative the appearance of form, while allowing her to be outrageously casual in terms of line-lengths. I’ve noticed, these days, that I am most comfortable with a mouthful of syllables in a line, ranging from seven to twelve, the decasyllabic line predominating. Long in the tooth and long-winded, you might say. When you’re working with persona and narrative, the longer line can be a welcome companion.

So, to answer your question, to a young poet I’d say: Pay no attention to rules, just take a close look at how your favourite poems by other writers manage their line-breaks. And keep breaking the line differently to see what feels best. Nothing’s worse than a limp poem that has neither syntactical backbone nor linear authority and can’t be distinguished from chopped prose. Alas, most of us, yours truly included, have perpetuated too many of the latter. If you can’t figure out how best to break the line, it’s probably an indication that you need to make some changes in terms of word-choice, syntax and patterns of stress.


Marilyn Bowering’s latest book of poems Soul Mouth (Exile Editions) comes out this Fall. This year, she also had poems published in Exile and The New Quarterly.

Jason Guriel’s new book, The Pigheaded Soul: Essays on Poetry and Culture, will be published by The Porcupine’s Quill in 2013. His work is forthcoming in Poetry, PN Review, The Walrus, Parnassus, and Taddle Creek. He lives in Toronto.

Patrick Lane has authored more than twenty books of poetry and is past winner of the Governor General's Award for Poetry. The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane (Hardback; $44.95) was released this year.

Gary Geddes is author of numerous anthologies, notably his widely read Fifteen Canadian Poets and 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics. His two most recent books are Swimming Ginger (poems, Goose Lane, 2009) and Drink the Bitter Root: A writer's search for justice and redemption in Africa (non-fiction, Douglas & McIntyre, 2011

Monday, March 5, 2012

Readers retreat

Anyone who’s taken a second year English Lit course will know the title of the book, though how many have actually read more than a chapter or two remains unclear. An indifferent scholar myself, I had the unsettling feeling early on that reading The Mirror and the Lamp (TMAL) was one of those things I should do, but never actually got around to doing, like visiting an African country or taking up swing dancing. You know it’ll be good for you, but damned if it doesn’t make for an awful lot of inconvenience and hard work. Reading Abrams’ big book always seemed to me like something that could wait until next time.

A more diligent work ethic, more disposable time and an itch to scratch propelled me between the covers of TMAL last year. Alternately dubbed the 10th and 25th most important book in the 20th century, this seminal work by the Methuselah of American letters M.H. Abrams is the very antidote to one’s ignorance about that other period about which there’s been so much talk and too little agreement - the Romantic Period.

That Romanticism continues to exercise a pull (some would say a disproportionate pull) on contemporary poetry gains support from contemporary critics. “Lyric poets,” says Marjorie Perloff “still tend to regard their `trade’ as one requiring a permit from the appropriate authority, which is to say…the Great Romantics.” Wordsworth and company, Perloff concludes, "cast a shadow on virtually every attempt to Make It New.” It’s a complaint that goes back at least as far as the Romantics’ immediate successor Matthew Arnold who argued for a poetry better fitted to the struggles of modern life.

How Romanticism came to be the force it was in 19th century poetics is Abrams’ main challenge. Why it remains the polestar to which so many contemporary poets adjust their drifting boats continues to be ours. But I argue Abrams’ book does even more, helping us understand that whatever we may think about the how of Romanticism the why continues to form the principal basis for the writing of poetry today, invigorating and driving the daily practice of the serious poet. Poets who take a closer look and immerse themselves in that tradition surface with a clearer appreciation for the roots of their own creations.

Why poets write at all is usually summed up this way: poets write to either teach us something, to entertain us or both. Abrams’ job is to show us how poets historically have pulled this off, first by trying to imitate their external world (hence the “mirror” of his title), then by expressing their own inner world (the lamp). Out of this eventually flowed poems no longer written to uncork the poet’s personality or mirror things; poems became things themselves, completely autonomous things that got up and walk around on their own two legs, ignoring the poet and the reader, obeying their own internal rules of order. If they also happened to educate or delight us, well that was okay, too.

Abrams’ bigger gift is to help us understand the continuity that exists from one generation of poets to another. One way he does this is to explode the myth about Romanticism's revolutionary departure from the Neoclassical poets, in particular the idea that the “nature poem” sprang solely from the innate genius of William Wordsworth. Alexander Pope has taken a lot of heat for not discovering this earlier himself so it seems fitting that he should respond: Wordsworth, we learn, wasn’t the first to embody the link between the poet and nature; Shakespeare, that “instrument of Nature,” did it two centuries earlier. “Tis not just to say he speaks from her,” Pope wrote, “as that (Nature) speaks through him.” Pope himself had a knack for identifying “the element of nature in the natural genius,” Abrams adds. To believe poets suddenly went from creating poems governed by the rules of art to poems emanating from the well spring of nature is a gross oversimplification.

That 21st century poets continue to share the concerns of the brightest minds of the Romantic period is illustrated in a brief passage about human psychology in Wordsworth’s famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads: the human mind, he tells us, is a `beautiful and dignified’ thing “capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants.” As it attempts “to produce or enlarge this capability” the mind becomes blunted by combined forces that finally reduce it “to a state of almost savage torpor.” This general decay has a “multitude of causes” that bears a striking resemblance to complaints we hear today:

"The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves."

The rapid industrialization of early 19th century Britain finds clear parallels in our own increasing subordination to urban landscapes and our fascination with national events. I’ll stop short of appending the term “intelligence” to the rapid communication that Twitter provides us or asking about what “cravings” underpin the graphic novel. But you get the point: in some key respects there is more that unites Romantic and contemporary poets than separates them.

Where contemporary poets and Wordsworth part company is over his notion that poetry’s principal aims are to give free reign to emotion and to cultivate human nature. While most agree poetry is good for us, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we are uniformly better people because of it. And rarely do poems today originate as a “spontaneous overflow of feeling” or “primitive utterances of passion”; if anything, today’s poets are deeply suspicious of feelings, preferring to focus on objects, experiment in structure or form or at most set a mood. Finally, poets aren’t “born” or different from other people because “endowed with more lively sensibility.” Turns out sensibility can be taught, or if not taught, imbibed from the hundred and one poetry workshops on offer at any given time.

Romantics and contemporary poets link hands in two critical areas: first, in the centrality of the poet. By highlighting “the persistent recourse to the poet to explain the nature and criteria of poetry” Abrams reminds us that for all the attempts at excising of the “I” from modern poetry, the poet’s inner life - her thoughts, her observations, her being - remains the dominant stage upon which poetry is intended to work its magic.

The second link between us and the Romantics is the disappearance of the audience. Through most of the 18th century, Abrams tells us, “the persistent stress…held the poet strictly responsible to the audiences for whose pleasure he exerted his creative ability.”

"Gradually, however, the stress was shifted more and more to the poet’s natural genius…As a result the audience gradually receded into the background, giving place to the poet himself, and his own mental powers and emotional needs, as the predominant cause and even the end and test of art."

The irony is that the poet who described the poet as “a man writing to other men” - Wordsworth - should have set in motion forces that would achieve the opposite. “The poet has moved,” Abrams writes, “into the center of the critical system and taken over many of the prerogatives which had once been exercised by his readers, the nature of the world in which he found himself, and the inherited precepts and examples of his poetic art.”


"Thank you very much for this amazing and delicious web blog. Feast! Makes me want winter and rain to last and last so I can cling to my chair with impunity and read, listen, write." Martha Royea.

"Read the interviews with Hester Knibbe and Catherine Graham...they were wonderful. Refreshing to read such straightforward writing about poetry. Most helpful and will share with writing friends. Thank you for your work." Wendy Crumpler.

"Thank you David, for this resurrection, rebirth, reincarnation, return." Sharon Marcus

Intelligent poetic discourse." Linda Rogers