Friday, August 8, 2008


“It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”
(From Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland)

Accessibility – or how hard readers should be expected to work in grasping a poem’s meaning – was the main focus of Wednesday evening's meeting. A related question: how much should we rely on background materials (e.g. poet bios, anthology prefaces, etc) to understand a poem? Both questions were particularly relevant in our attempts to understand poems by 2003 GG winner Tim Lilburn and lesser known American ex-pat Peter Anson.

Moths in the armpits of the house
small blue moths around its mouth.
There’s complete water here. Water that doesn’t think about itself.
The wingspread of the house, its owl-duskness.
All its iron lies outside.
It keeps its blood in silver boxes.
The house in its crouched and altruistic speechlessness is greatly adding
rows of numbers, stupendously, big-handedly sewing together tendrils
of numbers.

(From the poem “The House”, Tim Lilburn, Killsite 2006)

Tim Lilburn perplexes just about anyone who’s read him. In the absence of even the scantest narrative thread or voice, Lilburn’s readers instead puzzle over furiously metabolized images, heavily adverbial, hyphenated syntax and a scholastic approach that only a PhD student’s mother would love. Where specialists in Hegel or Heidegger might be in their element reading Lilburn’s poem “The House”, average readers are more likely to come to a grinding halt at terms such as “kataphatic” and “apophatic” or references to medieval thinkers such as Issac of Stella and John Scotus Eriugena. *

Positive features of Lilburn's poems include their rich colour and their cadence. A telling and more negative aspect is how forced they often seem. Karl Shapiro put it best in his collection of essays In Defense of Ignorance. Forced poetry he describes as "poems in which the author has tried by violence to break through the habitual delusions into reality. The violence of much modern poetry stems from this cold-blooded forcing of reality."

So why the interest? Why Lilburn’s reputation as arguably one of Canada’s best poets? Perhaps for the very reason that Lilburn is so audacious in his handling of poetic language, his melding of philosophy and verse and a seemingly deliberate attempt to not only challenge, but confound his readers. At the same time, not all of Lilburn’s work is impenetrable. Beautiful turns of phrase, striking images and ear catching rhythms can be found aplenty.

If only for the opacity of his verse and our general lack of grounding in scholastic studies or formal philosophy, we might be more convinced of his reputation and contribution to Canadian poetry. Might we also be driven to do the necessary scholastic legwork? Readers certainly attempted the same when coming to terms with Eliot’s The Wasteland years ago. But even that poem, as abstruse as it occasionally was and equally academic, had things which recommended it above its reverence for tradition, its messianic scholasticism and an army of footnotes, i.e. galvanizing images, rythmic play, and an intellectual brilliance which was – there’s that word again – accessible.

Conclusion 1: Lilburn is not writing for the general public, the average reader. Conclusion 2: Lilburn still manages to provoke and engage us despite the obstacles he places in our path. Ponder a line of verse too long and you simply bog down. Read an entire Lilburn poem aloud, however, and you begin to hear his music. But whether you decide to return for another reading plainly depends upon your predilections, philosophical or otherwise.

“We’re All Mad Here” (The Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland))

We worry more for Peter Anson:

Crazed speech migrates slowly
through the guarded circle
the perfect apparatus of nailed
envy and belief

time hidden
in the cracks what we agree
invents our floundering.

This creeping frenzy is
death’s partner by a stroke
of conscience

new intent
is drawn over the will
merry times indeed to dance
naked in the flows from northern
glace inventimus omnes.

(From the poem “Defection”, Crossing Lines 2008)

Anson’s poem is part of an anthology of 73 American men and women who came to Canada during the Viet Nam war era: When we looked at this poem in our previous meeting we were left feeling bemused and unclear about Anson’s purpose and meaning. Outside of the hard "c" sound in the first six stanzas to suggest conflict and chaos, the poem’s central thrust remained elusive. Our problem understanding the poem was compounded by fractured stanzas and the absence of punctuation or line endings and spacings that might have communicated or supported the poem’s meaning. The poem features nice images and phrases, but again their purpose remained largely vague and directionless.

Anson’s poem benefits somewhat from a reading of the anthology’s preface. “The principal reason for emphasizing `the Vietnam War Era’, say the editors, is the “recognition that this conflict indelibly altered the consciousness of virtually every young person (and their parents) living in the United States during that turbulent time……war is presented here with fresh imagery and metaphors and analogies…and from varied emotional, intellectual, and historical perspectives."

Against the backdrop of the Viet Nam war, the poem suddenly began to make more sense. Those hard “c” sounds in the early stanzas and the sudden shift towards softer consonants in the remaining four stanzas (e.g. "I dream magnificent/love"; "impress the heart of leaving") suggest a kind of hopeful departure from a state of conflict to a state of peace or harmony. This is supported by a softer thematic shift away from the social upheaval in the first several stanzas (“Crazed speech”, “creeping frenzy” “come a-cropper” – easy descriptors of the Viet Nam era) - towards the "dream" in Stanzas 7, 8 & 9 of a more peaceful, if uncertain life outside the U.S. [“brav(ing) the invisible”].

Anson's principle apprehension, however, seems to be that even “magnificent” love (of freedom?) will be undone finally (“groundwaters subtend/all wells”), his profoundest regret: an inability to reconcile the dream of freedom (the " sleep") with the pain and ignominy of abandoning his country ("a script of liberty/upon the rain-worn stones").

Not everyone in the group was persuaded by this reading – in part because of the poet’s failure to provide stronger entry points to the poem’s core meaning. A larger issue: should we have to rely on our outside reading to understand a poem at all? Many believe a poem should stand on its own, without external reference. More recent post-modern studies argue this approach suggests a unity, an insular self-sufficiency unsupported by the realities of poems themselves, ignoring (to use the simplest example) the role the reader plays in determining a poem's meaning. Poems aren't created in a vacuum either. They are in a very real way cultural artefacts which need the surrounding context (e.g. social, political, historical) both for their creation and for their understanding. Still, one hundred years from now will poems like Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" or Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" require broad context to be adequately appreciated? Quite unlikely.

Finally, a smaller point about Anson's poem: While some of our number liked the poem's very last line, others felt it to be hackneyed and unconvincing:

a script of liberty
upon the rain worn stones

All of which may suggest an imbalance in Anson as a poet – between his obvious inclination towards the profound and an impulse in many poets to find cheap or easy ways to advance or escape their poems.

* We must pause and thank reviewer J. Mark Smith for, among other things, his use of the term “catachresis” in explaining Lilburn’s approach. The “intentionally grotesque misuse of words outside their established semantic fields” seems as good a way as any to describe what’s afoot. It may not make the curious inversions and cannibalizations that occur in Lilburn’s poems more pleasant to read, but it does offer a clue to Lilburn’s agenda (an extension of the “defamiliarization” approach to making poems, perhaps?).

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