Friday, December 4, 2009
(From T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent)
No art form suffers more in the collision between the private and public worlds than poetry. Fiction writers conceal themselves behind characters and plot (with relative degrees of success); sculptors and painters make objects that are literally at arm’s length or longer; classical composers work in a highly abstract, wordless art form that largely overshadows the personality of their creator. All participate in the emotion of creation and performance, but none, regardless of what Mr. Eliot had to say about the matter, are as much in the foreground as poets. By the very nature of their art, poets are expected at some level to reveal something about themselves.
For those of us who attended last Friday’s readings by John Barton, Michael Kenyon and Chris Hutchinson at St. Michael’s University School in Victoria, it all came down to how much should be exposed and how much left at home. John Barton, for one, seemed content with the conventional boundaries that typically exist between poets and their readers, while at the same time offering an intriguing rumination on the poet’s presence in a poem partly captured here and appropriately titled “Persona”:
No question of
speaking, my friend
my stranger, the dis
location between what I
say and what you
sited in some
invisible wilderness best
left on its own
to explore us, who remain
so much more than
the sum of the usual
open to the night. (30)
Barton has a tremendous gift for image and for creating captivating transitions across lines and stanzas. A case in point: the opening lines from “Aquarium” - At night, under the river, there are rooms, doors opening and closing/ In the chill arrhythmic currents, all of us floating. (46) He also has a wonderful sense of fun, as when he riffs off a typo in a badly translated French menu - while simultaneously poking fun at Allen Ginsberg:
"smocked salmon” a la carte...
-an epiphany perhaps, but not
the food of love, instead a net full
of this year’s declining catch
stood atwirl on their tailfins
the best of the their generation lined up
and looking quite fetching in frilled
aprons with bibs smocked
by my mother...(47)
From “Saumon Fumé” (Hymn, Brick Books, 2009)
Chris Hutchinson’s overly symmetrical use of identically shaped adjectives tends to dull his rhythms from line to line. That said, I think he tackles questions about relationships with great courage and displays enormous imagination:
I’d rather reflect the sleep
of twenty castle-shaped clouds-
quiet as an unplanted garden,
a belief saddening
In the saddest of times,
clutching the wine cup without
letting a single telltale drop
insinuate itself like
a crystal of aluminum oxide
slipping down the peacock’s
effulgent throat. (39)
From “Mining Sapphire” (Other People’s Lives, Brick Books, 2009)
Michael Kenyon is an able poet, too, though he did himself no favours by using his account of personal betrayal to introduce a poem that provided neither context for his admission, nor a sense of contrition or redemption afterwards. Chris Hutchinson’s failure was of the opposite kind and unrelated to his poetry, i.e. a failure to disclose his physician’s diagnosis of the cold and fever he contracted before taking to the podium. Absent that information, and judging by comments afterward, I had to wonder how much it depleted his book sales among those reluctant to shake his hand or touch his book (Still, I bought his book and am here to tell the tale: a very fine poet).
None of these poets comes even close to being a confessional poet. But they do write very personally. The trick is not how much or too little is revealed - sometimes even the tiniest detail will unleash a flood of feeling and association - but whether what is revealed resonates in a meaningful way with the reader. Poetry that is transpersonal, that crosses the boundary between the poet and reader to deliver that shock of recognition that comes from truthful experience truthfully told, unleashed with power and sensitivity, is the kind of poetry we relish the first time we experience it, and return to time and again.
A truthful poet who historically has kept a cool rein on most things, including her persona, is Margaret Atwood. I’ve just finished re-reading several poems from Morning in the Burned House. A good place to end this week’s post:
You’re sad because you’re sad.
It’s psychic. It’s the age. It’s chemical.
Go see a shrink or take a pill.
or hug your sadness like an eyeless doll
You need to sleep. (4)
From “A Sad Child” (Morning in the Burned House, Houghton Mifflin, 1995).
Quick note: I'll be stepping aside next week to allow Montreal’s Julie Bruck (now residing in San Francisco) to tell a personal anecdote about Elizabeth Bishop and to comment on Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, which was published last year. Give her a read. You won’t be disappointed.
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