Friday, December 4, 2009

Getting Personal

"The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."

(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
who is

speaking, my friend
my stranger, the dis

location between what I
say and what you

hear, androgynous
sited in some

invisible wilderness best
left on its own

to explore us, who remain
so much more than

the sum of the usual
equations thrown

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.

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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Hello David,
Keep up the good blog; it is thoughtful and well presented.

I have a question for you: can you give me an example of what you mean by the observation you made in the review of Hutchinson's poetry: his "symmetrical use of identically shaped adjectives." I am pondering this, reading and re-reading the poem that you offered as an example and I confess that your comment is lost on me. Please take a moment and point this reader in the right direction.
Many thanks.

David Kosub said...

Thanks for your question.

Morphology or the shape or form of words has to do, in part, with syllabic count. Simply put, words with the same number of syllables from line to line tend to dull the rhythm. It gets worse when, for example, disyllabic adjectives are in the same position from one line to the next. Here’s an example from Hutchinson:

“Or if I reorganize these sleeping pills
so that they resemble a skyline boiling with birds
then no-one will call about that dairy farmer’s polemic.”

The disyllabics “sleeping”, skyline” and “dairy” are not only each stressed on the first syllable, they are accented at the same position in the three lines, which tends to dull the rhythms. (In fairness, “boiling with birds” helps to modulate the second line a bit, though not enough to offset the overall monotony of the stanza.)

In another poem, Hutchinson uses symmetrical positioning very effectively:

“Old women disguised as crows stuttered past,
jigging upon the sleeping city’s hip bone,
flitting between the horizon and beer cans
coated with the aspic glow of moonstones.

Having identical disyllabics at the beginning of lines 2, 3 and 4 works (Things in a series of three usually do). The poet has also nicely modulated the syllabic count in the final line to give the stanza a sense of completion. However, the number of fore-stressed disyllabic words (I count seven in all - nine if you include “hip bone” and “beer cans”) puts me to sleep. The stanza overall is a bit clichéd rhythmically, too, though I don’t notice Hutchinson using it elsewhere in his book so I suppose it’s okay.

In other words, pay attention not just to the syllabic count in a line but in the words that make up the poem as a whole. Good poets will try to modulate the rhythm by providing adjectives, adverbs etc with different numbers of syllables and distributing them with greater variety through the poem. This is hard to do, because poets tend to think in larger phrasal units, so it’s something you have to be conscious of. And, of course, much depends upon what the poet is trying to achieve.

Hope that helps.


Anonymous said...

Hi David
Thanks so much for your instructive response. You probably remember the days when the Globe & Mail ran the series, How Poems Work. I used to find those columns incredibly useful and miss having access to the kind of information you have just shared with me.
Much appreciated.

David Kosub said...

You’re welcome. Another fabulous book is Ruth Padel’s “52 Ways of Looking at a Poem”, a series of similar columns which she did for a year, I believe, for the UK’s Guardian newspaper.



"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