Friday, November 27, 2009
sailing it forward, the animal came near the round woofed willow
hut, bees stabbing along the pollen-knuckled dome;
The animal curved to the place that breathed apart, on its own
its breath circling it like a moon
and lodged itself in the deep water of wintered-over leaves
where an ear scouted, spinning the leaves with a throaty blue light.
The animal came plumed and choired with night.
(From the poem “Quiet, Quiet”, Tim Lilburn, Killsite 2006)
At one time I had a theory about the complexities of Tim Lilburn’s poetry. He had erected what I impressively described to myself as an “internally referential” system of language and thought, a way of writing that suppresses direct reference to the objective world, lacks any obvious narrative or thematic thread and as a result creates an opaque mask through which the reader is at great pains to penetrate. The reader’s job is to break the poet’s code, by recognizing distinctive symbolic and syntactic strategies used to convey meaning.
Nice theory, but it never really helped me get down to what an actual Lilburn poem was about. So I eventually adopted other approaches for uncoiling the mystery. Like reading his work aloud and discovering its surprising musicality, but still uncertain about its meaning. Like presenting a Lilburn poem to my reading group, only to find that others seemed equally mystified. I read his earlier poems, examined his earliest sources like the 4th century monk Evagrius and worried over Jesuitical concepts such as acsesis (discipline), sophrosyne (temperance) and noesis (cognition).
None of it mattered. None of it helped – and then suddenly I found myself, unaccountably, back where it all begins, back to Plato - or at least to Tim Lilburn’s re-working of Plato in his book of essays Going Home. Understand, this is not the Plato we commonly encountered in our first year of university philosophy. Socrates is no longer just the sweet old man patiently guiding handsome young boys to ineluctable truths about the physical world and ideas. A different game is afoot according to Lilburn. In that highly stylized, mythological fashion that we both respond to and resist as modern readers, Socrates and his young charge, Phaedrus, set out on a journey to discover nothing less than the character of the soul:
“The wings of the soul – all of the soul is winged – are what is most divine about it and, thus, divine things –wisdom, beauty, goodness – cause them to strengthen; foul, ugly things atrophy them.”
The soul ascends “to the banquet at the rim of heaven” where it sees, but cannot partake of, “views of justice, interior order, knowledge – contemplative clarities `of what really is that is’”. The ascent of the soul, symbolized as the heavier, more unruly of two winged horses, is followed by the inevitable fall and loss of wings. The soul’s wings may grow again, so goes the story, but only as a “philosopher’s mind grows wings because in memory it keeps close to what it has seen.”
Here’s where the light goes on for me. Not coincidentally it’s also where Lilburn is at his most poetic (at least in prose) and his most illuminating. “Phaedrus and Socrates," he writes, “sit on the riverbank in the heat of the afternoon, talking, talking. The day is hot; the stream is cool.” Let that image sink in a little bit. See those two sweet souls sharing a moment made up entirely of contrasts, the heat and cool of their thoughts meandering like a stream from one consciousness into the other. What are they talking about? They’re talking about, replies Lilburn, the only thing the winged soul has managed to wrest from the banquet at the rim of heaven:
“Beauty is one of the radiant things the soul saw as its head momentarily lifted above the high rim before it was yanked downward by the team it could never control, that had never stopped pulling, before it was shouldered aside by other enthusiastic souls keen to see `that blessed and spectacular vision’ in the hectic, noisy moment of rapturous insight: feathers broke off in the melee and forgetting immediately began.”
For the first time I recognize an agony, an agony of desire there on the banks of a river shared by one old man and one very young man, an agony intense enough to match the torn, tumultuous struggle in Lilburn’s poetry. Beauty, now the charge of Philosophy, “is the only one of the ultimate things that still comes through to human beings.” It becomes available through “apokatastatic” or restorative remembering, through something Lilburn later calls “an erotic enterprise” that grows “at least, in part, from an experience of poverty”, the poverty of our human understanding. “Want to understand me?” I hear Lilburn saying. “Then first acknowledge this poverty and how it belongs to us both.” Know above all that this poverty is mirrored in all good writing, writing which, like philosophy, is characterized by what it does not know and has yet to learn, driven by desire to know. Writing “that takes itself as unparalleled achievements,” says Lilburn, "truncates desire.”
Lilburn’s activities as a poet and philosopher meet here, informing one another; in fact, one can hardly comprehend his poetry without understanding and appreciating his philosophic mind’s search for truth, just as his philosophy searches for its living body in his poetry. But to understand Lilburn is to understand that neither poetry nor philosophy commands his entire allegiance.
Instead, Lilburn is preoccupied by something larger and deeper: to recapture the western contemplative tradition through a reconsideration of desire as a critical and underlying human impetus for everything: for social and political organization, philosophic positioning and finally for poetic art - in contrast to the rational foundation upon which our civilization is commonly believed to rest. What this might mean for poetry is intriguing. What it might mean for us as human beings might very well speak to our survival as a species or at the very least to how we prioritize the competing interests of our hearts and minds and ultimately their mutually dependent well-being.
But I keep coming back to that moment on the riverbank where Socrates and Phaedrus sit. And I seem to have found an answer - in my desire to grasp the complexities and explorations of a beautiful mind. I am made “permeable”, as Lilburn might put it, by the poetic experience, while remaining hopeful that eventually I am better able to grasp, in a way that Phaedrus was not, the intent of that mind and its direction, to know better what it means to say.
Friday, November 20, 2009
Congratulations once again to David Zieroth, this year’s Governor General’s award winner for poetry. Zieroth responded with a very nice note yesterday recounting the nervous moments just prior to the announcement. Stay tuned for my upcoming interview with him (to be posted once the dust settles).
Yup. A great week, made even better by my first National Poetry Slam, and getting the chance to sit as one of five judges, volunteers from a nearly packed audience at the Alex Goolden Hall in Victoria. To get an idea of what it’s like judging one of these affairs, imagine your partner, your kids, your next door neighbour and your boss all yelling at you at the same time. I’m seated smack in the middle of a bunch of rabid supporters of the Vancouver team, who display all the grace and understanding of Mike Tyson fresh from a root canal.
But a great night, starting with the amazing Andrea Thompson, whose take on relationships was funny...and unnervingly accurate. Thompson took time during her 20 minute set to acknowledge Canada’s Mama of Dada herself Sheri-D Wilson, seated in the balcony, before a string of spoken word poets took to the stage, kibitzing on everything from personal hygiene to erotic love, from family dysfunction to war.
The highlights remain the wonderful performances of the four teams vying for the title of Canada’s national poetry slam champs, i.e. Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver and the Slaughter House Four, a wild card of spoken word poets pulled from the remaining teams. Ottawa ultimately prevailed based on performances by four young men who gave us delicious riffs on memories of a beloved sister, quiet soliloquies on gaining acceptance, and rapid fire indictments on modern society and the travesty of African war. The result all around: laughter and tears.
Every bit as striking as the performances was the sheer inventiveness of the performers’ writing (something that has historically marked the very best poetry and which, dare I say it, many page poets seem to have lost). The other star of the evening: the audience itself, singing the traditional time penalty chant whenever a performer exceeds the three-minute limit: “You rat bastard, you’re ruining it for everybody! But it was soooohh worth it!”
They were right. It was well worth it.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
in the armful of lilies you are holding
Move forward and be guided
by the sheen of their white curves
the quavering stamens of dizzy gold
shimmering back at you as you
take the first step
A torch of flower-light
does not allow itself
cut from the earth
Just think: to be beautiful
and dying at the same, last time
Lay the lilies down on the body
Leave them, and say goodbye
Now, groping along
on hands and knees
the help you need
you generate yourself
as you wait for lucidity
with its burden
which you’ll readily embrace, arms eager
glad to push upright again
dark clay at a good distance
wind from the sky heaping around you
from beings of light someone planted
many years ago
© David Zieroth
The Governor General's Award for Poetry has been won by David Zieroth, North Vancouver, for The Fly in Autumn (Harbour Publishing; distributed by the publisher). Here's the testimonial:
"In The Fly in Autumn, David Zieroth addresses our common and defining human fate – the loneliness that is a rehearsal for death – with a tenderness and buoyancy that shows the reader “how to walk in the dark with flowers.” The intricacy and exuberance of rhyme and the breadth of vision are stunning."
From my perspective, David Zieroth's ambitions are broader than most poets, casting a net over the philosophical thought of Thomas Aquinas, Marcus Aurelius and others to arrive at conclusions of his own about the nature of reality and about death. From the poetic standpoint his exploration of the unreliability of reality plays into our love of ambiguity and a desire to see ordinary things from extraordinary angles. His strength is his ability to make thought not just interesting, but aesthetically compelling, too.
Among the very best poems in Zieroth’s collection is “How to Walk in the Dark with Flowers", which employs a central image to underscore his commitment to the imagination and to present a view of death that is not only stoic, but beautiful and deeply reassuring. His explorations are artistically adept and intriguing.
It’s because of this that Zieroth’s current collection should appeal to a broader audience than most, including readers more accustomed to confessional or sensory based poetry.
For a fuller assessment of David Zieroth's The Fly in Autumn see my review in the upcoming winter issue of The Malahat Review.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Most of us are familiar with the 20th century literary concept, the Biographical Fallacy, a notion Auden scholar John R. Boly says frees the meaning contained in an author's poems “from being determined by a particular set of events in that author’s life”. It’s a simple idea that has enormous implications for poets and writers, whose resistance to the suggestion that they might have written autobiographically in a poem or novel is equally familiar. (A case in point: that slightly defensive reaction whenever CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel asks a writer how much of their personal life has gone into a novel or poem.)
For me the Biographical Fallacy took on extra meaning this week when I asked the obvious question: If the events that have formed my life can have no bearing upon the meaning contained in my poems, if I lack the freedom to truly create, how then can meaning occur? The answer would seem to rest in that magical combination of the fiercely independent author working in tandem with the endless variety and freedom contained within language itself. Unfortunately, this answer to the question of meaning in poems is not always readily apparent in poems themselves, particularly in their tone, and in something related to tone, the poet’s sense of power and place in the world.
Two poems helped crystallize this for me, one a familiar poem in the modernist tradition; the other a very old poem from 12th century AD:
To me there is much comfort in the thought
That all our agonies can alter nought,
Our lives are written to their latest word,
We but repeat a lesson He hath taught.
- From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Is it solely for metaphorical purposes that Richard Le Gallienne’s translation casts the argument against freedom in terms of the written word? Perhaps. It might suggest something else, though: that our words, like our actions, are themselves pre-determined, shaped by forces outside their control and powerless to affect direct change themselves. That suggestion gains added force when you consider how singularly helpless words have been during the last century at intercepting and stopping the very worst that human beings can do to one another.
It may also account for that low-grade depression readers encounter in so many contemporary poets. When so much of the world is galvanized by Olympic Torch Relays, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the simple desire to find a job, poets are consigned to the sidelines, immobilized by the meaninglessness and paucity of human activity - and worse, the inability of words to change anything.
Is it any wonder, then, that we are simultaneously confronted by the diminishment in importance of statement in poetic art? Evidence abounds that the preoccupation with “saying something significant” as an outcome of art has been replaced by our preoccupation with process and a fixation upon the materials of art (e.g. typography in poetry; shape and surface texture in painting; space in sculpture). More significantly, for many poets the End of Statement has become an article of faith that has quietly mutated into codified postures of demoralization and faithlessness, reflected not just in the tone of balefulness that infects so much bad poetry, but in the underlying tone of resignation that effects even very good poetry:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Williams' famous poem helps us understand what we turn to when philosophic statement and the discursive deployment of words no longer work for us; "So much depends/upon" all that we have left: clear, hard images, captured in a way that acknowledges the distance between ourselves and the world (hence that space between stanzas 1 and 2) and our incapacity to shape our destinies. All of it subsumed within the sheer delight of the images themselves.
Is that sufficient answer to the question of meaning in poetry? For now, it seems to be.
Clarification: In my last blog I said the federal government proposes cutting funding to Canadian magazines with a circulation of fewer than 5,000. While the effect may be the same, it requires some clarification. To that end, here is Malahat Review editor John Barton:
“It’s not that the government is cutting funding (they are merging the Publications Assistance Program and Canada Magazine Fund into a single entity called the Canada Periodical Fund), but are setting minimum circulation at 5000 paid copies per year, a mark most literary and arts magazines are below---often well below. Also, at the other end of the spectrum, they are capping grants at $1.5 million. Currently, MacLean’s and Chatelaine, for example, receive about $2 million plus through PAP, so they will lose a substantial amount of money that they formerly received to underwrite part of their postal costs in Canada. What the exact programs the CPF will offer are not known yet.
Magazines like the Malahat will lose 10-12% of our budget next year. Along with the cuts to our BC Arts Council grant---if we were to lose 90% of it, we’d be down to $700----we will be down 15% to 17%.
I don’t see either government changing its approach, so my feeling is that those who love the arts in this country---both practitioners (artists, writers, etc) and clientele (readers, audience, etc)---have to find it in themselves to support us materially by subscribing (magazines, theatre, memberships in art galleries). The message from government, especially in the case of the Harper government, is: before we fund you, prove you have an audience.
Note that our Canada Council funding is unaffected. It’s an independent body, and not part of Canadian Heritage (where PAP and CMF reside), though it reports to Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage.”
Friday, November 6, 2009
Okay, I know I've been putting it off and that most people are likely sick of the subject by now. Like many of you I sent off a letter to the Honourable James Moore, Minister Responsible for Blah Blah Blah, expressing concern about his threat to end funding under the Publications Assistance and Canada Magazine Fund. Six weeks later I get a form letter expressing his government’s “pleasure” in supporting Canadian reading choices and its admiration for the important role that “specialized” publications play in meeting those choices. Never mind that by definition “specialized” excludes the broader mainstream, the redoubtable Mr. Moore then proposes cutting funding to magazines with a circulation of fewer than 5,000.
In his wisdom the Minister proposes instead something called a "Business Innovation component" to help, he says “smaller magazines pursue innovative business ideas (read `sink or swim'), build their audiences (`Okay, we really were just kidding about specialized publications') and explore digital opportunities (`How about Twitter? surely you can squeeze a simple Haiku into 140 characters')”. Sure, a new program, then. But will this new program, I asked, help fund the publication and distribution of these specialized (read smaller) magazines you so cherish. I’ve yet to receive a second response.
Again, you’ve heard the arguments. An enormous disservice is about to be done to Canadian culture by stripping away our capacity to publicize and ingest the best that our writers and poets have to offer. But nearly as worse is the disservice being done to the discourse about poetry in Canada: at a time when we’d almost put to rest those ancient concerns about broadening the readership of poetry, Ottawa has, in a single stroke, re-ignited questions about poetry’s lack of broad appeal, while raising, subliminally, the equally recalcitrant question about its legitimacy as art.
My hope is that we will resist the temptation to turn back the clock; that instead of worrying about how few people are reading poetry, instead of launching quaint programs tying poetry to Valentine’s Day or the Winter Solstice to get more people thinking about reading poetry, we content ourselves with providing the best product for the people who already read poetry, small in number though we may be. That includes the poems poets write and the publications designed to draw our attention to the poems that poets write. And yes, it includes demanding of Ottawa that it actively support the reading choices we make – not as an individual right, but as the right of a country to grow and sustain its own rich, diverse culture.
I can do no better than give W.H. Auden the last word:
After all, it’s rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status-trophy for rising executives,
cannot be `done’ like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored: our handful
of clients at least can rune.
- From “The Cave of Making”
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