Sunday 27 December 2015

Good Measure

Michael Prior shares some thoughts on his upcoming poetry debut, Model Disciple:
When people ask me what Model Disciple is about, I always get a little uneasy. I wanted to make Model Disciple a collection of individual poems first and foremost, but a thematic framework for the book arose organically: as with most writers, I kept returning to the same subject matter. At the core of the collection are my maternal grandparents’ experiences as Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Like thousands of other Canadians of Japanese descent, they were forced into internment camps after Pearl Harbour, while their families’ properties and possessions were auctioned off to pay for their own internment.

Accordingly, the book often deals with issues of intergenerational memory, cultural inheritance, and my own experience of growing up half (“halves?” “halfed?”) and still not really knowing what that means. The collection has a lot to do with my troubled relationship to the writers I love and the implications of stealing from the traditionally privileged canon to express my own confused position. But of course, there are also VHS tapes, guinea pigs, Tamagotchis, Boromir, and Pat Morita thrown in for good measure.

Sunday Poem


Blue, a ragged stripe of blue
in the far distance and a cord of road

hauling me towards it, a tumbledown
house by a dried-up marsh, no other home,

the sun spreadeagled across the stubble,
blue teeth in the sky’s mouth, a coyote

bounding the highway, no other journey,
always blue, its gravity, its lightness, turning

slowly into mountains, thin grass disturbed
by peals of wind, a dozen black cattle

near a waterhole below a yellow slope
browsing what they can, no other life

and the blue rising closer, waiting to grasp
whatever offering I am.
By Mark Abley, from The Tongues of Earth (Coteau Books, 2015)

Saturday 26 December 2015

Crazy Thoughts in a Row

George Murray discusses how media ubiquity shaped his most recent book of poems.
I used to have ideas while waiting in lines at grocery stores, or while sitting in a bar, or walking down the street. Now all that time was filled with other distractions: pings from texts, Twitter alerts, 24-hour news crawls, cat videos on Facebook, ads talking to me at bus stops, five to 10 TVs per bar, all tuned to different channels, phone calls interrupting other phone calls, Candy Crush levels to be beaten, emails delivered directly to a watch on the wrist. That cavernous chamber in the brain was now filled all the time. I wasn’t writing because I was distracted.

Some people might solve this by going offline—getting a place in the country and going for long walks during which they examine birds and the change of seasons. But I was never that poet, and I also have what I like to call “a life.” My kids are wired and I need to communicate with them. I work in marketing and need to communicate with people all over the world. I live in a remote part of Canada and have friends in other cities and countries who I get to keep in touch with and whose kids I get to watch grow up via Facebook. My career as a poet and professor is conducted largely by email attachments and online teaching software. In short, I can’t leave that world.

So I thought: What would happen if instead of fighting for quiet space, I just let all the noise in? What would happen if I just wrote in the world around me, instead of getting out entirely? The result was simultaneously amazing and horrifying.

My new book, , is a product of this. Chaos. And yet, a kind of new order. Not poems of narrative: “here’s a loon I saw, and as I sat in my canoe looking at it through the mist, I had this revelation about myself and the world.” Rather: “here are the 41 crazy things I thought in a row, in which are buried both the mundane and the profound, and dear reader, since you already have to navigate these same streams of data yourself, I trust you’ll figure out what I’m talking about.”

Native Son

A. E. Stallings reports from Skyros during the centennial of Rupert Brooke’s death on the Greek island.
All around town the handsome young face of Rupert Brooke gazed out from posters, with announcements of a photographic exhibit at the elementary school, as well as other events. On them, he is described simply as “Rupert Brooke, the Great English Poet.” There was something touching in this, as the official English contingent seemed less certain of how to place him among the ranks of poets, eager instead to set him in historical context.

The morning after the village feast, back at my spotless and cheerful seaside hotel, over a pastoral breakfast of sharp salty goat cheese, creamy sheep’s yoghurt with local thyme honey, fresh bread, and a boiled new-laid egg or two, I talked a bit with the lady at reception about what Rupert Brooke meant to the island. (She was busy supervising the dressing of her son, Yiorgaki, in native costume: baggy black britches, upturned shoes, embroidered vest, and a flat round black hat set at a rakish angle.) Also referring to him as “the Great English Poet,” she said, “We learned his poems at school” and showed me a tattered book which contained a biography of Brooke in Greek and English, and his poems translated into Greek by Costas Ioannou. As with many of the islanders, she was somewhat apologetic that Brooke had died on Skyros but was quick to point out that he could hardly have been buried in a better place, mourned here as a native son by the whole island.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Sunday Poem

Walking past the farmer’s fields, you are struck
by the watermelon smell of mown grass
not noticed before. One thing is always
like another thing, not to supplement
but to vary, to give us reason to
demand no less. The clouds have polished up
the sky like pewter plate, the air so still
you might be thunder-deaf, and in the lull
you hear the trees raining from their leaves.
The light is buttery with promises
and the far meadow peppered with grackles,
and all is well being what it is and
isn’t, as if impossible to tell
the dogrose from the raspberry flower.
A runnel of bells trickling from the broke-
down barn is like a distant carillon.
Then all is quiet once again until
a quarrel of crows and squirrels over
granaries of pine cones breaks the silence,
which is not like breaking bread but breaking
bone. For even when one thing is not like
another, it is like another thing
that grates against the need to celebrate.
Walking past the farmer’s fields, you remark,
despite the red slash of a sudden fox
and the cry of an unseen creature in
dark wood, which is not like milk in the pail
but blood in the ear, something tells you still,
amid the difference and because of it,
you must love the world better than you do.
By David Solway, from Installations (Signal Editions, 2015)

Thursday 17 December 2015

Bad Books

CNQ's new editor, Emily Donaldson, wades into the discussion over negative reviewing:
I agree that positive reviews can be an art form (why wouldn’t they?) but I disagree with Jan Zwicky about bad reviews, which I think are necessary on a practical and cultural/intellectual level; especially if the alternative is ostracizing authors and their books, which people who take this position tend to advocate. That seems to me to be its own kind of awfulness, though it’s an approach that George Orwell, whose critical writing I admire a lot, supported. Orwell argued that we should “simply ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews—1,000 words is a bare minimum—to the few that seem to matter.” Mind you, I think he wasn’t trying to protect authors’ feelings, like I think Zwicky is, but to spare himself the pain of reading bad books.

But I really don’t get how ignoring bad, or just lame books fosters a healthy literary culture. Is it really better to say nothing at all than something negative, as many of our mothers have told us? I know several writers who’ve received negative reviews and been okay with it, who even took something away from them. There are a hell of a lot more books published now than there were even thirty years ago: shouldn’t we be allowed to vet them according to some kind of principle?

You never hear anyone making this argument about movie or music reviews, so why do we single out books for special protection—because they take so long to write? I think if we only ever say nice things about our books we infantilize both our culture and the people writing and publishing them. Admittedly, this is a harder reality for first-time authors, who might get only one shot at being reviewed, if at all. Is one bad review really worse than radio silence?

First Rank

John Lucas believes William Cowper deserves reconsideration:
He is, in fact, an important, even unique, poet, even if the value of his work has for long been treated as like his life, badly flawed or at best inadequate. Even commentators who professed to ignore biographical speculation were leery of making extravagant claims for the poetry. Hence, the commonly-accepted argument according to which Cowper, born too late to belong with the great Augustans, came too early to be identified with the Romantic movement. The best that could be said for him was that he discovered the foothills from which Coleridge and Wordsworth set out to conquer new, hitherto unattempted heights. Where he pointed they followed, but he was soon lost to sight in the mists of time. To be sure, there were The Olney Hymns, there were a number of individual poems such as “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity” and “The Castaway,” both of which confront his breakdowns, there were such domestic pieces as “On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture Out of Norfolk” and “My Mary,” there was the comic “John Gilpin,” the songlike “The Poplar Field“, the meditation on “Yardley Oak”, and there was The Task; but somehow or other, though these poems found their way into anthologies, they were not enough to guarantee Cowper the status of major poet. And despite a number of recent attempts to rescue him from the heaviest charges brought against him, there remains a feeling that he is more interesting as a case study than as a poet of the first rank.
He zooms in on Cowper's best poem:
Where Cowper does put blank verse to good use is in “Yardley Oak”, which seems to me not merely a great poem, but, in its ruminative manner, a work which anticipates much that can be found in, say, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” and Wordsworth’s The Prelude. “Yardley Oak” is a truly original poem. There had been nothing like it before. Its brooding, reflective tone, its wondering concern with the “shattered veteran, sixty-three years old” (at once tree and man), provides for the first time in English poetry a registering of mental process, of the fluctuating, unstable psyche from which much that is essential to later English poetry takes its cue. Only Hamlet’s soliloquies anticipate what Cowper does here and it may be that both Shakespeare and Cowper owe a debt to Montaigne and, in Cowper’s case, later French essayists.

To say that is, however, contentious. It ought not to be contentious to claim that “Yardley Oak” is a great poem. Yet how few readers recognise its originality. But then how few readers, perhaps, it has attracted. And perhaps, too, the comparatively few who have come across it have made the mistake of regarding it as a mere exercise in the kind of nostalgia which runs sweetly through “The Poplar Field”, with its lament for the “perishing pleasures of man.” “The Poplar Field” is a lovely poem, whose fluent anapaestic tetrameters are taken up by Wordsworth in “The Reverie of Poor Susan”, one of the Lyrical Ballads. But “Yardley Oak” is on an entirely different level.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Sunday Poem

The train hovers along the track
somewhere between Oshawa and Belleville
and I sit in seat 14
in the aisle across from the emergency window
with a little red hammer
in a small gray box—
the one which every kid, including me
would give up their seat
just to smash 
The attendant explains the procedures of escape
to the family of five sitting ahead of me
She’s a cute brunette with high cheekbones
and low lips and probably close to my age
and she asks me if in the event of an emergency
would I be willing to climb out the window with her first
to help her assist all the women and children off the train 
I tell her yes, and stare back out the window
at the blurred trees and old telephone wires
listening to the sounds the train wheels make
across the rails
which always sound a bit like thunder
and a bit like a steel mill in full work-day swing
and I imagine the two of us, hand in hand
leaping out the shattered window
looking like two children jumping off a small cliff
into blue water on a sun-blind afternoon
using their fear of heights
as a meager excuse to hold hands 
I look back at the tiny red hammer
in the little gray box
displayed like a javelin
and repeat her question over again in my head
thinking, yes I would be willing to do that
you’re just the first person
to have asked
By Blair Trewartha, from Easy Fix (Palimpsest, 2014)

Getting it Wrong

David Williams notices that Anne Carson "com­pletely mis­read" an entry from The Amer­i­can Her­itage Dic­tio­nary of Indo-European Roots when making an etymological link in a recent poem.
If a poem made a sim­i­larly mis­in­formed claim about, say, basic math, we might be dis­posed to reject it as inco­her­ent. I’d be will­ing to bet though that most read­ers of Carson’s poem either accept the ety­mo­log­i­cal claim, or pass over it unboth­ered, pre­fer­ring to focus on the con­cep­tual con­nec­tions it cre­ates from within the pro­tec­tive shell of poetic licence. Yet should not a poem, being a thing made of con­cepts and lan­guage, and here address­ing the rela­tion­ships between con­cepts and lan­guage over time, be faith­ful to the dis­ci­pli­nary account of those rela­tion­ships, espe­cially if it invokes the dis­ci­pline as an authority? If not, is it dis­tin­guish­able from bull­shit, in the Frank­furt­ian sense?

Saturday 12 December 2015

The Bumptious American

Patrick McGuinness looks back at Ezra Pound:
He was the bumptious American who arrived in England and modernised its poetry and buttonholed its poets, dead or alive, as if they were tweedy laggards in need of a bracing lecture. The early cantos are full of humour and zesty New World egalitarianism. They are exuberant, learned, modern, funny, and also, in narrative terms, followable, though already starting to strain at the joins. In the later cantos, with their great collages of economics, statistics, social and political theory, unglossed segments of Chinese, French, Greek and Latin, Pound obscured the connections that might help us make sense of his project. Like a map with destinations but no roads, the cantos appear frightening, fascinating, rebarbative and barely navigable.

(Not So) Famous Seamus

In his recent broadside, The Whitsun Wedding Video: A Journey into British Poetry, Jeremy Noel-Tod wonders what will happen to Seamus Heaney when his fifteen minutes are up:
In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811), the favourite contemporary poet of passionate young Marianne Dashwood is William Cowper. His ‘beautiful lines’, she declares, have ‘frequently almost driven me wild’. Readers who are led to Cowper by Marianne will, however, be surprised to find him a moderate sort on the whole, relishing picturesque pleasures but always returning home for afternoon tea—a poet, in fact, who speaks to the more sensible woman Austen’s heroine will become.

Future generations may think of the present era’s passion for the Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney as akin to Marianne’s for Cowper. Like Cowper, Heaney is a reflective, rural poet, moving easily between man and landscape, and finding a moral in humble objects evoked with a sumptuous accuracy of phrase (the ‘small jittery promise’ of seed packets, for example). Like Cowper, he ironises poetry’s grand manner with conversational self-consciousness and modest domesticity. Sonorous and memorable as many of Heaney’s lines are, it is hard to imagine anyone being driven wild by their carefully measured pleasures.

Both Cowper and Heaney are also ethically scrupulous writers who address the wider, darker world in poems that will endure among their most profound. But they are temperamentally poets who ‘cheer but not inebriate’, as Cowper said of his cup of tea—an important kind, but not the only kind. In a hundred years, the canon of our times will include stronger, stranger drink.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Alexander Hutchison 1943-2015

Metaphor in the Moment

Robyn Sarah explains how poetry gives form to insignificant moments or details:
People often say my poems trigger memories of things they had long forgotten, but that isn’t what I think of myself as doing when I write. I do recognize that as a poet, I’m (among other things) a documenter of detail and a documenter of moments, whether I’m writing about the present or the past remembered—but the mere giving form to “what might otherwise be lost or forgotten”, no matter how beautifully one records or describes it, is not enough to make a poem. The real question is why do these “seemingly insignificant” moments or details from the past come back to us? Or, if we are talking about present time, why do we notice the particular little things we do? I believe the details that catch our attention, or the moments that come back to us unbidden and insistently, do so because they are not insignificant. They have a metaphoric weight for us. They signify, in a language that the unconscious knows, though the conscious mind may not. What haunts us is not the moment but the metaphor in the moment.

Christopher Middleton 1926-2015: Reax

Carcanet website:
Christopher, born in Truro, Cornwall, in 1926, grew up in Cambridge, served in the Royal Air Force, and studied at Merton College, Oxford. He taught at the University of Zurich, at King’s College, London, and was Professor of Germanic Languages at the University of Texas, Austin. Geoffrey Hill described him yesterday as ‘a major poet of our times’.

John Yau:
Middleton has gained a small though loyal public, which is the case with many poets whose work I care about, but, for reasons I find perplexing, he has never crossed the line into the realm of wider recognition—Rae Armantrout, Susan Howe, Louise Glück, Paul Muldoon, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, and his friends Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are practically famous compared to him. Outside his books, you are not likely to come across his name; he isn’t mentioned on literary blogs; year after year, he isn’t listed among the nominees for prizes; and he isn’t a past winner of an award or fellowship we immediately recognize; he isn’t talked about as a teacher of creative writing—all those measures we use to determine a poet’s importance. As far as I know, he has never received a Guggenheim Fellowship or, perhaps better yet, if he has received one, he has chosen not to list it among his achievements.

Aside from these mainstream markers, you don’t hear him being mentioned as an example of some tendency, good or bad. Certainly, no ready profile, however misinformed and generalizing it might be, comes to mind when we think of him, which isn’t the case with his peers: John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, andW.S. Merwin. In fact, I can think of many slightly celebrated poets whose work I don’t ever want to read again—even if I am stuck in a dentist’s waiting room, sitting next to the latest issues of the New Yorker—being embraced far more often, and tendentiously, in literary and semi-literary periodicals. And it is certainly easy enough to think of figures whose very names are mentioned in a hushed voice befitting a martyred saint—a status that Middleton has clearly shunned. What I am lamenting, however, is his absence from every list that I can think of, except neglected poets.

Michael Glover:
His poetry, which was rooted in a scholarship very lightly worn, drew its sources from whatever happened to be preoccupying him at the moment of its creation, be it Roman numismatics, a Cretan deity or the proud grace of a passing feline. He could be very fastidious about small things. He wrote well, and with a good-humoured, impassioned eloquence, about the animals and birds with which we are fortunate to share this planet. The word "creation" was one that he loved.

Middleton hated the ego-boosting reportage that often passes for poetry in our time, and what he dismissively described as "prosing". Art was too serious for such casualness, he believed. He believed in the power of the Muse to seize hold of and direct the powers of the imagination. Poems, which issued from a kind of elsewhere, were acts of creation themselves, not drearily dutiful acts of recording. "Language," he once said, "functions to create experience anew."

Susan Bernofsky:
I’ll never forget sitting as a teenager on the hot pavement of the tiny enclosed patio at 6744 Milne Blvd. in New Orleans—now a vacant lot thanks to Hurricane Katrina—reading Middleton’s translations of stories by Robert Walser and trying to figure out how he did it. My own first attempts at turning sentences written in German (a language I was just learning) into English prose were not going well. “The songbird songs heard already such a long, long time ago by human beings!” I wrote, trying clumsily to approximate the flourish with which Walser ended his “Biedermeier Story”: “Die Singvögellieder, die vor schon so langer, langer Zeit von Menschen vernommen worden sind!” Middleton’s version of this sentence was lyrical, offhandedly elegant: “All the songs of singing birds heard by people such a long, long time ago!” Check out the assonance of “birds” and “heard” that gives this line its artful caesura, rhythmically setting up the reader to place another well-timed (if more muted) caesura after “people.” The line sings, it’s translation-by-poet.

I had him for a Comp Lit poetry seminar when I was a grad student in Slavic Lit at Univ. of Texas in the 1990's. He was droll and irritable. Loved Georg Trakl, I remember that. Had us over to his little house near campus to listen to Spanish classical music and drink wine. I'll never forget him talking about how his students were always trying to get out of exams: "Always some dead grandmother in the mix". Quite a character. Rest in Peace