canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Essay: Comfort and Canadian Poetry

by Alex Boyd

Iíve sometimes noticed trivial themes and topics in Canadian poetry, and have spent time trying to determine if this is overconfidence, a certain lack of dedication, or something else. Iíve concluded that while dedication to poetry is admirable, beyond that there is a kind of dedication (within poetry) that helps a poet determine whatís meaningful and valid, whatís worth writing about and whatís worthy of the valuable time a reader selectively gives away. In discussing poetry, Canadian or otherwise, we sometimes speak vaguely about talent, dazzling metaphors or images. But I believe this kind of selective process, in choosing what to write about, is at least as important an ingredient in good poetry.

Consider the work of Goran Simic, the Bosnian Serb now living in Canada who writes, in Sprinting From the Graveyard, about his experiences during the siege of Sarajevo. Here are the first lines of a poem called The Mice of War:

By the second summer of the war
a million mice lived in the town:
two million, tenÖ
rats came out of the sewers
to swarm on hills of garbage;
they tore-up cats, they mobbed children.

And compare this to the first section of a poem from the book China Blues by David Donnell, with the title Call it a Day:

          My friend Moira
is tall & thin & with small breasts & a beautiful
excitable face.
               We get up around 7:00
& go to Andrewís house on Indian road for breakfast.
This is Saturday morning before the ball game.
& Phillip says,
               "O, you must try these waffles, Queen
Victoria would have gained 100 lbs on these
but theyíre wonderful."
                   So we have waffles
with chocolate ice cream & champagne. Itís a
            of something, & itís a great combination.

Donnell is a Governor Generalís award winning Canadian poet, and while Iím obviously not catching him at his best, the very fact that I can flip through one of his books and find this poem says something. Itís impossible to find an irrelevant poem in Sprinting from the Graveyard, in which every poem is tightly woven and important, contributing to an astonishing and powerful book.

At a time when poetry is fighting to be consumed alongside so many other forms of expression and needs (more than ever) to work against the clichť of pointless self-indulgence, some poets unfortunately decide to obsess with irrelevancies. We are sometimes blissfully unaware that even the best poem about a crappy day (or a nice day with waffles and chocolate, for that matter) wonít compare with a less conventional experience or something of real insight and value. As someone exposed, the vast majority of the time, to Canadian poetry, Iíve wondered if this habit of wandering into the trivial has some environmental causes. Many Canadians have enjoyed relative ease and comfort for decades, certainly in comparison to some other countries. In this context of comfort, Canadians have the option of concentrating on larger, worthwhile themes some people in the rest of the world have no time for. The other option is to use poetry to note the trivial details of our lives, which can really only pale in comparison to the concerns of the less fortunate, or those Canadians who are more selective.

To provide another example, I pull the Susan Musgrave book Things That Keep and Do Not Change off my shelf, which has some worthwhile poems. And yet it pauses in the middle of the book to dive into a trilogy of poems with titles like "Sex after Sixty," which begins "That got your attention, didnít it?" Ten lines later she admits "but I digress," and it seems odd given the fact that the whole poem feels like a pointless digression. The next two poems name drop constantly like an ongoing inside joke and arenít as amusing or insightful as they think they are. Michael Crummey has a number of excellent poems in Arguments with Gravity, but feels somehow compelled to include "David Donnellís Schlong" in the same book.

I am, of course, speaking in generalizations, and I know it is not a difficult task to find a worthwhile Canadian poem. It would also be much easier to find trivial poems by foreign poets were it not the case that only the best of them are translated and distributed here. Still, I believe that Canadian poets need to be careful. It isnít my intention to suggest that there is no place for humour in poetry, only that Canadians need to remember that humour, like anything else, can be relevant and more than just a winking inside joke, or a demonstration of the cleverness of the poet. It also isnít my intention to suggest that Canadians need to go to war in order to write good poetry. Itís simply that poets donít do themselves or poetry any favours when they write about trivial matters. Also, if it is the case the Canadians are more susceptible to this because of our comfort (if there is even a chance that we operate on a different scale, that what we call important is actually closer to trivial), then we need to act with that much extra caution. Canada has enjoyed a fairly comfortable existence for decades. At the same time new forms of self-expression and entertainment continued to grow. It strikes me as fair to conclude that poetry began to compete with more and more at a time in history when we were more likely to use poetry as a method of self-indulgence because of our comfort. And so we get examples like the poem above by Donnell that manages to come across as overconfident, trivial and clichť all at the same time.

It may simply be the case that even the best poets sometimes write bad poems and assume theyíre valuable. Or possibly our culture has put poetry at such a distance (and appears so much fonder of popular culture these days) that poets assume nobody is listening anyway. It does seem that the nation, as a whole, only pays attention to poetry only at times of crisis, when it is felt that only poetry (or perhaps poetic speechmaking) will be eloquent and healing enough. Poetry is pushed away most of the time, then wheeled out when we need meaning and the most articulate words possible to provide comfort. But there is no excuse for poets to be supporting the idea (consciously or not) that poetry is irrelevant and self-indulgent. And any decent poet should know that however immediate and trendy popular culture might be, most of it fades away, while good poetry might just make a more lasting connection with an audience.

There are poets, Canadian and otherwise, who focus on worthwhile themes and ideas. Sometimes I wonder if some of the most revered and respected poets were given a tremendous boost by simply paying attention to this, being selective about what is written, or at the very least whatís published. The only way to build a reputation as consistently worthwhile is to be selective. To begin with, poets can be certain that they are extremely careful when writing about themselves, can be certain that every poem practices empathy with something or someone instead of just their own problems. They should be making attempts to clarify and capture more than just the personal problems or anecdotes they assume are fascinating. Here is a short poem by Carmine Starnino, simply titled The Last Days:

When the nurse let go, my aunt
stood there, disoriented, swaying a little
from side to side, and we understood
that for one more day she had been
returned to us, her body given back
to the world. My uncle, waiting behind her,
smiled with the excitement of a father
watching his daughterís first steps
as my aunt tottered toward the vase
of flowers by the window, taking one step
then another, squinting into the sunlight
that warmed the hospital room, filling it
with the rich fragrance of lilac.
Starnino is in this poem, but only as the observer, only to relate the scene with a great deal of empathy. Secondly, this poem is no simple anecdote that could just as easily have been told to us over a beer somewhere. In his book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Michael Ondaatje sidesteps this kind of problem by writing in completely different voices. However itís done, exactly, poets need to remember the words of Alden Nowlan, who could have been thinking of exactly this when he wrote Johnnieís Poem:

Look! Iíve written a poem!
Johnnie says
and hands it to me
and itís about
his grandfather dying
last summer, and me
in the hospital
and I want to cry,
donít you see, because it doesnít matter
if itís not very good:
what matters is he knows
and it was me, his father, who told him
you write poems about what
you feel deepest and hardest.

Alex Boyd is a Toronto writer of poems, essays and fiction.





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