Recently I read a lecture by the late British poet Basil Bunting in an issue of Writing magazine, originally delivered at the University of British Columbia before I was a year old, talking about poetry not being "useful"; I heard the same thing said a few years back in an interview with fiction writer Yann Martel about literature in general. The whole purpose of the art, they've suggested, is that it has no real purpose. How could anyone one, then, devote a considerable amount of their life and attention to it? Fortunately, Bunting's magnificent lecture goes on to further explain the western need for usefulness against all else, and how the east doesn’t pursue the same ideals. In Arab countries, he explains, there are some things not for sale.
"Useful" is a word I carry with a considerable amount of weight; blame my rural Ontario Scottish Presbyterianism, I suppose. Much of my own activity hinges on the fact that I consider it not only useful, but even essential, to be writing poetry, fiction, essays and reviews, or publishing chapbooks, editing anthologies, starting a publishing company, or organizing readings. There is an essentialness to these acts for me, in the same way that I understand somehow that even the solitary act of writing is still a communal one.
I don’t remember exactly how poetry came to me; I remember my own notion of "poet" as something far removed, and romantic, in the negative sense (even now, I prefer to call myself a "working writer," like some sort of literary tradesman, than give myself the loaded mantle of "poet"). I remember reading everything I could get my little hands on, in a farm house filled with local histories, National Geographic issues and Agatha Christie novels. I remember constantly being the first one in my grade school classes, year after year, to be allowed into the next section of the school library (it was a competition I held with a distant cousin). I was even stopped during the annual MS Read-A-Thon — a fundraiser where we would take pledges for each individual book we could read within a certain amount of time — half-way through because I had already read "too many books" (I wasn’t a fool — I picked the smart books, sure, but I made sure they were thin; if I got up before school I could start and finish a Hardy Boys book in a matter of hours…). I remember my mother singing in the house to herself, and sometimes to us, when we were so much smaller. My parents both sang in the choir (until my mother's health stole bit by bit) and I too, in my turn. In my turn, and my late grandfather McLennan's robe. My sister and I started piano lessons when we each arrived at first grade and continued; my sister, more forceful than I, managed to stop after a year or two, where I had to move out after high school to finally put it behind me (and after all that time working to leave the instrument, all I do now is pine to return).
How does poetry get picked? Who (in their right mind, I wonder) chooses poetry? I don’t remember what I was reading in grade two (apart from stacks of Marvel superhero comics; predominantly The Amazing Spider-Man), but I wrote a poem in a futile attempt to impress a classmate I had a crush on. It didn’t have the desired effect; not only was I completely embarrassed, but my mother somehow knew about it before I got home. Another classmate even tried to take credit for it; in grade twelve, the girl I wrote the piece for admitted that she'd kept it, after all that time. Still, I didn’t write again for years.
I started again in grade ten, because of another girl I was trying to impress. Even so, I achieved and I didn’t achieve, at the same time. I've known that girl now for twenty-two years (we were roughly together for the first ten), and share a teenaged daughter, but she still hasn’t read a speck of my writing, she claims, that she's liked. Even when I win; but its one thing to have a reason to start writing, and yet another to have a reason to continue.
How is it, then, an Ontario farm boy starting to write poetry to impress the ladies, to only be reminded yet again that writing doesn’t work like that. I've always been a romantic at heart, I suppose; I fall in love regularly, and get broken just as easily, but still I try. That protestant work ethic (damn you, John Calvin). When the situation is right, I end up giving myself over to an idea completely, whether to a text or a woman. I am far too willing to relinquish control; writing as a collaborative effort between author and text, much like any relationship between two people. A cyclical movement between beginning and break. I allow myself to fall. Literature, like so many other things, is a leap of faith; it is a waiting game, and a matter of slow and steady determination; of constant vigilance and patience.
Can I remember wanting to recite "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from memory? Sure, but my memory doesn’t work like that (it's part of why I never ventured into acting and the theatre). I can remember the play and interplay of the words far more than I remember any considerations of "narrative," or the story as yet to be told. I remember the how and not the what; if I wanted what, I could read lists of arbitrary accomplishment through my father's Guinness Book of World Records 1978. I remember how the words turned round inside my head and out loud through the tongue; I remember enjoying the different shapes of particular sounds when I was very small; I made my scrapbooks, journals and newspapers when I was only five; told stories on my grandfather Page's knee when I was barely two.
I remember as a later teen how I loved the romantic strength of Leonard Cohen, the chutzpah of Irving Layton, and the dry resistance of early Margaret Atwood, the bone-sharp pessimism of John Newlove, and all from the books my eventual ex-wife made me read, including Eli Mandel's Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970 (1972). As a late teen, I had conversations with poets and close neighbours Henry Beissel (the father of my younger sister's friend Clara) and Gary Geddes that gave little to my particular sense of the craft but for that important sense of the possibilities. For them, writing wasn’t a foreign or faraway concept but a living, breathing, tangible thing; it was something that they and other people they knew did. My grade seven and eight art teacher, Mr. Atkinson, loved Robert Service, and would not only recite the poems regularly, but brought in an actor to play the part; we knew it was dreadful, but somehow enjoyed the theatre of it (I remember entering a public speaking competition around the same time, and the Kiwanis singing competitions in Cornwall; how is it these memories are intertwined?). Even now, I've been unable to enjoy Service as anything more than a kind of camp.
It's so easy to say in hindsight what the attraction of poetry is — this is why I'm here; the attention to condensed language, intuitive leaps, constructing poems on collusion and collision, turning a moment or a phrase as a beautiful and utterly unexpected thing. If I knew exactly where this was all going, there would almost be no reason to bother; writing needs to be as utterly unexpected, a surprise to writer as much as reader. Accidents are essential, and experimentation with all the varieties of new and old forms is the only way to keep the line alive. Once enough of what poems are and craft are learned, the writer has to shift to work out what poems aren't. Once you know enough, trust intuition, and what Fred Wah refers to as writing "drunken tai chi." But so much of that comes later, the learning out loud what slowly creeps within, breaking the skin and entering the bloodstream; what you can't get out even if you tried. Life, as they say, in the details as much as anything.
Writing on Tolstoy in an issue of The Walrus, Toronto writer David Gilmour repeats a conversation with his teenaged son about a particular girl:
"What if she does it again?" he said.I'm not sure if I actually believe that or not (I'm leaning towards not, these days), but it reminds me of a poem that struck me from Toronto writer Michael Redhill's third poetry collection, Lake Nora Arms (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1993; House of Anansi, 2001). When I first read the collection at the age of twenty-three, I was very much struck by the poem “Young Loves,” of those first moments of being in love, in something, in what, as the ending of his poem writes:
"You know what Tolstoy says."
I said, "Tolstoy says a woman can never hurt you the same way twice."
"You think that's true, Dad?"
"Yes," I said finally, "I believe it is."
When will unhappiness strike?If literature has taught me anything, it's larger than writing; it's the strength of patience and bloody-minded persistence. I haven’t given up yet. I have so much more to accomplish, edging further and further with every collection; the more I become aware of the options, the more open I see the craft. You might fall, but there are things that you still have to work daily, providing both new openings and fresh perspectives only through giving yourself over to it that completely. When I speak writing, when I speak poetry, this is not a weekend love; this is a love that endures. This is the poem as long as a life; what Robert Kroetsch described as tantric, writing delay delay delay, and pushing the ending as far beyond as possible. This is a love I have worked my whole life to develop, and truly be worthy of. What else do you want me to say?
Who will be the first
to awaken in bed and feel alone?
Soon they will have to love each other
in the impermanence of what awaits them
and that will be difficult, that time
which life pays you for in advance.