Thursday, March 02, 2023

George Bowering, Good Morning Poems

Most of a century ago, when my mother was a schoolgirl, Mr. Longfellow was still considered a serious and accomplished poet. He sold us Hiawatha and Evangeline and the midnight ride of Paul Revere, after all. He was growing up while Wordsworth was being groomed as poet laureate, and he soon set about making himself the most popular poet in the U.S.A. This would mean combining patriotism and easily consumable narratives and verse forms. He let it be known that his family came over on the Mayflower, and for most of his life he lived in George Washington’s old wartime headquarters. It worked, as he became the first U.S. poet to make a fortune by his verses. Most literature U.S. Americans know the first two lines of “The Arrow and the Song.” When I first heard the poem I thought it was pretty neat, but I had some questions. Isn’t it pretty reckless to shoot an arrow into the air? How can you say that it fell to earth if it was to be found long afterward (if this repeated word comes soon after “follow,” could he have been playing with his own name?) in a tree? Isn’t the third line of the first stanza misleading, and was the coming rime worth the confusion? Would it not be hearing rather than sight that would attempt, unsuccessfully perhaps, to follow the song chat that was to fall to earth? Isn’t it kind of amateurish or ungrammatical to say “unbroke” instead of “unbroken”? Wouldn’t the latter improve the poem, you know, breaking the tedium? The penultimate line – is its hobbling supposed to prepare us for the extra steps of the last line? Well, I guess this poem is a nice lesson in mythmaking or at least metaphor. I mean, it’s good for Longfellow’s reputation that it was not an arrow found in the heart of a friend. (“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Arrow and the Song

Lately I’ve been going through Vancouver writer, editor, poet and critic George Bowering’s Good Morning Poems: A start to the day from famous English-language poets (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2023), a short critical anthology of forty-eight poems selected across five hundred years of English-language poetry, each of which include a page-long commentary by Bowering himself. In his short preface to the collection, he offers that he likes to begin each morning reading (or rereading) a poem. “Some people like to go for a walk in the woods or to the coffee shop in the morning. Some peoples have even written poems about morning walks.” he writes. “I’m not that extreme – I’ll settle for a chair at the table, a cup of dark coffee, and a page or two of Denise Levertov. Lots of poets have written to or about the early hours, which suggests that if you are working on the New York Times crossword and thus have a pen in your hand, it might be as pleasant to write a poem as to read one. I’d just as soon read a poem, though, say ‘January Morning’ by William Carlos Williams, any month of the year.”

The selection includes forty-eight poems alongside Bowering’s commentary, offering his insight on a range of published works by Sir Thomas Wyatt, Queen Elizabeth I, John Donne and Ben Jonson to Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt and John Keats, to Emily Brontë, Archibald Lampman, Gertrude Stein and Margaret Avison. As he offers on Archibald Lampman: “Some professors who should have known better dubbed him ‘The Canadian Keats.’ Yes, he was one of those who could not resist riming ‘life’ with ‘strife,’ but even with the challenging rime scheme he forced upon himself, he wrote in ‘We Too Shall Sleep’ an affective poem about his unfortunate son without harming the language overmuch.” Five hundred years is an enormous stretch of English-language literature, so the selection is curious, from the expected to the unexpected, offering a variety of poetic structures as well as a range of poems famous to lesser-known.

There has always been a liveliness to Bowering’s prose, especially appreciated across his numerous collections of criticism, and this book provides a glimpse into his teaching methods, managing not only to articulate a vibrant commentary upon older poems, providing commentary and context, but to pass along his own obvious enthusiasm and sheer reading pleasure on works that most of us have either ignored or simply not been exposed to. If a book such as this was presented to high school students when attempting to teach poetry, we might all be in a far better situation as far as poetry reading literacy. Bowering’s enthusiasm is infectious, and he manages to pack a great deal of information and nuance, offering not only a context but some of the limitations of both poem and perspective, in his commentaries with incredible, readable ease. As he ends his commentary on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet – To Science”: “A lot of people think of Poe as the author of horror stories and fanciful verse. They ought to read this sonnet aloud, its rhythm and sounds so moving, the near perfection of its last three lines. Sonnets were invented as love poems; Poe the critic never forgets that.” Or, as he offers on Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”:

At first you might wonder whether Whitman means that he is hearing workers in the United States or workers in all of America from Tierra del Fuego to Baffin Island. I think it’s possible that he means both – the nineteenth-century Whitman followed the eighteenth-century Thomas Jefferson in looking forward to a time when his country will have gobbled up the whole hemisphere. Such gobbling was called Manifest Destiny by some, Lebensraum by some others. Whitman’s notion of song accompanying work is pretty common. Whistle while you work, sang Jiminy Cricket, remember? He was a fictional character in the movies, as were all those melodious slaves “singing on the steamboat deck,” and in the hot cotton fields, all among the stones they piled to build the White House. The slaves who had a lot to do with building Whitman’s country did not own anything, not even themselves, and so were not referred to in the ninth line, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” Whitman the patriot liked the idea of a country made of individual states, a nation made of individual workers, and so on. His favourite poetic form was the list, as found in the Bible, a volume made up of individual books. The Ten Commandments, the begats, the Sermon on the Mount are some influential lists. Whitman in his poem lists various individuals singing, to be echoed, you might say, in his famous poem “Song of Myself.” You may sometime hear someone reading “I Hear America Singing,” but I wonder whether you have tried singing it.

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