One of my favorite books from ages ago, The Journal Of St. Denys Garneau which I discovered in a bargain bin at the Coles where Neil Young worked.
I had been frequenting the Champlain bookstore in Toronto, when I first saw a mention of him, picking up books in the European style or French style, uncut pages you had to razor open to read Marie Claire Blais, Anne Hébert(Garneau’s cousin), and others, etc. Which of course led to other readings of Hubert Aquin, Michel Tremblay, etc etc.
Favorite because it fit right in with circumstances of thought, countryside and origin (I’d go to read it in solitude in a place near Ottawa, having visited my mother’s birthplace in Campbell’s Bay, Quebec), and the poetic disclosures. The discovery attached to slicing open pages, and translating – since the poems were in French – always felt fresh and new, and I could see what was missed in other translations though John Glassco’s comes closest.
Reminded me that favorites are often due to a time and place, as are poets whose popularity mysteriously decline upon their deaths; similar to the most popular novelists of decades or centuries past whom not many can even recall.
The book lasts for many reasons then, one of which would be the essential self, made bare without being mired in the spectacles which pass for a self these days, through literate and real details as is the case in many of his poems at whatever level they may be taken.
He was as much a denizen of my ‘neighborhood’ of spirits and souls as Shelley, Shakespeare, or reaching back, Archilochus, and Marcus Aurelius.
‘the poet of desolate landscapes’
Fortunately for me I read some early Ballard in the ‘70’s before all the hype and surrounding mess over his work Crash, turned into a movie by Cronenberg.
He was called the ‘poet of desolate landscapes’ for a reason.
One of my favorite science fiction writers, along with Thomas Disch (particularly Camp Concentration), Philip K. Dick, and other individual books, such as A Canticle For Leibowitz. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz
Most people will recognize what Spielberg did with his quite wonderful autobiographical work, Empire Of The Sun. Excellent movie, wonderful book.
However, a book of interviews with Ballard is more than interesting and shows a prophet of the future now in his words.
Extreme Metaphors is a great compilation of the author in talks that are always interesting, and often revelatory.
Take this passage, from 1974 – (the year, not any particular book), in an interview conducted by Carol Orr, with the influence of Judith Merrill, whom I was fortunate to meet. (Along with Marian Engel, who wrote the great (and supposedly feminist) novel, Bear amongst other works, introduced by poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, to my surprise when I was first meeting Gwen, who introduced me by saying, “This is the poet I’ve been telling you about,” and having Marian interject, “Well, say something brilliant then, poet” to which I apparently satisfactorily replied since both Judith and Marian gave an approving, and raised eyebrows, nod to Gwen afterwards. *biography
“Threats to the quality of life that everyone is so concerned about will come much more, say, from the widespread application of computers to every aspect of our lives where all sort of science fiction fantasies will come true, where bank balances will be constantly monitored and at almost any given time all the information that exists about ourselves will be on file somewhere – where all sorts of agencies, commercial, political and governmental, will have access to that information.”
– Pg.58, Extreme Metaphors, How To Face Doomsday without Really Trying.
Reason enough to start to reading his books, let alone that book.
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<–Check this out: Poetry & How It Gets That Way – updated!
Alden Nowlan is one of those poets whom I never got to meet, and always wish I’d been able to do so.
I first saw one of his poems when I was in high school. And as with that poem, his other poems: they always evoke, a ‘yes!,’ about honesty and the truth of things. Always memorable. You’ll find them repeating themselves at the least expected moments.
The poem that first struck me was his ‘Aunt Jane.’
Aunt Jane, of whom I dreamed the nights it
was dead at ninety, buried at a hundred.
We kept her corpse a decade, hid upstairs,
where it ate porridge, slept and said its prayers.
And every night before I went to bed
they took me in to worship with the dead.
Christ Lord, if I should die before I wake,
I pray thee Lord my body take.
Just to be sitting in your own world and to have 8 lines smack you awake out of the blue, away from your concerns and take you to revelation so quickly, so easily, and with such delight – amazing.
But Alden has many, many poems of the kind that do so – surprising in their humility, strength and understanding. His are the works you could carry in a small book with you and find sustaining every time you looked.
He covers history, patriotism, and more all in a beautiful way.
Canadian January Night
Ice storm: the hill
a pyramid of black crystal
down which the cars
slide like phosphorescent beetles
while I, walking backwards in obedience
to the wind, am possessed
of the fearful knowledge
my compatriots share
but almost never utter:
this is a country
where a man can die
simply from being
And from Alden Nowlan, Selected Poems
A Poem About Miracles
Why don’t records go blank
the instant the singer dies?
Oh, I know there are explanations,
but they don’t convince me.
I’m still surprised
when I hear the dead singing.
As for orchestras,
I expect the instruments
to fall silent one by one
as the musicians succumb
to cancer and heart disease
so that toward the end
I turn on a disc
and all that comes out
is the sound of one sick old man
scraping a shaky bow
across and out-of-tune fiddle.
These poems of Alden’s are a few of the good, and representative of his best. You need the book to even begin to get an awareness of his greatness.
Robert Frost may be more well known, but for me Alden wins the laurels.
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It would help to know what poetry isn’t before any declaration is made regarding exactly what poetry is, has been, and may become.
Poetry is not attitude, nor advertisement. It is not the approximation of a recognizably magical moment captured in one frieze of a combination of attitude, a mythical fancy, nor an established attitude limning on the page what is apparently or realistically poetical.
The first is a pose, dangerous in that it represents itself as poetry whereas the real poetry is of a whole, not an imitation, derived from abused elements that have established themselves as tools of the trade of the art of poetry.
That of course is where the attitude has greatly substituted for the art.
Real poetry will result from the poet gorging on the classics; assume the essence of such as its own, and through a passionate breath of love for the rhythm and the intellect in such art allow for the true voice of the poet to be discoverable. The resultant poetry may arise as much as a surprise to the poet as to the reader, otherwise there’d always be the possibility of intellect overwhelming the creation of art.
Poetry is of course an art. Something often dismissed by the fact that at this time and for a long while now it has been assumed as a cloaked attitude by the same ‘writers’ who once stuck to the creation of what were referred to as ‘nurse novels.’
The problem with stating that poetry is an art is that you will confront the stuck-up moralizing fragments of dusty academics who are as far from the reality of poetry as a coroner is from life. They will confront you with lies about poets who lived ordinary lives, were accountants, etc., without also noting that these people were the exceptions.
There will even be ‘poets’ who have somehow – through connections of those wanting to build a sense of personal power – been granted status academically, or in a literary life, unassociated with a realistic assessment of their work.
These will be the neighborhood articulates about whom you will hear other ordinaries commenting that likely they’re merely educated idiots.
This alone can result in a ‘beat poet’ moment where you want to tear off the suit and tie and run away to who knows what, catching the rhythmic notion of Mexico City Blues like Kerouac. And many have done so.
However that place of the Mexico City Blues, celebrated by such music poets as Bob Dylan, and Allen Ginsberg, is not a destination (see ‘Ithaca’ by C.P. Cavafy), but a resultant melding of place and metaphor, from and to which the artist later known as Kerouac to the public arrived without a notion of such. His journey was honest.
The only way an attitude of taking the same journey – almost – can be honest is if the poet or writer is well aware of doing such a thing to contrive a similar sense of discovery, combined with the fact that if they will lose themselves in it what they will discover about it will be themselves, with far different results of the same ‘blues’ since time and its changes will have made it so.
Central to such a journey would be such a poet’s own passion and talent. Some will arise out of genuine being, some out of a mixture of authenticity, and artificiality or attitude.
Only the resultant work will prove what is true poetry, or not.
This is where the mythos of the poet, which can serve as a necessary impulse for the real poet, must be separated from the contemporary poetic attitude.
However, let’s not forget that poetry is ultimately about poetry, in a sense. First, it is about the life of the poet. It may be a rich life as Shelley briefly enjoyed, or a poor life as many minor and major poets have had since. Rich and poor financially, anyway. Poetry is untouched by such things, though the ease or impediment of producing poetry is heavily influenced.
Poetry is not what a contemporary and well known poet has said about producing poetry as a result of poetry. That may be the case for him in his portraitures, and stance as a poet. But his stating it to be so without making the effort of distinguishing how and why he says so is simply a lazy cynicism. And a self-justification for an awareness of a lack of greatness, and thus a self-fulfilling prophecy.
He writes as though poetry entered into existence and went out with both the beginning and end of his own work.
Poetry is an informed and learned enjoyment, an enlightenment, and a passion as discoverably brought into being by observation as it is a celebration of the most ordinary, the most different, and the forever unique where all boundaries of discipline and knowledge result in that art of poetry. I might label all of Jackson Pollock’s works as a statement of Poetry, to illustrate this.
This illustrates where poetry began, and how it continues.
With that open mouth of darkness closing in, that vision of beauty if nature, people, and a greater aspect of civilization.
And how it is learned – absorbed – through the passionate embrace of great poets’ works: more than willingly, since these are the real forbears and ancestors of the poet.
Poetry is freedom to create and recreate worlds, and the world.
It is the responsibility of the poet. Thus, the next question would be: what is the poet.
Poetry & How It Gets That Way – Poetry has been an essential art in history and is in danger of being trivialized into extinction.
Several seminal events in recent literary history are detailed in illustrating how poetry is not merely an adjunct to history and culture but can elucidate, influence and in changing perspective alter those same events and deeds.
Find out more in this treatise more sociologically descriptive than academically oriented.
The thing could barely stand. Yet taken
from his mother and the barn smells
he still impressed with his pride,
with the promise of sovereignity in the way
his head moved to take us in.
The fierce sunlight tugging the maize from the ground
liked at his shapely flanks.
He was too young for all that pride.
I thought of the deposed Richard II.
“No money in bull calves,” Freeman had said.
The visiting clergyman rubbed the nostrils
now snuffing pathetically at the windless day.
“A pity,” he sighed.
My gaze slipped off his hat toward the empty sky
that circled over the black knot of men,
over us and the calf waiting for the first blow.
the bull calf drew in his thin forelegs
as if gathering strength for a mad rush…
tottered…raised his darkening eyes to us,
and I saw we were at the far end
of his frightened look, growing smaller and smaller
till we were only the ponderous mallet
that flicked his bleeding ear
and pushed him over on his side, stiffly,
like a block of wood.
Below the hill’s crest
the river snuffled on the improvised beach.
We dug a deep pit and threw the dead calf into it.
It made a wet sound, a sepulchral gurgle,
as the warm sides bulged and flattened.
Settled, the bull calf lay as if asleep,
one foreleg over the other,
bereft of pride and so beautiful now,
without movement, perfectly still in the cool pit,
I turned away and wept.
The economy of language, the spirit of truth; sociology, philosophy: the distillation of experiences reflected, and altered, in one brief poem – that’s the magic of poetry, and a great poet.
Irving Layton is a poet everyone should read.
Irving Layton was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, twice. He was friend and mentor to Leonard Cohen. Looked up to by Allen Ginsberg, Williams Carlos Williams, Margaret Atwood, and many other fine and great writers for decades.
Disclosure: Irving was my friend for decades. He once said of my early writing, ” Dean is a combination of thought and torment that has made him write more than a baker’s dozen of fine poems.. he might produce a collection that could astound us all.”
alternatively, direct from – https://deanjbaker.wordpress.com/links-to-my-books-in-print//
Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac
with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
and changed nothing in the world
except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving
someone or something, the world shrunk
hand-size, and never seeming small.
I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet ….
Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low
and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief
until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough
to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care
where it’s been, or what bitter road
to come so far, to taste so good.
© 1989 by Stephen Dunn
Stephen Dunn, “Sweetness” from New and Selected Poems 1974-1994. Copyright © 1989 by Stephen Dunn.
A truly great poet – with any number of fine books to choose from.