WOODCOCK, Poetry Column 1989, Issue 2




POETRY HAS ORDERS OF EXCELLENCE DIFFERENT from those of prose, and for this reason the writer of a poetry ' column tends to be rather like those who wait always for the messiah; he finds there are many who aspire but few who attain the vision and the power of statement that distinguishes the true ' major poet.

While he longs to come upon some new equivalent of "I saw Eternity the other night, /Like a great ring of pure and endless light, / All calm as it was bright," he is likely to open a page at random, as I have done among the books that came to me this quarter and read something like:

The crows that hang out at
Kitsilano Beach
learn their tricks from
water-wise gulls
diving with half a twist
to drop mussels on the rock

The first is inspired utterance, the verbalization of true vision; the second IS literal statement, at best the recording of precise observation. Between the two,' with banal utterances crowding towards the bottom, lies the range of poetry. Of course, the same range exists in prose, but because the primary business of prose is the statement of observed facts, ' we do not have such haunting expectations.

For prose a well-made book is enough ' to satisfy us. We do not feel the same twinge of disappointment when we acknowledge that all novelists are not: Margaret Laurences as we do when we read a batch of poets and encounter: nobody even remotely resembling a Henry Vaughan or a T.S. Eliot.

Still, we do keep on reading with: interest poetry that is at least well done, poetry that observes the world and records the feelings of those who inhabit it, for the sense that we are getting a close view, down among the grasses and the mosses, of what life for most people' really is.'

Such modest poetry is rarely published by major publishers, who find it necessary for their reputation to avoid: anything merely tentative. All but one of the 10 volumes I have been reading are published by small presses; the odd one out is avowedly self-published.

The self-publisher among my 10, Tim Lander, set out to engage my attention and did by calling himself "B.C.'s lowest rapscalion of 'a self-publishing poet," the implication being that self-publishing poets never get noticed. What he doesn't seem to realize is that most of the small presses that get noticed are in fact poets publishing, themselves and their friends.

His 0 Lust How Magnificent Your Artifacts (Lander, 217 Irwin St. Nanaimo, B.C. V9R 4X4), is a series of meditations on the role of eroticism in art and civilization, both curious and polished. Despite his eagerness to be read, Lander has not supplied a price for his book.

Four new titles have appeared under the imprint of the Caitlin Press, a newcoming publisher whose editorial policy still seems undefined. There is an emotional self-indulgence about some of the volumes it publishes, as if the poet like Claudeman in Becoming My Father ($8.95), a volume about the sadness of being a son and the fears of being a father were using poetry for personal exorcism.

Other volumes are by Tim Merrill (Hearts the Same, $8.95) and Joanna Beyers (Sandbar Islands $8.95), both genuine observers who are recording quotidian experiences, small adventures and agonies. Somewhat deeper insights are contained in Tom Konyves' Ex Perimeter ($8.95) which moves, in poems like "Two Loves in the Same House", into a realm of understanding beyond mere observation.

Sense of Season (Press Porcepic $7.95), by Ontario poet David Manicom, is an exceptionally mature first book, the work of a poet who has waited wisely before making his appearance in book form. It is particularly interesting for its development of observational manner, producing a nature poetry of the farmlands of Ontario that projects a deep feeling for place and past, for the actual and the epiphanic. A poet to watch and follow.

There are some writers who have caught the spirit of the age so faithfully that they have turned banality into an art. Norman Levine has done so remarkably in prose, and Michael Dennis in his Fade Blue (Pulp $7.95) seems to me like a verse Levine, brilliantly bored. He reveals an agitated, obsessed intelligence, and he writes a clear and flowing line, but the world he writes of is often of such a smothering dullness that one wonders how it can become the subject of poetry. But what else, after all, was Wordsworth but a master of the Dull and the Ordinary? Chacun a son ambition!

Robin Blaser, a San Francisco Poet of the hip 1950's, though marinated in Canadian brine through long years at Simon Fraser, still retains much of the influence of his American past. Pell Mell (Coach House $12.95) is very typical of American modernism in its structure, stretching back to Uncle Ezra to produce what Blaser describes as a volume of "random" poems which are also "a further movement in one long work that I call The Holy Forest, though that need not trouble the reader because the forest is full grown.'

Pell Mell has really no more to do with the tradition of Canadian poetry than the fact that it was written here, but it will be of interest to readers of mid-century American poetry who want to trace what happened to the lesser members of that movement after its really important figures, Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan, died in the flesh but not in memory.

Ron Smith has long been a key figure in the West Coast literary scene, and there are many of us, readers and writers, who feel indebted to him for the work he has done over the years at Oolichan Press, publishing poetry and fiction with fine editorial taste and visual elegance. A recent Oolichan poetry offering, for example, is Circus Dogs ($7.95) by Tommy Douglas (not the late politician), a whimsical, surrealistic collection of bizarre encounters and strange juxtapositions.

After a long silence as a poet, Ron Smith has now published A Buddha Named Baudelaire ($7.95) with Sono Nis Press rather than with his own Oolichan. If your taste runs to decadent writing and mine does you will like this book.

Ron Smith offers the kind of prose poems which Baudelaire also loved to write, and there is in his work the same sense of the mysterious correspondences of existence, and the same awareness of the visible world existing in all its epiphanous glory, that distinguish the great French poets from Baudelaire d Gautier down to Rimbaud, and which Smith admirably celebrates without. imitating.

A Buddha Named Baudelaire is a fine meditational structure that has been so long in the making that it seems to concentrate the essence of the writer's life and thought into a tight cluster of hard and gemlike flames.
--by George Woodcock

[Summer/BCBW 1989]