Monday, May 09, 2011

"Cushion for Owls"

Contemporary poetry, in incessant flux & search of new poetic formulas, appears to have an unbounded arsenal at its disposal: cultural overtones, literary experiments, clever page layout, use of extended character sets and creative fonts, vertical sections through the depth of a vocabulary, manufactured words and so on.

An arsenal that delights and simultaneously imposes a distance (entirely worth discovering) from what we tend to call ‘traditional’ poetry. Traditional poetry: a somewhat conventional & old-fashioned organization of poetic ideas, a bit out of sync with the efforts of the avant-garde, a poetry written in what could be referred to (borrowing a term coined by the Romanian poet Nichita Stanescu) “the sweet classic style.”

How can then poems that appear to have been extracted out of a forgotten cardboard box, poetry without too much declared poetic invention even aspire to be modern poetry?
Is this not mission impossible?

The poetry of Patrick Lane (b. 1939). one of Canada’s best known poets, is proof in my (outdated) opinion that the gist of poetry does not necessarily lie within the poetic formula, but rather in the substance and stature of its poetic text.

Patrick Lane’s poems are made of ‘simple’, intuitive texts, woven out of an accessible poetic vocabulary that any beginner or poetry aficionado would tend to operate with (moon, night, snow, and singing). It is the way the words play out in the ensemble of his poems that leads us to the discovery of the essence of modernity in his poetry.

Since I was unable to entirely guess the nature of the miraculous binding element that forges soaring metaphors out of every day words in Patrick Lane’s poems, I thought to quote a few lines from Witness (a book that includes poems written between 1962 and 2010).

As we read these lines and continue to bask in their afterglow, the quest for their elusive poetic alchemy fades in the background yielding place to their net effect: a luminous sight. 

"The night is summer
and the hour is heavy with air that moves
like a slow mouth in the leaves of the chestnut,
the branches of the elms."

from Dominion Day Dance.

"The country of snow we lived in 
was a cushion for owls to walk on.
Birds don't understand windows.
They never did."

from For Ten Years

 A review of Witness on the page of CBC Books page -->here.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


a very elegant defence of 'traditional poetry', "the substance and stature of its poetic text."

I happen to believe that a finely crafted poem in the traditional style, with a real command of its materials, can be presented in a contemporary vernacular & present a text that's entirely in sync with the 21st century.

The putative avant gardists are every one of them imitative to the core: relying unabashedly on models given to them from as far back as the turn of the century. Examples are too numerous to give. Nobody in Canada or elsewhere would be waving the avant garde flag were it not for 'fluxus', 'oulipo', collagists schools etc etc that came before.

Thanks for the intro to Patrick Lane: I shall certainly check him out.

Irina M. said...

Hello Conrad:

There is no Maginot defense line in this post, since poetry techniques are such fluid matters and, let’s face it, a dangerous topic.

I’ve no intention of digging my own grave by arguing for or against…:o)…

Rather, I would be arguing for both which I think is also your point.

Thank you for stopping by…I’ve also recently discovered Patrick Lane’s poems and hence this post.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Hi Irina,

I'm afraid I've dug my grave years ago, & am prepared to lie in it rather than give an inch to the growing crowd of third-rate "experimentalists" who've all but destroyed the lyrical voice in Canada. I believe just as strongly that academics are to blame.

But, I agree also, sometimes you have to have to hold your nose & try saying something positive about poetry styles you find abhorrent. Which I oftentimes do in my posts. It's important to "eluciate" first.

Irina M. said...

HI Conrad:

Which poetry styles do you find abhorrent?

Don't they all feel like goodies on a cold winter day?

Conrad DiDiodato said...

What styles do I find abhorent? How about mash up, conceptual, slam, flarf, fluxus, codework, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, text, appropriation, cleave, ecopoetics, restraint-based, cancellation, concrete, moving, jump-cut,etc etc. You can google any one of these for the details.

And the list keeps getting longer. On a cold winter day I'd rather curl up with Browning & hot cocoa. But that's just me:))

Irina M. said...

Hi Conrad:

Very interesting - I will look up these terms.

Lyrical voices are alive and well in Canada - case in point Witness .

Hot cocoa - always gets my vote...:o)

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