—Audience member, following the launch of four poetry books by young poets at the Alden Nowlan Festival in Fredericton, New Brunswick
Saturday, October 2, 2004
Each young poet is introduced, makes his or her way in turn to the podium to polite applause, with varying degrees of composure and nervousness, shiny new book in hand, from which he or she reads a handful of poems, parents’ cameras flashing and whirring, then sits down again to more polite applause. Yes, it’s more a rite of passage for a young community member than a significant artistic experience. The poetry, well coached, is not painfully bad, but most of it lacks confidence, stylistic flair, vision. Originality. A more senior poet muses afterwards, “I can see thoughtfulness, intelligence, a love of language—but where’s the poetry?” Another later observes, “Their poetry seems limited to the occasional aperçu into quotidian existence. They don’t seem to believe in anything. There is a hopelessness to it, but they don’t seem aware that they are without hope.” None of this is said to their faces, but one younger poet, fellow Maisonneuve columnist John Lofranco, has the chutzpah to call them on their vapidity. The following night he reads this squib:
Wow the way this poet reads
really puts me to sleep. At the poetry reading, I’m restless—a fly
has lost a wing and is buzzing uselessly
in a circle under my chair, drowning
out the book launch.
Maybe if they’d launched it with rockets, the roar would’ve drowned out
the fly, or kept my attention.
But it didn’t. It woulda been cool though.
Maybe the book would have flown higher too, if they’d dropped
a few of the heavier names: Pound,
maybe, or Eliot (T.S., Thomas Stearns, Tom, Tommy, Stearnsey, T-Diddy, The T.S.E.!)
Yeah, we’re tight.
Maybe if they’d drunk more wine, sorry
Chardonnay, of course, or perhaps Merlot
(poetry is better if you are specific) …
Now the fly has stopped and I wonder
if I should squish it, for good measure.
But then I think, why should the fly be spared
another hour of needy, self-centred solipsism?
Man, I hope this is over soon, ’cause I really gotta piss!
One of the previous night’s readers asks from the audience if Lofranco wrote the piece last night. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, I did.” It’s not a great poem by any stretch, but it makes its point with humour and style and is far more memorable than what it pokes fun at.
Over the course of the weekend—during which thirty-odd readers, ranging from grad students to GG winners, get up and read from their work—I observe serious tension between the urge to nurture and develop young talent and an aesthetic exasperation at the lack of talent in the young. Listening to thirty good poets is strain enough on one’s attention span. When many of the poets are average at best, it’s no wonder that people’s patience runs low.
It seems to me that a lot of things are typically forgiven of poets who are young and/or first-time authors. If their style is indeterminate, unassertive, unoriginal, they “haven’t found their voice yet.” If they only write superficial poems about the rather banal circumstances of largely unexceptional lives, they are lauded for writing passionately of their “personal experience.” If their work lacks remarkable cadences, they “employ prose rhythms.” The problem with this sort of gentleness is that it establishes a low standard, and the unchecked flaws of the emerging poet can easily become the habits of the mid-career poet. Sometimes the best way to nurture talent is to test the will of the young poet to endure adversity. If blunt criticism is enough to deter a poet from writing or publishing further, can they have been that serious about the endeavour in the first place?
Since the 1960s, the growth of the cultural cottage industry that is Canadian Poetry has made it de rigueur to every few years thrust into the spotlight the most recent New Wave (the title of Ray Souster’s 1966 anthology) of poets—whether they’re ready or not. At the first faint whiff of basic competence, the eager young ephebe is rushed into print, often by his or her own mentors, who have a parental tendency to exaggerate their progeny’s accomplishments. In most instances, they would do their pupils a greater favour by discouraging the urge to publish. It’s impossible to say if these supposed prodigies would do better if they waited longer: are they good poets not yet at full stride or simply not very good poets? These young writers could easily do worse. But when we’re already deluged with hundreds of unexceptional and mostly unwanted books of verse—despite the dire straits that both poetry qua cultural activity and publishing supposedly find themselves in—I have to wonder: what’s the damn hurry? When the dance floor is so crowded, is it not that much more important to make sure you know your steps and have your own moves before entering? Or as Horace (as translated by David Ferry) put it in “Ars Poetica”:
A lawyer who’s just o.k. can, maybe, lack
The eloquence of Mesalla or the learning
Of Cascellius, and, nevertheless, perform
Some useful functions. However, a poet who’s
Just mediocre, just all right, has nothing
Of any value to bring to men or gods.
Youth and poetic maturity are not always strangers. Do we ever say of Keats, “not bad for a poet in his twenties”? We might wonder what Rimbaud and Nelligan could have accomplished had they not stopped writing poems before they could grow a full beard, but we don’t derogate the poems they did write as juvenilia. Gwendolyn MacEwen was already a strange and remarkable poet at nineteen. Some of the younger writers in Fredericton did demonstrate great skill, self-restraint, and respect for poetry as art and not mere self-expression. Mark Callanan’s melancholic reading of his poem “Divination” was easily one of the weekend’s highlights. Callanan was probably the youngest poet on the bill, and it’s a very personal poem, but there’s nothing narcissistic or callow about lines like these:
Yesterday I happened to pass a birdbath and saw your face twinned. What is the exact significance of the double?
Love appears in visions as a rose, failing that, the carcass of a
horse. Do you remember? You carved your name in my back with a
finger. But for the lightning forked in your eyes, I would have spoken it
aloud. Flower or carrion? (I can’t remember)
I’m not the one in charge of metaphor.
The insight, emotional rigour and formal dexterity of such writing serve as important reminders that a young poet can and should be a fully formed poet, that poetry should bore itself into bone and brain and not simply bore.
Another standout was Jeramy Dodds. Unfortunately, I missed Dodds’ reading because I arrived late at the first event on Saturday afternoon. Anyone who attends as many poetry readings as I do knows how rare it is to derive any genuine excitement from what one sees and hears, so I was intrigued when everyone I talked to afterward raved about Dodds and about one poem he read in particular. When I met him at a party that night, I asked him if he has a manuscript he’s shopping around. “Nah,” he said casually, “I’m in no hurry.” If only more of the weekend’s readers had his self-assurance and sensible attitude, a greater percentage of first collections might be anticipated and not merely welcomed with mild applause.
Halifax-based Zachariah Wells is the author of Unsettled, a book of Arctic poems from Insomniac Press. The Zed Factor appears every second Monday.