Thanks to one of those strange confluences that the information age occasionally produces, poetry has been forced onto the front burner of my consciousness this week. Unpacking my last box of books, I came across an old copy of 15 Canadian Poets. I sat down, took a break, and quickly reread some of my favourite poems from the collection: Al Purdy’s Lament for the Dorsets, Raymond Souster’s The Death of the Grenadiers, and the entire selection of Alden Nowlan poems.
Later in the week, I open up the latest Walrus and see the photo spread on many of these same poets, thirty years ago, and I can’t help but agree with George Bowering: How beautiful they all were.
I have an uneasy relationship with poetry. I remember liking a lot of the poetry we were taught in high school (mostly English romantic stuff), but I couldn’t escape the feeling that poetry was a chore, in the sense that a poem was something that was to be decoded, not enjoyed. So into undergrad and beyond, I left poetry to the poseurs and the english majors.
Two events, years apart, threatened to bring me back to poetry.
1. In 1994, a friend graduated from UofT and his uncle bought him a big bucket of cheap red wine for the apres-convocation party in his room in residence. There was plenty left over, and the next night a small group of us gathered to finish it off. One of us pulled a book of poems off the shelf and started reading… hours later we were still at it, drinking wine and trading off poems. The hilight was E.J. Pratt’s The Shark, with it’s wicked last stanza:
Then out of the harbour,
With that three-cornered fin
Shearing without a bubble the water
That strange fish,
Tubular, tapered, smoke-blue,
Part vulture, part wolf,
Part neither– for his blood was cold.
2. A few years ago, at the Victory Cafe in Toronto, I happened to catch a launch of a new issue Taddle Creek, a small literary journal. I sat and listened to Chris Chambers read from his book Lake Where No One Swims, and for the first time — far too late — I realised how plainly enjoyable a poem can be. I still re-read Chris’s book once or twice a year, though I really wish he’d get on with another one.
Anyway, these thoughts occur just as Toronto is looking to replace Dennis Lee as its municipal poet laureate, and as George Bowering’s term as Parliamentary poet laureate comes to an end. It rather depresses me that I can’t think of a single thing either of them wrote during their tenure.