Thank you ... it is, as always, a pleasure and a
privilege to be asked to hold forth to our Literary Table.
Any tuppenny-ha'penny book on the art of public
speaking will recommend that all public address should begin with a
joke; even, or perhaps especially, when the subject might be of a
Who am I to swerve from received wisdom? So
here, plainly labelled, is a joke: the hoary one, about the tourist
in New York who asked a young, multi-pierced-and-ringed native how to
get to Carnegie Hall. And the youth replied,
'Like, practice, man! Practice!'
It is interesting, that I could break off here
and return to my seat, having said, on one level, all that there is
really to be said on the subject. For if one is determined to learn
to write anything well, one must discipline oneself to sit down and
write - as often as is possible for as long as is possible. Always,
of course, bearing in mind that one of the writer's essential tools
is a very large waste-paper basket.
However, since my announced subject is Poetic
Practice, and I hope to move through several levels of discourse on
this topic, I will continue with some, largely personal, elaboration.
That it should be personal stems from the recognition that, as Auden
remarked, a poet must not mug up. And as David Jones admonished us,
one can only dwell profoundly on the truly known and the truly
There is practice and there is practice. I was
taken aback to read recently the following passage in a review by the
superb Canadian pianist, Angela Hewitt, of a book titled, Piano
Notes: The Hidden world of the Pianist, by Charles Rosen. Ms
It might come as a surprise to some, as it
did to me, that Rosen recommends reading a book (in particular,
detective stories) while practising a difficult passage (a tip passed
on to him by his teacher, Rosenthal, who evidently picked it up from
Liszt). My own piano teacher, who was French, used to sing 'La
Marseillaise' while playing something fiendishly difficult (usually a
rapid passage in an atonal contemporary piece) to see if it was
sufficiently in the automatic reflexes - something I still do
This is, to my mind, carrying what I believe
computer geeks call 'multi-tasking' to an extraordinary degree. In
fairness to Angela Hewitt, I should mention that she continues by
I have never been one to engage in the mindless
repetition that Rosen appears to advocate: repetition, of course, is
essential and is what drives the neighbours crazy; but it seems to me
that thinking a piece through beforehand or simultaneously is more
profitable and gives better musical results in the long run.
Anyone who hopes to write poetry then must
practice - long and painstakingly indeed - at one's basic craft: the
writing, to the very best of one's abilities, of accomplished verse.
But to put it bluntly, no one can practise the writing of poetry.
That is beyond volition.
I do not want to get caught up here in the
inexhaustible and exhausting discursive wrangle as to what
distinguishes poetry from verse. However if you will bear with me, I
do hope to leave you this afternoon, through elaboration and
illustration, with some sense of what the crux of this matter might
be for me, within my own practice.
The last decade or so has seen a great
proliferation of classes, workshops, courses in 'Creative Writing.' I
confess that I have never attended such. But if someone were to ask
me what I thought of the phenomenon, I would say that one might well
come away with a huge load of, er, craft.
In the highly unlikely event that I might be
persuaded to direct such a course, I would at least make my students
aware of a few salient remarks: Mary Warnock's, 'There are rules
without meaning; there is no meaning without rules.' for instance; or
Robert Frost's admonition that 'Writing free verse is like playing
tennis without a net.' And in some relaxed moment, I might well
present them with the following gem by a justly famous, late member
of this Club: Samuel Marchbanks:
Of University Verse
I received an undergraduate magazine this
morning, containing the kind of poetry which boys and girls write
between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, full of words like 'harlot,'
'stench,' 'whore,' and the like. The young have a passion for strong
meaty words, and like to write disillusioned verse with jagged edges
about the deceitfulness and bitterness of life. I idly turned my hand
to versifying, and produced this nice bit of undergraduate poetry,
which I offer free to any university magazine:
Take it away!
Life - the thirty-cent breakfast
Offered to vomiting Man
In this vast Hangover -
Onward I reel
Till Fate - the old whore -
Loose or costive
Drops me in the latrine of Oblivion -
I have not (says Marchbanks) lost the
youthful, zesty university touch with a bit of verse.
And here is another joke: after which I could
once again return to my seat having said as much as can be said on,
however, quite another level. In this instance, it is a cartoon, from
the New Yorker magazine: It shows an earnest young chap, at a party,
looming over a young lady who is looking confused and dissatisfied:
he is saying to her,
'Technically, I love you.'
That technique, learned by practice, is a
quotient, perhaps essential, of sexual expression is inarguable - and
worlds apart from love.
That technique, learned by practice, is a
quotient, perhaps essential, of verbal expression is also inarguable
- and worlds apart from poetry.
I say, 'perhaps essential': I have long been
grateful to the old blues singer who sang, in a primitive direct
marriage, I would suspect, of conscious and unconscious
How far, how far, does that blood-red river
Right from my window to the setting sun.
For years I have been bemused by the
appropriateness of an analogy between the writing of poetry and
fishing. If you wish to catch trophy fish, you will be well advised
to spend years practising your crafts: of bait or fly casting;
perhaps of tying your own flies; learning the ways of the waters, the
weather, the seasons; above all, perhaps, learning to be patient, to
wait in hope. All of which will greatly increase the
probability of the achievement of your desire. Mind you, all of this
will be fruitless until some hidden creature strikes: you then bring
into command all of your experience in playing the hooked fish until
you have it netted and aboard. Then and only then can you determine
with any certainly what you have, or have not, caught.
And, it might be added, as with the blues
singer, it is always possible that some gormless kid downstream with
a bamboo pole, a length of string and a bent pin baited with a turgid
nightcrawler may hoik out Old Lunker before you.
The analogy between the two different desires
seems appropriate: but it is after all only analogous. What is
the difference? I would say that it is the difference between luck
The American poet and critic, Randal Jarrell,
once said, that 'the poet is an accident-prone worker.' Now, that is
clever - and a disservice. Accident is a matter of luck. One can
stake one's all, one's inheritance perhaps, throw the dice, squeal
with elation and retire henceforth for life. Luck, however, is always
and inevitably impersonal. The hand of Fate. But the true
apprehension of true poetry, for the reader or practitioner, being a
matter of grace, is always personal.
To listen to music with deeply focussed
attention demands of one considerable discipline: one must train
oneself to banish the selfish ego, worldly discord, in order to
embrace the presence of music. But to 'hear' music as all-consuming,
to obtain to the state wherein, as Eliot puts it, 'You are the music
while the music lasts,' is always a deeply personal experience of,
paradoxically, an other selfhood. So with poetry. To read, or to
write, truly to experience poetry, one must be given that gratuitous
otherness beyond volition, beyond desire: one must be graced.
Would to God, that I could have written, as did
that master-poet, Anon,
Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
But I - and you - may and sometimes do embrace
this poem - within the commonality of our humanity.
Many of you will remember, fondly I'm sure,
Margaret Boehnert. Margaret was one of the many Club members who made
me welcome when I first joined the Club in 1990; she was a frequent
attendant at this Table until she moved to London, Ontario. Having
joined there a literary group which on one occasion had decided to
investigate the matter of poetry, Margaret wrote, in 1999, to pose a
few questions to which I was happy to attempt a response. Here is
just one of them with my reply:
Q: When you write a poem, is it written in
silence from within you, or do you read it aloud to yourself?
A: As I work away at almost any writing, but
especially with verse I am constantly testing, by sounding,
whatsoever has occurred, silently and aloud. And ah! but Narcissus
can be resonant with Echo. There is however a very deep level at
which my poems are written towards a chaliced silence within me: but
that is another matter altogether.
Margaret also asked me to expand on the title of
my collection, Man in Love, this being a text that her group
had chosen for their consideration. I replied,
'Love', that much abused word, is contained
within and contains what the Greeks meant, I gather, by agape, the Latin
equivalent of which is as I understand it, caritas: and caritas
bears and furthers the moment of everything that the Gospels
implicate in the manifest context of 'charity', that human grace. Man
in love, then, is at the very least the twofold manifold of
charitable man and man in charity.
Then, two allusions: in the preface to his Collected
Poems, Dylan Thomas wrote:
I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when
asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the
moon to protect his flocks, replied: 'I'd be a damn' fool if I
didn't!' These poems, with all their crudities, doubts and
confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and
I be a damn' fool if they weren't.
and the scholar Michael Dolzani (once Northrop
Frye's research assistant) has written:
Frye often refers to Socrates' remark in
Plato's Republic that the real Republic is in the wise man's mind,
and the wise man will live in it no matter what state he is living in
externally. Likewise the knights of faith show by their actions that
they are living in a universe of love, sometimes even in the midst of
a skeptical disbelief so strong it amounts to despair, for no better
reason than that that is the only universe worth being alive
One discerning critic in a consideration of Man
in Love has quoted (from Yeats's 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen')
the line: 'Man is in love and loves what vanishes.' And another
commentator has noted that '[he] might have added S the four lines
with which Yeats's poem begins:
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Protected from the circle of the moon
That pitches common things about '
and goes on to consider Rosalind's speech to
Orlando (who is, he notes, 'a love poet and a mad poet') in As You
Like It: 'There is none of my uncle's marks upon you. He taught
me how to know a man in love; in which cage of rushes I am sure you
are not prisoner.'
'Cage of rushes'; Shakespeare did have a knack
for getting it right, did he not (in a footnote, G.B. Harrison
explains that a cage of rushes is a 'cage of reed made for
little birds'); and indeed the phrase seems not unsuitable for the
lover, or for the lunatic, or for the poet within her practice.
Speaking of Yeats, who has given us so many true
poems, any apprentice writer could do far worse than to consider over
the years, as have I, pierced increasingly, these incomparable lines
from 'Sailing to Byzantium:'
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
Once again I could, perhaps this time should,
sit down and leave these magnificent lines ringing in your ears. But
I have promised you, I feel, something more and will soldier on. If
only because as a practitioner I have long counterbalanced these
lines with a cautionary remark made in a letter to Robert Bridges by
Gerard Manley Hopkins. Who wrote,
The effect of studying masterpieces is to
make me admire and do otherwise.
Just so. For readers or for the poet as reader,
admiration may be sufficient. But the poet, qua poet, must
indeed work towards learning to 'admire - and do otherwise.'
Philip Larkin, for instance, who wrote many fine poems, later
deprecated his first published volume The North Ship because
he came to see how it was unduly inhabited by the Yeatsian voice.
To enter into a practice of poetry is to assume
- as a vocation, a calling - a commitment to a lifelong, sometimes
arduous process of the continual, disciplined focussing of the
attention on the interplay of language, imagination and reason,
within the faith (and the hope, and the charity) that it might be
possible to become thereby some instrument of poetic utterance.
This assumption, this habitus as the schoolmen
would call it, is a process of education, of self-education, which of
course will never be completed: Ars longa, vita brevis. (The life so
short, the craft so long to learn.) The entering into such a practice
is never, ultimately, an act of volition; it is an act of the
recognition, perhaps gradual, perhaps instant, of an imperative:
which I would hold to be a moral imperative. It is the act of the
recognition that this is to be one's way, at least one's predominant
way, of being in and of the world. Wherein and whereby one might,
with devotion, come to otherwise inaccessible understanding and to be
of otherwise unachievable service in the transmission, however
partial, of such understanding. It is a commitment of constancy. It
is a commitment to a vocation of love. As with love it has its
quotient of overwhelming reward, sometime despair, gratuitous
delight. And countless pure or simple pleasures.
Pleasures on many levels, often trivial, it must
be said. For instance, to revert to the anecdote of the tourist in
New York, I can't now recollect where or when I first heard it, but I
do remember that, even while I laughed, if somewhat ruefully, at the
same instant some part of my response was to say to myself, 'Aha!
What an interesting instance of metonymy!': the container for the
thing contained. And simultaneously, I thought of one of my
stagehands, a Scot who, like resplendent ferns, was usually lush. (He
once delighted me by defining a gentleman as someone who, when he
removed the cork from a bottle of whiskey, threw it [the cork] into
the fire.) And his telling me of how he once arrived at a
bring-your-own-bottle party (a common metonym, that) to present his
host with the required bottle - which he had emptied on his
circuitous way to the gathering.
Or moments unexpectedly farcical. Some years
back I woke one morning, sat up in bed and, half-asleep, declaimed
solemnly to rapidly departing Morpheus,
The Museum of Modern Art! The Museum of
In Exmoor or Dartmoor they don't give a fart for
The Museum of Modern Art.
I have stated that both the poetic process and a
poetic practice are largely concerned with self-education. 'To school
an intelligence into spirit', as Northrop Frye would paraphrase
Keats. The finest consideration of these matters of which I am aware
is an essay by Frye, 'Reflections on Life and Habit' in the
collection, Myth and Metaphor. If I cannot here go as deeply
as I would wish into these matters, in particular questions of the
conscious effort of training conscious skills to become an
unconscious yet accessible second nature, I would urge anyone
interested in the subject to seek out Frye's essay. You will be amply
Life and Habit is the title of a book by
Samuel Butler. And Frye reflects, tellingly, as follows:
One of Butler's most celebrated remarks is
that a hen is simply an egg's way of making another egg. Why should
this statement seem so paradoxical to us, when the reverse statement,
that an egg is what a hen makes, seem so self-evident? Butler
explains that the development of an egg into a hen is a matter of
growth through repetition of previous growths. Every detail of this
development can be, and has been, studied by embryologists. But when
a hen makes an egg, she cackles, and we are very impressed by noise,
which we always associate with some kind of meaning. Also, we see an
egg where there was no egg before, and that gratifies our impatience
to get something tangible without having to wait too long for it. So
when the Bible begins by saying that everything started with a
revolutionary act of God in suddenly making a world out of nothing,
we feel that it is the proper and inevitable way to begin a story of
nature. In Genesis the cackle and the egg are perhaps below the
dignity of Holy Writ, although there are eggs in Hindu and Greek
creation myths. But even in Genesis there is a spoken utterance and
what seems like a brooding bird. However, God's ways are not our
ways, and human creation is much more a matter of eggs trying to be
hens in the hope of producing future eggs.
Another cartoon that I relish shows a gigantic
infuriated hen, wings akimbo, towering over a tiny, terrified wet
chick cringing beside the shards of its broken eggshell. She is
'Now look what you've done!'
Rounding on much of the above, some
decades back I wrote the following poem. In its preoccupation with
the play of words, of contemplation, of empowerment, it might I hope
cast some more focussed yet synoptic light on my conception of the
nature of poetic process:
Round of Life
Let us the fruit of Love's pursuit
Of Jenny Wren, of speckled hen,
Here is an egg. Without a leg
to stand on:
When laid to rest, it must the nest
Death is the norm: this perfect form
We contemplate, may to our fate
Herein is held, without a weld,
A germ of flight, 'S world of delight,'
Which is, when broached, & sometime poached,
That thereby we may likewise be
That we live, all of us, at risk, I take as a
given: you hardly need me to tell you this. But that the assumption
of a poetic practice can carry with it unique risks might be a
consideration less familiar to you.
Let me read to you a brief fable by that wise
and cunning poet, Jorg Lui Borghes, in a translation by Norman Thomas
The Mirror and the Mask
The battle of Clontarf over, In which the Norwegians met defeat, the
High King of Ireland spoke to his court poet. 'The greatest deeds
lose their luster if they are not coined in words,' the king said. 'I
want you to sing my victory and my praise. I will be Aeneas; you will
be my Virgil. Do you think yourself capable of this task, which will
make us both immortal?'
Yes, my lord,' said the bard. 'I am Ollan.
For twelve winters I have trained in the disciplines of prosody. I
know by heart the three hundred and sixty legends that form the
basis of true poetry. The cycles of Ulster and Munster are in the
strings of my harp. The laws authorize me to be lavish in using
the oldest words of our tongue and the most complex metaphors. I
have mastered the secret of writing, which protects our art from the
the undiscerning eyes of the common herd. I can celebrate loves,
cattle thieves, voyages, and wars. I know the mythological lineages
of all the royal houses of Ireland. I possess a knowledge of
judicial astrology, mathematics, common law, and the powers of
plants. I have defeated my rivals in public contest. I have made
myself skilled in satire, which causes infirmities of the skin,
including leprosy. I know how to wield a sword, as I proved in your
battle. I am ignorant of only one thing - how to thank you for the
gift you make me.' The king, who was easily tired by long speeches,
especially those of others, said with relief, 'I know these things
quite well. I have been told that the nightingale recently
sang in England. When the rains and snows pass, and the nightingale
returns from its southern lands, you will sing your praises before
the court and before the School of Bards. I grant you a whole year.
You will polish each word and letter. Reward, as you know by now,
will not be unworthy of my royal custom nor of the sleepless nights
of your inspiration.'
'O king, what greater reward than to
see your face!' said the poet, who was also a courtier. He bowed and
withdrew, already glimpsing one or two verses.
When the year came round - it had been a time
of epidemics and uprisings - the poet presented his panegyric. He
declaimed it slowly, confidently, without a glance at the manuscript.
With his head the king showed his approval. Everyone imitated his
gesture, even those thronging the doorways, who were unable to make
out a single word. At the end the king spoke.
'I accept your labor,' he said. 'It is
another victory. You have given each word its true meaning, and each
substantive the epithet given it by the poets of old. In the whole of
your panegyric there is not a single image unknown to the classics.
War is the beautiful web of men, and blood is the sword's water. The
sea has its gods and the clouds foretell the future. You have skillfully
handled rhyme, alliteration, assonance, quantities, the artifices of
learned rhetoric, the wise variation of meters. If all the literature
of Ireland were to perish - absit omen - it could be reconstructed
without loss from your classic ode. Thirty scribes shall copy it
twelve times each.'
There was a silence, then he went on. 'All is
well and yet nothing has happened. In our veins the blood runs no
faster. Our hands have not sought the bow. No one has turned pale. No
one uttered a battle cry or set his breast against the Vikings.
Before a year is out, poet, we shall applaud another ode. As a sign
of our approval, take this mirror, which is of silver.'
'I give thanks and I understand,' said
The stars in the sky went on in their bright
course. Once more the nightingale sang in the Saxon forests, and the
poet came back with his manuscript, which was shorter than the one
before. He did not repeat it from memory but read it, obviously
hesitant, omitting certain passages as if he himself did not
completely understand them or did not wish to profane them. The ode
was strange. It was not a description of battle - it was the battle.
In its warlike chaos there struggled with one another the God that is
Three and is One, Ireland's pagan deities, and those who would wage
war hundreds of years later at the beginning of the Elder Edda. The
form was no less odd. The prepositions were alien to common usage.
Harshness alternated with sweetness. The metaphors were arbitrary, or
so they seemed.
The king exchanged a few words with the men
of letters who stood around him, then spoke to the bard. 'Your first
ode I could declare was an apt compendium of all that has been sung
in Ireland,' the king said. 'This one outdoes, and even makes as
nothing, whatever came before it. It astounds, it dazzles, it causes
wonderment. The ignorant will be unworthy of it, but not so the
learned, the few. An ivory casket will be the resting place of its
single copy. Of the pen that produced so eminent a work we may expect
one still more lofty.' He added with a smile, 'We are the figures of
a fable, and it is good to remember that in fables the number three
'The wizard's gifts, triads, and the
unquestionable Trinity,' the bard made bold to murmur.
The king continued, 'As a token of our
approval, take this golden mask.'
'I give thanks and I have understood,'
said the bard.
The anniversary came round again. The palace
sentries noticed that the poet carried no manuscript. In amazement,
the king looked at him; the bard was like another man. Something
other than time had furrowed and transformed his features. His eyes
seemed to stare into the distance or to be blind. The bard begged to
be allowed a few words with the king. The slaves left the chamber.
'Have you not written the ode?' asked
'Yes'' the bard sadly replied. 'But
would that Christ Our Lord had prevented me!'
'Can you repeat it?'
'I dare not.'
'I will give you the courage you lack,
' said the king.
The bard recited the poem. It consisted of a
Not venturing to repeat it aloud, the poet
and his king savored it as if it were a secret prayer or a blasphemy.
The king was as awestricken and overcome as the bard. The two looked
other, very pale.
'In my youth,' said the king, 'I
sailed toward the sunset. On one island I saw silver hounds that
dealt death to golden boars. On another we fed ourselves on the
fragrance of magic apples. On a third I saw walls of fire. On the
farthest island of all an arched and hanging river cut across the
sky and in its waters went fishes and boats. These are wonders, but
they do not compare with your poem, which in some way encompasses
them all. What bewitchery gave it to you?'
'In the dawn I woke up speaking words
I did not at first understand,' said the bard. 'Those words were a
poem. I felt I had committed a sin, perhaps one the Holy Ghost does
'The one we two now share,' the king
said in a whisper. 'The sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift
forbidden to men. Now it behooves us to expiate it. I gave you a
mirror and a golden mask; here is my third present, which will be the
In the bard's right hand he placed a dagger.
Of the poet, we know that he killed himself
upon leaving the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar wandering
the length and breadth of Ireland - which was once his kingdom - and
that he has never repeated the poem.
That is, as I said, a fable. I do not say,
merely a fable.
Here is a poem by Wallace Stevens:
Poetry is a Destructive Force
That's what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.
It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast.
To feel it breathing there.
Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.
He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast.
Its muscles are his own ...
The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.
Throughout my undergraduate years I was immersed
for the most part in two akin disciplines: philosophy and English
literature. Both, if they differ greatly, are deeply concerned with
language, reason and imagination.
As well, I had enlisted in the University
Naval Training Division of the RCN, the UNTD. We were known as, 'Untidies.'
(It was said that originally we had been promulgated by some wag in
Ottawa as the 'Canadian University Naval Training Service': I will
leave you to work out that acronym for yourselves.)
While at sea, we had to stand watch. And were
instructed in how, on night watch we must learn to use our peripheral
vision (where the rods in the retinal tissue of the eye, which are
responsible primarily for monochrome vision in poor light, are
clustered). To look directly at subtle phenomena by night is to have
them vanish. To look directly into the sun or its blazed reflections
on water by day is, of course, momentarily to be blinded.
One pitch-black middle watch nowhere out in the
north Atlantic on the bridge of the frigate Swansea, in 1951, I found
myself pondering on just how fruitful an analogy this might be for
the interpenetration within philosophy and literature of two of our
humanizing faculties, reason and imagination. This moment stayed with
me: many years later I wrote the following poem, 'Night Vision'. It
is, uncharacteristically, dedicated: 'for Ernest':
On watch, we had to learn
How, if we would discern
Out of the heaving swarm
Of darkened waters, form,
That accident might loom
Specific from the gloom,
Or a faint prick of light
Hint at the bound of night,
To train our every glance
Somehow just askance.
And could not value more
That adumbrated shore,
The landfall that not quite
Burns at the verge of sight:
But Man may come to prove
Vision, Logos, Love,
Impregnate; the behest
Modalities that best
Enhance our prayer to be
Where reason holds that we,
Blind creatures that we are
Before our Sun, our star
Searing in its sway,
Shall see by day.
'Vision, Logos, Love,'
Fear & Hope are - Vision
says William Blake.
The human word is neither immortal nor
invulnerable; but it is the power that shapes our chaos, and the
light by which we live.
says Northrop Frye.
That Love is all there is
Is all we know of Love;
It is enough, the freight should be
Proportioned to the groove.
says Emily Dickenson.
Let me conclude with one more brief poem.
Decades ago I wrote an epitaph. Which required the raising of an
analogy to that level of identity which bespeaks metaphor. Its title
is, 'Epitaph for an Angler:' It could as well have been titled,
Epitaph for a Poet:
To haunt the silver river and to wait
Were second nature to him, his own bait:
Unravelling at last a constant knot,
He cast his line clear: and was promptly caught.
Thank you, for your patience and for your
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