Monday, December 17, 2007

Some Thoughts on Occasional Verse

Thanks to Bookninja for the link to this story about teaching teenagers the value of writing occasional poems for strangers. I love reading about stuff like this for a number of reasons. First, it challenges the high-romantic ethos (most thoroughly embodied today by the "avant-garde") of the poet-against-the-world, in which the public is not something to be addressed, but despised and alienated. Second, it focuses on the nuts-and-bolts of craft. Third, related to the foregoing, it does not allow a young writer to follow the path of least resistance and indulge in the constructed tics and mannerisms of his or her own "voice." Fourth, occasional poetry gets a real bum rap. This is not entirely undeserved, since much of what passes for it is the worst kind of treacly doggerel you see on Hallmark cards. But it doesn't necessarily have to be.

Writing poems on demand is challenging. I've done a bit of it myself, as for the CBC Poetry Faceoff (in which case, I thought it only appropriate to take the piss out of the whole idea of writing poems for money). My friend's mom, who was a second mother to me and several of my friends when I was a teenager, once asked me to write a poem for her. I responded with this sonnet:

You rose, rosy-fingered, as Homer sang,
In the east, paused to cause lucent morning
In Orléans, where you shone on a gang
Of wayward rapscallions. Adoring
Mother, your home was another for us,
So much more than a port in the storm
For raggle-tag sailors in search of warm
Shelter. And now, listen, as a chorus
Of songbirds sings awake a shining day
And tulips turn groggy heads to the east,
One, long a stranger, rides in from away,
Astride a rumbling dark shadowy beast—
He returns to his erstwhile second home,
He returns here to bring you this poem.

This poem is occasional in more than one sense and its references aren't obvious to anyone outside of the poem's context. Dawn is my friend Jesse's mother's name; she comes from New Brunswick ("the East"); they lived in Orleans, an Ottawa suburb, where they used to welcome several of us, many of whom, like me, were far from their own families, to stay for weekends; I wrote the poem after riding my motorcycle (a Honda Shadow) to Ottawa from Montreal on a spring day after not seeing Jesse and his family for several years; Ottawa is famous for its tulips. It's not a poem I'd ever publish in a book because its intended audience is a small circle of friends and family, but I'm quite pleased with it for what it is, a lighthearted tribute. Jesse's dad, a retired Canadian Army colonel, asked me after I wrote this if I might be able to write a poem about the Canadian Army's role in the Korean War. At the time, he was working to get this more widely recognised and memorialised. I told him I'd have to do a lot of research before I could do that sort of poem any justice; nothing ever came of it.

Last year, I was approached by a co-worker at Via Rail who was organising a special train to honour the War Brides. After a couple of false starts and a bit of reading on the War Brides' website, I came up with this acrostic sonnet in couplets:


Waves washed my foreign love onto my shore
And wind blew him headlong into the war.
Red was the sky as tenements burned,
Bombs fell like rain and calendars turned,
Reducing to rubble the home that I loved.
Into this hell came the man I would love.
Dashing and doughty, he took me away—
in ruin, men trampled in clay—
Set my feet on a strange shore, a cold shore,
To rebuild a life in the holes that death tore.
Red is our hearth as our homefire burns,
Ashes and dust as the calendar turns.
Into the night I walk with my love,
‘Neath the flicker and gleam of stars above.

I accompanied the poem with this note:

When I was asked to write a poem for Via Rail’s War Brides Train, my first thought was: What’s a war bride, anyway? I’m glad now that I was asked, because what began in ignorance has ended in inspiration. I thought it would be difficult, if not impossible, to write a poem not only about an era I didn’t live through, but about women’s experience in that era. But once I started reading the stories of this eclectic—but uniformly gutsy—group of women, all my qualms rapidly evaporated. It is an honour to present this small token of my esteem for all of your lives lived.

The poem and the note were printed on a scroll, a copy of which went into each of the Brides' rooms on the train. I didn't work that particular train, so I never got to find out how the War Brides reacted to it, but a couple of the Via staff were moved to tears, so I figured it was doing what it needed to do for this occasion. Again, this is not a poem I'd ever think of publishing in a book and its style is nothing like what I'd write for my own reasons, but what Douglas Goetsch says in his essay about negative capability ("
acceptance of a task no matter what, the assumption of capability, and tremendous empathy") is, I think, very important. Too many poets make no effort to step outside of their own perspectives and values.

I've also written the odd poem for occasions when not asked to, such as this epithalamion (another sonnet; formal constraints are especially useful as a control factor when writing this kind of thing, I find) for the wedding of two very dear friends:


Love that’s as yet unrequited, thought I,
Is a fool’s reason for cohabitation,
But kept this advice—though doubtlessly wise—

Private; such counsel spells deprecation

No matter how well-intended. Omens,
Too, were not on your side. Your domicile:
An old flophouse, the roof so weak no man
Dared venture to fix it. (One sign did smile

On you: the pigeons that cooed in the rafters
Must have been doves.) That house has been levelled
Since to a vacant lot strewn with gravel,
But your love’s survived transit. Now, after

Rethinking, I’ll admit—this once—I was wrong.
I wish you a life that’s happy and long.

Like the poem for my friend's mom and unlike the War Bride poem, the references in this are specific and personal, intended for a very small audience. Again, it's not something that I'd attempt to publish in a magazine or book.

Which is not to say that occasional poetry is necessarily confined to its occasions. Poets like George Johnston and Peter Sanger--to say nothing of Yeats, Frost and Auden, to name a few famous masters--have published occasional verse that extends beyond its initial impulse. In a special issue of The New Quarterly dedicated to occasional verse, Sanger writes:

The defining crux of a poet: whether he or she can write a poem of occasion with conviction and inspiration.


Why should greeting card poets be the public’s almost sole resource?


To dismiss occasional verse is to collaborate in severing poetry from life, the life of others.

It's something of a false dichotomy to distinguish occasional verse from the rest of poetry. (Auden said something to the effect that anyone who wished to call him or herself a poet should be able to write serviceable verses, on demand, about the queen's hat, which sentiment Sanger echoes in the first quote above.) Every poem, after all, has its occasion, be it personal, familial, political.

A number of poems that I've written and published refer to specific occasions. If I don't think of them as occasional poems, per se, it's only because I didn't sit down to write them specifically for an occasion. An example is this poem, another sonnet, published in Event magazine and slated for inclusion in my next book:


Here we are on the Island’s northern tip.
A black and yellow checkered road sign stuck
in the frozen ground hard by the crumbling lip
of the cliff warns that we can take our truck
no further. As if we needed telling:
before us, the Gulf spread out, resplendent,
white and crystal blue, a blank abundant
field of floes, heaved, humped and swelling
over each slow tidal wave. The wind’s fierce,
love. This is the first you’ve seen a solid
ocean? Yes, it happens here most years.
We could step across to other islands,
no matter what the sign says. We could go
and get lost in the million acre flow.

This is a love poem for my wife, on the occasion of our first visit together to PEI, when we were just a few months into our relationship. But I don't think one needs to know that to read the poem.

Another is "Sointula Sitka," which John Mutford posted on his blog as part of my recent interview with him. This poem's occasion was our visit to Malcolm Island this spring, where Rachel and I saw and touched a 200+ foot high Sitka spruce, and it was inspired specifically by this photograph. I had the photo and poem made into a broadside and gave it to Rachel as a belated birthday gift, but I think--I hope--it resonates beyond that occasion.

Come to think of it, the kids book that Rachel and I co-wrote (forthcoming next fall), originated as an occasional poem, written to celebrate the birth of Rachel's nephew Charley. As it turned out, it wasn't finished until well after the occasion itself, but like they say, it's the thought that counts, right?

Speaking of birthdays, I was invited recently to submit a poem on the theme of turning thirty to Arc magazine for its 30th anniversary special issue. I started mucking around with something, but haven't figured it out yet. But browsing at a second-hand shop the other day, I picked up The Naked Astronaut: Poems on Birth and Birthdays; I'm hoping to find some inspiration in it. It's not long ago that I turned thirty myself, but it really wasn't particularly significant for me; increasingly, it seems to me that the only birthday of real importance is the one that gets relegated to zero by erroneously calling a child's first anniversary of life its first birthday. I appear to be in a minority in this view--which adds a bit of an extra challenge to the task.

1 comment:

B. Glen Rotchin said...


I feel the same way as you do about that article on occasional verse. You hit all the right notes and your illustrative poems are impressive.

The stigma associated with occasional verse, particularly among adolescents, is related to a resistance to structure or constraint (time, theme). Somehow when kids think of "creativity" they relate it to "freedom" defined as "without limits". This is also why they tend to write in free verse (which becomes formless and meandering,) never imagining that good free verse actually requires incredible skill and discipline. Adults are complicit too. A few years back I was a judge and organizer of a high-school creative writing competition. For years we bemoaned the poor quality of the submissions we'd been receiving. One year I suggested that we ask all of the the kids to write on a chosen theme. My argument was that by forcing the entrants to write within a certain thematic guideline they would have to be more creative and challenged. The organizers were almost unanimously against me, saying it would diminish the number of submissions. It's hard enough to get kids to write poetry, they said, let alone set limits on their creative impulses. Utter nonsense, of course.