Comfort and Canadian Poetry


Revised since publication in The Danforth Review, 2002.

Ezra Pound called poetry “the most concentrated form of verbal expression.”  William Stafford noted that “we must have ready proof in the lines that the author is worthy company.”  Randall Jarrell (who approved of some poets because reading them meant “one long shudder of recognition”) wrote “a poem is a small machine made of words … there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.”

Despite these kinds of notions circulating the poetry world, I’ve sometimes noticed trivial themes and topics in Canadian poetry, and have spent time trying to determine if this is overconfidence, a certain lack of dedication, or something else entirely.  While dedication to poetry is admirable, beyond that there’s a kind of dedication (within poetry) that helps a poet determine what’s meaningful and valid, what’s worth writing about and what’s worthy of the valuable time a reader selectively gives away.  In discussing poetry, Canadian or otherwise, we sometimes speak vaguely about talent, dazzling metaphors or images.  But I believe this kind of selective process, in choosing what to write about, is at least as important an ingredient in good poetry.

Consider the work of Goran Simic, the Bosnian Serb now living in Canada who writes, in From Sarajevo with Sorrow, about his experiences during the siege of Sarajevo.  Here are the first lines of a poem called War Mice:

In the second summer of the war the town
was overrun by rats.  At night they crept out of
the sewer and occupied the empires of the trash
heap.  They would sometimes attack cats and
even lost children, and at first dark we locked
our doors.  Yet as through by some secret
agreement, our apartments were invaded by
mice.  We discovered them in our flour supply,
among our Sunday clothes, and the more we
exterminated the more there were.  The first
mouse caught in a mousetrap behind the piano
we called “the artist.”  Later the nameless swarms
of mice we trapped and killed had only

And compare this to the first section of a poem from the book China Blues by David Donnell, with the title Call it a Day:

My friend Moira
is tall & thin & with small breasts & a beautiful
excitable face.
We get up around 7:00
& go to Andrew’s house on Indian road for breakfast.
This is Saturday morning before the ball game.
& Phillip says,
“O, you must try these waffles, Queen
Victoria would have gained 100 lbs on these
but they’re wonderful.”
So we have waffles
with chocolate ice cream & champagne.  It’s a
of something, & it’s a great combination.

Donnell is a Governor General’s award winning Canadian poet, and while I’m obviously not catching him at his best, the very fact that I can flip through one of his books and find this poem says something.  It’s impossible to find an irrelevant poem in From Sarajevo with Sorrow, in which every poem is tightly woven and important, contributing to an astonishing and powerful book.

At a time when poetry is fighting to be consumed alongside so many other forms of expression and needs – more than ever, I think – to work against the cliché of pointless self-indulgence, some poets unfortunately decide to obsess with irrelevancies.  We are sometimes blissfully unaware that even the best poem about a crappy day (or a nice day with waffles and chocolate, a celebration of “something”) won’t compare with a less conventional experience or something of real insight and value.  As someone exposed, the vast majority of the time, to Canadian poetry, I’ve wondered if this habit of wandering into the trivial has some environmental causes.  Many Canadians have enjoyed relative ease and comfort for decades, certainly in comparison to some countries.  In this context of comfort, Canadians have the option of concentrating on larger, worthwhile themes some people in the rest of the world have no time for.  The other option is to use poetry to note the trivial details of our lives, which can really only pale in comparison to the concerns of the less fortunate, or those Canadians who are more selective.

To provide another example, I pull the Susan Musgrave book Things That Keep and Do Not Change off my shelf, which has some worthwhile poems.  And yet it pauses in the middle of the book to dive into a trilogy of poems with titles like “Sex after Sixty,” which begins “That got your attention, didn’t it?”  Ten lines later she admits “but I digress,” and it seems odd given the fact that the whole poem feels like a pointless digression.  The next two poems name drop constantly like an ongoing inside joke, and aren’t as amusing or insightful as they think they are.  Michael Crummey has a number of excellent poems in Arguments with Gravity, but feels somehow compelled to include “David Donnell’s Schlong” in the same book.

I am, of course, speaking in generalizations, and I know it isn’t a difficult task to find a worthwhile Canadian poem.  It would also be much easier to find trivial poems by foreign poets were it not the case that only the best of them are translated and distributed here.  Still, I believe that Canadian poets need to be careful.  It isn’t my intention to suggest that there is no place for humour in poetry, only that Canadians need to remember that humour, like anything else, can be relevant and more than just a winking inside joke, or a demonstration of the cleverness of the poet.  It also isn’t my intention to suggest that Canadians need to go to war in order to write good poetry.  It’s simply that poets don’t do themselves or poetry any favours when they write about trivial matters.  Also, if it’s the case that Canadians are more susceptible to this because of our comfort – if there is even a chance that we operate on a different scale, that what we call important is actually closer to trivial – then we need to act with that much extra caution.  We’ve been comfortable for generations, even as new and diverse forms of self-expression and entertainment continued to grow.  Poetry began to compete with more and more at a time when we were also more likely to use poetry as a method of self-indulgence.  And so we get poetry that manages to come across as overconfident, trivial and cliché all at the same time.

It may simply be the case that even the best poets sometimes write bad poems and assume they’re valuable.  Or possibly our culture has put poetry at such a distance (and appears so mesmerized by popular culture these days) that poets assume nobody is listening anyway.  I believe this sometimes translates into remarkably impenetrable work, which Randall describes as poet and public staring at each other, until the poet said “since you won’t read me, I’ll make sure you can’t.”  It’s an ongoing and immense battle to fight the notion that poetry is as trivial as it is tiresome, and efforts are constantly sabotaged by remarkably trite, overly accessible poems, but the answer is not to retreat into impenetrable babble, academic or otherwise.

It does seem that the nation, as a whole, only pays attention to poetry only at times of crisis, when it is felt that only poetry (or perhaps poetic speechmaking) will be eloquent and healing enough.  Poetry is pushed away most of the time, then wheeled out when we need meaning and comfort.  But there is no excuse for poets to be supporting the idea (consciously or not) that poetry is irrelevant and self-indulgent.  And any decent poet should know that however immediate and trendy popular culture might be, most of it immediately fades, while good poetry might just make a more lasting connection with an audience, and some poems are remembered for generations.

The only way to build a reputation as consistently worthwhile is to be selective.  To begin with, poets can be certain that they are extremely careful when writing about themselves, can be certain that every poem practices empathy with something or someone instead of just relating their own problems and anecdotes.  Here’s a poem by Canadian poet Evie Christie, simply titled I Love Alcoholics:

I do.  It’s not just an eye-catching title.
Their hearts are big and broken,
Preserved in their childhood, their first love
Or some bloody car wreck, preserved
In bourbon, tequila, whatever.
Bruised and bloody, swishing around
In their chest, beating away
To a sad, angry rhythm, and they love
Their mothers and they are so beautiful
When they’re drunk that you love them
When they’re sober and ugly too.
And they wait patiently for you
To get fed up, for you to leave them,
And if you do they’ll love you forever.

This is a unique, clear and yet very potent poem.  Just as importantly, Christie is in the poem indirectly, relating something empathetic.  And it’s no simple anecdote that could just as easily have been told to us over a drink.  Here are the closing lines of a poem by American poet Weldon Kees, titled For My Daughter:

The night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland,
Has moved her blood.  Parched years that I have seen
That may be hers appear: foul, lingering
Death in certain war, the slim legs green
Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting
Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel
Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.
These speculations sour in the sun.
I have no daughter.  I desire none.

The poem is a carefully written one, but with the final two lines, Kees undoubtedly sidesteps any possibility it will be a typical one.  However it’s done, poets need to remember the words of Alden Nowlan, who could have been thinking of exactly this when he wrote Johnnie’s Poem:

Look!  I’ve written a poem!
Johnnie says
and hands it to me
and it’s about
his grandfather dying
last summer, and me
in the hospital
and I want to cry,
don’t you see, because it doesn’t matter
if it’s not very good:
what matters is he knows
and it was me, his father, who told him
you write poems about what
you feel deepest and hardest.


11 Responses to “Comfort and Canadian Poetry”

  1. Thank you, Alex Boyd. You are about 150% correct. I think I’ll be quoting your line
    “Poets don’t do themselves or poetry any favours when they write about trivial matters.” We have doggerel and limericks for that purpose.
    And by the way has Alden Nowlan ever written or said anything that was not important?

  2. 2 jeff

    I’m with Irving Layton here when he said (something like..) there are no mediocre subjects, only mediocre poets.

    Though I do second the tone of this piece. Poetry is too often a kind of enclave. It can learn from other genres that have audiences. The temptation of relativism that anything goes and everything is political is not useful or interesting.

  3. Actually, Jeff, Layton, numerous times, maintained the opposite, and agreed with Alex Boyd that contemporary poets evaded the seminal issues and events of the day to wallow in irrelevancies. Just one snippet, from his forward to Balls For A One-Armed Juggler:

    “With only a few exceptions …. the modern poet has been an empty windbag and a chatterer. No wonder anguished people turn from him in amusement, boredom, or pity. He has nothing to say worth listening to. One asks for bread and is given a plethora of sounds.”

    Alex Boyd is on the mark, and has felt the weak pulse of much current CanPo.

  4. 4 Jeff

    Hi Brian, I was referring actually (in my foggy memory) to the intro to 15 Canadian Poets *3 and had mistaken something Gary Geddes said which was that Layton reminded us that there were no “inherently unpoetic subjects, only unpoetic minds.” I had to look it up. That’s a teachable moment for me, though my emphasis was on the words.

    Cheers to Alex for a provocative, considered piece.

    – j

  5. 5 AHibbs

    i don’t see how being less self-centred leads to an art medium being more popular. So many popular art forms are so self centred. Why is poetry any different? Why do you think self-absorption such a flaw? Why would it be a flaw in poetry and not in hip hop?

  6. 6 Jeff Latosik

    Hi Angela,

    Just wondering — are you suggesting that self-absorption shouldn’t be seen as a flaw?


  7. 7 Matthias Mayer

    Thoughtful and provocative as usual. Thanks.

  8. Angela, thanks for the comment. I think all art is certainly self-indulgent in that someone (any kind of artist) decides someone should really hear what they have to say, but clearly there’s also a kind of balance, so that we’re not assuming whatever we see outside our windows is worthy of a poem. I know it’s a difficult thing to pin down, and I don’t believe my essay is perfect, but a greater awareness is where we begin.

    All best,


  9. Alex,

    Thank you for this essay! Agreed.

  10. 10 Salvatore Ala

    Thanks for your essay on this subject, and thanks for mentioning Goran Simic’s “From Sarajevo with Sorrow.” As someone who worked closely on the manuscript I completely agree with your comments. There is a seriousness and weight in one that is not in some others you mention. Though this is not suggest the others have no value. Far from it. All art is valuable, and I am quite prepared to laugh as I am to cry. Personally I believe that Goran’s art is unique to the man to the experience; however,that is not to say that a poetry of deep sensibility is not possible without the apocalypse of your culture. The Alden Nowlan poem is a good example of this. We need more Alden Nowlans, and we need to be more honest as critics about poetry of deep authentic feeling, and perhaps then will we be able to recognize our own best without a genocide. Salvatore Ala.

  11. 11 Colin Carberry

    I have to say Alex that this may be one of the most instructive and useful essays on Canadian poetry that I have read to date. I have always been bewildered by the fact that there is so much world-class Canadian poetry out there, but yet some continue to laud mediocre poets, some of whom you mentioned in your essay, when we should be celebrating people like Simic, Nowlan, Christie (her poem quoted here is a gem, a true delight), among many others. I’m pleased that you have not only articulated my feelings for me, but also that you have offered us a remedy against the general mediocrity and extreme narcissism so often enabled by awards and honors. Bravo. Colin

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