One Question Interview: Fraser Sutherland


Fraser Sutherland is a much-travelled Nova Scotian now living in Toronto. His writing has appeared worldwide in magazines and anthologies and he has published fourteen books. His latest book of poems is The Philosophy Of As If.

These are remarkably thoughtful and articulate poems with a meditative quality. How much of your poetry is philosophy?

In a sense, all of it. For me, poetry is at bottom ontological, that is, it deals with the nature of being and, more narrowly, what it is to be alive. Using a language of its own, and in a focused way, it is engaged, if only implicitly, in what Aldous Huxley called “the perennial philosophy,” an inquiry into the ground of being common to all cultures and all periods.

I don’t mean that a poem is, or should be, an explicit metaphysical statement, or the writing of philosophy by other means. It shouldn’t indulge in vapid moralizing or loose generalization. Just as paint is a painter’s medium, words are a poet’s, and the effective use of words will always tend toward specificity, not abstraction. But I do think that the motive power of what serious poets do is a yearning to come to terms with, or at least acknowledge, what exists beyond saying. Lines, phrases, words, even syllables are the means by which this is done, and they are physical items: they have weight and volume, drag and propulsion. If we hear a cello passage by Bach, what we intuit is the movement of the physical into the metaphysical and the opening of the immanent into the transcendent. These are only possible because of the friction of a bow against strings.

Ezra Pound neatly divided poetic elements into melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia: sound, sight, sense. What I often get in much contemporary English poetry, whether American, British, or Canadian, is a lot of sight and sound, but not much sense. In the Jungian quaternity of psychological types – thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition – thinking comes in fourth. I don’t find myself being made privy to an active intelligence, an energized mind at work. That cast of mind doesn’t have to lend itself to intellectually oriented wit, satire, or comedy – though, as it happens, those qualities are scarce, too. Nor does this mind have to directly express ideas; it can operate through simile, metaphor, allusion, all the devices of irony.

One can admire, if not altogether approve of, a poet who merely exhibits finely honed perceptions, an exquisite sensibility, a vibrating sensitivity, a vigorous voice, or a wonderful capacity to carom words off each other, But in such cases there may be something missing: the feeling that the poet is ultimately reaching toward the universal and absolute. I don’t mean to be doctrinaire or dogmatic: a simple imagist poem, an obscure poem or one with no apparent referentiality, a poem of unbridled emotion, an ostensibly anecdotal poem – all can have depth. But in them depth is harder to achieve. One doesn’t like to think that a poem must be mindless.


2 Responses to “One Question Interview: Fraser Sutherland”

  1. 1 Karen Shenfeld

    It’s perhaps not surprising that Fraser Sutherland, Canada’s finest living poet, has given us here the finest answer to the question: What is a poem?

  2. Thank you for this, Karen. Illuminating. And like the genre he writes about, Fraser’s response directs the reader to the complexity of the art and craft of writing poetry while he communicates meaning clearly, lucidly. Here the poet is a consummate teacher.

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