poetics.ca issue #1
poetics.ca issue #1
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Ken Norris is a Montreal poet living and teaching in Maine. He is the author of dozens of books of poems and the seminal thesis on the little magazine in Canada. His most recent books are Hotel Montreal (Talon Books, 2002) and The Way Life Should Be (Wolsak and Wynn, 2003). He teaches Canadian Literature at the University of Maine.


Spontaneous Speech Maps: A Discussion on Poetics
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Stephen: I confess I find the intellectual density and specialized language that has evolved around the contemporary dialogue of poetics a little exhausting and overwhelming. It's like strong scotch: you can sip it nicely from a small glass, but consume it by the bottle and suffer accordingly. What's your perspective on Postmodernism, semiotics, cybernetics and other intellectual disciplines that have evolved from a very broad understanding of poetics?

Ken: Well, I don't have a perspective. But I have perspectives.

When I was a grad student at McGill, studying with Louis Dudek, Louis used to have quite a lot to say about Modernism. And I think my grad students here at [the University of] Maine would say that I have quite a lot to say about Postmodernism. Half of my little magazine book is about Canadian Postmodernism. My Canadian topics courses are usually on some aspect of the Canadian Postmodern. Right now I'm teaching a course on American Postmodern poetry, in which we are reading Spicer, Creeley, O'Hara and Ginsberg. As a literary period, Postmodernism really interests me. As an extension and amplification of Modernism, Postmodernism really interests me.

On the other hand, I was once interested in semiotics for around six hours. And cybernetics, not yet.

Intellectual density is no great virtue; neither is it, necessarily, any great vice. It all depends. In a university environment I certainly encounter more than enough of it.

As far as poetics are concerned, I don't like it when theory moves too far away from practice or becomes too abstract. Over the past 15 years or so I have been absolutely mystified as to why poets have lined up to become disciples of various literary theorists. That's like deciding that you no longer want to be the master of the house, so now you'll be a servant. And I have never much liked the ugly language of literary theory. I've always liked Roland Barthes because at least he had a sense of humour.

As far as "specialized language" is concerned, I tend to see that as a strategy for creating an elite or club. It's like kids talking to each other in code or in pig Latin. And that really doesn't interest me at all. It seems to me that the poetics of the 19th and 20th centuries just weren't that complicated. I suppose it's possible that you can get into a lot of intellectual hair-splitting when you're not in possession of the goods. And we're just newly launched into this century. We're just sitting here, waiting for the next Picasso.

Stephen: I wonder if there's an aspect of this clash of theory and practice that may make a new Picasso impossible. By identifying all kinds of writing as texts for examination, maybe Postmodernism makes two things happen. It seems that the concept of a canonical text of a specific genre evaporates into a plurality of canonical texts aligned with multiple genres and communities. So there may be numerous Picassos for different styles of writing and different places (coordinates of media, politics, genre, culture) but there can't be a single Picasso unless literary theory settles into something more homespun. My gut tells me that plurality is a good thing and long overdue.

On the other hand, I know that, having passing knowledge of the theory but no mastery of it, I'm in a state of doubt. That may be a personal fear, but I think it affects others. How can one sit down and write when besieged by doubt about the very nature of writing?

Ken: I don’t know. Personally, I am not besieged by doubt about the very nature of writing. Or, let me be more specific. I am not besieged by doubt about the very nature of poetry. To me, poetry is a very specific striving: that is, it is a reaching for the poetical. I think “writing” can get confusing sometimes, because it doesn’t exactly know what it is reaching for. Sometimes it's not reaching for anything, it's just happy being writing.

Multiplicity of approaches towards an achievement of the poetical is a very good thing. There are lots of different ways of arriving at the poetical.

When you start talking about canons, then you're starting to talk about how texts are received and categorized, and how they serve [a] community or communities. Quite simply, a decentralized literary canon doesn't decentre poetry.

When my creative writing students and I look at poems, I ask them to show me where the poetry is. You can't find the poetry in a poem. And that's because the poetry is in the reader. Poems are word machines that are employed to make the poetical, the poetry, happen in the reader. Although there are certain tried and true strategies for invoking the poetical, there are a million different ways of making it happen.

Although I love the Postmodern period, I am perfectly happy to say that it has pretty much ended. Or has already ended, as an historical moment. The 20th century is over, and there's a whole new artistic ballgame soon to be begun. The new Picasso will neutralize the old arguments, or render them irrelevant. That's what a Picasso does.

I find the philosophical wing of poetics pretty dull. But, then, I find philosophy pretty dull. The best philosophy is found in poetry, not in philosophy. Philosophy has meaningful air to breathe inside a poem. Outside of a poem, for me, it has very limited lung capacity.

I am interested in poetics insofar as it informs technique – as it lays out a path of how to get to the poetical, as a practical methodology, using words.

Eric Clapton is a musician I admire. Were I, by some chance, to meet him, I would not spend my time telling him how wonderful I think he is, asking him for his autograph, or asking him about his musical philosophy. I would ask him to show me how he plays specific riffs.

Similarly, when I study the poetry of poets I admire, I am interested in the techniques of how they access the poetical for a reader. I am always interested to read a poet I admire writing about technique. But, again, mostly with an eye towards the mechanics of the poem as a word machine, mostly with a concern for technique.

To get back to where this started, I actually have a hard time believing that, as a poet, you are "besieged by doubt about the very nature of writing." Maybe you are referring more to "the others" that you think it affects?

Stephen: O.K. Besieged may be over the top. But the fact is, I have my doubts. Don't let me forget to get back to one of them -- it's about the nature of the line in poetry. But I have to push a little on this idea of a new Picasso. I don't buy the idea that we'll see one. Not for a long time. But, say that a new Picasso is possible; can you give Picasso a name and a shape? Is Anne Carson the new Picasso (I hope that's a provocation)? Any promising candidates?

Ken: My literary training tells me that we'll be seeing something new soon. You know, if it's 1799 it must be The Prelude, if it's 1912 it must be time for Imagism. So I figure the poetry of the 21st century, and the new movement in art, will announce itself somewhere between 1999 and 2012. And, if not Picasso, then maybe Matisse.

But let's move over to poetry and stick with that. Picasso and Stravinsky get Modernism going, but they do it from the vantage points of painting and music. And perhaps the new kick will come from one of the sister arts. Or else the new impetus in poetry will come purely from poetry, like Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Anne Carson is a very good poet, and I like a lot of her work. But, to me, she is a third generation Postmodernist. That is, she follows in the Modernist line, and, in her own way, fulfils it. I think she’s around the same age as me, and on those grounds alone I would classify her as a 20th century poet. That is, she's lived a large part of her life in the 20th century, and been formed by it.

The difficulty that I see for you is that you are something of an in-betweener. In between the second and third generations of Postmodernism. If we look at Canadian Modernist poets, we can see a very clear line that moves from Klein to Layton to Cohen. And I think if we look at Canadian Postmodern poets we can see a line that moves from Bowering to Gold to mclennan, or Atwood to Thesen to Bolster.

I'm not ready to nominate the new artistic innovator because I don't believe they've shown up yet. I'm predicting that they'll show up soon, in the next 10 years. And probably not in Canada, though possibly. But, really, that is someone else's problem, not mine. I'm a second-generation Canadian postmodernist, and my job is to spend the next 25 years or so completing my own work.

Stephen: We could talk for a whole day about ancestry. I'd argue about Bowering-Gold-mclennan and Atwood-Thesen-Bolster. But I think the Klein-Layton-Cohen modernist lineage is indisputable. And maybe that supports what I've been saying about communities. These are men who grew up together in a very close community. But let’s move on to what you are doing. You’ve had a selected from Talon [Books] and a new book from Wolsak and Wynn that I haven’t read yet. What is Ken Norris trying to do? How do you approach a poem (or how does the poem approach you)? You've been a Montreal poet. What’s your lineage? But, before you talk about that, can you give me a little of your reasoning for why the next Picasso isn't likely to be Canadian? I’d agree with you for a number of reasons, but I’d like to hear yours.

Ken: The short answer would be that I don't think Canadians, for the most part, are cultural initiators. They are also working at the disadvantage of coming from a low-profile cultural country. But Picasso came from Southern Spain, and made his way to Paris. And T.S. Eliot came from St. Louis. But they worked their way to the cultural centre(s). So it is certainly possible, but I don't consider it highly probable. In the land of bets, it's a long shot. But certainly not impossible.

There’s also the problematic relation between political dominance and cultural dominance. Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians are often culturally overlooked because their governments don't hold much political sway on the world stage.

Let me take your other questions in reverse order. Although I was born in the U.S., I chose to become a Canadian, and became a Canadian citizen in 1985. So I consider myself to be a Canadian poet, with very strong roots in Quebec. The title of my selected poems is Hotel Montreal, and I was very conscious of putting my work forward in that book as a cultural product of Montreal. I still consider my most immediate contemporaries to be the other Véhicule [Press] poets whom I hung around with in Montreal in the mid-’70s.

Lineage, I think, is something of a difficult question. If you were to ask me who my poetic father was, I would have to say Louis Dudek. If you were to ask me who my poetic mother was, I would have to say Phyllis Webb. But, then, there is a huge swirl of influences, some of them Canadian, and some of them not. But my immediate literary community has always been the Canadian literary community, and, when I think of a readership, I think of a Canadian readership first. There are a number of poems I have written that are specifically targeted to a Canadian audience, and really wouldn't make as much or any sense to other national audiences. When I write about the U.S. I find it is always from the vantage point of a Canadian. Even although I spent the first 20 years of my life in the U.S., and have been teaching in Maine for the past 18 years, I don't write about the U.S. the way an American would. And often I try not to write about it at all.

How do I approach a poem? Mostly via an active passivity. That is, I usually let the poem seek me out. But I am open to its approach. Very occasionally I will write a poem that is somewhat concept-driven. But usually I start a poem based upon an auditory prompt – that is, I hear a line in my head, and that's how the poem begins – and I try to stay out of the way as the poem writes itself.

What am I trying to do? Stay open. Stay open to inspiration. Stay open to stray lines that become the engines of word machines.

Staying open isn't easy. I've seen a number of poets shut down over the years. Or else have their egos take over the operation. So I can't really tell you what my poetic project is, or what my poetic concerns are. Every book I write starts out as a blank notebook that somehow fills up with words and finds its way.

Even something that looks fairly heavily programmed, like Report On The Second Half Of The Twentieth Century, a long poem sequence in 22 books, only ever had the most basic blueprint. That is, once I knew it was an ongoing long poem, I knew it was in 22 books, but I had absolutely no idea what would take place in those 22 books. So I was always in a state of surprise as to where the sequence, or the individual book, was going. I would only ever be in possession of one or two design features for a specific book, and that would primarily be some kind of recognition concerning form.

Stephen: I sense a challenge in your embrace of inspiration. But I agree with you completely. Sitting back in the bath and not thinking has been a more fruitful attitude of composition than filling up a notebook and sitting down with a pen at a desk. And I think I also agree that the attitude of openness is not always as easy to enter as we might like. But maybe you and I share an attitude here. I wonder if the poets who work in deliberately intellectual idioms approach their work with the same active passivity. I’m thinking about Christopher Dewdney and Erin Mouré, who, though vastly different, offer a strong intellectual aspect as well as an invigorating way of writing. But those are questions better posed to them. My instinct tells me that some degree of open attitude and inspiration probably plays a part in what they do.

One of the limits of inspiration may be its very spontaneity. You end up with the raw material for something finished, but isn't there always a process of fiddling, or of refining? Ginsberg wrote “first thought, best thought,” which has always made me think. How do you approach the process of finishing a poem?

Ken: Regarding thought, Williams wrote “The poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity.” I’m not going to speak for Chris or Erin, but I think I would give them credit for thinking with their poems. That is, I don't think the intellectual content of their poems is preprocessed, pre-thought-out, and then poured into poems. I think this is a pretty important issue, and a pretty important dividing line. The poets of the "craftsman" school come across as having thought it all out, and are now laying it out in (preplanned) measured lines. What I keep an eye out for is the rhetorical flourish, which indicates the premapped speech.

The spontaneous seems to be a point of honor with a certain lineage of poets, who find an authenticity in spontaneity. I would consider myself a member of that party. Nevertheless, I have written “formal” poems: sonnets, odes, elegies. But, then, I tend to consider those “forms” as atmospheres more than as cookie cutters. Fulfilling the dictates of the form isn't what I'm really interested in. That’s craftsman concern, craftsman pleasure. I think a poet should learn everything they can about craft, in order to forget it. The knowledge of craft is more important than the demonstration of craft. If a free-form sonnet is haunted by the spirit of a highly formal sonnet, then it stands to become a somewhat interesting poem. More interesting than a sonnet written by someone who doesn't know what a sonnet is, or by someone who tries too slavishly to fulfil the dictates of the form.

There are different processes of refinement, it seems to me. And different senses of refinement. This part of the conversation reminds me of numerous conversations I had with Louis Dudek. Regarding “raw materials,” I offer you the following from Marianne Moore: “In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, / the raw material of poetry in / all its rawness and/that which is on the other hand / genuine, you are interested in poetry.”

When is something “finished?” When is a poem finished? It seems to me that a poem is finished when it has completely realized its own possibilities.

So, for myself, I usually can't take a poem further than five drafts. Beyond that, I’m fiddling too much, refining too much, moving from revision to faking it. But all poets have different methodologies, and some poets may need 100 drafts to get there. I’ve seen poets take something that wasn't very good and make it very good indeed after 137 recastings. I've also seen poets take a great poem and wreck it in three drafts. It’s very important to be a good editor of your own work.

In finishing a poem I hardly ever rewrite. I cut, repunctuate and sometimes word-substitute. If a poem needs more than that, I’m usually not interested in working on it – it has too many problems.

Stephen: One of the things I love about this art is that there are a lot of roads to Oz. Hotel Montreal  is the distillation of a number of ways of approaching the poem that is expressed primarily by the good examples of the approach itself. It’s about being human and surviving your humanity, but fundamentally it seems to be about writing a poem sympathetic with that humanity.

John Barton once said to me that he felt a poem was finished when he was uncomfortable with the content but comfortable with the form. I may be slightly misquoting. I find that a very strong insight.

When thinking about what makes the poetry of a poem, I find that one of the answers is the idiom of the line, the sense that poetry is delineated by the typographic, rhythmic or syntactic convention of the pause or breath. What role does the line play for you?

Ken: John Barton's “uncomfortable with the content, comfortable with the poetry” really doesn’t work with me. I think what I strive for is an achieved indifference. That is, I've worked on this poem until it's no longer necessary for me to have any relationship with it. Everything has been processed that can be processed. My relation with the poem is over, and it can now move on to its own autonomous existence, free of its creator.

Regarding poetic line, I would say that I'm not necessarily inclined to wind them as tightly as some poets. Sometimes my lines are wound tight, but sometimes I like a little bit of play in them. I tend to not break up syntactic units, phrase units, unless I have a really good reason for doing so. So I've gotten a few complaints over time that my line is a little too relaxed. I would tend to disagree, on the grounds that sometimes really tight is too tight.

I've read Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay maybe 20 times, but I have still never really embraced the notion of the breath line. I think I work closer to Pound's notion of “the musical phrase.” My sister art is definitely music, so the musicality of language is more important to me than the dramatization of language via line breaks, or notating a score for the performance of text. I think my poetry is better read on the page than heard in the various public forums. Although I like performance poetry, I think my own work exists very far away from performance poetry.

All that being said, I would say that, ultimately, the poetry of the poem has not so much to do with its physical appearance. But, as I said before, I don't believe the poetry is in the poem. The poetry is in the reader. The poem makes the poetry happen in the reader. In that regard, I guess I do embrace Olson's notion of the transference of energy, somewhat. The poem “awakens” the poetry in the reader, that was always there. Exactly how it does that is the great mystery of poetry. There are techniques, of course, but every poet needs to discover them on their own, for those techniques to be earned and meaningful.

Stephen: I want to return to your comments on premapped speech. For Keats, poetry had better come as easily as the leaves to the tree. For Yeats, the poet has to labour for beauty. I think there is an instinctive alignment between what a poet has to say and the tools they deploy to say it. I admire a competent rhetorical flourish – I love Milton, for example. I think he attains peaks of insight that would be impossible to reach without his now-unfathomable knowledge of rhetoric and foreign tongues.

It may be that spontaneous speech has become overvalued, perhaps for what people perceive as its passion, simplicity and directness. I worry that we find ourselves in a political environment where speech acts are increasingly artificial, even in their homespun flavors. For better or worse, we have parliamentary democracy in Canada. Our political elites have to speak without the Pillsbury cookie dough of bureaucrat-prepared speech that, far too frequently, politicians are simply mouths for. In the U.S., I find the investment in speech writing deplorable. How often do you see any of the major leaders of the U.S. really defending themselves in an open forum? Still, the speech writers labor to achieve a home-spun, down-to-earth style that I find frightening.

Given that spontaneous speech has no more inherent honesty or sincerity – a plainspoken liar is still a liar – perhaps poets who are working in more formal idioms and with more architecturally complex verbal patterns are really working to retrieve some of the articulate passion of the ancients.

Let me put it in the form of a question. Does spontaneous speech have an intrinsic value?

Ken: Well, Louis and I used to talk about how what you wanted to do in a poem was to write something that “looked” spontaneous but could last a thousand years. So, is that really spontaneous? If it fully emerges out of the moment fully articulate, I suppose that it is; otherwise, it needs some work. And there is certainly some craftsmanly artifice being employed to make it appear natural. Sometimes it just is that way, and I love Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Shelley for how they make it appear to all be happening now. But maybe a good measure of it is “recollected in tranquility.”

“Articulate passion” is an excellent phrase. The great thing about Romeo and Juliet in that balcony scene is that they have articulate passion. For as much as they are talking about being overwhelmed by emotion, they deliver some excellent speeches. So, the spontaneous in poetry isn’t really interesting if it’s inarticulate. On the other hand, a work of verbal fluency doesn’t have much to offer us if it’s emotionally dead. So how do [we] strike the balance? That’s the challenge.

I agree completely that most American politicians couldn't survive in a parliamentary democracy. The Senators considered to be the “great orators” of the American Senate seem to be simply the ones who can actually answer a question. I think the only American president of the past 30 years who could have possibly lasted an hour under parliamentary questioning was Bill Clinton, and only if they didn't ask him about his sex life. But, on policy, he probably would have been able to cut it. But the rest, no. It’s still painful for me to watch Bush searching his 850-word vocabulary for the most closely approximate word when asked a question at a press conference.

Simple speech has no more intrinsic value than complex speech. Verbal density doesn’t guarantee a poetic experience, and neither does plain speech. The poetry isn’t in the vocabulary. I think the key is in moving a reader to a shift in consciousness. I don’t happen to think that, in most instances, you can do that with an erudite vocabulary. But you can't necessarily do it with the simple vocabulary of a television program either. If you can get the words to perfectly align, then the alchemy happens. The perfect words in the perfect order. That’s what makes the Earth move.

If you can make the perfect words in the perfect order seem to happen spontaneously, seem to be happening now, then the reader is swept up in an added rush of excitement. As a poet, I certainly experience a compositional rush of excitement when a poem comes into perfect alignment right before my eyes. But often it's an almost-perfect alignment, or an imperfect alignment, and that's when you have to employ everything you know about craft to get the job done. When it’s not working, then you have to employ the tools of craft to get the poem to work. But I don’t really buy the Yeatsian “I’m sweating bullets for beauty” approach that you talked about earlier on in that question, as much as I occasionally admire Yeats. “Poetry better come as easily as leaves to the tree.” Yeah, or certainly it should be made to seem like that.

Poems by Ken Norris


Reading her poetry
makes me think about shoes.

I don't usually
think about shoes.


Married like everybody else.
Divorced like everybody else.
Raising kids like everybody else.
Shopping at the mall like everybody else.
Watching tv like everybody else.
In debt like everybody else.

So wherein lies my individuality?
Well, in a car culture
I do walk everywhere,
and arise early
at six-thirty
to write poems like this one.


So crazy
to be a poet all your life,
counting the syllables, honing the commas,
spending years learning how to
place the emphasis. Still,
if you've done your work,
perhaps a world emerges.

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