poetics.ca issue #1
poetics.ca issue #1
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Robyn Sarah was born in New York City in 1949 to Canadian parents, and grew up in Montreal. A graduate of the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec and of McGill University, she began publishing poems in Canadian periodicals in the early 1970s, while pursuing graduate studies at McGill University. In 1976, with Fred Louder, she cofounded a small press, Villeneuve Publications, and coedited its poetry chapbook series, which included first titles by August Kleinzahler, A. F. Moritz, Bruce Taylor and others. During the same years, she taught English at Champlain Regional College.

Currently launching her new poetry collection, A Day’s Grace (The Porcupine’s Quill.
Erin, 2003), she is the author of several previous poetry collections, including Questions About The Stars (Brick Books. London, 1998) and The Touchstone: Poems New and Selected (Anansi. Concord, 1992). She has also published two collections of short stories, most recently Promise of Shelter (The Porcupine’s Quill. Erin, 1997). Her awards include a CBC Literary Competition prize for poetry in 1989 and a National Magazine Award for fiction in 1993. Since the mid-1990s she has been a frequent contributor to Canadian newspapers, writing on education, literacy, books and a variety of other topics. Her column “Poetic License” was a Gazette Books feature in 2000-2001.
Robyn’s poems, stories, and essays have been published widely in Canadian literary quarterlies and, more recently, in the
United States in such publications as The Threepenny Review, New England Review, Poetry, The Hudson Review and The North American Review.

(photo by D. R. Cowles 2003)


Questions About the Stars and Other Matter: an Interview with Robyn Sarah

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Stephen Brockwell: The poem “Riveted” from A Day’s Grace hints at alternative attitudes to life and to our present moment. There’s something unsettling about the idea of being handed a ticket to “a different show, clearly inferior.” The difference between the possible act of walking out early and the probable act of watching till the curtain falls seems reinforced by the repetition of the phrase “it is possible.” There appears to be a darker tone to A Day’s Grace compared with your previous work. Even the opening prose poem, in which a child plays in the dark space under the fire escape, hints at this darkness of mood. But it doesn’t appear to be a mood that is completely black, if I can put it that way. It’s a winter tone, if you will. Many of us enjoy the solitude and interior life of winter. Can you talk about A Day’s Grace?


Robyn Sarah: What shall I say about A Day’s Grace? Yes, I suppose it is a dark book — dark in the sense of dusky, aware that “the days grow shorter.” Its subject or subtext is mortality. I would say the tone is more autumnal than wintry — a late-autumn, brink-of-winter mood. But not, I hope, “black” — or even entirely bleak. Mortality presupposes a life. And lives — however imperfect (this is what I was getting at in “Riveted”) — are full of the stuff of life, full of mystery and moment and glimpses of luminosity. Lives — no matter how they may disappoint or try us — are precious. That’s why, even in extremity, the overriding impulse of the overwhelming majority of us is to see them through.

I hope that the book’s lyricism and emotion save it from bleakness. During the period when these poems were written, several people who were important in my life died — each of them, in one way or another, a mentor. And I myself passed the half-century mark. While I mostly do not deal with these events directly in the poems, I think there is hardly a poem untouched by them at some level. I think the effect is heightened by the fact that a century and a millennium ended during the same period. Marc Plourde, who has been my trusted first reader ever since Anyone Skating . . . , said of this manuscript, “Reading it, you feel what’s around the corner.”

Is this really new for me, though? The passage of time has been my primary theme, as a poet, ever since The Space Between Sleep and Waking  (look at “Nocturne” in that book.) The autumnal mood, too, has been dominant from the beginning. But I don’t think you’re mistaken in feeling something different in A Day’s Grace. I think what you’re noticing is that there is much less of the immediate, less heat if you like, than has been my way in the past. There are more forays into the remembered, the imagined, the dreamed — taking these as my starting point, rather than the present moment. Present detail, when it's there, is seen through a more distanced lens. The movement from concrete particulars into the realm of metaphor or philosophy is more overt, and many of the poems (“Riveted” is one) bypass the concrete altogether, and are entirely allegorical. It’s not that this is new for me either, but in this collection it has become my dominant mode, where it used to be occasional.


Stephen: “Grace,” the prose poem that opens Questions About The Stars, expresses a willing acceptance of inspiration and the need for sensitivity to what is simply there. The aging poet, O, decides, after watching sparrows, to take a walk in the sun rather than tour the museum. He’s even sensitive to the cold of his wrought-iron chair. There’s a certain breathlessness to the name O; it has erotic, choral and apostrophic assonances. And the sparrows remind me of Keats: “if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince (sic) and pick about the Gravel.” How do you reconcile inspiration, sensitivity and the meticulous demands of your craft?


Robyn: An elegant, and thought-provoking, question! “How do I reconcile . . .” In order to answer you, I would need to feel that these things are somehow in contradiction,  “inspiration/sensitivity” versus “the meticulous demands of craft.” And, the truth is, I do not feel them to be so. I have never felt that the demands of craft compromised the spontaneity of inspiration. One kind of grace (or inspiration) attends the impulse to poetry — the response to whatever “crumbs” God drops, if we are there and waiting; and another kind attends the making of the poem — a serendipitous capacity for playfulness with language. In the absence of either one — that is, if one is in a state of deadness to the world, or deadness to the delight to be found in manipulating words — no poem is possible, or, anyway, not for me.

“Grace” is, I guess, about being alive, in the sense of receptive to the immediate. The imagery (the museum, the guard, the clock) has the feel of a Kafka parable, so I wanted to give my aging poet an initial, like Kafka’s “K.” What is the archetypal initial for a poet? It didn’t take me long to come up with “O” — for its apostrophic overtones (as you’ve inferred) and for its gasp of responsiveness to the world. A poet is, or should be, the embodiment of that gasp. The museum is a place where the living world is frozen, preserved, mediated. And the “chill of the metal chair,” felt even through clothing, hints at mortality. But O realizes he has “arrived at the Museum too early” and decides to spend the day strolling in the sunshine — that is, he chooses the immediate world, warm and mutable, over the world of frozen artefacts. People (yesterday) dropped crumbs; God (today) dropped sparrows; O, in the absent-minded delight of the moment, drops pennies — and tomorrow, perhaps, will drop words — all of these are forms of grace.

I don’t suppose it escaped you that the final poem in the book is called “The World Is Its Own Museum.” Or that the sparrow recurs, in the context of grace, in the poems that end the book’s first two sequences, “Rue Jeanne Mance” at the end of “We’re Here,” and “To Ninety” at the end of “Rumours of Light.” I did not know the Keats quote, but it is perfect! Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Do you know William Carlos Williams’ sparrow poem? What is it about sparrows — they are so commonplace, but so vigorously alive. And “God sees the little sparrow fall . . .”


Stephen: There are two aspects of your response that I’d like to pursue: first, the synergy of spontaneity and craft; second, the idea of God as a presence in your work.

Can you describe your process? When an inspiring crumb is dropped, is it translated into a poem? Do your books evolve from the gathering of the poems that you’ve written, or does the microcosm of the crumb sometimes reveal larger, book-length themes?

To the second point — and I’m asking it now to avoid losing the thread — I’ve always felt that many modernist poets were reluctant to accept the death of God: Eliot, Auden, Marianne Moore, for example. Marianne Moore wrote, “My favorite poem? The Book of Job, for the verity of its agony and the fidelity that contrives glory for ashes. Conversely, much contemporary or postmodernist writing seems to reflect an actual absence of God — certainly an absence of a Christian God. I heard someone say recently on CBC that if God was dead he certainly left a God-sized hole. Can you talk about how spirituality informs your writing? I hope you don’t think this question is a diversion. It seems central to me.

Robyn: To your first question: no, I don't receive inspirations in the shape of book-length themes — at least not for poetry. Each poem is a completely individual experience for me, and the  ‘inspirational crumb ‘ can as easily come in the form of a cluster of words whose sound I like, as it can come in the form of sparrows in a snowy tree. (What I almost never start with is an “idea” in the sense of theme. Or, say — never with that by itself.)

So, yes, the books evolve out of a gathering of poems. I write poetry in “bouts” lasting approximately three years — starting with maybe a poem a month, picking up pace till I’m writing a poem a week or thereabouts, cresting, then tapering off again. I keep them in a “New Poems” folder, in the order in which they were written. When the poems slow to a trickle, I start thinking “book.” I look at what I’ve written over that period, and the first thing I do is to throw chronology out the window and start shuffling poems around, feeling my way towards a sequence that works. Different things come into play here: recognizing common imagery or thematic undercurrents that may not have been conscious; listening to beginnings and endings of poems in terms of their music and ethos, pairing poems that seem to flow naturally one into another; allowing seasonality a say; pulling the odd poem that doesn’t seem to fit into this particular body of work. I’ve come to enjoy this process a lot — though there is always some anxiety associated with it, especially at the beginning — and it can’t be rushed.

To your second question: “Spirituality” isn’t a word I’m comfortable with, but if God is dead I must have missed the obit. (Don’t people confuse God with the belief in God? Belief may be dead — at least as a fundamental common assumption of our culture.) Can I talk about how spirituality informs my writing — no, I don’t think I can. But that doesn't mean I don’t think it’s central. I think it probably is central. About the best I can do is to come back to that gasp of responsiveness to the world — the poet’s “O.” I try to be receptive: to the moment, to the world — of which language is a part. I try to keep myself open, to pay attention. To pay attention to the things that come my way, my daily “givens” — and to pay attention to language, as my chosen medium of response to those givens. In Hebrew the expression that translates as “Pay attention” is “Sim Lev.” It means, literally, “Put Your Heart (here).” I don’t know if this addresses what you were after in your question. I’m hoping it does.

Stephen: I think it does. Thanks.

Over the years, I’ve noticed an expansion of your formal choices. Your early work didn’t embrace too many given forms. I recall your early sestinas, for example, and a couple of sonnets in Becoming Light. But you’re now writing villanelles, sonnets — a lot of sonnets — while at the same time engaging in found poems, as you did in “A Brief History of Time: Digest and Subtext” from Questions About The Stars. Is that observation on the mark? Can you talk about your ideas of form? I’m particularly interested in the two extremes: the sonnet and the found poem. Is there any “museum” aspect to the formal choices you’ve made?

Robyn: The question about form: this is where I will probably run on at the mouth (or the keyboard), because I have so many thoughts on the subject — though no theory or ideology. Your question seems to presuppose a deliberate, conscious direction on my part. The reality is, I am almost entirely a creature of impulse, and my artistic choices are most often intuitive, unconscious, or stumbled-on, always very much “of the moment.” I was surprised the first time a reviewer called me a “formalist,” because at the time none of my poems were in traditional forms. And I never made a study of traditional forms. What the reviewer probably noticed is that I like for a poem to have a shape, I like for there to be a pattern or a perceptible relation of its parts to one another. And I like for it to be musical — I use repetition to this effect, or I may use metre and various kinds of rhyme. This natural inclination to form is probably something I absorbed subliminally from my years of studying classical music.

What do I mean by impulsive or stumbled-on? One day I was reading Elizabeth Bishop and came across her sestina called Sestina. Realizing that the title must be the name of the poem’s form, I studied the poem to see how it worked — was amazed and delighted — and saw at once that her mysterious poem “A Miracle for Breakfast,” which I had long admired, was also a sestina. Impulse: let’s see if I can do that. I happened to have in my typewriter two lines of a free verse poem I’d begun the previous day: “Already the beans have begun their wild climb / Twining tough runners round their separate strings . . .” and I decided to make it a sestina. It happened to be my son’s birthday. I typed a working title, “Sestina On My Son’s Birthday” (later I dropped the word sestina from the title), and worked/played with the poem off and on all day, in between preparing for, and then surviving, a five-year-old’s birthday party. By the end of the day I had what I thought was a finished sestina — until the next day somebody told me that the final tercet had to use all six end-words. I had used only three — having failed to notice the six in Bishop’s. What a shock! It sounded impossible. But I rewrote the tercet using all six words —and to much better effect. The pleasure of working this form was so intense, it was almost a mystical experience. Two more sestinas followed, but the experience of writing those was more like doing a crossword puzzle. I’ve written no sestinas since — well, one, years later, but I never published it because it didn’t seem good enough.

And that’s the thing about formal poems. A mediocre sonnet or villanelle can claim to be a poem by virtue of its form alone — but a formally perfect sonnet or villanelle is not necessarily a good poem. I wrote a couple of sonnets in high school when we studied the form in English class: they were formally perfect but they weren’t poems I wanted to keep — it was just to see if I could do it. I wrote a villanelle in the same spirit when I was in my 20s — having noticed that Roethke’s “I wake to sleep . . .” was in the same form as Thomas’ “Do not go gentle . . .” (Someone else had to tell me what it was called.) It wasn’t a terrific poem, but it had things in it I liked enough not to throw out, so I pasted it into my journal. Twenty years later I reused one of its repeating lines in my untitled villanelle in Questions About The Stars.

But the sonnet! The sonnet is a whole other story. I love the sonnet — it is so endlessly flexible and versatile, even within its demands and compactness, or maybe because of them. In Becoming Light, there are 12 14-line poems, each of which borrows something from the formal vocabulary of traditional sonnet variants — either the octave-sestet relation of exposition to reflection/commentary, or the summing-up in a final rhymed couplet in iambic pentameter, or rhyme (traditional and not.) In three of them, I experimented with a seven-line, seven-line relation, and, in “Madrigal,” a 10-4. (“Two O’clock” in Questions About The Stars was actually written at this time, too.) This was a period of play with the idea of a sonnet, testing its possibilities, edging towards it, circling around it.

While it is concentrated in Becoming Light, that “sonnet impulse” was with me from the beginning. Of the five poems from my first book that I chose to reprint in The Touchstone, three (I see now) unconsciously used a sonnet paradigm: “I think of your hands . . .” (which is as much a “free” sonnet as any I have written since), “October/Sutton” (a mirror sonnet, with octave sandwiched between two sestets) and “Sinkers,” whose two stanzas are not the right length, but whose thought movement is that of an octave-sestet sonnet. But it was only with Questions About The Stars that I began writing some strict sonnets — even as I continued modifying the form in others. Maybe I came at the sonnet sideways because I was afraid of not sounding “modern.” Now I don’t care. I love the challenge of writing a traditional sonnet in absolutely contemporary idiom. Or even of using deliberate anachronisms, sounding deliberate echoes.

The demands of a set form take the mind in directions it would not find on its own, and allow for the expression of intense emotion without self-indulgence. In this sense, what seems like restriction can actually be enormously liberating.

You ask about found poems and prose poems. “A Brief History . . .” is really a collage poem. It is composed entirely of found material, but it fragments and splices that material in ways that take it very far from original context. I’ve done a few of these, usually as an exercise to break writer’s block or to stimulate my thinking in new directions. In that sense, it’s not so different from working in a set form: you have rules, you have “givens,” and they push you in unexpected ways. As for the prose poems — again, no deliberate choice — sometimes I’m writing something long-breathed, lyrical, imagistic, and the line breaks aren’t coming right, no matter how I juggle them, so I type it as prose — accepting that it is prose, in its cadence, though it may be a poem in every other sense.

I’ve never set out consciously to “explore extremes.” I write in the form that feels right for the moment, for the thoughts or the word clusters I’m working with — even if I have to invent a form myself. I have no fixed ideas of what poetry ought to be and I enjoy variety, I always want to try new things, so there are these very different currents that coexist in each of my books.

Stephen: That’s the kind of depth I was hoping for — it gives us more to talk about.

On a personal level, I’m sympathetic to your ideas about form. I thought at one time that the sonnet was the ultimate formal adventure — for the near-infinite variety in its compactness. But I’ve come to distrust traditional forms for a number of reasons. To my ear, the sonnet is an immediate formal irony. It’s as if the poet, or the speaker, has chosen a deliberate anachronism that the reader will roll their eyeballs at, or will search for some counterpoint, some veiled acknowledgement of the literary game. The sonnet seems overdressed for our casual times. That’s the challenge for me: how to rework the peculiar design of the sonnet’s rail system (to push the analogy of the train of thought) into a contemporary socially and politically aware idiom? I’m not saying that’s essential to the writing of a great sonnet. My favourite sonnet of yours is “Night Visit.” But, even there, part of what works, it seems, is the rethinking of the sonnet love triangle. It starkly contrasts with the tradition of courtly love that is the heritage of the sonnet.

While I’m no postmodernist, I think it’s important to question the legitimacy and rhetorical strategies of any given form. I don’t think that means that one can’t write a sonnet; it means that a successful sonnet, consciously or unconsciously, undermines or questions its heritage — such as the irregular rhyme and rhythm of 14-line poem that evolved from the sonnet in Becoming Light, or the revisionism of “Night Visit.” But, then, my head gets the better of my pen too often for my own good.

So. Is form a social or political concern for you?

Robyn: In no way is form a social or political concern for me. I have social and political concerns as a private citizen, and I have them as a journalist, and I have had them to some degree as a teacher (where I always sought to keep them in balance with other concerns.) But social and political concerns are not what motivate me as an artist. I don’t regard writing a poem as a political or a social act. I don’t regard the poem as a political or a social statement — neither the fact of it, nor the form of it.

By which I don’t mean to say that my poetry is devoid of political or social significance. If one is looking for political or social subtext, one can find it in anything — and looking for it in the arts is the perfectly legitimate concern of intellectuals, critics, social historians, academics of the arts. But planting it there ought not, at least to my mind, to be the concern of artists. As an artist, my concerns are human, not ideological. And I am concerned with “beauty and truth.” And if the so-called modern reader wants to hear those words “ironically,” or roll eyeballs at them, I say let him.

To me, a poetic form is a word dance. A prescribed set of formal moves, involving sound and/or sense. Why question the “legitimacy” of such a thing? It is graceful play with language, a graceful invention to be passed from hand to hand. Why must a successful sonnet “undermine or question” its heritage — what is wrong with simply nodding to it? Acknowledging the past as having a vote, if not a veto? Saluting an unbroken line of tradition by keeping it alive? This doesn’t mean we cannot leave the stamp of our own times, and of our personal sensibility, upon that form — as has every past generation of poets and every individual poet who used it. (Though if truth be told, the more I read Shakespeare’s sonnets — I’m talking about the best of them, not the lot, which are very uneven — the more “modern” they seem. The language is anything but “dressed up.” One- and two-syllable words predominate. The concerns are perennial.) 

The sonnet only becomes a “deliberate anachronism” if we altogether stop writing it, and if we stop reading it for pleasure and read it only as an academic exercise. To some extent, that has already happened. I resist the process.

(Just as a footnote — at no point did I have the “sonnet love triangle” in mind when I wrote “Night Visit.” I hope this doesn’t disappoint you too much!)


Stephen: Thanks for that definitive answer. I hope I’m not dogmatic about form; I’m questioning. Shakespeare, Sydney, and, later, Donne, worked with (or against) the form to undermine the conventions as they became hackneyed — the grotesqueries in sonnet 130, for example (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”). I find Donne’s Holy Sonnets all the more compelling because he coerces the conventions of courtly love to the service of heavenly love (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God”).

I wonder, too, whether the sonnet shapes thought. It must: it’s designed for the long swerve in the sestet or the abrupt curve in the final couplet. Pope’s heroic couplets, while infinitely various, best support a distinctive style of rational argument. I simply wonder — I ask the question — is it enough to accept and write (as Sidney might advocate, perhaps tongue and cheek, “Fool, said my muse to me, look to thy heart and write”) or should new ways of thinking through form be explored vigorously? You’re an intuitive poet, a poet of impulse; what kinds of forms have you had the most pleasure discovering?

Robyn: I hope you didn’t think I was accusing you of dogmatism. But this line of questioning has always seemed to me to be the business of teachers of literature and of literary critics — it isn’t a way that I think about what I’m doing as a working poet. While actually writing a poem I am thinking only about words (the sound of words, the multiple associations of words, the emotional colour of words) and how best to arrange them in order to convey what I am immediately looking at, feeling, experiencing, remembering. I am not thinking things like, “How can I stretch the boundaries and conventions of the form I’m working in?” or “How can I explore a new way of thinking about this form?” After the fact, I may notice that I have done something of the sort — but I don’t start out with the conscious intention.

Ditto for forms that I have myself created. It’s only when the poem is finished that I see what I have done (as when I noticed that “October/Sutton” is a mirror sonnet) — and I have rarely reused a form I invented/discovered in this way. (“Fugue” is an example of a poem for which I intuitively created a form. Only after it was finished did I notice the pattern in which the repeating lines change their position from stanza to stanza . . . I did know I was working with a seven-line stanza and repeating lines, but the pattern of repetition was indeliberate, it was dictated by ear.) In A Day’s Grace there are several poems with individual created forms — “Riveted,” “Bounty,” “Windfall,” among others. Afterwards, I often see that the form a poem has taken reflects its content in some way (this is true of “Fugue” and “Riveted”). And I’m always amazed that I’ve done this unconsciously.

Does the sonnet shape thought, you ask? I think so, but it is also shaped by thought. It’s a natural rhetorical motion to begin with narration or exposition and move to commentary/reflection. I think poetic forms themselves evolve out of natural felicities of language and the way we think in it — and this is what makes them pleasing to us. If they are regularly used, regularly exercised by poets and appreciated by readers, their conventions become internalized, they become part of a common poetic vocabulary; and out of this familiarity the kind of exploration/distortion you are talking about happens naturally — just as a river gradually eats away at its own banks, changing their contours.

The examples you mention from Shakespeare and Donne demonstrate this. When form is a living currency, nobody needs to look for ways to undermine its conventions — they happen as a natural process, a natural reaction against what has become hackneyed or a seeking for more room within a structure that has become confining. Sidney (in your quotation) “advocates” in metre! Because metre is second nature to him, a living currency. There is no contradiction, for him, between “metrics” and “look to thy heart and write” (and, in fact — as a friend once pointed out to me — the human heart beats in iambics).

It amazes me that there are so many poets writing today who feel no pull to learn the formal vocabulary of their literary forebears (I mean, to learn the exercise of it—to achieve what fluency they can in it) — simply as part of mastering their craft, their facility with the language, their control of it, whether or not they choose to write poems of their own in traditional forms. (Who not only feel no pull to learn it, but who make a virtue of not learning it!) I see no reason why any modern poet should feel obliged to write in metre and rhyme, or to write sonnets or villanelles or whatever. But I think we should all be able to do so, if we want to call ourselves poets. And we do not become able without practice. (We should remember that the modern poets who broke with formalism to pioneer a free verse idiom were breaking with something they were fluent in.)

Stephen: I’d say that a fair number of contemporary poets are breaking with the form they’re fluent in — namely, the sometimes apparent and sometimes actual formlessness of free verse. Consider the recent controversy — a tropical depression in a dollhouse teapot — over Carmine Starnino’s review of Christian Bök’s Eunoia. I think that dialogue is wonderfully valuable because it explores an antinomy between contemporary poetic strategies to recuperate form: reach back and recover the proven practices of the ancients, or stretch forward and discover new forms. I think we’re free to take what we can from whatever practice most resonates with our poetic temperaments.

Oulipo (l’Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) explored constraints that were based not on traditional forms but arbitrary narrative, word or language games (such as writing a novel without the letter e). This seems a natural outcome of the growing self-consciousness of language that occurred during the early and middle part of the 20th century — language becomes the subject of the poem, not a vehicle for meaning. Do you have a perspective on the controversy? Do you think that constraints, such as the sonnet, that have evolved from a kind of literary Darwinism — where a culture approves certain forms because they are affective, beautiful or clear — have an advantage over those that are constructed from the idea of the language game?

Robyn: I think the so-called “New Formalism” in the United States, and renewed interest in formal poetry in Canada, is indeed a sign that poets are breaking with the free verse idiom they are fluent in, and looking to broaden their definition of contemporary poetry.

Long before it won the Griffin, I was prompted to pick up a copy of Eunoia after reading a review (I forget where) with some quotes that I found astonishing. I dipped into the book on the bus ride home and laughed out loud a few times (a rare experience when reading a poetry book). I could not stop smiling. What a feat! I loved its energy, inventiveness, playfulness, its jazz rhythms (the product of Bök’s self-imposed parallel-syntax constraints.) While I do not fundamentally disagree with Carmine’s verdict on this kind of venture, I could not myself protest it so strenuously. A portion of art, for me (and poetry is an art form), is play. Why discount this aspect of poetry? What purer activity in the world is there than play? There is so much pretentiousness in the arts.

But having said that, I must add that I believe that language is the “subject of the poem,” to some extent, in any poetry worth its salt — even where language is also “a vehicle for meaning” — and this is one of the things that distinguishes poetry from prose. Why should the two be mutually exclusive? I see no reason. In the greatest poetry, language serves both functions — in as close as possible to equal measure. By eschewing or subjugating the “vehicle-for-meaning” aspect of language, I think movements like the Oulipo settle for an inferior status in the history of the art. Regardless of the beauty and energy of pure linguistic virtuosity (which I do not discount — certainly we should make room for it, allow ourselves to delight in it, and credit it) — in my view, such play by itself is a lesser form of art, a dead-end street in terms of where it can take the human spirit.


O, an aging poet, finds he has arrived at the Museum too early.  The doors are not yet open; through glass, the guard nods to him and gestures towards the clock, which shows ten till the hour.  The café, too, is closed:  the stone terrace lies silent, its wrought-iron tables empty.  O sits down at one of them to wait, feeling the chill of the white-painted metal through his clothing.

In the early sunshine, sparrows are hopping about on the flagstones, pecking at crusts dropped yesterday. They are not shy; they come right up to his feet.  O watches their darting movements, mimicked by their own sharp shadows.  The thought comes to him that poets are like sparrows, hopping around at the foot of café tables, waiting for crumbs.  Waiting for God to drop something, by accident or on purpose--as today, these sparrows. 

O is pleased by his thought, which he scribbles down in a small notebook.  He stands and stretches, walks rapidly up and down the terrace a few times with his hands in his pockets, and pauses to drop a handful of pennies in the goldfish pond. 

Instead of waiting for the Museum to open, he decides to spend the whole day strolling in the sunshine.

(from Questions about the stars, courtesy of Brick Books)

Night Visit

A woman in bed with a man and his dead father
is lonelier than a woman in bed alone,
for three's a crowd--and face it, a dead man
weighs in to make a formidable other.
It is a son she holds now, not a lover:
flesh of his father's flesh, bone of his bone,
heart hurting with the unsaid and the undone--
a nakedness, but not hers to uncover.

She holds a son (not hers) whose difficult grieving
she cannot reach as wife, nor soothe as mother,
bound as it is to years she has not known.
What can she do but listen to his breathing,
stroke his cold brow, and wait for calmer weather,
allowing him this darkness for his own.

(from Questions about the stars, courtesy of Brick Books)


It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.

Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.

It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious dénouement
to the unsurprising end - riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.

(from A Day's Grace courtesy of The Porcupine's Quill)


Make much of something small.
The pouring-out of tea,
a drying flower's shadow on the wall
from last week's sad bouquet.
A fact: it isn't summer any more.

Say that December sun
is pitiless, but crystalline
and strikes like a bell.
Say it plays colours like a glockenspiel.
It shows the dust as well,

the elemental sediment
your broom has missed,
and lights each grain of sugar spilled
upon the tabletop, beside
pistachio shells, peel of a clementine.

Slippers and morning papers on the floor,
and wafts of iron heat from rumbling rads,
can this be all? No, look - here comes the cat,
with one ear inside out.
Make much of something small.

(from A Day's Grace courtesy of The Porcupine's Quill)


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