Best Canadian Poetry In English (Tightrope Books)

AGAINST ORIGINALITY

The collection is a unique glimpse at a diversity of poets, from Ottawa’s David O’Meara to Margaret Atwood to the revered P.K. Page.Cormac Rae, Ottawa Xpress

Alright, let me take a step back. I’m not against originality per se, as manifested in such boldly unique talents as Hopkins, Whitman and Dickinson. No, what I oppose is originality as a goal of writing. I’m with Auden:

A poet has to woo, not only his own Muse but also Dame Philology, and, for the beginner, the latter is the more important. As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuinely original talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying something original; his attitude is that of the old lady, quoted by E.M. ForsterHow can I know what I think till I see what I say? It is only later when he has wooed and won Dame Philology, that he can give his entire devotion to his Muse.

I agree with this almost completely but would modify the final sentence because a poet’s relationship with Dame Philology needs constant attention if it’s to stay healthy.

The truth of Auden’s remarks was borne home to me recently. Thanks to a prolonged bout of semi-unemployment, I’m in the midst of finishing an MA in English and Writing [1] at UNB. At 34, with over a decade’s worth of publishing history, I’m in the odd position, despite lack of academic accreditation, of being more a peer of the faculty than of the students, most of whom are taking the same tentative water-testing steps into the world of writing that I was venturing at their age. In October, I took part in UNB’s annual Poetry Weekend, a marathon session of readings that was inaugurated, almost by accident, in 2004. Also reading at Poetry Weekend 2010 were the students in Ross Leckie’s graduate poetry workshop. As usual, the student readings were a mixed bag [2]: glimmers of promise showing through writing that was for the most part derivative and strained. One student stood out, however, with a verse that was confident, sure-footed in its sound play and strikingly mature. Anne Compton, seated beside me, half-turned and said, She’s good. I heard this student read again a few weeks later and was equally impressed. In conversation with her afterward, she told me that, not knowing where or how to start learning poetry, she just picked up The Exeter Book one day and started working forward.

Aha!

Originality is a red herring. Let’s consult Dame Philology. The word suggests a beginning, a rise, a source, but nothing, as Lear said, will come from nothing, notwithstanding biblical rumors of ex nihilo creation. What most people striving to be radical poets ignore in their rejections of the old is that radical is derived from radix, or root, (hence radish) and we all got here from somewhere and need a surface on which to stand. I mentioned a few bold innovators above. Hopkins read and wrote Latin. He also recognized that the principles of his sprung rhythm were not novel, but were evident, for example, in the alliterative accentual verse of the medieval poet William Langland. Hopkins also drew on the old Welsh verse forms of cynghanedd and mind the dialect of Lancashire for much of his diction; he was a genius of fusion. Whitman’s incantatory long lines and syntactic parallelism have their source in the Old Testament. Almost everything Emily Dickinson wrote is in the form of a hymn.[3] And Ezra Pound, the 20th Century prophet of making it new, sent taproots back to the troubadours, in much the same way that Lisa Robertson has recently revisited Petrarch and Erin Moure has communed with old Portuguese minstrels.

The perfect model for bona fide originalityas opposed to ersatz noveltyis in our genes. DNA is made up of a four-letter alphabet and yet is the language in which all the diverse life forms of the world are written. We famously share 99% of our genetic material with chimps but look at how different we are. The creative potential of DNA, like that of any language, inheres in its combinatorial arrangements of a finite number of particles. Our imaginations work the same way: nothing we can think of, however fantastic, is constructed from scratch. (Dame P. has just reminded me that construct comes from the Latin phrase meaning to heap together.) A unicorn is a horse crossed with a narwhal; creation and combination are one and the process is synthetic, but also organic. The more complex the soil and the deeper the root system, the more vital the vine and the more layered the grape’s flavor.

So this is another thing I love about the lyrebird. He gets his name from the resemblance his tail feathers bear to a lyre, but it might as well spring from his poet’s instinct for gathering shiny trouvailles and ambient sounds as the expression of his haecceity. He doesn’t concern himself with being original, he just does originality. He embodies Frost’s maxim, which chimes nicely with Auden’s observation above: Beware of the sound, let sense take care of itself. Because it will. Language signifies. It can’t help but do so. If you’re intelligent, thoughtful, talented, have made poetry your constant companion and taken Dame P. on plenty of dates, there’s a decent chance you’ll create something resembling original art, even if you don’t have it in you to match Shakespeare or Yeats.

One of the reasons I think the sonnet was the right form for my lyrebird poem, and not just a cage in which to cram it, is the form’s place at the junction of tradition and innovation, the way a good sonnet shares something generic with all other sonnets but is also sui generis. In the same way, each of us is at once a member of a species exhibiting statistically predictable behavior and, in our unreplicable combinations of genes and experience, a quicksilver individual. At the Ottawa launch of my sonnet anthology (Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets), Stephen Brockwell said something sage about this, to the effect that using a form like the sonnet allows us to express what we are capable of saying, as opposed to what we would like to say, which latter is rarely as beautiful or bright.[4]

I started with Auden and I’d like to let him have the last word. Against originality, Auden emphasises the primacy of authenticity:

Sincerity in the proper sense of the word, meaning authenticity, is … or ought to be, a writer’s chief preoccupation. No writer can ever judge exactly how good or bad a work of his may be, but he can always know, not immediately perhaps, but certainly in a short while, whether something he has written is authenticin his handwritingor a forgery.

[1] My antipathy to redundancy won’t allow me to use the term Creative Writing, which makes poetry sound more like a twee hobby than the chronic mental illness it is.

[2] In fairness, so were the readings by more established writers.

[3] And can therefore be sung, as is tirelessly pointed out, to the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas.

[4] Stephen, who is a mathematician as well as a poet, also likes to point out that the theoretical number of possible sonnets exceeds the number of known particles in the universe, putting the lie to claims that the possibilities of the form have been, or can be, exhausted.