Poetry: many people cringe at the word. It brings up grade school memories of obtuse arrangements of the English language and the mandatory memorization of their meter.
So let me start with a story instead. Once upon a time I took a creative writing course in poetry. It was in university. It was for credit. And when the instructor, an established poet, walked in and jovially stated that he didn’t like 90% of the poetry out there, my stomach sank uncomfortably deep. I swallowed hard and looked around the classroom: of the ten of us, did this mean that only one would receive a passing grade?
My friend dropped out of the class. She was a songwriter, a lyricist, and much more terrified of the class than me. I stuck with it though. I was curious. My instructor was humble and this intrigued me. He told us that this was his first time teaching a university course, and sometimes I got the feeling that he was more terrified of his students than we were of him.
As the course went on, I was exposed to more and more poetry and I made more of an effort to understand the poetry I consumed. What choice did I have? How could I write poetry if I didn’t understand poetry? Most of the poetry was take it or leave it, but every once in a while there was a gem. A poem that made me say: “Wow, I like this!” and the crazy thing was, sometimes that was followed by “I’m not even sure if I understand this.” My instructor’s words took on new meaning: It’s not that 90% of the poetry out there is garbage (although garbage poetry exists). Only about 10% of the poetry out there is going to intrigue any given reader.
Today I’m going to share with you some of my favourite poets. They may not speak to you the way they speak to me, so if not, I encourage you to go out and find a new favourite poet.
There is a school of thought in poetry that when composing a poem one should always keep in mind how a poem will sound out loud. This is because poetry is the oldest genre, one that predates writing. In a time when it wasn’t possible to record a poem on paper, many of poetry’s conventions, such as rhyme, meter, etc. were meant to ensure poems could be easily committed to memory.
bpNichol deliberately eschews this school of thought. I first encountered bpNichol flipping through 20th Century Poetry & Poetics. I had no choice but to stop at his poem Blues, in an anthology of poetry it was most immediately like no other. While it certainly uses letters and words, it is nearly impossible to describe using letters and words. Blues, like many of bpNichol’s other works is a painting done with characters instead of a brush. For an introduction to bpNichol I recommend An H in the Heart which is a compilation of his work selected by George Bowering and Michael Ondaatje.
I, perhaps like many of you, first met Bill Bissett on the bus. Not literally, but as a part of the Poetry in Transit series that appeared amongst the advertisements on city busses in 2013-2014. The featured poem, it usd 2 b, reads like the text of a modern teenager. But if you look at his bibliography, Bill Bissett has been omitting vowels since 1966.
There is a tendency to think of 733+ speak as lazy and/or obnoxious, but Bill Bissett’s poems help to make a case that writing in such a style can be used in a very deliberate fashion. It usd 2 b can be found in Bill Bissett’s book scars on th seehors.
Marlene Nourbese Philip
I encountered Marlene Nourbese Philip’s work while taking a course on diasporic Canadian literature. Her book She Tries Her Tongue Her Silence Softly Breaks is a collection of poems that addresses the challenges of finding a voice as an immigrant, a woman, and a Canadian. In her poem Discourse on the Logic of Language I was immediately fascinated by the way she uses a ‘/’ to conserve space and combine the words ‘languish’ and ‘anguish’ into ‘l/anguish.’ Philip is another example of a poet who manipulates the way characters are printed on the page to enhance the meaning of her poems.
John Weier taught me that when writing good poetry, you only get one shot at love. Love is to poetry as avoidance is to the plague: cliché. So write your love poem, because every poet must write at least one.
There are so many poems about love that the word love is a cliché. If you want to write poetry, go ahead and write your one love poem. Then go and write all the rest of your poems and see what else the world has to offer. After that, check out Weier’s book, Violinmaker’s Lament and count how many times he uses the word love.
Poetry at the Library
April is poetry month! I didn’t want to mention it until now, because I didn’t want you to think that I was writing about poetry just because it was poetry month. If you’re interested in learning more about poetry, check out the following events at the library:
Hidden Poetry at Osborne Library
Saturday, April 25: 2-4pm
Hidden poetry is a fun, easy way to create your own poetry. You simply black out words on an existing page of text, and what remains is your poem! You can also use our button maker to make your poetry portable!
Speaking Crow: poetry open mic at Millennium Library
First Tuesday of every month
Share your own poetry with others, or just sit down, relax, and hear what other local poets have to say. Speaking Crow is Winnipeg’s longest running Poetry Open Mic.
On The Same Page at onthesamepage.ca
On The Same Page is Winnipeg’s largest book club. The selection for 2014-2015 is Katherena Vermette’s Governor General’s Literary Award winning book of poetry: North End Love Songs. Join Katherena Vermette and other members of the Indigenous Writers’ Collective for a live reading on Tuesday, May 28th at 7:00 pm at the McNally Robinson Booksellers, 1120 Grant Ave.