Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ottawent

So, party's over, and I'm back at the trail's end/beginning.

League of Poets AGM ended after two more days of meetings and readings and meetings and readings. By the end of Saturday's banquet I could not have eaten another bite or heard another word.

We had a keynote address on Saturday night by longtime member (indeed present at the founding meeting of the League) Margaret Atwood. She was in droll mood and after a charming and carefully bilingual introduction by Pauline Michel, she launched into a quip-packed 40th anniversary address, on the subject of Why Poetry? (Her lecture will, they tell us, be printed in full in a future issue of Prairie Fire.)

She said she'd joined the League back "when poetry was top dog," when, like her, many of today's Canadian novelists were beginning their careers -- as poets. Recounting a couple of sweetly sordid anecdotes, she remarked that back then the poets - mostly male - were living in the afterglow of Dylan Thomas and John Berryman, and self-destructive acts were part of the job description. She felt that these days she'd send aspiring poets to plumbing school: there's always a demand for your services; it's easier to think about poetry when doing something with your hands; and it's nice and dark under the sink.

So then she got to her question. Though we no longer think we can conjure rain, or even mildew, or have our heads chopped off for writing poetry, we are in a tamer age than when words were more potent. Why then do we do this poetry thing, whether written or oral, or is it built in?

Instead of providing answers, she offered what she called some potentially interesting sidelights.
1. Reading, writing and speaking are all located in different parts of the brain.
2. If the speaking part of your brain is knocked out, the singing part may still remain.
3. Words have their own address book in our brain: we recognise that John Smith is a different thing from a carrot. Poetry can serve as an aide-memoire (to prove her point, she had us filling in the blanks of Alligator pie; Alligator pie... )
4. Music, poetry and mathematics are more closely related than poetry and prose. There's a system of pattern recognition at work that's connected to music and math - and of course she was speaking here of rhymed and metered verse rather than "that which resembles prose".
5. Fire and grammar are what distinguish humans from other life forms. Only humans cook their food, and having reduced the time we would have spent digesting unprocessed food, we have thus liberated up to five hours per day for other pursuits. And though animals may communicate through noise, they lack grammar. The dog can and does think in past and future tense, but no dog is likely to question where the first dog came from, and where do dogs go when they die.

Oral cultures, she went on, swam in a sea of language; but now we live on comparatively dry shores, extruding our brains into other technologies, and so that part of our brain has probably shrunk. Technology and numbers are said to represent 'the real world' - as opposed to the obsolete world that poets occupy. But we make what we long for, and destroy what we fear, as we have always done; these things have not changed, and we know this because we have poetry. Human imagination drives the world: it directs what we do without our tools, and poetry is part of the way we sing our being.

There followed the banquet (some very good grilled chicken or cedar-planked salmon) and awards ceremony. I was thrilled that Suzanne Buffam won the Gerald Lampert Award for her wonderful book Past Imperfect. She read the lovely poem Please Take Back the Sparrows.

The winner of the Pat Lowther Award was Sylvia Legris, for Nerve Squall, reviewed with considerable venom in the Globe and Mail earlier that day. A tragic waste of newspaper space for the single review of poetry on offer, and a badly ill-judged match of reviewer to subject, as the reviewer himself admits: "Those who enjoy linguistic foreplay, and the pinball wizardry of caroming words, will favour this book. Those like me will find that it all adds up to narcissistic inconsequence." Well, it's not my cup of tea either, but if it was good enough to engage the not inconsiderable intellects of the juries of both the Griffin and the Lowther awards, and prove itself the stand-out over hundreds of other collections, it can't be as bad as all that. It would have been far more useful to hear from a critic able to explain just what that power was, in the context of all its competitors. Surely the Globe could have scraped the barrel a bit harder and found a reviewer who could deal with the book in its own terms?

A more interesting article in the Globe and Mail about the origins of ABE, the online treasure trove for book lovers.

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1 Comments:

Blogger berlynn said...

Ah, Rhona, thanks for that bit from Atwood. I'll look for the Prairie Fire issue with the full piece in it.

As to the Glob & Maul, wasn't that just the most horrid review of Sylvia's book? I couldn't even follow it, truth be told, for its jumper hither and yon.

Then again, it was better than the interview with Douglas Coupland in the most recent issue of the Prairie Dog. The interviewer hadn't read the book!!!

5:56 PM  

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