Facts & Arguments Podcast
I was engaging in a dubious art form that has no audience. Only publication would help me kick the habit
via Globe and Mail
As a teen, I had a dark secret. One hidden from relatives, friends, even my diary.
When there were rumours of another kid engaged in the same activity, I would shake my head and divert suspicion by snickering loudly. It would be years before I confessed: I wrote poetry.
As it turns out, I wasn’t alone. Many Canadians have been afflicted with this condition. For most, it clears up before something gets published. Others are not so fortunate.
It is, after all, a complete waste of time that’s distinguished by the fact that it has no audience, at least in this country. The only people who attend poetry readings are dutiful friends, perplexed relatives and sometimes other poets looking for assurance their work is better.
At the launch of my first book, there was no one I didn’t recognize. At the launch of my second, there actually were. After a flicker of excitement, I realized that was only because a book of 100 poems about the numbers from 1 to 100 was so idiosyncratically perverse, it had drawn the curious.
If the Canada Council for the Arts was serious about supporting this dubious art form, it would stop funding poets. Being addicted, they will write poetry anyway. The money should be used to subsidize people to attend readings and create what poetry really needs: an audience.
My most serious attempt at kicking the habit occurred in my early 20s. I was working on a master’s degree in astronomy a bad choice, it turns out, since it’s the most dangerously poetic of the sciences. I would frequently catch myself doodling couplets between the nuclear reaction equations of stellar interiors.
I wanted to stop but nothing worked. So I decided to try the harm-reduction approach and switched to something less damaging.
I chose the novel. There are many examples in Canada of poets breaking their addiction by turning to fiction and becoming well-known in the process. Some even made money.
For a while it appeared that might work. My novel, Before the Flood, did relatively well, and even snatched a Books in Canada First Novel Award. A recovering poet now, I began a follow-up novel. It looked as if I had finally shaken the metrical monkey off my back.
But one afternoon, lulled by good weather, I dropped my guard and slipped into a bookstore unaccompanied. Sunlight through the stained-glass windows glistened on the newly waxed floor of the poetry section. Chamber music floated from the speakers. The pages of an opened book rustled seductively on an otherwise vacant armchair.
Like the alcoholic who thinks he can handle one drink, I picked up the book and sat. It was a collection of sonnets by a writer whose approach was to start on unpromising turf, inhale deeply and go like mad for 14 lines. I was especially drawn to the use of couplets in place of the eight- and six-line clots of the hardcore sonnet.
The couplets reminded me of what I had written to upholster those astrophysical equations. I began to compose my own 14-liners that usually had astronomical themes. It appeared my affliction, only in remission, had metastasized into a full-blown obsession with the celestial sonnet.
Still, I kept trying. I would lock the unfinished manuscript in a drawer for months at a time. I would refuse to read anything not in paragraphs. I boycotted bookstores. But my idea, like the universe, kept expanding. It became a plan for a sequence of 88 sonnets, each based on one of the 88 constellations.
Distressed, overwhelmed, resigned to my fate, I joined a university writing group. The experience was more like AA meetings adjourned to the pub, where confessions and drunken suggestions poured out.
Fuelled, in part, by the boozy opinion a book like mine needed doing, I continued. Academic poets come from the humanities, never the sciences, and write for each other. Personal poets tend to mine their own angst, which requires more digging inward than looking up. So the cosmos, as subject and imagery source, was largely untapped.
I couldn’t ignore that the shape of the sonnet made it the perfect craft from which to explore. I even anchored each sonnet to a star diagram printed by the title like a fingerprint. This way the reader (should there be one) would know every constellation is legitimate and not some private hallucination.
Sky Atlas is finished now, published, out of my system. My physician has pronounced me poetry-free. I’ve gained weight, thrown out every book not written in prose and changed my e-mail address so workshop friends can’t contact me. I’ve re-entered a monogamous relationship with my next novel. If ever again, on a slow afternoon, I find myself in the perilous vicinity of a poetry aisle, I’m sure I’ll walk right by.
Alan R. Wilson lives in Victoria.
Illustration by Jason Logan.