Daily Archives: November 24, 2008

A Poet’s Recovery

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.



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When the music changes, the walls of the city shake



“First Thought is Best in Art, Second in Other Matters.”
— William Blake

             I Background (Situation, Or Primary Perception)

  1. “First Thought, Best Thought” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  2. “Take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  3. “The Mind must be loose.” — John Adams
  4. “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”
  5. “My writing is a picture of the mind moving.” — Philip Whalen
  6. Surprise Mind — Allen Ginsberg
  7. “The old pond, a frog jumps in, Kerplunk!” — Basho
  8. “Magic is the total delight (appreciation) of chance.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  9. “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” –– Walt Whitman
  10. “…What quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature? … Negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” — John Keats
  11. “Form is never more than an extension ofcontent. — Robert Creeley to Charles Olson
  12. “Form follows function.” — Frank Lloyd Wright*
  13. Ordinary Mind includes eternal perceptions. — A. G.
  14. “Nothing is better for being Eternal

Nor so white as the white that dies of a day.” — Louis Zukofsky

  • Notice what you notice. — A. G.
  • Catch yourself thinking. — A. G.
  • Observe what’s vivid. — A. G.
  • Vividness is self-selecting. — A. G.
  • “Spots of Time” — William Wordsworth
  • If we don’t show anyone we’re free to write anything. –– A. G.
  • “My mind is open to itself.” — Gelek Rinpoche
  • “Each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound.” — Charles Reznikoff
  •              II Path (Method, Or Recognition)

    1. “No ideas but in things.” “… No ideas but in the Facts.” — William Carlos Williams
    2. “Close to the nose.” — W. C. Williams
    3. “Sight is where the eye hits.” — Louis Zukofsky
    4. “Clamp the mind down on objects.” — W C. Williams
    5. “Direct treatment of the thing … (or object).” — Ezra Pound, 1912
    6. “Presentation, not reference.” — Ezra Pound
    7. “Give me a for instance.” — Vernacular
    8. “Show not tell.” — Vernacular
    9. “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” — Ezra Pound
    10. “Things are symbols of themselves.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
    11. “Labor well the minute particulars, take care of the little ones.

    He who would do good for another must do it in minute particulars.
    General Good is the plea of the Scoundrel Hypocrite and Flatterer
    For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.” — William Blake

  • “And being old she put a skin / on everything she said.” — W. B. Yeats
  • “Don’t think of words when you stop but to see the picture better.” — Jack Kerouac
  • “Details are the Life of Prose.” — Jack Kerouac
  • Intense fragments of spoken idiom best. — A. G.
  • “Economy of Words” — Ezra Pound
  • “Tailoring” — Gregory Corso
  • Maximum information, minimum number of syllables. –– A. G.
  • Syntax condensed, sound is solid. — A. G.
  • Savor vowels, appreciate consonants. — A. G.
  • “Compose in the sequence of musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” — Ezra Pound
  • “… awareness … of the tone leading of the vowels.” — Ezra Pound
  • “… an attempt to approximate classical quantitative meters . . . — Ezra Pound
  • “Lower limit speech, upper limit song” — Louis Zukofsky
  • “Phanopoeia, Melopoeia, Logopoeia.” — Ezra Pound
  • “Sight. Sound & Intellect.” — Louis Zukofsky
  • “Only emotion objectified endures.” — Louis Zukofsky
  •              III Fruition (Result, Or Appreciation)

    1. Spiritus = Breathing = Inspiration = Unobstructed Breath
    2. “Alone with the Alone” — Plotinus
    3. Sunyata (Sanskrit) = Ku (Japanese) = Emptiness
    4. “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” — Zen Koan
    5. “What’s the face you had before you were born?” — Zen Koan
    6. Vipassana (Pali) = Clear Seeing
    7. “Stop the world” — Carlos Castafleda
    8. “The purpose of art is to stop time.” — Bob Dylan
    9. “the unspeakable visions of the individual — J. K.
    10. “I am going to try speaking some reckless words, and I want you to try to listen recklessly.” — Chuang Tzu (Tr. Burton Watson)
    11. “Candor” —Whitman
    12. “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  — W. Shakespeare
    13. “Contact” — A Magazine, Nathaniel West & W. C. Williams, Eds.
    14. “God appears & God is Light

    To those poor souls who dwell in Night.
    But does a Human Form Display
    To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.” — W. Blake

  • “Subject is known by what she sees.” -A. G.
  • Others can measure their visions by what we see. –– A. G.
  • Candor ends paranoia. — A. G.
  • “Willingness to be Fool.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  • “Day & Night / you’re all right.” — Gregory Corso
  • Tyger: “Humility is Beatness.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche & A. G.
  • Lion: “Surprise Mind” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche &A.G.
  • Garuda: “Crazy Wisdom Outrageousness” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  • Dragon: “Unborn Inscrutability” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  • “To be men not destroyers” — Ezra Pound
  • Speech synchronizes mind & body — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  • “The Emperor unites Heaven & Earth” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  • “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — Shelley
  • “Make it new” — Ezra Pound
  • “When the music changes, the walls of the city shake” — Plato
  • “Every third thought shall be my grave — W Shakespeare, The Tempest
  • “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” –– W. Shakespeare, Sonnets
  • “Only emotion endures” — Ezra Pound
  • “Well while I’m here I’ll
  •        do the work —
    and what’s the Work?
         To ease the pain of living.
    Everything else, drunken
         dumbshow.” — A. G.

  • “… Kindness, sweetest of the small notes in the world’s ache, most modest & gentle of the elements entered man before history and became his daily connection, let no man tell you otherwise.” — Carl Rakosi
  • “To diminish the mass of human and sentient sufferings.” — Gelek Rinpoche
  • Naropa Institute, July 1992        
    New York, March 5, 1993 
    New York, June 27, 1993  

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    Air to Ground Voice Equipment

    Artist:  Air


    Track:  G.v.E.


    Album:  Air Time

    G. V. E. by Air
    Listen on Posterous


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    Final Cut: The Selection Process for Break, Blow, Burn

    For decades, poetry has been a way of losing money for trade publishers.  Then Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn became a hit.  Why?

    via  Arion | Arts & Letters Daily

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    The Uses of Adversity

    It’s one thing to argue that being an outsider can be strategically useful. But Andrew Carnegie went farther. He believed that poverty provided a better preparation for success than wealth did; that, at root, compensating for disadvantage was more useful, developmentally, than capitalizing on advantage.

    via Malcolm Gladwell | The New Yorker