Monday, May 31, 2010

Margaret Avison

Margaret Avison (1918–2007) is one of Canada’s foremost poets, and the recipient of numerous awards. Twice she has won the Governor General’s Award for poetry, and is an officer of the Order of Canada. When she received the Griffin Poetry Prize for Concrete and Wild Carrot (2002), the judges described her as “a national treasure”.

Her conversion to Christian faith came in early 1963, and has been a dominant feature of her poetry ever since. What makes her poems stand out, among the work of so many poets, is the way they grow deeper and deeper with subsequent readings. Their density, initially obscured through her unorthodox sentence structure, slowly reveals their meanings. The following poem comes from her collection Momentary Dark (2006).

Exposure

Every living thing
as a mass or a
morsel, or one who moves with
the speed of light, alike —
each, in His miracle of
particularity,
the Lord knows.

What is left, as though unknown
by the Knower’s and
the rebel’s mutual
consent, the psalmist calls
chaff in the wind.

Even a pear on a
leafy July bough,
or a begrimed
pear on a downtown fruit stand,
or a pale piece of pear in a
hospital dish proffered
a toothless mouth,
blank now toward
sustenance, and breath:
even such pears also are
known.

But unlike other
living things
being slow, slow to learn
in this interlude,
life, just being under
the sun, we
vacillate between awe, and
apprehension lest we be known.

The Knower, knowing, waits
our turn.

Posted with permission of McClelland & Stewart, and of Joan Eichner.

My interview with Margaret Avison appeared in Image in 2005. Subsequently it was republished in Margaret’s autobiography, I Am Here And Not Not-There in 2009 by The Porcupine’s Quill.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca

Monday, May 24, 2010

Robert Browning

Robert Browning (1812–1889) is one of the major figures of 19th century poetry. Ironically, prior to the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he was not well known, and was overshadowed by her. In his youth he had become an atheist, but later he rejected atheism to embrace Christianity. He clearly views this world as the place where imperfect souls are prepared for the perfection of heaven. His views only come through over the distance because his poems are “dramatic monologues” from the perspective of his characters; this makes it hard to know Browning himself.

In one poem — in the form of a letter from an incredulous Arab physician, named Karshish — we read of this man meeting with Lazarus. Karshish writes to a colleague the story of the man Christ raised. (Read the poem here)
He considers Lazarus to be mad, since “This grown man eyes the world now like a child” and believes that the one who raised him is “God himself / Creator and sustainer of the world”.

Some have accused Browning of being overly optimistic, but as The Norton Anthology of English Literature puts it: “Browning’s optimism was not blind. Few writers, in fact, seem to have been more aware of the existence of evil.” With this in mind we can read the following poem more in context.

Pippa’s Song

The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearl'd;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven—
All's right with the world!

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca

Monday, May 17, 2010

Robert Cording

Robert Cording is an award-winning, contemporary poet living in Connecticut, and teaching English and creative writing at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. He has five poetry books to his credit, the most recent being Common Life (CavanKerry Press). He tends to write from a faith point-of-view but often in a way that doesn’t primarily focus on the spiritual.

When I asked Robert Cording about the relationship between his role as a poet, and that of a Christian, he referred me to something he had said when his book Against Consolation received the Arlen Myer Prize. He'd said: "My task of late has been to evoke what I would call the primordial intuitions of Christianity. What are they?—that we live in a world we did not create; that God’s immanent presence is capable of breaking in on us at every moment; that most of the time we cannot 'taste and see' that presence because we live in a world of self-reflecting mirrors; that only by attention alone...can we live in the world but outside of our existing conceptions of it."

The following poem does this: causing us to look at ourselves but then to look well beyond ourselves.

Angels

They’re everywhere, baby-cheeked cherubs flying
On boutique signs, on cards and magazine covers,
In the serene sky of coffee table books.

They surround us like a halo that is no more
Than a suggestion, a dim waking to something
At the edge of our gaze when we look up.

Trees sway, a bird sings, propelling us to worship
Some source of warmth that will fill in the blank
Spaces of our hearts. Our angels never flash swords,

Flap their six monstrous wings like the sound of chariots,
Mete out judgement, or announce unexpectedly
A precocious child. They tell us to forgive ourselves

And love who we are; they focus us on abundance
So we may have enough for car and house payments,
The kids’ tuition bills. They whisper— there’s a god

Inside of you—and we believe. How good we feel
About ourselves, how unencumbered and free,
As if some transformation had surely taken place.

And so our days unravel in summer pastels,
The sun a mild version of itself, its trellised light
Nearly graspable, dappling the patio bricks and a table

Where a book is opened by the wind, a sign
Without meaning but beautiful, serving almost
No purpose at all except to create a kind of mild
Annunciatory sense that, yes, everything is about us.

(Posted with the poet's permission)

This is the first Kingdom Poets post about Robert Cording: second post

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca

Monday, May 10, 2010

R.S. Thomas

Although not as famous as another Welsh poet with the same last name, R.S. Thomas (1913-2000) is “the pre-eminent, Welsh poet writing in English in the second half of the twentieth century” and perhaps Wales best-loved 20th century poet. An Anglican priest who spent his career working with the back-country farmers who could never have appreciated his alternate role as a poet, Thomas is renowned for his depiction of the people he served, and for his strong, spiritual poems.

One fictional farmer Thomas writes of, named Iago Prytherch, is representational of the men who worked the unsympathetic land, and sat in the pews of the churches where he served. In one poem (“The Hill Farmer Speaks”), such a farmer pleads, “Listen, listen, I am a man like you.”

Since I believe it is our duty as writers, and readers of the finest in literature, to pass on the legacy that has inspired us, I would like to share here a couple of my favourite R.S. Thomas poems, so that you too may seek out his work, and in turn feel inspired to share it with others.

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

The Country Clergy

I see them working in old rectories
By the sun's light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men's hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.

This is the first of two Kingdom Poets posts about R.S. Thomas: second post

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca

Monday, May 3, 2010

Paul Mariani

Paul Mariani is a contemporary American poet, who was born in New York City. He holds a Chair in Poetry at Boston College, and is known for the biographies he’s written of poets, such as William Carlos Williams (for which he was a finalist for the American Book Award), John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and, most recently, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Paul Mariani has written six collections of poetry, including his latest — Deaths & Transfigurations (Paraclete Press, 2005). The following poem comes from his collection, The Great Wheel (W.W. Norton).

The Cistern

In the limestone cistern
beneath St. Peter Gallicantu
in Jerusalem, my back against
the wall, try as I might,
I could not keep from weeping.
I am a man gone down into the pit,
we listened to Fr. Doyle reading,
a man shorn of his strength,
one more among the dead,
among those You have forgotten.


And did he call upon the psalms
to warm him in his need?
The night before he died
they dragged him here to try him.
What answers he could give
lay shattered on the pavement.
Later his quizzers grew tired
and impatient. Let others try him
in the morning. Enough for now
to knot a rope across his chest
and drop him into darkness.

Hanging by his wrists, Eli
he would cry out, Eli, and again
they would misread him, thinking
he was calling on Elijah.
As each of us will be alone,
friends scattered to the winds.
Except for one out in the courtyard
growing cold, poised now to deny him.
Darkness, the psalmist ended.
The one companion left me.

*This is the first Kingdom Poets post about Paul Mariani: second post

(Posted with permission of the poet)

Read my Books & Culture review of Paul Mariani's poetry collection
Deaths & Transfigurations here

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca