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Sunday, 11 April 2010

A Perfect Waste of Time



(The following brought to mind our resident poets, Friko and Doctor FTSE) 

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Griffin Poetry Prize, Scott Griffin, its founder, announced this week that he was doubling the prize money. Seven finalists earn $10,000 each; the two winners haul in $65,000 more each.

Mr. Griffin said he did it to reflect “the importance” of poetry. You don't hear capitalists say such things very often.

Recently, I was trying to find Thom Gunn's poem Hampstead: The Horse Chestnut Trees. I'd come across it months earlier, looking for a poem suitable for a eulogy. The Gunn poem wasn't appropriate, but it has a nice line I wanted to memorize, about a pair of chestnut trees between which Gunn remembered riding his bike with his brother:

they spread outward
and upward
without regret

Now I wanted to put those lines into a letter to a friend. But I couldn't remember where I had seen them or who had written them. Nor could I remember what I thought I had memorized. I would like to be someone who can pluck strands of poetry from memory when he needs them, the way a skilled fisherman can coax a fat trout from a pool. Instead, I use poetry like a weed-whacker, like a cheap app on the iPhone of my brain: I use what I can find.

Which seems undignified. We're taught in school that poems are sombre things, not to be used as therapeutic shorthand. One is supposed to study poetry and appreciate its formal niceties, its pantoums and epistrophes. Poets such as Karen Solie, P.K. Page or Kate Hall (all nominated for this year's Griffin) need years to produce slim volumes of dazzling work.

On the other hand, in Solar, Ian McEwan's new novel, the central character, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and Oxford graduate, seduces his first wife by flash-memorizing some Milton. He's astonished how easy literature is compared with advanced math.

Looking for the Gunn poem, I turned to the same four books I consult whenever I'm looking for a poem to lift me over an inspirational declivity: two volumes edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes called The School Bag and The Rattle Bag; Francis Turner Palgrave's Golden Treasuryin coral leather, won in 1968 as a prize at school; and my wife's thick, spine-broken Norton Anthology of English Literature, bespawled with pencil notations from her college days.

Roughly 4,200 pages of poetry. I brought them into work here at the abattoir, where my comrades labour so keenly. I was embarrassed to be reading poetry at work.

I laid the books out in the grotto of my desk, with its secret organizational nooks, its gentle eddy of dividers. I began to leaf quickly through the mass of pages, looking for the poem. I knew I was looking for a final stanza. I knew it had been published in the 20th century. Of course the search would have been easier on Google with more information (trees, chestnut and bicycle yielded nothing), provided I wanted to use Google instead of books packed with poems.

I did not – because, looking for a poem in a book of poems, you find lots of others. You get inefficient, and waylaid. Each new find – it goes without saying! – is a slap in the face of productivity, an admission of waywardness and temporary incapacity. Books – of poetry! – on one's desk! Out in the open! Like – gravestones! There are few things you can do at work that make you feel more extraneous than surreptitiously reading poems. I don't think I'm exaggerating.

The first lines that caught my eye were an epigram by J.V. Cunningham:I married in my youth a wife/ She was my own, my very first/ She gave the best years of her life/ I hope nobody gets the worst. I later discovered (online) that Cunningham was one of Gunn's favourite poets. He thought we'd still be reading Cunningham in 50 years. It turns out some of us are.

At this point, it was still before 10 a.m. on a Wednesday.

I zoomed through Stanley Kunitz's Route Six, in which the poet sets out for Cape Cod in the middle of a hateful argument with a woman, possibly his wife, only to arrive again in love, thanks (in part) to her eager driving and the oncoming salt air. I inhaled Ben Jonson on the death of his son. The obsessions of poets flew past the way the countryside does in a fast train. Shelley read like an 18th-century Tony Robbins, full of motivational advice. Frank O'Hara's A Step Away From Them, a walk through the polyraucous streets of Manhattan (Everything suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of/ a Thursday), made me want to live there.

The Gunn poem didn't turn up until the end of the last anthology. To my surprise, The Horse Chestnut Trees wasn't at all about having no regrets, but the opposite – it was a rhyming complaint about growing old, and how our human passion for detail fades with age: Forms remain, not the life/ of detail or hue/ then the forms are lost and/ only a few dates stay with you.

Gunn (1929-2004) read literature at Oxford, then moved to San Francisco, where he was gay and did a lot of drugs – he preferred amphetamines. (Which in turn reminded me of Cocaine Lil and Morphine Sue: On her headstone you'll find this refrain:/ She died as she lived, sniffing cocaine.)

At some point soon after that, I looked up from my books of poems. It was well after noon. I thought I had better get some work done. I shut the anthologies and opened the drawer of my desk.

There, staring up at me, was a Xerox of a poem, The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver. It had been a gift from a friend years earlier. Mary Oliver was an American poet who won the Pulitzer Prize. In the poem, she has dropped to her knees to examine a grasshopper closely:

I don't know exactly what
a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down
Into the grass, how to kneel
down in the grass,
How to be idle and blessed, how
to stroll through the fields.
Which is what I have been
doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I
have done?
Doesn't everything die at last,
and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan
to do
With your one wild and
precious life?

I thought it was a good question.


-Ian Brown

(staff writer, Globe and Mail Toronto)