Friday, February 29, 2008

Reflections On My New Neighbours

I've been ensconced in Gibsons' enchanted ferns with Verna for over a month now, and though the natural world, especially in an unfamiliar locale, is always intriguing, I've been paying closer attention lately to the more amusing, idiosyncratic, and unnatural antics of my immediate neighbours.

Catawampus from my study/work room are a collection of teens without any adults ever in sight; they seem like cool kids, and one resident bashes the drumskins through the open carport on sunny afternoons, making the owner of the house at the hypotenuse from us pull his scraggly head-thatch, no doubt (a dead ringer for the grey-balding pudgy foil on the old Benny Hill show), since he's trying to flip the place after purchasing it last month. Verna pointed out that (after I saw him and another guy disappear into the environs with a case of beer) his chief reason in acquiring it was likely to escape his wife at residence #1. Ha.

(Flippers are here, but so are a lot of others cashing out for needed liquidity, then moving back to the city. Small communities can be tough niches to establish a viable living. "For Sale" signs are as prevalent as mini-skirts at Saturday midnight on Seymour Street.)

Then there's the old-timer next door who, in the summer, was (with a brother?) constantly digging, scraping, and piling over materials atop a mysterious cistern-like declension. No bodies, according to the TV or local papers, have been reported missing hereabouts.

As the observations continue, the slightly disturbing thought appears: what are they thinking of me? (Not that I've taken to climbing up branches with chestnuts in my mouth -- yet.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Survey Says ....

I just read two unrelated survey tidbits regarding Finnish rankings within the European community: Finns rated #2 in aggregate happiness, but also #2 in per capita alcohol consumption.

This means the survey results on happiness were either wildly fanciful and "creative", or that drinking makes one happy.

(Yes, I realize the three-step logical fallacy involved, for the humorously-challenged.)

Being of half-Finnish ancestry, this puts me in a dubious bind. And I get no relief from the other half of my forebears: my orphaned father was of the tippling Irish.

Where's my refridgerated tub of Koskenkorva?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"Shut Up He Explained"

I'm just finishing short story writer/anthologist/publisher/critic John Metcalf's memoir/travelogue/literary critique "Shut Up He Explained", and, though I've somehow managed to be previously unfamiliar with the prolific Brit transplant, I've found myself nodding many times with his literary aesthetic: which is to say, contrary to many readers and (sadly) writers, he has one.

Didacticism is rightly denigrated, and lyricism, language, attention to technical concerns, and manipulation rather than -- in Morley Callaghan's (a favourite antecedent punching bag of Metcalf's) approach -- "telling it like it is", is the timeless and artful standard.

I've adhered to this for decades: an end to "message" poetry and "message" stories! Metcalf quotes one of my favourite novelists, William Faulkner, on his response to a woman who asked him what his message was in writing a certain story: "If I'd wanted to send a message I would have used Western Union".

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Carbon Tax Initiative

Good on Gordon Campbell and the BC Libs!

They've proposed the first-ever North American jurisdictional carbon tax on gas at the pumps, to be implemented this summer.

I immediately predicted most would be pissed, and that they wouldn't change their habits. I was wrong -- thankfully -- on the first count: public reaction was split on the decision 50/50; 1/3 hated it, 1/3 loved it, and 1/3 were on the fence. I was right on the second count: only 13% said they would change their driving habits. It'll take gas climbing to $6 plus a litre for most people to finally, begrudgingly, reduce use, move closer to work, walk, carpool, take transit, bike, get a car with better mileage, push for better transportation infrastructure, accept higher density living arrangements closer to the core community rather than sprawling suburban single-unit housing past (where next?) Hope.

NDP head Carole James was typically (unintentionally) funny in her response to the initiative, unconvincingly saying it "wasn't enough" and that they weren't sold on the idea. She's just pissed because Campbell's gov't are elbowing in on the NDP's putative platform, actually doing something about the encroaching synergistic tsunami, rather than just intoning punchless platitudes regarding their "compassion" for the "little person".

What's not funny, however, (and entirely predictable) is the media's framing of the issue as a reaction to world oil prices. This, of course, is only a symptom, a natural outcome (though there are other current reasons) of Peak Oil. It's dinner hour, and CTV (in this case) doesn't want viewers hitting the channel changer because of indigestion. But it would give credibilty to the prime time news if they could join other mainstream media outlets in finally blurting the "Peak Oil" theme, as has recently and refreshingly been the case with the Washington Post, New York Times, CBC Newsworld, Vancouver Sun, etc ....

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ralph Gustafson's "Wind Surfacing"

As to yesterday's entry, the poem is from the volume Directives Of Autumn, not The Celestial Corkscrew. It's the lead sequence in "Ogunquit Beach", by Gustafson:


The thousand people are going to die.
The sun is out,

kites are in the sky, coloured,
green with scarlet tails,

the baby in the crawl-crib
squalls at the canine,

quits, chewing the indestructible
plastic ring. Girls rub

oil on against cancer, the
life-guard watches.

All the world thrives, waves
shatter and the beach adjusts.

Danae combs her hair;
Time is in the tower.

Everybody is going to die.

beneath the umbrella the men
slap down cards,

draw, jockstrap
trumps the ace of spades.

It is impossible that blue
sail can stay upright.


Visually, at first glance, the couplets seems to offer the comfort of expectation, a form which often resolves its set-up in the first line with a tidy mini-conclusion in the next. The resolutions which follow often build so that an organic structure is developed, again with expectation and satisfaction. Gustafson turns this on its head. The tension is the timeless poetic "theme" (to be pedantic) of sex vs death, or sex as the obverse heads (or is it "tails"?) to the shady underbelly of the jutting "coign". To add to the quoin-play, the addition often ruins the geometry of assumption. And "Wind Surfacing" is nothing if not ruined beach idyll, the idling throng in their mundane motions a corollary of foreboding as set out in philosophical overview.

The shocking first line is all the more disturbing for being voiced plainly, and with authority. The contrast in line two immediately challenges our sense of resolution and (often) impatient optative entrenchment with defining mood and the pernicious pull to see life as negative-lila surface distraction in need of a tidy chorus of meaning.

"kites are in the sky, coloured" builds on the postive shift in the previous stanza, but many will simply see kites, here, as the usual windswept pennons. Three of the five predominant meanings of "kite", however, are negative: the carrion-hawk; a financial cover for a debt (bargaining our way out of death, in futile fashion, in this poem's allusion); and, a "sharper", again a financial term, as the extended, complex metaphor plays out later in the men's card game.

"green with scarlet tails": filled with life, but already blood-bespattered (the "scarlet tails" detailing a surprise attack by prey? ).

The baby upset at the "canine" .... the dog, yes, but also the "canine teeth", which don't arrive until the 16 month mark, and which, in any event, are deciduous. A prefiguration at one?

Plastic outlives us; the futility of outwitting cancer; the "life-guard" saving lives, or distracted from it with consuming lust? ; "Shatter" and "adjust"; Danae's father is to be killed, and "time" in the tower, here, is a false respite: the oracle has spoken, and fate can only be delayed, not altered; the "thousand people" become "everybody"; "Crosslegged": anger, superstition, acquiescing to an unknown force?; the futility of umbrella-"protection"; Ace-high spade is the highest single card in the deck, but is bested in various games by the the two of hearts, the nine of clubs, etc .... nothing is impervious; and the suggestive last line: a delicate and beautiful image, also loaded with danger.

I could go on in much greater detail, also noting the appropriate vowel ostinatos of "aw" and "ow" and "eye", for example.

This poem, for me, is near seamless in its marriage of technique with meaning, sound with sense, intellect with emotion. The philosophy never overwhelms the images, which are based on multiple concrete nouns and a realized place.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Often False Dichotomy Of Technique Vs Emotion

First, welcome to those reading. This'll be an eclectic outpouring (outporing?) on topics including (but not limited to) poetry, the arts, politics, culture, energy issues, horse racing, psychology, economics, and spirituality.


Over a decade ago, a friend and I would have occasional conversations on what drew us in, what hooked us, when perusing poetry. In other words, what were our idiosyncratic effusions when encountering words arranged vertically on the page that made time stop, caused us to think and reflect, and altered our worldview in (at least) some measure?

His predilections were established in the formative years of exuberant teendom, when unreflective, immediate identity with heroes are normal. Two of the wonderful qualities of youth are concentrative sincerity and flexibility: my friend maintained the attitude of the former quality while lacking the latter. Cutting his teeth on the Beat versifiers -- chiefly Kerouac -- he was enamoured of their "freedom", attacks on the bourgeois complacencies, and "energy" and "spiritual" concern. But this is conflating the didactic stance of the writer with the nebulous stirrings of the adolescent reader.

His defense was that feeling trumped technique, and to be more aggressive about it, that technique not only muddied feeling, but murdered it, or at least bludgeoned it into affectation.

Of course, poetry is the conjoining of feeling with technique and craft. In a good or great poem, feeling and/or content is inseparable from polished effort. And this is where the obverse extreme of technique gets pasted, as well: Paul Valery mocked, in a poem I read decades ago, his contemporaries who could spin enchanting filaments of internal assonance in a colossal superstructure of regarding harmonics; Cesar Vallejo mocked his contemporaries who wrote beautiful metaphors in joyous lassitude; Irving Layton excoriated Canadian contemporaries for their "machine-tooled professionalism". All of these aesthetic technocrats lacked the passionate drive for lasting creation: poetry was a parlour game, an enjoyable one, no doubt, but a hobby and diversion as a release from stultifying communal responsibility on one hand, or elliptical back-patting on the other.

My friend would point to epiphanic examples, sincere realizations of personal oneness, humility and the like, and more often than not, the result was akin to being drenched by the Niagara's torrent six metres from going over sans barrel. The approach sets up a false contest between "feelings", "compassionate" response, "unaffectedness" versus "worked-over" agonies, and a tight-assed inability to share and commiserate with "humanity".

I remember reaching for one of his own books; I read a poem by Ralph Gustafson, an exacting crafter of fine poems, and detailed what was happening in its rich enfolding (just spent a half-hour looking for it amongst my own Gustafson collection, but then I realized it was from The Celestial Corkscrew, which I don't have -- I'll hit the library in town tomorrow, post it, and detail it in some fashion later) .

At the bottom of the majority who deride technique, and mistakenly assume that it obliterates emotion, is the bathetic impulse, the sweeping sheeplike effusion of surface reactivity, however strong, for an assumption of poetic worth and vigour.