Growing up, poetry was not a part of my life. Hockey, basketball and video games, snowboarding, drinking and girls: this was high school and a good chunk of university. It's not that I don't think poetry isn't compatible with these things, it just wasn't in the mix. It wasn't even a thought.
Last night, on my way to the Forks for the last night of the Writers' Festival, walking down McMillan and Wellington, through the Village, over the Osborne Bridge and then East on the River Walk, I decided that tonight, at the Mainstage Poetry Bash, I would try to figure out what poetry has come to mean to me.
As far as what poetry is, I'm not sure. Last night, Charlene Diehl put it well when she said there really isn't much point in trying to define what poetry is. Whether you think it's just playing around with the way words bounce off each other, or it's just writing with forms, like sonnets and villanelles, or if it's about images and metaphors, chances are that sooner or later you'll come across a writer that shatters your expectations and understandings of what a poem is or should be. Besides, I find myself more interested in how poems come about and why.
Roo Borson, as I wrote in a post below, mentioned that she collects images and thoughts and conversions wherever and whenever she can, scribbling them on whatever scrap of paper she can find, keeping them for later. I thought I might try this as I walked to the Forks, to see what came of it and to see if it helped me to understand why I have come to like poetry. Here are some things that I wrote:
• The railing that runs the length of the Osborne Street bridge is a little wider than my hand, fingers spread. Last week I watched a man walk this railing like it was a tightrope. There was a slight wind and he would wobble when it blew, throwing his arms out for balance. Cars slowed as they passed. I worried that he would fall, knowing I'd be helpless to save him.
• An old man shuffles his walker forward, leans on it, takes a couple steps, and then starts again from the beginning. A young man and a young woman walk at his side, checking their strides so as to keep the old man's pace, careful not to walk ahead. We are kind in small and important ways.
• Some fallen leaves are scratching and tumbling along the sidewalk. I'm still trying to figure out what Rilke meant when he wrote of Autumn that: Whoever has no house now, will never have one./ Whoever is alone will stay alone,/ will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,/ and wander along the boulevards, up and down,/ restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
• There are some people standing along the banks of the Assiniboine River, fishing. There is something about this that immediately disgusts me. But I don't know why it is that they're standing there, what it is that brought them there, and I shouldn't assume.
• Some graffiti on a wall reads: The wind dies.
• Using the kids urinal, which is lower to the floor, is oddly emasculating.
These thoughts are pretty random, yet so are the things that can happen to you and occur to you through the course of a day, let alone a thirty minute walk. The above is not supposed to be some sort of poem as a list, but I am starting to think that what I like about poetry is that it helps me make sense of this randomness.
Roo Borson, to refer to her again, writes about a friend whose cabin had recently burnt down. When the friend went to see what was left of the cabin, Roo went with her. She writes that, while there, looking through the charred remains, a neighbour approached them:
"'We'll always have our memories," said a kindly widowed neighbour, 'nothing can take those away.' But I wondered. There is the random, roving willfulness that plays through the senses - and a willful randomness which tampers, in our very cells, with what we hold beloved." (Personal History, page 61)
I still don't know what poetry means to me. In a way, I hope I never come to a firm answer. Yet, I think I will let the idea of "random, roving willfulness" guide how I approach poetry for the next while: willfully roving and logging all this randomness.
Until, of course, something comes along and changes everything.
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Brad Hartle likes books. One day he may try to write one, though nothing is certain. For now, he spends his days in the basement of a big stone building in Downtown Winnipeg and his evenings in a big brick apartment in Crescentwood, where he lives with his wife, two cats, and a scattering of toothpicks, needed because he refuses to see a dentist. He is almost always happy.