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December 31, 2015 in Celebration of Canadian Poetry

Week 53 – Poetry of the Known and Unknown by David Cavanagh

In the fine afterword to her selected poems, Before the First Word, Lorna Crozier comments on her beginnings as a writer: “Although at twenty-four I was naïve about many aspects of writing, my instincts were reliable, in at least one regard. I didn’t write about what I was sure of.” Her first published poem was about her grandfather, and it was “about something I both knew and didn’t know well.” She goes on to say: “There was simply something about my grandfather that resisted language, and resistance is often the place where poetry starts.”

How refreshing to hear something beyond the old advice to “write what you know.” Crozier starts with something she knows, sort of, and moves into areas that she doesn’t know, or wants to know, or needs to find language to express. This need, what Crozier calls “resistance,” whether it relates to form, content, or both, is behind the tension, energy, the power of Crozier’s best poems and, I’d submit, behind the power of the best poetry in general.

There is a humility in this approach. Implied in such poetry is an acknowledgment that the poet doesn’t know all, is not Eliot’s “Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all,” but is questing, is humbly, insistently exploring the essence of something. At its best, this kind of poetry can push through what is known to the not known, or barely known, and onward, not necessarily to the illuminating “aha” insight but to a heightening, almost a holy sense of what is observed.

Much contemporary poetry, in Canada and elsewhere, certainly in the U.S. where I live, has a quiet containment about it, a certainty, 30 lines in a set or loose structure, with an insight at the end. Often there is not much lift in the language, and it too often feels like a closing door. It resembles a lot of other poems. It seems humble, too, but it is not true humility; it is just a tad too sure of itself. In the end, it is comfortable and certainly competent, but just not that interesting. I’m being unfair by speaking too generally. There have been and continue to be many extraordinary poems and poets in Canada. Still, I believe the general point holds. I don’t want to get specific, name names. I’d rather point to Crozier’s concern for heading into the area that “resists language,” an area that one is not entirely sure of, and where there is need, urgency, hunger to say what must be said. There lies energy, and from there emerges the poetry that engages.

In Don McKay’s beautiful book, Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness, he writes: “Poets are supremely interested in what language can’t do; in order to gesture outside they use language in a way that flirts with its destruction.” The best poetry takes those kinds of chances. It is risky, in personal terms, sometimes in social terms, and sometimes in terms of form. I would wish for more poetry, in Canada, in the world in general, that takes chances. That doesn’t mean avoiding traditional forms. On the contrary, it may mean working with traditional forms, making use of their strengths, probing the hazy borderlands where their limitations lie. It means working with what you’re not sure of.

It starts with close, even obsessive, observation, of the outer world and the inner, and the places where they intersect. Crozier again: “Every single stone on the gravel road has its own shadow, sharply defined.” In A.M. Klein’s “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape,” the poet is the “nth Adam” – or Eve, maybe the kind of clear-eyed, hard-working, creative Eve in Crozier’s poem, “On the Seventh Day.” Klein’s poet is “the nth Adam taking a green inventory / in world but scarcely uttered, naming, praising….” It’s hard work, that naming business, and edgy. There is so much not known.


David Cavanagh has four books of poems in print, including Straddle, published in 2015, Falling Body and The Middleman, all from Salmon Poetry in Ireland, and Cycling in Plato’s Cave, from Fomite Press in the U.S.A. His poems have also appeared in many journals and anthologies in Canada, the U.S., Ireland, and the U.K. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and twice been a finalist for The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize. Born and raised in Montreal, he lives in Burlington, Vermont, where he writes and teaches Canadian literature as well as interdisciplinary studies at Johnson State College. Please visit his website.

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