Recently I attended a talk at the McPherson Library at the University of Victoria on the legacy of Yeats, in honour of the 150th anniversary of his birth. One of the speakers, Dr. Magdalena Kay, spoke of Yeats as an elitist, by which she means he prized perfection, he pushed for formal constraints in his poetry and plays, and he pushed for audiences to attend his work.
Though in the 21st century we want to shy away from these elitist ideals I walked away thinking that most artists are elitist to some point, they hold one kind of approach, formal or informal, colloquial or traditional over another. Though I am the first to encourage writing for writing’s sake, for that energized act of speaking to the self in words, I think a level of elitism or personal bias, let’s say, is important. It helps us push ourselves as readers and as creators of written work.
A poet whose work falls within my elitist ideals is Méira Cook, particularly in her playful, strange and gothic book A Walker in the City. I’ve read the book several times from beginning to end, and have re- read the beginning long poem “A Walker in the City” and “The Beautiful Assassin: A Poem Noir” even more times than that.
For me, poetry pushes at and plays with language, image and idea. It might have narrative but that narrative may not run in a straight line. It may confuse, but that confusion will be rich and experiential. Cook’s collection has these things. Playful, lyrically narrative, enviable lines such as, “A little leaking life, faith/ & anti-faith hoarded equally. a loose/ handful of words to turn the humming/ world on its tilted ear.” Here we have a few lines from the old poet’s perspective, who is creating a character, the she walker, and is created by that walker as well. But forget meaning and narrative, look at the parallelism happening between “little leaking life” and “anti-faith hoarded equally” So that the meaning moves forward and back again, and the sounds roll out and roll back in.
Here is another little cluster of words: “A bird cocks its head, ducks once, pours itself/ in song like water out. Even the worm/ has turned.” As a reader, I can visualize what the duck is doing, the duck here a metaphor for summer and for the soul, but I am also riveted by the language, the movement of language in the line. “Pours itself in song like water out.” Yum!
If only I had written these poems, I often think. Or more accurately, the ideas I have, if I could get them to fall onto the page in this way, life would be richer. This is a writer who is precise in her use of language and meter, she is playful with characters and narrative, she toys with those characters and with her reader so that by the end one wonders, in the narrative structure, who is the poet, and who the poet’s creation? Is Em, Mia, Ms. Cook our author, and was our author also a creation of F. Kulperstein while he is a creation of Felix Kaye all of whom are the creation, ultimately, of M. Cook?
At grad school I was embarrassed that my ideal manifesto for poetry, if I were to write one (à la Frank O’Hara or Ezra Pound), would be on play. But reading Méira Cook emboldens me to say exactly that – not play for the sake of play, but play to push, push, push at language and meaning, and story, lyric, character and create poems that echo on the page and delight even in moments of terror or death, even on the long cold walk through the changing history of the city, even through the body’s piecemeal description and slow in-the-garden decay.
To learn more about Méira Cook, please visit her website.
Yvonne Blomer is Victoria, BC’s poet laureate. Her most recent book of poetry is As if a Raven (Palimpsest Press, 2014). She recently completed a travel memoir titled Sugar Ride: Cycling from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur which will be published in 2017. Yvonne is currently accepting submissions of poems for an anthology titled The Pacific Ocean: Protecting our Endangered Coast visit Caitlin Press for details. Here is her website.