Tuesday, January 10, 2006

NOW magazine article April 7 2005

Flog me, I'm a poet
I tremble to say I inflict torturing rhymes on unanaesthetized students
BY Robert Priest

When poet T. S. Eliot called April the cruellest month, he may have been more prophetic than he knew - not just because spring mixes memory with desire, as he lamented, but because April is now National Poetry Month, and poetry is so cruel.

If you doubt this, consider this excerpt from a poem by Canada's best and worst living poet, Irving Layton. "When reading me I want you to feel / as if I had ripped your skin off, / or gouged out your eyes with my fingers, / or scalped you and afterwards / burnt your hair in the staring sockets." Ouch.

Of course, Layton is now considered by some to be an old-fashioned poet. Cruelty has advanced. Developments in poetics and philosophy have given our current poets access to techniques that enable them to connect the most interesting words and concepts in such a way as to render them instantly dead or inert. The result: utter boredom, a torture that can be stunningly amplified by the right kind of droning delivery.

What once required thumbscrews and a rack can now be accomplished by a simple thing called an "author visit." To this end, poets will be shipped across the land throughout the month of April to inflict their wares on well-prepped schoolchildren conveniently strapped into desks and chairs without benefit of blindfold or anesthesia.

This is not to point the finger. Let me confess: I will be one of those poets. And not for the first time. Indeed, I tremble to say, I have put my poetic fire to the feet of school systems, libraries, nurseries, old age homes, cafés and church basements for the past 30 years. I have been merciless. But I have an excuse. I was administered the poetry torment from the earliest possible age.

My mother, as a child in Britain during the Blitz, memorized and recited with her class in the dark of the air raid shelters The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes, a sonorous and violent epic she had no reservations about declaiming to me whenever I misbehaved. How I winced at the torments of poor Bess, trussed up as bait for the highwayman. "She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!"

A strange energy emanated from that poem into my own body, and remains to this day. No wonder I feel compelled to impose the word on others.

No, I don't blame myself, or even the Modernists; it was the advent of rhyme in the 12th century that brought all this on. Suddenly, to meet the constraints of forms like sonnets and villanelles, poets found themselves wilfully torturing syntax, tormenting sentences. What did they expect? What we do with words, eventually we do to each other. Hence National Poetry Month; hence this age of sawbones, word surgeons, bleeders, collagists and language poets. Ouch.

But it's not just the innocent public that poets delight in afflicting. They save their worst for each other. The favoured method is to offer prizes. This week will see the announcement, for instance, of the shortlist for the $40,000 Griffin Prize, the downside of which is that three poets actually get nominated and are therefore briefly happy. The upside, though, is those thousands who don't win.

This is so effective a measure for torturing poets, there is even a suggestion that next year, instead of announcing the three who made the shortlist, the long list of all those who don't win ought to be read out. I thought I'd become inured to such tactics, but I have to admit when the Toronto poet laureate position went to the second WMD (white male dude) in a row, and a Catholic priest to boot, my "feminist within" began to scream in pain and fury.

But it didn't last long. Now I'm into it. I say let's go for three WMDs in a row – but just as a nod to Toronto's reputation as the diverse city, let's pick a priest from a different religion next time, maybe a Satanist or a cannibal. That should be really hurtful.

So, if you've been bad, or if you're a masochist, or if you are so perverse that you actually like poetry, this is the month to take a licking. There are plenty of slams and jams, readings and beatings where you can have your hide flayed by a state-funded professional. Visit www.poets.ca for a complete list.


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