Here’s the first instalment in the challenge I set myself here to read an anthology of late modernist poetry and report back on each of the 18 poets represented, a challenge I hope I don’t regret accepting.
It’s hard to read 11 poems by a writer and then put your finger on where they are coming from. All I can do is record a few impressions and make a few snap judgments.
Guy Birchard is a Canadian poet in the modernist tradition. The main impression I got from his poems was of disjunction. There is a scrambling of conventional grammar and syntax in his poems, but a more important form of disjunction comes in the way Birchard uses imagery and ideas. He makes leaps of logic that ask questions of the reader as to how the images and ideas in a poem connect and at what point they cease to connect. However, the poems are not internally fragmented in such a way that no cohesion exists. There are connections, even if they are, at times, tenuous.
For example, his poem Triptych (every poet has to write a poem with that title, I guess) begins quite conventionally, with an imaginative lyric drive:
the melancholy young man sees
wildlife in terms of roadkill:
the romantic young man in transit
drives shy of the soft shoulder
but yearns: the aesthetic young
man travelling light writes long
hand ignorant of word processors
Good writing, I think. The only unconventional aspect comes with the line-breaks – young/man and long/hand hint at the disjunctions to come, especially as “young man” has occurred twice without being split or held apart.
The poem continues with more descriptions of the men. S2 picks up on ideas from this first stanza, but then in S3, the connections become more hazy. The poem is structured conventionally with each stanza looking at different aspects of the three men, but there is a shift at the level of ideas in the third:
the melancholy young man reaps
pleasure footloose flushing
whitetails and coyotes upwind
so they lope or bound away –
he loves to tell one
raptor from another: the romantic
anticipates – he is mindful:
the aesthete distinguishes
tansy from millet, pigeon
grass from pig weed,
barley from buck
wheat among the fall
rye, the wild
The poem offers a description of three men and invites the reader to reflect on them. There’s no attempt at logical argument and the connections between the ideas of S1 and S3 aren’t laid out on a plate. But I find the poem haunting and intriguing, and it’s a good example of how sound and rhythm work well in a poem.
In Objet Trouvé: Coin, Birchard describes an old coin and asks what the symbols and images on it mean – the numbers are just numbers, the lion is waving, the dates don’t appear to subtract, add, or multiply or divide anything (the narrator appears to expect that they should). It closes with the crest, which
invests the piece with a value even more
singular to a lad who’s found the silver
To me, the poem is about the found object and the significance it can have for the individual finder with the imagination of a child, which might be very different from its market value or meaning to others.
Orientation appears to be about a long-distance relationship that has recently ended. The woman travels the world with her job, but the narrator works nearby. The phone never rings (apart from salesmen) and the mailbox is empty. The poem centres around a maple tree in autumn, its browning leaves seeming emblematic of the relationship, but the narrator doesn’t want to let go.
This poem is quite conventional, apart from the lack of punctuation and use of white space. The images are strong and neatly understated, also a feature of Birchard’s poetry:
some of your shoes remain in the closet
you follow your pursuits 1000 miles
…I tend a bar a ten minute walk away and wonder
what to do with the bulk of our possessions
the phone connection’s
Sometimes, I thought Birchard overreached himself, although some of the poems may have been deliberate pastiche. But Twenty-Ninth Birthday Suite was about as seductive as a wet slug:
…tasselled silk of thighs’
stroke guides knees, mine,
invites kisses to succulent
folds, tickles to gracious
Often in modernist poetry, the emotional is subjugated to a cool factual intellect, but I detect a false note here, irrespective of whether the experience described is factual. Truth emerges in the telling.
On the other hand, Shriven has to be a pastiche:
The Poet of Fair Anyo, that be me,
dear office, I limn her.
By God, today
my mind pangs for that blessed wench…
Birchard’s poems present some challenges, but they are by no means inaccessible. I enjoyed them in the main. There were a few I found boring or too clever-clever. I enjoyed his humour, as in the final poem Behind the Lines. The narrator parrots away in several languages, and has learned them with variable success, but in some of the languages he understands nothing of what he speaks. He concludes:
British girls, for my accent, have chucked
me under the chin but my words, undetectable
origins, incomprehensible intentions, dammit
my English words baffle English ears.
It’s hard not to read this as a self-conscious reflection on his own poetry, although I didn’t find his words as baffling as all that.
Next up is Richard Caddel, who looks interesting, but potentially more baffling.