WOODCOCK, Poetry Column 1989, Issue 1




I have always carried on a kind of running war with the creative writing schools. Like my old friend Ethel Wilson, I do not believe anyone can be taught to write. The talent must be there and the best one can do is encourage it.

Still, I think the writing teachers do have their uses, one of which is to show would-be writers that their art -if they have it -can only be released by the perfecting of the craft.
We have a fair amount of competent writing appearing nowadays that is not particularly inspired -journeyman work rather than genius work -partly because of the awareness of writing as craft which teachers have induced.

Journeymen have to be encouraged, for one never knows when the impulse
may come that lifts them into mastery. I always think of the case of Al Purdy, who for decades wrote inspired imitations of traditional verse, and then suddenly, when he was already 44, showed himself a master poet in Poems for All the Annettes (1962).

Purdy himself, writing a brief foreward to Chad Norman's On the Urban Prairie and other Shorter Poems (Clover Press/Green's Magazine Box 3236, Regina, Saskatchewan, S4P 3H1 $3), notes the progression towards mastery as being one of "changing and moving from one piece of shifting land to another."

Chad Norman's poems are spare little lyrics about the street and finding a meaning in its life. In his poems the name of the late Californian poet Kenneth Rexroth is invoked. I was often reminded of Rexroth, who wielded quite an influence on British Columbian poets, when I read Peter Christensen's To Die Ascending (Thistledown $9.95).

Rexroth's extraordinary power of evoking the western mountains, and the sharp clear visuality of his verse which was related to his interest in Asian poetry, seemed to be echoed -or at least paralleled -in Christensen's poems, some of which are serene exercises in imagism:
A pebble is thrown
into a lake
wind ripple
catches blue light
fishes swim away.
Yellow lilies tug their roots. Ripple wave touches shoreland summons a particle of earth rebounds
settles
fills the lake.

Peter Christensen has built his home on the side of Redstreak Mountain at Radium Hot Springs, on land that his father homesteaded. He's currently organizing the First International Mountain Writers Conference, to be held July 14-16 at Panorama, B.C., near Invermere at the head of the Columbia River.

"Canada has many wonderful literary regions," he says, "The Toronto writers, Prairie writers, West Coast writers, Quebec and the Maritimes.”This conference is to discuss writing and publishing for mountain regions, regardless of topic."

Some of Christensen's poems are of action in the mountains. In these he doesn't hold back before the hunter's cruelty in a life view that accepts man as natural predator. There is in this attitude an echo of the strange conjunction of opposites that attracted the Samurai to contemplative Zen Buddhism and that shows itself also in links between the Chinese martial arts and the gentle cult of Taoism.

This link is shown in The Book of the Heart (Heron Press, 2158 Wall Street, Vancouver, BC, V5L 1B5. $8.95), a further manifestation of Asian influence among poets" of the West Coast. Neither an original work nor, in the strict sense, poetry, this book is the translation by Trevor Carolan and Bela Chen of a treatise in verse form by a recent Taoist master, Loy Ching- Yuen. The precepts taught in The Book of the Heart are ancient Lao Tzu and Chuang Chu. Its virtue, like that of most Taoist texts, lies in the way the visible world is accepted, and then turned back in metaphor to serve the philosophic argument,
All's one.
Green jade, blue ripples flecking the current,
Time flows past like water, singing "Don't say the hero is a young man"

Already he is white of hair: It is on this level, of the natural world used as subject and metaphor alike, that experience has led British Columbian poets to the point where they can assimilate, as they so largely do, the qualities and even at times the forms of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Generally the poets I am discussing in this column tend to find their inspiration and themes in the countryside, and are best at imagistic evocations of the environment. Gina Page's literally slim volume of traditional nature poems (10 pages only) is better than its prim title, Along a Road of Pattering Shade (Seawrack Press/Powell River). There are some pieces where sharp imagery is well used.
Black rocks
rim the ancient seas:
stone chiefs watching south tonight. The island rises opposite
to sleep against the moon.
Vetch blooms
in a purple drift
above the grave of earth.
Behind
Ivies hug the trees, urging silence.

A sharper, more intellectual kind of perception appears in Catherine Hunter's Necessary Crimes (Blizzard Publishing $8.95), one of the most interesting first books I have read for sometime. For Hunter existence is not or at least not entirely picturesque and benign. It is ridden with fear through whose clouds we perceive it: precarious beauty. In "Suite" the poet returns to the site of an old family house:
here where silence laces the shadows, no sign of a human foot
no sign of a place a child remembers windows, doors,
comfort of a cold key tucked in a mittel only ferns and fungus, nurse logs blooming,
and the smell of cedar rot
needled paths twist, disappear
a dark-rooted hunger hides in
the ground
you said, "you'll know you're lost when the lurking animals come out to gaze at you."

--by George Woodcock

[Spring / BCBW 1989]