Cascadia Poetry Festival seeks to eliminate boundaries

“A good map opens up the world; a great map evokes a story about the world.” —David McCloskey

  1. A Call to Eco-action

National Poetry Month ended this year in BC with an exhilarating event. The third annual Cascadia Poetry Festival, held in Nanaimo April 30–May 3 (, was an opportunity for poets from throughout the Pacific Northwest and northern BC to come together and—for a few days at least—erase the social and political borders they normally live within. Dr. David McCloskey, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Seattle University, kicked off the Friday morning program with the unveiling of his new Cascadia bio-region map.

“The life of our bioregion has been obscured, split up by boundaries and separated into categories, the matrix dismembered,” McCloskey writes on the Cascadia Institute website ( “This map reveals something important that has long remained invisible—namely, the integrality of the bioregion we are calling ‘Cascadia.’”

Cascadia Poetry Festival founder Paul Nelson; note Cascadia map in background. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

Cascadia Poetry Festival founder Paul Nelson; note Cascadia map in background. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

McCloskey has spent 5,000 hours creating the Cascadia map, which not only erases the political boundaries of the Pacific Northwest, it provides a detailed geographical, tectonic and hydrological image of the region we call home. This diverse ecological region is bounded by the Rockies and the Continental Divide on the east, the Pacific Ocean and Cascadia Subduction Zone on the west, California’s Mount Shasta on the south and Alaska’s Mount Logan on the north. Appropriately, Cascadia means “land of falling waters,” and includes several of western North America’s major river systems—the Fraser, the Columbia, the Snake.

Festival organizer David Fraser with the Cascadia flag. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

Festival organizer David Fraser with the Cascadia flag. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

But what does this have to do with poetry? McCloskey pointed out that in today’s world we tend to have an idea of the local and the global, but not what lies in between—the bio-region we inhabit. “How is it we don’t know the place of our own home?” he asked. Our sense of place in the landscape is often best articulated by our storytellers and poets. McCloskey asserts that a new narrative of Cascadia needs to be born. Aside from its value as a finely grained geographical tool showing details of every ecological sub-region, the Cascadia map is a springboard for the writer’s imagination. It’s a call to explore its many layers—our neighbourhoods, communities, watersheds, bio-region and all the way outward in consciousness to our continental rim and the ecosphere itself.

“We wanted help imagining the place,” said McCloskey. “The poets were a great help. We need all the voices, just like the trees each sing in their own way. The poetic imagination can translate it and go into the heart of it.” To that end, McCloskey urged poets to abandon abstraction in their verse in favour of poetry that connects readers with Cascadia’s landscape in a more direct, accessible fashion. “We need to get beyond ourselves,” he said. With the global climate change crisis, it’s all hands on deck—we need to widen our view as poets from the self to the universal.

Kim Goldberg, festival organizer and volunteer, hosting panel discussion. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

Kim Goldberg, festival organizer and volunteer, hosting panel discussion. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

This is something I’ve been saying for more than a decade. In the Introduction to my 2005 collection The Charlatans of Paradise, I wrote: “In the trajectory toward the universal, contemplation of the self is only going halfway.” I decried postmodern poetry’s tendency to create “word snapshots that are pretty, clever, but ultimately meaningless.” Finally, it would appear that postmodernism’s death grip on poetry is relaxing as we realize it actually fosters separation and disconnection from the world. What we need right now is writing that connects people to the landscape, the bio-region we inhabit.

In Gary Geddes’ collection of essays, Out of the Ordinary: Politics, Poetry and Narrative (Kalamalka Press, 2009), he quotes American poet and ecologist Wendell Berry, writing on the eclipse of narrative poetry by postmodernism: “…this weakening of narrative in poetry—whether by policy, indifference or debility—may be one of the keys to what is wrong with us, both as poets and as people. It is indicative of a serious lack of interest, first, in action, and second, in responsible action. Muir said that ‘the story, though it is our story, is disappearing from poetry.’ Narrative poetry records, contemplates, hands down the actions of the past. Poetry has a responsibility to remember and to preserve and reveal the truth about these actions.”

It’s interesting to note in this context the impact that ‘slam’ poetry has had on mainstream poetry. I liken it to the effect of punk music on the popular music of the late 1970s—although much of punk wasn’t particularly good or lasting work, it forced the music industry to snap out of its disco-induced trance and revitalize itself. Slam poetry often lacks the editing rigour of literary poetry but at least it has reintroduced performance and politics to the poem. In other words, it has placed us squarely where we are in history—beyond our own heads or literary conceits—just as narrative poets have done since Homer.

Anne and I at the Book Fair table for Chameleon Fire Editions. Photo Valley Hennell

Anne and I at the Book Fair table for Chameleon Fire Editions. Photo Valley Hennell

This theme was echoed somewhat in the Cascadia Poetry Festival panel discussion Make It True, riffing on the launch of the 100 Innovative Cascadia Poets Anthology of that title. On the panel—consisting of festival founder Paul Nelson, Barry McKinnon and George Stanley and moderated by Nadine Maestas, Nelson noted that too much current poetry suffers from “the tyranny of irony.” While it’s fine to tear down and expose society, there’s a need to build up as well. To me the firm impression was also that the time for experimentalism in language has run its course. Now is the time for intimacy and connection. What panelists called “the corruption of our biosphere” is in fact a call to action, as Berry suggests. McKinnon cited avant-garde composer Philip Glass, who, when asked: What is music? answered: “Music is a place.” This fit nicely with McCloskey’s call to develop a wider consciousness of the Cascadia bio-region. Stanley asked a question I’ve been asking for decades now: “What does obscurity communicate?” Exactly. If the purpose of writing isn’t to communicate, why bother?

Still, it was interesting to watch professors McKinnon and Stanley dance when asked by an audience member: “What’s so wrong with bringing issues into poetry?” This touches the raw nerve in academia regarding political poetry, typically a taboo area for literary poets. Here again the slam poets have no such compunction. Nelson offered a useful clarification, pointing out that political poetry often suffers from a lack of craft: “If you remove the line breaks and it reads like bad prose, then it’s rhetoric, not poetry.” Thankfully there are plenty of examples of first-rate poets who have written political poems that meet the test of craft: Tom Wayman, Gary Geddes, Denise Levertov, Neruda, etc.

Robert Bringhurst, renowned for his work with Haida mythology, speaks at a panel discussion. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

Robert Bringhurst, renowned for his work with Haida mythology, speaks at a panel discussion. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

In terms of craft, the panel agreed that one can’t simply revisit and rehash the poetics of the past—new forms are needed. Nelson cited Levertov’s credo that “form is never more than an revelation of content.” The festival screening of the documentary The Line Has Shattered, about the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, underscored the connection with history’s break from the classical poetic forms. Traditional meters were revived briefly with the New Formalism movement of the ’70s, but it never gained much traction. An exception to this rule would be Bruce Meyer’s excellent 2009 collection Mesopotamia (, which does an amazing job of creating dazzling originality within traditional forms. But few poets are capable of this feat; too often it descends into Hallmark greeting card rhyme. Meanwhile in poetry generally, the openness fostered by Creeley and the Black Mountain School as it intersected with BC’s TISH movement seemed to collapse into a largely impenetrable postmodernism. The potential of postmodernism failed, just as Hemingway’s obliteration of literary ornamentation in the novel has failed us by spawning legions of imitators writing mostly dead, flat prose. Nelson stressed that the organizing principle of the Make it True anthology was to be open on the question of form.

  1. Conferences and the Middle-Aged Body

The festival schedule was so packed from morning ’til night it was impossible to take everything in. “Exhilarated yet exhausted” is how I described my reaction. There were many excellent panel discussions, including Where Geography, Culture and Language Intersect, moderated by festival organizer Kim Goldberg; The Ground is Always Shifting, moderated by Yvonne Blomer; and On the Margins, moderated by Mary Anne Moore. This latter session was rocked by a statement from Chilean poet Aaramë, who pointed out that if you really want to see marginalized poets, talk to a Chilean fisher-poet who has had his fishing grounds decimated by commercial trawlers. McCloskey in Where Geography, Culture and Language Intersect, reiterated the call to poets to get out of their own heads. “Poetry of the self is ultimately a lonely, lost poetry because it doesn’t get you out of the self.” We need to be open to having the world speak of itself through us, he said, similar to the First Nations concept of becoming a ‘hollow bone’ through which nature can speak. And all of it done, not in the spirit of ‘look at me,’ but the potlatch spirit of ‘how much can I give?’

The Living Room readings held at the Nanaimo Museum in the city’s beautiful heritage old town district were a chance for poets at all levels to read their work. Poets sat in a circle, each one reading a single poem, with occasionally enough time for a second poem. Attendance averaged between 35-55 at each circle. The diversity of voices from all over Cascadia was fascinating and covered poets from their teens to late retirement ages.

Harold Rheinisch's performance of a poem expounding on the sins of Ezra Pound was a triumphant public return of the long poem. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

Harold Rheinisch’s performance of a poem expounding on the sins of Ezra Pound was a triumphant public return of the long poem. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

Unfortunately I had to miss the slam event Saturday evening After Party due to staying with friends on Protection Island; the last ferry leaves Nanaimo Harbour at 10:10 pm. Though given how full my head was at the end of each day’s session, I’m not sure I’d have had the energy to ‘slam’ deep into the night anyway. The keynote presentation on Saturday’s program, with poets Yvonne Blomer, Brenda Hillman, Amber Dawn, Susan Musgrave, Gary Gottfriedson and Harold Rhenisch was stunning. These poets proved that compelling public performance of poetry isn’t limited to slam poets; the evocative and technical excellence was glittering. Sam Hamill, founder of Poets Against the War, was a revelation. Despite frail health he performed gustily and the awareness dawned that here is a new modern master. Hamill set a record when he amassed 30,000 poems from 27,000 poets to be registered in the Congressional record in opposition to the Iraq War. Along with Sandra Stephenson of John Abbott College Peace Studies in Montreal, I co-founded the Canadian branch of Poets Against War about ten years ago.

Sam Hamill's performance from Habitation was spellbinding. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

Sam Hamill’s performance from Habitation was spellbinding. Sean Arthur Joyce photo

Cascadia Poetry Festival organizers and volunteers are to be commended for an amazing job. There were a few glitches, as one expects at any event. The Book Fair schedule needs fine-tuning so that booksellers aren’t sitting staring at each other for hours on end waiting for participants to get out of sessions on all-too-brief breaks. And the Living Room Circle would have benefited by breaking up into smaller groups (where the hard-of-hearing like myself could hear more). But overall, it was an exhilarating, not-to-be-missed experience!

I came home with a shelf-full of new poetry books, including Sam Hamill’s magnum opus, Habitation, a truly masterful collection of his work and a true voice of Cascadia. I urge you to pick up a copy: (

And watch out for next year’s Cascadia Poetry Festival!

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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10 Responses to Cascadia Poetry Festival seeks to eliminate boundaries

  1. paulenelson says:

    Arthur, thanks for attending the fest and for these wonderful photos and provocative thoughts. I did not think Stanley and McKinnon were ever “politically correct.” In fact I find them both refreshingly blunt and I am sure they were trying to communicate clearly and not obfuscate. I would have to go to the video to determine exactly what was happening in the moment, but would bet the house it is not PC with them. I also think you cast too wide a net regarding what you refer to as “post-modernism.” That Charles Olson coined the term for the era’s literature and was a huge influence on the TISH poets, I think a more nuanced view would serve you well. There is a lot of poetry that takes some work to fully grok and, I feel, has a longer shelf-life than that poetry which seeks to be accessible, but does not hold up to repeated readings. Clyfford Still, the Abstract Expressionist painter who spent some time in Cascadia (the subject of a just-opened exhibition in Denver) said: “Demands for communication are presumptuous and irrelevant.” I love that Brenda Hillman offers “permission to be weird” which ties in with opposition to the monoculture capitalism has force-fed us (in many ways) as alluded to in Jared Leising’s poem in the Make it True anthology. Thanks for taking time to reflect and write. I hope our dialog continues. Paul

    Click to access Introduction.pdf

  2. Paul: my point about Stanley and McKinnon was simply to note the discomfort when the issue of political issues in poetry was raised, a point you clarified nicely. I appreciated the fact that they were so willing to encourage a new openness in poetry, one we haven’t seen much of in postmodernism. Frankly I have to disagree with your abstract expressionist painter who, if anything, exemplifies my point about what’s gone wrong with so much postmodern art and literature. I have no problem with subtlety and ambiguity but with deliberate obfuscation, one has to ask: Is the poet doing this to communicate, or to shout out his intellectual cleverness? Further, the political elite have a stake in disempowering poets and progressives by employing strategies like postmodernism to strip language of meaning. The last thing they want is politically charged writing that could spark resistance. Take a look at this article about the CIA project to fund abstract expressionism, from recently declassified files:

  3. paulenelson says:


    I know about the CIA story and it’s not as juicy as one would like to think, but institutional funding of the Iowa Writer’s Program (also CIA-linked) HAS limited the depth of the gesture of North American poetry in general.

    You write: “a new openness in poetry, one we haven’t seen much of in postmodernism…”

    But if you read Projective Verse, the seminal essay by Charles Olson, you’ll see it is all about OPEN FORM, meaning the form is never more than a revelation of content. The form of each poem differs based on where the language (or other impulses larger than the poet) take it.

    As for the Still quote, it is oft used by Michael McClure who wrote in 1995:

    “Sometimes there is difficulty in a poem. The obscurity, the un-understandability, is not there for the purposes of evasion, but it is the energy compressing and leaping and rippling, just as a wave ripples with silver in the moonlight. Even in the darkness one can see it is a silver wave. Goethe believed that poetry should be incomprehensible and incommensurable. All art is that way to some degree, but much art seems flat and lacking in courage because it neglects to be difficult.”

    I think when Olson described the process of writing projectively as a “use of speech at its least careless and least logical” he describes perfectly how the OPEN works and this does not mean just open to different forms. It means discovering the form of the poem in the act of writing it. A huge shift not fully understood even 65 years after Olson published the essay.

    If we are pre-occupied by getting our verse over to folks for whom poetry is advertisements, we’re in a no-win situation. Funny, but Sam Hamill is a projective poet, albeit on the right side of that spectrum, and yet his poetry is accessible, he communicates and he’s made a life understanding the tenets of open form.


  4. Paul: interesting points all and I thank you for them. I understand about open form, and have tended in my own poetry to proceed based on that idea of the form being revealed by the content. Oddly, sometimes that has led me back to quasi-traditional verse structures. However, I’m not a formalist, nor am I arguing for it. In rare cases like Bruce Meyer’s book he pulls it off brilliantly.

    Perhaps what is most galling to me is the notion of “language-centred” poetry, what could be considered the written equivalent of abstract expressionism in visual art. The idea of using language like a toy you take apart and put back together in a way that suits your fancy but ultimately strips it of meaning. The shotgun of paint on the canvas. I simply cannot see the point of this exercise, except as a private indulgence. As public art, it clutters up the airwaves and wastes our time if we can’t connect with it. I believe this is what the CIA understood.

    I really like what you write in the introduction to Make It True about the creep of consumer culture into the arts. But I would argue that after a half-century of postmodernist domination in literature, the real “outsiders” are those who prefer to write more directly. Some of postmodernism I enjoy, particularly Magic Realism novels. But most of it leaves me cold. It’s not that I’m too simplistic or mentally lazy to “get it” but that I simply don’t see the point of obfuscation. What is the writer hoping to evoke in the reader with such an approach? As George Stanley asked: “What does obscurity communicate?”

    I enjoy subtlety and ambiguity as much as the next writer and work very hard to include it in my own poetry, so that, as you say, there are multiple levels at work. This as I see it is essentially the difference between genuine poetry and that which becomes mere Agit-Prop or greeting card verse. I still resonate with Aristotle’s dictum that the sign of mastery in poetry is the command of metaphor. And what is a metaphor if not something that works on multiple levels and rewards repeated readings? Yet surely there’s a way to still make such a poem communicate with the reader rather than leaving them utterly puzzled.

    I believe this is why poets for the most part until recently have NOT been the voices of their generations. I think once postmodernism took hold, that vacuum was ably filled by our popular songwriters: Dylan, Cohen (who is a poet), Springsteen, U2, etc. They had no compunction about speaking to the audience directly (and poetically) in their lyrics about issues that mattered to them. True, poetry is a different art than lyrics, but I think there’s a potential crossover principle here. And it may be why songwriters’ audiences are the public while poets’ audiences until recently have mostly been other poets. I say until recently because, despite my misgivings about Slam, I think it’s reviving poetry as a popular art in the public mind.

    Tom Wayman and I have discussed the issue of political poetry at length. If anyone has been an outsider in the Canadian poetry establishment, while still somehow managing to be quite successful, it’s him. Have a read of my earlier blog posts where I interviewed him. I do agree with you that without craft, political poetry becomes a kind of forgettable sloganeering. Incidentally Tom has a new essay coming out on postmodernism that challenges its orthodoxies.

    I end up in a positive place now, seeing the increasing popularity of poetry after decades of being mostly an academic product. I find this very hopeful, though I have no desire to see it simply become another consumer product either. It’s a fine line to walk.

  5. paulenelson says:

    SAJ said: “Oddly, sometimes that [open form] has led me back to quasi-traditional verse structures. This is not odd, but echoes what Robert Duncan said about Composition by Field. One of the 5 main faculty members at the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference and a huge influence on the TISH poets, his words deserve a hearing to understand Cascadian poetry, especially as it went from the romantic era to the postmodern, skipping Modernism as George Bowering likes to joke. (No joke though. A lot of truth to it.) Is the work of TISH elitist and self-absorbed? I don’t think so. It is some of the most engaged poetry anywhere, getting deeply into place, history, indigenous culture, Zen and other topics. Duncan said that when you write with the page as a field, all the old forms and meters have a place in the poem. The field is open to all of it.

    Then you say: “Perhaps what is most galling to me is the notion of “language-centred” poetry…” and I feel that we’re getting somewhere. Ammiel Alcalay said in his book “A Little History”:

    “While “deconstruction” has been the reigning theoretical rage in academia, driven by fantasies of rendering Western culture powerless through critical discourse, projects characterized by construction, reconstruction, and historical recuperation provide people with real political footing.”

    That does not sound ivory-tower to me and Olson and postmodernism is a HUGE influence on him and he was cited on the panel by Barry McKinnon. I reviewed one of his recent books here: So, we’re agreed that much of what goes under the rubric of Language Poetry has little content where the rubber meets the road, let’s say. In large part it has been a wrong turn for North American Poetry, I’d agree with you. But to say all postmodernism is useless is something I’d disagree with vociferously.

    As to your assertion: “I believe this is why poets for the most part until recently have NOT been the voices of their generations. I think once postmodernism took hold, that vacuum was ably filled by our popular songwriters: Dylan, Cohen (who is a poet), Springsteen, U2, etc. They had no compunction about speaking to the audience directly (and poetically) in their lyrics about issues that mattered to them.” If we look at popular music, the lyrics are (for the most part) awful, insipid, sentimental, and in the case of much hip-hop/rap, offensive and misogynistic. I’m not sure we can blame the postmodern movement for that. I do think that kitsch rules in a time of the end of an empire as Morris Berman has pointed out and the influence of TV and the demands of an industry-generated culture and the lack of a cultural emphasis on self-knowledge and you have what we have now. Let’s cite a typical song by a group you mentioned above (who I saw in 1984):

    “Beautiful Day”

    The heart is a bloom
    Shoots up through the stony ground
    There’s no room
    No space to rent in this town

    You’re out of luck
    And the reason that you had to care
    The traffic is stuck
    And you’re not moving anywhere

    You thought you’d found a friend
    To take you out of this place
    Someone you could lend a hand
    In return for grace

    It’s a beautiful day
    Sky falls, you feel like
    It’s a beautiful day
    Don’t let it get away

    You’re on the road
    But you’ve got no destination
    You’re in the mud
    In the maze of her imagination

    All abstractions and generalizations. Now it was Modernists (Pound) who talked about the need for “abstractions to be earned” or “go in fear of abstractions, and even before that, Blake, who warned about abstractions being the plea of the hypocrite, knave and scoundrel. Should we blame Modernism for its focus on the image? Or should we realize how insipid pop culture is? I think the culture has marginalized itself and not the poets to blame.

    I think it is a political act to reject the conventions of popular culture, but everyone has to do what feels right to them. If it is a large audience you crave, more power to you. My own practice is, as Sam Hamill calls it: “Poetry as wisdom teacher.” I may not get rich, but the quest is fulfilling. I am no academic. When a typical institution sees my resume, they can smell the “outsider” from a distance. I share your disdain for elitism, but I am not ready to dumb things down for an audience. I’d like to meet them in the middle somewhere and leave the poem open enough for the content/meaning to be somewhere between what I was thinking when I wrote it to what they bring to the act of listening or reading the poem.

    I suspect we’re not too far apart and I am grateful for the exchange.

  6. Paul: yes I think the gyre in this discussion is simultaneously widening and closing so we’re not at all far apart. I think it’s important that poets have these kinds of civil dialogues about craft and the direction of poetry as an art. I’m grateful to engage with someone who knows the difference between attacking an idea and attacking the person. Thank you. That is becoming rare in these days of what I call anti-social media.
    I did say I enjoy Magic Realism, which is considered an outgrowth of postmodernism, though I can’t say much postmodern poetry has stuck with me. If you eliminate all meaning from language you risk creating nihilism, something I think we agree we’ve all seen enough of the past while. If nothing means anything, why care about anything? That’s the ethical risk inherent in such an approach. (Not saying ALL postmodernism eliminates meaning.) Wendell Berry has been firm on the point that poets should use their voices responsibly. Bio-regionalism as defined in the introduction to Make It Real is clearly about values, about valuing the natural world that feeds us and keeps us alive, more than, say mega-corporations that feed off and destroy it. Values and meaning are linked.
    But in fairness your choice of U2 lyrics wasn’t the most apt. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was an early effort that made a clear statement about ‘The Troubles’ in Ireland, just to name one. Cohen’s lyrics to ‘The Future’ are incisive and even prophetic. Dylan came out of the gate with ‘Masters of War,’ which is as apt today as it was 45 years ago. Peter Gabriel wrote ‘Biko’ and exposed the brutalities of apartheid in South Africa to a world audience. I could go on… Though I certainly agree, much of the writing in pop music is pathetic.
    Contrast the audiences that Yevtushenko or Dylan Thomas could attract in their day – reading to hundreds or thousands at a time – with the audiences poets can expect today. I’m not a populist any more than I am an elitist, but a red flag goes up for me there. As you suggest, part of that has been the ‘dumbing down’ of culture since the ’50s, especially through TV. But it is interesting to me that if you ask the average person since the Baby Boomers to recall a pivotal lyric or poem in their lives it’s far more likely to be from a song than a poem. Whereas, our grandparents’ generation, it would have been a poem, hands down, and what’s more, they’d have recited it to you verbatim. What resonates changes from generation to generation but until the past half-century, it was most often the poets who’d be quoted, not the popular musicians.
    Again, this could just be the dumbing down factor. But I suggest poets themselves can’t completely escape responsibility if their work is so opaque you need a degree to penetrate it. And such abstraction often requires an academic industry to support it, just as a technical industry needs specially-trained experts to interpret and apply its products. These poets therefore shouldn’t be surprised if their main readers are other graduates of specialized literature programs and not the public at large. That places the writer ‘above’ the reader, an uncomfortable place for any reader to be from the start. In my view, the poet’s role is to be the ‘hollow bone,’ to allow the universe to sing through her, not about her.
    That doesn’t mean the poet can’t sing about the politics that are relevant, just that the goal should be to draw attention to the issue, not the writer. Not saying poets all need to become proselytizers, but often we do need to ‘speak truth to power,’ as Sam Hamill did so eloquently with Poets Against the War. It’s not the only role for poetry by any means, but it is an important one.

  7. paulenelson says:


    You say: “If you eliminate all meaning from language you risk creating nihilism” but if you eliminate all risk from language, you end up with boredom. What did William Carlos Williams mean by “No poetry of distinction without formal invention.”

    And let’s look at the U2 song you cite:

    Sunday Bloody Sunday
    Song by U2
    I can’t believe the news today
    Oh, I can’t close my eyes
    And make it go away
    How long…
    How long must we sing this song
    How long, how long…
    ’cause tonight…we can be as one
    Broken bottles under children’s feet
    Bodies strewn across the dead end street
    But I won’t heed the battle call
    It puts my back up
    Puts my back up against the wall
    Sunday, Bloody Sunday
    Sunday, Bloody Sunday
    Sunday, Bloody Sunday
    And the battle’s just begun
    There’s many lost, but tell me who has won
    The trench is dug within our hearts
    And mothers, children, brothers, sisters
    Torn apart
    Sunday, Bloody Sunday
    Sunday, Bloody Sunday
    How long…
    How long must we sing this song
    How long, how long…
    ’cause tonight…we can be as one
    Sunday, Bloody Sunday

    If you think this works as poetry, we’re further apart than I thought, It is clichéd, abstract and is a form from the romantic era. Essentially a form whose time was 200 years ago and ended over 100 years ago. Should forms evolve to fit the times? I think so and the formal experiments of the postmoderns, surely you’ve reading Bowering, Wah, Marlatt and Jamie Reid to name a few from your side of the line. At War With The U.S. – there’s political/issue poetry for you, but it’s more dynamic than that. You write:

    “But it is interesting to me that if you ask the average person since the Baby Boomers to recall a pivotal lyric or poem in their lives it’s far more likely to be from a song than a poem” but it’s also likely to be a commercial jingle. From the Land of Sky Blue Waters, when you see Libby’s Libby’s Libby’s on the Label Label Label, you will like it , like it, like it on your table, table table…” So should we honor TV commercials too?

    Sam Hamill likes to say poetry’s a big house and I am glad there are those out there who want deep philosophy in the poem, or deconstruct it so much one needs a guide to get through a poem. I may not read that kind of work at a wedding or funeral, but the scope ought to be wide. Our band width as poets should be wide and if you look at the Make it True anthology, you’ll see a lot of experiments in there, which is how it should be. You write to: “suggest poets themselves can’t completely escape responsibility if their work is so opaque you need a degree to penetrate it.” I think all artists have a responsibility to go as deep into their own souls as they can and the best struggle with what they find, wrestle with that force Lorca called “duende.” Too many settle for what’s already been done. The outsiders are not the ones making plain-spoken poems. Any open mic will show you that. The outsiders are taking a stand and going so deep down their own throats you’ll need additional readings or listenings to get their whole drift and they themselves may not get the whole drift for years after a poem if they are doing it right. If they are tapping energies outside of their selves, which is the goal of The Practice of Outside, Robin Blaser’s seminal essay written in Cascadia. My notes on it are here:

  8. Paul: Does obliqueness automatically equal depth? There are many ways to go deep in a poem: structurally, metaphorically, psychologically, philosophically…. Once again I return to the many layers that can peeled off a great metaphor, Aristotle’s dictum. I love that kind of depth. Yet still somehow the coruscating fireworks of language must be grounded at some point in the poem or the reader will get lost. There needs to be a common point of reference. And given what I’m hearing from the Slam poets I’m not sure I’d agree with you that poets who speak more plainly can’t be on the cutting edge. Not all of it is great poetry by any means but surely you could agree they’re pushing the envelope.

    And are you saying that there’s NO poetry in popular songwriting? That would be as categorical as me writing off postmodernism. The song examples I cited were in the context of popular lyrics that struck a nerve with millions while bringing social injustices to light on the world stage. I have to ask: how many poems in the past 50 years can make that claim? And of those that have, I submit that their language, of necessity, must be somewhat more direct. (Think of Gary Geddes’ excellent poem on the Kent State shootings, Sandra Lee Scheuer. Not at all a screed, it uses the device of a detailed portrait of the woman, one of the innocent victims. By seeing her as an individual woman with a life, we get more poignancy from her death than a mere rant would deliver.)

    I also clearly stated in an earlier post that I understand that song lyrics and poetry are different arts. Yet there are many potential points of crossover. Historically, music and poetry were one: only gradually did they diverge, as we know the two genres today. And I’m not sure musicians would appreciate having their lyricism lumped together with advertising jingles; your argument in this instance employs a non sequitur that goes far beyond what I was saying.

    Here are a few excerpts of poetry in popular lyrics: Bruce Cockburn’s Lovers in a Dangerous Time:

    These fragile bodies of touch and taste
    This vibrant skin – this hair like lace
    Spirits open to the thrust of grace
    Never a breath you can afford to waste
    When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
    Lovers in a dangerous time…

    Got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight…
    As a poet I’d have been thrilled to write that last line; if that isn’t poetry I don’t know what is. Of course, Cockburn is one of those rarities in pop music: an artist whose skill as a lyricist is as finely-tuned as his compositional skills.

    And to cite just one of Leonard Cohen’s many poetic lyrics, this from Who By Fire:

    And who by fire, who by water,
    who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
    who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
    who in your merry merry month of may,
    who by very slow decay,
    and who shall I say is calling?
    And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
    who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
    and who by avalanche, who by powder,
    who for his greed, who for his hunger,
    and who shall I say is calling?

    And who by brave assent, who by accident,
    who in solitude, who in this mirror,
    who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
    who in mortal chains, who in power,
    and who shall I say is calling?

    I can easily see this in an anthology of 20th century poetry, along with the immortal line from Anthem: “There’s a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” Mm, mm, mm! Sweet.

    And now we come to U2, who clearly aren’t anywhere near the poets that Dylan, Cohen and Cockburn are, yet still manage some glittering lines that I would argue are poetry even if only intermittently so. In Bullet the Blue Sky, Bono gets down to the gritty details of a grubby American hustler:

    Suit and tie comes up to me
    His face red
    Like a rose on a thorn bush
    Like all the colours of a royal flush
    Through the alleys of a quiet city street
    Up the staircase to the first floor
    We turn the key and slowly unlock the door
    A man breathes into a saxophone
    Through the walls we hear the city groan
    Outside is America
    Outside is America

    In just a few lines the grit, decay and corruption of urban America is well captured. I would say that’s evidence of some poetic ability.

    I see poetics as elliptical in nature, not linear, as in the sciences, where we assume that as new discoveries are made and proven, we must discard the earlier ideas. The process of poetics seems far more cyclical to me. I don’t see that linear logic applies to any art, much less poetry, i.e. everything before postmodernism is now supposed to be passé. As your man Sam Hamill says, poetry is a big tent and no one has the last word.

  9. paulenelson says:

    Arthur, we’ll have to disagree about the attempt to rate popular music lyrics on the same level as the best poetry. I love Bruce Cockburn and the song you cite, but isn’t “hair like lace” and rhyming lace and grace rather cliché? I think poetry out to go deeper than clichés and abstractions. I think it is a failure to reach a deeper level inside themselves. (An essay on levels of consciousness is illustrative: of my point here.) I love all three artists you cite, but without the music behind them, they ain’t making it as poets. Not for me. I like the occasional Cake lyric:

    In a seedy karaoke bar
    By the banks of the mighty Bosphorus
    Is a Japanese man in a business suit singing ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’
    And the muscular cyborg German dudes dance with sexy French Canadians
    While the overweight Americans wear their patriotic jumpsuits

    but this is the rare exception to the rule. Pop lyrics, in 98% of the time, are banal, cliché and abstract. My opinion. I do not log for the audiences that pop stars have. I like Carla Bley’s approach in which she has 50,000 fans around the world who love what she does. That’s a great model (I’d settle for 1,000) and I think she will outlast pop music even without the market forces of radio stations (what’s left of them) and the rest of it if not opposed to her work, surely not supportive.

    Why would a pop musician care about what I say? What gives MY words merit? They are my opinion, not fact, but if they are offended by my likening them to commercial jingles, they are always welcome to go deeper. The Beatles, inspired by Dylan (who was a huge fan of Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues according to AG. See: had moments where they were not afraid to try something a little more challenging:

    Here come old flattop, he come grooving up slowly
    He got joo-joo eyeball, he one holy roller
    He got hair down to his knee
    Got to be a joker he just do what he please

    He wear no shoeshine, he got toe-jam football
    He got monkey finger, he shoot coca-cola
    He say “I know you, you know me”
    One thing I can tell you is you got to be free
    Come together right now over me

    He bag production, he got walrus gumboot
    He got Ono sideboard, he one spinal cracker
    He got feet down below his knee
    Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease
    Come together right now over me

    But these are specifics, not abstractions. Modernism allowed us to move past the abstractions of Romanticism and they’ve said it in many ways. See:

    “First Thought, Best Thought” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
    “Take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
    “The Mind must be loose.” — John Adams
    “One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”
    “My writing is a picture of the mind moving.” — Philip Whalen
    Surprise Mind — Allen Ginsberg
    “The old pond, a frog jumps in, Kerplunk!” — Basho
    “Magic is the total delight (appreciation) of chance.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
    “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” –– Walt Whitman
    “…What quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature? … Negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” — John Keats
    “Form is never more than an extension of content. — Robert Creeley to Charles Olson
    “Form follows function.” — Frank Lloyd Wright*
    Ordinary Mind includes eternal perceptions. — A. G.
    “Nothing is better for being Eternal
    Nor so white as the white that dies of a day.” — Louis Zukofsky
    Notice what you notice. — A. G.
    Catch yourself thinking. — A. G.
    Observe what’s vivid. — A. G.
    Vividness is self-selecting. — A. G.
    “Spots of Time” — William Wordsworth
    If we don’t show anyone we’re free to write anything. –– A. G.
    “My mind is open to itself.” — Gelek Rinpoche
    “Each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound.” — Charles Reznikoff

    II Path (Method, Or Recognition)

    “No ideas but in things.” “… No ideas but in the Facts.” — William Carlos Williams
    “Close to the nose.” — W. C. Williams
    “Sight is where the eye hits.” — Louis Zukofsky
    “Clamp the mind down on objects.” — W C. Williams
    “Direct treatment of the thing … (or object).” — Ezra Pound, 1912
    “Presentation, not reference.” — Ezra Pound
    “Give me a for instance.” — Vernacular
    “Show not tell.” — Vernacular
    “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” — Ezra Pound
    “Things are symbols of themselves.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
    “Labor well the minute particulars, take care of the little ones.
    He who would do good for another must do it in minute particulars.
    General Good is the plea of the Scoundrel Hypocrite and Flatterer
    For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.” — William Blake
    “And being old she put a skin / on everything she said.” — W. B. Yeats
    “Don’t think of words when you stop but to see the picture better.” — Jack Kerouac
    “Details are the Life of Prose.” — Jack Kerouac
    Intense fragments of spoken idiom best. — A. G.
    “Economy of Words” — Ezra Pound
    “Tailoring” — Gregory Corso
    Maximum information, minimum number of syllables. –– A. G.
    Syntax condensed, sound is solid. — A. G.
    Savor vowels, appreciate consonants. — A. G.
    “Compose in the sequence of musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” — Ezra Pound
    “… awareness … of the tone leading of the vowels.” — Ezra Pound
    “… an attempt to approximate classical quantitative meters . . . — Ezra Pound
    “Lower limit speech, upper limit song” — Louis Zukofsky
    “Phanopoeia, Melopoeia, Logopoeia.” — Ezra Pound
    “Sight. Sound & Intellect.” — Louis Zukofsky
    “Only emotion objectified endures.” — Louis Zukofsky

    III Fruition (Result, Or Appreciation)

    Spiritus = Breathing = Inspiration = Unobstructed Breath
    “Alone with the Alone” — Plotinus
    Sunyata (Sanskrit) = Ku (Japanese) = Emptiness
    “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” — Zen Koan
    “What’s the face you had before you were born?” — Zen Koan
    Vipassana (Pali) = Clear Seeing
    “Stop the world” — Carlos Castafleda
    “The purpose of art is to stop time.” — Bob Dylan
    “the unspeakable visions of the individual — J. K.
    “I am going to try speaking some reckless words, and I want you to try to listen recklessly.” — Chuang Tzu (Tr. Burton Watson)
    “Candor” —Whitman
    “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” — W. Shakespeare
    “Contact” — A Magazine, Nathaniel West & W. C. Williams, Eds.
    “God appears & God is Light
    To those poor souls who dwell in Night.
    But does a Human Form Display
    To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.” — W. Blake
    “Subject is known by what she sees.” — A. G.
    Others can measure their visions by what we see. –– A. G.
    Candor ends paranoia. — A. G.
    “Willingness to be Fool.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
    “Day & Night / you’re all right.” — Gregory Corso
    Tyger: “Humility is Beatness.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche & A. G.
    Lion: “Surprise Mind” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche & A. G.
    Garuda: “Crazy Wisdom Outrageousness” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
    Dragon: “Unborn Inscrutability” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
    “To be men not destroyers” — Ezra Pound
    Speech synchronizes mind & body — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
    “The Emperor unites Heaven & Earth” — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
    “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — Shelley
    “Make it new” — Ezra Pound
    “When the music changes, the walls of the city shake” — Plato
    “Every third thought shall be my grave — W. Shakespeare, The Tempest
    “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” –– W. Shakespeare, Sonnets
    “Only emotion endures” — Ezra Pound
    “Well while I’m here I’ll
    do the work —
    and what’s the Work?
    To ease the pain of living.
    Everything else, drunken
    dumbshow.” — A. G.
    “… Kindness, sweetest of the small notes in the world’s ache, most modest & gentle of the elements entered man before history and became his daily connection, let no man tell you otherwise.” — Carl Rakosi
    “To diminish the mass of human and sentient sufferings.” — Gelek Rinpoche

    My aim in poetry is to use it as a wisdom teacher, to use it as a transformational device and practice and I think the process is sped up when we can send back the hype that our culture gives Pop music (Pop ANYTHING.) That you get joy from it is not something I would want to deny or discourage you from. But I’ll take TISH, Olson, Duncan, Joanne Kyger, Nate Mackey, Brenda Hillman, Sam Hamill, Eileen Myles, José Kozer, Lorine Niedecker and many other poets over 99.9% of pop musicians and slam poets any day for my purposes.

  10. Paul. Poetry as wisdom teacher. Excellent. I love it.

    I certainly am not arguing for clichés, although abstractions may be in the eye of the beholder. Nor am I any friend of corporate culture. But if one measure of the success of a poem is a to imbue a sense of transcendence—over death, boredom, despair or whatever—then however we get there, hallelujah! And if a popular song can take us to a similar place, I’m quite happy to call it art.

    Thanks for the rich smorgasbord of references. I will savour them, savouring the ones I know once again. As I too savour Sam Hamill, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Ferlinghetti, Neruda, and so many others. They are a gift to us all.

    It’s been a rich discussion, thank you. As a Cascadian might say: (and I say this with no trace of irony): Namasté.

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