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More Than Meets The Eye
by Richard Sanger

"SPEAKING OF PERSONAL matters, the first time I felt the necessity or inevitableness of verse was in the desire to reproduce the peculiar quality of feeling which is induced by the flat open spaces and wide horizons of the virgin prairie of Western Canada" Thus wrote T. E. Hulme, one of the founders of the Imagist movement, in 1908. Hulme was an adventurous Englishman who advocated extreme solutions ("Personally I am, of course, in favour of the complete destruction of all verse more than twenty years old") and his interest in poetry was part of a larger philosophical quest that would lead him to debate with Bertrand Russell and die in uniform. But back to him later. Not long ago, I read through a large number of poems submitted to a magazine that publishes one or two in each monthly issue. The great majority followed one simple pattern: figure looks at landscape, describes it in a free-verse interior monologue; landscape arouses some emotion or memory in the figure, which he or she then seeks to convey by focusing on some image, usually in a kind of cinematic close-up; poem ends. No one but the poet spoke - apart from one or two revenants in flashback sequences - and the emotions were usually vague and inexplicit, ranging from a qualified despair to a qualified in-spite-of-everything affirmation of life. To say the poems lacked drama was an understatement. Nor was humour a major element. (This lack was mitigated slightly by the anti-Mulroney limericks -finding the third rhyme, after "baloney," was always a challenge.) Nonetheless, it was hard to say whether they were good or bad. They were certainly well written, though limited and repetitive. I began to see forests of Canadian poets, none acknowledging the existence of others, all peering into the wilderness, intent on finding themselves and their emotions somewhere out there. After a while I realized what was wrong: the poets weren`t speaking, but were trying to see. Instead of a celebration of language, speech, and sound, the poem had become a search for images, an attempt to make the reader see with words. The use of free verse, rather than making the language lively, unpredictable, or 11 authentic," had the opposite effect: it allowed the poet to maintain a terse, well-written decorum, sharp with linguistic exactitude, that carefully avoided both true colloquialisms and poetic extravagances. Most of this I blamed on Mr. Hulme. In ridding poetry of its 19th-century verbiage, the Imagists ushered in free verse in English and instituted the image as the lowest common denominator, the minimal standard unit of poetry. "This new verse," Hulme wrote, "resembles sculpture rather than music; it appeals to the eye rather than to the ear." The goal was to reduce poetry to its essential creative spark: "It is better," Ezra Pound claimed, 11 to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works" So far, so good - unless your essential spark turned out to be a dud, and not essential at all. Yet there was also something peculiarly Canadian about those poems -they seemed born of the same kind of experience that Hulme described as first moving him toward poetry, an experience that was conveyed in visual terms. The poets were looking for themselves in those landscapes, and they were also looking for Canada. Along the way, however, by concentrating on seeing rather than speaking, they seemed to lose track of what poetry was. Of course, one of the problems they had, as English-speaking Canadians, was that their language did not immediately establish their identity - the words they used were (mostly) the same that an American or a Brit would use. Instead of trying to fashion their own language, as Al Purdy has done, they took the easy way out, employing precise, flavourless English and making landscape the distinguishing mark of their poetry. The result resembled "the impairment of the imagination" that William Wordsworth described in Book XI of The Prelude: The state to which 1 now allude was one In which the eye was master of the heart, When that which is in every state of life The most despotic of the senses gained Such strength in me as held my mind In absolute dominion. The eye, according to Wordsworth, is despotic because, unlike the other senses, it is subject to the will: we took at only what we choose to took at. In concentrating on vision, the poets were defining themselves only in terms of what they would like to see - their poems portrayed only what they wanted to be, not what they were. What they left out was all the fun of the only thing their readers had access to: speech, with its wit, slang, music, hyperbole, its richness and unreliability. Language, for them, was just a means to an end, an earnestly deployed quasi-scientific instrument. But that wasn`t all. Because the poets were so concerned with seeing things, their work seemed to remain private and incompletely realized in language. Perhaps it isn`t surprising that the American critic Helen Vendler has used the word "silent" to praise Margaret Atwood`s poetry - whose early work many of the poets I read seemed to be imitating. In "Gray Glove," the poet Roo Borson states their -and her - dilemma perfectly: The only song 1 know is the one I see with my eyes the one I`d give up my eyes in order for you to hear. It was hard not to think that the desire for definition and precision was related to the ongoing national traumas. Whether they knew it or not, the poets 1 read were paring both poetry and the country down to what they thought was its essence. Yes, but the spark was gone - they had forgotten the true medium of poetry, speech. They weren`t talking to anyone.

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