An Island in the Sky: Al Pittman`s Selected Poetry

by Al Pittman
ISBN: 1550811991

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A Review of: An Island In The Sky: Selected Poetry of Al Pittman
by Patrick Warner

Al Pittman, who died on August 26, 2001, wrote an immediate, and often emotionally raw poetry. Reading through An Island In The Sky, I began to think of him as an anti-poet, a poet prepared to sacrifice the subtleties of form in an effort to create the kind of vocal unaffectedness that many characterize as "real" or "true." Though he is compared in the introduction to Dylan Thomas, and other commentators have compared him to Yeats, there is little evidence that he possessed Thomas's juggernaut-like language or Yeats's formal mastery. If comparisons must be made, Charles Bukowski would be more like it, but without Bukowski's down-and-out cynicism; or Al Purdy, but without reaching the heights that Purdy sometimes reached. He also bears some resemblance to Alden Nowlan, but Pittman is more transformative in his depiction of reality.
What commentators and supporters probably mean by placing him in the company of Thomas and Yeats is to identify him with the bardic tradition that both poets worked in, thus reinforcing the all-important oral personality of Pittman's poems. While I have no argument with the claim that Pittman's poetry has its roots in a primarily oral conception of poetry, I do have some difficulty with another claim made by Martin Ware, namely that "one of the hallmarks of his poems is exceptional formal clarity. They are beautifully laid out." I suppose the following lines from "Lines for My Grandfather Long Gone" could be used make Ware's case:

On the sea the perpetual waves
roll motionless in their rhythmic run
to the beach. They tilt in poised
suspension above the still suspended swell.

One notices, and appreciates, the superbly turned phrasing of "roll motionless in their rhythmic run", and "They tilt in poised / suspension above the still suspended swell." Alas, for every such passage, there are many flat passages like this:

It is midnight in winter.
Walking alone, for the sake
of walking alone, I come upon her
crouched in ridiculous posture,
whispering incoherent pleas
to a snowbank

Or this:

Supper's done.
Ready to be served.
Late as usual.
Insubstantial perhaps.
But ritual observed.
The most important thing of it all
gone unneglected again.

Pittman, in other words, wrote the kind of chopped-up prose very common in Canadian poetry of the last thirty years. Not that prose in the service of poetry is necessarily a bad thing-Purdy put it to good use, as did Alden Nowlan, as does Anne Carson at the present time. But chopped-up prose it is, and the case for it is not helped by the kind of spurious prosody offered in the introduction: "The essential unit of composition for Al was the phrase (sometimes called the measure' by American proponents of open-form poetry)."
It should be said, however, that poems which often lie flat on the page come to life when read aloud. Try "Charmer", or "Father of the Bride"-when these poems are heard, their lines are given an extra resonance. His transparency of method was likely an effort to be inclusive, especially of those who would not normally read poetry. And yet, for a poet, Pittman had surprising difficulty with metaphor. His poem, "The Dandelion Killers" too lightheartedly tries to yolk those who attempt to eradicate dandelions from their lawns with the spiritual malaise of those who hate freedom and spontaneity. "Old Soldiers" is a poem of some power when read aloud, and yet reading it quietly to myself I was made uncomfortable by the way it sought to link the life of the speaker with those of old soldiers in the bar, succeeding only in trivializing both. His use of simile is sometimes both crude and cliched, as in these lines from "The Woman in the Waterfront Bar":

Now you have us mourning like mourners
at the casket you carry concealed between your thighs.
Frequently the emotional punch he works to deliver degenerates into mawkishness and sentimentality, as in his lament for the last Beothuk, "Shanadithit", or in the poem "Angelmaker". His poems sometimes have forced jocularity, as in "The Cost of a Good Canoe". Other times they are simply anecdotes as in "Charmer", or simply statements, as in "Prayer". And, almost invariably, the first person "I" self-mythologizingly insists on intruding between the language and its subject.
Having one's roots primarily in the oral tradition is no excuse for sloppiness on the page or sloppiness in thinking. Other poets manage to write poems that not only have impact when heard, but reveal further dimensions when read. Pittman was best when he restrained his impulse to deliver the knock-out punch and let metaphor and his sense of mischief do the work for him, as in his early poem "The Border", and in "Lines For My Grandfather Long Gone". Too often, however, his poems failed to find this distance.

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