1758 Poems traditional and modern

Good Morning Poems: A start to the day from famous English-language poems
by George Bowering

Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2023
$20.95 / 9781774390658

Reviewed by Karl Siegler

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George Bowering’s outstanding literary reputation is based on his over 100 published books of poetry, fiction, drama, and non-fiction over the past sixty years, which have earned him two Governor General’s Literary Awards, his appointment as an Officer of Order of Canada, to the Order of British Columbia, and as Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate in 2002. That’s an impressive resumé, and his acclaim as Canada’s first Poet Laureate certainly foregrounds his consummate skill and reputation as a poet. Not as well known at all, however, is his parallel skill as a reader and particularly a teacher of poetry and literature to thousands of students in attendance at universities across Canada from Montréal to Vancouver since 1963. That oversight is about to be corrected with the publication of his Good Morning Poems, in which he takes the opportunity to share those pedagogical skills with not only his avid and ever-growing readership, but also with all the aspiring poets and students of literature among us.

Presented by the book’s afterword as the outcome of an extended series of literary Salons hosted by him and his wife, Jean Baird, each initiated by the circulation of a single poem for discussion among the invited dinner guests at those gatherings, this volume invites a much broader guest-list to participate in some of those intimate, illuminating conversations. While each of the 48 one-page poems presented on the left hand page is accompanied by George’s one-page analysis and critique of them on their facing right hand page, like those of all good teachers, his critical remarks are intended to initiate a discussion with his listeners. I say “listeners” because more often than not, he encourages his readers to recite the poems out loud, and to listen how their form, metric, structure, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and both their internal and external rhyme and half-rhyme schemes echo, colour, shade, direct, focus, elaborate and enhance the experience of their purported discursive linguistic meanings.

George Bowering, 2022

By far the most interesting aspect of these selections is that they span a time of some 500 years — from Sir Thomas Wyatt’s (1503-1542) They Flee From Me, to two-time Governor General’s Award for poetry and Griffin-Prize-honoured Margaret Avison’s (1918-2007) The Hid, Here — all of them in what might be called “traditional” poetic styles that include the lyric, ode, sonnet, panegyric and elegiac forms. To start my review of the conversations initiated by this collection in general terms, the principle of Bowering’s selection of poems from only the purely “old-fashioned” cannot possibly have been unintentional on George’s part.

Let me explain:

The essence of so called “traditional” poetry lies not in its subjects, nor in its philosophies, nor in the sensibilities and/or discernments and recognitions of its authors, but first and foremost in the beauty of the language itself as a medium of artistic expression. That’s why its rhyme schemes, alliterative and metrical phrases, along with other formal presentational arrangements were for most of history regarded as essential to the genre — these are, after all, ritualized instances of how language may fall in love with itself and become more than the simple discursive “meaning” the poem attempts to convey, but, much like “traditional” music, construct melodic resonances and intervals in the apparent narratives it records.

Concomitantly, this is also why modernist, and increasingly, post-modernist poetry abandons if not downright shuns rhyme schemes, metrics, alliteration, and almost all other formally resonant linguistic structures as “old fashioned”. In our post-world war(s) age where increasingly privatized identities and aesthetics have begun to replace shared and/or collective public sensibilities, our former conventions of linguistic usage have plunged into the free-fall of a babel of tongues: into the narcissistic pool of proprietary meanings and individualized alternate facts. We increasingly use language to project, rather than to communicate, and in this new language of influence and virtue signalling, identity politics ironically perpetuates while it confronts populism, and abandons any attempt to make the medium, shared language, inherently beautiful on either a minimalist (lyric) or a grand (epic) scale.

HD (Hilda Doolittle)

To move from the general to the particular, let me focus for the moment on the penultimate poem in this collection, Oread, by my favourite poet, HD.

George’s brief commentary suggests we begin by reading it out loud, then focuses almost exclusively on how its onomatopoeia and various rhyme schemes move us relentlessly forward through its purported “subject” — the crash of ocean swells against “our rocks” as the waves metamorphose into pointed pines to “cover us with your pools of fir” in its last line. Bowering then concludes his introduction with the pertinent question, “who is ‘us’”? While this suggested reading poses a great introductory challenge and a penetrating concluding question about the poem, it in no way proposes a closure to any critical discussion we may carry on about its overall contribution to the genre. Had I had the privilege of attending that particular Salon, I’d have considered Bowering’s commentary a welcome opening to a host of other observations, like, for example: its six lines of three metrically stressed beats each fulfill the imperative of the Imagist Manifesto drafted by HD, Ezra Pound, and Richard Aldington at the beginning of the 20th century to “break the iambic pentameter” long held to be essential to poetry written in the English language; others attending that Salon, perhaps more classically trained than I, might have mentioned its dedication to the forest wood nymph, Oread, associated with the number three and its multiples in Greek mythology, her name calling forth the triple goddesses Hecate, Demeter, and Persephone whose Dionysian rites of death, life, and (re)birth were orgiastically celebrated annually in a mountain wilderness of pine and deer, and were ultimately ritualized at the Orphic mystery cult site of the Athenian harbour, Eleusis; while others, perhaps linguists, might have noticed and pointed out the pun on “oh read” embedded in its title, confirming and extending Bowering’s suggestion to begin our discussion by reading the poem out loud; while still others, adhering to the progressive ideologies of our day might have found in it evidence of Hilda Doolittle’s two-spirited nature; and so on. Oh what an exquisite pleasure to have participated in the gift of that discussion on that occasion!

Ezra Pound, 1913. Photo by Alvin Langdon via Wikipedia

Speaking of the imagists, I find it significant that immediately before HD’s poem, Bowering presents us with Ezra Pound’s A Pact, which is worthy of quoting in full here, if for no other reason than it so accurately summarizes the whole purpose and intent of Bowering’s Good Morning Poems:

I have made truce with you, Walt Whitman —
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root —
Let there be commerce between us.

That purpose being, of course, as George explicitly points out in his short note on the piece, the new (modernist) poetry making peace with the (traditional) poetry of old.

Although Pound’s magnificent epic, The Cantos, is often decried as impenetrable without the Annotated Index to the Cantos of Ezra Pound near to hand at almost every stanza, this in itself does not signify a departure on the poet’s part from the long-standing (and celebrated) traditions of the prosody of the many languages his epic employs: try reading Pound’s mentor’s work, Dante’s trilogy, The Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, or his guide’s, Virgil’s Aeneid, without similar lexicographical reference works at the ready and you’ll be as lost as any reader has ever been since epic poetry was invented with the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

Again, had I had the privilege of taking part in the Salon that discussed this poem, I’d have pointed out that Pound prophetically characterized his rapprochement between the new age and the old in poetics with the word “commerce”, rather than the word “conversation,” and that he had the foresight to do so as early as 1916, only a year after embarking on his modernist masterwork, The Cantos.

Margaret Avison. Photo by Joan Eichner

And lest anyone think that Margaret Avison’s The Hid, Here is the exception that breaks the rule at the very end of this collection, I’d have been inclined to mention in the Salon dedicated to this last poem in the book that: “Many critics compare her work to the great metaphysical poets of the 17th century.” CBC News: Arts and Entertainment, Aug. 10, 2007, Web, Apr. 4, 2011 — George’s characterization of it as an “upside down sonnet” notwithstanding.

Though Good Morning Poems contains a surfeit of right-side-up sonnets both Petrarchan and Shakespearian among its 48 exempla of 500 years of the poetic art, the 21-line piece that opens the book, They Flee from Me by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) might be considered an ode if it were but written in an equal number of stanzas. Failing that, I’d be inclined to consider it an elegy, written not on some anonymous denizens of a country churchyard, but on the inevitably pathetic mutability of our ever dwindling physical beauty that had first attracted our lovers. But even here George stays ahead of me in this Salon. As he says in his brief commentary: [at] “The very centre is the line When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall. I am an old codger, but that image still gets me stirring.” Why would his commentary have moved me? Because George’s closing comment on the poem is: “And Thomas Wyatt was still in his thirties when he died.” I had missed that detail in my many years of nerdy fixation on the “subject” of the piece. Ah, youth!

Phillis Wheatley, from Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral (London: 1773)

Which brings me full circle with my admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek critique of the identity politics that I sense afflicts so much of post-modernist poetic diction. There is, surprisingly perhaps, something here in this collection that will teach and delight even the most progressive among its readers. For one thing, as we have just seen with Thomas Wyatt’s poem, biography matters, and we can take delight in the fact that where it’s relevant, our consummate literary scholar and guide through this book has done most of the heavy lifting for us. George also tells us, for example, that among the 14 poems by women in the collection, Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784) was kidnapped in Africa at the age of seven and sold into slavery, despite which she learned classical languages, modern science and European history, and that her poetry was not published in her new home, US America (as opposed to Indigenous or Latin or British America), but in England. Apparently, the rhyming couplet that ends her On Being Brought from Africa to America:

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

was a bit ‘me too’ inclusive and ‘black lives matter’ for her adopted fellow citizens, even after she’d been set “free” by her white American owners.

The feminists among us will be pleased to see Queen Elizabeth I’s On Monsieur’s Departure included in the collection, a meditation on the grief engendered by the inevitable collision of the public with the private self in all of our lives, but is of particular concern to monarchs, as so exhaustively described by Ernst Kantorowicz in his so inappropriately titled The King’s Two Bodies, (as if all monarchs were by definition male, and this binary conflict of personae therefore applied to men only).

For those readers concerned with LGBTQ+ issues, there’s William Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) Sonnet 55, addressed to a mysterious youth, purportedly the object of his gay attraction, but I would have argued, with George, that this identification constitutes at least, whether germane or not, a reduction of the sonnet’s wider purpose, which is a celebration of the timelessness of love — much like that of Keats’ later Ode on a Grecian Urn (unfortunately not included in this collection); Aphra Behn’s (1640–1689) The Dream dedicated to the Sapphic seduction of the virgin Aminta (Bowering’s biographic detail is helpful here as elsewhere); and for many readers, the queer gender-fluidity implied, if not downright celebrated by John Donne’s (1572–1631) Holy Sonnet XIV, which contains the rather BDSM sestet:

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

George Bowering, 2012. Photo by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

To the Salon dedicated to that work, I would have confirmed the explicitly ambiguous sexuality long attributed to this “Metaphysical” poem. Beginning with the famous phrase by which it is commonly referenced, “Batter my heart, three person’d God,” it makes use of the familiar “you” throughout rather than the formal “Thee” that one would have expected from Donne in his day while addressing the Divinity.

For those of us who began our study of poetry by discounting and dismissing all of its traditional forms as old-fashioned (I thought when I began my study of literature at SFU, where George Bowering still holds the title of professor emeritus, that Bob Dylan was the greatest living poet in the English language, an impression dubiously confirmed by the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded him by the Swedish Academy in 2016), Good Morning Poems is a refreshing wake-up call from a gentle master of the art, pointing out that all of our most pressing, progressive and contemporary concerns have been hiding in plain sight all along among poetry’s long-standing traditions. I’m reminded that at least for this reader of “old white male privilege”, whose favourite poetic device remains the alliterative drive of Anglo Saxon verse, one of the oldest poems composed in the proto-English language, The Seafarer, served as a template for perhaps the most consummate modernist poet of the 20th century in a multiplicity of languages: Ezra Pound’s Cantos begins with the lines: “And then went down to the ship, / Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea,…” alluding to Virgil’s epic tale of Aeneas’ escape from the ruined Troy to found the Roman Empire.

When I recently asked George Bowering at a memorial reading for his old TISH colleague, Robert Hogg, why he had included only “old fashioned” poems in his new, soon to be published Good Morning Poems, he replied, ever the comic trickster, that it was cheaper to do so because it avoided the necessity of having to pay permissions fees to the more contemporary authors that might have been included. George in his guise of Wile E. Coyote and I shared a good laugh over that one!

Good Morning Poems delivers splendidly on the promise of its title. For those of us enamoured of the tradition, each of the poems, accompanied by Bowering’s opening remarks can easily keep us thinking and musing for the entire rest of the day.

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Karl Siegler

Karl Siegler is a writer and translator; the former publisher at Talonbooks; author of the Manitoba Cultural Industries Policy; three-time President of the Association of Canadian Publishers; co-founder of the SFU Centre for Studies in Publishing, The Literary Press Group of Canada, and the Association of Book Publishers of BC; and has served as board member and Vice President, Policy at the Canadian Conference of the Arts. In 2015 he was inducted into the Order of Canada for his long-term contributions to publishing. He currently lives in Powell River, BC. Editor’s note: Karl Siegler has also reviewed George Bowering’s Could Be for The British Columbia Review.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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