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September 8, 2009

Of poets and poems

Judith Maclean Miller

"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."  I think Percy Bysshe Shelley, an English poet of the 19th century was right.

Poets keep the human race moving forward, as they investigate language, stretching it to new meanings and as they challenge assumptions, providing us with new ways to see and reflect on the world.

I also agree with Audre Lorde, a 20th century black American poet, a woman, who wrote, “Poetry is not a luxury.” Certainly it has been a necessity of my life.

When my brother and I were small, my father wrapped us in a blanket in the evening and rocked us in a big old wooden rocking chair. As he rocked, he sang to us, a medley of hymns, cowboy songs, popular tunes of his youth and traditional Gaelic songs.

Even as a small child, I knew that he was usually singing off-key, but it didn’t matter. He sang to us in the same way that he once sang to cattle on lonely Canadian ranches during long nights, as he sang to himself when he drove the distances of Canada, alone in the car. I still remember all the words that he sang, including the ones from the Scots Gaelic.

One of his favourite hymns, that he always sang, no matter what else came to his mind on a particular evening, included the lines, “There were ninety and nine that safely lay, in the shelter of the fold, but one was astray on the mountainside, far from the tender shepherd’s care.” The hymn goes on to tell the story of looking for the one stray. Perhaps it has something to do with why I always care about the minority opinion, the unheard voice.

My mother read us Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and they showed me how an idea or an experience could be caught in just a few words: “How do you like to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue? Oh I do think it the pleasantest thing ever a child can do.”

Lyric poetry is the name given to poetry that ancient Greeks sang, accompanied by a lyre. It is still closely linked to music, to individual expression, and is what we usually think of as poetry although there are many other forms, including long narrative poems like the ones my Grandmother recited to us. Some of those were many verses long.

When she was a child in school, the way to study poetry was to memorize and then speak it. Her generation had many poems to call on in times of celebration or trouble. They literally “knew” poetry. One of my favourites was “Hiawatha” by Longfellow, an American poet of the 19th century, mostly for its rhythm and because I recognized its images.

As a student, I came across Chinese poets who demonstrated that meaning could be in the spaces, in what was not said, subtext to the words and lines. That work helped me to understand how it is that Canadians often communicate.

Denise Levertov taught me about the use of lines in poetry and showed me how forms can be broken open to include new pain, new outrage. Her question and answer poem, “What Were They Like?” poses and answers six questions that reverberate into the horror of the Vietnam war and, by extension, into many other conflicts.

1) Did the people of Viet Nam

    use lanterns of stone?

2) Did they hold ceremonies

    to reverence the opening of buds?

1) Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.

    It is not remembered whether in gardens

    stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.

2) Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,

    but after the children were killed

    there were no more buds.

Anna Ahkmatova, a famous Russian poet taught me about the raw pain of a woman whose loved ones were imprisoned by an oppressive regime.

Ireland’s W. B. Yeats and England’s William Blake gave voice to mysticism and a strange beauty a long way beyond the pretty, which might otherwise have seemed impossible to articulate. The Persian Rumi showed me human nature and responses to the divine.

Canadian poets who grew up here are a part of who I am. Immigrant poets like Rienzi Cruz have shown me this country through new lenses. More about all of them another time, perhaps.

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