Archive for March, 2017

The same and not the same: being an original poet

Monday, March 27th, 2017

Ohmigawd, another poet has pinched my idea!

Poets get caught up in pursuing, not the dream, but the nightmare of originality. You think, “Ha! I’ve come up with a clever idea for a sonnet sequence using the elements of the periodic table as metaphors for political leaders. No one else will think of that!” And then you open a litmag and find someone has done it already.

Let’s try and relax. It’s never exactly the same.

Case in point: I have two favourite books on my reading table, My Chimera, by Canadian poet Michael Penny (Buschek Books, 2006), and Les Animots: A Human Bestiary by Gordon Meade of Scotland (Cultured Lama Publishing, 2015). Two books written a decade apart, by poets on different sides of the Atlantic who have likely never encountered each other. However, I can imagine each of the authors picking up the other’s book and shrieking, “No! That was my idea.”

Both volumes consist of brief, free-verse personifications of a range of animals that seem light and even whimsical, but which create a laconic, satiric commentary on the humans who observe them. They even have poems about many of the same animals. Both books draw on the tradition of the medieval bestiary, in which descriptions of animals became morality fables. They also owe something to the idea of epigram — short, memorable, punchy poems.

In spite of these great similarities in concept, the two books are subtly and deeply different. Michael Penny’s animals become metaphors for facets of the poet himself, a point that is made by the format for the titles: “My Bat.”My Squid.” “My Giraffe.” These are small, exact poems that illuminate consciousness.

There is the house-fly with its beautiful, crystal, truth-detector eyes that uses those eyes to find “all the shit in the world.” There is “My Giant Clam” that’s proud of its plush purple furnishings and content to stay in one place. “My Woodpecker” taps constantly, seeking explanations for the old question: Why doesn’t everything last forever?

The poems are witty and inventive in the connections they make. Each is a strand in the argument made by the final poem about the deep connection between human and other creatures:

My Animals

are all so various —

experiments for their time

and my time.

In Les Animots, Gordon shifts the voice slightly. These poems sketch animals from a more external viewpoint; they compile not so much a portrait of the individual poet as of society. The pronouns shift too: Penny’s use of “my” and “it” become “he,” “she,” “we.”

This viewpoint creates a nice counterpoint to the wonderful pencil drawings by Douglas Robertson that accompany each poem and give the book much of its pleasure. Robertson creates not so much illustrations but metaphors—not the snake but the snake’s tracks in the sand.

There are more allusions to contemporary culture in Les Animots. Meade’s grasshopper is introducing a new dance craze. Jackdaw loves the buzz of a mainline train station. The dolphin is practicing a new form of “hydrotherapy” where “Some clients leave having had / a proper spiritual experience, / others with just a thrill.” This is a dolphin stuck in an environment of human commerce, while Penny’s dolphin (like any wordsmith) competes with air and gravity.

It’s actually a lot of fun to compare poems about the same animals. Any creature is complex enough to offer many potential metaphors, and Meade’s elephant is not Penny’s elephant.

But the planet is full of different animal species and the two books are also full of different choices. The Canadian poet’s moose is a muse who

sends me new poems

if clumsily on cloven hoof

and ready for disassembly.

The Scots poet’s badger, on the other hand, is a proletarian creature that the government has been trying to wipe out:

There must be something

about his stripey snout

that upsets the ruling classes.

Both books present ideas in quick flashes. I feel that Penny’s pays more attention to the sound and rhythm of his lines, creates the cage of words (“the strongest enclosure”) more carefully. But both are immensely enjoyable. You would lose by reading only one of them, and each is fully original in itself.

They are the same but not the same.

However, if you’re writing that sonnet sequence about periodic-tabloid politicians, remember, it was my idea first.

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