Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Poetry Read in Silence

At the Ottawa Poetry Newsletter you naturally read a lot about poetry readings, slams and performances: those subterranean gatherings that make up a vital part of the city's literary culture. Great stuff, some of them. But their social atmosphere is hardly likely to recapture that life-changing sense of discovery we experienced, most of us as teenagers, when poetry first lifted us out of the world of everyday and gave us a glimpse of that mythic space where life is tragic and lyrical.

To let poetry move us that deeply, at the very least we need to be able to give it our full concentration. That means hearing every word without being distracted by a waiter clinking glasses or a barman tapping a new keg; by doubts about the fire exit; or by audience members too nervous to listen, too busy rehearsing or (worse) scribbling down the poems they are about to read in the open set.

Poetry is sustained as much by the private transports of thousands of people reading in silence as by all the schools and festivals and gimmicks that attract media attention. As Donald Hall wrote last spring in the American Poetry Review: "Poetry out loud is never quite as beautiful as poetry read in silence." Yes, there may be other things poetry can do, besides being beautiful, but it won't do anything as well as it might unless it has the reader's full attention.

The ideal spot to find the silence conducive to reading poetry is of course at home, stretched out on a sofa for the long night of insomnia James Joyce required of his ideal reader. But poetry's comforts are just as important to the homeless as to the comfortable. So here are some suggestions in case you find yourself in Ottawa between flights, or between flats, and in need of poetry's lift.

If you happened to read Donald Hall's comments when they first came out in APR, you might have been standing in front of the litmag stand at Mags & Fags on Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa, a source of the latest poetry journals and tabloids. Or you might have been in the periodicals reading room of Ottawa U.'s Morissette Library, or across town at Carleton U. These are the only institutions that can afford to subscribe to even a decent sampling of the books and magazines where today's poetry subsists, and you don't need to be a student to go and look at them. Unfortunately, neither university provides a spacious, comfortable, scenic place to immerse yourself in your reading. But their shelves offer an ever-changing selection of new poetry that, at least at first, has to excite any genuine poetry enthusiast.

The Public Library's poetry collection is spotty, but at least you may borrow them and take them home to read in the bathtub. While at the central library, stop in at the Ottawa Room and let Brian Silcoff show you some of the burgeoning collection of poetry books and ephemera from the capital city.

Bookstores should be natural places to find and read poetry. As it is, Chapters is a convenient place to sip a $3 cup of coffee, or to browse the most often reprinted poetry titles, but you can't do both at the same time. The few remaining independent bookstores, like Collected Works and Mother Tongue, are more welcoming but almost as limited in the poetry inventory they can afford to carry on their shelves.

The used bookstores that dot Dalhousie and Bank streets provide a curious scattering of poetry, and most are around the corner from a coffee shop where, with concentration, caffeine and some really strong poetry, you may be able to create your own silence in the midst of a city of bureaucrats running scared. And if the poetry search has left you with a thirst for something stronger, you can find a quiet corner, and a few loaner books, at the Manx Pub on Elgin. You might even be able to discuss your latest finds with poet-host David O'Meara.

Poems, being relatively short, ought to be desirable companions for busy people on the go. Canada's former poet laureate, George Bowering, has explained that he reads poems during commercials between innings of televised baseball games. Some of my friends keep poetry magazines in the bathroom for just such occasions. Again this year, riders on OCTranspo are able to contemplate short poems posted on the advertising panels above the fellow-passengers' heads. But even a short poem can demand more of a reader than a temporary suspension of impatience. To get the real thrill of extreme poetry, you need time and space to yourself.

Now in midwinter, I am looking forward to reading outdoors again. I especially seek out riverbanks, where the white noise of rushing water cancels out traffic sounds and the poetry can have its say. Come spring, I'll put a poetry book in my pocket and go looking for a bench or a sun-warmed stone on the banks of the Rideau near Hog's Back, or above the Chaudière on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. If you see me there reading, please don't interrupt.

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