The Poetry Three
Claudia Coutu Radmore
Jessica Hiemstra, Lesley Strutt and I meet every month, not to critique our poems, but to talk. We bring poems we’ve read, poems we don’t understand, quotes by critics and writers along with our questions, troubles, and thoughts about writing. What drives us to write, what are our histories. Under our arm we carry the wine of collections and writings that we admire. If we admire a poem but aren’t sure why, that discussion is welcome at the party.
For it is a party; there’s coffee and a pot luck lunch. Cake. We meet in the morning but sessions tend to continue into the afternoon. There are party games of course, trivia on poetic form or word play, and dark corners for words that kiss, or that might play well together, all in a space decorated with balloons of philosophy trembling at the ceiling.
Guest lists: who have we invited, who do we want to invite, and did that poet come through the door yet. Walt Whitman? Wallace Stevens? Yes, they are here. Jack Gilbert? Yes. Sylvia is a bit late. Might not come until next time.
Conversation mingles, wanders the room. We catch the tail of how the history of a poem lies in all we know and think. What is voice and why do we love it. How poetry draws from us what we did not know was there to be drawn. How beauty in nature and the human-made beauty of poems is not the same.
In another corner it’s about what ‘things’ in the abstract, mean. What is their function in poems, in a particular poem. Examples and debate, fingertips sticky with olive oil. Touch as movement and time; metaphor, and what it offers that we get from nowhere else.
Aspects of sound, kinds of sound, the sounds our language makes, breath and breathing. How our language shapes us. How even a typo may lead to a better poem as in Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Strange Type’:
I wrote “in the dark cavern of our birth.”
the printer had it tavern, which seems better.
But herein lies the subject of our mirth,
Since on the next page death appears as dearth.
So it may be that God’s word was distraction,
Which to our strange type, appears destruction,
Which is bitter.
A poem from Hopkins; we consider I wake and feel the fell of dark not day, talk about the effect of various kinds of pairs in a poem: feel/fell, dark/day, sights/ saw, ways/went, a dull dough. Hopkins has joined us more than once at the table, lounges on the sofa.
A poem by Anne Michaels from Weight of Oranges/Miner's Pond , ‘Women on a Beach’: Light chooses white sails, the bellies of gulls. Spencer Reece’s ‘Margaret’ :“…As you leave Margaret behind and turn the page, listen as the page falls back and your hand gently buries her. This is what the past sounds like.”
How does personality affect our response to writing or Art. Who are we reading, the poet or his poem. Do we appreciate the work less if we aren’t comfortable with her ethics, or even mannerisms. Where does a poem turn, and does it stay long enough for dessert, along with the lemon squares. It’s serious fun, but fun and excitement none the less.
Topics flow one into the other, from wing to feather to father to family. A poem opens the space to something one of us has read that seems to be related or that adds colour, concept or vocabulary to the conversation. Gillian Sze joins us as we’ve been talking about calligraphy, and ink, and mark making, and eyes. Jane Hirshfield has wondrous things to say, Susan Stewart can always start a good thread, follow up with poems to illustrate a point.
There’s a sense of the rightness to such discussions. The only place some of us get to experience them is at writers’ festivals or VerseFest, when several poets are on stage throwing ideas out and sharing what they have learned about poetry. They are great, but they are up there and shy poets in the audience don’t contribute. In our situation, one of the best things is how comfortable we are with each other. We don’t have agendas. Ego is a word we might discuss linguistically; I don’t know, the subject hasn’t come up.
A quote from Jessica: I like how we sit down and Lesley always makes sure you're comfortable. I like how at the first meeting we all brought desserts. I like how Lesley calls us the Poetry Three. I've come to think of us as the gamblers.
Three is the best number of participants. There is plenty of time for each to contribute, time for tangents and comfortable waffling, and there are no concerns about the dynamics changing if there were more of us.
I once wrote a poem about where language comes from that starts like this:
what’s this slick made thing, worded cornered sky tease
of brilliant shadow, slant of blue-memoried tomorrow
We leave each other enriched, refreshed, having gambled and won. There’s a sense of having touched upon new ideas, of having absorbed more than we can remember right away that may spring into our poems later on. Waiting for our next get together is like waiting for Christmas, the next chance to share thoughts about our blue-memoried tomorrows. I think of Yehuda Amichai’s:
this is an old toolshed.
no, this is a great past love.