On Power Ballads And Poetics
Where does the nesting essence of a poem come from for me? Not sure I really want to pin down an answer seeing as my most favourite poems are the ones where the poem moves in unexpected directions along unexpected pathways. For me, the kernel of an idea that becomes a poem can begin with a title, a simple casual line thrown out like, “Some days my heart is a wolf caught in a steel trap”, or maybe even a piece of music, the opening distorted chords of Joan Jett’s cover of “Crimson and Clover” – Ta Dum Ta Dum Ta Dah!
When I was younger, the form of a poem, the actual nuts and bolts of putting a poem together was a laborious enterprise as I worked in tercets or quatrains. Each line break was scrutinized for its overall aesthetic “look”—and poems slowly took shape. They were an amalgam of image and line. At first, I wrote small lyric poems, and then later densely packed narrative and meditational poems.
Now, I write very quickly and recklessly. The forms I choose are stanza-less, giant block-like passages that river down a page. My line breaks I like to keep as uniform as possible, but I no longer count syllables as I did, say, in my book “Winter Cranes”. The rush of ideas, the quick shoe-horning of surprise, these things are much more important to me now as I began to move away from my childhood autobiographical material into lightly surreal territory. As I wrote in a recent poem, what do you find when you run out of childhood in a poem? The goods.
My poems now feel like love letters to the imaginary world. A world that saves us from the despair and ennui of this one. I love when I can’t keep up with the ideas that are falling through me onto a page. Each line a jumping off point to some new strange “turn” in a poem.
Other poets are still important to me but those writers who influence me have changed over the years. At first, as a poet in my twenties, I was obsessed with Gwendolyn MacEwen and Patrick Lane—and then later Larry Levis, Dave Smith, Jack Gilbert, and Philip Levine—most recently, I have been reading Dean Young, Bob Hicok, and Kim Addonizio. There are many others but these are my seminal influences.
If someone was to look at the whole expanse of my writing, they would see a myriad of layouts and approaches so I’m not sure I have really any fixed definition of “form” in poetry anymore. I like what the American poet Hayden Carruth said about form. Something to the effect that the form of an orange is not just its appearance, but the fruit inside also makes it an orange. I guess I believe that.
Ta Dum! Ta Dum! Ta Dah!
I’m all for sturdy beginnings like the opening chords
of Crimson and Clover, the Tommy James original
or the Joan Jett version with its teasing distortion,
the latter bringing me back to Grade Eight dances,
my crush on Natalie Beaudoin who slowly circles me
off in a corner in my thirteenth year, a little too close
in the dark, but now I want to get some EDM into
this next line so I connect a drum machine to a rose
changing Stein’s phrase a rose is a rose is a rave! All
things worth doing are worth doing feverishly. If you
are waiting for the chorus to hit, I am sorry to tell you
this is not a song. Not even close. Yeah.…I’m not
such a sweet thing…. is an invisible button I have
pinned to my chest wherever I go. It’s Friday all day
and phone scammers have only phoned me twice
demanding money for tax evasion. Show me yours,
and I’ll show you mine is my short take on the senses
and the imagination. Pinkie swear. Love, sickness,
English gardens, rocket ships. I’m all in. Totes.
Can you keep a secret? Alright this is a song of sorts.
The verse we have reached is full of star systems
and flight plans. The melody changes the pH levels
in the oceans, and the universe happily claps along.
My day job includes eating bananas, and unspecified
aches in my joints. Getting older is a slow rotisserie
of bills and panic attacks you are forced to eat. At
least the beauty of this world survives as we age,
no matter how much we try to dismantle its allure
with new condo builds and Pay Day loan stores.
Thank-you for the boutonnière. After the dance,
we will go our separate ways but I will take you
home with me, your breath on my neck a little
memento I never told anyone about until now.
Chris Banks is a Canadian poet and author of five collections of poems, most recently Midlife Action Figure by ECW Press 2019. His first full-length collection, Bonfires, was awarded the Jack Chalmers Award for poetry by the Canadian Authors’ Association in 2004. Bonfires was also a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry in Canada. His poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Event, The Malahat Review, GRIFFEL, American Poetry Journal, Prism International, among other publications. His next collection Deep Fake Serenade is forthcoming from Nightwood Editions in the Fall of 2021. He is the poetry editor at The Miramichi Reader. He lives and writes in Waterloo, Ontario.