Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


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Sometimes I’m haunted by Coleridge’s nifty definition of a poem as the best words in their best order. If I try to say it quickly several times in a row, “order” starts to sound like “odour.” Sniff, sniff, this particular word stinks to high heavens, but that one smells like a rose after rain. A bit of fun, though the word “best” can become bothersome, the knowledge that somewhere out there looms the one and only word that will do. After awhile, you start not to trust language. “Seep” is a good word, for example, but isn’t “leach” even better. And what about “ooze?” Nothing is ever quite good enough. The possibility of a higher rung keeps me searching until I realize that I can’t get past the first word. What about “drench?” I could easily drown here without so much as one word of explanation.

In a panic, I turn to Emily Dickinson. “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me,” she wrote, “I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” While this certainly sounds impressive (“What do you do?” the fellow at the cocktail party asks and you respond, “I take the top of your head off.”), imagine trying to make it happen every day. It’s like the creature that bursts out of its victims’ chests in the movie, “Alien.” There are days when I just don’t feel up to it.

And so I sneak out to a less demanding poet. Carl Sandburg has a top ten list of his favourite poetry definitions. The one that catches my eye goes something like this: “Poetry is a theorem of a yellow-silk handkerchief knotted with riddles, sealed in a balloon tied to the tail of a kite flying in a white wind against a blue sky in spring.” I don’t even bother trying. If I can’t tell the difference between a good word and a best word and I can’t get the top of my head to budge, then there’s no way I can figure out how to knot a riddle into a yellow-silk handkerchief. I’m a poet, not a magician.

My own personal definition is that poetry is a huge chunk of coal squeezed with Superman’s strength into a perfect diamond, That is if my hand doesn’t shatter in the process.

The best days are when I manage to shed definition. “A poem is a poem is a poem,” to revise Gertrude Stein, Queen of Common Sense.


"Necessary speech" is an intriguing definition, though it slightly underwhelms me. As for "I take the top of your head off" being less frightening than "I'm a poet" makes me realize that i don't get to many cocktail parties.

Why do I think it would be less frightening for cocktail party guy to hear "I take the top of your head off" than it would be for him to hear, "I'm a poet"?

When Margaret Avison was the writer-in-residence here at Western in the early seventies, she defined poetry as "necessary speech."

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Barry Dempster

Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, is the author of fourteen poetry collections, two novels, two volumes of short stories and a children’s book.

Go to Barry Dempster’s Author Page