Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


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Tell a classroom of wannabe writers to try their hands at a poem and the stilted, strangely wrought language that ensues can be alarming. It’s like they’re being told to write in some World War II secret code at gunpoint. How else to explain that something as simple as “This morning” can become “As dawn crept its blood-dyed fingers towards the undeniable throat of a new universe” or “Sunburst hollow toots of chimeras in love with themselves.” Yikes! Or else a sales conference of clichés, everything from “that golden orb” to “The sun smiles in my bedroom window.” Poetic in the worst sense: self-conscious, purple, words skinned of all common sense.

Can you blame them? Some of the romantics haven’t aged well. And postmodernism can produce sounds that are one theory away from yowling. Lots of lyric poems are pretty enough, but to what purpose; how many ways are there to be “pretty?” Perhaps the most challenging of all are the subcultures of free flow writing groups and workshops – confidence builders rather than critiques. Even suggesting that there is mediocre writing out there can start a shit storm. Poetry has somehow made itself immune to certain standards. How dare I suggest that some poems are superior to others. Who am I to claim to know the difference? We beat up on reviewers who even attempt to raise the bar or question a reputation.

What many of the writers I’ve worked with have learned by the time they reach me is that a poem is a piece of writing that sounds different from their ordinary voices and it takes a long time to get them to trust that poetry is more about compression and tension than it is about fancying up or piling one metaphor on top of another. Your voice has been with you for a long time. The challenge behind a poem is to find the purest form of that voice and to tell the truth about what you know and what you don’t know. There’s no need for the morning to writhe and scream when all it’s trying to do is shed some light.


Good questions, all. I suppose what I was getting at is that the more personal a poem feels, the less *some* critics feel allowed to question it, whether it's great or mediocre (as you say).

Did Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time come from personal experience? Isn't a Lars Von Trier film confessional? Wasn't Van Gogh painting how he saw the world deep down inside? There have been great critics like Shaw, Kael and Bloom who have respected the work they critiqued. Informed, compassionate criticism can feed the art form.

That "shit storm" you mention seems to be a result of poetry's supposed immunity to critique because of how "personal" it is. But what about poetry that hasn't come from the personal experience of the poet having lived it? Why does poetry that is more confessional (say) get a free pass, just because the poet's hand is bleeding as she writes it?

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