Archibald Lampman: Fish out of Water?

April and National Poetry Month and it seems appropriate to talk about one of our major Confederation poets, one who, with the possible exception of university English students, no one reads or even knows about today. In my elementary school years, we were taught that Lampman was a Canadian and a nature poet. In those days we had to memorize:

The wind-swayed daisies that on every side

Throng the wide fields in whispering companies,

Serene and gently smiling like the eyes

Of tender children long beatified, . . .

A poor man’s Wordsworth, you might think. After his death, a journalist in the Ottawa Journal wrote that it was Lampman’s fate “to be born in the suburbs of civilization,” a raw, rough, materialistic society with little culture. This suggests that Lampman’s poetry was second-rate due to him being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another, less tragic, perspective is that he was born at exactly the right place at the right time to allow him to become “the finest of Canada’s late 19th century poets in English” (Canadian Encyclopedia).

Born 17 November 1861, died 10 February 1899, his short life was classic in circumstances that nurtured sensibilities crucial to his artistic development. He even died young, if not of consumption (the fate of many English poets), of a malady nearly as commendable, a heart problem instigated by a bout of rheumatic fever at the age of seven which, by the way, left him lame for some years. Son of a clergyman in small-town Ontario, his parents were intelligent and well-educated, his father had an extensive library, his mother taught him to play the piano. As a child, he had a huge countryside to roam around in, rolling fertile fields and a lake with reed-lined banks and scattered wooded islands,* which environment certainly would have nurtured his love of nature if not his romantic impulse. He was a good student and attained the high academic standing necessary to attend Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he met fellow poets and started publishing his poetry in journals. Apparently these were the happiest years of his life.

So far so good. Maybe too good. Maybe he had to sabotage things to fulfill his destiny.  Whatever… he failed to get a first at College because of his extracurricular literary activities resulting in his having to take a position teaching high school. After a few months of that,  finding the boys resistant to learning and discipline, he resigned, applied for and was appointed temporary third-class clerk in the post office department in Ottawa. He stayed at the post office  for the rest of his life.

Some accounts take the view that he was severely restricted and limited by his Ottawa existence and its lack of stimulation. Goldwin Smith speaks of Lampman as “a civil servant in a sub-Arctic lumber village converted into a political cockpit.” (Don’t you love it?) However, Desmond Pacey in an extensive essay on the subject says that Lampman had the friendship and support of several poets who have since attained eminent stature, some of them were colleagues in the post office. (Seems to have been the go-to profession for writers of the time, much like academia is now.) Duncan Campbell Scott who did so much to promote Lampman’s poetry after his death worked at Indian Affairs, eventually becoming its head.

Lampman, in a letter to a friend, discredits this view, saying that the monotonous and easy life gave him time to himself. A spurt in his literary activity at this time supports his statement. In 1887, he married and started a family.

Lampman had a sensitive nature both physically and psychologically and in his later years a series of events  – the death of one of his children in 1894, the death of his father in 1897, the worsening of his own health – seems to have plunged this precarious nature into gloom and melancholy. Another source of anxiety was his affair with Katherine Waddell (Lampman’s Kate), fellow worker at the post office.

Reading about Lampman’s sensibilities and struggles and reading his poetry, it’s tempting to say he should have been born a century earlier into English society where he might have roamed the countryside with Wordsworth or romped on the Italian shore with Shelley. But then he would have been just another romantic poet. This way he is immortalized as Canada’s foremost romantic poet. Yes, girls and boys, he’s one of ours. We must claim him. He wrote about nature and the weather, two topics dear to our hearts. He felt constrained in the strait jacket of colonialism. He felt his spirit to be held down by circumstance. (He has a poem about trees, their spirits imprisoned in their roots and by the earth.) He had difficulty getting his poems published. He felt restrictions on his poetry in the place where he was.

Lampman’s yearning for freedom is a modern predicament as is his articulation of the problems of modern man. He defines us to ourselves. We know what he’s talking about when he describes winter snowstorms and summer heat, solitude and the vastness of the Canadian landscape.His expression of his art is our expression as Canadians. His expression of isolation, alienation, soul-weariness is our expression as human beings. We feel his constraints, his struggles, the tension in his poetry. His writing about his small life in a marginal place takes on a larger universal meaning.

In return, Canada gave him his poetry. In content certainly, but also in tone, mood, and theme – seasonal melancholy, gloom of the north, frustration of circumstances, claustrophobia of spirit.

This is what he had to say about poets:

Half god, half brute, within the self-same shell,

Changers with every hour from dawn till even,

Who dream with angels in the gate of heaven,

And skirt with curious eyes the brinks of hell,

Children of Pan, whom some, the few, love well,

But most draw back, and know not what to say,

Poor shining angels, whom the hoofs betray, . . .


There it is, poets amongst us. You know who you are.



*Pacey, D. Ten Canadian Poets. Toronto, 1966. To whom this blog is indebted for much material.


Window to Nowhere

I know a man who built a window to nothing in the middle of nowhere facing north. The window is fixed on a solid structure so the wind can’t blow it away. The frame, top and sides, is of four by fours, the window itself consists of three panels of glass separated by wooden slats.

The view outside the frame is of vast distances, endless prairie, green for a short while in summer, white for a long time in winter, goldenwindow 8 during harvest, brown the times between. There are no trees, no mountains, no hills to spoil the view. The entire immense bowl of sky in all its moods and variances is visible. The sun’s annual trek from the equator in winter to its northern boundary in summer can be charted. All the phases of the moon as well as a galaxy of stars can be studied.

The window restricts this panoramic view. Through it, the sun is visible only from late May to early August and, even then, its rising and setting is cut off by the sides of the frame. The stars are partially visible but never the moon, which always rises and sets further south.

Why would anyone do such a crazy thing? I wondered, as to build a window in the middle of an empty field facing north. Then I thought of my mother in the Canadian wilderness putting up a chicken wire fence around her garden to define a space small enough for her to handle, saying, in essence, I can control this much. What is outside this wire is too big for me to  get my arms around.

I wanted to understand the window and its frame so I looked and looked through the glass until my eyes glazed over. I started to notice things – up in a corner of one of the glass panels, branches of a lilac bush, flowering in summer. In winter the branches appeared as black etchings  against the white of snow. I saw a rain drop on a leaf. I saw a rabbit hop past, east to west. In other words, I saw what was lost in the large view, how details become undifferentiated, how the general obscures the particular. I saw that the variations of colour in prairie grasses, from a distance, appeared as one continuous carpet of a sort of beige brown.

The artist explained that the window is a living work of art. Every day, every hour of every day, the painting changes, depending on the weather – sun or cloud, rain or snow, depending on the sky, the angle of the stars, the shadows cast by the sun. Every season is different, in colour, texture  and tone. The light is always changing, he said, and the light is crucial.

The frame is an organizational strategy, he went on. It allows the artist to harness and Screenshot_6channel a vast amount of material into a manageable form, to control part of a larger picture that is overwhelming. The frame allows a whittling down to size to something the artist can make sense of and talk about.

It occurs to me that apart from paintings and novels, artists have to find a space for themselves in the real world (for want of a better term), a space they feel comfortable in, one not too big or too small, one that is just right for that individual. For mental stability, they have to be able to define themselves satisfactorily to themselves. I’ve known many fine writers who quit writing. Various reasons present themselves, but I wonder if a partial explanation is that these writers didn’t feel at home in the space where they found themselves. Some writers feel comfortable with the whole planet – think Stephen King, Danielle Steele, John Gresham, etc. Others become confused and lose direction there.

Or as the topic applies to life itself – we must take a piece of it, whittle it down to something we can understand, embrace, something we can love.



Let’s Get Lost*

Once, on a flight to London my luggage ended up in Munich. Two days later, it was delivered to my door by the airline company. Those two sorry suitcases sitting in the foyer  seemed embarrassed at having gotten themselves lost. They needn’t have been. Getting to where you expect to get to is predictable. Getting lost is poetry.

When contemplating my master’s degree thesis I started out on a journey to find Margaret Lawrence and instead found Eli Mandel. I’d heard that Margaret Lawrence was up at Banff and was scheduled to give a Two Jack Lake Campgroundpublic reading. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Synchronicity. John and I made a weekend of it, camped at Two Jack Lake and the evening of the event got rid of our smoke smell as best we could and made our way into Banff and up the hill to the School.

I was thrilled by the presence of Margaret Lawrence and the one and only time I heard her read. Next up was Eli Mandel; the mind boggles now to think that those two were on the same roster. I had taken a CanLit survey course and was vaguely familiar with his work. I thought and still think his poem Houdini a timeless classic. I can’t remember what he read that evening but obviously was impressed because it led to a total revision of my thesis subject.

I went home, consulted my supervisor, settled down to work and cranked out about a hundred pages about the various mythological metaphors and allusions in Eli’s poetry. But, once again, fate intervened. The man himself came to U of C as chair of Canadian Studies. What are the odds of that – your thesis subject arriving at your university as a guest instructor? If nothing else, it gave me confidence in my choice.

I attended his lectures and came to admire the man, his unassuming yet powerful presence, and his great intellect. Our many discussions gave me a deeper insight into his poetry  resulting in my detection of an underlying preoccupation in the work which, I argued in the thesis, was the very foundation of prairie literature, the attempt to organize space. Such an approach to Eli’s work was different as most literary critics at the time tended to think of him as an intellectual poet. The exploration of space in his poetry revealed an emotional element and allowed a case connecting the work to the prairie and to prairie literature. I threw out that first hundred pages about mythology, started over and never looked back.

The journey that started out in the direction of Margaret Lawrence and ended with Eli Mandel and prairie literature, while lengthy, was fairly painless. Sometimes, however, the powers that be have to get tough with us to make us see the light. This happened with my last book of poetry, North. I had a clear vision of what I wanted the book to be and duly set out on a real journey north with the idea of writing a series of poems along the way. I remember one about the Sangudo general store and one about eating lunch beside some old railway ties, that sort of thing – descriptive, nostalgic, written in traditional form. John drove while I sat beside him working on my laptop as we motored up Highways 32 and 43 into the Peace Country. Things were going well. I had, perhaps, a dozen good poems. For the nonpoets, that might not seem much, but believe me it is. Then I LOST THEM! Somehow, by some mistaken flick of the finger on the wrong key, I managed to delete my file. Being naive, at the time, as to the perverse nature of computers, I had not bothered to back up material. I was so upset, not to mention disgusted, that I turned my back on the manuscript, put it away in a box under the bed and decided to forget about it. I didn’t recognize it at the time but God had entered my life. He didn’t want me to write that book.

Several years later in clearing out boxes I found the material. Of course, by now everything had changed, including me. I came back to the book with an entirely different vision of what I wanted it to be –  a combination of history and memory, the two forces that shape individuals. The new book is not a pastoral about the wonders of the north and the boreal forest. Rather, it’s a book about desperation, loneliness, a harsh unfriendly land, stunted hopes and dreams, a narrative about the immigrants who came in desperate circumstances and met challenges they had not known existed.

In my first attempt, I determined to write about perfect straight elms or mighty oaks. In my second attempt, the work dictated to me what it would be – stunted spruce, twisted aspen,  gnarled cottonwood of the boreal forest. The first attempt would have been just another book, derivative, predictable. The second, I believe, is poetry.


*Chet Baker album, 1989


Writer as Lush

Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Gwendolyn McEwen, John Newlove, William Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, the list is endless, the names legendary  – writers who have succumbed to the siren call of the bottle. In this post-holiday season of guilt and mea culpa due to overindulgence, with following resolutions to henceforth live like a monk (resolutions that have already been broken), comes this month’s blog.

The subject begs the question. Why?drinks 1

Some writers, undoubtedly, think the inebriate state frees the imagination, frees them from inhibitions, allows them to get at a deeper layer, elevates their creativity into some ethereal transcendent space – a way out of the mind, or conversely, a way in. The time I tried to seek inspiration by drinking while writing, I fell asleep face down on my computer keyboard and woke up to several pages of scrambled consonants that would put a Polish lexicon to shame.

Kingsley Amis who was a famous drinker himself had nothing but contempt for fellow writers who drank while they wrote, although he conceded that at the end of the day it might provide  “that final bust of energy” as a means to achieve transcendence. It might also function like the proverbial carrot on a stick. The writer straddles the two different worlds of fantasy and reality and the chasm that exists between requires a huge leap or a huge carrot. Other professions operate in the real world doing meaningful stuff and  interacting with real people. The writer sits for hours alone in a room bashing out a required number of words or pages about nothing.

The predilection for drink might reside in the nature of the beast. Writers are half demented creatures at best – hallucogenic, given to fantasies, people who have difficulty feeling at home in the real world. Why else would they chose a life of isolation, in a small room, tapping tapping away trying to give life to an illusion.

Or the nature of the enterprise may have something to do with the problem, if we view it as a problem. A scene in the movie Pollock, comes to mind. The artist drags himself into the kitchen in the morning, his wife hands him a cup of coffee as, with the downtrodden look of the boy trudging unwillingly to school, he further drags himself to his back garage where he constructs his enormous paintings. The artist’s job, unlike most jobs where the goal is material  (sell that house, collect that garbage), demands facing a phantom, an aery nothing. One must spin something out of oneself to create the work subject.

drinks 2Most writers have an opinion on the subject. Bukowski thought that poets drink because of shyness and introversion. Someone else mentions the terrifying anxiety involved in facing the blank page. Another talks about the writer as schizophrenic, trying to reconcile two worlds, having to deal with the outside world in general and in particular an outside world that does not understand what the writer is trying to say.

My own journey through the labyrinthe had nothing to do with any of the above. Early on I discerned that all the great writers were drunks. Ergo, to become a writer I had to become a drinker. (It didn’t cross my mind that maybe I should learn how to write. I’m not sure I even wanted to write. It was the writing life that appealed to me – freedom, adventure, excitement, and lovers galore.) Novels and movies taught me that the preferred drink of the serious sophisticated writer was scotch. With some trepidation, I was not yet at the legal age to do so, I marched into a government liquor store and bought the cheapest bottle of scotch I could find. At home, alone in my room, I poured myself a small amount in a water glass. I took a small sip. I gagged and just about threw up. Not to be defeated, I tried again. I’m here to tell you, I never got through that small amount in the glass, let alone the bottle.

Not to be defeated I turned to the pop-like drinks – pink ladies and singapore slings. I actually liked the taste of them. The problem was that no drinker worth her salt, let alone self-respecting, would be caught dead nursing one of those concoctions at the bar. In short, they did not advance my writing persona.  Then I discovered the martini. Perfect. All the sophisticated people in books and movies who did not drink scotch drank martinis. While writing In Cold Blood Truman Capote had a double martini before lunch, another with lunch, and a stinger afterward.

The only problem was that I could drink only one before both the room and I became wobbly. Conclusion: the martini is not a drink to get you through the day or even an evening. I could never understand Myrna Loy and William Powell of Thin Man fame who drank pitchers of the stuff and could still wrestle down the murderers.

Personally, I’ve ended up with red wine and I’m so happy to learn that it’s good for me except, according to the charts, I don’t drink nearly enough of it to be of benefit. And so my new new year’s resolution – drink more rather than less.


Rilke, the Christmas concert, and creativity

                                           for here there is no placegarden 1

that does not see you. You must change your life.

A few evenings ago, I attended a concert that was so uplifting it inspired me to think of the spiritual aspect of things, which led me further to the question: what is creativity?

Timing has something to do with my turn of thought, I suppose. Not only was I directed  to the concert by the season but if, as the song says, there’s a time to be born, a time to die, a time to sow, reap, and so on, Christmas is certainly the time of birth with implications of rebirth.

The concert audience led by the Corpus Christi Male Chorale was invited to share in the singing which they did with obvious gusto and pleasure causing me to think that they or many of them had tapped into something inside themselves, that they had embraced their own inner light.  For a few moments I was surrounded by a hotbed of creativity.

Which brings me to Rilke’s poem  Archaic Torso of Apollo which, it goes without saying, is a religious poem but also an exploration or study of creativity.

Although we never knew his lyric head

from which the eyes looked out so piercing clear,

his torso glows still like a chandelier

in which his gaze, only turned down, not dead,


persists and burns. If not, how could the surge

of the breast blind you,

 . . . .

 If not, this stone would stand all incompact

beneath the shoulders’ shining cataract

and would not glisten with that wild beast grace . . .

 The nature of creativity, it seems, is to render the inanimate animate. To make life where there was no life. The head may be absent but the torso must have had a head and eyes, and a gaze. What we have here, quite simply, is the transformation of stone into a work of art by the gaze of eyes we cannot see, i.e., a creator.

Easy for god – a gaze, a wave of the hand, a flick of the wrist, and so on – but how about the rest of us? This question has interesting implications for those in the business of creativity.  Is there a recipe for it?

If there is, seeing or awareness must be a major ingredient.

We are told in scripture that there was no room at the inn. That means that the inn was full of patrons who were unaware that a major historical event, some say a divine event, was taking place out in the barn, metres away. What a thing to miss! What a thing to not see!

What a crises of awareness!

And yet that describes most of us most of the time as we go blundering about in our blind  way.

If we could see like god, or if you don’t like that word, if we could partake of an energy greater than ours that is all around us and of which we are unaware, it would help us in our quest to breathe life into the lifeless.

Awareness is just another way of saying open your eyes.

The poem also makes a powerful statement about the value of art, the effect of a work of art on an observer, a reader if you like, for here the creation has led the poet into awareness. Although he cannot see the head he becomes aware of it and of its gaze. The sculpture is proof of god’s existence and he is transformed. He must change his life.

This year make yourself a present of you.

Good luck and merry Christmas.


Misery as Muse: Stephen King

Stephen King’s missile, On Writing, is one of the best I’ve read on the subject, but having just finished Misery I’d say that this novel is equally helpful as a guide to writing, the major thesis seeming to be, stay away from it unless you are prepared to deal with a lot of misery and pain in the form of a very grim muse.

Misery is about the relationship between writer and muse and, particularly, the role of the muse in that connection. The role of the misery5writer seems to be one of endurance. The responsibility of the muse is to force the writer to get the job done no matter how much pain, in this case ‘she’, has to inflict on her charge. She is, indeed, the caregiver from hell. Even if sometimes she appears to be maternal and loving, at her core is total solid blackness.

Paul Sheldon is a writer who has lost his direction and commitment, who cannot write if he is out of cigarettes or has a migraine. Annie Wilkes, his number-one fan, is an insane murderer, who helps him refind and redefine himself by subjecting him to unbelievable suffering. While doling out the punishment, she tells him that he needs to be protected from himself. That would be his self-indulgent, noncommitted self. But some people, it appears, are so stubbornly set in their wrong ways it takes a heap of persuasion to get them to change direction into the right way. She persuades him in spades, or should I say axes and chainsaws?

The novel is a wrestling match, a bloody one, both mental and physical, between writer and muse. Only one can come out alive.

What are we to make of all the torture, the blood and gore? For one thing, it seems you can’t escape your muse. Paul tries to outsmart and outmanoeuvre Annie at every turn. He tries to manipulate her. He cries, whines, begs for mercy. She, on the other hand, has no patience with his whining. When she chops off his foot and his thumb, it’s his fault. He has brought this misery on himself by not following her instructions. At times he thinks he’s winning only to find that she is always a step ahead of him. She punishes accordingly. She hobbles him so that he has to stay in place and write. She confines him in his wheelchair.

But it’s not good enough just to suffer, it’s the memory of the suffering that produces the work of art. The writer engages his muse through memory. ‘Art consists of the persistence of memory.’ The only way Paul can defeat his muse is to write the book and the only way he can do that is to engage his muse through memory of misery.

As he puts it, ‘Misery, the thread that runs through everything.’

There it is folks. Stephen King, probably the most successful writer of this or any other generation, on the basic premise of writing. If you can’t take misery, get out before you encounter your muse.

The muse will force you to confront the ‘Can You’ which leads to the ‘Gotta’. Can you  do it? write the scene, write the character. Can you make the unbelievable believable? If the answer is ‘yes’ you will arrive at the ‘gotta’ find out how it ends, and then you can’t quit.

And this journey needs to be desperate. Paul is forced to write on a decrepit typewriter, the keys start falling off. He writes by hand on foolscap, runs out of foolscap, is down to steno notepads, but still he keeps on. The worse things get, the more pain he is in, the more desperate he is, the better and faster he writes. He has an overwhelming desire to finish his book. Only by doing so, can he destroy the muse and save himself.

She chops off his foot and his thumb, destroys his manuscript, puts him in a dungeon with rats. She destroys his subjective reality. Still, he can’t die because he has to find out how his novel ends. But what is even more amazing, as King points out, is that the reader, too (and Annie who doubles as his number-one fan), wants, needs, to know what happens. King cites examples: people who mobbed the Baltimore docks each month when the latest installment of  Little Dorrit or Oliver Twist was due from across the pond; a woman of one hundred and five who declared she would not die until The Forsyte Saga was finished, and who died less than an hour after having the final page of the final volume read to her. And the most astounding thing of all, people become engaged this strongly with  fictional characters in a fictional world. The power of story, the power of the word. God bless it. An optimistic message for us writers, don’t you think?

Writing Prairie Gothic

There was a reason early settlers on the prairie called it god-forsaken, why they  became cynical and very very watchful. Anything can leap at you at any time from any direction. Coming out of their heritage, I can’t help perceiving the landscape as inhospitable with threatening undercurrents, abandoned by God. As a prairie writer, I try to deal with this perception by giving the landscape structure, that is, by describing it. Such descriptions are often of a dark and gloomy nature, you might say gothic.

A definition of gothic as it pertains to literature is in order. I think of it as writing that employs desolate scenery, lonely places, Ephraim Frey Homesteader Shack 1911isolated characters, dark themes, and an overall atmosphere of apprehension, fear, or dread. And secrets. There is always a secret, something about a house, something about the people who live there. If your mind attaches such descriptives to the land, I’d say you have a gothic bent, and if you have one, likely you’re stuck with it.

I call it Prairie Gothic, the form some of us employ to express the human condition when faced with this landscape. As is other forms, i.e., the American Western, Prairie Gothic is a myth. How and to what extent a poet/writer can incorporate his myth and make it his own is the mark of his genius. For an obvious example in film, think George Lucas and Star Wars, how the director incorporated the myth so completely into himself and made it his own and thus created his other world. Examples in literature – Emily Bronte was the moor and Heathcliffe; Faulkner was his particular American south. If we move things to Canada,  Sinclair Ross totally assimilated a prairie gothic myth in As For Me and My House, in which we have the full slate of threatening prairie town, brooding husband, caged wife.

Or, as John Newlove puts it in Driving:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .You become the country.

You are by yourself in that channel of snow

and pines and pines, …

The function of a myth is to explain or express a truth about our existence. That’s why we have myths, that’s why we’ve always had them, from man’s earliest writings on cave walls, the myth of the hunt. To continue with Newlove, because he’s such a good example, here is the way he expresses our existence here on the prairie:

it is not unfortunately

quite enough to be innocent,

it is not enough merely

not to offend–


at times to be born

is enough, to be

in the way is too much–

(Ride Off Any Horizon)

Writers know that darkness is in the eye of the beholder. We know that the landscape is not evil in itself, that it is, in fact, nothing. It is simply there. The landscape and the isolated house do not care one way or another. We writers with a gothic bent perceive the prairie to be gloom and doom as a way to  get our heads around the place that engendered us, i.e., as a way to tell our stories.

Why can’t we write a pastoral: I wandered lonely as a cloud, etc.? Why can’t we produce friendly pastels of Peggy’s Cove as so many watercolour enthusiasts do? Anyone who has been out on the prairie at dusk on an isolated road with a storm coming on knows the answer.

. . . . . . . . . .  Fear at night

on the level plains, with no horizon

and the stars too bright, wind bitter …

(The Double-Headed Snake, John Newlove)

We are not an idyllic pastoral or a cozy Peggy’s Cove. We are a vast unstructured, dark (think winter coming on), threatening place. Our art reflects this place. Prairie Gothic, an attempt to cope with all of the above plus silence and cold – claustrophobic paralyzing cold.

…how lovely and lonely that driving is,

how deadly. …

…All I can see is the silent cold car gliding,

walled in, your face smooth, your mind empty,

cold foot on the pedal, cold hands on the wheel.

(Driving, John Newlove)