Sunday, October 31, 2010

John Betjeman

In 1934, Betjeman (later, Britain’s poet laureate) and his wife Penelope moved into their new home in the village of Uffington, in Berkshire. Sometimes friends stayed with them, including Cyril Connolly and his wife.

During one of their visits John and Penelope ended up in a violent argument which took them from one end of the house to the other, yelling at each other and passing right through the guest bathroom – much to the surprise of the Connollys who were taking a bath together.

(From The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, 2006, ed. John Gross)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In his early twenties, crossed in love, Coleridge ran away from Cambridge and joined the 15th Light Dragoons.... One day, as he was on sentinel duty, two officers walked past, chatting about Euripides; one of them quoted a couple of lines. Begging their honours' pardon, the sentinel corrected the Greek and observed that the lines actually came from Sophocles. The astonished officers had him transferred to the regimental hospital as an orderly....

Before long (Coleridge's) friends secured the trooper's discharge by means of a sweetener of around 25 English pounds and on a technical doubt about his sanity. (D.J. Enright, Play Resumed, 1999)

Friday, July 9, 2010

Langston Hughes

Before becoming one of America’s most revered poets and civil rights advocates, Hughes spent his time travelling. On one journey aboard a steamer to West Africa, he decided literature and poetry had failed to deliver the true texture of the real world. He then tossed every book he owned overboard – except for Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Earle Birney

After graduating at the head of his class in a small high school in the Kootenays, Birney took his cue from T.S. Eliot and landed a job as a bank clerk. He soon transferred to a bank in Vernon, B.C. where his monthly salary rose to a whopping $60. "I persuaded them to let me sleep in a room above the bank which I furnished with packing cases," Birne
y said. "But with restaurant meals at 50 cents each, my salary was soon used up."

That experience may have had something to do with Birney’s eventually political leanings.

"I always remained a leftwing liberal, inclined towards a Marxist understanding of history,” he said. In "Reading the Diary”, he later wrote “Now let this frenzied century unloose/what gales it may/here's one who walked unbowed".

(From an article by Scott Anderson, Quill and Quire, 1976)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Bliss Carman

Carman has often mistakenly been called an American poet, something partly accounted for by his proud, if distant, kinship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and by his own attitudes towards the U.S. “Throughout his life he was amiably pro-American,” says scholar James Doyle, “having no fear of cultural or economic domination, no anxieties about Canadian identity.”

Of him, Ezra Pound said “Bliss Carman is about the only living American poet who would not improve by drowning.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

Walt Whitman

Whitman’s poems had a profound impact upon American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott). With Alcott and Sarah Tyndale in tow, Thoreau bearded Whitman at his home in New York in 1856 following release of the second edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman gave Thoreau a signed a copy of the book, of which Thoreau would later exclaim “It has done me more good than any reading in a long time.”

But Thoreau was also disconcerted “by 2 or 3 pieces in the book which are disagreeable to say the least.” “Simply sensual” was how he described them…“as if the beasts spoke. I think men have not been ashamed of themselves without reason...There have always been dens where such deeds were unblushingly recited and it is no merit to compete with their inhabitants. But even on this side he has spoken with more truth than any American or modern I know. I have found his poems exhilarating, encouraging.”

Submitted by Winnipeg writer and poet David Scott, with additional material from Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality, by Jonathan Ned Katz.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Leonard Cohen

In 1985, Cohen’s career as a singer-song writer was in a trough and as you’ll hear from my brief, admittedly chirpy radio documentary he was characteristically pragmatic about it all. Interestingly, at the end of our interview Cohen placed a set of headphones over my ears and I was treated to a brand new song he’d just recorded. That song “Halleluiah” would go on to reignite Cohen’s career.

Even more interesting is what he had to say about poetry and the shift away from traditional lyric to language poetry. Listen here:

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Emily Dickinson

Dickinson loved to bake bread and prepare desserts for her family, and often lowered a basket of baking from her bedroom window to neighbourhood children waiting below. One of them remembers her gingerbread as "long, oval cakes, crisp and brown or yellow and delicately sweet and gummy." Here’s Dickinson’s original recipe in her own hand:

“1 quart flour; 1/2 cup butter; 1/2 cup cream; 1 tablespoon ginger; 1 teaspoon soda; 1 teaspoon salt. Make up with molasses. Cream the butter and mix with lightly whipped cream. Sift dry ingredients together and combine with other ingredients. The dough is stiff and needs to be pressed into whatever pan you choose. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.”

And don’t forget, Dickinson wrote: "Affection is like bread, unnoticed till we starve, and then we dream of it."

(Submitted by John Donlan)

Friday, March 26, 2010

P.K. Page

Page came to visit Penn Kemp and family on Ward's Island, Toronto in the fall of 1973 where she would participate in a poetry series. The weather was blustery; the oil stove puffing and popping away in the middle of the living room. At the stove's first growl, Page, dressed to the nines in a glamorous cape and silver jewellery, suddenly leapt up and alighted for the evening on the couch arm closest to the door. It seems she'd had an oil stove explode on her once before and was taking no chances.

“She made that perch hers,” Kemp says, “crossing her legs elegantly and gallantly discussed poetry and poets until the last boat swept her away to the city.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

Gwendolyn MacEwen.

A year before she died in 1987, MacEwen and Toronto poet Sharon Marcus were standing on Bloor Street discussing the difficulties of publication. Looking magnificent with her darkly penciled eyes, MacEwen confided that despite winning two Governor General's awards for poetry and nine books in print, each one had been a terrible battle to have published. What more is there to say? We persist, as Rilke said, because we must.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Margo Button

Possessed of a love of singing and a wonderful temperament, Button’s earliest ambition was to become an opera singer. And but for her challenges sight reading music she just might be standing on the stage at the Roy Thomson Hall instead of being one of our best loved poets.

(Submitted by Ursula Vaira)

Margo Button’s The Unhinging of Wings (Oolichan, 1996) received the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and has been adapted to the stage. She later published The Shadows Fall Behind (Oolichan, 2000), The Elders' Palace (in English and Inuinnaqtun), Blue Dahlias (Leaf Press, 2006), and Heron Cliff (Signature, 2007).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

James Reaney

Almost fifty years ago on April 5, 1960 Reaney put a child's chair on his knee and talked to it, lolled on a bed reading an Eaton's catalogue, lifted a tray of lit candles onto his head and yelled his poem "Doomsday, or the Red Headed Woodpecker" into a megaphone. Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood were delighted. The place was Hart House Theatre in Toronto, where the audience enjoyed Reaney’s One-man Masque, a new work which gave a dramatic setting to some of his earlier published poems.

Two great lines come at the very beginning of the play: "Ladies and gentlemen, life is extremely difficult to define. Ladies and gentlemen are extremely difficult to define."

Submitted by Brian Bartlett, poet and editor of The Essential James Reaney (The Porcupine’s Quill 2010).

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Robin Skelton

Skelton, Victoria poet and co-founder of The Malahat Review, was born with a broken right thigh, an accident of birth that he would on occasion reference in his poems. Skelton authored more than 100 books. These included not only collections of his poetry, but also novels and short stories, anthologies of the work of other poets, studies in versification, numerous scholarly works of literary criticism, and a number of works on the occult. (Submitted by John Barton)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Anne Szumigalski.

The late, British-born, Saskatoon poet, was a relief worker in concentration camps as they were liberated by the Allies in the closing weeks of World War Two. In 1951, she immigrated to Canada, settling in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where she helped found both the Saskatchewan Writer's Guild and the literary journal Grain.

In 1995, Szumigalski was awarded the Governor General's Award for Poetry for Voice. She died in 1999. Each year the Anne Szumigalski Editor's Prize is awarded in her memory.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

John Pass

Pass was born Dec. 19, 1947, the same day in the same year that Duncan Campbell Scott died. A reincarnation of one of Canada's great Confederation Poets? Perhaps not, says Pass, though upon discovering this fact from the Canada Council for the Arts Calendar, it did stir increased interest in him for Scott’s work.

“The link tugged at me, implied an odd responsibility. I revisited especially his later poems, and one in particular, "En Route", suggested continuity…More significantly, though, it is an early (perhaps the first) instance in our literature of a quintessential Canadian experience: the contemplation of an arbitrary tract of nondescript track-side land from the window of a stalled train. For this alone it must stand as a cultural mile-marker."

John Pass is one of several contemporary poets featured in The Companions Series of broadsheets writing in response to poems they have chosen by other poets. Among the contributions: Lori Maleea Acker’s An Inner Regard in response to an excerpt from Wallace Stevens’s Things Of August and Sue Wheeler’s Understory in response to Don McKay’s Stumpage.

For further information about the Companions Series phone or email High Ground Press: 604 883 2377

Saturday, January 2, 2010

William Hamilton.

The great English mathematician was a phenomenally creative thinker and wanted very much to write poetry. It took his friend William Wordsworth to gently point out that his talents did not lie in that direction. "You send me showers of verses which I receive with much pleasure ... yet we have fears that this employment may seduce you from the path of science."

(Submitted by Edmonton poet Alice Major)

Alice Major will publish her ninth collection of poetry in spring 2010, with the University of Alberta Press, and is working on a book of essays about the intersections between poetry and science. Her poem "Symmetries of Dilation" is based on the mathematical idea of symmetry and is featured in our “Great Poems” section below.