Poetry editor Nicole Grimaldi reflects on the pleasures of rereading Philip Larkin's "Sad Steps." Though nothing can truly recreate the first experience of reading our early influences, of the poem "digested raw, while one still lacks ... deciphering poetic consciousness," we can still find "glimpses" of those first encounters in every rereading.

Sad Steps
Philip Larkin

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate—
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

I’ve heard several artists claim that the literature they deem “definitive” or inextricable from their own creative cultivation consists principally of the literature read when they were young. Many contend that the books or poems found and loved in one’s youth are among the primary works an artist engages with and returns to again and again. Perhaps these works become prominent enough, even, to impact an artist’s creative interests, so that they spend a lifetime responding, or failing to respond to, their early influences. It seems to me that clinging to one’s early influences has to do with something besides just the affecting quality of the work. Beyond what the specific content or form or style of a given piece provokes in a young reader, the works discovered in youth also represent, more largely, a period of self-discovery—a coming-to-consciousness, an early recognition about what literature can do, and a bafflement regarding the question of how literature does what it can do. Casting back to the poems that have been important to me, I find this cliché to be rather true of my experience. Not that there aren’t poems I’ve discovered recently that I appreciate and that inform my work. And of course, as one’s critical apparatus fortifies, the experience of reading and interpreting a poem becomes a more complicated, considerate operation. Still, perhaps the poems of one’s youth are all the more startling in part because they are digested raw, while one still lacks this deciphering poetic consciousness. Not knowing how a poem works certainly imbues it with a sort of mystery, a sort of magic. Before becoming privy to how the musicality, meter, and various rhetorical devices are orchestrated in the balancing-act of poetic choice-making, or before this becomes explicit, the act of reading a poem is so much more felt than form.

In the spirit of honouring the poems that contributed to my early love of literature, I recently revisited Philip Larkin’s “Sad Steps.” This is a poem I first read in high school, and was forced to memorize and recite as an undergraduate student. It occupies, along with another few Larkin poems (“High Windows” and “The Whitsun Weddings” among them) a small, ever-advising space in my brain. Interestingly, I’ve never thought too hard about the poem critically—it always felt like a violent act to parse apart or discuss it. But looking at it now, I recognize the simultaneous loss and gain that comes with perceiving a long-loved poem with newly-acquired editor eyes: a deepened appreciation for its brilliant nuances, and the cruel inability to not inquire into every stylistic choice and ask oneself “is this working, and if so, why?”

The first stanza of “Sad Steps” begins in an ambiguous space. There is the initial Larkinian hook—the “groping back to bed after a piss”— which almost always sets his poems up for what I’d dub (personally, non-critically) a “transcendental movement,” beginning with an image of the crude quotidian and permitting a poetic reach which nearly always proffers a form of eventual redemptive meditation (usually culminating in one climactic swoop toward the end of the poem). In catching sight of the sky outside, he is “startled,” but it isn’t clear if the nature of this shock is positive or negative, painful or enjoyable. Shock tends to serve this function in poems I’ve read of late—in momentarily suspending the thought and the feeling, it permits the poem to offer several reactions as possibilities before deciding (or not deciding) the tone. “The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness” resonates (for reasons of our tradition, likely) as an aesthetically pleasing image, but we are nonetheless dangling in a space that is at once the degraded human (“Groping back to bed after a piss”) and the celestial awe-inspiring (“The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness”), waiting to follow the speaker down one path or the other. The speaker comes down in the next stanza to subvert the more Romantic suggestion, calling the scene “laughable.” (Aside: I find the compound “wind-picked” very interesting; it is as though the sky is depleted somehow, picked over by wind. Wind, even as an element of nature bound to the sky, is somehow distinct enough from it to tax or overwork it. It captures the sort of boredom, the tedium of a cavernous sky turned on itself, exhausted even in its natural, non-human wonder). This laughable element is the speaker’s driving force: it guides him through the poem and like a knife insists on hacking up the scene’s agreeability, much like the “rapid clouds,” loose “cannon-smoke,” and “wedge-shadowed gardens” do the sky and ground.

The “cannon-smoke” simile suggests that the speaker imposes a sort of violence on the landscape, as though he wishes to vitiate it; he wants (needs?) to find it laughable. I think we are meant to feel the tension between the speaker’s insistence that the scene is laughable, and his incapacity to see it as such—or perhaps his tendency to see it as beautiful. He works to eschew the Romantic impulse to worship the sky, to stand in awe of it, but then appropriates the Romantics’ stylistic conventions (the superfluous metaphor, the grand address) in a tongue-in-cheek way that doesn’t detract entirely from his choice to employ them. Or perhaps it’s a suggestion about the way we can’t slough off such traditions and the way we are always, to some degree, imprisoned by them.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker claims we are divorced from the moon, not one with it. It is “high and… separate” but also “preposterous”! Next come the stronger, aggrandized addresses (“Lozenge of love! Medallion of art! / O wolves of memory! Immensements!”)—at this point so ironic as to nearly negate the irony upon utterance, leaving a strained sincerity. I’m not sure an argument can be made for this, but to regress for a moment to a child’s-eye view of the poem, that’s how I feel about it—that the poem gestures to a place where the weight of irony cannot support itself any longer, and collapses into a vulnerability: an inadvertent expression. The fourth stanza is representative of this. It is so desperately spoofish that it cuts past its own irony, revealing the depth of the speaker’s desperate desire to ridicule the scene even while feeling a growing meditation or poetic recognition due to it.

The use of the term “Immensements” interests me because it is not technically an English word. There is the French word, “immensément,”—an adverb meaning “immensely.” Larkin thus nouns a French adverb. If we nouned the English adverb, it would read: “Immenselies” (provocative in its own right). I’m sure critics have made more “sense” of this choice, but it reads to me like a stylistic one—a semantic bend to evoke the precise connotation, music, or feeling sought by the poet. Further, “Immensements!” has a fitting mock-authority about it, especially as a stand-alone exclamation. Directly after this catalogue of addresses follows a haunting line break: “No, / One shivers slightly…” I occasionally wonder how long Larkin hung over that comma. My sense is that he sat there for ages deciding whether or not to put it down. Ideally, it would flicker. I think about that sometimes; poets should be permitted flickering punctuation points. I suppose that’s quite possible, these days.

This ambiguous line-break can mean two things: 1) “No,” I hereby negate all that came before and affirm that “One shivers slightly…” or 2) I hereby claim, elusively, that “No, / One shivers slightly, looking up there.” Except, wait, shush. The young! They do. And it is for them, and not the jaded-speaker, that the scene means. For the speaker it is a husk, no longer offering him the strength of feeling, or the pain of feeling. It means for him only insofar that he recognizes it means for others, those for whom it is not “gone” but for whom it is “undiminished somewhere.” And so, the poem asserts an even greater irony, maybe in the truer sense of the word— in knowing by not feeling what those, who are feeling, do not know. The poem thus embodies a tense dynamic, capturing a state of awareness and unawareness simultaneously: the poem’s consciousness has youth’s unconsciousness nested within it.

Finally, once the speaker is divorced or removed from that instantaneous feeling that the young experience when looking up at the moon (be it the fullness of strength or pain), a palpable wistfulness drowns the space between speaker and landscape. We feel the prescient power of the speaker’s recognition of the feeling, won only in his distance from and longing for the feeling.

In reading the poem as an adult, I doubly feel the speaker’s nostalgia. My increasing consciousness about the poem’s operations is still undergirded by my early reading of the poem, before I was aware of all its nuances and tricks. My youth’s full, feeling, forgiving unconsciousness is diminished now, but I recall a glimpse of it in every rereading, including its very different reasons for liking this poem. The poem becomes a gathering place for my past and present selves, much like the poem itself becomes a gathering place for the speaker’s past and present selves as he negotiates the divide between youth and adulthood. My two selves meet in the poem, though, in a space of shared passion—as I still love the poem as much now as I did then.

philip larkin and bike

Philip Larkin's full biography and poems can be found on the website of The Poetry Foundation.

Nicole Grimaldi is a poetry editor for echolocation. She writes poetry and fiction, and will graduate with an MA in English with a Creative Writing Thesis from the University of Toronto this June.

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In this essay, head editor Laura Ritland tells us what it was like to teach Jim Johnstone's poetry collection Dog Ear (Signal Editions 2014) to undergraduates at the University of Toronto Scarborough. The truth is, contemporary poetry ain't hard to love, and Johnstone's book is a knockout.

Last semester I taught about 60 undergraduate students as a teaching assistant for Daniel Scott Tysdal’s course in poetry at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. Of all the experiences poetry has led me to, this was one of the most gratifying and inspiring. This isn’t to say that being a teaching assistant is glamorous work; the explosive labor dispute this semester at UofT exposes the uglier and frankly depressing conditions of being a graduate student. But when contemporary poetry, students, and writers gather in the halls of academia, some 60s-era wood-panelled room, transformative things can happen.dog ear title

Firstly, it’s worth knowing that Daniel Scott Tysdal is a brilliant poet in his own right and that his students are wild about him. “He looks like Shakespeare!” a student noted to me in tutorials. Secondly, Tysdal always incorporates a title of contemporary poetry into his curriculum – this year, Jim Johnstone’s Dog Ear. Winched together as smartly as Evel Knievel’s motorcycle, the book is a truly masterful collection, ambitious in its formal and conceptual scope, melodic, haunted, gritty, gorgeous. A skeptic might raise an eyebrow at an attempt to inspire a general audience to take interest in contemporary poetry (oddly, these voices tend to be poets themselves, which says something about our self-esteem). Indeed, even as I marvelled at Johnstone’s painterly application of allusions, his torqued imagery, the engineered compactness of his meditations on ontology, I was uncertain about how anyone not-a-poet would enter into this world.

Thankfully, Tysdal was teaching this course, not me. Each lecture started with the nuts and bolts of poetry – the image, poetic devices, meter, set forms – and moved into reading a poem from Dog Ear alongside something more traditionally canonical from Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets and Poetry anthology. For our lecture on imagery, we untangled the “white oak’s” branches of Johnstone’s “Ariadne’s Thread”; for metaphor, we looked at the “tuba, quartered” slipped within “Parenthesis.” “Drive,” read during our week on musical devices, was a favourite. The poem soars in long, songlike lines: “No one will find us in this city—not your valentine,/ not the line of dogs he’s chained by the throat.” Even if some students remained staunch enemies with prosody by that point, the music of Johnstone’s language wound its way into their hearts. All it took to enjoy these poems was to sit down and make the space to listen.

On a basic level, I’m saying something about contemporary poetry: that it’s easy to love, if you’re willing to listen. Equip yourself with a vocabulary in poetic devices and meter, and you’re set for maximum appreciation and possibly sublime transcendence. On a level of appraisal, I’m saying Dog Ear shines. If you’re looking for clever imagery, take the eponymous “Dog Ear”:

It was years before I learned to call
this prayer: the right-hand corner
of a page turned down to make another
page …

In line two, “this” initially means “dog ear,” the place marker for a book. But as we follow the poem’s groove of logic, a matching image, another gear, presents itself in the form of the speaker’s wife’s “earring,” which is then compared to “words” written on a page’s margin. Dog-ear, earring, words. “This” isn’t just a book-marker, but time-markers, the meaning-making we substitute for loss.

A pause while I explain what I think is the nucleus of the book: Dog Ear is about meaning-making, form – both in the aesthetic and ontological sense of the word. As Johnstone said to me later over a chocolate chip cookie in Toronto’s Parkdale, what do we “dog ear” from a life and “why do we pick to write about one thing rather than something else?” Put another way, what determines the shape of a life and how we might we come to terms with the mechanics that drive our identities? What choice do we have in these determinants? Not only time, but biology, culture, language and art undergird these concerns. In “The Greater Good,” the speaker’s very literal, biological heart “valves … drain// like pigs skewered/ on a spit”; Evel Knievel’s self-portrait is a “dog-eared, a carnal mask mirroring/ half-lit splits of wood.” These speakers are heavy with their own materials. These poems are also conscious of their aesthetic foundations, apparent in the ekphrastic “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” or the dubious agency of the artist figure in “Freedom.” I can’t help but also add that this mesh of aesthetics and evoked experience is perfect for a poetry class: it invites readers to see the relevance of aesthetics to what it means to humanly exist. “Epoch,” the last of the collection, is perhaps the most moving example of this synthesis, and I won’t say much more except please read it.

But the best thing about reading Dog Ear with Tysdal’s poetry class? The day Johnstone gave his reading. Students snaked from the podium to the back of the lecture hall, waiting to get their copies signed at the beginning of class. Few of them had met a “real poet,” I found out later. They had been expecting someone quaint, fusty, “with leather elbow patches,” “the tweed jacket.” I wonder if, in these students’ minds, the poet Johnstone had risked becoming like any other printed name in their anthology, that the reason they had been expecting a fictional Wordsworth to stroll into the room was because our culture knows our dead poets, but not our living ones. Johnstone stated this with fewer words: “Poetry needs to feel relevant to them. And if it’s not, then it takes on the dead quality of its author.” But Johnstone – we called him Jim – was real. Jim was chill. Jim had tattoos. Jim was bemused by all the attention and read his poems in the voice he wrote them and the class spread open their books to follow along. After weeks analyzing his work on chalkboards and living his poems in our minds, we listened.

 

jim johnstoneJim Johnstone is the author of The Velocity of Escape (Guernica Editions 2008), Patternicity (Nightwood Editions 2010) and Sunday, the locusts (Tightrope Books 2011). He is the recipient of a CBC Literary Award, The Fiddlehead's Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize, and Matrix Magazine's Lit POP Award. Currently he's poetry editor at Palimpsest Press and an associate editor at Representative Poetry Online.

 

 

daniel scott tysdalDaniel Scott Tysdal is the author of three books of poetry, Fauxccasional Poems (forthcoming from Icehouse 2015), The Mourner’s Book of Albums (Tightrope 2010), and Predicting the Next Big Advertising Breakthrough Using a Potentially Dangerous Method (Coteau 2006). Predicting received the ReLit Award for Poetry (2007) and the Anne Szumigalski Poetry Award (2006). Oxford University Press recently published his poetry textbook, The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough. In 2012, the UTSC student newspaper, The Underground, named him one of their four “Professors of the Year.”

 

 

 

double ducksWe double-dutched. We double-crossed each other a little. We met in secret, bridging two provincial borders over two prophetic weekends, and we doubled back to finally arrive at the winning entries of the Echolo-Qwerty Doubles Contest.

First place:
“Straight Man” by Sugar Le Fae

Second place:
“Stone Formations Along the Marginal Way” by Jennifer Martelli

Honourable mentions:
“Aubade I” and “Corridors” by Adèle Barclay
“Looping String” by Marcus Creaghan
“a wish in reverse, is this called regret?” by Cara Evans
“The Expendables 2 2” by Max Karpinski
“Pest Control” by Michael Meagher

Many thanks to all those who helped us spread the word about our collaboration, to the respective staffs of Echolocation and Qwerty magazines for their support, their hard work, and their patience with some inexplicably bad jokes about ducks, and most especially, to everyone who submitted to the contest.

The winning pieces and all honourable mentions will be printed in the Doubles Chapbook, to be printed soon, and launched separately in Toronto and Fredericton—more details to come in the following weeks. Congratulations, all!

In this week's Echolocation post, poet Jessica Bebenek provides us with an insightful and interrogative reading of Matthea Harvey's “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters To His Love” from Pity the Bathtub, Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form.

from “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters To His Love”
by Matthea Harvey

7.
I once saw my life through the lens of one of your amber earrings
saw tiny skeletons caught in the silver oval with no chance
of struggling free and felt trapped and suffused with all
the sweetness and stickiness of your affection here surrounded
as I am by such spectrums of color and life suddenly all is clear
here I am the trapper littering the landscape with corpses
no longer feeling as if the path of my life is being cut into rock
by passion’s aimless meanderings I look back to you as though
through a telescope in this I mean I know what I want now
are the hidden things the intangible and unimaginable all
that you spoke of long ago I thought it was all about the chase
I reveled in hardships practicing sleeping on the dormitory floor
for when I would have the ground as my bed but I never practiced
sleeping with my knees in the hollow of another’s knees or breathing
slowly together instead I learnt the shallow breath of one who must
always remain undetected and in this way I have let my face slip from
your dreams I am here I am combing the grasses for hidden lions
riding after herds of elephants coming home with my own skin torn
my disguises and ploys seen for what they are by simple animals
who turn around and charge when they have been betrayed...

Matthea Harvey sets up “Frederick Courteney Selous’s Letters to His Love” as an epistolary poem, but only, it seems, in order to turn both the man and the form on their heads. Over the poem’s seven sections, we follow the real-life Selous’s imagined letters to his beloved, a woman left behind in England while he hunts big-game in Africa, as they go unreturned. Gradually, the sections become more journal entries than letters, amounting finally to a portrait of Selous’s own crippling passion, and his intrinsic isolation.

What draws me to this poem more than any of Harvey’s others is its sense of danger, the threat of violence and the too-real threat of loss. Selous as a speaker is terrifying in his casual aggression, beginning his first letter in accusation and presumption, his explicitness only increasing as the poem progresses. Through expansive sentence structures, Harvey creates meanings which slip headlong into one another to form cutting double entendres. The apparent motives of Selous’s desires mingle between violent and sexual with an ominousness that makes me question whether it is Harvey or Selous flexing her/his muscles in the space between the words.

In his first letter, Selous writes,

[I held the lion] in my arms still warm it is so strange to be surrounded
by animals larger and greater than me and watch them fall to their knees
still shuddering with that last longing for life and now I have
its tawny pelt beside me its hair two shades lighter than yours
and rougher...

making it easy for us as readers to imagine why his beloved may be keeping quiet. Later, when Selous becomes angry, resigned to her rejection, he compares their relationship to “the lion who roars to the dunes and grasses around him getting no / answer but the frightened silence of prey who pray to never be close / enough to have to answer with their flesh”.

There is a thrill in getting so close to the heart of Selous, this spring-loaded figure of hypermasculinity,  as he teaches himself “to be less judicious think less shoot more”. Harvey’s expansive, unstoppable lines drive us through the poem, push and pull us with the passion of a Selous “gone wild from lack of company or containment”, trip us over thoughts which refuse to end neatly. He threatens either to possess us or to kill us, but ultimately both the reader (and his beloved) are safe from him, kept at the distance of mere words on paper, able to reach out and touch the lion without fear of being eaten.

If he has lost his love, “let [his] face slip from / [her] dreams”, it is only through the worlds he has put between them. Though he is “the trapper littering the landscape with corpses”, she remains utterly unattainable, and Harvey permeates the poem with her presence like buckshot. This woman, the famous collector’s only nameless trophy, exists solely in the negative space of the poem, the remembered “knick-knacks / and patterned wallpaper” of her living room, the “tiny skeletons” in her amber earring. And yet her absence is the force behind the poem’s very existence, the betrayal of Selous’s fervent writing, his own desire to be pursued—his life lived without love, “without sugar it is so bitter”.

By the poem’s conclusion, Harvey leaves us with a delicately-wrought portrait of Selous, of his loneliness born from single-mindedness, his inability to find space for compassion between passion and pursuit. In his final letter, he writes,

I reveled in hardships practicing sleeping on the dormitory floor
for when I would have the ground as my bed but I never practiced
sleeping with my knees in the hollow of another’s knees or breathing
slowly together

We see a strength which has driven him towards everything he has accomplished now driving him away from humanity. We see a man betrayed more by himself than by his beloved. And who, after all, is this titular “Love”, or what? Ultimately, Selous is writing only to himself, the poem enacting a struggle not between man and nature, but between man and the forces of his own nature, his debilitating passion. By the closing lines, it is all too easy to see Selous for what he is, one of his “skins at the dock […] folded / into boxes tissue paper stuffed between the teeth and around the snout”.

On January 29, Laura Ritland (echolocation head editor), Adam Zachary (Editor in Chief of The Hart House Review) and Ronna Bloom (Poet in Community) presented a conversation panel on literary magazine publication to fellow writers, students, friends and colleagues. Laura discussed the value of literary magazines as “living communities,” Adam explained aspects of a strong literary submission, and Ronna spoke to the problems and gratifications of sharing literary work with others. What follows is a condensed and edited version of the conversation…

LR: I don’t think I’m making too large of an assumption in saying many of us are already well-acquainted with the concept of literary magazines. But if there’s one characteristic about literary magazines I want to foreground early in this conversation, it’s that they are a living community; they are ground-up organizations, grassroots efforts, which give them a unique capability to forge and sustain creative work.

I’ve been an editor and organizer of literary journals for over three years now – not a super long time, but I’ve see the same thing everywhere: good lit mags are inseparable from their creative communities; they are where editors, writers, readers, academics, publicists and other members in the literary industry hang out. The audience is very select: members of the intellectual community and other writers. Accordingly, because of its close dependence on its founders and participants, every literary journal has its own aesthetic taste, sometimes also aligned with an implicit or explicit political attitude.

But before I began to publish my work, I tended to worry about the “hierarchy of prestige” among literary journals and the way a writer is judged by the publications they have collected. It’s like a carnival game where everyone is shooting the same target. Yet, while competition is an important and necessary part of a thriving artistic community, I don’t believe this is necessarily a helpful or sustainable praxis for a writer. Rather, it’s good to keep in mind that literary magazines are these living communities through which we contribute, celebrate and perpetuate art. Appreciation rather than evaluation keeps writing alive.

Think of it this way: it enters into a readership and thus conversation about ideas, ethics, aesthetics, politics, and so on. A literary journal isn’t just whatever paper (or digital) format comes out of the work, but the people who have handled that work, thought about it, and enjoyed it. You’re entering a very living (and truly incredibly positive) human interaction when you share your work with others. This is a much more useful attitude, when you’re starting out, rather than focusing on the “prestige” of those journals. ...continue reading