As a Canadian and as a (novice) poet, I chastise myself for not being more familiar with the Canadian poets Laureate. There have been seven of them since the position was created in 2002. I have taken steps over the summer to correct my earlier failure to “pay attention”. My summer reading list has included Canada’s current Poet Laureate, George Eliot Clarke as well as George Bowering – whose book is the subject of this little essay; of course, my summer reading has also included a good dozen other Canadian poets who have not yet been named as Poet Laureates. I wish several of them well to achieve that office. I’m going to focus on Bowering for the moment.
It is possible that I’ve read poetry by Bowering previous to cracking open Vermeer’s Light – if I have, I simply didn’t take note of it. It didn’t catch my eye – or ear, as the case may be. Reading Vermeer’s Light didn’t really rectify the situation in any significant way.
According to the Talon Books website, much of the book was written while “in office” as Canada’s first Poet Laureate – an honour he held from 2002 to 2004. Apparently the poetry here demonstrates a poet at the height of his powers.
I love the title of the compilation. It is compelling and suggestive. It offers terrific promise of artistic and intellectual places to go. The title gave me hope of wonderful exploration. Much of poetry itself, though, doesn’t seem to extend from the title or the promise.
That being said, reading this collection from a leading Canadian poet offers me some excellent lessons in poetics and my own expectations of poetry. For this, I am deeply grateful.
In Vermeer’s Light, I often find myself irritated by poor finishes to nice starts; I find myself disappointed by nice concepts that aren’t adequately extended or explored. There are very few shared discoveries. I ask myself why Bowering would re-discover himself in a far-from-home mirror and yet not expand-upon and share the discovery?
I am also struck by the sense that Bowering is often satisfied with clever interpersonal quips and jokes. Those quips amount to amusement among insiders rather than a poetry that embraces a wide audience. Despite having spent over thirty years listening to CBC radio, I’m irritated by Bowering snuggling-up rather than sharing in a sense of community. I am irritated by the extraordinary failure of Bowering to ignore the fact that he is centre-stage and get down to connecting with the reader. I don’t really care how much buddying goes on among the sibling-like literati of Canadian culture…I want see how much buddying goes on between the literati and Canadians.
I find really terrific lines, such as “Braided bread is a tapestry” or “There are pockets of French cigarette smoke in the air over sidewalks and tables“. Lines like that are rich and memorable. They offer me something to ponder. Unfortunately there aren’t enough of them. They strike me as hints of a powerful poet that has stopped sharing.
It is when I come to the several iterations of the poem “My Grandfather” that I learn most about what I want from a poet; Bowering shares that he had become bored with his own poem and explored several ways to contort the original poem to provide novel (to him) linguistic/poetic results. His exertions included replacement of words from the poem with randomized selections from a dictionary. As a reader, I am left with the disappointing feeling that this poet is attempting to stimulate himself rather than the reader. Does Bowering really have nothing left to say to such an extent that flipping through a dictionary to randomly replace words is to serve as “poetry”?
I learn that I expect a poet to write because they have something to say….not because they wish they had something to say. I also learn that any poet may readily catch the ear of a select audience. Bowering has not caught my ear….but he has impressed others. His poetry is not for me, but his writing earned him the inaugural slot as Poet Laureate. I hope to find the poetry that earned him the honour.