New Media Forms

Why not give the eye as much as it can use to extend the experience of the poem……adding both to the range and the intensity of the aesthetic communication.

Earle Birney’s Challenge to Poets

In One Muddy Hand: Selected Poems, we have a terrific collection of poetry by one of Canada’s best respected poets, Earle Birney.  The anthology was published in 2006 by Harbour Publishing.  And there are some truly fantastic works presented, including:

  • North of Superior
  • David
  • A Walk in Kyoto
  • The Bear on the Delhi Road
  • In Purdy’s Ameliasburg
  • Daybreak on Lake Opal: High Rockies

Birney is an accomplished and significant English-language poet.  Consider his experiments with Old English (Anglo-Saxon)  alliterative verse, concrete poetry or even just the temerity to title a poem “David”, one of Michaelangelo’s greatest sculptures, and then carve from the craggy rocks of the Canadian landscape and incredible poem.

But this article is not going to be an analysis of any given poem, nor a justification of Birney’s worth.  Instead,  we will further explore Birney’s comments regarding form which began in a different article.

In One Muddy Hand, an essay on poetics dated 1966 is included to provide a window to Birney’s views.  In certain ways, the article is indeed “dated”. Social perspectives and modes of expression have changed significantly over the past fifty years. Image result for one muddy hand Considering even the titles of the poems in the above  list ought to raise questions.

Setting aside these man-of-his-times considerations, however, Birney’s comments on poetic form and the writing process show significant insight.  First let’s consider Birney’s frank admission that “one comes down eventually to the only surety: one’s own craft.  My experiences are all I have to be certain about.”   I want to emphasize that Birney is referring to his experience of writing and not necessarily his experiences as a human being about which he writes. In a world rife with over-boiled versions of subjectivism, this seems eminently worthy of emphasis.

Birney’s comment brings to mind a contrasting opinion by a very different writer and man-of-his-times, Ernest Hemingway:

My experience has been that when a writer talks about himself and his work except with his girl or other writers or to try to straighten kids out with whatever you know that can help them he is usually through, or a poseur or more or less a pompous ass.”

These two expressed views are set an easy decade – an easy generation apart from each other.  Take these views as you will.  Either a writer can speak about his own work or he can’t.  Either a person has taken a considered approach to their writing or they haven’t.  Either they can judge their writing methods and abilities with a clear eye or they can’t.

And it bears repeating, this essay and those citations are not about the manner of life led by either Birney or Hemingway nor specifically about the subject matter which they wrote about.  These are comments about the technical craft of creating lines and sentences.

Birney demonstrated abilities to work in different forms of poetry.  Hemingway demonstrated abilities to assemble sentences, stories and novels.

All of this preamble, including the obvious question which the title of the Birney collection inspires, “What is the sound of one muddy hand clapping?” , is preparatory to qualifying the proposal of one of Birney’s comments as a kind of challenge to poets who have available to them new technologies and therefore new forms:

Why not give the eye as much as it can use to extend the experience of the poem……adding both to the range and the intensity of the aesthetic communication.

Where I have placed ellipses, the original essay included references to leading technologies, poetic examples and forms of the day. Though they can be entertaining and even fulfilling, it is often better not to be distracted by sidebars such as outdated issues, perspectives or particulars.  Better to stick to the main point.

In modern context then, beyond the addition of sounds and images, it is for modern poets to decide what may be done to satisfy this challenge.  From my own perspective, the addition of sounds, images and performances are not the sole opportunity for extension of the range and intensity of the aesthetic communication. I would much rather listen to Al Purdy read At The Quinte Hotel than watch the performance of the poem starring The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie.  And better yet, I’d rather read the poem and visit certain small-town Ontario bars in my memory.  I am able to generalize from Purdy’s particular and find particular meaning of my own (another idea about poetry that Birney proposed in a different way than I’m stating it here).

I think performances of poetry, whether on stage or in film, accompaniment animation, elaborate slideshows, accompanying music (remember David Bowie’s narration of Peter and the Wolf? – OK, it’s not a poem, but I think you take my meaning) and other additions present new art forms founded on poetry but not really extensions of poetry as a (primarily) written art form such as what George Herbert produced in pattern poems (e.g. The Altar, Easter Wings) in the early 1600’s  or concrete poetry produced in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s.

Nor do I think of the replacement of paper-based books as necessarily an extension of the written art form.  It’s certainly a lot easier and more affordable to make one’s poetry available in electronic forms.  But that is really adaptation to an alternate medium rather than an extension of the written form.

It seems to be an interesting challenge worth contemplation.

See Also

References and Citations

  1. David Bowie narrating Peter and the Wolf:

Article History

All content on, the Erickipedia, is updated and revised based on new information, further consideration, reader feedback and whim. To recommend updates, provide feedback or comment please use the contact and feedback form.

  1. Original draft: August 8, 2018
  2. Updated: September 27, 2018



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