In One Muddy Hand: Selected Hands, we have a terrific collection of poems by one of Canada’s best respected poets, Earle Birney. The collection was published in 2006 by Harbour Publishing. And there are some truly fantastic poems presented. A few favorites include:
- North of Superior
- A Walk in Kyoto
- The Bear on the Delhi Road
- In Purdy’s Ameliasburg
- Daybreak on Lake Opal: High Rockies
These, of course are personal favorites based on my own experiences, interests and preferences in poetry. Most likely another poet, academic or reader will have very good reasons for choosing their own preferences and favorites, or for preferring to avoid Birney altogether.
What should not be doubted is that Birney is an accomplished and significant English-language poet. I might reference the evidence of experiments with Old English (Anglo-Saxon) alliterative verse, other experiments with concrete poetry or even just the temerity to title a poem “David” and then make it damn good.
But this article is not going to be an analysis any given poem, nor a justification of my opinion that Birney is worth the time to study. Instead, I plan to further pursue Birney’s comments regarding form which I began in a different article.
In One Muddy Hand, the essay on poetics is dated as 1966. In certain ways, the article is indeed “dated”. Some perspectives have altered significantly over the past fifty years. Considering even the titles of the poems in my short list of interesting poems ought to bring up questions of differences between what Birney might have thought and felt fifty years ago and what a significantly different person might think and feel today.
In other ways, 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. This statement brings to mind a slightly different view by 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.”
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.
References and Citations
- David Bowie narrating Peter and the Wolf: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/xmbg64
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- Original draft: August 8, 2018