In the audio commentary for his film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Monte Hellman notes the great advantage of working with “non-actors” like James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, innocent amateurs who don’t try to act. The great advantage of the speaker in Canadian poet Brian Bartlett’s recent poem “Dear Georgie” is the fact that he doesn’t know he’s in a poem. If only more poems’ speakers sounded like him, a natural who’s not angling for Academy recognition. Poems’ speakers usually sound like poets.

To be fair to these more consciously lyrical speakers (surrogates for the poets who made them) Bartlett’s guy probably never expected to be heard by the likes of us. In this sense, he’s less heard than overheard, less addressing a world than working out a worldview, his only audience his sister, Georgie, even if his questions lack question marks and the ‘dialogue’ between the two looks like it's one-way – his way. He’s no narcissist, though. He is (or was) a very real person, named Hermon Lawrence, and “Dear Georgie” is a found poem, made up of sentences recovered from his equally real letters to Georgie. We don’t have her responses; not here, anyway. But let’s listen in to the half we do have – one lovely side of a once-lost exchange, which is now left-justified:
Dear Georgie
Extracted from letters written in October 1918 by Hermon Lawrence of Bayside, New Brunswick, to his older sister, my grandmother, Georgie Bartlett. She was then a 22-year-old with a year-old son; he was a 20-year-old enlisted in the Canadian Army and training – as he detailed at the end of each letter – in “the 3rd Heavy Canadian Battery, Composite Bridge, Witley Camp, Surrey, Eng.” The Dwight mentioned below was their brother.
The war news have been good for quite awhile
but I dont think it can be fought
to a finish this fall.
I havent yet got that box you mailed Aug 10
and was about giving it up until today
when Tom Walker told me he just received
a box mailed July 7th, a jar of strawberries in it.
They hadnt put the wire clip over the cover –
well the strawberries had run all through
and spoiled it. A shame to throw it all away.
The first of the week I saw a play,
“Lucky Durham.” The main thing is to have
the parts well acted. I suppose I wont
be satisfied to see moving pictures.
Plays will be apt to spoil me.
I heard a fine illustrated lecture on Pompeii,
Rome and Naples. The lecturer had a lantern
with slides, views all down the west coast of Italy,
Vesuvius. Nearly all the beauty of Europe
isnt natural, but the work of man. Very different
from the beauty of America. I want to see
more of America, if I can arrange to
without too much trouble.
The Hotels Cecil and Savoy on the Strand
are the best hotels in London. I wasnt in them
but on the grounds around them.
I would like to spend about 24 hours
in one. When we get to our new camp
we will all have heavy horses.
The worst part is cleaning the harness,
all the steel will have to be kept shining.
One is apt to have a few tumbles at first
over the jumps. The weather changes very quick –
one can never tell in the morning what kind of day
it will be. Oh how are the apples this year.
Have they had a very large crop.
Sometimes I sit in one of the chairs
in front of the fireplace – they have been keeping
a fire lately – and go over the times we had
in my mind. I would like to farm just as we did
but there will have to be some change.
It won’t do for Dwight and I to go on working
together. That will have to be settled later.
The first thing for me to take a hand in settling
is this business over here.
It would be nice to think we’ve tuned in to some pure signal here. But Bartlett’s speaker – let’s call him, but not confuse him too much with, Hermon – is a composite, edited together by Bartlett from different letters. But edited with masterful care. Too often, found poetry functions like a forwarded E-mail, which foists some bit of text upon us as if the mere fact of the foisting is reason enough to read the text. The ‘finding’ of a successful found poem, however, is comparable to the writing of a more traditional lyric – it takes serious effort since the poet, in seeing poetry where no one else does, is essentially creating, is freeing a shape from its shaggy, obscuring context (as sculptors do; as Yeats, lining Pater’s prose, did).
This takes taste, and Bartlett, a born sampler, has done us a favour by identifying and salvaging only the choicest bits in Hermon’s letters. In the process, he has hit upon a winning mix: for example, the alliteration of “fought,” “finish,” and “fall” in the first tercet. But it’s not just about finding the words that go together. Bartlett calls "Dear Georgie" a “found-reconstructed” poem, which means he has made interventions. His well-judged lining in the first tercet enacts a cascade of ever shorter lines, as well as a quiet tension: the tercet manages the “finish” the War can’t seem to. Further, the choice of “fought” anticipates the choice of other, upcoming words, including “got,” “box,” “Aug,” and “Tom,” giving Hermon’s voice some assonance, some coherence. Good choices gird this poem.
But Bartlett’s to be commended for his apparent restraint, too, for not touching up lines like:
I havent yet got that box you mailed Aug 10
and was about giving it up until today
when Tom Walker told me he just received
a box mailed July 7th, a jar of strawberries in it.
It would be hard for someone who is consciously after a poem to come up with constructions as subtly disruptive as Hermon’s. Even the conventional language poet, in disrupting the conventional sentence, probably goes further than necessary. In the above example, the word “giving” (replacing some more appropriate choice like “to give”) is snag enough, and Bartlett lets it do its estranging work on us. Consider, too, the awkward but natural beauty of lines like: “Nearly all the beauty of Europe / isnt natural, but the work of man.” As Two-Lane Blacktop’s director says of one of his non-actor’s improvisations, “You can’t write dialogue like this.” You can’t write dialogue like Hermon’s, either, or at least, as already suggested, it would be hard. Bartlett, I’m guessing, knows the gift he’s got in these letters.
What’s telling (and maybe alarming) about Hermon’s European travelogue is how seemingly unconcerned it is with the political theatre of its day, preferring instead a more escapist theatre. The War is hinted at, and cleanly contained, in ominous phrases like “this business over here,” which Bartlett cleverly withholds until the very end where it casts its shade backward, dimming the more trivial moments, including the theatre criticism, the lecturer’s talk. Also, a less bloody blood-drama (a drama for bit players, brothers on farms the world over) is buried between lines like “It won’t do for Dwight and I to go on working // together. That will have to be settled later.”
But Hermon isn’t Stevens, the butler-let-out-on-a-road-trip in The Remains of the Day, oblivious to the news of his day. (He’s not even Two-Lane Blacktop’s drag racers, Taylor and Wilson, motoring across an America to which they remain unconnected.) Hermon wants to see America. He’s a sensitive, curious young man, the sort who sits by fires and goes over the times he has had in his already-nostalgic mind. “I suppose I wont / be satisfied to see moving pictures,” he writes, resigned to the only culture he has known – the only culture he may know if he doesn’t make it through the last October (not to mention November) of the War. Or maybe he’s just a vinyl man with slight pretensions – as young men can be – and has no time for the new-fangled. He’s certainly painstaking as he puts his life in order. Consider the laboured repetition in the lines “I wasnt in them / but on the grounds around them,” which emphasizes a touching struggle for inconsequential precision.
I like him – Bartlett’s composite, anyway – and I hope you like him, as well. And I hope Bartlett doesn’t reveal too much more about the real Hermon, who, I can’t resist telling you, is Bartlett’s great uncle. “Dear Georgie” is no mere stunt; it’s fully realized poetry. It’s worth considering outside of Bartlett’s context and this context, too, if for no other reason than to see what you might find in it. As for Hermon, he ought to be left in peace for the poem he didn’t write, and, paradoxically, praised for the one he did. Consider him both lost and found.
“Dear Georgie” originally appeared in The Malahat Review and was reprinted in The Watchmaker’s Table (Goose Lane, 2008). I found it in The Best Canadian Poetry 2008 (Tightrope), edited by Stephanie Bolster. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

Originally Published: January 31st, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. January 31, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Jason, I'm having trouble reading past your fabulously perfect observation:
    Poems’ speakers usually sound like poets.
    YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Once my heart stops racing, I'll read the rest of your reading, and wow, I'm really glad you posted a reading. Thanks.

  2. February 1, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    Thanks for this, Jason. I've been thinking a lot lately about framing. So much of how we read this poem depends upon how it's set up. What if Brian doesn't let us in on the methodology? Is it still a found poem, or is it a dramatic monologue? How does that affect our reading of the poem? Do we then give Brian credit for the vernacular felicities of the speaker? I wrote an essay several years ago about what I learned about language and idiomatic vigor from guys I worked with loading airplanes. I swiped a lot of their phrases for poems. Is this then found poetry? Of course not--otherwise all poetry is found poetry, because we all learn language(s) somewhere, right, and there aren't really any original story lines left (if there ever were any).
    I guess I just don't get why people feel obliged to telegraph their technique when it comes to found poetry. I think the best time to declare your sources is when, in fact, there are none. I'm thinking here of something like David Solway's Andreas Karavis hoax. (For those unfamiliar with it, Solway wrote a book of poems in the persona of an old Greek sailor, invented for him a biography, wrote criticism about his work, even provided an author photo, and pretended the poems were translations. In short, Karavis was a full-fledged Pessoan heteronym.)
    It would be really great to hear from Brian on this, if you're listening in...

  3. February 1, 2009
     James Benton

    Wonderful. I especially like how the narrative is implied through the aggregation of seemingly disparate bits. The speaker is in Europe, the speaker is nostalgic for the apple crop, the speaker wonders about movies...

  4. February 2, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Mary and James, thanks for your interest. I plan to do more of these readings.
    Zach, I'm really glad you raised those great questions. I myself wondered, when writing the initial post, what would happen if you struck the explanatory note from Bartlett's poem. I think the speaker would still sound remarkably 'natural,' and Bartlett would get the credit for having engineered a hell of an ingenue (albeit, a masculine ingenue, if there is such a thing). I do think that the gist of my praise of Bartlett's non-poetic speaker, who doesn't sound like the usual lyrical speaker, would still be possible since the speaker, with or without note, still sounds wet-paint-fresh. Of course, I would have written a different piece if I hadn't had the note. But I love that the poem, w/o note, still seems pretty self-sufficient. It doesn't need its frame as much as other, more stunt-like one-offs (the sort generated by rolling dice or whatever) sometimes do.
    Or maybe, w/o the note, I would've merely turned the page. I hope not!
    My rough guess is the poem telegraphs its technique because it uses too many of Hermon's constructions to pass itself off as comfortably independent. But even with its method (and debt) announced upfront, the poem remains a remarkable feat because, of course, Bartlett had to have the good taste to see in Hermon's letters the poem Hermon never did. Far from circumventing the lyric ego - or whatever the typical found poet is theorized to have done in ceding authority to another person's words - Bartlett's talent is only affirmed, w/ or w/o note!

  5. February 2, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    No, I don't question the authenticity of "Dear Georgie" qua poem. Just questioning the need to explain it. I've always loved the line from Peter Van Toorn's "Rune": "Like a bronze pope, it salutes no one." More and more, I find myself disinclined to footnote things in poems, to gloss unfamiliar bits of specialized jargon, etc. There seems to be a mania for such explanatory material in contemporary poetry books. A reviewer of my own book complained that I didn't footnote an Inuktitut word in one of my poems; I pointed out that that word was one of several more or less obscure (depending on the reader's particular knowledge) references in the poem; once you start, where does one stop? What constitutes "common knowledge"? Either the poem's self-sufficient or it's not. If Brian's is, as you say--and I agree--why the preface? To borrow from Eliot, why are so many poets borrowing what they should be stealing? I think more poets should take a page from the prestidigitators and not be so eager to divulge their secrets.
    I've been reading and reviewing a book called Found by a poet in Toronto named Souvankham Thammavongsa. The whole book, which is fascinating, is based on her response to a scrapbook her father kept while staying in a Laotian refugee camp in Thailand in '78-'79 (during which time, Thammavongsa was born). In spite of what the title says, there is no "found poetry" per se in the book. In a radio interview, ST was quite adamant about the importance of this. She clearly didn't approve of found poetry--thinks it's exploitative of the original speaker/writer--and referred to her poems as "real writing." The distinction isn't so clear cut for most people, I don't think, but tagging something as a "found poem" ineluctably skews our reception of it, even if only by a few degrees. I think this relates to the whole vispo can of worms you opened in your first Harriet blog post.

  6. February 2, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Zach, thanks for clarifying, and I didn't mean to imply that you were challenging the poem's authenticity. And I do agree with you about the mania for explanatory material. As you'll recall from the recent piece I wrote for the magazine for which you serve as Reviews Editor, CNQ, I found the notes in Christopher Patton's otherwise very good book of poems Ox to be a little too precious. (Indeed - and pardon the shameless self-promotion - I've excluded notes from my own upcoming book of poems, in which I use phrases by Frost, Williams, and Stevens, among others, w/o quotation marks. I've just assumed people will get the allusions (though some, after hearing the title of my book, don't recognize that it modifies a phrase from a Williams poem, and that's fine (I miss my share of allusions, too) as long as they don't accuse me of pulling a fast one).)
    I'm glad you find Bartlett's poem self-sufficient and, for what it's worth, I think that the nod to Hermon is less a sign of insecurity about the poem's self-sufficiency than a sign of sportsmanship. (And I would argue that something will always skew our reading of any poem - even, say, the magazine in which we find it. But I'm sympathetic to your desire to see poems stripped of their qualifications. I frowned, recently, when reading the name of a prize: "The 2009 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry." What's with the adjective?)
    I guess there's Eliotic stealing, and then plain old plagiarism. Perhaps Bartlett was uncomfortable using Hermon's words w/o a nod to Hermon, and if that's the case, the decision to include a note stops at one's comfort level.
    But yes, damn it, let's get back to proper theft! (Though, to be fair, Eliot leaves the price tags dangling on his own shoplifted items in The Waste Land (see its notes, which, I would argue, helped to introduce this fetish for the useless paratext)).

  7. February 2, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    Which adjective, "Robert Kroetsch" or "Innovative"?
    Ah, but one of the things that's delightful about the notes to the Wasteland is how many red herrings there are.

  8. February 2, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    The adjective that made me frown is "Innovative" since it suggests that some discrete thing called "Innovative Poetry" exists, when, to my mind, any instance of poetry, if it's any good, can probably lay claim to the adjective 'innovative', in the lower-case, and therefore shouldn't (or doesn't) need to declare itself as such. (Would it be safe to say, given your own frustration w/ the term 'found poetry,' Zach, that you share my impatience with the qualifier "Innovative"?)

  9. February 2, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    Very safe. I don't even like the terms good poetry and bad poetry. The former is redundant, the latter an oxymoron. Ron Silliman's endless nomenclatural enclosures have more of the actuarial than the artistic about them.

  10. February 2, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Jason, what about the difference between artfulness and artlessness. Artfulness: showing creative skill or taste. Artlessness: without guile or deception, without effort or pretentiousness; natural and simple. Perhaps the poets “angling for Academy recognition” are showing off their skill and taste, rather than using their skill and taste to move the reader? Is the most popular contemporary poetic style pretentiousness itself? Are poets speaking in a collective pontificating drone? Is there one poet with equal measures of artfulness and artlessness? Beautiful, crafted, guileless, unguarded.
    As for the poem under discussion, I like it, too, but I don’t love it, perhaps because the artfulness is artificially grafted onto the artlessness, instead of rising whole from one poet. As for adding notes to a poem, I’m undecided. I found a poem in one of Lavinia’s Harriet posts. The poem is posted somewhere on Harriet. Would Lavinia mind if I published the poem as my own? But I wouldn’t and couldn’t, notes or no notes. Unlike Hermon, she certainly doesn’t need my help. Rather, this was a case where I rummaged around in the language of an artist. I found a poem in a paragraph of one of Dickinson’s letters. Writing found poems is a thrilling education, but I don’t consider the poems part of my oeuvre. And that’s an artifact.

  11. February 2, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    Mary Meriam,
    In response to:
    "Is there one poet with equal measures of artfulness and artlessness? Beautiful, crafted, guileless, unguarded."
    I'd nominate John Clare. More contemporary is a fella named Peter Trower, whose work is uneven, but remarkable at its best. His Selected is "Haunted Hill and Hanging Valleys." Carmine Starnino has written probably the best piece of criticism on Trower.

  12. February 3, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Mary, many thanks for the great comments. They put me in mind of an old Archie strip, in which the guileless Moose commissions the craftier Jughead, by threat of violence, to ghostwrite a poem for Moose. Moose tries to pass the poem off as his own, but his girlfriend, Midge, on reading the poem -
    Taller than the tallest tree is,
    Wider than the widest sea is,
    That's how much in love we is!
    - detects Jughead's style. "[Jughead] tried to hide it by sounding illiterate," she says, sensing an artfulness behind the apparent artlessness. But there's another strip, too, in which Moose writes a poem for Midge, on his own (I can't find the strip, but I suspect the poem's the same as, or very similar to, the one above). Grundy, Moose's teacher, is so taken w/ the poem, w/ Moose's guileless, unguarded grammar, she suggests, if memory serves, that it should be published in some literary magazine.
    Sounds like, Mary, you would prefer the second Moose poem to the first! Moose w/o Jughead. Hermon w/o Bartlett. (Though I don't mean to make too close a comparison between Moose and Hermon! I hope the analogy isn't offensive, that's for sure.) I like this notion of the artlessly artful, too (assuming that's what you're getting at)...
    I'm glad you like the Bartlett poem. I agree that the writing of a found poem can offer a "thrilling education," but I think "Dear Georgie" is a razor-sharp cut above the typical found poem because it offers (to the rest of us) something more than an education. It offers entertainment!
    And I, too, would like to read more poems that are crafted but not too crafty, so I'm glad Zach has offered his suggestions. There's a US poet, Asturo Riley, who has been in Poetry and seems to be the sort of poet we're circling around, though I haven't read a lot of his work. I initially bristled at what I have read, but only because it seemed unpoetic but maybe, I realize now, in the best sense of the word (though I don't mean to imply Riley's work is naive). I would add, too, the Brazilian-Canadian Ricardo Sternberg, who writes a clean, direct poem - artful but not overloaded with effects. I first encountered Sternberg's work through someone who knew his son, and I remember being shown Sternberg's first book, The Invention of Honey, as a very young man, and the clarity of his work seemed so unusual to me, at the time. I didn't think people could get away w/ poems like that. Samuel Menashe (about whom I want to blog) is another one. Let me mull this some more (and my apologies for this overly long, and maybe slightly silly, response)...
    And, of course, there's still a place, too, for artful, showy, pyrotechnic virtuosity, something my own country has sometimes been uneasy about celebrating, but maybe that's not what we've been blogging about...

  13. February 5, 2009
     Brian Bartlett

    Thanks, one & all, for the fascinating discussion about many things, including found poems, sprung from my "Dear Georgie." Bad timing in that my desktop computer went on the fritz a few days ago & I'm struggling away on an unfamiliar laptop with no printer. Would like to print off the comments & take some time to digest them, rather than reply too quickly. So please be patient. It may take a few more days before my desktop is back in action. In the meantime, I'd like to thank Jason for his original splendid commentary. All poets should feel lucky to get, even once in their lifetime, a reading of one of their poems that shows such acuteness of understanding. It's refreshing to find a reader/listener who so enters so generously into the spirit of a poem cheers, Brian, who is glad to have just found out about Harriet in this new year

  14. February 7, 2009

    Thanks for leading us to Bartlett’s poem, which I have read a few times now, along side your own reading of it. The two together lead me back, rather persistently, to the question of artifice in poetry. Or rather, to wondering if poetry can ever escape the artifice (or self-consciousness) of its own production. Or, more pointedly, is the fact that the speaker doesn’t know he’s in a poem somehow more virtuous than, say Berryman’s Mr. Bones, who, while seeking another kind of colloquialism, has no doubt that he’s one of the main characters in one of America’s great long poems.
    And yet the idea of defeating artifice has been, historically, one of the great tropes in the Anglo-American poetic adventure, from Wordsworth’s experiments with local idioms inLyrical Ballads and his theoretical justification in the Preface for adopting new dictions and rhythms that were closer to the spoken language, to Browning’s dramatic monologues; from Whitman’s unbounded, plain-speaking bardic yap to Frost’s deadpan recreations of Northern New England bleakness.
    I wonder what the great advantage of not knowing you’re in a poem could finally be, and if it is somehow less exciting to read poem’s speakers who “sound like poets.” Valery’s Monsieur Teste comes to mind, a meditation which begins with the utterence: “Stupidity is not my strong point” and represents another failed attempt to escape the poem; a double failure actually, in that it failed to solve another typical problem of the lyric poet, the avoidance of one’s own autobiography. Teste is Valery in no uncertain terms. Of course, the double failure adds up to poetic success.
    We must remember that a poem is not a novel. Cesare Pavese tried to sidestep that fact in his brilliant volume Hard Labor [Lavorare stanca] by creating a mimesis of transparency as beautiful as any. But when we compare his poem to his fiction the differences are profound.
    Here (from a section of my erstwhile Cyber Rambler column) is a discussion of a much later example of this escape from artifice) in the work of Australian poet John Kinsella.
    (from: C.R. No. 4: “A Habit of Mind”)
    "Firebox", one of the five poems published currently at The Richmond Review, is to my mind a minor masterpiece. The author himself (in the wonderfully intense interview with Michael Bradshaw that accompanies the selection of poems) refers to it as "a radical pastoral". It is certainly Frost whose spirit underlines the poem’s matte lyricism. It reads like something between "Mending Wall" and "Home Burial", the latter for its austere portrait of domestic drama, the former for its hell bent attempt to draw dialogue, like fire, out of the "other". "Firebox" begins with that great formula of all disgruntled Romantics: anger contemplated in tranquility.
    It angered him that she would call it a "firebox" -
    "It’s a woodbox" he'd say, filling it with offcuts
    from old railway sleepers
    and fence posts, storm-felled trees
    and once brilliant stands of blackbutt. He continued
    to complain after she’d gone inside - "a woodbox!"
    again and again - each
    piece perfectly stacked, the box as full as it could be
    The exquisitely calibrated flatness of this music, the dead-pan delineation of the hurt male placed outside articulation, his angers and frustrations masterfully inflected through his harping on the names of things: these aural and thematic motifs echo Frost. Indeed, the following lines from "Home Burial" would almost seem to flow right out of Kinsella’s first stanza.
    A man must partly give up being a man
    With women-folk. We could have some arrangement
    By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
    Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
    Frost's themes will be picked up and elaborated upon in the rest of the poem. But they are all there incipiently in this first stanza: the pacing; the monotonic lines; the way the stanzaic structure is designed to encase the dialogue (which causes the prosaic immediacies of the drama to burst against the containing poetic); man and wife reduced to thrusting pronouns; and most of all the abrupt almost callous entry into the knit of the argument: "It angered him that she would call it a 'firebox'". Likewise are the central themes of the poem: male isolation in the misnomered world of women; male recourse to the physical world, to life and order, to obsessional repetition; the female to the spiritual, the mythical and to death. Frost’s major themes are replayed in Kinsella’s tight parable of male brutality. Somewhere Vermont, is replaced by Somewhere Outback. The child’s grave by the firebox. The only difference is that Kinsella’s disgruntled male gets away with murder, literally.

  15. February 7, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Martin, many thanks for this substantial and very interesting post. I don't want to defeat artifice, that's for sure. How can one escape artifice when one has made the choice to pick up a pen in the first place? Artifice - if I'm understanding the word correctly, and I may not be! - is our business and Bartlett's, too.
    Still one can engineer a more seemingly 'natural' voice, from time to time, and if I had to expand on my earlier point, I would say that I find Bartlett's speaker's voice refreshing not just because it sounds (even if it isn't purely) natural. I find the voice refreshing because it's not angling for, say, an epiphany (as in so many conventional poems) but, at the same time, it's not aggressively rejecting epiphany (as in so many self-consciously unconventional poems). It doesn't 'seem to' have designs on us, one way or the other. Even though Bartlett has fashioned an illusion, it's an illusion I could do with more of.

  16. February 7, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    And Brian, I'm glad you found this useful. We're all looking forward to your thoughts.

  17. February 7, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Zach, thanks for introducing me to Trower. I've searched in vain for the Starnino - do you have a live link?
    Jason, thanks for introducing me to the, ahh, yes, Jughead. I'm looking forward to your post on Menashe.
    I'm glad to have this literary blast of fresh air from Canada.

  18. February 11, 2009
     Brian Bartlett

    Okay, desktop still is in limbo and I've got no printer attached to this defamiliarizing laptop, but I'll write a bit more about the question of found poems and attributing sources, etc. One fact to mention is that the source note under the title of "Dear Georgie" as it appeared independently in The Malahat Review, and later in the Bolster anthology, doesn't appear in The Watchmaker's Table--only a shorter version of the attribution is there. The poem is one in a section of 11 "found-reconstructed" poems in the collection (with a 12th one mischievously placed in another section), and at the back of the collection there's a fuller background provided for those found poems, including the inspriration provided by Annie Dillard's book of such poems, Mornings Like This. When many readerrs hear "found poems," they think of a chunk from a magazine article or an encyclopedia broken into lines and stanzas and presented as a poem, but I've got no interest in writing that sort of f p. Dillard provides a different example: poems that find their sentences and words scattered through dozens or hundreds of pages and require much more radical selection than the more typical f p.
    Like Zach and Jason, I find that contemporary books of poems sometimes suffer from a "mania for explanation," but in the case of my new collection the background seemed intergral with the book, which has a lot do do with community, ancestry, neighbourhood, indebtedness. Rather than Van Toorn's bronze pope "saluting no one," the collection found salutations and debts and gratitude to be in its nature. The section of f p's is called "Given Words." This all makes for a less clean and ascetic, more cluttered gathering of materials than a book coming from a more lofty sense of lone-wolfish poetics. Thus the acknolwedgments, the notes, and even the old black-and-white photos in the book (including photos of both Hermon and Georgie, and of their father, whose farming diaries provided all the material for the longest of the found poems). Zach questions the need to "telegraph the technique," but it seems to me there's a huge difference between poems with their occasional unacknowledged allusions and echos and found poems in which every damn sentence, phrase, and word is derived from some other source (even with taking the liberties to abbreviate and cut and rearrange, which I took liberally, while adding no words at all). Jason mentions "sportsmanship," which is part of the reason for the acknowledgements; not to acknowledge the source with this kind of poem, at least for me, would feel like plargiarism or theft (and yes, I know the line about good poets stealing etc.), Seems to me the reader's knowledge that the poet has made a drastic act of refusal by depending 100% on some other writer's words adds a dimension to the poem. We do read the poem differently than if the fact of the source were hidden from us; and while certainly the poem should stand self-sufficient as a poem minus any note, I think it's enriched rather than diminished by the attribution. The attribution acknowledges that poet isn't always a case of the solitary ego expressing its own eloquence. The section of f p's in The Watchmaker's Table begins with an epigraph that sheds some light on these matters. It's from an interview with Don Domanski: ""Each of us stands on the shoulders of thousands of men and women who have gone on before us. It isn't just one hand holding the pen or moving across the keyboard.... The poem written has only a bit of myself in it and far more of the world." For those of you who haven't read it, I also recommend reading Dillard's introduction to her book (and of course the poems themselves).
    Jason, thanks for the comment on Hermon neither "angling for an epiphany" nor "aggressively rejecting epiphany," which taught me something about the poem and about the voice in those letters. Good critics like you can enlighten the poets whose works you write on -- a sort of critic not easy to find. I better send this now in case it vanishes from the screen....

  19. February 14, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Brian, many thanks for your comments. I appreciate them!