Tag Archives: Poets Laureate

Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke

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Winner of the 1991 Archibald Lampman Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2002

I’ve written on this site before about my love of George Elliott Clarke. He is a master writer, a brilliant public reader and speaker, a top notch literary scholar, a genuine nice guy, and Toronto’s Poet Laureate. His writing is a mix of down-home Nova Scotia charm and rich African-Canadian historicism – which he dubbed “Africadian”. Whylah Falls is Clarke’s second book and one of signature works. This volume is the narrative of the residents of the fictional Nova Scotia black village of Whylah Falls, focusing primarily a young lady named Shelley and her immediate family. This book has the notable distinction of being selected for the first edition of Canada Reads held back in 2002 (defended by sci-fi author Nalo Hopkinson, finishing second only to the winning title In the Skin of a Lion) and still remains one of only two books of poetry to be featured on the competition.

Whylah Falls is a book of poetry but it is a mixed-genre book; it uses traditional narrative poems, prose poems, sermons, dramatic monologues, theatrical scenes, newspaper-style articles, letters, and photography. This collection is often referred to as a novel told through poetry, but I think a better description is a cycle of stories told through poetic forms as each section focuses on different groups of characters in the village.

This has become an important and landmark book in Canadian literature and is now solidly in the canon of Black Canadian writing. I read a selection of these poems in a Canadian Lit course at Saint Mary’s University in 2003 but I had never read the whole volume from start to finish despite the fact I’ve had a first edition sitting on my shelf for years (oddly enough the first edition cover is really terrible and both the 10th and 20th anniversary editions are much nicer). I really really wanted to love this book. I recently re-listened to Canada Reads 2002 and Hopkinson’s impassioned defense ignited a desire to immerse myself into Clarke’s best known world. But. But, in the end, I wasn’t blown away like I was hoping I would be. To this reader, Whylah Falls was just ok. And here’s why.

Firstly, I absolutely adored the love poetry in the two sections titled “The Adoration of Shelley” and I loved the whole section “The Martyrdom of Othello Clemence.” The imagery in the love poems was beautiful, sensual, and tastefully erotic and the narrative in “The Martyrdom” was powerful and vivid. Overall though, I was a little underwhelmed by a lot of the book. I think the primary problem was the huge cast of characters; I was continually lost and had to keep referring back to the Dramatis Personae. Unlike a novel or a play where there is ample narrative introduction and development of primary characters, this format didn’t really allow for that, so you are simply thrown into the middle of this dynamic little town (almost the identical problem I had with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town).

I want to be clear that my rating of “just ok” doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the book. The quality of writing was very high and the innovative nature of the volume was superb. Ultimately though, Whylah Falls didn’t grab me the way Execution Poems did. Maybe I was just the wrong audience or I read the book at the wrong time. All that being said though, this is still one of the most important books in contemporary Canadian literature and maintains an important place in African Canadian culture.

The Taste of Water by Frank Ledwell

The Ledwell Family is an artistic juggernaut on Prince Edward Island. Jane Ledwell wrote an excellent collection of poems, Last Tomato, and is known as one of the Island’s finest poetry editors. Patrick Ledwell is a very talented comedian, a playwright (Come All Ye), and now a respected writer (I Am an Islander). Danny Ledwell is a painter whose work is gaining popularity (the cover of this book is one of his paintings). The patriarch of this brood is Frank Ledwell, PEI’s second Poet Laureate, beloved story teller, and legendary English and creative writing professor at UPEI. The bulk of Frank Ledwell’s collection of writing is very PEI centric; Crowbush, The North Shore of Home, and Island Sketchbook all explore life on the Island, especially rural PEI, while Dip & Veer is a lyrical collection that reflects on Alex Colville’s art. The Taste of Water is a diverse mix of poems that is completely steeped in “islandness.”

The poems in this collection are a mix of the narrative, pastoral, and lyrical. Reading Frank Ledwell properly requires an understanding of his style of writing. Many of his PEI contemporaries, like John Smith and Brent MacLaine are masters of technical subtlety and eclectic metaphors; Ledwell is not. His poetry is like Bon Jovi, whereas John Smith is like Rush. Rush’s music is esoteric, difficult, and almost distant in its complexity. Bon Jovi, while not the most “artistic,” is still fun to listen to and highly entertaining. If you are looking for a demonstration of technical prowess, Frank Ledwell is not going to deliver. If you want to read poems that are written in “down-home” language that are accessible, fun, and convey clear and unambiguous stories and feelings, then The Taste of Water is your book.

The poems in this book are largely selections from poems Ledwell publicly read during his time as Poet Laureate. Poems like “The Sweater,” “Jean Finding Things,” and “Lasagna, April ‘06” tell tales of what life is like on this little island. Family ties, communal dinners, and the comfort of Condon’s Woollen Mills’ sweaters are among the topics of Ledwell’s writing. These poems, as well as the rest of the 71 page collection, wrap themselves in the red soil of PEI. And, whether some think of this as a positive or a negative, the poems are written in a straight-forward way that anyone can enjoy.

This small, beautifully designed collection is a must have. It is the kind of book that every Islander should proudly display on their coffee table. This was Ledwell’s last book before his 2008 death. Acorn Press did a fantastic job designing this book – with the exception of a weird font that does something strange with lower-case t’s. The Taste of Water, combined with Jane Ledwell’s Last Tomato, and Patrick Ledwell’s I Am an Islander would make an excellent gift to anyone that wanted a taste of Island literature.

What Really Happened is This by Dianne Hicks Morrow

Winner of the 2012 PEI Book Award for Poetry

I was initially introduced to this book in my Contemporary PEI Literature course when we read a selection of five poems. What Really Happened is This is the award winning poetry memoir, and second collection of poems, by PEI writer Dianne Hicks Morrow. I was greatly intrigued by the idea of a poetry memoir and didn’t know what to expect. These poems were, for the most part, very sad; but, I do not mean that in a negative way. Instead, I mean that Morrow has opened herself up in an incredibly close and intimate way and is bearing her soul to the world during a very personal and traumatic part of life. Being a “memoir”, one cannot separate “poet” and “speaker” – the result was a heightened emotional connection with the writing.

The poems “Belonging” and “What Really Happened Is This” get to the core of what Morrow is trying to do. Both poems are very personal and easily to take to heart. “Belonging,” a look back at Morrow’s feeling of fitting in and the difficulties that that can entail in Prince Edward Island, is very reflective and introspective. She looks back the little things that helped shape her, contemplates being an “Islander,” reflecting on the minutiae of human existence.  And ultimately, as I’m sure happens with most people, trying to figure out where one “belongs” simply leaves more questions.

The title poem, “What Really Happened Is This,” is a longer multipart poem and it is by far the highpoint of Morrow’s collection. It is absolutely heart-wrenching and will leave you pondering long after you’ve finished the book. It juxtaposes two powerful images that most people with severely ill loved ones probably go through: the person that you grew up with and love and the person who is connected to machines, surrounded by doctors, and away from home praying that they can return to who they used to be.  The whole collection, but this poem in particular, really draws the line from personal tragedy to memory to reality and back again.

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with Mrs. Morrow and discuss her writing. She is very passionate about poetry and PEI writing. Her reading from this book really added a depth to the personal character of the poems. Every poem in this 73 page collection is a work of art – with the two I discussed above being the highlights. They physical book itself, published by PEI’s Acorn Press, is quite attractive and would look great on any bookshelf. What Really Happened is This is a quick, touching, accessible, and memorable read.

Changing on the Fly by George Bowering

Shortlisted for the 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize

A two-time winner of the Governor-General’s Award, and one of the few people to win in both the fiction and poetry categories, George Bowering was appointed Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate in 2002. One of Western Canada’s most recognized and praised poets since the early 60s, Bowering has produced an impressive library of books in a variety of genres. Changing on the Fly is a 2004 collection of his best lyric poems; there are selections taken from all of his volumes from 1964 to 2001. A selected poems collection is an important piece in the career of a high-profile poet. Often times individual volumes, even the award winning ones, go out of print fairly quickly, usually within five to ten years; selected poem collections, like a musician’s greatest hits album, are often what is looked to as an introduction to a poet’s work and stay in print much longer. This particular book examines one particular important piece of Bowering’s diverse work.

This book, for me anyway, can be divided into two halves: pre-1992 and post-1992. Poems in the “pre” category, especially those from the 60s and 70s were incredible. Lyric poetry is not usually my cup of tea, typically I prefer narrative poems. But Bowering’s early poems had a sharp wit and staccato style. As the book passes into the more the recent poems, they go from being a single page to upwards of 14 pages. I find when this author’s flavour of lyric gets to this length my attention wains and the message gets lost. In the earlier poems Bowering experiments with word usage, punctuation, rhythm, and the actual concrete form of the poem. One of his previous volumes from which a few poems are included is Curious; the selections from this 1973 book are poems addressed to other prominent Canadian poets, including bp Nicol, Daphne Marlatt, and James Reaney. This was one of the most interesting sections of the collection.

This was my first introduction to George Bowering’s writing and it certainly was an interesting one. This volume contains over 100 poems, many of which are very memorable. I’ve stated previously that reviewing a collection of poetry is very difficult; it becomes even more difficult when it is a selected poems book. Poetry, especially lyric poetry, can be difficult for someone who does not regularly read this genre, but I firmly believe that poetry can be just as accessible as any novel. You do not to get wrapped up in the metaphors, symbols, and overall message of a poem. Sometimes simply being swept away by the beautiful language and form is simply enough. Changing on the Fly was a nominee for the Griffin Poetry Prize, one of the richest poetry prizes in the world. Below is the jury’s citation of the book and Bowering reading a selection from the book.

Midnight Found You Dancing by John Smith

As PEI’s first Poet Laureate, John Smith, while not a household name, is a relatively well known figure on PEI. A former English professor at UPEI who was held in high regard, Smith has developed a reputation as an animated performer; his skill as a reader has perhaps overshadowed his skill as a poet. When I first moved to PEI to attend the university I was taking a Modern British Literature class with another Island poet Brent MacLaine who, due to being away at a conference, brought in Mr. Smith to fill in. I was floored by his passion and presence as he belted out the classic verse of Yeats and Hardy. It was not until a year later in 2002 when he was appointed Poet Laureate of the province that I found out he himself was a poet. Since then I have hunted down a few of his volumes with this being the first I have read.

Midnight Found You Dancing is John Smith’s fourth collection of poetry. It is a very short volume, only 44 pages of poetry, and the majority of those poems are sonnets, none passing the 20 line mark. Published in 1986, I found the style in this collection to be a throwback to the classic poets of the 50s and 60s (Layton and Purdy for example). The language is very high and formal and the subject matter is very abstract. One of the principal themes that I picked out as a I read through this was the idea of change; many of the poems gave me the impression of standing on a precipice whether it be physical, psychological, societal, or cultural. The poems seem to typically look towards the past, but to answer the question of how it will affect the future.

I have to be honest, the structure of the poems in book got in the way of the enjoyment of them for me. The poems can best be described as short but wide; as stated before, the poems are never over 20 lines but each line is almost to the end of the page. I found this caused the poems to be somewhat dense and made it difficult to pick out key points while casually reading it. Early in his education, John Smith studied math and physics; many of the metaphors in this volume are scientific and again, that can get in the way of the readers absorption of these pieces. All-in-all this is a decent collection. Midnight Found You Dancing is incredibly hard to find; I chanced upon it at a local used book store but browsing online used book sites I only found three copies, two in Canada and one in France. From the research I have done this is not one of his most well know collections and as I read more of his books I am sure my enjoyment and understanding of John Smith will be elevated to the levels of other Island poets.

That Night We Were Ravenous by John Steffler

Winner of the 1999 Atlantic Poetry Prize

That Night We Were Ravenous is the fourth book of poetry and follow-up to the immensely successful debut novel The Afterlife of George Cartwright by Canada’s third Parliamentary Poet Laureate John Steffler. Steffler is known for his incredible ability to capture a beautiful landscape down to its most minute detail and touch all five senses in just a few short lines. This collection is no different. We as readers are taken on a trip through both urban and rural Newfoundland, Southern Ontario, and Greece. John Steffler describes the outdoors with the same type of sharp eye A.Y. Jackson used to paint it.

Reviewing a collection of poems is an inherently difficult thing to do. Unlike looking at a novel or a play you have dozens of individual pieces to look at instead of one longer coherent piece. So in keeping with this thought I think the best thing to do is look at the overall themes of the book and the effect it would have on a reader. The title That Night We Were Ravenous instills a feeling of deep passion and excitement. That basically sums up the feeling you get from his collection whether it is something as simple as the edge of a forest in “Start of a Trail” or something as large as the Greek countryside in “On the Track of the Megalithic Burial Rings”. The first sequence in the book, “In a Makeshift Blind,” is hands down the most powerful and my favorite part of the book. This sequence takes us out on an outdoor tour of Newfoundland in all of its natural splendor much like in Steffler’s most famous work The Grey Islands. “Cedar Cove” and “Long Point” are great examples of the points I have made. Steffler’s verse simply can’t be matched by any other living Canadian poet when describing nature:

I walk that windy spit to its vanishing point

where opposing surfs merge

where Port au Port Bay and its sky and its weather

lose to the open gulf

and the slick whittled rock I stand on plunges

a titanic eel

The final poem of the book is the title poem “That Night We Were Ravenous”; this is one of the most beautiful poems I have ever read by a contemporary Canadian poet. A man is driving late at night from Stephenville on a fall evening; he looks up at the moon and starts to reflect on “her” beauty, her power, her innocence, and her effect on all who live below her. The poems final two lines are a fitting conclusion to the collection: “That night we slept deeper than ever/Our dreams bounded after her like excited hounds.”

Reading an extended collection of poetry is certainly not everyone’s first choice; but it can be extremely rewarding and very pleasurable. As a casual reader while you go through a 100 plus page collection you do not need to focus on deeply interpreting these pieces or in some cases even understanding their meaning. Often times just reading a poem and allowing the beautiful images to overtake your imagination is more than enough. John Steffler’s That Night We Were Ravenous is a great collection for even the most casual of poetry readers. It has the stunning imagery of an Al Purdy and the great narrative qualities of a Michael Ondaatje.

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