MARGARET AVISON.

Once again I must thank Mark Woods of wood s lot for introducing me to wonderful poetry, in this case that of Margaret Avison. If I were Canadian I would presumably have known her work long ago, but it’s all too true that things Canadian don’t get their due south of the border; I’m just glad I finally caught on. The first poem Mark quoted was “This Day,” short and unassuming but full of hidden pleasures; then he linked to Eight poems (from Jacket magazine, which I should read on a regular basis), and I was hooked. I read all eight, with increasing excitement and deep pleasure: here was a poet who used the past without imitating it, who felt deeply but let her feelings enrich her poems from within rather than pouring them over it like a sauce, who loved words so much she dared to use them in unfamiliar ways and even make them up, which might put a reader off if the context weren’t so convincing. But enough babbling from me; here’s “Christmas Approaches, Highway 401″:

Seed of snow
  on cement, ditch-rut, rink-steel, salted where
  grass straws thinly scrape against lowering
  daydark in the rise of the earth-crust there
  (and beyond, the scavenging birds
          flitter and skim)
is particle
  unto earth’s thirsting,
  spring rain,
  wellspring.
  Roadwork, earthwork, pits in hillsides,
  desolation, abandoned roadside shacks
  and dwelt in,
  unkilned pottery broken and strawed about,
  minibrick people-palaces,
  coming and going always
  by day all lump and ache
is sown tonight with the beauty
  of light and moving lights, light travelling, light
  shining from beyond farthestness.

Farthestness! But before I could even begin to balk, I heard the word repeated in my ear and realized it was shapely, with a nice Old English feel, and worked perfectly here. And note the way she uses the noun straw in the third line, and then slips in the much rarer verb (a variant of strew) in “unkilned pottery broken and strawed about.” I went on to “The Hid, Here”:

Big birds fly past the window
trailing strings or vines
out in the big blue.
Big trees become designs
of delicate floral tracery
in golden green.
The Milky Way
end over end like a football
lobs, towards that still
unreachable elsewhere
that is hid within bud and nest-stuff and bright air
where the big birds flew
past the now waiting window.


Listen to those rhymes, feel the subtle rhythms and the perfect flow of “that is hid within bud and nest-stuff and bright air” (and the way it makes sense of the initially opaque title): this is the kind of poetry that is not only attractive at first sight but carries within it the promise of further riches on each rereading. I was so smitten I immediately ordered the second and third volumes of Always Now, her collected poems, and I suspect I’ll wind up getting the first as well.
Oh, and I don’t want to finish without quoting that first little poem, “This Day“; Songdog, this one’s for you and James:

This morning was all
iced sunshine after a
grey and gusty week.
So blue a sky!
A two-year-old
walking with a patient
parent, on the shadow-
tracings of a winter tree, a young
tree and so graceful,
danced into its design
on the dazzling sidewalk.
His father
paused, curbing impatience with
stirrings of memory.

Comments

  1. These are wonderful – and they are, to my ear, poems as opposed to the prose arranged on the page that passes for so much of contemporary poetry. I had never heard of Avison before – thanks to you and to wood s lot!

  2. Thank you; that’s very nice. And so is the rhyme scheme of “The Hid, Here”. I like!

  3. Tatyana says:

    This is no “wave ave”, no siree.
    Thank you; could it be that I have selective ear to English verse?

  4. Hm. Okay, better than average, but it’s still just Wallace Stevens and Gerard Manley Hopkins, still just standard poetic ‘impressionism’. Why don’t poets these days have the guts to narrate, rather than just painting pictures? Haven’t we yet progressed beyond lights, trees, birds, ‘beauty’, ‘delicate’, ‘blue’?

  5. i like these poems because they have movement as well as sensuous imagery and thought. more narrative in contemporary poetry would be okay with me – after all, there are fashions in poetry as in everything else, and the thing about fashion is that while it draws attention in certain directions, it excludes much that might be of value. i say, let there be sound-pictures, let there be narrative…just let there be beautiful poetry!

  6. One of our greats. Thanks. Conrad, read deeper. You’ll thank us. G

  7. “It is only superficial people who do not judge by appearances, the mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible” — Oscar Wilde.
    One of our *greats*? Pleease.

  8. Thank you for this!
    These go well beyond painting pictures. That’s what I like about them.

  9. “farthestness” didn’t even cause me to pause when it was put in such an amazing poem!

  10. “Thanks!” to Mark Woods, and Wood_s_Lot…how many, many times I’ve thought that…
    and today it’s Margaret Avison, a day or two ago Ian H Finley, but repeatedly, Mark Woods finds excellent items, and presents them in a way that we too can have a sense of discovery with him.
    I think his is one of the best sites online, and it deserves all the accolades it, and he, receives.

  11. Conrad: the Stevens comparison I can take (as flattery though) but GM Hopkins, who wasn’t either standard or just-impressionistic — why? If we assume for a rather brief moment that Hopkins would write somewhat like Margaret Avison these days, his images would still remind us of the evanescence of beauty and, perhaps, of the way to retrieve it.

  12. Alexei: please don’t misunderstand me–I have no problem with Stevens or Hopkins. Both of those poets, however (and to be honest, I could have chosen many other names) have legitimated an approach to poetry which lets lesser minds get away with stuff like this. In other words, Stevens and Hopkins weren’t standard; but their innovations have become standard. Compare:
    on cement, ditch-rut, rink-steel, salted where
    grass straws thinly scrape against lowering
    daydark in the rise of the earth-crust there…
    to Hopkins:
    Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
    Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
    Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches…
    And so forth. Only H is wild and brilliant, and Aveson is pedestrian in comparison. More to the point, all this alliteration etc. means something for the Jesuit Hopkins–in Aveson it has been reduced to the mere accumulation of sensory experience; it’s a kind of “fill in the gaps” poetry, inviting the reader to see meaning where in fact there is just description. Hopkins had theory, theology, he based his work on gigantic notebooks filled with observations–but he used these notes to express meaningful experience. The “evanescence of beauty” just doesn’t cut it; as a notion it is uninteresting on its own. But Aveson isn’t even notional–all she can do is describe, or vapidly ‘evoke’ in a Virginia Woolf kind of way. It’s content-free writing.

  13. You seem determined to cut everything else down to suit your notion of the “truly great” (which is, of course, always located in the dead past). I’m sorry you can’t appreciate Avison, but it’s your loss.

  14. That’s really not a fair comment. Neither do I cut everything down, nor is the “truly great” necessarily located in the past. For what it’s worth, I think MA is much better than the shit I read in the New Yorker (the poetry, I mean). I would have thought that you might welcome a dissenting opinion, rather than yet another ‘Bravo!’. God knows, I wish more people took the trouble to disagree (or engage at all) with what I write on my own site. No hard feelings, I hope.

  15. Conrad: on Hopkins, I agree completely. On whether one can write good poetry by rendering short spans of questionable beauty using prefabricated poetic devices (though I do not agree that Avison’s were of that sort), I’m yet to meditate.

  16. Conrad: Fair enough, and I do welcome dissenting opinion — but your response seemed more reflexive dismissal than thoughtful criticism, and I got the (apparently unfounded) impression that you don’t like contemporary poetry in general. I certainly agree with you about the New Yorker.

  17. Hat: at the risk of drawing this out beyond its sell-by date… it is not an entirely unfounded impression that I dislike contemporary poetry in general. To be perfectly honest, I dislike poetry in general, with some exceptions. In purely empirical terms, I don’t read much current work that appeals to me–but I don’t dislike it because it’s current. In fact, I generally have to write the kind of poetry I want to read. If any of your readers are curious, then here’s an example:
    http://vunex.blogspot.com/2006/03/threatened-assassin.html
    I realise that my tastes are in a minority; the closest comparison I can think of is Paul Muldoon. Anyway, keep up the good work.

  18. Ah, thanks, that’s very enlightening and gives me a better idea of where you’re coming from. (And Paul Muldoon is certainly a fine poet.)

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