My bionote in an issue of Grain magazine dating back to 1979 said my goal was to write in every poetic form, “sonnet, sestina, serial poem” and also the ones that don’t start with s. Four decades later, while I like to think I’m still in mid-career, I see that I have at least tried my hand at nearly every form categorized in the extra-fine new second edition of the anthology In Fine Form, edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve. Their selection, from two hundred years of Canadian poetry, covers the landscape encyclopedia style: Ballad; Blues; Epigram; Found Poems; Fugue and Madrigal; Ghazal; Glosa; Haiku and Other Japanese Forms; Incantation; Lipogram; Palindrome; Pantoum; Pas de Deux; Prose Poem; Rondeau Family; Sestina; Sonnet; Spoken Word; Stanzas; Villanelle; each gets a chapter … And More. The editors take troubles to introduce the forms, many of them ancient, and review how they’ve developed under the pens and keyboards of today’s poets. Examples follow, ordered not chronologically but according to how closely the poet has followed the models, progressing toward more and more experimental interpretations.
It’s a bit alarming how comfortably my roundeau (or roundel?) from “Three Small Rooms” sits beside John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” “We are the Dead,” he declares, and the only thing missing is my date of death. Given the elephant in my “Small Room” though, it could come directly from Kipling. I wrote the piece, with others, as an exercise upon finding Lewis Turco’s Book of Forms twenty years ago. Like many of the poets in the anthology, I don’t think of myself primarily as a “formal” poet. Often, we aren’t represented in the anthology by our most characteristic work. But there are fine discoveries here, including the fact that poets, while blazing trails through the thicket of language, aren’t burning bridges. There’s a deep heritage of poetry, a renewable resource for a poet to draw on, and look, it’s still possible.
Looking back to 1979 and beyond, I realize that, yes, form has always been at least as important in my poetry as metaphor (not that I’d tear the wings off that fly). Poetry is ordered speech, ordered language. What it says matters. The way it’s said – its form – is poetry.
Some of my writing can be found in recent anthologies, along with that of many other poets. I Found It at the Movies, edited by Ruth Roach Pierson and published by Guernica Editions, includes Margaret Atwood writing about “Werewolf Movies,” Karen Solie’s “Love Poem for a Private Dick,” and Sharon Olds on “The Death of Marilyn Monroe.” as well as more high-brow fare like A. F. Moritz on a “Film in an Unknown Tongue” and Phil Hall’s homage to avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage. My piece is a small love story called “Hiroshima. Mon Amour.”
Where the Nights Are Twice as Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets is an unusual collection that includes not only love poems but the actual letters written by, for example, a lovesick Robert Service, an angry Irving Layton, and an aging Earle Birney. My letters, written when I was 23, show an immature young fellow intent on becoming a poet. A unique feature of this anthology from Goose Lane Editions, edited by David Eso and Jeanette Lynes, is that they are arranged by the age of the writer. So on page 27 you can read 19-year-old Gwendolyn MacEwan’s responses to the advances of 42-year-old Milton Acorn, whose letter is on page 202. You can skip around, of course, but if you read straight through, you can feel the arc of a life, but the hot and bothered 20’s, through the disillusioned 40’s to the peace and reconciliation of old age.