Monthly Archives: November 2007

Notes on Crown and Ribs: The “Odyssey” Poems

Monday, 26 November, 2007

There are five poems in Crown and Ribs in the voices of characters from The Odyssey of Homer. Each of one is introduced with an epigraph from Richmond Lattimore’s translation.

At a reading in Toronto in 2003, the poet who acted as mc approached me after to ask why I had written such poems; “That’s my subject matter,” she said! The inclusion of these pieces owes something to their success: my first publications in several Canadian journals included “Odyssey” poems. Successive waves of editing the book resulted in a culling of other allusions (a set of re-writings of scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, a poem referencing Norse mythology), partly on the idea that there was only room in the emerging pattern for one such strand.

I can explain why I wrote such poems, which is what I’ll do below. Explaining exactly why they’re in the book is more difficult. On the one hand, their presence is indicative of Crown and Ribs as a debut collection—a book shaped by what’s found favour with others so far. On the other hand, these poems can be a point of entry into considering the cohesiveness of the finished work, both in terms of its structure and its themes. This is a topic for another entry; for now, the genesis of the “Odyssey” poems.

On January 1st, 2001, I finished reading the Odyssey aloud. I had the days between Christmas and New Year’s off from work and this provided the time for the final push; I’d begun a few months earlier in the fall. I believe that writing suffers without reading. The temptation to seek productivity can lead to sacrificing reading for more writing time, but I find that it’s only when I am enjoying reading that I’m truly productive. For me, I associate school with this temptation to productivity: an obedient student, I was dominated by the imperative to fulfill assignments by deadlines.

In 2000, I started reading Melville and, after being impressed by his “Tales of the Fifties”, attempted Moby Dick. I felt a joy in reading the novel that made me think of favorite reading experiences of high school: Don Quixote, Kafka’s stories and novels, Borges’ stories. I recognized that this association was parallel to the goal I had in my creative work to recover the pleasure and ease I associated with the writing I did pre-university, writing I did entirely outside the context of any forum or encouragement at school (with the exception of a couple of pieces printed in the Blue Herald student newspaper that was relaunched during my final year at St. Michael’s College School).

At one point in my childhood, my father posted a list of books to read on my wall. My memory is that I read few or none, and that I acted sullen about the list. To the extent that I remember the list, I regret now that I missed out on the childhood fun of the pre-TV world, not reading the Arabian Nights or the legends of King Arthur, for example. The Odyssey was one book on the list. I remember insisting on buying a short, prose version of Odysseus’ adventures once at a bookstore, on the idea that I could read that. But I didn’t.

I did, however, know Odysseus’ stories quite well, largely through Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes, which was a favorite book of mine around grades one and two. And Odysseus was my favorite character. I liked that he was the cleverest of heroes, the one who thought up the Trojan Horse. I associate my love of Green’s book especially with a trip I made with my mother to England and France the summer before grade two. She needed to do some research for her dissertation and I got to go along; Tales of the Greek Heroes was the book I remember us reading. I was extremely excited by Turner’s painting “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus”, a beautifully childlike enthusiasm, such as a boy feels for his own drawings, which are only magically referential in conjunction with the explanations he provides, considering that Turner’s painting features the tiniest dot Ulysses on an impressionistic blob of a trireme, and it takes a lot to pick out Polyphemus in the golden clouds. Back then the National Gallery had few postcards and none of “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus”, a source of some confusion to me at the time: why wouldn’t there be a postcard of any painting that was my favorite? There still aren’t postcards of all my favorite paintings, but I did find one of this Turner on a later trip.

In high school, Classics were among my favorite subjects. My school required one year of Latin, and offered four. I took the four and along with some other interested students, took up our teacher, Mrs. Sheila Morra, on her kind offer to come in early for courses in Classical Greek, which we did for three years. I enjoyed that the Odyssey was one of our primary texts.

When in graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, I was very taken with the city’s used bookstores. I had bought cheap editions of Lattimore’s Iliad and Odyssey in ’96 or ’97 on the Capitol square but had never looked at them. Finally in 2001, inspired by the thrill of Moby Dick and determined to read books great and long, I thought it was time to go back to my father’s list and read the Odyssey.

Then it occurred to me that I should read it aloud. I don’t know exactly why. It may have been on the idea that poetry should be heard. Or that I felt inexperienced in reading poetry and thought that I’d understand it more easily if I heard it, the way I’d always found Shakespeare easier to understand when performed. And so I started to shut myself in my little office in the basement of our apartment and read the Odyssey aloud.

There was another element of reading the Odyssey that is significant in the context of the poems in Crown and Ribs. Going back to high school, I’d been taking notes on my personal reading. I worried that taking notes, especially copying passages of interest, would create a lot of drag on reading the Odyssey, especially since attempting to read it aloud would create and require some forward momentum. A solution came out of an interview I read with a writer. I don’t see any indication that I recorded the details; for some reason I think the writer was Louis Simpson. In any case, the writer said in answer to a question about note taking that he loves to hold on to passages but hates marking up his books, finding marginal notes and underlining intolerable distractions when re-reading a favorite text. What he does is make a very faint pencil dot—he described the mark as almost indistinguishable from a fleck in the paper—beside each line that he might want to return to. I adopted this practice while reading the Odyssey. The epigraphs for the five “Odyssey” poems in Crown and Ribs all come from passages I marked in this way while reading the epic aloud.

It was also on January 1st, 2001 that I began writing poetry. A personal myth! I had written verse before in a couple of contexts—school contests, a university poetry writing course. Going back to high school, I had read much of the classics of “prose poetry” and almost all of what I wrote from that point up to 2001, oscillated between fiction and experimental writing—often influenced at least as much by knowledge of spoken word performers and conceptual artists as by any poetry I’d read.

I started labeling the notebooks in which I do most of my writing “Daily Work” in May of 1997, after finishing my one year of grad coursework at UW-Madison in the Fine Art Department. My goal was to write every day and that’s what I did, whether I was copying psalms or creating automatic texts that impressed readers as surreal speculative fiction—I was using lines lifted from books on UFOs as prompts! As 2000 ended, I was looking for a new direction in my writing. I had spent a couple of years working on the products of my automatic writing, experiencing firsthand the problem of editing—or not editing—such work. This process culminated in the publication of a chapbook with Junction Books and the publication of some prose poems in an issue of Blood and Aphorisms and Paul Vermeersch’s anthology, The I.V. Lounge Reader (Insomniac Press, 2001).

I think the most direct catalyst for the project I set myself in 2001, the project which started my writing poetry, was one of David Ball’s notes in Darkness Moves (Univeristy of California Press, 1997), his selection of Henri Michaux’s writing: “This slim volume of poetry, and here, for once, the poems meet the simplest definition for poetry, as none have justified right margins…” (from the introduction to Moments: Crossing of Time, page 231). I decided that for the fifty-two weeks of 2001, I would write the same number of lines for each day: in other words, I would write four line pieces for seven days, then thirty-five line pieces for seven days, and so on, choosing the number of lines for a week randomly. And I decided that I would experiment with what a “line” means as I hadn’t before.

From Monday, January 1st, 2001:

If the world should stop spinning
the cat asleep in the clothes basket
the strict immigration laws of certain island nations
would set fire to the socks we have pierced with unkempt toenails

That first week of the year I wrote a four line poem each day.

It wasn’t long though before the project suggested more and more possibilities that pointed me toward studying poetry: a week of sonnets; a week of epigrams—who was Martial?; a week of 24 line pieces could see six quatrains written one day and eight tercets the next. As I went along, I also began to think about style and content. Would I continue to work in a vaguely surrealist, automatic idiom? Would I continue to work without direct reference to subject matter?

The first break came in March, in the eleventh week of the year. I was aware of the popularity of the glosa among contemporary Canadian poets. I had the idea of trying to write seven glosas, using lines from the poems of Chilean surrealist Ludwig Zeller, who lived in Toronto for many years and is a family friend I remember going back to childhood. While the texts written that week weren’t very different stylistically from what I had done up to that point, the underlying ideas—trying a form, referring to another author’s poetry—were.

Then a couple of weeks later, in the fifteenth week of the year, during April, each day I chose one of the passages I’d marked while reading the Odyssey as a jumping off point and wrote a poem in the voice of that character. (“Athene” and “Eurymachos” were never accepted for journal publication and are not included in Crown and Ribs.) As I remember, I simply hit upon this idea because I was casting about for different ways to mix up my writing experiment.

In retrospect, it’s interesting to me to see how the earliest poems to find their way into the finished book also represent the very beginning of my writing verse poems on a consistent basis that would strike readers as “traditional”—the poems are dramatic monologues, they refer to a canonical text, they appear to have themes that could be discussed in a conventional way. It’s also interesting that these poems underwent relatively little change in terms of content between when they were written and their final form in Crown and Ribs, almost six years later. Most passages match the first drafts word for word, but many changes were made in the division of the texts into lines and stanzas.

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