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August Kleinzahler – 2005 Awards

August Kleinzahler, 2004 International Griffin Poetry Prize Winner, Opens the 2005 Awards Ceremony

It’s a pleasure to be here with you this evening. I congratulate all of you who have been shortlisted for the Griffin awards. A number of you will awaken tomorrow morning with what my mother calls “a big head,” by which she doesn’t mean the sort of vainglory endemic to those of us who practice this curious vocation but, rather, a good, old-fashioned hangover. Drink deep tonight, you’ve bloody well earned it. Those of you who don’t win can find solace in the knowledge that you’ve been paid far more attention to the past couple of days than you’ve probably been paid before and that the judges are pusillanimous, blinkered, compromised gits, so what did you expect. The international winner will stagger to the door of his hotel room, open it and flip anxiously through the financial pages of the Globe & Mail in order to ascertain the health of the Canadian dollar. The Canadian winner will neither gloat nor hoot nor carry on, but accepts his or her bounty with the dignity and restraint we all associate with the Canadian character. I can personally testify that both winners will, in a year’s time, be feeling a bit like that fairytale character the late Jimmy Rushing of Count Basie’s band called “Cindy Rella,” back where she came from, sweeping up cinders in front of her miserable sisters.

Months from now you all will receive in the mail a package containing the enormous banner bearing your name and image. You will find yourselves puzzled as to what exactly you’re expected to do with it. I suggested to my significant other that she wrap it around herself sari-style and wear it on our evenings out, as a sort of tribute to my genius and achievements. She told me to go … well, I won’t tell you what she told me. It reflects poorly, I think, on her upbringing.

I suppose you want me to say something cheery about poetry. I recall my friend, the English poet Christopher Logue, who was shortlisted for the Griffin prize a few years back, telling me about a visit he made to Prague not long ago, to one of those international culture fairs they’re so keen on in the former Soviet bloc. At any rate, Christopher, who’s now advanced in years, spotted another Anglophone old-timer, an American, and the two men discovered an immediate bond which had to do with the rotten food on hand and where they might elsewhere go to address that problem. The Czechs, you see, like the Hungarians, are very fond of lard. So the two repaired to what looked to be a tolerable beanery, sat down to dine and introduced themselves to one another. As it turns out the American was Elmore Leonard, the famous crime writer. Logue was suitably impressed and introduced himself. Quite reasonably, Leonard had never heard of him. “What do you do?” the author of Get Shorty and Jackie Brown inquired. “I’m a poet,” Logue replied. Elmore Leonard looked at Logue intently for a few moments, then said in a genuinely earnest, heartfelt tone of voice: “You know, the first thing that comes into my head every morning when I wake up is ‘Thank effing Christ I’m not a poet.’”

What did Elmore Leonard mean by this remark? Glory and riches notwithstanding, where was the celebrated chronicler of poor behavior, usually taking place down the road apiece in Detroit, coming from, as it were? Of course, I can only speculate.

It is a far more difficult and worthy job to write one 21-line poem about a June twilight in Toronto than 42 novels, many of them large successes, some having been made into movies, about low characters behaving badly and being chased by those only somewhat less badly behaved. That is, if the poem about the June twilight is carried off so well as to be almost unforgettable and remain so for a good long time. How often is this sort of poem carried off? Rarely. How rarely? A few times a decade in any given language, perhaps a score of times a generation. It is what all poets aspire to: all writers, in truth, as novelists, even James Joyce, usually begin as poets and fall short. Poetry is the most difficult and demanding of the literary arts. It is also the oldest and most enduring, and despite rumors to the contrary, is not about to go away anytime soon. There is something about poetry that deeply inheres in human nature, like song and impassioned speech, and this need we have of tying language to experience, capturing as much as we can of it, getting it right and giving it a shape and a tune to carry it in the air. Long after the art novel, as we know it, is gone, we shall have poetry. Or at least as long as the ardent lover tells the beloved, “Darling, I love you, I love you desperately. I want to be with you.” And the beloved responds coyly, ‘Yeah, and …”

And who will read this 21-line poem about a sunset in Toronto? 50 people? 200? Perhaps a battalion of sophomores after the poet is long dead, 98% of whom will experience nothing at all of the magic of the poem, only mild irritation at having to expend the effort in reading and trying to understand it, or understanding it so far as having something sensible to say about it come exam time?

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A 21-line poem about a June twilight in Toronto. Who, where, is the audience for such a quiet, delicately made things such as a 21-line poem about a summer twilight in Toronto?

I have a very personal, very particular notion of the ideal reader of poetry, my ideal reader. It is, in fact, a composite of readers I know or have known. It is not another poet, probably not another writer, though it could very well be a painter or musician or photographer. It is not a teacher of literature, though it might be a teacher of medicine or economics, say. It is someone of catholic reading tastes and broad knowledge: a serious reader, serious about the pleasure of reading.

The nature of this pleasure involves a degree of difficulty and resistance. This pleasure is not to be confused with diversion, even the cultivated diversion provided by authors like Elmore Leonard. My ideal reader has read widely enough, actively read, and with a certain degree of attention, that upon encountering a patch of dead syntax, tortured diction, bluff gesture, rote strategy, the ingratiating stylistic doffing of the hat or mechanical development and resolution the lights come on and the show is over. After all, it is 2005 and my reader doesn’t have a great deal of time – for time has vanished with inflated rents and the blitzkrieg of what’s cheerfully called information, information to be attended to, and I’m talking right now. The oriental notion of idleness as a civilized activity, or period of time without focused activity, that arena of floating consciousness in which poems are usually conceived or poems are picked up at random and read with unexpected pleasure – these sorts of sessions of empty or unplanned time are regarded as undesirable, perhaps worrisome, even dangerous, in so far that they may be the precursor of a pathological condition. So my reader demands action, complexity and intensity from reading, be it history, fiction, journalism or sci-fi. And the ideal reader of whom I speak demands the most and gets the most from poetry because poetry is the most distilled, complex and satisfying among all forms of writing, at least for the serious, cultivated reader, my ideal reader.

My reader is immune to fashion or the Academy’s popular wisdom with regard to poetry it values as “important.” He is an outsider, but trained, through instruction and experience, to identify what it is a given writer is up to and how well he succeeds, or doesn’t, in bringing it off. This reader is an aficionado with a built-in, solid-state crap detector. I regret to say that this reader is not crazy about much of the poetry that I write, and we tend to disagree on a wide variety of subjects. I further regret, however often we disagree, that this sort of reader is on the verge of extinction. This is not the sort of wistful regret for the good old days; this is a regret with a sinking heart, edging toward despair. Because when this reader goes, poetry as a vigorous branch of the arts, goes too.

In fact, my ideal reader is a taxi driver in Karachi. You can imagine what driving a cab is like in Karachi with its 15 million people, where traffic lights, car lanes and the notion of right of way serve only as pretexts for frantically conceived and hair-raisingly executed improvisation. But my taxi driver – we’ll call him Khalid – enjoys the kind of freedom such a job can afford. He enjoys meeting different sorts of people, of driving when he likes. He usually drives in the evening, when the streets have quieted down and the breeze off the Arabian Sea has cleared away most of the humidity and pollution. And he’s good at his job, Khalid. He’ll get you where you’re going, and directly. No mucking about to pad the fare.

He loves English-language poetry, my driver. Actually, English is his third language, after Bengali and Urdu. But his maternal grandmother was an English-speaker and read to him in English as a child. Khalid studied English literature at school and had an inspirational professor at one point, one who was responsible for igniting his interest in contemporary poetry. It is an interest he has cultivated over the 20 years since he left university. Khalid subscribes to or reads online at the university library a variety of literary journals in English. His enthusiasms are eclectic and unpredictable, but genuine and intense. His in-laws regards this “hobby” of his as odd, and to a certain extent so does his wife, who found it really quite charming while they were courting but who has come to mildly resent this fascination of his which occupies so much of his time and also the amount of money he spends on these useless books.

Khalid’s library of contemporary poetry is a curious mix. It includes the Scottish poet George MacKay Brown’s Fishermen with Ploughs, a 1964 pamphlet by Ed Dorn entitled Hands Up!, and which was rather pricey. He’s got on hand a translation by Charles Simic of a Serb poet he very much likes named Alexsander Ristovic. Khalid’s favorite Irish poet isn’t Seamus Heaney or Michael Longley but a librarian from Cork named Thomas McCarthy. Go figure. The book of McCarthy’s he’s got at home is Mr Dineen’s Careful Parade. Khalid has a well-thumbed copy of James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break, and an equally well-thumbed edition of Jean Follain’s poems translated by W.S. Merwin. He has a copy of the poems of Gael Turnbull, an Anglo-American-Scottish poet, who for some reason, is published by Porcupine’s Quill press in Erin, Ontario and includes a sequence about country doctoring in northern Ontario, where the physician poet lived for a time. Khalid has an old New Directions copy of Charles Reznikoff’s By the Waters of Manhattan and he follows the work of an Australian poet named Laurie Duggan. He especially likes Duggan’s versions of Martial’s epigrams and his translations of the Italian Futurist poet Soffici, especially the line:

a decade shrinking like a worm in phosphorus

oh, and there’s another line he likes:

buses scatter for the suburbs like magnetized filings

Khalid likes to read during the breaks he takes in his evening shift. There’s a pavement cafe near the river where he’ll sit drinking tea and reading whatever book of poems or journal he’s got with him that night. He looks forward all day to these windows of time where he can indulge his “hobby.” It’s quiet at the cafe in the later evening.

Tonight he has a favorite volume with him. It is a first edition of a book entitled The Dumbfounding by Margaret Avison, published by Norton Press in New York City in 1966. What an old book. It wasn’t that expensive online, even for the hardback, but they really socked it to him with the postage and handling.

There’s a favorite poem of his in the book. He’s read it so many times he nearly has it by heart. It’s called Twilight:

Three minutes ago is was almost dark.
Now all the darkness is in the
leaves (there are no more
low garage roofs, etc.)

But the sky itself has become mauve.
Yet it is raining.
The trees rustle and tap with rain.
… Yet the sun is gone.
It would even be gone from the mountaintops
if there were mountains.

In cities this mauve sky
may be of man.

The taps listen, in the unlighted bathroom.

Perfume of light.

It is gone. It is all over:
until the hills close to behind
the ultimate straggler, it will

be so again.

The insect of thought retracts its claws;
it wilts.

Why, Khalid wonders, should the sensations of a spring or summer twilight in Toronto, Canada affect him in such a way? It really is an astonishing thing, the spell a poem can weave, and in only 21 lines. Quite remarkable. If I ever make it to Toronto, Canada, I would like: 1) To experience a warm twilit evening to see if Ms. Avison got it right; and 2) if she is still alive when I get there, I should like to thank Ms. Margaret Avison personally for the joy her poems have brought to me.

Which reminds me of a remark, attributed, if memory serves, to Margaret Atwood. It goes something like: “Wanting to meet the author of a book you particularly enjoyed is like enjoying an especially yummy plate of foie gras and wanting to meet the duck.”

Quite so, and a drollery that would not go unappreciated by my man Khalid, who, not only as an ideal reader of poetry in 2005 but as a taxi driver in Karachi, requires and, indeed, possesses an excellent sense of humor.

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