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Don Mckay – 2009 Reykjavik

Why Poetry?
Don McKay, 2007 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize Winner, Speaks at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival

The Griffin Poetry Prize programThe Reykjavik International Literary Festival
Nordic House, Reykjavik, Iceland
September 12, 2009
Photo credit: Tom Sandler

A visit to Iceland is an important occasion for me, since I have been for some time absorbed in geology and geological processes. Rocks and thoughts about rocks, as well as fieldwork connected with this, formed the basis of my latest books. When I was kid, I spent much time camping on the Precambrian Shield in Northern Ontario and Quebec – what you might call an all-Canadian boyhood. We paddled across lakes and along rivers which are shaped and contained by the oldest rock of the planet, scraped bare by the glaciers of the last ice ages. Unfortunately, we were not very attentive, being more absorbed in adventure and our own achievements than we were in the amazing natural world we paddled through. Things had to be large and mobile to get our attention – rapids, bears, moose. Of course, once my interest in natural history took hold, I wished I could have those summers back so I could retrace those canoe trips slowly, with field guides in hand, and lots of time to pause in astonishment at plants, trees, and the ancient granites themselves, bearing so eloquently the shapes of the glaciers which seem to have left yesterday.

When I think back, it seems that part of our mindset, as we bashed our way through the bush, were assumptions that the Earth is static and stable and, moreover, that it was at our disposal as human beings. Now we realize all those assumptions were false, and symptoms of our self-centredness as a species. It might be said, in our defense, that this was before plate tectonics was accepted as a theory (I know – this dates me) so most people also believed in a relatively stable planet Earth. Well, a visit to Iceland – even a brief one – should serve to convince anyone of the dynamism of the Earth. And while I might flatter myself that I no longer need to learn this, it will not hurt to have it demonstrated so dramatically. It will serve to remind me that no other planet – that we know of – has plate tectonics with the creative and destructive power of the Earth’s rock cycle. And that, as James Lovelock realized early on, such dynamism is probably essential if a planet is to produce and sustain life. Of course I could go to the moon and look back on the Earth to provoke this sense of Gaia, but it is much cheaper and more convenient to come to Iceland instead. You might point out to me that it would be even cheaper to stay home and simply re-read James Lovelock’s books, or look at images online. But that would be far less exciting and inspiring, and without the opportunity to taste the vibrant, ancient and contemporary culture of Iceland firsthand. Consequently, I want to thank the organizers of this festival and this event for making this important experience possible – Stella Jóhannesdóttir, Hjalti Ægisson, and Ruth Smith, as well as Scott and Krystyne Griffin. Also, I’d like to thank my translator Magnus Sigurðsson, who has my gratitude, and sympathy.

The chance to visit Iceland relates directly to the question I’ve been asked to address in this short talk: “Why poetry?” It would take many volumes to respond adequately to this question. These volumes would include a discussion of how poetry has transmitted the entire cosmology of peoples and cultures, as in the epics of Homer, the Norse eddas, or Dante’s Divine Comedy. They might also include an account of how it can recreate and retrieve those cultures as, often, in the work of Robert Bringhurst. They would include poetry as the vehicle of love, as in Sappho, Petrarch, Leonard Cohen, Pablo Neruda, and sometimes Michael Ondaatje. It would include at least one volume devoted to the poetry of human dignity and outrage at its abuses, what Carolyn Forché has called “the poetry of witness”, as in the work of Paul Celan or Dionne Brand, and Carolyn’s own work.

But for me personally, the question “Why poetry?” has most bite when I think of it in connection with the natural world, so I’ll focus on that. Before I became an incompetent student of geology, I was an incompetent student of birds, back in the seventies. I recall especially the experience that first got me hooked, at a place called Hawk Cliff on the shore of Lake Erie in Southern Ontario. It’s a place where hawks, migrating south for the winter, are caught and banded. The image, or icon, that is fixed in my memory is of one of the bird-banders standing in the back of a pickup truck with a small frozen-orange-juice can upside down in his hand. He whipped off the can, like this, and there was a kestrel. (I learned later that these small cans were just the right size to hold the kestrels, or sharp-shinned hawks, compressed and quiescent, as opposed to a cage, in which they would likely thrash about and damage their feathers.) Anyway, once the orange juice can was removed, the kestrel stared right through us – an atom of fierceness in the midst of all us binoculared birdwatchers. It was partly the suddenness of the montage: ordinary orange juice can then wild kestrel – Hopkins’ windhover itself – incarnated on the back of a pickup truck. Why poetry? Because I wanted language to do that, to contrive the moment of astonishment when the orange juice can is transformed into a kestrel.

The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski has put this succinctly: “Poetry allows us to experience astonishment and to pause in that astonishment for a long moment or two.” Those are the pauses I wish I could insert, retroactively, in those canoe trips of my youth. I think such astonishment is important as an antidote, or counter-tendency, to language’s great capacity for organizing, manipulating, and naming the world. Poetry – any poetry – is always political and subversive because it uses language, our foremost technological tool, against its powers of mastery and control. In poetry, language discovers its eros. In poetry, language is always a singer as well as a thinker, a lover as well as an engineer. Language delights in its own being as though it were an otter or a raven and not just the vice president in charge of making sense.

The Icelandic poet Hannes Petursson writes of the May night, when

The streets become silent, stop
thinking aloud – and stare
with yellow lamp eyes.

The houses close around themselves
full of talk and kisses.

In the background mountains
with burning skies on their shoulders

In the condition of astonishment, we see familiar objects and landscapes afresh, with the veil of habit removed: the streets stare like animals with yellow eyes; the sunset is the sky on fire carried on the shoulders of mountains. It is amazing to me that the same tool which distances us from the world while it organizes and controls it, is also the instrument which has this capacity to work astonishment, to suspend its own mechanisms of logic and return the world to us with its energy restored and maybe even increased. As Charles Simic has said: “A thousand naked fornicating couples with their moans and contortions are nothing compared to a good metaphor.” This is bad news for the pornography industry, but excellent news for us as poets and lovers of poetry.

So – to sum up my response to the question, “Why poetry?”

  • because it increases the level of astonishment and counteracts the bad side effects of linguistic mastery;
  • because it gets the kestrel out of the orange juice can;
  • because it enables us to see the streets with yellow lamp eyes and the mountains with burning skies on their shoulders;
  • and because it is the eros of language.

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