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Essay

On Peter Van Toorn's "Mountain Leaf"

Peter Van Toorn is one of Canada’s most inventive and irreverent poets. The sonnet is one of the oldest and most venerable of poetry’s set forms, dating back to fourteenth century Italy. Put the two together and you get a unique sort of magic—and a poem that defies just about anyone’s idea of what should “work” in poetry.
At a time when most writers aspiring to compose poetry were scorning the sonnet as a fusty relic of antiquity and British colonialism (Mountain Tea was first published in 1984), Peter Van Toorn was playfully toiling to make the form new. In “Mountain Leaf” Van Toorn, far from finding the form constricting, seems to regard the strictures of a straightforward Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet as too easy. The stereotype of formal verse is that it involves conservative, conformist rule-following. Van Toorn, who is also a jazz musician and understands that genuine improvisation is impossible without strict discipline, will have none of that. Instead, he invents for himself a fresh batch of constraints against which to pit his free-wheeling imagination.

Peter Van Toorn is one of Canada’s most inventive and irreverent poets. The sonnet is one of the oldest and most venerable of poetry’s set forms, dating back to fourteenth century Italy. Put the two together and you get a unique sort of magic–and a poem that defies just about anyone’s idea of what should “work” in poetry.
At a time when most writers aspiring to compose poetry were scorning the sonnet as a fusty relic of antiquity and British colonialism ([_Mountain Tea_] was first published in 1984), Peter Van Toorn was playfully toiling to make the form new. In “Mountain Leaf” Van Toorn, far from finding the form constricting, seems to regard the strictures of a straightforward Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet as too easy. The stereotype of formal verse is that it involves conservative, conformist rule-following. Van Toorn, who is also a jazz musician and understands that genuine improvisation is impossible without strict discipline, will have none of that. Instead, he invents for himself a fresh batch of constraints against which to pit his free-wheeling imagination.


Peter Van Toorn is one of Canada’s most inventive and irreverent poets. The sonnet is one of the oldest and most venerable of poetry’s set forms, dating back to fourteenth century Italy. Put the two together and you get a unique sort of magic–and a poem that defies just about anyone’s idea of what should “work” in poetry.
At a time when most writers aspiring to compose poetry were scorning the sonnet as a fusty relic of antiquity and British colonialism ([_Mountain Tea_] was first published in 1984), Peter Van Toorn was playfully toiling to make the form new. In “Mountain Leaf” Van Toorn, far from finding the form constricting, seems to regard the strictures of a straightforward Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet as too easy. The stereotype of formal verse is that it involves conservative, conformist rule-following. Van Toorn, who is also a jazz musician and understands that genuine improvisation is impossible without strict discipline, will have none of that. Instead, he invents for himself a fresh batch of constraints against which to pit his free-wheeling imagination.
The diction here is Frostian in the extreme: the sonnet’s 140 syllables are deployed in 123 words, only fifteen of which have more than one syllable (counting “tongue-tied” as a single word). It’s the intricate patterns of repetition Van Toorn builds out of this sparse language that make this poem a dizzying bit of craftsmanship. Most obviously, this repetition takes the form of identically rhymed couplets, an unusual gambit to see employed once in a poem, never mind seven consecutive times. This alone goes against all conventional workshop wisdom. But that’s not all. Of the 123 total words Van Toorn uses, only twenty-three occur uniquely; the other one hundred are repetitions of thirty-two other words. Whole phrases (“a bird pushes”; “red roof”) get recycled; and just look at the enjambments in lines three through six: “the more/it pushes”; “all curled up/in a cone.”
Interesting also to note the way in which the poem unfurls. In the first six lines, we find only two of the uniquely occurring words, whereas twenty-one appear in the following eight lines, giving the sense of movement out of neurotic repetition into more confidently purposeful–if still without obvious practical reason–activity, beyond obsessive compulsiveness (which must be the starting point for most artists) into the realm of art. Chief among the repetitions of single words is “push,” which makes seven appearances; also notable is eight instances of words ending in “ound” (sound, round, ground). In a poem so intentionally and tightly structured (Van Toorn’s essay, “[“A Goose in the Caboose”:http://www.poetics.ca/poetics03/03pvt.html]” elucidates his theories of rhyme in the sonnet), it can hardly be accidental that these specific re-iterations stand out: Van Toorn is pushing the limits of sense and sound, just as the bird is pushing the leaf across the roof, and likewise just for the sheer perverse pleasure of the labour. Why shift a leaf about a roof? Why write intricate little poems? Because you can, of course! Or because you must. The end result, for both bird and poet, is a “stiff, crisp, bronze push.”