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Aislinn Hunter on Jan Zwicky’s "Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115"

(How Poems Work, July 2004)
Jan Zwicky’s beautiful “Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115” is constructed as a series of propositions. Each stanza begins with a gentle precept: “That we shall not forget…”, “And, though…”, “That the mind’s light…” and “That a letter…”. Taken as whole, the repetition of propositions becomes entreaty, and entreaty underpins that which I think is the thematic and tonal thrust of this poem: a call for optimism and beauty in the face of a wider reality.
What I love most about this poem is that it talks about ideals (honour, truth, grace, honesty and love) through an allusion to classical music, a medium (certainly in Brahms’ case) where we can easily imagine those qualities residing. And artfully, the qualities above exist in the poem without being listed as a set of nouns, rather they are presented in other contexts: as a verb (“to honour brown”), an adjective (“we will not grow more graceful, / but less”) as adverb (“honestly”) and as predicate (“beloved”)….

Shane Neilson on Alden Nowlan’s "In the Operating Room"

(How Poems Work, May 2004)
The late Alden Nowlan was a cancer survivor who wrote a significant body
of work devoted to his illness and treatment. “In The Operating Room”
is such a poem. It begins strongly, starting off with a man’s voice. The opening
song is appropriate to the occasion, for the autobiographical “I”
of this poem is about to be shunted off by the ritualistic acts of the anesthetist
(positioning the patient on the OR table, starting intravenous medication,
etc.) into the nether-realm of the general anesthetic. These first few lines
are packed further with meaning: “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”
is an old slave song that used to be sung by American blacks rowing their
masters’ goods across Virginia’s rivers. The song form–a hymn–is
apropos to the poet’s funereal circumstance of general anesthesia, a state
one remove from death. The occasion of the song is also apt in that the anesthetist
will be ferrying the poet from the waking world into unconsciousness.

Yvonne Blomer on Phyllis Webb’s "Proposition"

(How Poems Work, April 2004)
Phyllis Webb was born in Victoria in 1927. She currently lives on Saltspring Island, on the west coast of Canada. Webb’s most recent book is Hanging Fire published by Coach House Press in 1990. She won the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry in 1982.
“Proposition” is a strong example of the connection between form and content and how that connection strengthens meaning. It explores the complicated proposition of love: what it is to be divided by or united to another person. The narrator’s hesitation is heightened through the use of the couplet, short lines and punctuation. Webb makes use of white space to slow the eye, allowing the reader to contemplate each line. As we read the propositions become more complex as does the poem’s construction….

Yvonne Blomer on John Thompson’s "Ghazal XXI"

(How Poems Work, March 2004)
The ghazal (pronounced “guzzle”) is a Persian form of poetry brought to Canada by John Thompson with the posthumous publication of his second book, _Stilt Jack_ in 1978.
Though Thompson and those after him have simplified the English form, the ghazal remains image-based rather than narrative: the poet ties couplets together through recurring objects and images.
_Ghazal XXI_ is a series of nine couplets. The poem is a slow, visual progression from poem to fish hook out into the world of nature and back. It is broken into two sentences, but punctuated to show the relationship between lines in couplets and objects in those lines, so that the poem is the hook, the women are the wind….

Zachariah Wells on P.K. Page’s "The Mole"

(How Poems Work, February 2004)
At 60 words, including title, “The Mole”; exemplifies poetry’s potential for compression. On the surface, this is a simple bit of verse, a brief encomium to an unlikely animal hero, but P.K. Page invests the mole’s activities with a significance that compels the reader to unearth deeper layers of meaning.
In the first line, Page employs language that pushes the reader beyond the literal sense of the poem. Instead of a simple “tunnel,” “[t]he mole goes down the slow dark personal passage.” This metaphor–its archetypal status reinforced by the definite article “the,” instead of the less specific “a” binds the mole to other travellers in the physical world and the less tangible realms of psyche and language (“passage” connoting a means of transit, a segment of text and, encompassing all possible meanings, life’s journey). Thus, the mole is a stand-in for the poet/artist, who navigates a solitary life in the midst of others with the help of language and imagination; or, less specifically, for anyone who struggles to understand their personal place in the often unfathomable darkness of the world….

Zachariah Wells on Peter Trower’s "Industrial Poem"

(How Poems Work, January 2004)
Peter Trower’s “Industrial Poem” is an anachronism: a ballad, first published in 1978. Originating in medieval traditions of oral folk song, the first printed ballads date back to the early 16th century and the form was often adopted by poets well into the 19th century. In the 20th century, however, the ballad, rooted in straightforward narrative, singsong rhythms and regular rimes, fell into disrepute as a vessel for serious poetry, and was relegated to the ghetto of popular doggerel. Not one to kowtow to authority, Trower wields the ballad stanza like a fine old rust-flecked sword. Often used to convey outrage against social and economic injustice, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, the ballad is a fitting structure for the content of this poem.

Zachariah Wells on R.G. Everson’s "He Loved in all Directions"

(How Poems Work, December 2003)
Al Purdy said of R.G. Everson that he had “one foot in the nineteenth century and the other in the twentieth.” Born in 1903, he was raised on a farm outside Oshawa, obtained a law degree, spent five years writing in an isolated log cabin, and became the president of a Montreal PR firm, just two years out of the woods. This unique position vis-a-vis multiple ages and worlds is ingrained in the language and structure of “He Loved in All Directions,” a poem at once classic and modern, laidback and letter-perfect.

Sandy Shreve on Anne Wilkinson’s "Tigers Know From Birth"

(How Poems Work, November 2003)
“Tigers Know From Birth” appeared in Anne Wilkinson’s 1955 collection, The Hangman Ties the Holly–the second of only two volumes of Anne Wilkinson’s poetry to be published during her lifetime. Happily this poem, along with the rest of her work, is readily available in a new collection of her poems from Vehicule Press.
Wilkinson’s death from cancer in 1961 at age 50 robbed Canada of one of our finest poets. She began publishing in literary journals in the late 1940’s, and from the start her poems were met with high acclaim by many of the most influential critics and poets of the time.
A.J.M Smith, in his introduction to The Collected Poems of Anne Wilkinson (Macmillan, 1968), noted that “one aspect of her poetry [is] its intimate sensuous identification with life as a growth out of the earth;” and that “the body and its senses were the instruments through which nature and reality entered the mind and became a part of being” …

Sandy Shreve on Charles Bruce’s "Biography"

(How Poems Work, October 2003)
Charles Bruce (1906-1971) wrote numerous poems, as well as short stories and a novel, evoking life in the Chedabucto Bay area of Nova Scotia where he was raised. A journalist by profession, he spent most of his career in Toronto with Canadian Press (CP), and wrote the original _CP Stylebook_.
“Biography” first appeared in Bruce’s 1951 book _The Mulgrave Road_, which won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. The collection portrays a community whose inhabitants rely on land and sea, as well as one-another, for their livelihood….

Sandy Shreve on Barbara Nickel’s "Busking"

(How Poems Work, September 2003)
Years ago, I read that Canadian poet Alden Nowlan said poems are ‘little epiphanies–everyone has them, but poets write them down.’ His comment comes to mind when I read Barbara Nickel’s work–especially her sonnets.
In “Busking,” a violinist has taken her music from the stage to the streets. Nickel enlivens a familiar market scene with language so vivid it awakens all our senses and leaves them tingling long after our eyes leave the page. The ‘little epiphany’ here is something we all know–that music, indeed all art, is food for the soul. Nickel ‘makes it new’ in the spirit of Ezra Pound’s dictum when he urged poets to write in free verse, but she does so through one of our oldest received forms, the English sonnet. …