Fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of friendship; and pass the rosy wine.
Edited and compiled by Robert Sward
Problems and the Waters of Life
by Roger Nash
Two friendships have nourished me considerably, as a poet: with Al Purdy, grandfather-figure of Canadian poetry; and with Norval Morriseau, eruptive force behind a genre of prophetically imagistic Native Canadian art that speaks to the whole world. Al and Norval, and their work, are in many ways so different. But in times spent with both, I learned concretely -- by gesture, glance, an unfinished sentence finished by the context of paint-mixing or pencil-sharpening -- the many ways in which the best work springs from integrity in one's life.
I met Al in the late seventies, when I latched on, as nervous latecomer, to a creative writing course he was leading in northern Ontario. One thing I liked about him immediately -- which I like in his poetry -- was the ironic way in which he put himself down; while warning others, with a big poetic fist of sheer craft, that no-one else had better agree with that put-down. His poetry is an important antidote to the climate of strutting self-importance in this age, and the way that blinds the imagination to the humanity and need in others.
A young guy in the course started walking around behind Al, picking up his old, spent stogies. The student had a poetry fetish about Al. Al wondered whether the student was going to bronze those stogies. He wondered how easily he should sleep in his room that night; wondered whether someone would creep in and take memorial nail-clippings, or even more personal and intimate biological stuff. In parallel, Al hated his poems becoming fetish objects on pedestals -- worshipped without, perhaps, even being read.
Al would say to aspiring writers, "You have an eye problem", and tease them with ambiguity by holding pages nearer or further away from them. When the penny of Zen had dropped, you'd realize he was also saying "You have an ‘I' problem". He was implacable in pushing the point, in detailed comments on work, that failure to see things freshly, with deepened significance, is so often inseparable from knee-jerk concerns with self. He detested poetry that seemed shaped by a quest for reputation, not by a quest for just the right word -- whether your reputation was in tatters or not.
One of my biggest "eye/I" problems, as I began submitting poetry, was fear of rejection. Without Al's no-nonsense encouragement, I would still be writing, but it would all be in my desk-drawer. Al told me, "Study the rhino! Get a thick skin! You'll receive plenty of rejection slips for sure. Paper your kitchen, even your dog with them. But keep submitting poetry -- so long as you believe it's good."
Al insisted that developing a sense of audience is absolutely integral to developing a sense of poetry. At the first public outing of your poem, he would firmly direct someone else to read it aloud. So that you could hear, in the breath, chest and larynx of another, how differently your poem might be embodied than you had imagined. Then he'd let everyone else comment on the poem, before letting you provide context or explanation. A poem is like a rich fruit cake, with many ingredients in it. One person may eat it for the lemon zest; another for the figs or raisins. For different cake-fanciers, different tastes are dominant in one and the same cake. Taste-buds differ, after all. A good cook will know what table to serve a given cake to; a good poet will pick appropriate poems for a particular audience. Sometimes, cake-fanciers can surprise the cook by pointing out flavours he had not anticipated or fully noticed. Sometimes, an audience-member can surprise a poet by pointing out a nuance of meaning that is really there in the poem.
I first met Norval Morriseau only toward the end of his career, when he was already in the later stages of Parkinson's disease. Though no longer painting very actively, he continued to teach a small group of Native artists, both about art and Ojibwe spirituality. Throughout his career, he had often depicted fish. For him, just as a fish swims, in any clear northern lake, in a medium that is virtually invisible to the eye, so we, if we are to live aright, should realize we live in a dimension on which our very existence, as people and artists, depends. The dimension is that of connectivity in life shared together in mutual respect. He would speak of how fish, in spawning runs, seem to urge each other on, to reach safe and secluded lakes, with plentiful food supplies. Once there, they can live more noncompetitively. He spoke to his students of how painting -- like poetry -- can arouse empathic imagination in audiences. For him -- as for me -- this places the arts at the centre of public life, not at the periphery as somehow ‘artsy' concerns. The arts can open our eyes to the needs of others. They are essential ingredients in a just society.
Both Al and Norval taught me more of how integrally connected we are with others, both as people and creators. Our audiences co-create our poems and paintings with us; and we co-create each others' lives in a shared culture.
Roger Nash is President of the League of Canadian Poets. His most recent collection, IN THE KOSHER CHOW MEIN RESTAURANT, won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for 1997. He teaches Philosophy at Laurentian University.