Monday, January 09, 2006

Reader's Diary #7: Al Purdy- Rooms For Rent In The Outer Planets (up to "In The Early Cretaceous")

Up until just the past year, maybe year and a half I hadn't read much poetry. I enjoyed dissecting poems in a first year English class at University but just didn't think I could handle it on my own, without an instructor helping me see things. But trying to broaden my horizons, I decided to give it a shot again. My first foray back into poetry was with Allen Ginsberg's Howl: And Other Poems. I was curious about the whole beatnik thing and heard it was a bit risque, so it would probably be entertaining if nothing else. It was, mildly. But I still wasn't sure if I was "getting it". So I decided to pick up some old, out of print first year English books- literature and/or poetry anthologies. I'd recommend that approach to anyone looking to get into poetry. After the poems, the editors asked questions that I most likely didn't consider. Plus, because they were designed to be text books for first year University students, they helped me understand techniques and approaches that a poet might have used to express him/herself or that I might use to understand it better. It, by no means, has made me an expert but I have gained a much greater appreciation for poetry. While I still like to read such anthologies, I have occasionally gone solo and read books of poetry without editorial comments to point out intricacies. While often confused, I do understand more than I used to and can critique things a little better, a little more informed. That said, I hope no one is looking for a thesis on the feminist perspective on Al Purdy's Rooms For Rent in the Outer Planets, or for any other such lofty analysis that is beyond my abilities (though if someone wants to do that, go right ahead).
When the books for this year's Canada Reads debates were announced on CBC, many people were surprised to see a collection of poetry amongst the contenders. This hasn't been done before on Canada Reads and I get the impression that skepticism is high. While I've become a convert to poetry, I myself am doubtful. In 2004 when there was a tie in "voted-out" books, host Bill Richardson made the decision to cast out The Love Of A Good Woman by Alice Munro claiming that it would probably prove too difficult to defend a collection of short stories against four novels. So if short stories can't compete against novels, surely poetry collections are doomed before they even begin. But should that be the case?
The hardest thing I find about reading poetry is slowing my pace down to appreciate or analyze each poem individually. I've been so accustomed to reading novels that it's hard for me not to simply continue to the next page. I have disciplined myself to read each poem twice. If there's anything at all that I like, find interesting or even confusing I'll even reread a third time. (Another benefit to reading anthologies is the repetition of poems- I think every anthology has a copy of "Stopping By The Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost- and so you're guaranteed to get multiple readings in). One particular editor said that for a poem do be truly experienced or appreciated one must read it aloud. I disagree. For me, reading is a personal thing and if I had to do it aloud everytime I'd a) be very embarrassed and b) quit. How do you feel about this?
So, while I might be reading Room For Rent a little too fast, I am still enjoying it a lot. First of all, some of these are just plain funny. In particular, "At The Quinte Hotel" and "The Drunk Tank". Secondly, many are narrative poems so even if I don't see anything deeper, I can still appreciate the stories. These type of poems were the first poems that I ever liked for that very reason (in particular, "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert W. Service) and they are also reason why I think Canada Reads fans should give Rooms For Rent a chance, even if they don't normally like poetry. Thirdly, Purdy is a master at imagery. It's quite inspiring how he can paint a picture for the reader with his word choices. Check out "Red Fox on Highway 500" if you want proof.
As for symbolism and philosophical musings in these poems, I haven't quite grasped those yet. They seem to be alluded to but whether or not they're expressed well, I can't say that I know. He seems to be driving at something with the title (picked from a poem entitled "Married Man's Song" and again alluded to in "Gondwanaland"). Maybe there's some point being made about wanting to see/experience other worlds but only for a brief period? "A nice place to visit, but..." sort of mentality. Do you feel the title captures the essence of these poems?

1 comment:

Robert Hiscock said...

As to whether poetry collections are doomed in the competition... I think not. That said, it would have to be a strong collection to win. A person can identify with the entire arc of a 300-page novel whereas in a poetry collection the appreciation for each piece is likely to vary. That would make it harder to defend, I think, and therefore less likely to win. Mind you, I do think the Purdy collection is strong so it has a chance.

Reading aloud? Some poetry is best experienced aurally. It is only in hearing the poem that, at least for me, some of the subtle play of language becomes apparent. That said, I will be the first to admit that I do not read all poetry I encounter aloud. I will generally read a poem several times silently then, if it appeals, I will give it a final go outloud... Sometimes, when I just don't get a poem, I will then attempt it aloud. It works for me... hearing it sometimes clarifies it.

Finally, I agree with the assessment of Married Man's Song and the title of the collection, though I doubt Purdy would be flattered by the reduction to cliche!