Thursday, September 06, 2007

Poetry Friday/ Reader's Diary #287: Susan Musgrave: What The Small Day Cannot Hold (FINISHED)

It's often the case that when artists are asked about their own favourites, we're presented with a list far more critically acclaimed than they; or at the very least quite different stylistically. Therefore it's not always a good idea to pick a book recommended by your favourite author.

Working the system in reverse is likewise not a great idea. My first experience with Al Purdy's poetry was after hearing Susan Musgrave on the radio go on and on about him. Al Purdy has become one of my favourites so I thought it was time to give the poet who recommended him a chance. If she's a fan of Al Purdy, there's a good chance she's a decent poet right?

If you were to believe the hyper-hyperbole on the back of What The Small Day Cannot Hold, she's not only as good as Purdy- she's better! Okay, so it doesn't actually say that but it's pretty over the top. As a collection of her seven poetry books originally published from 1970-1985, I'm told I now have "the lost canon of one of the country's most vibrant and original national voices." (The word "canon" is thrown around like confetti.) Apparently it is also a "must have literary opus" that has "unprecedented dramatic appeal." I don't know how much say Musgrave had in those words, but she has posted them on her own website when I'd have thought she'd have found them embarrassing.

I won't even bother saying if her work lived up to the idol worship on the back- no one should even have to. But I will say that after a very rocky start, I came to enjoy her poetry a lot. It begins with Songs of the Sea Witch, first published in 1970 when Musgrave was only nineteen. Comparable to Dylan Thomas, plenty of people would take that as a pretty big complement. I, however, am not a big fan of Thomas either. Musgrave seems to have a preoccupation with bones, knives, darkness, and blood and these words pop up every bit as often as fuse, worm and sky appear in Thomas's poems. Perhaps taken in isolation this would not present a problem, but when reading an entire collection those words become annoying, like finding oleo in every single crossword I've ever completed. Furthermore, Songs of The Sea Witch is vague yet melodramatic. I understand that at nineteen thoughts are usually more vague and melodramatic, but that doesn't mean it makes for good poetry:

There you will remain,
at the memory of it all,
unable to penetrate
a similar heart as you own
- from "Songs of The Sea-Witch"

With Purdy's vivid descriptions and ability to find poetry in the most mundane places, I was taken aback that these words came from a Purdy fan.

But then came the strawberries...

Three books in, Musgrave began to take more risks and the result was "Selected Strawberries." Basically, Musgrave replaces thoughts, objects or people with the word "strawberry" and the results are very entertaining:

The average life span of a strawberry in captivity is 32 years.
-from "A Strawberry Miscellany"

Strapped to a gatepost, flapping in the wind, the strawberry is being punished for frightening the pigs.
-from "Strawberries as Pests"

In Japan every newlywed couple is given a richly illustrated book showing every imaginable variety of strawberries.
- from "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Strawberries"
I found it very interesting that even when she is very obviously talking about something else, the learned meaning gets in the way so that I still pictured the berry originally. I had to consistently rework my definition. It says a lot about the power of language.

And while it is arguable that she wears that particular "trick" a little thin after 34 such poems, it is a pivotal point in the book after which she begins experimenting a little more, varying the voice, tone (finally adding some humour), and images (finally getting out of the woods!) and I was glad to have stuck with it. As a collection, the earlier poems are perhaps admissible to show her growth as a poet. Still, you have to eat an awful lot of green to get to the ripe.

A personal favourite is "The British Migraine Association Poetry Competition"in which the rules for the competition, supposedly found on the entry form, comprise the poem itself:
Winning poems will be published
in the anthology.
The title of the anthology will be
and this will also be the
theme of the competition.
I could share the rest, but you get the picture.


Sara said...

I like that last idea: Write a poem in which the rules for a contest ARE the poem. I wonder who else has tried that? (Besides Oscar Meyer or somebody like that.)

ipsa said...

I enjoy Susan Musgrave. She's quirky and interesting.

But not Al Purdy. You're right.

Thanks for this - great write-up.

Anonymous said...

Now I must find and read some Musgrave, and some Al Purdy as well.

You missed an opportunity in the intro to use a "cannon" metaphor for "canon" instead of going with confetti. Maybe "scattered like buckshot from a cannon?" (Can one even shoot buckshot from a cannon?) But I digress.

Thanks for the thoughtful review.

John Mutford said...

Sara: I haven't seen that done before, but I have seen instructions and advertisement clippings as found poetry.

Rebecca: I think Musgrave's quirkiness comes out more her later works.

Kelly: I actually tried on that confetti thing. Confetti cannons, do exist, by the way. Still, they're probably not well-known enough to warrant their own metaphor! ;)

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I was sort of hoping against hope that those confetti cannons would be really big, big enough for a person to fit inside, so I am a little bummed. Oh sorry, we were talking about poetry, weren't we? Cannons are pretty poetic though.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: I'm sure there's an undiscovered tribe of super-tiny people somewhere in the Amazon that could fit inside. Don't give up hope.