Friday, October 23, 2009

Reader's Diary #536- pj johnson: Rhymes of the Raven Lady

Last week I reviewed local author Cathy Jewison's book, The Ugly Truck and Dog Contest and referred to it as being "chocked full of folksy charm." I wrestled with that phrase for a while thinking that I had implied something negative, that I had suggested a pleasant cuteness but void of artistic merit. I realized afterward (and this is why I kept it in), that I was really afraid of snobbery.

Folksy, of course, means that especially more local people will likely appreciate it. And, as any good snob knows, more people appreciating something-- especially people who aren't part of the scene-- means that the something can't really be good.

Avoiding the academic and philosophical arguments about what is good (because god knows, in those circles, you dare not say that good is subjective), that society has a growing lack of interest in poetry, or at least a lack of interest in what poets are producing, has been discussed ad nauseum as of late. Without blaming poets or society (but I have two pointer fingers, you know), I bring you pj johnson.

Admitting to being influenced by the Yukon's most famous poet Robert W. Service, in 1994 pj johnson went on to become the Yukon's first, and as of yet only, poet laureate. She didn't have a lot of published work behind her and her claim to fame up to that point was spearheading a successful campaign to make the raven the official bird of the territory.

Was johnson a wise choice? I certainly haven't read enough of her output to pass an opinion one way or the other, but her Rhymes of the Raven Lady published just a year after her inauguration, showed promise. With an obvious pride in her home and an appreciation for Service that shone through in her her ballads, I suspected she'd easily get the populace on her side.

Poetry critics, I wasn't so sure. Even those open-minded enough to accept Service's contributions, would quickly point out that johnson was not yet up to his calibre. None of the poems in Rhymes of the Raven Lady come close to matching the epic finesse of say, "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and there are more than a few unfortunately weak rhymes (not the least of which includes rhyming here with here). But asides from the wonderful lack of pretentiousness, there are some fine poems and many hints of what she was capable of. In the credits, johnson thanks Jane Urquhart and Nino Ricci for their support and encouragement. Roch Carrier advised her to "just be yourself." Optimistic times, and great people to have on her side, for sure. Could pj johnson help bridge that gap between the academics and Joe Blow?

After looking for something more recent of hers, I'm a little less hopeful. Compare stanzas from two poems, the first published in 1995, the second is 2005:

Dawson Winter
A stillness grips Dawson
As winter so awesome
Paints desolate streets iron grey
The trees are a shimmer
Of frost-covered glimmer
-- It's 20 below out today

Morning Falls Finely Through my Frosted Front Window
morning falls finely through my frosted front window
quietly. silently.
almost afraid to wake itself up
as the incessant crackle of an errant radio
-Trader Time and other madness-
yak-yakking away in the background
dances a jig in my half-shut mind

(Read the rest here)

I enjoy both of these poems, and I think it shows her growth as a poet. But did she grow in the right direction? Did she follow Carrier's advice? My fear is that while the first poem would appeal to the commoner, the second would appeal to the poetry reader, only a few of us would enjoy both. Yes, this is my way of announcing my superiority. Either that, or I've lost the ability to have standards.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I think the second poem would appeal to many more than the first would actually. I kept expecting the word Nantucket to appear in the first one.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: I agree the first poem isn't perfect, and certainly would have its entertainment value upped a notch if the man from Nantucket showed up, but it does, in its entirety have its charm. Taking the first stanza out of context, it certainly seems too jaunty to match what is being said; "paints desolate streets iron grey" seems a lot more morbid than the skippy tone and rhyming would suggest. However, the subsequent stanzas end with "it's 30 below out today", "it's 40 below out today" and so on. It reminds me of Johnny Cash's song, "Five Feet High and Rising" in which the height of flood water climbs throughout the song. Both put a lighter edge on an otherwise serious situation-- you know what they say, there's nothing left to do, but laugh. Again though, just as johnson wasn't Service, she's also not Cash. Still, a part of me wishes she had gone more in that direction.

The second one, well she seems to have affected the melancholy tone of a poet in a turtleneck. In the last stanza she writes, "such is a lazy winter morning" which makes it hard to criticize the tone of the poem; it fits.

Without having read her earlier poems, I'd probably have enjoyed the 2nd more. However, now it seems like an artificiality has entered the scene. The first book surprised me, it was not the work I'd have expected of a poet laureate. However, the 2nd does. Is that a bad thing? Am I being unfair and not allowing johnson to change? 10 years passed between those 2 poems...

Wanda said...

I think of formal rhyme structure as getting to know the bones; foreplay for poets. The big 'O' comes when you can flesh it out in free verse, unrestricted writing and reading pleasure!

John Mutford said...

Wanda: Quite the provocative analogy! Though it's often the case, I don't think "rhyme" is necessarily the divider. In Jailbreaks, for instance, Zachariah Wells has compiled more than a few examples of rhyming sonnets (by respected poets), that'd be sure to make you weak in the knees.

John Mutford said...

From PJ Johnson, via email (Feb 10, 2014): "I have to say I think your assessment of my creative works was not perhaps an informed one as little of my work is actually in print. I invite you to visit my new website so that I may better introduce myself. The website is new and will continue to be updated."