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I find it fascinating to listen to poets talk, somehow their voices seem to fit just right with their words.

“Writing poetry has, to me, always had something to do with how you want to live.”

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In the beginning

there was a whale in a jar,

content with very little:

size of the emptiness,

size of the jar,

the cold stiff hug of glass.

He would wile away the nothingness

and enjoy the feeling he got from breathing

in and out.

But eventually something cracked.

 

In a single moment of clairvoyance,

the Whale conceived of ocean.

Dissatisfaction sparked, the Whale

moaned and tossed – beleaguered by his

glass confinement.

Discontentment gave birth to ambition

and the Whale began to swell.

 

The jar then snapped and fell away.

The Whale fell away as well

for millions of year through strata by strata

of petrified darkness. He felt defeated.

He couldn’t be sure but he thought he might be growing.

It then occurred to the Whale to give voice to want.

 

“Ocean,” he called out, and splash

boomed the water.

 

“Hunger,” said the Whale, and his mouth

was filled with krill.

 

“Fun,” said the Whale, and the ocean

alight with creatures.

 

That was good enough for Whale

for a long time, a long time.

 

But it wore off and the old ennui returned.

 

“Love,” said the Whale, his voice heavy

with self pity.

 

And there beside him swam his very-joy.

They felt warm inside.

But soon there was not enough krill for both

and she died.

 

“Anger,” said the Whale, and volcanoes

vomiting liquid smoke piled up land

until it broke through the water.

 

Whale tried to find something he could hate

amongst the multitude of creatures

but he could not, he could not.

 

“Enemy,” said the Whale, and Man

appeared on land, crafting boats.

 

Something struck the Whale’s flank.

 

“Pain,” he yelped

but it couldn’t surmount the absence of his warmth.

 

It was no use, the hate. No use.

The Whale felt defeated and bumped the ship

gently, in resingnation.

A jar toppled overboard and plunged into the ocean.

Whale followed it down like a funeral procession

until the jar came to nestle in a submarine crag.

 

My, had he swollen.

 

How visceral the lure of this jar was to the Whale

but for all he did he could not fit inside.

 

“Justice,” he howled, and the Whale

gently died. 

O you who bear the pain of the whole earth

   I bore you.

O you whose tears give human tears their worth,

   I laughed with you.

You, who, when your hem is touched, give power,

  I nourished you.

Who turn the day to night in this dark hour,

   light comes from you.

O you who hold the world in your embrace,

   I carried you.

O you who laughed and ate and walked the shore,

   I played with you.

And I, who with all others, you died for,

   now I hold you.

May I be faithful to this final test:

in this last time I hold my child, my son,

his body close enfolded to my breast,

the holder held: the bearer borne.

Mourning to joy: darkness to morn.

Open, my arms:  your work is done.

                                                                    –   Cry Like a Bell – Madeleine L’Engle

In an interview titled “The Quiet Centre Inside” Margaret Avison answers “What is a poem, in your definition?”

We discussed this topic in a university English class I taught in the 1960s. My small senior “A” class set the topic they wanted to discuss from September to May as “What is a Poem?” That was their topic, up to me to devise a method. In each class someone was named to lead the next class discussion, illustrating and explaining his definition based on one poem of his choosing, photocopied the week ahead so that everybody had a copy. When he presented his “A poem is… (such and such), the others were to challenge his definition from that poem and from any others they were planning to choose in turn or simply others that we all could look up in a common anthology. One by one, definitions were knocked down or edited down until in May we were all satisfied. Their conclusion: A poem is that form of art in words that requires from the reader the same creative energy as from the writer. To me, this was an exercise done in fun but at some level I concur with the conclusion they came to (162).

Bowling, Tim. Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation.

Margaret Avison was born in Ontario in 1918. She has won two Governor General’s Awards for Poetry – in 1960 for A Winter Sun (Routledge) and in 1989 for No Time (Lanelot). She holds three honorary doctorates and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.