Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Deadly Verses

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Deadly Verses

In earlier times, poetry held an important place in many cultures. For the literate 200 years ago, poems were a way to gain not only pleasure but exercise for the imagination. Maybe you couldn't watch Avatar in 3D, but you could visit Coleridge's Xanadu or Blake's fiery spirits. Centuries before the Romantics, Northern European bards and balladeers were important in their cultures, historians of great deeds and heroes, their lays and songs affording a little immortality to compensate for short human life spans.
Now, despite occasional news flurries around the Griffin Prize or the appointment of a poet laureate, the art is marginalized. Mostly it is other poets, and aspiring ones, who attend readings and buy books. Few ordinary people today would have a shelf of poetry books , if they even own a bookshelf. Poetry is a small community speaking primarily to itself, inundated by the ceaseless gabbling of Twitter, RSS feeds, E-Yak TV and hip-hop downloads.
Yet there is one foothold that poetry – or at least verse-- maintains in the contemporary psyche. A friend once explained to me, when I was impatient with the lurching structure of the average opera, that “they sing when the emotion is too great to be contained in speech.” The same seems to be true of everyday people when it comes to the death of those near and dear to them. Whether it's from tradition or instinct, they often sense that the plain rhythms of prose are not enough to express their grief. So, to give some depth to the death notice they struggle to write for the local paper, they choose rhyming verses. Funeral homes and newspapers have a handy stock of these to comfort the bereaved who are not confident enough to pen an original elegy. I have no desire to mock the real heartbreak that comes with losing a spouse, parent or (worst of all) a child. It's the literary form of these expressions that concerns me.
I think every life deserves some strong and vivid commemorative writing. After all, with a little thought, you can have carved on your tombstone some genuine poetry like Yeats' epitaph, from “Under Ben Bulben”:

Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by.

Or, you could leave 'em laughing. I've always liked the verse a dentist had engraved on his granite marker: “Stranger! Approach this spot with gravity! John Brown is filling his last cavity.” British actor Wallace Ford chose: “At last I get top billing.”

However, consumers have many less felicitous pre-fab memorial verses available on-line. They generally have a sing-song quality that perhaps suggests the soothing effects of a lullaby. Some of them even have a space left so that you can slot in the name of your dear departed. Here's a sampling of such memorial verses written by that tireless author Anon.
Those who actually liked the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” might appreciate the far-fetched metaphor in this quatrain:
If tears could build a stairway
and thoughts a memory lane
I'd walk right up to heaven and 
bring you home again

The next selection carries an unconscious reminder of how much unpaid work parents – especially mothers – do. It sounds like it should be followed by a “help wanted” ad.

A wonderful mother, woman and aid;
One who was better, God never made,
A wonderful worker, loyal and fair,
Tenderly helpful, O mother you were.

Does this sound to anyone else like an odd tribute? “I'm so sorry to hear about your mother,” “Yes, she was a wonderful aid.” But dads get missed for their contribution to the labour force, too:
Farewell, dear father, thy work is o'er,
Thy willing hands will toil no more.
If Dad was a devoted union member, it'd be tempting to add “But then Management's never did...”.

The next one isn't terrible as verse, but the imagery is a bit jarring, moving from a flood to furniture (perhaps a LazyBoy recliner) within two lines:
The rolling stream of life rolls on,
But still the vacant chair
Recalls the love, the voice, the smile
Of the one who once sat there.
I have a modest proposal . When you get your next tax refund, pay a Canadian poet to compose for you a tribute a bit more eloquent than an empty chair or a stairway built of tears. Not only will you have supported one of the lowest-paid professions in Canada, you can go to your eternal reward with the comforting assurance that a raspberry of generic, mawkish verses will not herald your departure.


Yes, I like Nathan's poem as well -- there's a fine stillness about it. It reminds me of Carl Sandburg's poem "Grass" which starts by recalling the bodies of dead combatants piled high in war and then concludes:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Poems like these about death give me, at least, some comfort.
John Oughton

This is isn't really a tribute, but it's a lovely poem about loss by Leonard Nathan:


I hadn't noticed
till a death took me outside
and left me there
that grass lifts so quietly
to catch everything
we drop and we drop

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page