Poetry in the 21st Century

an address delivered by
Dr. John Ferns

on the occasion of
The Tower Poetry Society's 50th Anniversary Dinner
June 8, 2001

First, I must thank you, Mr. President, and the members of your executive for inviting me to speak at this fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Tower Poetry Society. Before I begin my poetry reading and remarks on "Poetry in the Twenty-First Century," I would like to share two reminiscences: one about my first experiences of poetry and the second about the Tower Poetry Society.

My first memory of poetry is not of nursery rhymes but of reciting Macaulay's "Horatius at the Bridge" on my father's knee.

"Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the nine Gods he swore/ That the Great House of Tarquin should suffer wrong no more / By the nine Gods he swore it and named the trysting day / From East and west and South and North to summon his array." etc. Robert Graves wrote a book called Lars Porsena: or the History of Swearing. My second memory of poetry is of reciting John Macrae's "In Flanders' Fields" -- surely the best known Canadian poem -- for my father's friends and receiving a dime for doing so. And then at the tender age of seven I frightened my Grandmother (or so I thought, or so she pretended) by reciting some verses of Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman" as we walked across a field and through a wood at night in St. Vital, Winnipeg circa 1948. Just a few weeks ago in Essex, England at my mother-in-law's ninety-fifth birthday party Aunt Ada, a Cockey lady of ninety years herself, recited from memory Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman." Gill and I had to go to the children's section of the Dundas Library to find the poem. I can't recite "The Highwayman" from memory like Aunt Ada but, as an example of exciting popular poetry from the early years of the last century, I would like to start by sharing it with you now. Perhaps it will spark memories in some of you.

(Read: "The Highwayman".)

My second reminiscence is about the Tower Poetry Society. Though the society is now in its fiftieth year, I first knew it in it youth, from the time when I came to McMaster in 1970. And there are certain members no longer with us in body, but who I'm sure are with us in spirit, who I would like to recall: first, of course, Catherine Bankier, then Herb Barrett (when one feels that the world is against one who could forget Herb's pithy aphorism called "Taking the long view" "the sun will outlast all the assholes"), Dorothy Cameron Smith, Vin and Madeline Francis, Dorothy Murphy, Val Valicek, Charles and Marjorie Wilkinson. These are people I remember though I'm sure that those of you with longer or more consistent memories remember others as well.

When Gillian and I and our two very young children came to McMaster in 1970, we rented an apartment at 22, Cross Street in Dundas. Our landlady was Catherine Bankier. I'd recently published my first book of poems, and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when I discovered that our landlady was a member of a poetry society connected to the Department of English I had just joined. The first meeting of the Tower I attended was held in the lounge of Togo Salmon Hall (then Arts II) at McMaster. Not long after this the society, through the offices of Catherine Bankier, moved the venue for its meetings to Dundas Public Library. There it was that the Society held its workshops and talks. I remember a fine talk on Rudyard Kipling's poetry by my colleague at McMaster, Jim Dale. He introduced us to that wonderful poem of Kipling's "McAndrew's Hymn." Also, I recall society members being invited to write poems to accompnay paintings by local artists which were being exhibited in the library -- or was it the Carnegie Gallery? I would like to thank the Society for supporting me personally. Three times I was invited to speak and read my work to the Society. And I was, of course, honoured to have a poem of mine give its name to the title of the Society's twenty-fifth anniversary anthology Pine's The Canadian Tree. Since my talk is more a celebration of poetry than an academic disquisition, I would like to read that poem:

Pine's the Canadian tree
and not the maple,
pines reflected in cold rivers.

Tall like witches,
lean as rockets,
boughs black as Van Gogh crows,
ice tears at their spines.

At night huge shadows
leap in my room—
pines moving like armies,
divinations in a book of trees.

I have one final reminiscence of the Society to share. Sometime around 1975 on a bright Saturday morning the Tower Poetry Society received a visit from the then poet laureate of the United Kingdom, Sir John Betjeman. This was a high honour and we polished our lines in order to read brief poems to Her Majesty's bard. Sir John listened to us with laureate condescension and when we had finished he commented in his upper-class drawl, "I had no idea that Canada could boast such a nest of singing birds!" We all felt well patronised and continued on our merry ways. My sole first-hand experience of a poet laureate helped me to appreciate Alexander Pope's scant respect for the office.

But now to my subject "Poetry in the Twenty-First Century". How on earth a techno-peasant like myself agreed to speak on such a topic I can't imagine. I seem to remember Eleanor saying something about the society looking to the future and my nodding. So here we are. I will restrict myself to the first quarter of the twenty-first century since I suspect that there are few of us in this room who will see much more of it. What I want to suggest simple is that if the past four hundred years are anything to go by, we can expect some excellent poetry to be written in the first quarter of this century. Even if we live now in a computer age of prose, cinema, television and the internet, poetry is as eternal as the heart of man ( I think Wordsworth said something like that) and finds its way into all these places. Poetry like music and visual art -- the sister arts -- is unkillable. It is a form of creative expression that will endure as long as the human imagination and creativity endures.

Let us look back over poetry at the beginning of centuries over the last four hundred years and enjoy some of the magnificent poems written in those periods. While in England last month visiting our mothers Gill and I also attended a ninetieth birthday party for a friend of my mother's. The lady in question asked me to read a poem at her party that I would like to read now -- Shakespeare's Sonnet 18. Shakespeare's best work was written in the opening years of the seventeenth century:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
     So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The sonnet was at a high pitch of development in the early years of the seventeenth century, and Shakespeare's contemporary John Donne used the love sonnet form to write about his love for God:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit You, but O, to no end;
Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy.
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again;
Take me to You, imprison me, for I,
Except You enthrall me, never shall be free.
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

William Shakespeare and John Donne were two of the greatest poets of the early seventeenth century though not the only great poets writing then. Ben Jonson and George Herbert are two other early seventeenth century poets from whose work I wish I had time to read. Bringing the power of dramatic language into the writing of lyric poetry Shakespeare and Donne changed expression. A contemporary critic called Donne, "a great frequenter of plays, a great visitor of ladies and a great writer of conceited verses." It was perhaps his frequenting of plays and especially Shakespeare's plays that makes the language of John Donne's Holy sonnets so powerful.

Like the beginning of the seventeenth century, the beginning of the eighteenth century also saw the emergence of, at least, one major poet. I'm referring to Alexander Pope from whose Rape of the Lock, of 1712, I would like to read. The great nineteenth-century critic Matthew Arnold got it absolutely wrong when he described John Dryden and Alexander Pope as "classics of our prose" rather than poetry. Pope is surely on of the finest poets ever to have written in English. Here in the opening of the second canto of his brilliant mock epic poem, The Rape of the Lock he describes the pettiness of court politics and the injustice of early eighteenth century society in his highly polished heroic couplets. Pope was a thoroughly professional poet who would draft about 30 lines of poetry each morning and then spend the rest of day refining and polishing what he had written. This he did almost every day from the age of twelve to his death at the relatively early age of fifty-six:

    Close by those meads, forever crowned with flowers,
Where Thames with pride surveys his rising towers,
There stands a structure of majestic frame,
Which from the neighboring Hampton takes its name.
Here Britain's statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of foreign tyrants and of nymphs at home;
Here thou, great Anna! Whom three realms obey,
Does sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.
    Hither the heroes and the nymphs resort,
To taste awhile the pleasures of a court;
In various talk the instructive hours they passed,
Who gave the ball, or paid the visit last;
One speaks the glory of the British Queen,
And one describes a charming Indian screen;
A third interprets motions, looks, and eyes;
At every word a reputation dies.
Snuff, or the fan, supply each pause of chat,
With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that.
    Meanwhile, declining from the noon of day,
The sun obliquely shoots his burning ray;
The hungry judges soon the sentence sign,
And wretches hang that jurymen may dine . . .

Unfortunately, the heroic couplet, such a flexible and vital medium in the hands of a major practitioner like Alexander Pope hardened into an over conventional form of writing by the end of the eighteenth century. It took poets of genius at the end of that century like William Blake and William Wordsworth to, in F. R. Leavis's works, "alter expression" yet again. Blake changed expression in his astonishingly direct and deceptively simple Songs of Innocence and Experience of the 1790's, but see how powerfully he attacks the dessicated unimaginativeness of the Age of Reason in these twelve lines from the early years of the nineteenth century.

Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,
Mock on, Mock on, 'tis all in vain.
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back, they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel's paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton's Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore,
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.

Religious belief and poetic imagination are powerfully endorsed by Blake in the face of the rationalism and scepticism of the eighteenth century's Age of Reason. Like Blake, Wordsworth sought to write in a language really used by men in his Lyrical Ballads. The following elegiac sonnet from the early years of the nineteenth century that Wordsworth wrote on the death of his two year old daughter Catherine shows the extent to which Wordsworth "altered expression" from the tired heroic couplets of the mid to late eighteenth century:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! With whom
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought's return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

If the early years of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the magnificent poems of Shakespeare, John Donne, Alexander Pope, William Blake and William Wordsworth, the early twentieth century produced an equally rich crop of major poets. And so, my argument runs, if the early years of the last four centuries produced poetry of extraordinary quality why should the twenty-first century be any different, why should we not in the next couple of decades encounter poems as deep and moving on the timeless and universally important subjects of love, loss, death, nature, society, human relationships and religious belief as those written in the opening years of the previous four centuries? Of one thing we can be sure, if great poets emerge in the next two or three decades they will write about such subjects of central human significance.

If we can begin to equal the rich poetic achievement of the early twentieth century in the twenty-first we will be doing well indeed. I would like to conclude by reading a poem by each of three major poets of the early twentieth century: Thomas Hardy, William Butler Years and Thomas Stearns Eliot.

Thomas Hardy always wanted to be a poet but spent the last three decades of the nineteenth century writing novels to make a living. Finally, critical attacks on Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure in the 1890s convinced Hardy to give up novel writing and return to his first love -- the writing of poetry. His wife's death in 1912 prompted him to write a sequence of deeply moving poems that he called Veteris Vestigia Flammae (Vestiges of an old flame). What is so moving about "After a Journey" is the way in which Hardy's wife's spirit leads him to revisit scenes of their early courtship where he rediscovers the feelings that he experienced at the beginning of their relationship. Hardy returns to the coast of Cornwall in south-western England where he first wooed Emma Gifford in the 1870s:


Hereto I come to view a voiceless ghost;
	Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?
Up the cliff, down, till I'm lonely, lost,
	And the unseen waters' ejaculations awe me.
Where you will next be there's no knowing.
	Facing round about me everywhere,
		With your nut-coloured hair,
And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going.

Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
	Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;
What have you now found to say of our past—
	Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
	Things were not lastly as firstly well
		With us twain, you tell?
But all's closed now, despite Time's derision

I see what you are doing: you are leading me on
	To the spots we knew when we haunted here together,
The waterfall, above which the mist-bow shone
	At the then fair hour in the then fair weather,
And the cave just under, with a voice still so hollow
	That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago,
		When you were all aglow,
And not the thin ghost that I now frailly follow!

Ignorant of what there is flitting here to see,
	The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily;
Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me,
	For the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours,
	The bringing me here; nay, bring me here again!
		I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.

Like Hardy, Yeats was a poet born in the middle of the nineteenth century who produced his best work in the twentieth century. This should give many of us hope. Perhaps we have been writing poetry through the latter part of the twentieth century in order to flower in the twenty-first.

I want to read Yeats' "Among School Children." First because I think it is Yeats' best poem, but second because in the poem Yeats describes himself as "a sixty-year-old public smiling man." Having recently turned sixty myself I now know something of what Yeats felt when walking white haired into a room full of school children. To express Yeats' sense of fullness of life transcending nostalgia and loss is certainly something for us senior citizens to strive for:

	Among School Children

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way—the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy—
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato's parable,
Into the yoke and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t'other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age—
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler's heritage—
And had that color upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind—
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once—enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard;
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother's reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts—O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolize—
self-born mockers of man's enterprise;
Labor is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

And finally T. S. Eliot that enigmatic father of modern poetry. The Wasteland is difficult as are his Four Quartets. Yet who could not be moved by the love he expresses in the beautiful poem "Marina," especially knowing that Eliot himself had no children. But he knew in imagination the love that Pericles expresses for his daughter Marina. Isn't that the point about the poetic imagination? Through it we can express situations and feelings that we have imagined as well as known.

What seas what shores what gray rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the stye of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

Are become unsubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place

What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? More distant than stars and nearer than the eye

Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.

So, I hope that I have made my point. The poetry at the beginning of the last four centuries has been magnificent, so why should the twenty-first century be any different? Some feel, sad to say, that we are living at a time when poetry is on the rocks, and it takes great faith in human imagination to believe that the same order of achievement will be reached in the next twenty or thirty years as the beginnings of the previous four centuries has known. But, as human beings, we live by belief, faith and hope and so must always take the strongly positive view that the seemingly impossible can be achieved.

The Tower Poetry Society exists so that poetry can be read, known and spread abroad. The Tower Poetry Society exists so that an environment is present in our community in which poetry can thrive, so that those who are young in this new century can understand the riches they have inherited and strive with the energy and optimism of youth to add to that heritage. It is important for us to maintain continuity with the great poetry of the past and to encourage the writing of poetry now and in the future. I hope that fifty years hence someone will be in a position such as I am in now celebrating the 100th birthday of the Tower Poetry Society!

Some of you will have noticed the absence of women's voices in my discussion. A reading of great women's poetry through the centuries would be a good topic for a future Tower presentation and just as instructive as my choices this evening. Let me leave you with words of hope from one of the Tower's founding members and a fine poet, Helen Dougher. Here is the final poem from her most recent book The Light Between, "After the Rain"

The rain has washed the world with green
And in the lovely light between
Daylight and darkness comes a sense
Of wonder and a permanance,
Of all that will be or has been.
O beauty sharp as any sword,
O beauty in a trembling word,
I wander, breathless, through the park,
My spirit leaping in the dark
Triumphant as a singing bird.


Dr. John Ferns
Professor of English
McMaster University
Hamilton, Ontario

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