Poet Laureate's blog: November 2018

Making Way for Winter

November is a sombre and sobering month here in Southern Georgian Bay. Sombre in that the last vestiges of autumn have fallen–literally. The world is all angles of stark grey and brown until the first snowfall swaddles us in the soft white blanket of early winter. Sobering in that November is a month when we look back withlonging or regret–often both.

Gone are the lazy, hazy days of summer that burst onto the scene with such promise as spring crocuses and daffodils made way for roses and peonies, then daisies and hydrangeas and finally road asters and garden mums. Behind us now the fulsome harvest and our songs of Thanksgiving for the rich bounty this land provides us. The “holiday” we celebrate this month is Remembrance Day, a heartrending mix of gratitude and sorrow.

The homily at this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony focused on poetry as one way we try to make sense of war. We honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep our land “glorious and free” by reciting “In Flanders Field”* (See links for the poems below). At the same time, we bow our heads in shame that “for every year of peace there have been four hundred years of war,” as Margaret Atwood points out in her poem “The Loneliness of the Military Historian”*.

Given the paradoxical nature of our response to war, poetry sometimes seems the only appropriate genre to address both aspects. Poetry often resides at the edge of experience as a border that is both boundary and meeting place. In “Vergissmeinnicht”* English poet Keith Douglas makes an encounter with “the enemy” very real and personal when he reminds us that in the dead German soldier– a photo of his girlfriend inscribed with “Vergissmeinnicht” (Forget Me Not) in his pocket– “the lover and killer are mingled who had one body and one heart. And death who had the soldier singled has done the lover mortal hurt.”. This liminal nature of poetry is illustrated in this modern interpretation of the poem “But You Didn’t”* by Merrill Glass (no relation that I know of).

Poems like these leave us thinking–and feeling. No wonder the day after the poppies come off we are so eager to “don our gay apparel” and turn our faces toward Christmas, even though it’s over a month away.  Between now and then comes Advent, a time of waitingin the natural world as well as in the Christian year. Just what is it we are waiting for, and clamour to celebrate each December? Beyond any religious impulse, we are carried into and thorough the darkest days by the hope that this old world will keep on turning, and the warmth and light will return in due course.

As we wait, we are well advised to slow down, even stop our frenetic pace so we can take a breath, reflect on the past and begin to imagine a better future. Here’s how the poet Pablo Neruda describes this opportunity.

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused

with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about
I want no truck with death!
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
death. Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

- Pablo Neruda

Does this poem speak to you? If so, think about responding with a poem or two of your own that we can share in our Poet’s Corner. This month we feature a beautiful seasonal piece by local writer Susan Wisner, whose poem “Waiting, Late Autumn” has been selected for publication by Your Daily PoemLook for it on November 29th. Way to go, Susan!

And speaking of November 29th, I’ll be celebrating my birthday that day. If you’re near Collingwood and are so inclined, stop by the Huron Club after 8:00 PM to say hi and enjoy the great music of local band Bored of Education. After all, danceable songs are “poetry in motion!”