a condition of being, not having

As we read, something is going on in us, something is coming into being. There is a realisation; the total economy, all the strategies of the poem bring it about. Lowell was right to say that a poem is an event, not the record of an event. And Auden, in that poem ('In Memory of W.B. Yeats') in which he asserts that poetry makes nothing happen, asserts with greater persuasiveness that it is 'a way of happening'. That happening is so intensely present we may weep or laugh aloud or shudder in terror - at what? At something 'only' there in our consciousness as we read. Such realisation is very presence.

That is the chief good and usefulness of poetry. It persuades or jolts us into what Lawrence called 'a new effort of attention' (Selected Literary Criticism, p. 90), it fills us with the achievement of that attention. There is no gainsaying the charge of poetry, nor how valuable it feels. It is a condition of being, not of having. It can't be had, it is intrinsically resistant to acquisitiveness. And by being alert and truthful and upholding contradictory possibilities, asserting homogeneity, championing a lively pluralism, acknowledging the essential irreducibility and intractability of life, poetry is the living contradiction of political speech and a gesture of defiance in the face of all reductive, co-ordinating and tyrannical political systems. We are, when we read poetry, during the reading of the poem and lingeringly for some while after, more wakeful, alert and various in our humanity than in our practical lives we are mostly allowed to be. Achieving that, in vital cooperation with the reader, a poet has done the most he or she is qualified to do. Any further stage, any conversion of this alerted present state into action, into behaviour, is the responsibility of the citizen. And the poet, like the reader, is always a citizen.

- David Constantine, from his essay "Poetry of the Present" in A Living Language, part of the Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures series.


between the way of death and the way of life

'The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.' I suppose all poets write with that in mind. The injunction seems clear: go for the spirit. But in poetry... without the letter there is no spirit, or none that is able to be felt by anyone else. Without the words, the words in a particular order, fitted into a syntax, engendering a rhythm, making sense, without the letter (understood like that) there is nothing that can have any effect. The letter used wrongly does indeed kill; it fixes; where there was life (the spirit) it makes a dead thing; the syntax remains a skeleton, life refuses to inhabit it. And that is really the continuous and necessary struggle in verse, between fixity and fluidity, between the way of death and the way of life. And in that struggle, in which the very life of the spirit is at stake, the letter is all, and may petrify or animate.

- David Constantine, from his essay "Poetry of the Present" in A Living Language, part of the Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures series.


Łazienki Park - A New Chapbook!

The Alfred Gustav Press only uses the fanciest staples

I'm very happy to announce that a new poetry chapbook of mine - my first in five years! - will be published in December 2017 by the Alfred Gustav Press. Like my last chapbook, Smoothing the Holy Surfaces, this is a shorter sequence - one long poem, in fact, in seven parts. It will be published as part of the "holm" series of shorter chapbooks which accompany the main chapbooks in an AG Press subscription.

Smoothing the Holy Surfaces
(AG Press, 2012)
The poem is - strangely enough - about Łazienki Park in the centre of Warsaw, Poland, where my wife was born and where most of her family still lives. We lived just down the road from the park for a couple months in 2016, and I spent many an early morning pushing my one-year-old up and down its paths.

The baby makes a cameo in the poem, as do gaggles of ducks and tourists, though at its core the poem is about Frederic Chopin, travel and history: what gets seen, heard, and remembered.

Anyway, yeesh, that's enough talking about the little thing. If you're interested in buying a copy, you will have to subscribe to Series Eighteen of the Alfred Gustav Press chapbook series. You can learn how to do that here.

The cost is $15 for Canadians, and $20 for everyone else, and the chapbooks (Four of them! Including one by Russell Thornton!) get mailed right to your door, all signed by the authors.

As I've said before, it's the best deal in Canadian poetry. So do it!


poetry is peculiarly good at contradicting

The poetic word always seems to matter more under oppression than threat. Their fellow-citizens look to the poets to be of present help. The grave and dangerous responsibilities that poets under a dictatorship have to bear do at least bring with them a corroboration of the value of their efforts. Much less, if any, such corroboration is forthcoming in Britain. Poets in Britain are free to write more or less what they like, chiefly because no one in power cares a tuppence what they write. This freedom, certainly a great benefit, does carry with it the risk of pointlessness and irresponsibility. Some poets, from certain groups in British society, may indeed feel there are issues so urgent that have no option but to address them, almost to the exclusion of all others. They may indeed feel their subjects are ‘forced upon them’. But many, perhaps most, don’t feel that, and they risk slipping into the limbo of personal malaise and language games. Dictated to them or not, there is in fact a large and various social obligation on poets in Britain today. Day in day out, the language of our managers and leaders cries out to be contradicted. Poetry is peculiarly good at contradicting. The exact shape and practice of contradiction will have to be devised in every new case, by every poet again and again. Agility is necessary.

- David Constantine, from his essay "Use and Ornament" in A Living Language, part of the Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures series.