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Van Morrison

Archives of Previously Featured Articles on Various Topics

Topic Date
Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior: Book Review
Literature and the Crime Against Nature: Book Review
A Poignant Film about Life, Death, and Poetry
Perspectives on Contemporary Poetry
Book Review: Science, Sense & Soul
Book Review: Where the Words Come From
Suggested Reading: Writings by Philip Larkin
Was Robert Frost a Great Poet?
My Summer Reading Experience
Winners of the Griffin Poetry Prize 2002
Favorite Poets and Recommended Reading
Fiction, Autobiography and the Writer
Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks"

Winners of the Griffin Poetry Prize 2002

The Griffin Poetry Prize winners for 2002 are Christian Bök's Eunoia (Canadian Category) and Alice Notley's Disobedience (International Category). The winners each receive $40,000, one of the most lucrative poetry prizes in the world.

"Eunoia" (which means "beautiful thinking") is the shortest word in the English language to contain all 5 vowels. In Christian Bök's "univocal lipogram," each of five chapters is restricted to the use of a single vowel. As well, each chapter alludes to the art of writing, and describes a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau, and a nautical voyage.

Alice Notley's Disobedience takes a chisel to the "orthodoxies of political power, sex and philosophy." Notley has an uncompromising poetic stance: "It's necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against ... everything."

Favorite Poets and Recommended Reading

Reading poetry is a very personal experience in which the poem is a kind of catalyst bringing the reader in intimate contact with the poet's vision and awakening a resonating feeling. The kind of poetry that works as a catalyst for one reader may not for another. Every poet offers a unique and different way of seeing the world in which we live, and ultimately you will be drawn to those whose vision resonants with your own inner world.

I like poetry that deals most immediately with the practical experience of living. I have an affinity for those poets whose language is not arcane or drenched in obscure allusions. I am attracted to poetry that is, above all, accessible, and which, with a little effort, can be comprehended without a doctorate in literature. And please don't misunderstand me here: I am an advocate of the curious and educated mind. A good poem always requires some effort to break though the shell to get at the meat. A good poem challenges the reader to look at the world in a fresh way. But if the poem is so dense and cryptic that the reader is left out in the cold, then I think the poet has as good as cut out his own tongue. For those of you who would like some useful guidance on how to enhance your appreciation of poems, I would recommend the book, How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch. This is a highly readable, insightful book, which has something to offer to all readers of poetry.

Some of my favorite poets include Wislawa Szymborska, Philip Larkin, Pablo Neruda and Irving Layton. I also enjoy, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Al Purdy, Ruth Stone, and Galway Kinnell, but this list is by no means exhaustive. For a very concise, but thoughtful critical analysis of the poetry of Philip Larkin, you might wish to read Writers and Their Work: Philip Larkin by Laurence Lerner.

Fiction, Autobiography and the Writer

Recently when Richard Ford was interviewed about his lastest book, "A Multitude of Sins," the interviewer tried to probe a bit into his personal life, with the justification that our understanding of a writer's work is enriched when we know something of his or her more private world. Ford resisted this intrusion into his personal life, and commemted that a literary work is intended to stand on its own merits. He added that he never bothers to read the biographies of other writers. While watching the interview, I was reminded of another interview with Margaret Atwood some years ago. In that interview, she bristled at the suggestion that her novels were in any way autobiographical. In a more recent interview, her stance on this issue was less bellicose, almost conciliatory, with the acknowlegement that personal experience is an ingredient in all fiction writing.

Why does the characterization of a work of fiction as autobiographical stir up such fear and revulsion in some novelists? It hinges on the belief that autobiographical fiction is not real fiction, but at best a thinly disguised account of personal grumblings and misadventures, and as such has no broader social and philosophical value. (You may wish to ponder whether so called confessional poetry, which I myself sometimes succumb to, falls in this category.)

In my view, this distinction between autobiographical and real fiction is specious, and certainly if one looks at some of the great writers, autobiographical elements are woven to varying degrees into their works. Take, for example, these works: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, to name a few. Ultimately, the writer must rely on his personal experience to shape his literary creation, and the greatness of the artist's work is determined by how effectively he uses that raw material to say something important and in a fresh way about the human condition. The Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno in his engaging, and highly personal work, The Tragic Sense of Life, had this to say: "All biography is autobiography and every autobiography is nothing less than a novel." An idea worth chewing on.

Oh, and by the way, if you're looking for an engrossing set of stories of ordinary folk in tangled situations, and the artful ability of the psyche to self-deceive and obfuscate, read A Multitude of Sins. It's a great book!

Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks"

I heard Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" for the first time in Toronto in 1969. I can still remember the occasion. I would be hard pressed to recall the time and circumstances of any other album or CD I purchased in my life. The fact that I can still vividly recall when I first heard the songs on that album speaks to the strong emotions they evoked at the time. I had wandered into Sam's on Yonge Street, feeling somewhat alienated from myself, and as it happened, "Astral Weeks" was playing. It took a few moments to realize it was Van Morrison singing. I had listened to Van Morrison's earlier "Brown Eyed Girl" on the radio, liked its catchy melody and lyrics, but never really thought much else. "Astral Weeks" was like no other music I had ever heard before, and it immediately evoked a rush of feelings. I lingered in Sam's, listening to the entire album. To my mind not only is "Astral Weeks" Van Morrison's best musical creation, but it stands as one of the greatest musical achievements of modern day songwriters and singers. I never tire of listening to it, and if I had to choose a half dozen musical works to take with me across the Styx, this would certainly be one of them.

Various interpretations have been given to the meanings of the songs. Some insighful comments can be found on the Van Morrison Website and on MustHear.com. In the final analysis, however, the power of the music comes from the very personal emotions it unleashes in the listener.

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