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Book Review: Where the Words Come From

It has often been remarked, usually by poets, that the only people who read poetry books are other poets--and students who need the course credit. Perhaps too cynical, but not without a nugget of truth. The reality is that only the rare poet can make a living at his craft. Given the economic reality of writing and selling works of poetry, I am always a bit astounded to find a modestly large poetry section in mainstream bookstores. These lugubrious thoughts were circling in the back of my mind when I picked up a copy of Where the Words Come From, a recently published book of conversations between established and younger poets on their craft and its relevance in today's world, edited by Tim Bowling. You may already have decided to select yourself out of reading this review further, and I understand. The primary readers of this book will be poets and students--and a handful of poetry critics.

Well, enough said on readership. In Where the Words Come From, P. K. Page, Michael Ondaatje, Don McKay, and Margaret Avison, to name a few, offer candid portraits of life as a poet. In this unique exchange of ideas between poets, I find much to value: thoughtful discussions of the elusive power of metaphor; reflections on the technical aspects of line breaks in free verse, and the dual character of poetry as a visual and aural art form; and other morsels, including how poets think about their own work and the larger question of poetry's place in society.

While the theme of poetry reaching toward something larger than itself is woven throughout the interviews, it was an eye-opener that several established poets voiced disillusionment with the place accorded to poets in today's society. Sharon Thesen comments: "Poetry seems always to be down at the police station confessing its crimes and promising to behave better in the future." More than one poet voices regret that poetry readings these days have degenerated to farcical, exhibitionistic events, that "may as well be fart-lighting contests." In commenting on the personal impact of reviews and awards, Roo Borson says, "The question is whether the work is valued or not, and there are very few indicators of that, and the indicators that exist are faulty." This theme recurs enough times to leave one with the impression that poets--at least Canadian poets--feel very much marginalized.

Time will tell what impression these poets will leave on the history of verse, but for anyone seriously interested in the craft of poetry, I would encourage you to veer toward your favorite bookstore and pick up a copy of this book. It offers a unique and intimate look at the rewards and challenges of being a poet in our time. Sharon Thesen at one point in conversation with Helen Humphreys remarks, "Poets always have an aura of aloneness." It is a vein that runs just below the surface in many of the conversations. In reaching toward a fresh vision not dragged down by language, in arching across gaps of awareness, perhaps ironically a degree of aloneness, of separation, is essential to the poet's survival. In a strange way, there is a kind of comfort in knowing that this sense of aloneness is a shared experience.

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