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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Touch the Donkey : thirtieth issue,

The THIRTIETH issue is now available, with new poems by Dana Teen Lomax, Amanda Auerbach, Jay Millar, Cat Tyc, IAN MARTIN, Paige Carabello, Emma Tilley and Jack Jung.

Eight dollars (includes shipping). My good looks paid for that pool, and my talent filled it with water!

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

TtD supplement #192 : six questions for Robert Hogg

Robert Hogg was born in Edmonton, Alberta, grew up in the Cariboo and Fraser Valley in British Columbia, and attended UBC during the early Sixties where he was associated with the Vancouver TISH poets, co-edited MOTION- a prose newsletter, and graduated with a BA in English and Creative Writing. More recently he published three chapbooks: from LAMENTATIONS, Ottawa: above/ground, 2016. Two Cariboo poems, Ranch Days – The McIntosh from hawk/weed press in Kemptville, Ontario, and Ranch Days—for Ed Dorn from battleaxe press (2019).

His poems “Particles of One – a Novel Upanishad,” “The Climb,” “A Single Moment” and “Carved in Sound” appear in the twenty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Particles of One – a Novel Upanishad,” “The Climb,” “A Single Moment” and “Carved in Sound.”

Tell me about “Particles of One – a Novel Upanishad.”
 
“Particles of One” is a poem which I originally “wrote” back in 1977. It was stolen wholesale from the Upanishads wch I’d been reading during that period of my life as I strove to make sense out of our Western existence by listening to Eastern mysticism. That not very original original remained unpublished, largely because I’d not been able to transform it into something substantively my own. It went like this:

He is My Self within the Heart

Smaller than a grain of rice
smaller than a grain of barley
smaller than a mustard seed
smaller than a grain of millet
greater than the mid-region
greater than heaven
greater than all the worlds
 

Chhandogya Upanishad III, xiv, 2-3.


1977-04-29. As orig pencil handwritten page on 5 X 8 white paper. This was taken from my copy of The Upanishads - a one volume abridgement translated and edited by Swami Nikhilananda, Harper Torchbooks, 1963, p 300. Taken verbatim from this text except that “He is my Self within the heart” is repeated after millet in the Upanishad. Retyped 2020-07-23 at wch point no other copy has been found.

When I revisited it I remembered that the gist of the original was the discovery and description of the Atman, which in Hinduism represents the soul, or the true self, which is directly connected to Brahman, or the God behind all things, and is quite distinct from our notion of the self as ego. I was taken by the interplay of images to indicate minuteness on the one hand and infinitude on the other. I felt there was something cloying about the line which I removed from the center of the poem and placed it above as a kind of title, or introduction to the statement. But that didn’t free up the poem all that much!

Last summer when I re-encountered it as a typed ms I decided to see if I cd rework it and bring it to shape as a poem. The first objective was to get rid of that title with something more apt for the poem. I devolved on the following. As you’ll see, I put the entire piece in italics to indicate it had been lifted from the Upanishads:

Atman   

He is My Self within the Heart

    Smaller than a grain of rice
     smaller than a grain of millet
smaller than a mustard seed

He is my Self within the heart

Greater than the mid-region
     greater than heaven
    greater than all the worlds


Chhandogya Upanishad III, xiv, 2-3

1977-04-29; Rev: Mtn:  2020-07-23. In revising I removed the line about barley to create balance. Atman is not specifically mentioned in this part of the Upanishad, but it struck me that this is exactly what is referred to by the self within, Brahman within..

It wasn’t until the next revision that I found the courage to dispense with the cloying phrase that had bothered me from the outset. This line, which is important to the original prayer being spoken, needed to be excised if the ‘poem’ was to emerge from the Upanishad and stand as a contemporary statement, for what I felt now.

           Atman   

    Smaller than a grain of rice
     smaller than a grain of millet
smaller than a mustard seed

Greater than the mid-world
     greater than heaven
    greater than all the worlds


Chhandogya Upanishad III, xiv, 2-3

RLH: ?: 1977-04-19; Rev: Mtn:  2020-07-23

So now it was the bald statement of the condition without qualification which I suspect I was after from the outset—but who knows that, since I did not achieve that aim forty-three years before. The body of the ‘poem’ is now in italics to indicate it derived from the Upanishad noted below the poem.

So, what was wrong with it in that format? In one sense, nothing. It repeated what, essentially, was the ancient wisdom that I sought to imbibe and relate to others. But it still wasn’t mine, and while it was ancient, it did not achieve a contemporaneity which I hoped the poem would have. What’s the point of reiterating old doctrine in a poem? That can be had by reading the original text. I wanted the poem to speak from the past but to the present; and to this end I asked myself, what are the modern equivalents of those values, or valences, represented by the images in the Upanishads. I’d been thinking of late about our own macro and micro universes and how from one century to another these change as our knowledge and understanding of our World changes. Then I hit on this, and as I did, the italics gave way to regular text once again:

Atman Revisited

    Smaller than a molecule
     smaller than an atom
smaller than an electron even

Greater than the solar system
     greater than the Milky Way
    greater than all the Galaxies combined

from the Chhandogya Upanishad III, xiv, 2-3
RLH: 1977-04-29; Rev: Mtn:  2020-07-23-24

This was the ‘great leap’ if you like that I made in the process of revising the piece, and it was at this juncture that I realized it was now both my poem, and an ancient perspective presented in a new light. The title indicated that the poem still addressed what the Upanishad was delineating—the discovery and description of the soul. But the title, while true to the ‘old’ was untrue to the new. What was I really getting at, aiming for? The title was holding back the final poem. I thought about particle physics, what little I know, and this is the result:

The Particle Self

    Smaller than an atom
     smaller than an electron
smaller even than a quark

Greater than the solar system
     greater than the Milky Way
    greater than all the Galaxies combined

spiraling in
spiraling out

simultaneously
the same

from the Chhandogya Upanishad III, xiv, 2-3
RLH: 1977-04-29; Rev: Mtn:  2020-07-23-24

But as you can see, that wasn’t the whole of it. While writing this draft, I picked up on the rhythm that had been spiraling in and spiraling out, and yet aiming for a still point or stasis to bring the movement to resolution—to one motion, or one moment. So the poem no longer ended with “Galaxies combined” but drew attention to this diastolic movement of the universe, and of the breath. But what was spiraling in and out that connected this to the human condition? Something was still missing, and this came in a kind of crescendo with the final revision:

Particles of One – a Novel Upanishad

    Smaller than an atom
     Smaller than an electron
Smaller even than a quark

Greater than the solar system
     Greater than the Milky Way
    Greater than all the galaxies combined

    The universe
spiraling in

The self
    spiraling out

     multiple

simultaneous

     one

[from the Chhandogya Upanishad III, xiv, 2-3 – revised]
RLH: 1977-04-29; Rev: Mtn:  2020-07-23-24

What happened? Well, several things. The title lost reference to “the self” completely, and this was replaced by what both the Atman and the Brahman represent, and that is the multiplicity of the universe contained within—either God or the Self. ‘One’ has to operate here as the term which incorporates this conception. All along I’d recognized that what I was trying to compose was something new and relevant from something ancient, timeless and still relevant, but possibly not as a poem. What I was striving for was a “new” Upanishad, but new in the sense that such a truth, realized, is continuously “new” in the sense Whitehead infers when he says that all events are both “novel events” and “eternal events” simultaneously. Hence, “a Novel Upanishad” and, hopefully, a re-enactment of the old. In the closing lines both the universe and the self are seen to be spiraling in and out simultaneously, and hopefully, in the process, they become one.  If the poem works as a ‘novel Upanishad’ then this process of simultaneity occurs, and the poem succeeds in its journey. If not, well, I tried.

Tell me about  “A Single Moment”


This is another of those Lost Poems from the Seventies which at the time didn’t make it for me, and so was interred in a drawer for decades. When I revisited it there was something about the immediacy, simplicity of it which struck me as a value, though for some reason it didn’t “work” or “ring true” to the experience. The poem is about feeling the need to ask permission to enjoy oneself, and in particular, to indulge in the pleasure of one’s own fragrance. It’s far less brash than Whitman’s astonishing remark in Song of Myself: “The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer.” I wasn’t going that far! And why, after such ground had long ago been broken, did I still need permission to express self-satisfaction? I couldn’t answer that question then, and I can no more answer it today. But what I did find when I returned to the poem, was that both myself and the writing needed ‘freeing up’. But in what way? Here’s the original draft:

[A Single Moment]

Why shouldn’t I
for a single moment enjoy
the soft
smell of my hair
[and]when the odor
of sandalwood
incense
sweetens the air
This was immediately followed in the handwritten copy with the following:

Why shouldn’t I
for a single moment
enjoy

the sweet smelling fragrance
of my newly
washed hair

RLH: Mtn: 1975-11-18. As orig two pencil handwritten copies on note paper—drafts one and two.

Curiously, in trying to ‘free up’ the experience and the poem, my first instinct was to restrict the form, and rewrite it as two tercets. That was a good instinct, one which when I returned to the poem decades later, I immediately overlooked. This version also acquired a sense of balance between the two stanzas, by syllable count and by stress. It might have been a good idea to leave it as such. Perhaps it had achieved its goal. Looking back at the subsequent revisions, I note that I had included the adjective “sweet” in this first revision, but then excised it in all subsequent versions except the last. Did it suggest something sentimental or cloying? Newly washed hair is soft, so why not replace it with that, and get the added verve of suggesting a fragrance can be soft too. Nothing wrong with a touch of synesthesia! The first recent revision ignored the stanza patterning, and went like this:

Why shouldn’t I
for a single moment
enjoy
the soft smell
of my newly
washed hair

Draft three was short lived! And it was quickly succeeded by one which reverted to stanzaic patterning, only this time preferring couplets. The first line became two lines, the second line as well:

Why shouldn’t
I

for a single
moment

enjoy
my

newly
washed hair

That was draft four: what was wrong with this? Well, it left out too much for one; and it had a very awkward stanza as a kind of hinge between the question and the resolve, “enjoy / my”. Not much to enjoy in that bald transition. Better try something else!

Why shouldn’t
I for a

single
moment

enjoy
the soft

smell
of

my newly
washed hair

Now, with draft five, we are gaining some balance, again; though I’m not sure it is an improvement over the first revision in tercets, but it is striving for a unique rhythm. But the second line is deadly dull, and immediately undoes the ‘movement’ the poem is attempting to achieve. It rings artificial, forced. Get rid of  it! And so this, draft six:

Why shouldn’t
I

for a single
moment

enjoy the soft
smell

of my newly
washed hair

RLH: 1975-11-18; Rev: 2020-07-14.

All the above revisions (drafts three – six) were accomplished at a single sitting in July 2020.  The poem now has balance once again; in fact, it reads exactly as WC Williams famous Red Wheelbarrow in terms of stanzaic structure and rhythm: the opening is almost a parody of: “ So much / depends”. That’s alright too, but it is not what the poem had meant to accomplish. What to do? Go back to the first revision, in tercets, and let that suffice? Or strive for something wholly different in form. That’s when I decided to try using a central margin, to see if that were apt for the statement. I meant to simply restructure it as four couplets, and it began that way. But by the third stanza, the word “sweet” slipped back into the poem, and the balance was reset immediately. Look what happens to the four stanza structure. The lines of the third stanza shrink back, and form a truncated stanza, which is now followed by others in the same manner, or pattern. Words seem to become viable in their own right, able to command a single line. This had already been heralded as soon as I’d given, above, the word “I” a line to itself in draft four, though it was temporarily abandoned. For some reason the couplets, more austere in their brevity, lend a new impetus toward progressing to an end. The idea that the self is at the center of the action becomes more apparent when it occupies not just a line, but the central place in its own line. In this new form, the poem seems bound toward its conclusion, and trips its way to that end in a quite different set of patternings than any of the previous versions. I’m aware that writing on a central margin can seem gimmicky, and I seldom employ it. For me, this is an example when it not only works, but leads the poem forward even as it absorbs back into itself the word which has become something like a missing link, “sweet”.

A Single Moment 

Why shouldn’t
I
 

for a single
moment
 

enjoy
the sweet
 

soft
smell
 

of my
newly
 

washed
hair
 

RLH: 1975-11-18; Rev: 2020-07-14.


Tell me about “Carved in Sound” 2021

The handwritten first draft of this poem was composed in Langley BC in August of 1970 during a visit Leslie and I made by train two years after I’d started teaching at Carleton University. The poem was written in pencil on the back side of a piece of Carleton University Dept of English stationery. Several corrections were made in this pencil draft, likely at the time of writing, though no dates are given for the corrections. When I stumbled across this draft of the poem I had to make some arbitrary decisions about what would have been my choice between original material and added material—and this was not possible to discern in all cases. Hence when I first typed it up in July, 2020, I simply had to make choices based on an educated guess. I’ve scanned the original and included it here as an example of handwriting no poet should admit to having.

By the time I wrote this poem, I’d had long affection for John Coltrane’s music, and had written poems for him while an undergraduate at UBC around 1962-64. Later, in Buffalo doing grad work and recovering from an illness, I’d written one of the poems in The Connexions for his album, and called it ‘Poem to Out of this World and Soul Eyes’ after his own record title. How I happened to have a copy of Expression at my parents’ home in Langley is beyond my comprehension—likely, I’d picked it up somewhere en route.

  

[A Sunday Afternoon in August]

A Sunday afternoon in August [1970]
a cool day 3 years after
Coltrane’s death

[It is simply]
Sunday afternoon
kittens & cats
asleep all over
the house, my wife
[asleep] on the couch
my father
[sleeps] in the bedroom
[and doesn’t move]
my mother
writes letters at the table
and John Coltrane
plays beautiful
Expression
three years after
his [own] time

                sweet tenor sax
                no silent
                these past 3 years
        [and] Alice on [the] piano
        [more lovely than I had remembered]        left hand
        [quick & clear]                                 and right hand
        [bass & treble]                                            like night and day
        [distinct as night]                                        together
        [and day]                                                     a range
        and Coltrane                                                of music
        in there
        hearing the entire scale
        a range of music, a rangement
        of sound
        all his own
        a sculpture of music
        carved in sound

RLH: ? Aug 1970 as per handwritten draft. This was typed up in July 2020 and printed, but the typescript was somehow erased, and I’ve had to retype it from my typed drafts as I come back to it for discussion, 2021-05-02 10:01 PM. While from the outset, the poem ended with the phrase, “carved in sound,” it did not at first have a title, and when I typed it, I simply called it by the first line of the poem. That’s not a bad title, but it does not drive one to the heart of the poem which is the sculpted nature of Coltrane’s music in the album Expression wch I had been listening to. This first draft does not mention that I had played an LP on a turntable at my parents’ house, probably because that was the only media likely to be in use. It does mention that Coltrane had died in 1967, something which seemed extraneous by the second draft. This was left for the second draft in which “my wife” becomes “Leslie” wch is more specific and “my father” becomes simply “father” for brevity, and “my mother” becomes simply “mother” for the same reason. The word “rangement,” which I coined, was not originally written in italics; I later changed this because otherwise it looks like an abbreviation for “arrangement” and that is not the full intent, but rather a sense of the capacity and scope of the music extracted from the full range of the keyboard Coltrane and his wife, Alice, are accomplishing together.

Carved in Sound

A cool day in August
kittens & cats
asleep all over
the house
     Leslie
napping
on the couch
     my father
old now
sleeping in
the bedroom
     mother
writing letters
at [the kitchen ]
table
     John Coltrane’s
Expression
[on the turntable]
playing
     beautiful
sweet tenor sax
now silent
these many years
     Alice on piano
more lovely than I
remembered
     quick & clear
left hand and
right like
night and day
together
a range
of music    
     and Coltrane                
in there
hearing the entire
keyboard
a kind of
rangement
of sound
equally
his own
     his horn
a sculpture of music
carved [in sound] 
RLH: Langley BC: Aug 1970; Rev: Mtn: 2020-07-19.
In the final version of the poem, which was rewritten to appeal to a contemporary magazine in 2020, and then rejected, “Leslie” reverted to being the generic “wife” so that the poem would not sound unduly provincial, and the turntable was removed to obscure the fact that the poem had been composed several decades ago. These are not noble revisions, and perhaps they should one day be overturned. The most notable revision occurs in the final lines where the rather inactive “sculpture of music” acquires a more colorful description and active expression, “ his horn / a sculpted / music carved / in sound.” The implication in the revision is that it is the physical horn that is re-sculpted, that is re-made, in a new medium, that of music itself. But of course we understand the term “horn” also as a synecdoche for the music that it alone can produce. “Horn” is an interesting word here because it refers colloquially to the tenor sax for which Coltrane was famous, and not a trumpet, as might usually be the case. Adding to the pressure of the revision is the effect gained by putting “music carved” together in one line; now it indicates both an act as well as a kind of ongoing state of being. It is music that is being carved; and it is carved music simultaneously. This is what the poem is trying to convey about the pleasure of listening to John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane exploring a rangement of sound.

Carved in Sound

A cool day in August
kittens & cats
asleep all over
the house
     wife
napping
on the couch
     father
old now
sleeping in
the bedroom
     mother
writing letters
at the kitchen
table
     John Coltrane’s
Expression
playing
     beautiful
sweet tenor sax
now silent
these many years
     Alice on piano
more lovely than I
remembered
     quick & clear
left hand and
right like
night and day
together
a range
of music    
     and Coltrane
in there
hearing the entire
keyboard
a kind of
rangement
of sound
equally
his own
     his horn
a sculpted
music carved
in sound

RLH: Langley BC: Aug 1970; Rev: Mtn: 2020-07-19; 2020-08-25;

Tell Me About “The Climb”.


“The Climb” goes back two years before “Particles of Light.” In its first draft it opened, without a title, with emphasis on the notion of making an attempt at some form of ascent. It would be hard to tell from those few lines that this might be a spiritual ascent as well as a physical one. But it was composed after reading, in translation, Henry Corbin’s introduction to Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. I had been focusing particularly on p 16 of that text when I wrote this portion in black pencil on yellow paper.

[The Climb]

the gesture, the gesture!
I seem to be
climbing [up]
the mountain
after everyone [else]
has left . [gone]

RLH: Mtn: 1975-11-26.

In several related poems of the time I’d been playing with the irony that while I live in a place called Mountain, Ontario, there is in fact no mountain even within sight, let alone on the flat farmland of our area. The township got its name from the Anglican Archbishop, Jacob Mountain, a British émigré who resided primarily in Quebec City, and never set foot on the township that bears his name. So there is a half-secret touch of humor in the metaphor of “climbing up the mountain” which necessarily becomes quite metaphorical in the circumstances. But “climbing” is also a reference to making a spiritual ascent, and in the philosophy of Avicenna, whom I’d been reading at the time, this means a retreat from the phenomenal world to discover the original Self. So “the ascent” is really a “going back” to discover what one has lost by being so wrapped up in the world. As Corbin points out, the process is one of re-Orientation back to an original spiritual condition which we have lost in our worldliness, our world-journey. In Avicenna’s philosophy, this process is called, ta-wil, “to cause to return, to lead back, to restore to one’s origin and to the place where one comes home…” (Corbin 29). To the question “where are we…a geographical point is no answer “(16). “Avicenna’s great answer [is that] it is on condition of being oneself transposed in posing the question that it becomes possible to orient oneself…permitting the soul thus to free itself from all the schemata of the world.” In concluding this opening section of his Introduction, Corbin twice uses the phrase “the gesture” which I stole, and repeated, for the opening words of the first draft of my poem: “The undertaking here is not to analyze the historical circumstances of the gesture, but to attempt really to see what the gesture points out” (16).

On the same day, November 26th 1975, I had also transcribed, or boldly stolen, several lines from G.M. Hopkins sonnet, “No Worst, There is None.” as follows, and unconnected to what I’d just written:

    O the mind
mind has mountains

cliffs of fall
frightful
              sheer
                      no-man-fathomed

    Hold them cheap
may
    who ne’er hung there.


And I had also typed, as a revision of the handwritten draft, the following:

O ludicrous gesture
I seem to be
climbing the mountain
after everyone else
has left.

I then made several half-hearted attempts at reshaping the above two passages, and thus began the process of trying to bring them together, though for the most part they still retained separate identities.  All this back in 1975. Then when I returned to rework the poem, or poems, I quickly created the following draft on June 29th, 2020.

[The Climb]    

O the mind
mind has mountains
cliffs of fall


and all that

    you got it right
Reverend Hopkins
sheer terror
looking down from
such heights

    Only I seem to be
climbing the mountain
after everyone else
has left

    And I haven’t met
anyone
on their way
down

Revision of 2020-06-29.

So now, the two parts have been brought together, though not very satisfactorily. Salient phrases from Hopkins have been excised utterly and his person is now treated with less respect than he likely deserves, “you got it right” I say, as though he might have gotten it wrong, which is unlikely. So in the next revision, below,  “frightful’ is allowed back in, and the somewhat glib phrase, “and all that” is allowed to remain.

[The Climb] [ Pitched Past] [Doubt]

O the mind
mind has mountains
cliffs of fall
frightful


and all that

    you got it right
Reverend Hopkins
sheer terror
looking down from
such heights

    Only I seem to be
climbing the mountain
after everyone else
has left

    And I haven’t met
anyone
on their way
down

Revised: Mtn: 2020-06-29

Small changes, but such is the process of revision. In the final version, the phrase, “you got it right” is replaced with “you got that right” where I hope the emphasis falls on “that” which emphasizes the fear I also experience—so it is more of a mutual confirmation, than a somewhat slighting comment on Hopkins’ reckoning. Shifting from mere “heights” to “doubtful heights” adds the apprehension and doubt I also experience in my own spiritual climb, so I am building affinity with the priest. Then too there is the possibility that what is in doubt is the entire spiritual quest for truth and understanding—the possibility that the ta’wil won’t be accomplished. The words “seem to be” are replaced with “I’m still /  looking up.” And “left” is replaced with the more indicative “gone”. Gone where, we might ask? Is it possible that others are not even bothering with the climb?

The Climb    

     O the mind
mind has mountains
cliffs of fall
frightful


    You got that right
Reverend Hopkins
sheer terror
looking down
from such
doubtful heights

    Only I’m still
looking up
climbing the mountain
after everyone else
has gone

    And I haven’t met
anyone
coming down

    Whom then shall I
hold cheap
     who ne’er hung there


 Rev: Mtn: 2020-06-29

Substantive changes in this penultimate revision with the addition of three lines at the end, two of which are new material from Hopkins. In his poem, Hopkins compares his suffering over a lack of conviction in his faith to those for whom the question never arises…those who don’t much think about their faith because they can’t face the horror that they may thus fall to perdition.  Taken over into my poem, I had hoped the implication would rather suggest that the poem itself is an act, a leap, of faith. And those who have not felt the fear of hanging over the abyss of uncertainty can never really experience the sheer terror. But at the same time I wonder whether I have the right, for it suggests a kind of elitism, a glory in the accomplishment. Perish the thought! And me with it! So, this entire last stanza gets excised for the finished, and publishable version of the poem. The bidirectional implication is meant to be both painful and humorous. It may be that such spiritual exercise is no longer viable, no longer current, and that the poet/seeker is on a lonely and frightful misadventure.

The Climb    

     O the mind
mind has mountains
cliffs of fall
frightful


    You got that right
Reverend Hopkins
sheer terror
looking down
from such
doubtful heights

    Only I’m still
looking up
climbing the mountain
after everyone else
has gone

    And I haven’t met
anyone
coming down

Rev: Mtn: 2020-06-29; 2020-07-28.

Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: All the above poems were written decades ago. What connects them to the present is the fact that I went back, dug them out of a pile of mss, and worked on each one and then another because they had, in my estimation, promise, and were likely decent poems in their own right when I’d composed them. So that was a process of rewriting and bringing to life. What I’m doing now that that work is pretty well completed is concentrating on my current status as a pretty old guy with a still pretty young mind. I’m as much in love with the world as I ever was, despite the tribulations I’ve been through.

Back in December I was feeling out of sorts, and particularly aggrieved, but could not quite capture what was haunting me. Finally, whatever it was, broke through and I wrote a longish poem called Not This Afternoon, the title of which suggests that something is threatening me, but I don’t know what for sure it is or when it will strike. Repeatedly in the poem I blurt out the phrase, this dirty little fucker death…wch seems to be on me like a succubus, following me in from an excursion to pick up some senior cat chow for our cat Missy who is 18 and frail as a ghost. However, she turns out to be something of a stand in for myself, since her problem is partly solved with a new case of specialty food, and she is not especially plagued by her circumstance. The poem revealed to me something that was happening in my body but which I had no obvious clue for understanding. A few weeks later I began to feel pain in my tongue and mouth, and when I had this diagnosed, finally, in April, it turned out to be a small tumor on my tongue. That poem was my early warning signal—the best I could produce. I felt like an alarmist showing it to friends in December, but secretly I knew trouble was brewing. Since then there has been a whirlwind diagnosis and a particularly brutal operation to remove the portion of my tongue that was cancerous. So, for nearly a month I was in no condition whatsoever to write anything, and certainly not poetry. The operation was May 18th 2021 and I was discharged the 6th of June. Just two days ago on June 12th, I was able to write about both this cancer and my previous bout 10 years ago wch had been treated with radiation, a terribly drawn out and severe treatment. So my current writing, which has culminated in a poem called For Some Time Still, has been very much in keeping with my current situation. And needless to say, writing this kind of response to one’s life and death experience is exacting in a high degree. If these two poems are the equivalent to the diagnosis and surgery that I have just undergone, then they are pretty much of the same measure. The writing of these two poems is much more akin to the writing of The Connexions back in 1964-65 which documented my near death from hepatitis.

Q: I don’t know too many writers who would return to rework pieces from such a long time ago. I, for one, would find it far easier to move forward from scratch than to try to re-enter an older piece of writing for the sake of reworking it as a finished piece. What compelled you to return to such an earlier point in your writing, and what do you feel you’ve learned through the process?

A: A couple of years ago when I began to take stock of my writing, both published and unpublished, I was surprised by how much I had written, yet how little I’d sought to publish in book form. For example, I had written several short stories and plays while in Vancouver. I had published some of the short stories in MOTION magazine wch I co-edited with David Cull in 1962-63. One remains unpublished in any format. But it never particularly occurred to me to put them together as a book. They are good work, and I’d like to see them come out either as a small collection, or within a Selected Writings. The plays represent a side of my life which I found it wise not to publicize while I had an academic career, since they dealt with the drug taking world of my youth at UBC. But they represent something important for the times, and for my own development as a writer, and I will likely go back and revise them for possible publication. I don’t think they are great ‘theatre’. But one, a verse play called The Marijuana People – a Noh Play, provides some very interesting spiritual insights into the ritualized practice of smoking dope communally.

The poetry I wrote during my early years surprised me by its quality and intensity. I remembered many of these poems, while others were not so familiar. As a young poet in Vancouver I did not feel that much of my poetry had as yet reached a quality that I hoped to achieve. In retrospect, I believe this diffidence was also just plain uncertainty and shyness. TISH was the main venue for publishing poetry in those early years, and few of the poems I submitted were accepted. As a consequence I sought publication elsewhere and sent one of the best poems of my career off to a magazine in Idaho called Wild Dog. The poem was the five part Ranch Days which has recently, revised, come out as a chapbook, called Ranch Days—for Ed Dorn. The poem was occasioned by a spirited reading Ed gave at UBC in the winter of 1962, and as a result I felt free to tap into my childhood experience on the ranch. I don’t recall whether it was rejected by TISH. I think, rather, I felt rejected by TISH, as did many young writers, and sent it off to a mag which felt like a sympathetic outlet.

Now, around the same time, I wrote another poem about the burning down of our ranch house in 1962 ten years after we’d left it. The story was tragic, and it affected me considerably. Whether I submitted that poem anywhere I don’t now recall. But it went into storage, and stayed there along with numerous short poems from this period. When I unearthed it recently, I found it quite good and in need of only minor revision. I did publish some poems in TISH after the first editorial board pretty well all left Vancouver. So, as I browsed through my mss of these early Vancouver poems it occurred to me that I’d done them an injustice by not seeing them into book form, even though several were anthologized. Some of the poems I returned to did not warrant a rewriting, and I’ve either trashed them, or left them in a file of Dubious Poems. Some required almost no revision, while others, like one for my first wife was so bad that I salvaged only the title, and rewrote the experience completely anew as the recent Chapbook, A Quiet Affair – Vancouver ’63. The title, Not to Call it Chaos, I saved for the title of the complete book from the period: Not to Call it Chaos – The Vancouver Poems. The poems in that book are a powerful reflection of my life at UBC and in the underground drug world of the time. They also speak candidly of early romances and a failed marriage—all subjects I felt uncomfortable revealing during my ensuing years as a young and re-married academic.

Numerous poems were written during my time in NYC and Buffalo between 1964-1968 before I left to teach at Carleton in Ottawa. In the spring of 1965 I chose a selection that seemed to me to make a tight-fitting first volume of poems with a common theme—none too obvious to the casual reader—of my illness and near death from hepatitis which I’d come down with in NYC and which I finally healed from in Buffalo during the spring of 1965. That short book became The Connexions. Numerous poems I’d written both in Vancouver and in New York state, did not get included—not because they weren’t deserving of publication, but because to my mind, they didn’t “fit” the structure of that book. By the time my second book of poems, Standing Back, came out with Coach House press in 1972, some of those poems seemed out of keeping with a much more restrained sensibility which by now had become my style. Anything that smacked of premarital relationships now seemed out of bounds, and anything which related to my drug-taking past had to be expunged. Only lately in retirement have I been able to put these past experiences into perspective and simply say, ‘that was me then.’  So the sad truth is that much of my youthful expression was suppressed or self-censored for the sake of presenting a respectable character. So on the one hand I was salvaging lost poems, but also a lost youth which these poems continue to express. The hardest part of revising, from a 50 odd year perspective, is to not undo that youthful vigor which beset those original poems while applying some of the craft learned over the decades since.

In many cases I felt as though I were giving that young poet advice on how to present ideas succinctly and dynamically. For the most part, this meant paring down for immediacy rather than adding much by way of explanation. For many years I believed that a published poem was a finished article. I’ve since learned from colleagues, especially from Daphne Marlatt, that one’s work is always evolving, and that it is quite legitimate, right until the end of one’s life, to take another look, and hear a different music. Some early poems seem to invite this more than others. My own method has been simply to reread them to myself, and where I hear or sense a deficiency in expression, to try something new. Sometimes the revision is immediate, and other times I’ve passed the revision to a friend or two for comment. And, of course, what one learns in the process of revision, whether of early or of recent writing, is how to write better. Judicious revision is its own reward.

Q: How do you feel your work has developed over the years you’ve been writing and publishing? What do you see yourself working towards?

A: From my earliest days at UBC I was curious to learn how to write effective poetry. And like all the poets associated with TISH, I found the solution had to be in discovering a form that was suitable to what I might try to say. The poetry I’d been exposed to in high school was almost exclusively written in traditional forms, with a few exceptions which would have included poems by ee cummings, Stephen Spender, Carl Sandburg, and Earle Birney—the only Canadian poet I recall having read. I don’t recall having read Walt Whitman. We used a fairly large anthology of poetry in our grade 12 class—I can see it in my mind’s eye, but can’t recall the title—it was pink and thick, and must have been a Canadian publication because Birney’s WW II poem, “Vancouver Lights,” was included. I left my copy behind when I headed east in 1964.

The year I started at UBC, Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry came out and we all bought our copies. We walked around talking about the poems we encountered there, most for the first time, and quickly became engaged with the essays on poetics at the end of the volume. First and foremost, Olson’s “Essay on Projective Verse” captured our interest. It’s a difficult essay to read, even today, but in 1960 it seemed nearly impenetrable. At the same time it was decisively written and placed great demands on the reader/writer to pay attention to pretty much everything in his/her world.

Most important I think was the notion that the form of a poem would be decided by the writing process itself, not presupposed by convention. We quickly learned that this was not something you could figure out and simply utilize. It was not so much a technique, as a form of listening. Listening to what? And that became for each of us our own defining action. Olson and his contemporaries were very much engaged in the physical quality of poetry, and equally in the material reality of the world that engaged their attention. As Olson’s poetics became better understood to us, we recognized that we were engaged in a very similar dynamic. It had little to do with nationality, and everything to do with place, the uniqueness of one’s place, and also the peculiarity of one’s being IN that place, of taking up space there—intentionally.

Such intentionality properly felt by the individual allows one to relate to every one, and every thing, that surrounds us. It is inclusion with distinction, and it is a reckoning with sameness and difference in social and spatial understanding. We were less concerned about grand notions of Humanity and Universal Truth and such, and more concerned to find a way to communicate our appreciation of our immediate world as we discovered it, particularly in BC, but of course more extensively as we grew in compassion with others.

Consequently, the poems I wrote often reflected the geography of BC and the West Coast, but equally, the local geography of various parts of Vancouver—the places we inhabited. When I turn to my earliest poems which will be collected in Not to Call it Chaos – the Vancouver Poems, I’m struck by how much of that physical landscape occurs, whether in the dangerous cliffs of Spanish Banks or the interior of a neighborhood Pizzeria on Broadway. Equally, I was keen to hear the sounds of various musicians and render their music in such a way as to carry it over into language appropriate to that sound. We were young, and alive, and attentive, and that was what I wanted to convey in my poems. And then of course there was love, and joy, and affection too often accompanied by dejection and sorrow—an interior landscape known so vehemently to the young. The highs, the lows, the risks, the excesses of drug taking and intemperate behavior—all this needed registration too. And for me the poem had to become pliant enough to incorporate all that one was, that one experienced. We were pushing our physical and emotional boundaries, like so many of our generation, and we had to develop a poetry which would accommodate our excesses without flailing about in the night. Some of us at least were doing enough of that in our lives.

What I learned from the flurry of engagement in my early years is that if you pay attention to your life on the one hand and to the demands poetry makes on that life, you have a chance at becoming the poet you sought to be. There is much talk among poets and academics of finding one’s voice as a poet, and there are likely as many resolves to this discussion as there are poets to pursue them. What I’ve discovered of late, having gone back to rework many of my early poems, is that in my own case, at least, a ‘recognizable voice’ could be heard in the earliest poems I’ve retained for publication. This is not, I don’t think, a rhetorical voice, and certainly not that voice of the poet that one hears at innumerable poetry readings. Rather, it is that sound—and it is a sound—one hears when words trip off the tongue or bounce back at one off the page with such a resonance of being that they are unmistakeably one’s own. When or how this first happens may be hard to discern. But I think the unconscious does take note of it, holds it close to the heart, and allows for further resonances when they seem imminently about to occur. As with most resonances, they may not be exclusive to you alone, but may well be derivative of your manifold reading of others. What matters finally, though, is that the voice which emerges syncretizes and gradually becomes recognizable as your own. It is not you—but it is of you.

As one matures, that voice changes as well. It is cumulative, I would say, because it can be discerned from early to late in one’s writing. It is not characterized by words or phrases exclusively, but rather by something like one’s disposition to the world and the act of writing. So just as close attention to one’s materials was necessary at the outset, so it remains later in life. The difference might be that, after a lifetime, one is aware of more and certainly now has a wealth of experiences lacking in youth. What we do with this knowledge determines our continued work. If we calcify with age and succumb to pontification and sententiousness, we are doomed to repeat old nostrums and convey nothing new. No, we must like Williams in his later poems and in Paterson, continue to find those resonances between our language and our changing world—however defeatist that may seem. Whether we are fully conscious of it or not, our late work seeks to take on the bitter defeat that awaits us all at the end of our lives. The aging poet listens to that battle—as though it were at some distance—but of course it is not, it is here and now, and we are finishing. But there is always a form for it so long as such can be discerned by an active mind engaged in its world. That’s when the writing ends, when the voice stops, and the accomplished poem goes on.

Perhaps it’s instructive that the working title of my current book of poems is Furtherings. That’s not a very conclusive title! I’d like to keep it that way.

Q: You mention your early days at UBC and The New American Poetry. Are there more recent poets or works that have shifted the ways in which you think about poetry, including your own approach to writing?

A: Just as one does not always register how the voices of other writers creep into one’s work, so we are not always aware of how various entities in our lives influence our feelings and eventually our composition. Of late I have been listening to a good deal of music, both classical and pop, and a good deal of what gets called world music which in my case has included Balkan music which I heard on YouTube from a group in Barcelona called The Barcelona Gipsy balKan Orchestra. Previously, I’d been moved by the young Catalan musicians being mentored by Joan Chamoro, most particularly the very young Andrea Motis who is both a singer and trumpet player of mostly American Jazz pieces, although she sings and plays Spanish jazz as well. Her remarkable talent so freed my soul that I wrote three poems to her as a kind of paean to her expertise.

This led me to listen also to some Latin American music, most particularly the songs of Churupaca with its hip new Latino beat alongside traditional rhythms. I’m struck by the new energy and how these musicians combine current developments with something like Latin rock. A young American violinist and singer Yvette Holzwarth has teamed up with Miroslav Tadic, and the combination is fruitful—for them assuredly, but for me also I as listen to middle eastern sounds making their way through eastern Europe and into the North American psyche, into my soul. The intimacy of their dual performance in a small room in Montenegro crosses huge ranges for me. I am reminded that the locale translates as Black Mountain in English, and while it would be specious to make any literal claims for a relationship, the playful nature of language and of translation do not escape me.

Again, thanks to YouTube, I stumbled across the electronic music creations of a young French composer, Hélène Vogelsinger. Her music, and the manner in which she elicits specific sounds from a variety of samplings captured my attention. She literally plays her machines, and they produce a methodic but ever modulating rhythm which creates a flowing mood. I immediately felt an affinity to her compositions, one of which, called ‘New Horizon – a Celebration of Life, Love and Hope’ I copied, and then practiced reading several of my poems to. I chose early poems from a group called The Cold Light of Morning, written in NYC in the fall of 1964 when I would have been of a similar age. The opening poem is called ‘Heading East’, and describes my hitch-hiking from Vancouver to Toronto en route to Charles Olson in Buffalo and a few months in NYC. That poem and a recording of it can be found in a recent issue of The Café Review. After several runs through I recorded both her music and my reading of these poems and was pleased with the result. I sent Hélène a copy and she responded with assurance. Whether this will lead to new developments in collaboration remains to be seen. Or heard. Her music can be found here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TTZSNPbQGI

During my convalescence I’ve also gone back to listen to some Jazz records, albeit now on YouTube, which had influenced my early poetry. One of these is the album Expression which features John Coltrane and his wife Alice, on piano. I’d recently revised a poem titled Carved in Sound which I’d written in commemoration of Coltrane and that album which I heard when visiting Langley in 1970 just three years after his death. And today as I sit in my chair in the front room and look across to the north window, I see the rowan tree which we planted years ago—or I should say, I see a portion of the tree, a few of its newly leafed branches, swaying rhythmically in the wind. For some moments they are all but still, then they pick up pace as to a lively music and seem to dance to an unheard sound in the wind, bobbing and swaying in a modern dance mode that hints at a pattern, and yet frustrates one’s attempt to pin it down to some musical refrain. It brings me pleasure to simply follow the flow of its movements. I don’t need to take its measure. It seems to be taking mine. When I was healing from hepatitis in May 1965 I wrote this “Song”:

The sun is mine
And the trees are mine
The light breeze is mine
And the birds that inhabit the air
are mine
Their voices upon the wind
are in my ear

Not much has changed. But the listening goes on. It is not always to fellow poets, though this is occurring simultaneously. Only occasionally do new voices enter mine from current reading such that I am moved to shift position as it were. This happened recently when I first heard Klara du Plessis read her poems in Ottawa two years ago, and again when I read her recent Hell Light Flesh. I was moved sufficiently to write a short sequence of poems in return which I’ve called Canzone – a Dream Imaginary. While I’m already given to short lines and tight stanzas, this poem reflects the terseness and sharp drama which she creates in hers—an ever finer honing of the craft. Her long poem is filled with hurt, and I found it poignant and sought to capture it somewhat in my response. Section 4 of my 8 part poem reads:

Here
where the heart

stops
beat

drops
water

pours
soothing

hurt
flesh


That’s pretty terse, even for a Hogg poem! At the other end of the stylistic spectrum I recently read two book length poems, Nothing… with its impossibly long title by UK poet Tim Atkins, whose work I’d known only in bits since we met a few years ago at the Concrete Conference in Ottawa; and The Oregon Trail by American poet, Joe Safdie. Both of these works are radically more loose in structure, although the former wraps its grand strides around some very terminable motifs, such as the bitter sequence by Ovid delineating his exile, Tristia, which it somewhat recreates; the wide ranging Trail seeks to incorporate much of American history and geography in a scattered but curiously centered poem about migration and the great western push to be at the frontier. These two poems are liberating in that they flounder in dejection (Nothing) and in self-determination (Trail). Both are epic in their sweep and in the way they capture our 21st Century predicament. It is as though they live in crisis—our general crisis, but also a crisis of the poet’s own making, or at least that is peculiar to him. I was moved to write a short article on Atkins’ poem which will appear in a companion volume to Nothing, and an afterword to Safdie’s Oregon Trail. So, these works have crawled under my skin, not least by the fact that there is an élan, a sense of the carnivalesque, in each which much appeals to my own sense of how we deal with a doomed world. There is an element of jazz rhythm in both volumes as well, and here too is a resonance for me. But how my future poems will reflect their influence is anyone’s guess at the moment. Right now I am listening more intently to the silent leaves.  

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: In my early to middle years I was of course teaching seminars in Modern American and Canadian Poetry. I had the luxury of reading and re-reading the poets I would place on my syllabus, the great majority of whom were my favorites, and I read these poets and varied works by them frequently. Among these were and still are Ezra Pound, HD, William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Denise Levertov, Bob Creeley, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. Among the Beats my strongest affinity has always been to Jack Kerouac whose prose always outdid itself in seeking to become poetry, and besides him Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure. My touchstones in Canadian Poetry included Irving Layton, Raymond Souster, Al Purdy and Earle Birney along with Dorothy Livesay, Margaret Avison, Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwen. Gradually, my attentions turned to Doug Jones whose later collections became increasingly interesting, along with Robin Blaser, now become a full Canadian poet with huge San Francisco reserves, and my many contemporaries such as Michael Ondaatje whose Billy the Kid was a work of wonder, and Christopher Dewdney who made science magical, Victor Coleman who struck gold over and over again, and bpNichol who opened the sky as it were to a new poetry. I was fascinated by the sound poems he and his contemporaries created, but was never deeply moved by them—certainly, they were not the way I was given to write, though I played gently once or twice on the margins of typography. Of my Vancouver cohort the poets who have spoken most directly to me in their work are George Bowering, whose Kerrisdale Elegies was a favorite book to go back to and to teach for many years. Fred Wah’s Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh opened new ways to hear the voice, and Music at the Heart of Thinking put jazz rhythms front and centre in the poem in a way that few others have been able to achieve. Roy Kiyooka’s poetry and art work were and remain a great staple for me, and I recently had occasion to go back to his remarkable Stoned Gloves for a poem of my own. From early on Daphne Marlatt’s work has been a great resource for hearing language and seeing landscape. When she broke through with Touch to my Tongue and revealed her inner spirit in all its grandeur, she became a model to go back and back to. And just as Phyllis Webb had written powerful poems previous to her short but profound sequence, Naked Poems, which I did not discover until around 1968, so Daphne revealed a whirlwind of lesbian ecstasy in her new piece which gushed with all the vigor of the Fraser River—long a staple in her poetry as an historic site, but now a metaphor for the raging desire within herself and her sexual landscape. Marlatt’s poetry pays such close attention to place in its many complexities, to the self and the other, with equally wide ranging possibilities, and above all to language, especially English, but because of her long and meaningful encounters with people of other backgrounds, to the function and quality of language laid bare, as it were, so that we can better enter into the experience of it. From such early writing as Steveston to her recent Then Now, the language and culture of many people make up her work.

At 79 I find myself drawn to the masters I read in my youth, but with less pull than they exerted when I needed to grasp what they offered. Over the past year I engaged in a project of writing parodies of well-known poets all of whom I admire. However caustic or ribald some of these have been, my intention has not been to do harm to the authors, but rather to treat playfully some of the shibboleths of our culture, and of my own set of heroes. Some of these parodies carry more than a simple shift of sensibility, and intend something quite political in return. One such, a re-write of Wyatt’s They flee from me, becomes a championing of the extended satire recently published by Kent Johnson, Because of Poetry I have a Really Big House. His book length poem roundly critiques the poetry machine that perpetuates itself through MFA programs and the world of poetry prizes and elite magazines.

Another poem rewrites Wordsworth’s famous sonnet, The World is too much with us…. This is one of a few strongly political poems I’ve written in recent years; this one tackles then President Donald Trump from the imagined perspective of a Woke Republican senator. As with most of my parodies, it utilizes all the original rhyme words, but in ways which provide a very different effect. The poem is not a critique of Wordsworth’s sonnet in the least, but a lambasting of Trump and of American politics generally.

Poets I have so far satirized include: Hesiod; Thomas Wyatt; William Shakespeare; John Donne; William Wordsworth; W. B. Yeats; Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Ben Franklin; Edgar Allan Poe; Emily Dickinson; Tennyson; A.E. Housman; William Carlos Williams; Robert Frost; W.H. Auden; Robert Creeley; Robert Duncan; Lorine Niedecker; and at this point, last and least, one of my own poems which owed rather a lot to Robert Kroetsch’s Stone Hammer Poem. Who knows what has made some of these poets satirable, while other heroes such as Pound, HD, and Olson have gone scot free. Actually, I do have a poem wch gently satirizes HD’s poem, Heat. It is called Canadian Pears! Am I done with those satires? I don’t know. Not a Canadian author among them so far except myself. Can I let that stand? A raft of these satires was recently included in Sulfur Surrealist Jungle. But no one seems to have noticed. One that I quite like is a parody of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It goes like this:

The Toad Not Taken – by Bobby Frost, Toddler

Two toads emerged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not sample both
And knit a sampler, long I stood
Looked down one’s throat far as I could
Then tossed it quickly in the undergrowth.

So I took the other-- just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy green and wanted wear;
Though as for that the grasses there
Had formed them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
So I left the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted it would ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Of indigestion ages hence:
Two toads emerged in a wood, and I—
I ate the one I was enamored by,
And that has made all the difference.

RLH: Mtn: 2021-02-24