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Comments by Writers and Critics

Douglas Dunn, poet (Scotland):
Gary Geddes is undoubtedly the best of the contemporary Canadian poets I've read. His recent book, Flying Blind, is one of the best collections of poems published in English in recent years—not just in Canada, but anywhere. His work is achieved technically; it is moving, and, above all, it is interesting and accessible.

Timothy Findley, novelist:
I have been reading Mr. Geddes's poetry for over twenty-five years—reading it and re-reading it. From the very beginning of my acquaintance with his work, it has struck me as having the political edge of the best writing of the 20th century. It is not for nothing that others have compared his voice to the voices of Auden, Stendhal and Orwell. Just as these latter voices spoke with an underlying passion for freedom and with outrage at perceived injustices, so Geddes speaks in the best of his work. But the passion and outrage are controlled with a sure hand. Geddes knows better than to spill his words across the page, and his craftsmanship is brilliant.

Margaret Laurence, novelist:
[In The Terracotta Army Gary Geddes's] talent is to connect with some of those ancestral figures and give them to us. . . . the poem cycle for the China figures is a NOBLE one. . . wonderful stuff. . . . I was stunned and awed and this is so good..

W.H. New, critic and editor of Canadian Literature:
I was on the Commonwealth Poetry Prize Jury the year The Terracotta Army won the Americas Division Prize; it was the jury's unanimous choice, breathtaking in its imaginative reach, its verbal dexterity.

Michael Redhill, poet and professor, reviewing The Perfect Cold Warrior in Books in Canada:
What Geddes has become justly celebrated for are his seamless impersonations. . . . His is a poetry of demystification and truth-telling, and his purpose has always appeared to be the very one Levertov described when she used the word 'awaken'. . . . Geddes brings Trotsky down to earth as a man, not an icon. The voice, speaking to us with such calm while in the precincts of madness (this is, after all, a Russian political genius forced to live in Mexico), tells us everything we have to know about the soul behind it. . . . 'Norwegian Rabbit" [the Trotsky narrative] is probably Geddes's masterpiece. It's more compressed and intense than anything else in his work, and it has the hallmarks of a mature poet knowing how to use his strengths. . . .
       There is always something in the political voice that should trigger doubt in the reader: the best political poem meets the strong-arm with its own authority. But how is this authority earned? Neruda has an answer: 'Political poetry is more deeply emotional than any other except love poetry. You must have traversed the whole of poetry before you become a political poet.'
       In other words, metaphysician know thyself. Geddes is true to Neruda's creed, and he has forded the rivers that have led to the place he writes from now. What is a political poetry? The words that sit alongside 'political' embrace all of what it can and must be: it is a poetry that is civic, public, domestic, and internal. Whether writing about Palestine, his father, or the last days of a revolutionary leader, Geddes navigates the complexities of the issues he raises by rooting himself in the internal. The argument might be over what real content of the poet's life is contained in any of his impersonations, but the reply to the argument is always the pronoun 'I'."

Al Purdy, poet:
"Sandra Lee Scheuer" is the kind of poem most poets wait a lifetime for.

Eli Mandel, poet and professor, in The Globe & Mail:
. . . a deadly accuracy in language and form.

Emile Martel, poet and Minister of Cultural Affairs, Paris:
I have known Mr. Geddes for many years through his written work, especially his Terracotta Army, which I have found one of the most stunning works of poetry published in English-Canada in the last few years.

Lake Sagaris, poet, editor, and translator, Chile:
Geddes is one of Canada's most distinguished poets, an artist and a man whose endless curiosity for the world around him and passion for his fellow human beings have both driven and inspired him to write poems that have already been accepted as among the finest of Canadian, in fact, English-language writing, as the many awards he has won attest. . . .
       From one of his earliest poems, 'Letter of the Master of Horse' (1969), which I translated into Spanish for my anthology of Canadian poetry, Geddes has established a tradition of journeying between places and very different times, presenting us through his work with crucial moments, finely carved as emeralds, that open our eyes to hidden treasures and traumas that have formed us as human beings, particularly those of us who live in the Americas. . . .        Not surprisingly, he has a gift for taking the common clay of everyday speech and molding it into artefacts as fine as the most ancient artisans of the Americas, often revealing beauty, in a twist of phrase, an expression caught in the clear light of language. He takes our language, literally our tongue, so often distorted, exploited, abused or misused, and through his poems restores it to us, sharp, whole, useful and meaning-full again. . . . We wait a long time for a poet this fine, this understated, to come into our lives.

Laurie Ricou, Associate Dean, University of B.C.:
I have known Gary Geddes since the late 1960s when we were graduate students together. Then, as now, he was a tremendously energetic advocate for Canadian literature, and more generally for the power of literature to move people and affect their lives. Hence, his poetry has always had a strong element of story and drama essential to communicating with a wide audience.
       Geddes is best known as a political poet, not because he declaims from rooftops, but because he so perceptively detects those moments when an unremarked individual must take responsibility for the lives and conditions of others. He has been important to our literature, and, I believe, to the literature of all the Americas for waking us up to the brutality of the structures human beings build to govern their affairs.

George McWhirter, poet, Head of Creative Writing at University of B.C.:
Gary Geddes reminds us that travel not only 'broadeneth' the mind, but it expands the conscience and sense of responsibility. Perhaps he states it best in his poem 'Letter of the Master of Horse' where he concludes that the Spanish soldiers aboard the man-of-war are on a pilgrimage for forgiveness. In that poem we can feel in our own hands the weight of ambition that sent the Spanish to sea with the full complement of cavalry which, ultimately, causes them to founder. When the army casts its mighty engines of war overboard, we share the horror of knowing that these engines are alive—the most beautiful cavalry horses. Over and over the horses attempt to leap out of the water back into their stables on board, and with the hammering of their hooves on the wooden gunwales of the boats, the horses haunt the soldiers, just as Gary Geddes's poems haunt us.
       What Gary Geddes teaches us in detail is to feel. He blows open the windows of our hearts to those other places that we forget or neglect. George Woodcock says that Gary Geddes is Canada's best political poet. I would like to point out that this doesn't mean that the lines of Gary Geddes's poetry add up merely to fine political statements or serve as repeatable slogans. What his poems keep alive are the sensitivities, the feelings that make us want to reach out and touch friends and neighbours who must bear the burden of the times, when the thunder in the mind from great ideas and great events won't let us think for ourselves. It is the preservation of the individual against the mass that George Woodcock singles out for praise in Gary Geddes's poetry.
       Through all the campaigning of conscience in his verse he has never succumbed to the slogans on the banner, never forgotten the individual beside him, the child on his knee. In the poems of NO EASY EXIT we find him more often tangled up with the diaper of a friend's baby he is minding than with the shit being stirred at some political rally. The individuals he writes about can be tragically wrong—like the Master of Horse, caught with his fellow officers, salt-sore, heartbroken for the animals he has had to sacrifice in a failed cause; they can be blameless or flawed, or both, like the priest, Joseph Alexis in 'Requiescat en Pace' from NO EASY EXIT—who might have blessed killers—who is marked for Gary Geddes as much by the simple nobility of his person as any suspicion that lingers about the priest of complicity in forgiving torturers.
       With Gary Geddes there is no easy black and white, no clean white North and dark dirty south. Cold-bloodedness and warm-heartedness know no one hemisphere.

John Moore, The Vancouver Sun:
Geddes's 'Sandra Lee Scheuer", an elegy for a Kent State student killed 20 years ago, is the kind of poem that is an acid test of such a talent. Al Purdy once called it a poem 'one waits a lifetime for' and his judgment is borne out, not by the fact that it can still be read without embarrassment, but because it still can't be read without turning into a hard lump in your throat. . . .
       Poets are tested by time like few other artists. Painters survive as framed footnotes to 'schools' and 'groups'; dated novelists are salvaged for their contributions to social history, but a poet lasts on a rare combination of courageous intuition and absolute command of the language to express it. Whether or not Geddes's brand of political commitment is back in fashion after a decade of New Age narcissism is immaterial. His rigorous blend of instinct, insight and eloquence are the timeless quality of greatness.

Ralph Gustafson, poet:
Gary Geddes's poetry is great. It bears witness to our times.

Tim Lilburn, poet, editor, professor:
[Letter of the Master of Horse] shimmers with a passionate silence for me, an honest rhetoric of understatement.

Michael Estok, poet and professor, Fiddlehead:
Geddes's work, taken as a whole, might be described as an attempt to make a poetic imagination work as a racial conscience. . . . Geddes is one of the few English Canadian poets confident enough to put a toe into the mine-field of French-English political relations. . . . and has demonstrated his commitment to poetry as a means of moral self-understanding. It is a weighty, worthy and admirable undertaking and Geddes deserves far more credit than he has yet been given for his distinguished achievements in this direction. . . .
       [In Hong Kong] Geddes makes telling use of the ancient image of Orpheus, and his book of elegies puts him on the same level of poetic intensity (perhaps he far surpasses it) of Milton's 'Lycidas' or Tenysson's In Memoriam.

Geroge Woodcock, author and man of letters, Cross-Canada Writers' Quarterly:
After reading The Acid Test, following on Gary Geddes's earlier volume, War and other measures, I am convinced that he is Canada's best political poet. I mean political, of course, not in the progagandist sense, for I can think of no movement that would be able to use this tense and surely worded collection of poems to further its partisan aims. . . . No—when I talk of Geddes as a political poet I am thinking of Stendhal, as a political novelist—or, to shift back into poetry, of the wise later Auden as a truer political poet than his earlier and more obviously committed self. A poem like 'Sandra Lee Scheuer', to a girl killed at Kent State University in May 1970 by the Ohio National Guard, is a commitment to the whole of humanity in its blinding implicit question—why such a person, compassionate and unpolitical, became a victim of political rage.
       Al Purdy has rightly described this as 'the kind of poem most poets wait a lifetime for.' It moves like a light through the murk of human motivations, where the erotic and the lethal exist in such ambiguous interplay. . . . With a simple certainty of phrase—no high emotive words, no staged emotions—Geddes evokes this strange world of ours where thoughts of love for humanity in the minds of political idealists have led to the cellars of the secret police, have flown with the bullets of terrorists seeking their victims with a strange identifying passion, have given destructive weapons a life of their own.

Professor Donald Stephens, professor emeritus, University of British Columbia:
[Geddes] seems to be able to do just about everything right: about people, places, problems. . . . The writing takes a reader to the edge of human concerns by arresting images, fierce intelligence, and a poetic language that forecasts for me that Geddes is not only a poet to watch but also a poet who will continually surprise and please.

Robert Kroetsch, poet and critic:
[War and other measures] builds, fucking incredibly builds. It's the kind of poem poets are only supposed to be able to dream. . . . the sustained calibration is beautiful. I didn't know a long poem could be so taut. . . . The years of art and craft are in the book."

Patrick Lane, poet:
Gary Geddes is unquestionably one of Canada's finest writers of epic and extended narrative poetry. The Terracotta Army . . . won the Americas Award for 1985 and is a brilliant example of his remarkable ability to maintain the tone, structure, and rhythms of the long, connected narrative. As a writer, anthologist, critic, teacher, and thinker, he is in a class with the best this country has to offer

Earle Birney, poet:
Geddes's work is "structurally beautiful." He makes "without apparent fuss, most satsifyingly architectural constructions, hell, i mean poetic form, poetry itself.

Lauris Edmond, poet (New Zealand) on Light of Burning Towers:
It's fierce and strong, very moving in its political thrust, but full of life and courage in the more personal poems too.

Faye Zwicky, poet (Australia):
                             . . . an excellent and moving poet.

Gary Geddes's works copyright © to the author.

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