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Jeffery Donaldson : Writing Philosophy

I find the idea of a writing philosophy rather intimidating. I go into a kind of mental vapor lock when anything like a microphone is tilted towards me. But if Oscar Wilde is right, that "give a man a mask and he will tell the truth," then perhaps there might be something of my beliefs in and about poetry to be found in critical remarks I've made about the poets I admire. These have the advantage of celebrating the bright colours of the bull's-eye as opposed to my own jittery arrows flung wildly into space....

From "The Last Light at Sandover: James Merrill's 'Nine Lives'"

In our stories of "love and loss" we can become too easily closed off from those voices of possibility and transformation that call to us from beyond any circle we might find ourselves in. Poetry continually reminds us that the circle needn't be closed, that help is waiting just beyond the visible reaches of personal experience and circumstance. It teaches us how to outreach ourselves, to verify and test what we know, to establish or strengthen our connection with all the elusive voices that change us and make us who we are, lost loved ones or the wholly other company on that side of the proscenium arch in which we feel ourselves continually instructed and renewed.

Why can't we see what is there? One of the possible revelations of "Nine Lives" is that what prevents us from making the deeper connection we desire is a better understanding of what it is that we want to make a connection with: not something beyond us, but that part of ourselves in which all 'beyonds' are encompassed and contained. For the line "Nature must do the rest," points not primarily to an objective natural world beyond language, but to the inner workings at the heart of language and myth itself that contains that world. We must, in short, consider the possibility that it is myth disguised as nature that must do the rest. And so the word is back in our court. We are not left at the limits of what we can do in language, looking blankly beyond it to a merely physical nature we pray to for a response, but are instead invited to respond ourselves to the infinitely expansive interior spaces of myth and metaphor, and to the conversations in which they echoingly unfold. Without this response, we will be left waiting for nature to make its move, just as we wait for haunting ghosts to appear. But it isn't the haunting ghosts that come through in the end. We know now that what we have all the while been waiting to make a connection with, in effect, is but a revelation of our own imaginative power, though we have yet to recognize it for what it is.

With the horizon thus expanded, what is finally revealed in the epiphany of a late afternoon light is the promise of a full exchange with the precious portents of our own powers. We keep a vigil for that time whenever we try to summon or beguile, in word-play and echo, the presence of longed-for voices that hover just there on the margins of what we hear. When Merrill himself departed from the table of his poems to join the company of receding presences that it is now for others to summon, he showed us how to keep that vigil, life after life, and how to sustain and enlarge the circle--its voices of an echoing revelation--in which we correspond, converse and commune.

From "Mark Strand's Darkening Harbor." Dalhousie Review 74:1 (Spring 1994).

The book ends with just the suggestion that the "meetings" between poets that a poet fosters in echo and allusion conclude in a sense of open space and readiness for new song:

                                      I looked away to the hills
Above the river, where the golden lights of sunset
And sunrise are one and the same, and saw something flying
Back and forth, fluttering its wings. Then it stopped in mid-air.
It was an angel, one of the good ones, about to sing.

The book ends where it began: the something flying back and forth in the sky recalls "the turbulent sky" that would "drop the shadowy shapes / Of its song ... echoing and blasting all around" from the proem. And Stevens may be here again as well, if we hear the ghostly cry of the ocean, "fluttering its empty sleeves," in "The Idea of Order at Key West," in the "fluttering its wings" of this elusive angel. Poetic echo always lies just out of hearing, always just ready to ring clear, or like this good angel, always just "about to sing." Immanent echo feels like imminent song: the poem works its enlargements from within as it approaches the end.

The presence of other poets in a poem for Strand is not a weight or a burden, but a room enlarged and opened up. The "passages" Strand refers to in his proem are in one sense passages of poetry, but they are also "dream-like passageways" down and into the poem. When we hear echoes of other poets that we cannot quite name, that pull and tantalize us, there is a feeling of being drawn out and into spaces we did not know existed. They are in a sense unreal spaces, invisible and remote, except for that feeling of the mind casting off, being drawn away towards a voice that is outside the poem's narrow room. It is more than just a metaphor, but a tangible experience. Echo and allusion are the Orphean underworld of poetry. As we read towards an inevitable conclusion, we feel we are already elsewhere, already listening to a choir of voices that are not a part of time, and in which each voice has its permanent place.

As Orpheus sings, the sufferings of the underworld become the accomplishments of our own restless passage in time--our aimless wandering, our straining against the shades of ourselves. Just as the poems echo into unseen rooms, we feel the enlargements of that afterlife, break through to it as we depart. And yet we are still here, not on the river Styx but a darkening harbor. Strand's orphic enchantments simply return us to where we are, and help us to long for the things that we have in this world as we pilot among them.

Jeffery Donaldson's works copyright © to the author.

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