Canadian Poetry Online top banner link to Canadian Poetry Online home page link to University of Toronto Libraries home page

Gary Hyland. Excerpt adapted from presentation to Saskatoon Teachers of English, May 10, 1999


Each poem wants to be itself. It doesn't mind having siblings, a vague family resemblance, but it wants no twins. It also demands to be the favourite, the one you visit most often, the one readers cannot resist.

You work with the material of the poem, listening, trying to find the thoughts, feelings, shapes and sounds it contains. To guide a poem from impulse to page is to listen and respond to its yearning. To make it the favourite, however temporarily; you steal time from other yearnings, obligations, loves, diversions. Until it alone becomes the one you would kiss and fold into a pocket and carry everywhere. You never write such a poem, though there are fleeting moments when you think at last you may have. Yosemite Sam with a pan full of shining copper pyrite dancing deliriously in and out of the stream. Still, those moments are one reason you continue.

There is something mysterious beneath all of this conscious shaping which others explain as a dictating presence, a voice within, a type of possession, a seduction, or a rapture in an energy field. The poem arouses you with the intensity of a desperate night walker who finds himself swaying precariously, one foot over an abyss. Extending its hand for help, the poem calls out, a sub-lingual emanation. You may decipher a memory, an image, a longing, a phrase, a sensation, an event, an idea. There are too many times you cannot respond. There are too many times you do respond but lack the skill or strength to haul the poem onto solid ground.

You're never entirely sure how the poem got there out of your mind walking that street. You are sure, after all these years, that whatever its fate another will eventually follow. As long as you dare to allow things of the world to attach like burs to your emotions and ride into your mind, they will converge and coalesce there and eventually many will stumble out into the world. Seasoned as you are, it is still sad to observe their awkward attempts at grace.

To save the poem from the brink, you try to help it find its voice. It doesn't want your voice. What is it for a poet "to have a voice?" To speak predictably? To sing in a strangling range of pigeon-holed measures? To always make the same vibes? To be tonally sparse? Here, they say, this is your voice. See how well it suits you, how handsomely it gleams in the light, the strong brown leather straps dangling like the legs of insects from its sturdy canvas sides? Here put your arms in these commodious sleeves. We'll just buckle them behind you , out of the way, so you can sing all night for us. Like the bird whose eyes last saw a needle white with heat.

The poem does not want a blind, strait-jacketed confederate. It's dark enough out there on the streets. The poem desires a wide-eyed, multi-skilled, multi-voiced clairvoyant of unlimited range, who doesn't care for anything else. It never finds one, but some poems find reasonable approximations in some poets some of the time. And those are the ones I love.

Gary Hyland's works copyright © to the author.

Canadian Poetry Online bottom banner link to University of Toronto Libraries home page link to Digital Collections home page link to University of Toronto Library catalogue link to Canadian Poetry Online home page link to University of Toronto Libraries home page link to Contact Information page