Monday, December 13, 2010

On why I read poetry and Michael Dennis’s “Coming Ashore On Fire”

There is beauty in almost anything if you look hard enough. I think of the images of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the sweat and blood coming off De Niro’s face in slow motion. Dirty ashtrays, peeling wallpaper, and a man screaming drunk in his underwear with a matching beer gut – beautiful? Maybe if it was written by Bukowski.

Like a lot of my pot smoking, beer drinking peers in high school, I fell in love with the writings of Bukowski for the very reason that he wrote about those things. He spoke to me. He wasn’t just a dead white guy (at least not at the time) that my English teacher would present to us and then pedantically and robotically go over and over until every kid understood what the meaning of the poem was. What is Mr. So-And-So saying, Mr. McPherson? What is the significance of this poem?

As I grew up my love affair with Bukowski persisted. It wasn’t because I continued to drink and smoke pot (though I did, but perhaps with less frequency), but rather my love of Bukowski’s poetry grew into to something more than just admiration for someone who was drunk, screaming in his underwear and writing about it. No, I read Bukowski because the guy is a great fucking writer. At least most of the time. Well, at least sometimes. Okay, sometimes he writes shit. However, bad Bukowski is better than 90% of the contemporary poetry I read.

Why do I read poetry? The answer to that is similar to why I watch films, why I read fiction, why I watch TV, and why I listen to music. Is it for entertainment? Absolutely. But that’s only half the story. It is also to have the world reflected back to me through the eyes of another. We are solipsistic creatures through and through (unless you’re conjoined twins of the brain). What I mean by this is that we are born, live, and die inside our own heads. I need to take on faith that those around me are experiencing the same thing as I am. Art, let it be film, TV, poetry or prose, dance, or music, it does this for me: it lets me inside other people’s heads to let me know that I’m not alone. I also expect art to challenge me, make me think. I expect to be sometimes repulsed, angered, and even sickened. I expect laughter, sadness, and joy. I know that sometimes I will be bored or disappointed. Not every poem or film or song can be great, or even good for that matter. That’s okay. That’s the way it should be. When I read poetry however, I have much different expectations than sitting down to watch some Hollywood blockbuster. I read poetry to be entertained in a much different way, one where you definitely don’t leave your mind at the door. No, the mind is fully on and with you. I also expect beauty and elegance in the same way I expect character development in a film or a novel. I want to read poems that make me get off my couch and scream “This son-of-bitch is brilliant!” I want poems that can bring me to tears. I want poems that when I finish them, I need to stop for five minutes and reflect on my own life. I want poems that make me laugh out loud. I want the mores of my society reflected back to me. I want to be challenged.

A friend of mine, a poet, told me that he was working on a new collection of poems. He said that the collection was just for him. He said he didn’t care if anyone understood what the poems meant. I told him that him that he owed his reading public the common decency of making a poem that is coherent on some level, not a bunch a random babble. If these poems are really for yourself, then please, go ahead and write your guts out. Then take those poems and put them in your closet. Take it out when you want to read them, and then put it back. Please don’t show them to anyone. And please, please don’t try to get it published, because you probably will.

I don’t want to read poems that are puzzles, enigmas, things that needed to be decoded. I’ll do the Sudoku or the word scramble in the newspaper if I want that kind of challenge. Hence I don’t read a lot of contemporary poetry.

I do however read, Michael Dennis. He is a poet that reflects the world back to me through a soft and sometimes touching, and often very personal lens. His latest collection of poetry is “Coming Ashore on Fire” (2009 burnt wine press). The poems here are like a basket of different sized, different coloured eggs, gems and wine stained corks. Some so delicate that you place the book down gingerly between readings. Others, hard and beautiful but raw. And other, lazy day love poems to his wife, where you can smell the wine coming off the page. It is a shame that this book did not receive more attention, because it damn well deserves it. When I think of Ottawa poetry, I think of Michael Dennis. He is Canada’s Bukowski. Perhaps a softer and gentler version, but still, a poet that should be read.

If you have lost faith in finding readable contemporary poetry, then grab a copy of “Coming Ashore on Fire” and be reborn.


Ken Rockburn said...

I couldn't agree more. On all counts, but especially about Michael D.

Razovsky said...

I agree with you about Michael — he writes some very great poems about real things and he speaks directly to his readers without any bullshit.

I do wonder, however, why you told your friend to put his poems in a drawer and not publish a collection. Do you think that people who value enigma and lack of coherence shouldn't have something to read too? Something that speaks to them? Just because you don't like it?

Me, I like Michael Dennis. I also like enigma. Maybe you've figured out how and why the world exists, but I haven't, and I'm OK with poetry that reflects the absurdity and arbitrariness of our world. Me, I like John Ashbery.



Christian McPherson said...


I don’t mind reading stuff that is odd and bizarre from time to time, but when I pick up poetry collection after poetry collection and it’s a bunch of random incoherent nonsense, then I get sad. I feel very alone at times because it seems to me that this has become the acceptable norm. I don’t want people to mistake the laziness of a writer for good writing, when clearly it’s not. I still think the writer owes it to the reader to try to communicate something that makes some sort of sense (and I’m pretty liberal with that). BTW my friend did publish his book and I wish him all the luck with it. It’s just not my bag. My bag is a brown paper one, covering the dirty rag inside, something written my Michael Dennis no doubt.

Cheers, Christian