Friday, April 11, 2008

Why Are You so Sad?

Without putting too much stock in it, I was still pleased to hear that "Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems" by David W. McFadden was a finalist for this year's Griffin Prize (how many remember who won the Griffin last year? Two years ago?). I've been making my way slowly through the book since I bought it a month or two ago and I'm enjoying it. The volume covers McFadden's entire poetry career ('poetry career', oxymoron alert.) The book is lively and refreshing. Not sad at all, in spite of the title. But what struck me most about the poetry, which is varied in form and content, funny, experimental, rambling, precise, sad and joyous, is how uniformly heartfelt and accessible it is. We are firmly entrenched in the era of specialty, from the arts to the sciences, everyone is a specialist. And one thing that's always bothered me about much of today's poetry is how it seems to be the product of specialists. Too many practitioners and critics these days appear to be obsessed with the minutiae of form and content and they too often lose sight of the basic element of poetry, that it must first and foremost speak to the heart. On the few occasions I went to visit Irving Layton in his home on Monkland Avenue, I always found him sitting at his dining room table, pipe in hand, surrounded by a scattering of books. Each time I made sure to survey the titles. What was the master reading I had to know. I expected to see poetry, of course. I never did. I saw philosophy, politics, fiction, classics, but I can't remember ever seeing a book of poetry on the table. Layton frequently bemoaned the narrowness of thought and perspective that he saw developing in the young minds being produced by the universities. He felt that creative writing programs would sound the death-knell of poetry. (Layton himself was a graduate in agriculture and political science. I once told him that he had the perfect education for a poet.) Layton understood that being narrow of mind was dangerous. It was a concern he constantly railed against, the loss of our common humanity. I sense the same in McFadden's poetry. He's of that ilk, a generalist, a throwback to an earlier era, whose poetry sometimes feels like a leisurely garden stroll, alive, redolent and joyful. At other times he's on the hunt, tracking frightful beasts. He's got a range rarely seen these days.

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