Now is the winterAnd now it sits on a shelfAnd now that I am the age of my students’ fathersWhat comes to me now is how out of place a man such longings makeNow I have a reason for this knowledge, and a home for itNot nowNow Jeffers, supervillain of American poetryIt’s not just you, the ones I’m speaking to now, arranged around my writing deskNow I am not a comic book artistA big joke nowOr this one, now my favouriteThe person I would have apologized to is dead nowNow as I was young and easyIt is here, now, what that hand held when it held itself upAnd I have this now, a love I never knew until he was goneAnd now, Borges is reading this poem out loudNow you have more to be happy aboutNow it’s the softwareOr (until right now) read aloudBut what her body never forgot or forgave, I think now, on my birthday, was menHer body is much happier now that all of us are in charge at a distanceAnd now he’s writingConnecting before and after through nowAs if he never wrote what he writes now
I’ve been writing poetry for 40 years, and teaching it in one form or another for twenty. In almost every class or workshop, I start the sentence “Poetry is all about” or “Poetry is” at least once, and every time I finish the sentence differently. The people who’ve worked with me for a while recognize the pattern and smile. I think one of them is making a list: “Poetry is all about images” or “Poetry is how we make up for all the words we don’t have for the feelings we do.” And so on. Poetry has had enough in it for me to fill decades worth of definitions and still have itself left over, in sight but just out of reach.
So I have to settle for the idea that the definition of poetry is dependent on what I am using it for in the moment I reach for the definition. Still, there are a couple of things that poetry is that repeat themselves, and one of those is that an individual’s poetry is the search for a complete understanding of that cluster of words that sit somehow at the centre of their language and so their world, words that return again and again, always revealing something new, and it still seems right to me to say that I have spent my life as a poet trying to understand the full meaning of a dozen words, and maybe fewer than that.
Some of those have been clear for a long time — father, hero, soldier, hockey, poem — but others have crept up on me — poetry is investigation — and sometime over the last year of reading from On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood I found the word “now” over and over no matter how I selected the reading for the night.
Now I am investigating now, my unexpected subject. It appears in the book in 24 lines and phrases; collected, the piece that opens this writing. What is it telling me? What question about it are its own appearances asking me to ask? I’m not sure yet, this is new to me, but here’s what I have now as I think of it: I wrote most of these lines between my father’s death in 2011 and the time I finished the book. I noticed the word, though, after my mother’s death in July last year. I’m finding what everyone finds when they are the oldest generation in their own family, but I hope it’s more than that. Time is precious, of course, and maybe I’m teaching myself to think about time the way someone older than me knows it.
Maybe that’s what poetry is doing because a poem is focus on the moment — all that leads up to that moment the poem plucks from the flow of time, and then all that is attached to it not just linearly or chronologically, but psychologically, spiritually, and more that we can see because the poem is doing its work. Every moment is a possible now, and most of those we let go by, and that’s fair enough, that’s the way the world is too much with us.
But making now out of a moment that would otherwise vanish away into then is art. And in this way, if the poem has done its work well, now is retrieved from the past, from memory, and made present again. And maybe that’s the meaning I never got when I first heard Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “violent emotion recalled in tranquility.” At the time I thought he was talking what was going on at the writing desk. Now I think otherwise (or now I think it’s more than that). Now I think it’s the definition of what poetry is, what it does, how you know it, when you hear it, when you read. I know too, that what I’ve got is only what I’ve got now, and now is not yet done.
Richard Harrison lives in Calgary where he teaches English, Creative Writing, and courses in comics and the graphic novel at Mount Royal University. He’s the author of 6 books of poetry, among them Hero of the Play, the first book of poetry launched at the Hockey Hall of Fame. His On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood won the 2017 Governor-General’s Award and Stephan G. Stephansson Prize for Poetry.