Humanist Perspectives: issue 169: A Poet’s Voice

A Poet’s Voice
by John. Smith

Toronto-born John Smith’s career includes degrees in mathematics, physics, philosophy and literature. He has published 7 collections of poetry that establish him as one of Canada’s most accomplished philosophical poets. A retired professor of English from the University of Prince Edward Island’s, and the island’s Poet Laureate, he lives in Charlottetown, PEI.

Author’s Statement: Much of what we call knowledge is metaphorical. What we say we know is the vehicle of a metaphor whose tenor remains, although brought into presence or even into being by the process of metaphor itself, a mystery, or at least a subject to be engaged. Poetry is important because of its specialized focus on the creation of metaphors and of comparable instruments, such as analogy, metonymy, synecdoche, simile, anthropomorphism, and hypothesis, which, like metaphor, explore one thing (the tenor) by treating it in terms particular to another (vehicle).
Did You Read in the Paper Where

They’ve built a computer to replace cowboys.

They’ve converted Greenland into a parking lot.

They’re equipping goaltenders with spherical hockey sticks.

They’re marketing permapressed panty hose.

They’re bringing out a machine
         that will teach high school students
         to read classical Sanscrit
         in three days

                  and an electronic device
         that will implant
         the wisdom of the ages
         in somebody’s brain
         in a nanosecond

                  and a pill
         that will maintain
         the human entity
         in a state of continuous ecstasy.

If everyone stopped breathing for a year
         the energy saved would
         light New York City for a century.

A Newfoundlander went parking with his girl.
         “Is that,” she said, after some minutes of quiet emotion,
         “as far as you’re going to go?”
         Whereupon he started the engine, stepped on the gas
         and drove off a cliff.

The trouble with modern man is that he has no style.

That was the news the day you said you loved me.

Another Bamboo Poem
Hermit Scholars dedicated many books
to the species wisdom of bamboo:
how it celebrates itself and its surround
by adaptive radiation across a continent;
how it descends character by character grasswise
down the page of the year, as it were
jewel music cascading in the wind,
feeling its way pool by pool
from meaning into meaning:
how it learns of the swallow to dip and rise,
of the rock to precipitate its sap to silica,
of the tempered blade to glisten unseen,
of wine to fill its enclaves with moonlight,
of itself simplicity,
of man decorum,
                  a sure appropriation of its powers
to each occasion and each need.
There is One

There is one metaphor for everything. If it is money,
then poetry is redundant. If not – ah, if not, then
is it that single nonsense syllable sung by the indefatigable
oarsman setting his back against the tide of things,

groaning out the strokes of his trade, but hearing
in each groan a new thwack of the sea ring
like an unstoppable tonic chord reached at the last
expiring bar in the last sonata of a long career

as the boat turns to flotsam? Yes, it is that.
There is one metaphor that serves for everything in turn,
and it is like enough to all metaphors at once that it hardly differs from

the things themselves that hardly differ from the effort to achieve them.
Bend, address the moment – this is an old see-saw – drop
– get it right – heave, breathe, groan, hear, swing up, again, again.

Why not

Why not choose what is simple: food, water, work,
a house, the girl or boy next door, a life?
Where did you latch on to the supposed need
to accelerate beyond the local value of gravity?

Or, veering from the straight and narrow, to feel
inertial mass? Was something implanted to that end
by the early neurotics, perverters of the clean slate?
Coming to consciousness later, as you do, you figure

all this has been laid on you by old masters
of the art of intensifying life. Without them
would anything be precious? Were it not for the gold

you haven’t got, the bread you have might be tasteless.
Knowledge, too, compensates for want, stands for having,
Given that, all things fly towards being known.

The Wind Is

The wind is in everything. Not just in the leaves.
The rocks thrum, their strike-planes shiver; joints
of the oaks wrench open. It’s something as much
in the style of the stalker as in things themselves

or the actual gusting of the wind.
A moment like this can give identity
to a whole culture. Any one of a vast
number of metaphors is true enough to sustain life

for scores of generations. It finds its way, not just
into the meaning of words, but into the music of speech:
tha ir gets harder to breathe in any other way.

Then comes invasion, plague, or colonial expansion. Waking
and sleeping wheel together again, a new pressure-
flake breaks free, and everything begins to resemble it.

Once Development Starts

Once development starts, it runs fast. We like the heady
feel of it. To keep the rush going, it’s not enough
to adopt a policy to change for change’s sake.
We’ve proven that: the production lines mass-produce inanity.

There have to be need, a great idea, sense of direction,
violence, and a conviction of who you are that comes from
having to fight for your life against a committed adversary.
It’s rare in history for all these parameters to intersect.

Priests have proven as vested an interest as generals. We’ve had trouble
lately from profiteers in soporifics as much as from loss
of nerve. Ideas abound, but we’re no longer sure

we’ve got a great one. A great threat, however, seems to be
advancing: the biosphere’s revulsion against us, our own
hands tormented and transmuted into a lethal genetic field.

At the centre, though, if you can look on to it – we’ve
been told often, in one way or another, and sporadically
believe – there’s a saving point, full of infinity.

* * *
Why not

Why not be easy to get along with? In spite of
inconveniences – how boring your ideas are, how boring
mine – life under almost any duress is so much
better than being dead, there’s no comparison. Consciousness

valorizes itself, as the learned say, and from that springs
by mimesis the self-congratulation of a full stomach,
the self-reflexiveness of every work of art, the very identification,
problematic as it is, of being with self. So why not?

Why not be accommodating – move over and let wombats
have room, introduce to enjoyment as widespread
an aroma of pinewoods as deep breathing allows, bequeath

to posterity a garden of life-enhancing epitaphs?
The dreamless sleep from which the subject of these presents
has briefly awakened is vaster than anything that can be embraced.

Why not therefore pee unrepentantly into infinity while you can?

* * *
Report on Planet Earth

The men have been cobbled together out of second-hand lumber.
The women have been born under water.
The men are toolkits for prying open the outer world.
The women are searching for the eye of things.

The women curl themselves around an undeliverable truth.
The men work by the edges of their senses
along jungle spoors white as the gossamer of old wounds.
After sunset, women and men alike sink into the blessing

of anonymity. They grow smooth enough to vanish.
Then it is the way it was before their puzzlement,
the way it will be after:

something – impossible to say what – pours
relentlessly through something into something.
No compromise. No fuss. No footprints in the snow.

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