Unfortunately most of us look upon poetry as something unintelligible and not to be read for pleasure. In fact most of us probably don’t even think of poetry. If reading prose as a form of entertainment has gradually lost its popular appeal because of other entertainment on offer, poetry isn’t even considered an option.
However, if you could bring yourself to read a book of contemporary poetry, I think you’d be surprised at how easy it is for you to identify with what today’s poets are writing about. Like any artist, a poet looks at the world around them and does their best to recreate what they see in a few carefully chosen words. For while a prose writer might take 200 pages to expand upon a theme, a poet tries to distill the essence of their subject in a couple of hundred words or less.
Initially you may think a poet is being deliberately obscure because they never seem to say exactly what they mean. Yet, it’s the abstract poems that are not only the most powerful, but which end up being able to speak to more people than the one written in so-called plain English. Like the abstract painter who captures an emotional moment on canvas, anybody, no matter what their life experience, can relate to, the poet finds a way for their creation to be about something everybody can relate to. You need look no further than the latest collection of poetry by Kingston Ontario Canada poet Bruce Kauffman, a seed within, published by Hidden Book Press, to see wonderful examples of poetry that will strike a chord of recognition in anybody no matter their background.
Kauffman’s poems look at the world with a kind of wide-eyed wonder. That’s not to say they’re naive or even childlike, it’s more they suggest an amazed appreciation for the variety and diversity of the human experience and the universe. It’s as if the poet has been able to put himself in a place where he is able to recreate what it would be like to experience everything for the first time. To his credit Kauffman doesn’t limit these expressions to things we would consider positive, but covers the full spectrum of what might be experienced emotionally, physically and spiritually during the course of a lifetime.
He accomplishes this through the simple process of observing and recording. Each poem is like a delicate specimen pinned and preserved in pristine elegance under glass for us to study at our leisure. Each carefully chosen word leads into the next, building upon each other’s meaning, until jigsaw puzzle-like, the individual pieces coalesce into an image. Unlike a puzzle, whose component elements are meaningless fragments, these pieces have a distinct character. Like life, none of the emotions or ideas expressed by these poems occurs in a vacuum and are always the result of some action or events.
Looking at the poem “torrent,” we can see Kauffman doesn’t merely describe an experience, he allows readers to see and feel what has gone into its making. He starts by describing a rainfall, first from the perspective of the rain; “comes the rain/as if it knew/knows/a world/and a heart/wait to be/cleansed”, and then from the rivers and waterfalls who have been anticipating its arrival; “knew of its coming/before the shadows of clouds/carpeted themselves on bank and rock”. However, the final two stanzas reveal the “torrent” being described is something more than just a simple downpour; he’s been describing the process of the emotional buildup leading to tears. “but how long/ does it take/ a teardrop/ to roll/ across a/ continent/and how long/before/it reaches/there/did she/taste/its salt”
We might be able to anticipate sadness like bodies of water have foreknowledge of a rainfall. However, there is a major difference between knowing something is going to happen and actually experiencing it. The words Kauffman has used in the poem not only suggest the complexities of emotion behind a single tear, but shows us the process of its development. Through his depiction of every stage along the way, we gain a deeper appreciation of both the emotion and how its created.
As this poem shows, Kauffman’s poetry is replete with images from the natural world. Yet he doesn’t use them casually or in any of the ways we’ve become accustomed to seeing them employed. Instead of merely using nature as merely a source of metaphor it assumes its rightful place in our world. Everything we do is played out against the backdrop of the world around us whether we acknowledge it or not. Long before humans dominated the world with our presence the rocks and stones were here, and they’ll still be here after we’re long gone.
For while in poems like “friendship” he uses water to describe something of the nature of the word, “friendship is the water in our lives/coming with/moving against/the dryness/of calendar/clock”, in the poem “threads” the natural world is the permanent fixture against which our transience is played out. “with air and water watching/each of us/endlessly moving/along this path/from that which was to that which is/”. While the poem depicts how we are a continuation of what came before by describing our life as being a single thread “from the ball of all thread of lifetimes woven” and how, no matter what we do with our lives someone or something will come after us, “and each of us/the needle guiding this thread/this colour/into this tapestry of days and nights/and leaving again/at the end/a single thread”, what stays with us is the opening lines, “with air and water watching”.
No matter what we do, no matter who we become, and no matter how many generations came before or might follow after us, we will never be as permanent as the natural world. Those first five words remind us we’re not the centre of the universe, but only a minor player in the overall scheme of things as far as the rest of the world is concerned. We build huge monuments to ourselves but time, water and air will erode them all. In this one poem Kauffman captures how we are a continuation of what’s come before us and our part in shaping what comes after us while reminding us we’re only part of something even bigger.
After reading a collection of poetry like a seed within you can’t help but feel regret more people aren’t interested enough to read poetry. Poets like Kauffman have the ability to not only bring elements of the human condition to life in ways which would help people understand themselves better, but to put our lives into their proper perspective in regards to the world around us. You’ll learn more about the world and yourself by reading this one small book of poetry than you will from watching hundreds of hours of television or reading any number of books. Not only that, you just might find yourself enjoying it.
If you happen to be in the Kingston Ontario vicinity on Wednesday June 5 2013, Kauffman will be reading from a seed within at Novel Idea bookstore, 156 Princess St. as part of a double book launch starting at 7p.m.