The great American poet e. e. cummings said "Poetry happens to be an art". If you look up happens in the dictionary you'll find when used as a verb, as in this case, it means something that ensues as an effect or result of an action or an event. However, when used in the phrase "as it happens" it can also mean "as a matter of fact". cummings wasn't one to use words idly, he could have said "poetry is an art", but he chose not to in order to say something about the nature of poetry. As the latter definition says much the same thing as the simple "is an art" statement, I think he was leaning towards the first definition. Poetry occurs, and it is an art.
However poetry doesn't just happen to be art by default. There has been plenty of verse, blank or otherwise, put down on paper no one would consider art. Heck, there's plenty of stuff fitting that description I wouldn't dignify with the name poetry, or its authors as poets, let alone art. Poetry as art only occurs as a result of the actions of a poet of singular abilities. Kingston Ontario, Canada resident Bruce Kauffman's new book of poetry, published by Hidden Brook Press, The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf, happens to be the work of such a poet.
The creation of poetry is akin to walking a tightrope. Words are shaped with the intent of stimulating the reader's intellect in such a way they create an emotional resonance within them. If the perfect balance between brain and heart aren't maintained readers either end up feeling manipulated or nothing at all. One of the first things you'll notice upon reading any of Kauffman's poetry is how he never slips to either side. Not once do you feel like you're being pushed, or even nudged, to feel anything. Instead, as you read you find yourself walking in step with him down whatever path he's exploring, but being given the freedom to experience it for yourself. He might point out the landmarks he thinks are important, but he leaves you free to react to them as you wish.
One of the reasons Kauffman is such a good guide is his ability to bring the world of each poem to life. Instead of simply reading the words on the page visuals are evoked in your mind. However, unlike a work of fiction where the visuals you're inspired to create establish the physical environment a work takes place in, in this case they establish an emotional landscape.
Using imagery taken from the natural world he is able create pictures in our heads which accentuate the emotional content of the poem. In the poem "Reading", describing listening to an author read, Kauffman gives us the following image, "her words/with the wings/of raven/flew into the twilight/and back through/the night/hung in the air/like a snowflake/in autumn/then turned into angels/as her voice/cleared the sky"
If you've ever been to a reading you'll know how at times you can enter an almost trance like state listening to an author recite his or her work. Words really do seem to fly across the room towards you and you attempt to catch them, and their meanings with your mind. Like an early snowfall the words are beautiful as they float down to earth but it won't be long before they vanish. Kauffman was also very deliberate in his choice of a raven in this piece.
In some Native American traditions Raven is the creator of life. In Kauffman's preface to the book he talks about how a certain reading series he attended served to inspire his poetry and provided the impetus for him to start writing again. Describing the words as taking flight with the wings of a raven suggests both something of the creative energy residing in them and the urge to create they inspired.
In their attempts at creating atmosphere I've noticed poets will use words in one of two very distinct methods. There are those who wash words over reader in waves. In some ways the sound of the language employed is as almost as important as the word's actual meaning in conveying the emotional intent of the poem. Like the tide there is an ebb and flow to this type of work and the words eventually peak and in theory carry the reader along on their crest. While there is a certain appeal to this kind of work I find those poets who are able to communicate emotion through the careful selection of just the right word far more effective.
Whereas the former seems to be hoping if they say enough they will eventually have an impact on their audience, the latter shows a thoughtfulness that suggests an appreciation for the power of language and the artistry required to employ it effectively. Poetry is an example of a case where less is definitely more. If you had any doubts about this reading Kauffman's collection will quickly assuage them as you see how he is able to say so much with so little.
Look at the lines quoted from "Reading" again and how much he has managed to convey. He has managed to describe what it's like sitting in an audience at a reading, the effect the words had on him personally, and comment on the power of the poet's writing. Each word has been carefully selected for what it communicates to the reader either directly or through suggestion. At the same time there is an effortlessness to their flow making it seem like the lines occurred to the poet spontaneously while sitting in the audience. Kauffman may very well have spent hours agonizing over his word choice, but you can't tell by reading them.
Poetry, like abstract art, jazz and classical music relies on the artist's ability to communicate emotions and ideas without spelling them out. The visual artist uses colour and shape, a composer uses sound and tempo and the poet words and how they appear on the page in order to convey their individual messages. Maybe I'm prejudiced but I think the poet's task is by far the hardest. For while colour and sound can make a direct appeal to emotions words must be processed rationally in order for us to feel anything.
Therefore the poet must not only find the words to express what he wants to say, but ones which will have the greatest chance of passing her message along to as many people as possible. If what you have to say is important enough for you to endure the struggle of putting it down on paper, you are going to want as many as possible to understand what you're saying. While Kauffman's poetry is by no means easy read, it's also not obscure or incomprehensible. In each poem, readers will find their own portal leading into the heart of the subject which, in turn, will open a door to their own hearts.
Kauffmans's The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf will be available as of January 11 2013. (If you're in Kingston Ontario on that day go to the Grad Club, 162 Barrie St for the book launch starting at 8:00pm). You can obtain a copy of the book by ordering from your local book store or through various Amazon sites world wide in either hard copy or e-book. Poetry of this quality doesn't just happen, its the work of a gifted writer and artist. Even if you wouldn't normally be drawn to buying a book of poems, do yourself a favour, take a chance and read this collection and discover how words can be used to move us just as readily as music and painting.
(Article first published as Book Review: (Poetry): The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf by Bruce Kauffman on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted January 2013)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.