Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Peter Trower

I first discovered the poetry of Peter Trower by a lucky perusal through some forgotten second-hand bookstore round about 1982. I was immediately mermerised by it, though not only, as others have likewise been affected, by the blunt first-hand subject matter, but also the accomplishment of its artful composition.

Because Trower is noted as a "logging poet", those not intimately familiar with his work fire up the assumption machine, the cogs working overtime to mesh with the ready conclusions: "he's an amateur" --(what poet isn't?) -- "unsophisticated as to finer detail and feeling" --(i.e. he doesn't moon over twilight and silence in three hundred poems over four books and ten years) -- "unaware of modern thrusts in poetry" -- (he doesn't write hermetically about poetic composition, and so doesn't automatically bore to death anyone not a poet, and many perceptive ones who do write verse) -- "buried in his own world" -- (some of the greatest poets of the twentieth century wrote largely out of their own experiences, but their material transcended any one-dimensional reading of the events transcribed) -- and to sum up: "a rube" (usually used as a contrast to an "academic" or "teacher" of whatever stripe).

First off, it's a wrong tag, even leaving aside the asinine presumptions. Trower's best book, Ragged Horizons, (1978), contains 50 poems, only 16 of which directly involve logging or lumber related experiences. I enjoy just as much the non-logging efforts. And what a delight is the variance in subject matter among those poems: concentrated elegies and lyrical sonorities about individuals in bars, hospitals, on streets and in rooming houses; love poems; natural description with finely interwoven metaphysics; existential musings and anguished self-identity.

The accumulated experience of Trower's poems create a personal, strong stamp whereby a reader is confident that when specific tropes are used, they are accurate and vividly sensed. The raven in "The Ravens" is imagistic wonder and metaphor, ironic messenger and metonym, and it doesn't take a ten year manic scrutiny of European and Egyptian mythic excavation (ala Ted Hughes) to decipher the clues. Furthermore there is a respectful distance between the narrator's observer (largely autobiographical) and that which is observed. I say respectful because there's a humble admission that other humans, and especially animals, are mysterious to the isolated, subjective individual, no matter what spiritual authority is advanced. This is where Hughes (again) and Tim Lilburn (and others) get into so much trouble. Especially in Lilburn's (up to now) mid-career poems, the narrator merges with animals, not even as first-person/animal mouthpiece, but as undifferentiated soul and physical embodiment. This is nonsense, and reminds me of (on video) a starry-eyed interviewer who once asked the Dalai Lama what the nature and quality of his (the interviewer's) soul was. The Tibetan adept laughed good-naturedly, with surprise that such a question could be pondered, and said, "I don't know".

This is not to say that Trower simply trudges the ground of simple description, however harrowing or otherwise interesting it may be. Experience these words of his from "The Ghosts":

"like lavender cadavers
in mothballed leather coffins.
Trapped in the old enigma
I drift through the vague rooms
of the house that no one remembers
where one letter comes that is always black."

That is Vallejo-like in its frightening otherwordly reminiscence.

I happened to stumble across an MA thesis on the Web (don't have the link right now) which sheds some biographical light on why Trower may have been left out of the contemporary canon. The gentleman (again, sorry for not recalling the name at the moment) maintained that even though Trower eventually kibbitzed with Acorn, P. Lane, and Purdy, all working-class poets with prominence and received respect, even adoration, he was (and still is) neglected because of the aforementioned "rube" factor. Purdy and Acorn had easily-seen ties to the "common man" (whoever the hell that is), but they could also stud their lines with references to D.H Lawrence, French symbolism, John A. MacDonald, and Trotsky. Funny, I don't remember Thomas Hardy throwing in casual allusion (not that Purdy et al operate that way) to impress. But when it comes to Trower's modus operandi, such a ploy would be inorganic and unneccessarily jarring, and it would deplete the power of first-person grappling with personal experience.

I can't remember the rest of the MA thesis argument on this point, but my own view is that Trower is more of a curiosity than a figurehead -- grudgingly given a little more pull and admiration than initially -- because he entered his best writing years at the wrong time, which is to say when Warren Tallman, George Bowering, and the rest of their nauseous acolytes were gaining favour among their cornered (both physically and authoritatively) students. Trower (of the same geography) is not a composer of metapoetics. Wallace Stevens was a great poet in that line -- his career was based on it -- but it takes a great poet to break foundations and set up his or her own house. When I read other poets' cliquish, clever, half-smirking lines on "the compositional poetic life", I'm more than a little annoyed. It's directly analogous to going to a symphony concert and listening to the conductor regale you in minute detail with how the composer constructed the movements. Play the fucking music already!

Thankfully, Trower knew better. And judging by the response he has received to his live readings (which I've experienced), his listeners and readers do, as well.


Zachariah Wells said...

Great to see you posting enthusiastically about Trower, Brian. I first encountered his work in the Tom Wayman anthology _Going for Coffee_, which I picked up in the gift shop of a BC Ferries boat about seven years ago. I was interested in writing about work because I'd been writing a fair bit about my own work. The anthology was largely disappointing, leaning as it did towards an emphasis on content over form. Head and shoulders above the rest were poems by this Trower person I'd never heard of before. And yes, it was their sophistication that made them stand out. I've since tracked down many of his books new and used and have had the pleasure of spending a bit of time with the man, who's still sharp at 78. I also turned Carmine Starnino on to his work, the result of which is probably the best appraisal of Trower's poetry ever written.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link, Zach. I'd read Starnino's "A Lover's Quarrel", but hadn't chanced upon the Trower piece before. It's fascinating.

The only fundamental arguement I have with it is when he (Starnino)conjectures that Trower's neglect may result from reviewers and academics not recognizing the sophistication under the surface. I would submit that -- even were this so -- it wouldn't matter. (The Bowering Boys mock sophistication, anyway, so Trower would be an "anachronism" whether he composed in complex metaphor OR crude semaphore..)

No, the more I think about it, the more convinced am I that the entrenched learnery set saw someone who represented a potential threat (more in the way of future influence) to their fame/cash cow, someone who gave less than a sour dump for "words made from words" (quoting Starnino quoting Trower), and, should that tack prove attractive to future versifiers, would therefore doom the listless, theoretical self-importance of the powerbroking clan. To be short, it was (and is) a case of self-protection, and had/has little to do with perceptions of artistic merit on their part. It's also an intriguing explanation for Acorn's success, even though there were many similarities between Trower and the PEIer: Acorn's praises were sung before the language/deconstructionist/theory driven drivel gained ascendency (it had risen in prominence, but still competed at the time with a tougher, experience driven poetics). And imagine Trower being hastily crowned with his own national "Poet of the People" award today, if the SFU prof won another GG the same year as HH + HV's release. I hated the West Coast's dominant aesthetic 35 + years ago, and hate it more today, since the entrenchment is deeper and wider.

Yikes, this is becoming an essay. Time to wash my wooden dentures and catch a nap.

Zachariah Wells said...

Part of Acorn and Purdy's success that shouldn't be forgotten is that they were national poets in a way that Trower wasn't, living east and central as well as west and writing about same. Trower has always been a regionalist, which doesn't make his verse any less worthy of admiration, but makes him much easier to ignore--especially with someone with as little "professional" ambition as Pete possesses. With the exception of Ragged Horizons (now 30 years old and as you say, aging very well), all his work has been published in BC.

I'm not so sure that TISH's non-embrace of Trower is as intentional as you say. I think there's definitely some looking-down-the-schnozz going on, but doubt it's as defensive as all that. Trower's kind of poetry just doesn't fit with their (very limited) conception of the art.

Anonymous said...

Good points in your first paragraph.

And that was part of my point (your second paragraph): against what Starnino said in his excellent essay, the Black Mountain proselytizers were opposed to crude regurgitation of experience AND polished, formed utterance. More immediately, they had no way of smothering the experiences with theory, and explaining them away.