How Not to Write a Lyric Poem, Part One

     Lorna Crozier and Nick Thran are at near-opposite stages in their careers as poets. Crozier is a much-lauded and beloved CanLit matriarch; Earworm is Thran’s follow-up to a well-received first collection. Yet the difference and the sameness could not be greater in terms of content. What do I mean? Crozier approaches Big Ideas with brittle faux-lyricism, whereas Thran approaches Dumb Ideas with the pop effervescence of a rubber champagne bottle.

     There are five tells to identify creative exhaustion in a poet. These tells are also exhibited by the beginner yet to find their voice or subject. The beginner isn’t so much creatively exhausted as exhaustingly creative…. But I digress. These tells are:

(1) Recurrent metaphors that become recurrent nightmares
(2) Titles that are unintentionally funny
(3) Overabstraction
(4) A wish, at the end of the poem, to make a summation, or to blast off into space
(5) A point where poems cease to be poems, shrug, and then clunk into being poems again.

     All of these tells are exhibited by renowned creative writing instructor Lorna Crozier in Small Mechanics, her sixteenth book of poems, which passes for what passes in mainstream contemporary Canadian poetry these days. But then Crozier has been writing this stuff since the 70’s; she bangs it out like a maternity ward. Consider “The First Day of the Year”:

The new writer sucks her fingers
in her crib. There is nothing
to distinguish her- like the extra toe

on Hemingway’s
literary cats- from all the other
babies down the block.

She is dreaming ink
though she hasn’t seen it in this world yet

and no one knows,
least of all her parents,
she loves nothing

better than the blank
flat whiteness
of the bottom sheet

when she’s laid damp
from her morning bath
upon it.

     Crozier’s mentored many new writers, who might be horrified to know that here they’ve been rendered as infants. And the babies are indistinguishable, a condescending thing for a creative writing instructor to admit. It’s true that the new writer is struggling to achieve a voice and to find a subject. But new writers are different. Some have talent, some don’t. And writers are adults, not infants. Though they’re admittedly new at writing professionally, it’s not true to say they’re new at thinking, or even writing in a creative way. (Parsing a classroom is not the equivalent of trying to pick out your kid after some mad nurse has removed all the nametags in the maternity ward.) Furthermore, the speaker’s “dreaming ink” is romantic but also guileless. The new writer has dreams but the one with ambition doesn’t love a “blank/ flat whiteness” of the page. The ambitious are intimidated by it and most of these aren’t loving blank pages so much as scouring already printed pages for something to steal, to emulate, to incorporate, to reject. Finally, the soft-focus maternity porn at the end of the poem – the nascent poet oozes out poetry – won’t help the young writer in her struggle to make anything beautiful.

     Here’s Crozier’s method: nearly every poem has a dash of natural imagery, a pinch of pathetic fallacy, an eye of newt (the presence of animals, but especially birds), and a ruinous pitcher of salt that, I fear, comes in the form of light/dark imagery. But yes, there’s lots of actual salt too. Let’s focus on the five tells.

(1) Recurrent metaphors that become recurrent nightmares

     The most obvious tell in the book is the metaphorical nightmare: Crozier’s poetry sleeps with a nightlight on. The first poem (note to the young writer: don’t title your opener “Last Breath”) mentions that her “brain” is “lit up.” Also, the “sun” sinks. In the second poem (again, note to young writer: don’t title the second poem “Don’t Say It”) there is “dusk.” It would be tedious to mention all the instances when Crozier has seen the light and gone bump in the dark. (She has written whole books with titles like Everything Arrives at the Light and Apocrypha of Light.)

(2) Titles that are unintentionally funny

     The strand-me-in-the-hell-of-skeptical-reviewer titles is perhaps the worst tell of all. “Last Breath.” “Don’t Say it.” What about “Giving Up”? Here’s the whole poem:

The last of the moon is fed up.
It’s given them enough light below
to do something good, enough light
to read by, to find what was bright
within them.

Let them do their work in darkness, the bad
and good of it. Let the cereus cease its shining.
Let the man betray the boy he was and never once
look up.

The moon will turn itself off tonight.

The sand that is dry will stay dry.
The coonhound and the blood
will lower their heads and make no sound.

No one will go mad tonight.
No one will ride a silver slip across the waters,
and no one, no one, no one will fall
in love.

     Crozier lifted a finger, but just one, and just a millimetre, to come up with “moon.” (She’d already splurged “sun” in the first poem!) It’s good, though, that the moon is doing good work. It’s good that the people can do “something good” – let’s not be specific and squander a word with the use of “something” – and it’s good that there’s light, certainly two instances of the word “light”, because only a dim reader should find what’s bright inside this poetry. Still, it wouldn’t be a Crozier poem if there weren’t a random animal somewhere and it’s not as if she put a wolf in, for that would be giving up the ghost. (There’s coyotes later in the book.) Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to “moon” over in the book. See tell (1).

(3) Overabstraction & (4) A wish, at the end of the poem, to make a summation

     Crozier is a master at aiming for the moon. She wants to blast off into outer space, where concepts and ideas have the ring of truth and no one can hear you scream. This is the trick of poets who take an idea, noodle with it, then try to tie it up at the end. Consider the end of “Music is More Precious”:

could be whale song
echoing for miles across the sea floor,

calling the lost,
the ones without a mother, home.

     It’s a failure of craft to hurry up and end poems. To use big concepts and ideas (the condition of being lost, the concept of motherhood, the presence/absence of home) as a last ditch substitute for saying something. Unlike actual “whale song,” Crozier’s noises are meaningless, empty. But what about the end of “Winter Coming On”? “All is undersound and longing,/ the grace notes of the garden in the rain.” Again, we watch the poet grope for the sky, but grasp the amorphous.

(5) A point where poems cease to be poems, shrug, and then clunk into being poems again.

     When discussing – and writing – lyrics, one must keep the avant-garde in mind. Crozier writes the kind of lyric mushaboom that the avant-garde points to as representative of the failure of the lyric. An avant-garde critic could not only point to most elements of a Crozier poem and make their indictment, but could also find poems where the lyric just crashes. It doesn’t just fail; it ceases to be. Consider this stanza from “If Bach were a Bird” (Yes, music, yes, birds. See (1) also):

Wang Wei knew this,
Bach, as well, though he might
have said it in a different way
being German, not Chinese.

     A poem can’t lift if creative exhaustion has become an anchor: the stock elements which are the padding of Crozier’s poetry have even deserted the poet, and Crozier has written a stanza that even the babes “dreaming of ink” would have avoided at the first draft.

— Shane Neilson