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April 4, 2010

Poetry Primer Number One: by Susan Telfer

Susan Telfer’s poems have been published in literary journals from coast to coast in Canada. She teaches high school and lives in Gibsons, BC with her husband and three children. Susan is the recipient of the Sunshine Coast Arts Council Gillian Lowndes Award, which is for a community artist who has demonstrated long-standing achievement and growth.

I first encountered Susan through her wonderful collection House Beneath (Hagios Press, 2009) and I’m so pleased that she was willing to share some thoughts here about poetry.

How do I need poetry? Let me count the ways.

As a child, I needed poetry without knowing I needed it, because it was provided in abundance through nursery rhymes, A Child’s Garden of Verses, When We Were Very Young, Alligator Pie and the Psalms. Starting in late high school and university, I began to understand how the poetry of the English canon sustained me. Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” The right poem, I have found, is like the right homeopathic medicine: a tiny ‘like cures like’ tear to heal some deep hurt inside me. Here is a small sampling of my most potent remedies.

When I was in my twenties, with my first baby, and my mom was diagnosed with cancer and the hardest years of my life began, I found a poem in The Atlantic by Marie Howe called “What the Living Do.” I immediately cut it out, glued it in my journal and read it over and over. I didn’t know then that Marie was writing of her brother who had died of AIDS, or that my young mother would soon be dead, but I knew I needed that poem. Perhaps the most healing message from it for me was that in the midst of death you might catch a tender glimpse of yourself: “and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep.” A snatch of the poem with a photo appeared in Oprah last year, and I realized then what powerful medicine that poem contains.

About four years ago I read “Our Lady of the Snows” by Robert Hass, and put a copy on my fridge. It was Christmas, and as usual, the ghost of my drunken father at Christmases past haunted me. That poem on the fridge was like garlic on the door. Again, Robert was writing about himself as a little boy dealing with his drunken mother; I was remembering myself as a helpless girl dealing with my drunken father, but our stories were similar. He had been where I had been: “And the days churned by, /navigable sorrow.” He told it in a way I could not articulate and that was how he provided medicine for me. I get it out every Christmas, and many other times during the year.

Only recently have I discovered Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poems, which strike me with the clarity and depth of one of those bell bowls at yoga class. “A Breakfast for Barbarians” and “Dark Pines Under Water” are two poems written in my nursery rhyme years, which, for reasons as yet unknown to me, speak directly to the inner layer of who I am. Some healing is going on in my unconscious. “There is something down there and you want it told.”

George Elliott Clarke, himself a writer of many healing poems, told me, “Writing is not healing for the writer, but for the reader.” Dear Reader, read with your hungry heart until you find the poetic voice speaking the nourishment you need. And especially if you’re from a small town, and even if you aren’t, read Louise Glück’s new book A Village Life.

Marie Howe’s book is What the Living Do, and Robert Hass’ is Sun Under Wood. “A Breakfast for Barbarians” was published in the book by the same title (Ryerson, 1966) and is out of print but old copies are around. “Dark Pines Under Water” was published in The Shadow-Maker (MacMillan, 1969.) They are both in the new edition: The Selected Gwendolyn MacEwen (Exile Classics, 2007).

6 thoughts on “Poetry Primer Number One: by Susan Telfer”

  1. Rona Maynard says:

    What a lovely way to start my week–with a cleansing, clarifying blast of poetry. “There is something down there and you want it told” is worth a thousand lines by lesser poets.

  2. Kristin says:

    Oh, that first poem (Marie Howe)! It just strikes you right to the core. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Melanie says:

    “Dear Reader, read with your hungry heart until you find the poetic voice speaking the nourishment you need.”

    What a wonderful post. I love these lines Susan has given us, and all the gorgeous poetry she has pointed us to.

  4. Kerry says:

    So glad this has touched you! I’m pretty thrilled to be featuring it here, and pleased also to have encountered the poems Susan has pointed us to.

  5. Elisabeth says:

    Thank you for introducing me to these poems. My heart soars as it feels smashed. I want to read more.

  6. Susan Telfer says:

    I’m so glad that other people have connected with these poems.

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