Tuesday 18 November 2008

Irony, continued


She's been introduced, and the band is onstage, but no sign of Jill, until there she is: entering shyly from state left, wearing a baby blue, knee-length, empire waist dress with black polkadots, hair in a modified beehive, earrings dangling. Her shoes, I found out once I stood up for a closer look, were some kind of transparent plastic pumps with heels (if pumps have heels). On her face: the same blissful, shy, room-capturing smile she'd wear all night. And the room, the Exchange in Regina, was more packed than I'd ever seen it.

This is where the irony comes in, or goes out, or whatever irony does. She sang songs from her new Chances cd--retro, almost wartime-flavoured songs that, as the cd jacket says, "come clear and true to the listener." Without irony, in other words. That's the way she delivers them; that's the way this listener takes them. No doubt about it: she had me one hundred percent being her man, or leaving her, or making promises, or whatever else she wanted me to do.

But other listeners, like maybe the students I'll play a couple of her songs for tomorrow (on the way to revisiting the Robertson poem, see previous blog entry), will be unable to commit to her without irony. They'll think she's hokey, a dreamer, lost in some time warp. They won't believe her. Furthermore, Barber's not without irony herself, as in her comments about how glad she is to be "out of Saskatoon", which raised a predictable roar of appreciation from us Regina folks.

Listening to CBC on the way home, about half an hour ago, I heard a song called "If You Rescue Me," written by Lou Reed in 1969. Reed wrote it but, the dj tells us, could never sing it. "It's too pure and innocent," he said. His is the irony the Robertson poem claims, ironically or not, to be "sick of."

In the end, give me Barber. She put on a great show, as did her opener, the fabulous Royal Wood.

And best of all, maybe: I got to shout out the punchline I'd been saving ever since I heard Barber sing a song dedicated to "all the men I've forgotten but would like to say thank you too", or something like that, at the Regina folk festival last summer. As she introduced the song tonight, I shouted out "You're welcome" loud enough for everyone to hear. It worked!

Monday, two poems

Yesterday, a couple of poems showed us a good time. In one class, Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" resulted in a small wall extending for a couple of feet across our classroom. (The assignment was to bring a rock and oh yes read the poem.) In the poem, a playful speaker teases his neighbour about his simple, uncritical belief in the necessity of mending the stone wall between them. Yet it is the speaker, not the too-sensible neighbour, who every year initiates the mending of the wall--the wall thus dividing and linking the two, as if (as one of numerous on-line commentators on this poem have noted) both sides, the non-sense and the sense, are needed. The poem raises these matters in blank verse, spoken as plainly as can be. It's a beauty, this little poem.

In the later class, it was time for William Robertson's "End of the the 90s Poem" from his 2005 collection Just Living. It's a poem about irony that may or may not be ironic. It offers a series of statements--"I love you", "Let's get married" and so on--which may or may not be ironic, ending with "I meant every word I just said" which may or may not be ironic. When I suggested to the class that maybe the speaker is just fed up with the ironic distance so prevalent in late-90s popular culture and just wants to lay his emotions out as genuinely as possible, no one admitted to believing me (not that I was sure what I believed anyway). Once irony is evoked, I realized as I stood in front of the class trying to help us all understand what this poem was doing, we can't be sure where we are.

Friday 14 November 2008


Wednesday's poem adventure happened courtesy Steven Ross Smith's "n.", from his Fluttertongue, Book 1: The Book of Games. One of my students had selected it.

It's the kind of poem--does anyone know how I can link to this poem, by the way, without keying it into this blog?--that requires enlarging, the better to focus on individual letters, sounds, syllables. So I blew it up to hand out. At the last minute I decided to write it on the blackboard

[a digression: I like to tease my students sometimes about "old-time education" involving memorizing poems, or working silently while I walk around with a yardstick (try to find a yardstick nowadays), or writing their answers on the blackboard]

so I could run the chalk back and forth as we considered the various dynamics at work in Smith's poem. My students, bless their hearts, were more or less willing to play along--play being, I think, exactly what the poem does and wants us to do.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Word life

Tomorrow I'll tell my Sask Lit students that their stories written in the manner of Warren Cariou's Lake of the Prairies makes for a powerful combination, most pleasing to read. I may ask them to stand up, extend their right arm behind the person next to them, and pat. (This term for the first time I've not brought up the topic of plural pronouns with singular antecedents.)

We'll finish with the Cariou this week, then seven or eight more poems and maybe two or three short stories. For their last essay, they have to offer conclusions about Saskatchewan poetry based on the 25-30 poems they selected for us to read in class, poor sods. In the past, students have tended to make safe choices, but not this time. Maybe I framed the task differently, I'm not sure. But they come up with not just dandy-but-safe poems but about a dozen poems that have given all of us, me included, plenty of questions.

By the way, inevitably the word "fuck" or some other such word will show up, with corresponding uncertainty about whether or not it's ok to say it. Past classes have included such moments as "Yes! I've always wanted to say it", everyone saying it in unison, me chanting it, or no one taking any notice of it whatsoever. Monday one student was reading some Cariou aloud, when there it was. He paused ever so slightly and said "f-word" and read on.

Friday 7 November 2008

Class Acts

The week took a turn toward delight when my Sask Lit students considered Sheri Benning's "Bird-bones", which one of them had selected. What poetry is, how it works, what it can do--this poem, located somewhere between the poles of "nearer" and "further" I've been using, arbitrarily, to classify our poems, helps the students to shade their understanding of such matters. It tells a story, takes a leap, leaves questions, gestures toward both familiar and unknown territory. Just right for the group of readers in my class.

They talked the poem over with no intro from me whatsoever, other than to the process I wanted them to follow--everyone speaks, someone writes down comments, when running out of things to say go back into the poem, etc.--and as sometimes happens at the best of such times (from my perspective), they come up with commentary I hadn't thought of myself.

Earlier today, considering Tim O'Brien's anti-Vietnam War story "The Things They Carried", two students got into a mock argument about whether it was about war wrecking love, or love wrecking war. (In the story, a Lieutenant is daydreaming about a past love when one of his men is shot to death.)

Anything is better than just me talking.

Monday 3 November 2008


I said good-bye to both my son and my youngest daughter this morning. By day's end they'll be in Vancouver (Honours history student and improv whiz) and Saskatoon (to start rehearsals for A Christmas Carol at Persephone), respectively. In a minute or two I'm into the classroom, proposing to my students that they write about saying good-bye. I'll write a drop or two myself.

Later: Don't know if the topic took or not in class. They'll have the chance to work informal journal entries into longer pieces for their next essay assignment. For my part, I started to noodle away about the unsaid behind goodbyes.

Now, back in my office, I'm listening to the new Tafelmusik recording of the Beethoven 7th, the same piece I heard on CBC the afternoon of 9/11. I can't wait to go home and go to bed. The goodbyes feel like a bomb.