Richard Harrison’s On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood (Wolsak & Wynn) won the 2017 Governor General’s and Stephan G. Stephansson (Alberta) Prizes for poetry. The following year it was published in translation in Italy. Richard’s work follows the storytelling traditions of Canadian poets Alden Nowlan and Patrick Lane, and his influences include Sharon Olds, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, because his father loved to recite it, the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Richard writes chiefly on family history and about the narratives (and poems) that join the generations. His poems are also often described as an inquiry into the power and limitations of poetry itself. He recently retired from his professorship at Calgary's Mount Royal University where he taught English, Comic Studies, and Essay and Creative Writing. His most recent book is 25: Hockey Poems New & Revised published on the 25th Anniversary of Hero of the Play, the first book of poems launched at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
I did, but for the most part it was reading done outside of high school. My father recited poetry to us when we were children, and I learned the cadence and beauty of the English canon from him. I had two wonderful teachers in high school, though, Peggy Roth and Charlie Humber, one a teacher of drama, the other of English Literature, who brought that home-love that I came to school with into the classroom and my writing of poetry. My favourite poems then were Yeats’s “The Second Coming” which I’m sure appealed my teenage love of apocalyptic visions and the imagery of ancient Egypt, “Fern Hill,” which was as close to a pure music of the syllable as I’d ever heard, and later on Patrick Lane’s poems in his 1978 New and Selected for the sheer power of their witness and again, their music, though it was a restrained, low music, as though its singer regretted the song he had to carry.
I started writing poems when I was around 18 or so. I had written some “exercise poems” before that, but writing because I wanted to write happened later. The first poems were amusement pieces. I was working on an archeological dig north of Toronto and it was the arduous work of digging through the soil with a palette knife and a toothbrush. In archeology the layer something rests in is almost more important than the object, so you dig to reveal but also to preserve. I suppose that’s a poetic principle, too. I amused myself and my fellow diggers with limmericks and rhymes about the work. It taught me a lot not about the form of poetry but certainly its role, its value as a binding power in the community. Time passes well with poems. That was the bug that got me started writing, and it opened my eyes on my own life to see how rich with poetry it had been. Within two years, after hearing the great Canadian poets who visited my university in my undergrad years read, and falling in with that coterie of young, hungry poets that you can find in any university, I realized that whether I ever became a poet or not, I had to try; I didn’t want to find out at 40 that I’d missed the chance. At first I was self-anointed. I suppose you have to have that sense of being a poet before there’s any evidence in order to finally become a poem with the evidence there. I dropped that definition though and went to another: in the end you say you are a poet when and only when other people refer to you that way — particularly if they’re the people you think of as poets.
To be part of the creation of poetry, whether that’s the poetry that you write yourself from the blank page and then invite others to collaborate with you on — others like your workshop group, your classmates, your teachers, your best friends (the ones who will tell you the truth), other poets if you are lucky enough to have them help you along the way, your editors, or whether that’s by being part of a workshop group or a class, a teacher, a best friend, a poet who helps another along the way, or an editor.
In the barest terms, “With the Dying of the Light” was inspired by my father’s death; it is the poem that arises from my last conversation with him before he died. I also think of it as his last lesson to me about poetry. My father died of dementia, but he didn’t forget his poems, or me, the way some do when the dementia runs its full course before it takes the life. So my father and I recited poetry to each other, the way we did when I was young and he was strong and whole. We talked, too, of course, but my father had always loved Dylan Thomas, particularly “Fern Hill” and “Do Not Go Gentle,” but in the end, he did “go gentle into that good night” and it was right; he had lived a soldier’s life of rage, so he needed to put that life down before he died. And that is what he did, and what I hope I captured in that poem. That poem was a way for one poem to talk to another as well as for a life to talk to art. I don’t know whether all of that comes through in the piece, but it’s what I think of when I read it.
I hope that William Stafford’s “Ask Me” is the last poem I ever forget.