Writer in Residence

A Poem Can Be About Anything

By Barry Dempster

I came across a cat writing contest on the internet. At first I thought that the poems had to be written by cats and was sure that my Iris Belle had a stanza or two inside her just waiting to creep out on four velvety paws. But it turned out to be a human poet writing about his or her cat. I could imagine a plethora of “darting tails” and “whiskers that tickle.” But why was I being so cynical? I could think of several exceptions to such hokum: Robert Duncan’s “A Little Language” where he writes, “I know a little language of my cat, though Dante says/that animals have no need of speech and Nature/abhors the superfluous./My cat is fluent.; Marge Piercey’s “The cat’s song” and those wonderful lines “You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,/says the cat, although I am more equal than you”; or Ted Hughes’ “Cat and Mouse’s” marvelous “Whether to two/Feet or four, how are prayers contracted!/Whether in God’s eye or the eye of a cat.”

“A poem can be about anything,” I tell kids when I visit elementary school classes. They thought they’d be cajoled to write verse about flowers and, yes, cats. I can still see their eyes widen as they heard that their subject matter could be hockey pucks or dinosaurs or snot.

I get the same sinking feeling when I’m asked to read a poem at weddings or funerals (see several blogs ago). I’m almost sure that it’s schlock that they want. But once again, unfair of me. Sure, cliché can bring comfort: we look for the predictable at our most vulnerable moments. But we’re also able to take pleasure and find solace in the unexpected as well.

It’s important not to bemoan the fact that some poems come close to being drivel, but to believe in the power of language to transform sentimentality into deep feelings and melodrama into truth. Listen to Margaret Atwood’s cat poem, “February:” “Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, is the author of fourteen poetry collections, two novels, The Ascension of Jesse Rapture and The Outside World, two volumes of short stories and a children’s book. His collection The Burning Alphabet won the Canadian Authors’ Association Chalmers Award for Poetry in 2005. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Ontario Premiers Award for Excellence in the Arts. He is also Acquisitions Editor for Brick Books.

For more information about Invisible Dogs please visit the Bricks Books website.