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Having The Last Word: The Archivist's Art
By Carolyn Zonailo

“a poem is an archive for our times”

Dorothy Livesay, "The Poetry: Interpretations"

“As an historian I had all my life been aware of the extraordinary importance of documents. I had handled hundreds of them: letters, reports, memoranda, sometimes diaries; I had always treated them with respect, and had come in time to have an affection for them. They summed up something that was becoming increasingly important to me, and that was an earthly form of immortality. Historians come and go, but the document remains, and it has the importance of a thing that cannot be changed or gainsaid. Whoever wrote it continues to speak through it.”

Robertson Davies, World Of Wonders

     Marian and I met when we entered seventh grade in Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School. That was more than twenty-five years ago but we're still friends. Marian is a photographer, and during one period in her life, she worked for the city of Vancouver Public Archives. Marian is now living with a poet, and she recently asked me "Whose work is important to you, writing now, in this country?"

     What I look for in a poet's work is first of all whether or not they have an indigenous voice. By that I mean a voice which is a natural one, springing from the soil of where they are located by birth, by upbringing, by habitation, or from anywhere the poet has put down roots, gone back into their past, made the poem an archive for their lifetime, for their location in history, time and place.

     An indigenous voice has nothing to do with reflecting the politics of the day, or even criticizing them. It has nothing to do with writing 'Canadian' poetry. It has to do with the very foundation of the poet's sensibility and poetic psyche. Without an indigenous voice, the poets' work is not interesting or important to me. Without that voice, springing from a deeply rooted sensibility, the poems are composed from idea rather than from instinct. They may therefore be interesting as ideas, but not as poetry.

     The second quality I look for is originality. Unless a poet's work is original, unique, and uniquely his or hers, it has nothing new to offer. But an original voice, however out of step with the popular conventions, or whether it be innovative or traditional, is of utmost significance—because only when the voice is original, when what is happening in the poems is unique, is there a chance of new knowledge being discovered. To innovate is one thing; to be truly original, the only poem, the only voice, of its kind is another.

     The next area of concern is with the body of work, the corpus. The poet must have created, or be in the midst of creating, what is a recognizable body of work. One poem does not a poet make, even if it is a good one. A lifetime commitment to the activity of creating poems, in the context of a complete body of writing, sometimes produces a good poet. What is important is the continuity of the writing: the poems have to complete themselves, the body of poems has to make a corpus—by that I mean the poems have to be of significant quantity and quality, so that together the individual poems form a body of work, a corpus of completed poetic thought. Then, from the poet's complete body of work, there is the chance for knowledge and insight, the true fruits of creativity.

     The poet must have depth of vision. Without depth of vision, the poem is ornamental language, or rhetoric. It doesn't mean anything—worse still, it doesn't mean anything of significance. Why is the poem necessary, if it isn't profound? There are many possibilities for entertainment, and for writing that entertains. As entertainment, poetry is easily replaceable, and why shouldn't it be? It isn't poetry's function to be entertaining. It is poetry's function to be an archive, to give a true account of what it actually feels like, is like, to be alive in a certain time, a certain place, a specific consciousness. That is, anyway, only one of poetry's functions: to give account, not of what happened, such as an historical or other documentation of human life does, but of the actual feel of being alive. A grocery list will tell us what was eaten, and perhaps what it cost. An archeological dig will uncover what utensils were used for cooking and consuming. An historical document will tell us where and when it happened, and in what context. A photograph or illustration will show us what it looked like. But only the poem will really tell us what it feels like, from the inside, from the deepest part of the poet's being. And, what meaning it contains. For as well as being an archive, the poem must contain knowledge—that is another of the functions of poetry. The deeper the poet's vision, the more knowledge the poem contains, or, the more significant that knowledge is capable of being. By significant, I mean the more central to sustaining human life.

     Without talent, the poet can't create important poetry. The poet must have an abundance of talent. This has something to do with the scope of a poet's work. With a large enough talent for writing poetry, the poet can follow the poem wherever it needs to lead him or her. Talent nurtures ambition, and ambitious poetry can try for new form, new content, new combinations of form and content, new depths, new poetic concepts, new knowledge, new ways of using tradition, convention, and in short, discovery, in whatever form it takes.

     Talent, without discipline of craft, won't carry the poem very far. The poet must be accomplished in the craft, the art of poetry. Poetry is an art, not an ambition. The more accomplished the poet, the less the poem gets in the way of the vision being created by the poem. The greater the craft, the greater the versatility in being able to speak. The more that can be spoken, the more that can be learned, transmitted, saved from the world of obscurity and ignorance. Discipline informs the whole of the poetic process, from the inside where the poems begin to germinate, to the outside, where the elements of craft shape how the poem is laid down into language. The entire act of composition is made manifest only through the exercise of discipline. It is the continuous application of poetic discipline and craft that makes poetry an art. And it is both an ancient and a contemporary art. It is one of the enduring arts of human life.

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