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Introduction by Howard White

Not so long ago an old school friend who got on steady at the local college was good enough to invite me over to her class to read some of my poems out loud. After I'd read everything I'd written in the last ten years, which took us up to the first smoke break, one of the students put her hand up and said, "That was rilly good in some places, Mr. White, but how can you tell what you write is poetry and not prose?"

Damn. I could remember the discussions of what makes poetry poetry being carried on with some heat in my own school days, replete with belligerent factions armed with slogans:

" Poetry is language charged with meaning to the utmost
possible degree."

"Poetry is news that stays news.

"No ideas but in things."

"Two legs good, four legs bad.

Even with the omniscience of youth I had trouble picking who was right, and the relentless mass murder of brain cells which had taken place in the intervening years didn't make my position any easier. Still, I felt I owed it to the reputation of Living Authors to attempt some sort of reply.

"Prose doesn't have rhyming words at the ends of the lines."

"But neither does your, ah, writing."

She had me there. I had no choice but to escalate the discussion into a consideration of poetic measure and how it can be discerned in a given composition. First you must carefully examine the text in order to ascertain where the poem in question begins and where it ends. Then you measure the entire distance between those two points using a good quality ruler. If it's over 18 inches (40 cm) long, the thing is most likely to be prose. If it's under that you can take chance on it being poetry-unless it's obviously a grocery list.

On second thought -- I can't be too sure about grocery lists. I am seeing more of these being accepted as poems lately. If all else failed one could try checking the cover of the book. Even in these morally bankrupt times there are few books containing poetry which do not carry a plain warning on the front cover, although even here, one of our more distinguished practitioners has been known to disguise his art in books which appear to be about more accepted subjects such as protective footwear.

It was meeting the Palestinian poet Fawaz Turki that relieved me of a lot of the anxiety it seems normal to have about whether the stuff you're filling your book up with is poetry or something else just as short. I met Fawaz at a big Amnesty International jamboree of oppressed writers in Toronto a few years ago, and one of the things that intrigued me about him was a rumour that he might be reduced to chopped liver by a Mossad hit squad at any time. I found it invigorating to think that I was sharing the planet with people who cared enough about poetry to massacre anybody over it, and I went to readings by Fawaz and a number of persecuted poets from other third-world nations, hoping to discover what they were doing to earn such respect. Their poetry was the plainest stuff you could imagine:

I hate nobody
I rob nobody
but when I starve
I eat the flesh of my marauders
Beware ... my hunger

A lot of it had been written for special occasions, the signing of a treaty, the loss of another leader, a meeting to warn mothers against Nestle milk nurses etc. and I was astonished by the bold way they used the poem as a tool of public communication-flexible, effective, unpretentious, but with a certain disposable quality that didn't come across very well at a high-toned literary event in downtown Toronto. Fawaz started with a good audience, but it was half gone by the time he finished. The CanLit crowd was prepared to overlook a little terrorism but they drew the line at news that didn't stay news. I was embarrassed on my country's behalf and decided to invest a beer in some international fence-mending.

I needn't have worried. Fawaz was used to western writers finding Third World poetry too prosy and journalistic but he had more than enough ego reinforcement from his own people to feel secure about what he was doing. Back in Jordan, he told me, it was nothing to have a crowd of several thousand gather on a few hours notice to hear him at an open-air reading. When he appeared in public, throngs of grown women followed him around ululating and fluttering their hands like leaves, chanting his name. His broadsheets outsold newspapers. And he wasn't alone. There were Palestinian poets more popular than him, and there were many Eastern Bloc and Latin American poets whose books sold huge quantities in underground editions. I'd heard of these incredibly popular South American poets before-Earle Birney has a poem about it-but I'd never considered it much more than a wondrous curiosity. It was quite a novelty to think the very idea poetry is a dying art form might be a western conceit which doesn't apply to vast portions of the globe.

At a bull session later some CanLit prof asked why poetry was less marginalized in so many developing countries and about 17 Third-Worlders tried to answer at once. The general drift was, western poets have done it to themselves because all they do is write for each other. They consider it corruption of true art to write for common taste, but they're never done whining that the public fails to appreciate them. And even when poets from developing countries show how well the public responds to poets who write for common taste with serious purpose, western writers fail to get the message. Somebody tried to make a case that western writers didn't have the kind of big social challenges poets in developing worlds did, but gave up when somebody else yelled, "Try taking your culture back from Hollywood and Madison Avenue!"

It would be nice if I could tie this ramble together by saying this third-world poetic ricocheted across the hemisphere to galvanize my attempts to fashion poetry from bush life in Pender Harbour BC, but the fact is I'd already spent years fiddling at the kind of prosy weather reports to be found herein. What it did was give me a little relief from those nagging questions about what makes poetry poetry. Whatever it is, these are some of the words that were useful to me, at various times. I'm struck with the inappropriateness of placing many of these pieces in anything so static and exclusive as this pricey little book-for most of them I would have preferred a spot on the local breakfast broadcast or editorial page where they might have provided a chuckle or a moment of reflection and been disposed of. In our world, those are the spaces most in need of what poetry has to offer, the frontier where the battle for cultural survival must be renewed, and my best hope for this motley collection is that it contains a few steps toward the kind of poem that could do that work.