The well-pruned poem
Writer condenses complex ideas into a few simple words
June 9 2002
Poetry, says Nancy-Gay Rotstein, must stand the test of time. It
must speak to the present.
For her latest collection, she says, she has selected the works from
over the past quarter century, come of which have appeared in
earlier publications although many are not previously published.
And, to be included, those poems must speak as loudly now as they
did when they were written.
resonate even more loudly.
Of The Age of Aquarius, she writes:
They gave up one love;
replacing tenderness with
honesty enough to sting
and bruise the most trusting
It takes time for trendy new ideas to percolate through society, and
it's interesting to have a poet remind us of those trendy ideas now
that we're living with the results.
The poems in this book, Rotstein says, "speak in the universal
desire to connect with family, with nature," and poetry "helps us
handle the tensions of the scope and speed of change."
And poetry is good only if "it has an effect on somebody, if it has
meaning for them."
Her poetry has meaning for a lot of people. Rotstein was surprised
and gratified by the huge turnout for her book launch at the
University of Toronto.
Her poetry also has meaning for Irving Layton, who wrote the
foreword to the book.
Rotstein "sees things as they are," he writes. "She has the ability
to see beyond or through appearance. Rotstein has put her living to
good use; life has not been wasted on her."
Sometimes she is startled by the effect her poetry has on readers or
listeners. She recalls giving a reading at the National Library in
Ottawa, a reading that began with the poem Carousel.
lithe Lippizaners leap toward storybook stars
exposing golden hoofs,...
golden haired, the lady
and cradles the enlarged head
of her dreamy, droop-lid son,
fragile frame pressed secure;
his face, glowing,
is haunting in happiness...
After the reading a stranger had come up to her and remarked that
he'd read that poem in Queen's Quarterly and had it framed. Rotstein
said she assumed the man must be a poet - who else would frame
pieces of poetry? But no, he was a psychologist whose patients
included a handicapped lad not expected to outlive his parents. -
The psychologist was holding the poem to comfort the parents should
the worst happen.
"That's just an example of how poetry can touch lives," Rotstein
But she isn't thinking about touching lives when she's writing. She
says that to have the passion and intensity, she has to write the
first draft of a poem when an idea strikes, and usually carries a
notebook for the purpose. But the craft of poetry is as important to
Rotstein as the art. She'll return to her poems again and again,
perhaps over several months, trimming anything that isn't absolutely
essential and polishing what's left.
The key to goo poetry, she says, is "economy of language plus the
cadence of music."
Her work is usually done in the solitude of her rural Ontario home,
and she feels those Canadian vistas of snow and water influence her
"How I write about Canada is as a Canadian looking at Canada," she
says, pointing to a score or so of poems collected under the group
title The Equinox. These poems have a distinctly Canadian theme.
In View From a Hill, she describes the snow - "ski-doo and ski
tracks scratch their long white fingers across its albino skin..."
In Columbia Icefields, she describes "granite-stained craters
chiselled from green ice..."
Other sections cover her experiences in China (Eastward); her
travels to other parts of the world (Borders) and finally her family
The poems in this last section, though written over the years,
haven't been published until now. The section begins with a
description of a sleeping infant, "mouth quivering with dreams,"
follow the growth of the children - "you too grow, camouflaged by
Blue Jay cap" - through adolescence to the time when the children
are grown and gone, leaving the mother to walk "through memory of
hugs and laughter."
Rotstein has something to say, and she says it well.