I’ve been working my way through Gary Geddes’s 20th Century Poetry and Poetics on the toilet. I’m telling you: poetry is the perfect thing to consume while on the john. It’s long enough to help through even the most stubborn of bowel movements, but not engaging enough to glue you to the seat until your legs fall asleep.
I’ve been adding referenced books to my to-read list as they pop up in the brief bios that precede the handful of poems that Geddes chose for each poet. Birney’s seemed interesting because it was an excerpt from a series of talks he did for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, talks I expected to find on YouTube or in the CBC online archives. They were in neither place—I’ve since put in an official request that they be made publicly available—but fortunately a slim volume of the transcripts was sitting on the stacks at my university library.
God bless the university library, by the way. If you’re a university student and you aren’t leveraging that storehouse of knowledge, you’re neglecting a wealth of information. It is such a precious resource to me, and one that I’m going to sorely miss when (if?) I graduate.
Although these Birney talks are from the mid-60’s, there are valuable insights into the Canadian literary scene. It was nice to be reminded that Canada has Puritanical roots, and is still conservative both private and publicly, especially in comparison with Europe and what I experienced of Japan in the 00’s.
There is a fascinating passage that presages the current concerns around artificial intelligence and literature:
There’s also of course the so-called “computer poetry”. Recipe: feed the basic rules of syntax and some recurrent rhythmic patterns into a computer, add vocabulary loaded with image words, run the machine long enough, and out come enormous lengths of word-tape arranged in lines. By the operation of statistical chance, such tapes will occasionally produce passages with sufficient unity of theme and image and enough provocative overtones to warrant their being clipped out and presented as poems. English professors who are outraged or terror-struck by such affairs, or reject them scornfully as machine-made, betray their misunderstanding of the nature of poetry. The computer, used this way, is simply an enormously complicated typewriter. The poem is still being made by poetically-sensitized human beings—by the linguistic expert who chooses the data words and, above all, by the editor of the tape, the critic-perceiver who extracts the poem from the surrounding gibberish. Even when you “make” your own poem longhand, you don’t make its form, you find it. Some of these poems are, in fact, much better than many I’ve been reading recently in such fashionable American poetry journals as Chicago Poetry, under the signatures of so-called leading American poets. (Birney, 1966, p78)
I use ChatGPT as an editor, critic, and general writing buddy, and Birney’s comments resonate. I’m of the mind that the computer—Large Language Model-enhanced or otherwise—is still just a tool, and I’m the one making the creative decisions that produce art that is uniquely mine. Whether this remains true in the face of developments to come, only time will tell.
If you’re a struggling creative writer there’s a lot to love in these nearly sixty-year-old messages from the man who established the creative writing department at the University of British Columbia—where, God and hard work willing, I’ll be acquiring my master’s degree.
This book is recommended reading. And if the CBC still had the audio hidden somewhere in their archives, it sure would be nice of them to make it available.
On 230804 I received the following reply from CBC Audience Services:
Thank you for your interest in CBC content.
As much as we appreciate your loyalty to our programming, there are restrictions on archival productions due to estate issues, talent and residual costs that prohibit CBC from reproducing the majority of our past broadcasts and sharing them.
Even in situations where the CBC actually produced some shows, there are extremely high costs involved in the process to retrieve items from an archival location and render the content in a current format. Clearances for music are also added costs to reproductions. Regardless of the non-commercial nature of a production, anyone using those clips is legally bound to clear and pay those rights fees outlined in the many contracts for actors, musicians etc. For this reason we are unfortunately not able to share archived CBC content to people for personal use unless they or their direct family member were featured in the content.
Fair enough. –Ed.