The knock on modern poetry is that at best it's willfully obscure, at worst a con job - insulting, vaporific nonsense for intellectual poseurs who should just face facts: There never will be a poem as lovely as a tree.
A.F. Moritz addresses this perception in the title poem of his latest collection, The Sentinel, short-listed last year for the Governor-General's Award and now one of three Canadian finalists for the $50,000 Griffin Prize, to be awarded in Toronto Wednesday evening.
Moritz, who's 62 and, depending on who's counting, has 14, 15 or 16 books of (mostly) free verse to his credit, is an acknowledged master of metaphor - a mastery displayed to brilliant effect in The Sentinel, about the anxieties of a watchman on the perimeter of an armed camp that's bedded down for the night.
It's the watchman's job to report to his commanders, of course. But what if his report is deemed inaccurate or trivial or phrased in a way they can't readily comprehend? In The Sentinel, the commanders turn condemnatory: "You made it up to humiliate us, you are a foreign agent … this report records your evil dreams … [it is a]libel on your comrades."
It's also, as Moritz acknowledged in a phone interview, "an allegory of the poet and poetry," the poet functioning as at once far-seeing scout, ethical bellwether and troublemaker, his words, to some at least, without rhyme and reason.
Intriguingly, however, Moritz didn't realize The Sentinel 's allegorical content as he was writing it. "Unbeknownst to myself in that very poem," he said, "I am looking at poetry as a kind of affliction that separates you from the rest of people, yet one of those proud afflictions where you pin the insult to your flag and raise it high."
In short, it appears the gap (and the link) between expression and comprehension - what T.S. Eliot called "communication before understanding" - can apply as much to the poet as to his reader. Moritz admitted as much in discussing another poem in The Sentinel called In a Prosperous Country. A tiny thing, just 16 short lines in length, it "has a lot of meanings to my mind," he remarked. "I think it makes sense but it almost escapes me because it has so many things barging around in it."
Moritz - the "A.F." stands for Albert Frank - lives in Toronto with his wife of many years, Theresa, and teaches at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. But he was born in Niles, Ohio, educated at Marquette University in Wisconsin and only arrived in Ontario in 1974 when his wife was admitted to the Centre for Medieval Studies at the university's St. Michael's College.
Moritz had a PhD in English at that time but he wasn't keen to teach. In fact, while in graduate school, he'd worked as a reporter for the then-Milwaukee Sentinel daily and hoped to continue in journalism here. However, since the Toronto Telegram had folded less than three years earlier, "there were still ex-Telegram people wandering around Toronto looking for jobs." Eventually, he got a job at an advertising agency, managing to publish his first three books of poetry during the six years he worked there.
Canada wasn't entirely anathema to him. As a teen, he - and Theresa, too - had developed a fondness for the stories of humorist Stephen Leacock. Indeed, a few years after arriving in Canada, they began to research a biography of the creator of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, publishing it in 1985. Another Canadian, Northrop Frye, and especially his Anatomy of Criticism, "had been a profound experience," Moritz noted. Living in Toronto meant he'd occasionally see the great literary theorist and critic, who died in 1991, on a bus or "walking along St. Clair Avenue lost in a dream, carrying two bags full of milk or bread home to Mrs. Frye." Now "in a strange tying-up of Jungian synchronicity," Moritz's office at the U of T is in Northrop Frye Hall.
Read passages from A.F. Moritz's latest collection
Ken Babstock, himself a lauded poet and former Griffin nominee, has functioned as Moritz's editor on his last two books, including 2004's Night Street Repairs, published by House of Anansi Press. Almost a quarter-century younger than Moritz, Babstock admits he was "definitely more than a little intimidated to be editing him."
It was not just the esteem in which Moritz is held by such heavyweights as John Ashbery, Harold Bloom and John Hollander, or the Award in Literature that the American Academy of Arts and Letters granted him in 1991. It was Moritz's ready grasp of seemingly all Western poetry - from Tennyson to Octavio Paz - and what Babstock calls "the snaky, sophisticated syntax and rolling rhythms [of Moritz's poetry]that sounded like they emanated from another world, or another age, or beyond time." Yet for all Moritz's allusions, Babstock claims "his engagement with world literature never clouds his engagement with the here and now."
Babstock had almost 130 Moritz poems to choose from for inclusion in The Sentinel. Eventually, he and the poet settled on about 55, all of them, it turns out, previously published either in magazines or chapbooks. "I'm proud of the fact that though my work is consistent and all has a family resemblance," Moritz said, "most of the books palpably have a separate aesthetic. … They're different on purpose."
With The Sentinel, "I wanted to go in the direction of more simplicity," he explained. "I wanted it to be more frankly lyrical, to have shorter poems, the kind of poems that say much by saying little, that have a lot of implication but don't struggle to say everything." It's a book about waiting and hope, renewal and apocalypse, memory and mortality.
Babstock said working with Moritz on shaping and positioning The Sentinel's poems was enjoyable. "We'd banter, we'd disagree. Al would give eight or nine reasons why an adjective was the one he'd chosen and not another, and I'd shrug and tell him it still sounds like a broken air-conditioner. He'd slap me, I'd spill something, he'd take the diversion as an opportunity to kick me. I'd go home and ice my shin."
Moritz has been a Canadian citizen for many years and pretty much his entire literary output has originated in this country. Yet when Insomniac Press republished Moritz's first four books in one volume in 2002, John Hollander called him "one of the strongest American poets of his generation" in his introduction.
Moritz doesn't disavow the American tag because his sensibility is "soaked in American literature" and a psychologist would say his formative years "belong" irrevocably to the U.S. But "I feel a little foreign in the United States now for various reasons. At the same time, I don't think you can ever be quite as Canadian as the native-born Canadian." Nevertheless, "Canada has a kind of openness to the world and humility," he said, "extraordinarily valuable characteristics that I really resonated with when I first came here. … From a small kid, I was really un-at-home with and un-at-peace with many aspects of American society and I really found that Canada fitted me better, both literarily and nationally."
It would seem A.F. Moritz's true home and native land is poetry. True, poetry wasn't sufficient to stop Paul Celan and Sylvia Plath from killing themselves. And Czeslaw Milosz called it "a sickness that normal people are fortunate not to have." But for this 2009 Griffin nominee: "Poetry has all our terrors, evil and weaknesses but it also has the vision that's the hardest to get at: the sense that life, with all its good and bad, somehow taken together is good, not bad, not neutral."
A.F. Moritz joins the other Canadian Griffin Prize nominees - Jeramy Dodds (Crabwise to the Hounds) and Kevin Connolly (Revolver) - at a poetry reading Wednesday night at 7:30 at Toronto's MacMillan Theatre (80 Queen's Park). Also appearing are three of the four nominees for the ninth annual Griffin international prize: Derek Mahon, C.D. Wright and Dean Young.