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Poetry Month: Stan Rogal on Gregory Betts

To mark National Poetry Month, In other Words is being guest-edited by rob mclennan. Throughout April, rob will present the work of dozens of poets he thinks deserve readers' attention, as seen through the eyes of their fellow poets.

Today: Stan Rogal on Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an award-winning poet, scholar, editor and curator. He has published two books of poetry, If Language (BookThug 2005) and The Others Raisd in Me (2009), and edited four books of experimental Canadian poetry. He lives in St. Catharines, Ont., where he curates the Grey Borders Reading Series, co-edits PRECIPICe literary magazine, and teaches Canadian literature at Brock University. His newest book, Psychic Geographies (Quattro), will appear in Spring 2010.

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Stan Rogal: In Gregory Betts's latest collection, The Others Raisd in Me, the poet takes Shakespeare's Sonnet 150 and proceeds to "creatively misread" it by crossing out words and letters in order to construct his own original poems. Betts's further ambition is to produce "a prophetic program for the centuries of Western culture from his (Shakespeare's) time through to our future doom".

Given these literary conceits (and even though the poems are numbered 1 through 150 and each is situated on its own pages), the book can be read as a single poem consisting of 150 stanzas, and it's interesting and fun to watch Betts as he plays with language, forms and ideas to keep the work from falling into simple, banal repetition.

Perhaps made more difficult given the fact that none of the poems are longer or even as long as the original sonnet, meaning that not only has Betts chosen to work within a particular restricted vocabulary, he proceeds in a minimalist fashion so that the poems are less explanatory/narrative than they are revelatory, their "import" dependant more often than not upon a single turn of phrase, word or letter.

Consider poem #6, which goes: "from tongue / sight, / and words / touch; / rush / tonguewards / madly". Here, the tongue is the organ used for seeing while words are not abstract forms/ideas but the very means by which to experience the tactile world. The combination "tonguewards", with its play on "wards" and "words", is used as an invitation to explore the world both physically and intellectually. The use of the word "madly" provides the emotional side of the equation. As in many other poems, there is no period at the end of the line and one can almost see the tongue thrust out of the mouth and driving/flapping toward the next poem to "see" what's there.

One might argue that every poet begins with a limited vocabulary - in the English language, say, the 26 letters of the alphabet - upon which to build, and this is true. What's different in the case of Betts is that, besides the individual letters of the sonnet, he has also chosen to incorporate the archaic vocabulary and stilted grammar in his quest to create a 400-year history moving from William Shakespeare to William Shatner and beyond.

These poems are like homeopathic distillations with the thing stripped down to its essence to become something new and provocative. What remains is just a smack of Shakespeare; the rest is all Betts, with his sightful tongue and deft touch for words.

Photo of Gregory Betts by Charles Earl

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