Friday, March 16, 2018

Even Better Than The Real Thing: Authenticity in Poetry

Well, Poetry month is only two weeks away so thought I would break out of my comfort zone and write an essay on authenticity in poetry. It is an exciting time in Canadian poetry, lots of new poets, lots of new voices, but try to get someone to say what makes for a good poem and many just stare at their shoes. 

I asked, “What is authentic in poetry?” on social media and got replies running the gamut of gentle mocking to language mumbling. 

Why is it so hard to nail down, to use an over-worked metaphor, what makes a good poem? I suppose, for one, what is considered particularly good or vital or inspired changes over time. Some poetry like wallpaper doesn’t age well. Theodore Roethke once said the task of an artist is “to enter the mind of his contemporaries” but I would add to that the artist needs to avoid the sheen of contemporariness. Can this be done?

The contemporary poem right now is unconcerned with syllabics or meter or enjambment. It cares little for poetic influence, whether something is Audenesque, or smacks of an older Canadian poet, for it seems bent on convention-slippage, emotion as the source of lyric power, its own subjective experience as default home, but perhaps most of all, unpredictability to escape the familiar and to court the fantastical.

This is a generalization, for sure, but suspicions have grown up among younger poets around traditions and practices, and I think Dean Young is correct when he advocates for a “poetry of recklessness…moving through the calculations of the rational toward irrational detonation.” (12) Perhaps this is indeed the spirit of the age. Where previous generations of poets stood against the absurd, this new one embraces it as a source of power or conflict. 

And why not? When my own generation could not make up our minds about the worth of prose poetry, say, or fought ridiculous narrative versus formal style wars, new poets are moving beyond such navel-gazing. Gone are the days when you could write eloquently about picking black-berries. In a world of rapid-fire newsfeeds, perhaps we need a poetry of hair-trigger associations, less concerned with the rightness of a metaphor, and more messily embodying the way we think in an age of smart phones.

Yet the question persists: “What is authentic in poetry?” I kind of miss the angle-boy gun-slinger poetry critics because at least they argued furiously about such things. 

I wonder if it is a fear of criticism that makes younger poets gravitate towards not obfuscation, a poor word choice, but to the point where there is a loss of control and the poem spins out into strange territories. Larry Levis once said, “a lot of young poets don’t want to be understood because they feel when they’re understood they’re dead. That only comes from the fear of criticism – the vast inhibition they get from reading critics who, because the can understand something, simply decide not to deal with it”(Antioch Review; Summer 90, Vol. 48 Issue 3, p. 284, 16 p).

I hope Levis is wrong as this seems a rather cynical view, but it is something to consider when reviewers talk in platitudes instead of engaging with what a book of poems is attempting to do.

So far, I haven’t answered my own question about authenticity in poetry so I will attempt to put down some thoughts and ideas on the subject here:

1)    First of all, I agree with James Geary “that biological experience forms the basis of metaphorical thinking” (88) and “metaphor grounds even the most abstract ideas in the physiological facts of our bodies”(96).  As much as we sometimes wish, we cannot escape our bodies and minds. Try to escape the first person singular. Good luck to you. Donald Hall has reasoned, “a poem is human inside talking to human inside. It may also be reasonable person talking to reasonable person, but if it is not inside talking to inside, it is not a poem”(142). Hello, hello, anybody home?
2)    Whether you call it intensity of experience or anxiety of being or a conflict of disparate things, subjectivity versus objectivity, past versus present, the inside locked into battle with the outside, no poem is going to exist without it. You cannot wallpaper a room if there is no room.
3)    Hayden Carruth has suggested “The metaphor must arise naturally from the things of the poem”(225).  You cannot shoe-horn surprise into a poem, nor meaning. They come on their own or not.
4)    A poem must enhance our lives in some way – spiritually, intellectually or emotionally - if it is indeed poetry. Call me romantic, or old-fashioned, but I cannot get past this sentiment and I hope I never will.

These are the ideas I keep on the top shelf when I am attempting to write meaningful poems. I think they are immune to the whims of poetic fashion. When I asked people what is authentic in poetry, I guess I wanted people to get passionate. To yell, “The best poems are like magic! Spell-casting! They change us. Or haunt us. If only we are so lucky!” Dave Smith has said, “the poem of “the real thing” will have to embrace the moving targets any man or woman is in time”(251). Perhaps we are all too busy or too distracted to consider such things, but then someone shares a poem on twitter, or you read the first poem from a debut collection, and you find yourself transported. That, above all, is authentic.  

Monday, January 29, 2018



I thought about eternity until God turned up dead
in a textbook. Capitalism wears its tuxedo over
a blood-stained t-shirt. I like genius al dente.
Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. His sneakers
scuffing the canvas. I wander this intermission
between Ted Talks and the Apocalypse. I’m 
obligated to tell you my sadness is a private desert.
Optimism pirates broadband from a small oasis.
Halo or aura? My migraines are real. The world
is a chrysalis full of oil spills and hiccups and missing
children, and yet, something is materializing…..
All new monuments come in primary colours.
My voice is bronzed. Being brain-washed sounds
like a nice vacation, but how I would miss out
on all this not knowing anything! Anger
can be turned into a hammer if held too long.
A memory is a precious stone. Try not to hit
one with the other. The emitting sound
emanates through decades. Hurts your children.
Your children’s children. The play is over.
You sift the narrative. Someone was in love,
then wasn’t. Someone gained some valuable
knowledge, then died. The actors stand around
waiting for you to leave the building. If given
a choice, I suppose I would take a waterfall
over Xanax. Beauty demands fealty. Sometimes
you have to close your eyes and fire all flares.  

By Chris Banks

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (a found poem)

for Inspirobot

Before inspiration comes the slaughter.
Try to tell yourself you are not horrible.
Ensure that a stranger feels ashamed.
Profit on your idols. Basing everyday
on science creates loneliness. If you
want to get somewhere in life, you
have to try to be dead. Never stop
being weird. If you need to create friends,
you must become a thief. Recreational
drugs are there to strangle your full
potential. Lie to yourself. Don’t just
act naturally. Imagine that you are
obviously watched. The fact that you
are desperate doesn’t necessarily mean
you’re not self-deceptive. Having
an affair with your yoga instructor
can be fun if you cut your hair. All
you need to end world hunger is some
kind of bomb and an accident. Shut up,
follow your dream and reinvent the wheel.
Villain is just another word for misunderstood.
I like you is just another way of saying
take off your clothes. Passion is boring
to elitists. There is absolutely no reason
not to be erotic. How would the world
look if every human being found a way
To help ghosts? If you need inner peace,
don’t forget to close your eyes. Hate
love. Work more. Be honest. Or don't. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Lady of the Lake

Lady of the Lake

Last summer, I sat by 
a lake in the Muskokas
at a friend’s cottage.
The Lady of the Lake
handed me a sword
for safe-keeping. 
pawned it for six
sadness-free months.
I stare at the sword
in the store’s windows
imagining me leading
an army to victory
against oppressors.
I ride a white horse
named Samson across
a field of dead soldiers.
The sword costs six
months of sadness
which I cannot afford
but already strangers
in the streets stop to 
pledge their allegiance 
to me. “I’m a tyrant,”
I caution. “We know,”
they say. “But at least
you're our tyrant."

By Chris Banks

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Voodoo Doll

Voodoo Doll

The cannibals are out of work. A ruffian tries to 
mug a poem. He comes away with sealed records
unveiling his shadow’s secret files. Don’t go poking
the bear, the rest of us tell him, if you can’t handle
a few symbolic gestures. Pandemonium is a sleep
cathedral. A den of nightmares. Every time I see
a nun, I feel a slap against my palms. A phantom
strap that never cuts, only stings. Oh Sister Claire,
shaking an eight year old boy so hard you would
swear he was a marionette, where are you now?
This is a terrible children’s book. Get ready for
a fireworks display. Isn’t that better? Watch out
for debris. Self-talk is worse than a voodoo doll. 
Exit off the warpath. My biographers want me to
hack the zeitgeist. A geiger counter keeps clicking,
although there are only law firms for miles around.
My hazmat suit is invisible. I begin to worry people
will recognize me as patient zero. Take me to some
underground lab run by faceless operatives who will
conduct experiments on me. You’re not that special,
say the cannibals, who loll in the summer heat, stuffed
with questions which are my particular super-power
but even they sadly, slowly, grow more civilized.

By Chris Banks

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

New River Rock Press Broadsides


I have two new broadsides for sale. They were designed by Jon Johnston of Bearface Design and printed on 12x16 80 lb Royal Linen Natural text stock. 

The first poem is called “Finders Keepers” and the second one“The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory” is also the name of my new collection coming out with ECW press in the Fall of 2017. 

I love broadsides and these are suitable for framing. I am selling both for $15 in a limited edition of 50 signed copies. 

Please send inquiries to

You can read the full text of the poems below:

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Falling In Love With Poetry

The Wild Writers festival sponsored by The New Quarterly is happening this weekend November 4-6 2016 in Waterloo, ON, and I have been lucky enough to have been asked to participate in a panel discussion about poetry. The other panelists are Isabel Huggan, Michael Crummey and Kerry-Lee Powell. The event will be moderated by Kim Jernigan who also edited the lovely anthology Falling in Love With Poetry which draws essays from Canada’s finest poets, including yours truly.  

The event takes place at 3:10 pm-4:00 pm at the Balsillie School of InternationalAffairs. I plan on talking a little about my essay “Falling In Love WithPoetry: A Bird’s eye view” which discusses the idea of voice and otherness in poetry, as well as read a favorite poem or two.  It is sure to be a wonderful time so please come out and say hello.