When an accomplished poet tells you that he also builds boats, makes guitars, and catalogues micro-organisms it’s pretty hard not to want to connect the dots. But what if the poet tells you there are no lines to be drawn?
Bruce Taylor lives with his wife and two teenaged children in a many-roomed wooden house overlooking the Gatineau River near Wakefield, Quebec. He has published four books of highly regarded poetry — Getting On with the Era (1987), Cold Rubber Feet (1989), Facts (1998), and No End in Strangeness: New and Selected Poems, (Cormorant Books, 2011) — and won two A.M. Klein Awards (given each year to a book published by a Quebec author for excellence in poetry). Over the years he has worked as a teacher, a puppeteer and a freelance journalist.
Ever since first interviewing Taylor a year ago, I’ve been wondering about how all of his many various talents and interests inform one another. With parallels and comparisons occupying my mind like a garden full of Malthusian peas, I drove up from Ottawa to visit him for some answers.
An old-style sailing canoe featuring a mast and a pair of foot paddles lay in dappled sunlight on the lawn; at the end of the driveway sat a large row boat painted a light sky-blue colour, scraped in preparation, it appeared, for a new coat.
We make our way through a front hall to the kitchen where a fruit and cheese plate sits atop a copper counter. Bottles of cold Guinness are removed from the fridge and we make our way back outside to the deck, where talk quickly turns to short-sighted government decisions to stop funding basic research at the National Research Council. Back in Victorian times, Taylor informs me, massive amounts of research was conducted by curiosity-driven amateurs (“mutton-chopped scholars in the time of tailcoats and columnar hats” he calls them), who had no hope or interest in deriving any practical benefit from their work. Now, 200 years on, the trees from these seeds are yielding fruit. Much of what underpins modern pharmacology and microbiology, for instance, can be traced back to the early free-form indulgences of these wonderful, obsessed 18th Century nerds.
Nerds such as Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), known as “the father of microbiology” and described in Taylor’s poem “Small Animals” from his latest collection, as:
…the first Microscopist,
a worldly man compelled
by wasteful curiosity to build
a homely magnifier and enlarge
inconsequential items: fishscales,
pepper, fly-stings, dandruff, dust,
nose hair, spidersilk, some stuff
he found between his teeth,
and he was the first to do a thing
the finest intellects of Europe never thought of,
which was to look, to simply look,
inside a water drop
at all the thrashing whiptailed swimmers,
motile cogs and quaking ghosts
that make their lives in there
Research funded by business, solely for commercial purposes, rarely amounts to much in the long run, Taylor contends. Unleashed enthusiasms and curiosity untrammeled — these, he suggests, are the essential ingredients required to bring about big, significant, beneficial change.
The conversation moves to the evolutionary history of canoes and guitars. The Taylor-built craft on the lawn is a double paddled, two-masted sailing canoe known as a Rob Roy, popularized during the Victorian era. “John MacGregor (1825–1892), during a visit to Canada in the mid-1800s, was so taken by the traditional, native Canadian canoe that upon returning to Britain he built one for himself,” says Taylor. Or at least a version of one. Apparently it looked more like a kayak with a sail stuck in it. Nonetheless, MacGregor toured it all over Europe, promoting this new “portageable” yawl in a book entitled A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe. A huge best-seller, the book turned his vessel into a must-have item for the “in” crowd. As he wrote, “in walking you are bounded by every sea and river, and in a common sailing-boat you are bounded by every shallow and shore; whereas … a canoe [can] be paddled or sailed, or hauled, or carried over land or water.”
According to Wikipedia, the boat measured 15 feet long, 28 inches wide, and nine inches deep. It weighed 80 pounds (36 kg) and was fitted with a double-bladed paddle. MacGregor named the boat Rob Roy after the celebrated Scottish outlaw, to whom he was related. Canoe sailing clubs rose up all over England and continental Europe. Rob Roys soon made their way over to North America where they spread like bacteria and were all the rage, for a while, at least. In the best survival-of-the-fittest fashion, the canoes were soon enough replaced by plastic Sun Fish sail boats, which, in a few short years wiped Rob Roys from the landscape.
As for the modern guitar, Taylor the historian explains, it goes back to Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817–1892), “the most important Spanish guitar maker of the 19th Century,” says Taylor, known as the Stradivari of the guitar. He revolutionized the old baroque instrument with its small bridge, giving it “a big voice” after realizing that 90 percent of its volume came from the sound board.
Do these stories of innovation relate in any way to how poetry evolves, I ask Taylor, in an attempt to connect some dots —to, as he puts it in his poem ‘Ephemeroptera’, force “more and stronger, stranger stuff into a world that’s already full enough.”
Not really, he says. While all three practices follow well-worn procedures (rules, for example, of physics or sound projection), rejecting the past when building boats and guitars isn’t, for practical reasons, a very good idea. With poetry however, all rules have been successfully broken, and what’s more, a “practical” poem is not, typically, a very good one. The greatest ones are not, for Taylor, usually didactic. More often “they’re impractical.” A bit like basic research, in this sense. Impractical, but essential, because as the last stanza of Taylor’s poem “Really There” tells us”
It turns out you do
need words for that,
or somehow none of it is
Taylor allows that while the mindset or psychological state may be similar when absorbed in the act of building and writing, the process is different. Things that are essentially tools — guitars and boats — must satisfy more exacting rules where the criteria for success is more clearly defined. You don’t, for example, want to put a hole in the bottom of a boat. While there may be greater leeway for experimentation when building a guitar (versus say, a violin, which must simply sound like a Stradivarius), in the end, if it doesn’t sound a certain way, it’s a failure. Not so with poetry, says Taylor. The use of traditional technique, while valuable, is not a necessity. Poets have an almost unlimited range of ploys to choose from: “Anything that belongs to words,” as Taylor puts it, the size of the imagination being the only restriction.
“Poets have great freedom to use any material they wish, including poems from other poets,” Taylor adds. “A couplet for example, can be used to conjure Alexander Pope, echoing his time and work in ways which resonate, and open up a suggestive field.”
When making boats or guitars, it’s practical to follow instructions, use specified materials, and tried methods. When trying to explain things that are beyond comprehension, it isn’t. Poetry, it’s been said, is about making new things familiar and familiar things new. To do this poets need both to observe in uncommonly profound ways and to express what they’ve seen using uncommon words; to be sensitive to minutia and detail and alert to what’s different and strange. Bruce Taylor, in the very best 18th Century tradition, has pursued his various curiosities with a seriousness and intensity you rarely see today. To quote again from “Small Animals”:
So, here was a man who looked
at pieces of his world and found
more worlds inside them,
which is the natural order: worlds
that roost in tiny apertures on worlds
where dainty worldlings
dwell, and each one
is a world as well, some
milling in the streets of Delft and others,
pulsing through pondwater.
And each of these should have a book.
And there should be a book
for every punctuation mark
in all those books, and every speck
should be recorded and preserved
so that all things in time might be
make known and magnified
and put before us in the book of books.
It’s this intense seriousness, paradoxically, that makes the humour — a defining feature of Taylor’s poetry — stand out with such radiance. It’s as if he’s a Greek God looking down on earth and its tiny earth things — pope-faced turtles, tree frogs insisting on sex, sharp-kneed children — observing all of its frantic activity with a detached, benevolent, wise bemusement.
Looking at things closely but in ways limited only by his imagination, Taylor, without any preconceived ideas or purposes, observes, describes, makes solid, and sets down with great charm and fun, organic observations of our fluid, teeming world that will last, and delight readers, for a very long time to come.
As for joining dots, well, wasting time trying to draw artificial lines is to miss the point entirely, because, for Taylor, the world outside the walls of books has no plot or thought, “and leaves no pattern but its own proliferating weirdness.” (‘Ephemeroptera’)