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Other Neat Stuff, Brain Creativity – Updated July 4, 2009

This post is for cool things not yet written.

It results because I am sometimes ahead of my computer division and I need an extra place to put stuff while the many thousands of them race to catch up. Okay, so there are not thousands of people in my IT division. Here is something better: a creativity exercise that will improve your poetry.

Creativity Exercise

You can help your brain to be more creative. You can do this by simple willing it to be more creative. By will is meant a positive favouring of thoughts of creativity. It does not mean free will and it does not mean will power. How this actually works is fascinating.

What happens when willing yourself to be more creative is the production of new brain cells. In songbirds, for instance, it has been found (1) that in the brain’s song centre there are 1% new cells every day and this is necessary for the bird to sing its complicated songs. And this means that in a little more than three months the entire brain centre is absolutely new.

Primates have been shown to grow new cells continually (2), too, and this includes humans. Both stress and a dull or constraining living environment reduce the production of new brain cells and you should intentionally change such situations in your life. On the other hand, stress is good for focusing the brain on what is happening to you, right now, the incandescence of an image, even though it is bad for memory and bad for creativity. So, you need both.

Here is a simple technique for getting your brain to produce new brain cells. Try to focus your thoughts on the left side of the brain by putting your fingers on your left temple and feel your will asking the speech production and language recognition centres (Broca and Wernicke’s areas) to become better. In addition, for poets, put your right hand’s fingers and thumb on your right temple and ask your brain to give you a highly creative period. The purpose is to open the gate of the right hand brain, much like a dam, to let it flood over both hemispheres and have a spontaneous out-flowing of poetry. Finally, put your first finger of the hand you are most dextrous with on the bone just above your right eyebrow, which is the centre of consciousness and where the concept of I resides. Once again ask your brain to be more creative and feel the power of your intention flowing down your finger into the brain. This does two things: it primes the conscious right prefrontal cortex where conscious creativity comes from; it also let’s the most creative thoughts come out of your brain because poetry, like music jamming and jazz (3), comes from making words that most closely arise from the I centre of your brain.

For both prose and poetry, put your first fingers on either side of your head just behind your ears. Try to aim a positive beam of will from each of your fingers so that its greatest power is inside the middle of your head. This is where the hippocampus is and this area of subconscious brain is where learning and, more importantly, memory are dealt with to the greatest degree. Prose writers in particular need huge memories whereas poets need to combine different areas of remembered thought. The drug fluoxetine, more commonly known as Prozac and Sarafem, are two such drugs that increase production of new brain cells.

1. Nottebohm
2. Gould
3. Charles Limb


Take Pills, Get Smart

Many scientists (Gage, Gould, Duman, etc.) have made discoveries that suggest that antidepressant drugs have the most important long term effect of stimulating new brain cell growth, particularly in the hippocampus – the memory centre. And drugs are now being developed specifically for this purpose. This presents the very real probability of most people taking such drugs because who wouldn’t want to be happier (new brain cells make us happy!), more intelligent, have better memories and so on. This is a real life soma for Pfizer. But it also contains the scary notion that the Brave New World is upon us, for we can take pills to change our brains, even when the person does not have a pathological condition – they just want to be better and can be so. Scary. It means changing what we are as humans.


I have just received Rocksalt which is an anthology of British Columbia poets – Mother Tongue Publishing. There are 108 poets and their poems and their poetics in this book. As the first such book in over 30 years, it is an important one. It will become even more important over time, as it will snapshot a year and hold it in amber. In addition, each writer has written a poetics which is very valuable because it lets other poets know what moves other poets.


Random Poetry Esthetics

Line Breaks

I was looking to illuminate myself on Carmine Starnino’s New Canon, so that I could acquaint myself with its reasons for feeling that Canada could use a bit of new formalism – writing poems in forms like sonnets, sestinas, etc. I stumbled onto a review by _________ who criticized the movement and the book for a number of things. One of which was a poem by Diane Brebner written not long before she died.

And ______ said that the big wrong things with the poem were its line breaks and its cliches in the place of original images. He did a long critique and I got the feeling that while the expressions were everyday language, there was not much wrong with them, and that more importantly he had missed the important thing which was that Diane was dying of cancer. I found myself writhing in my seat, not just because I had met her just before her finding that out, but because she was writing in the face of imminent death and knew she was going to die in a matter of months. And that made me pay a lot of attention to what she was saying and be a lot more compassionate about common locutions. After all, rancour and criticism mean nothing once your meat putrefies.

And the fellow went through another critique of explaining why her line breaks were all wrong. And that got me thinking: are there such unshakable laws of line changes? Is there a book of rules the poetry police puts out? And I realized that, no, there were no such rules. Creative writing departments all over the country do teach people about line breaks, and there are texts that will go through alternate methods of lineating the same piece. And, though I have taken creative writing at a number of universities, and done decades of workshop stuff, it is some time ago, and one grows for the rest of one’s life past putting down the books. If one didn’t, it would be time to quit writing.

And when I broke from my past, I wanted to write in lines that had no end. As we put poems in books that are seldom past six inches wide – bookstores don’t like to stock them in their shelves – that arbitrary frame limits where lines can go. I wanted to write a number of thoughts and then I would make each thought, each line a stanza, and perhaps as much as three feet wide. What ever was required, one could do it. Just a different visual look, and one that went with saying a completed thought, and then saying the next and so on. That being my aim, it made the page in a book be seen as simply arbitrary and thus the line endings in this method would be arbitrary too, because, in the real poem every single line was accommodated sideways. This means that rules in an arbitrary setting are arbitrary, not within the particular setting, those were esthetic considerations, but arbitrary, limited.

At this point, I had left the world of line breaks I had learned, and no doubt, the young fellow so critical of CS would throw out my work, now – and no doubt, CS would, too. But would he, or they, throw it out ten years down the road? I’m not so convinced. He was pretty bright and the issue is how willing the artist is to break with tradition and stamp it his or her own way. All truths are provisional, and what seems sure after the teaching, unravels over time. But many different considerations go into the types of line changes that one is taught. Usually, lines end on big words, nouns, and begin on small words, prepositions, articles and so on. our English language has its own rhythm and flow – use Latin words in poetry and they jar, though that is not a reason not to use a different language, just make them comfortable with one another or emphasize the jostle. The rules also set natural phrasings apart, they can set up one meaning and then because the line gives way to the next, another and then a mixed meaning occurs and so on. And of course in strictly metred line, the metre itself determines line endings.

I decided that I wanted the big words on the left and the small on the right. I decided that I wanted to end a line on an offbeat, and make a single line be staggered down as it continues on. I also left off the ending words of lines, something that works particularly well with the last line of a poem. I added a first parenthesis in the middle of a line and never ended it (not a new technique as Atwood did it in the ’60s). I wanted a visual structure to a poem that made line endings simply to do with how a poem looks on a page, even if it has no other meaning.I will often take a poem and rearrange it several times until the visual structure works to my eye, a consideration that, again, is an intention outside what would be accepted as conventional line endings.

And I often end lines in prepositions, such as ‘of’. A conventional mind, using the common rules, would toss the poem out for making this mistake. But, and this is the point, if the poem and poet doesn’t intend to use a convention, then the reader, and one hopes for an illuminated reader, must take it on its own grounds. It doesn’t make much sense to say something is bad if it is not intending to do what you think is good. On the other hand, it’s a good idea to adopt a certain line ending structure for, at least, one section of a book, or a whole book, so that it isn’t confusing because you change your own methods in every poem.

Here’s another thought. When I do readings, I change the meaning of poems by emphasizing different things every reading, changing the emotion in my voice, changing speed, grouping and other verbal differentiating things. This means that the line changes on the page may never coincide with the meaning in a performance, so, being to rigid in one’s rules, in this case, line endings, reduces the possibilities of your poetry which is about as many meanings around a particular, strong meaning as you can handle.

New Formalism – The New Canon (2005) -The Poetry Nazi: No Soup For You!


The New Canon is an anthology of younger Canadian poets who write poetry in traditional Western forms, for example, the sonnet. Carmine Starnino is the editor and has championed the use of form. His essay in the book, in a nutshell, makes the argument that: the only good poetry is formal poetry and a Canadian poet has to write in these forms or his or her poetry is bad, because Starnino says this is so. Other forms of Canadian poetry are crummy mainstream image-based, little narratives with little, sound, poetry skills, avant gardisms that move into private indecipherable jokes, or degenerate forms of post modernism.

I think that there are some basic problems with this argument:

I will make some short preliminary comments and then some longer ones:

1. The argument says that Canadian poets need to write in forms. This leaves out poets from all the other countries in their countries and when they come to this one, and even Canadians who move elsewhere.

2. Poetry must be in forms. The problem with this is that it means English/European forms – perhaps a dozen. This neglects that there are more than 1000 different formal poetry ‘templates’ from around the world. See Robin Skelton’s, The Shape of Our Singing, or the Princeton Dictionary of Poetry Forms (not sure of the title).

3. Non-form poetry is bad because Starnino says so. This is the Poetry Nazi response. The problem is that poets refuse doing anything that they are told to. They just won’t do it. And they don’t have to. No one can tell you what to do.

4. The mainstream is crummy imagistic narratives. I agree that the mainstream has its faults, but that doesn’t mean you have to write in forms. (And, virtually all of the poems in The New Canon are strongly narrative driven, just like the Canadian mainstream).

5. You must use sound poetry skills. The problem with this one is that its definition is that sound skills are what you use to write form poetry. It’s circular, and, sound poetry skills depend on the stream of poetry, not on forms.

6. Avant garde poetry becomes indecipherable jokes. While some ‘experimental’ poetry does become ‘insidey’, much does not. The stream will not collapse.

7. Degenerative post-modern poetry typifies the rest. No, there are many streams of Canadian poetry, not simply post-modern. It is also the case that we live in an attention deficit, segue world, of the cell phone and blackberry, where all of human thought can be accessed instantly on the web. Much poetry reflects this.

Now I’ll make some more general comments.

1. The Streams in Canadian Poetry – see below (the next item) for a brief discussion of examples

2. The categorical nature of the argument is disappointing. I have no problem with someone saying: I like formal poetry and here are the reasons why. But moving on another step and saying that all other kinds of poetry are bad is not true. If this step had been left out, I would have felt more comfortable with accepting the argument.

What is below is just a first draft. Please excuse the tone. I will amend that later.

Here are some random thoughts, as I read through:

1. While the essay points out that there have been many anthologies over the years, it disregards them and draws a distinction with only one of them, Dennis Lee’s version from the ’80s. I have a dozen Canadian poetry anthologies on my shelf – several put out since The New Canon, and including Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve’s: In Fine Form, an anthology of formal poetry also published in 2005 – and it’s not fair in one’s argument to not take them into account. If one disallows 90 % of the poetry anthologies out there, as relevant to the argument, it allows for a drubbing of the Lee book and saying that one has shown the flaws of all anthologies. There is no truth in this form of argument. And, one doesn’t have to argue something away, just to posit one’s own thoughts. They can coexist.

2. And then Lee’s book is done away with. It is suggested that Lee’s anthology is ‘too-accommodating’ in spirit. What has happened here is that after eliminating the many threads and streams in Canadian poetry, as not needing to be considered, the argument goes on to say that a good feature is actually a bad one. And then moves on to drawing a distinction between the New Canon and the Lee book as all that matters in the argument, for all of Canadian poetry. I don’t think so.

3. There is also this curious sense that one gets that the argument being developed has a decidedly eastern flavour. By eastern is meant Ontario and Quebec. That tends to eliminate a whole lot of other poetry as well, and sound foreign in the same country in which the rest of us live.

4. Then the suggestion is made that to move forward, that when we write: ‘What conventions will we agree to respect and what will we allow ourselves to wincingly push past.’ The point is that the original expression has nothing to do with cats. It is: herding poets. And it doesn’t matter how clever your argument is, poets just don’t listen and go on moving as forward as their skills and point of view allow them. They write and after wards the description of what they do is figured out by other writers and academics.

There is only agreement in conventions by a group of poets who have similar leanings. Most poets will argue endlessly about those conventions. That is how art moves forward, in the sense that, over time, the art changes.

And, of course, there is the other comment: ask ten poets their definition of poetry and you will get several dozen different versions of the answer. So, someone whose interest is, say, creating a mental effect in the mind of the reader, may have more interest in looking inside their own head and the work of others for clues as to where to go in words to achieve what they do. And someone, who considers a page in a book as an arbitrary edifact, then wants to write a poem that may be only one line going off into side ways space and never end. They may write in traditional forms, but probably not. Trying to be the poetry police, and saying only one approach is valid, is not only wrong, but won’t be listened to by those who have other aims.

5. The reference to Stephen Heighton’s Quarry assessment that the nation has drifted toward poetry slovenliness (as in not in traditional forms) suggests that in six years several styles came and went. If this had said it took 20 years, I might be more inclined to believe it. But, does it seems likely that a style rose for a year, then died for a year, and did this three times in six years. I think not. I would have been more interested in hearing – and still am -words on the view that academia has strongly affected the poetry of this nation by pretty much teaching the writing of narrative, lyrical poetry that tells little stories that move from a to b. I’d say that 75% of what is found in Canadian journals is summed up by the preceding sentence.

6. “If Canadian poetry has been largely a list of prohibitions…”. This is an interesting thought that is not developed. I would like to hear more because I didn’t know there was a list of prohibitions.

7. “These poets are contributing to something bigger than themselves, an event that transcends the limits and operational bias of this anthology to represent a larger creative blossoming… what we are seeing is a new Canadianism.” It seems to me there is a problem here, and that is that Canadian poetry has many streams – as above – and the recent formalist stream is one of them. It is not better or worse, it is just a stream, like the others. If the argument presented had not taken the extra step of saying the rest is bad, I would have no complaint. It’s fine to note an angle. It’s wrong to add that only it has merit.

7. In choosing poems: “I was after big rhetoric, eccentric detail, arresting phrases. I wanted actively jarring, mood puncturing poems, poems of aesthetic betrayal. Indeed, more than minting every phrase afresh, I wanted poems that egged themselves on, saying: “If it aint broke, break it.”” I am absolutely and completely with Starnino on this front, and would say the same words myself in looking for those that do the spindle cell dopamine cascade thing and just keep on coming like a cross between a horror show and heroin. I do, however, see such poetry in all traditions, not simply those who hearken back to forms from our western, largely European, tradition. But I am getting nagging with such criticism.

8. … and, after all these reservations, why is it I feel a sestina coming on?

9. And why do I know Carmine could argue black into white even though I don’t believe it? He has a great command of the English language and it is fireworks to watch the words in motion.

And The Poets in The New Canon

Oh, and, of course, there is the book of poems. How could I come so far with not even mentioning it? There is much to say. But, coming as I do to the poems, and seeing in them what I would call the fine flesh of a European philosophical argument, not of this century, or even the last, no, perhaps even before, not as consciously as I would have thought of the forms that Starnino had led one to believe, but for the first 250 pages I am reading, a completely sound choosing of good, narrative poetry with a formal flair, only one or two with the sing songy effect of an aa, bb rhyme scheme and a few, relentlessly metrical feet, virtually all with a sure hand, and some of the more interesting remembrances of words, not before but of the accumulated language of the continent to our right (check out Anne Simpson’s, Seven Paintings of Breughel, for instance, for well-wrought, formal, verse, that has as a common feature with the other flesh, that sentences and the slowing punctuation marks of semicolons and periods, that makes for a non-lyrical progression that gives much of this book its similarity. Sentences that start one place and go to another, and for her that self fulfilling and satisfying sense of not so much the rhythm, but of the internal felicities of rhyme and half rhyme among the lines that cast your mind back to find where this has been set up. Well done. ; or Elise Partridge’s, Book of Steve, or Mark Abley’s, A Wooden Alphabet; the high class, ridiculously low humour of Noah Leznoff; the weirdly photographic, strobic, Sleep Walking, of Susan Gillis, periods ending each of 14 lines, not necessarily sentences; the pure simplicity of seamless metaphor and double entendre of Jeffery Donaldson’s small Spending Part of the Winter; Bruce Taylor’s agile, quick wit and unerring sense of qualification, poetry lending itself to an entertaining reading; David Manicom’s sure hand and flowing text; Steven Heighton’s gripping, sickening thing that is warfare, trenchwarfare with others who might be brothers before, but not after, The Machine Gunner; Gil Adamson’s dark and darker, almost unexplained, perhaps connected, similarly war inflicted poem wounds, Black Wing, for example; Eric Miller’s paean to the starling; Patrick Warner’s, any parent’s worst fear, The Bacon Company of Ireland, any human’s inability to watch a death, but not to then eat it; Tim Bowling’s tubercular west coast heron existing from before history was invented to after-man; Andrew Stenmetz’, Late, an English comedy of manners, just a few days late, and the self-congratulatory, less than delusional, chit-chat that entails before taking the subject for real – in another poem; Michael Crummey’s middle autumn move out into the universe after building the Observatory on Mount Pleasant (1890), an everyday divine thing for someone not so; Karen Solie’s, Sturgeon, and teenage brutality to an old old mind’s inability to understand and accept it; John MacKenzie’s run on hugely filled world in one small place, Riding The Route For Nature And Health, ‘sledgehammers/slamming fractals’ on a bicycle ride to melting facial flesh; the aftermath of breakdown, where one once was young now viewed from the other side of age and mind of Todd Swift’s, Evening On Putney Avenue, and the women he tangentially loves there; David O’Meara’s, mind of a child, The War Against Television, we were and are concerning our eventual demise, and not really ever getting anywhere in our one finite chance at existence; the lovely word flow, riff and rhythm of poems you can’t resist wanting every variation even before comprehension of Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen’s, August sequence that someone had the perspicaciousness to choose for the CBC Literary Award; the best meditation I have read on west-coast aboriginal past and present begun with another kind of tree and ending, The Vine Maple, from Christopher Patton; Stephanie Bolster’s small painting of the blending a family makes and doesn’t make, her storm front in a glass coffee cup, in, Chemistry; Life, McKenzie and reasons not to do away with yourself after getting sacked. Suck it up and get ready for more of Adam Sol; Ken Babstock’s Palindromic nice touch with half and near rhyme more satisfyingly, to me, on the off beat, going nowhere somewhere near Christmas past and… ; George Murray’s sure touch with the flow of narrative and incandescent imagination in, among the others, The Last Sinner Waits On A Rock For Noah, sound stuff; Suzanne Buffam’s fine sense of how to end on an unexpected, yet prepared for ending, Sweet Basil, for example, discussing the aging of herbs and ending with the growing of girls; the seizure world of Shane Nelson, Bedside Delerium: Family Visit, and a construction accident that takes him and father back to the first crush): finial, jackdaw, permian, stilly, elides, plash, plicking, angelica, valerian, trefoil, colophons, sconce, vouchsafe, sedge, inglenook, adamantine, termagants, flummery, scend, spavined, scrattle, scarps, florentine, bracts, gibbets, cadge, bosky, muzzy, elan, smutchy, fid, … unusual words, a small thing perhaps, but a good thing. And perhaps my unfairness is to have thought that formal poetry would be constrained by a dozen forms, when they are simply starting points for much of this work, though formal it is also.

You must buy this book. And dip into it. Like water, your entry will be everywhere and nowhere. Ignore the essay and you will be fine. Right as rain.


The Streams in Canadian Poetry

As mentioned, and you can go to reviews under home (above left), in reading over 100 books of poetry to jury last year’s CAA contest, I was struck by how good our poetry is and how many poets write in completely different ways, comprising different streams, that don’t compartmentalize as neatly as Starnino suggests they do. They all deserve to be siphoned up into the mind so that the next time the poet writes, their bigger mind helps them write better poems.

The obvious contrary ‘stream’ is that virtually the entire literary tradition of this country is not written poetry at all (written poetry is largely about the past 200 years in Ontario and Quebec, a small portion of the country, and time) but is a verbal language tradition, as in First Nations for the past 10,000 years.

The hard part, I found, after realizing that there was this and many other streams in our poetry, was how to compare the relative goodness of books from different traditions. For example, how do you compare, a verbal performance of aboriginal legend (or a woman of colour’s Caribbean verbal poetry with its beat and dance flow, and etc.) with say, any written poem. That is very hard: is it great poetry of a type and is it so good that it is better than something of a different type, as in: is this particular apple a better fruit than this particular orange, and then, is it better, say, than this pork pie, or this cognac? I found this a real struggle not to disregard books because I was coming to their kind of poetry, for perhaps, the first time. In the end, I found myself disregarding the streams, and my crunched down top ten represented half a dozen different streams that did not relate to one another. I used taste, or as I put it, the juice: what the poetry did to my head.

Here’s another interesting point: the other judge’s – we had no contact, did not even know one another’s names – first short list (we were to arrive at a top ten, and then the lists were compared) had six of the same books in it as my short list of ten. In other words, the ‘goodness’ of a book is obvious to the reader – even those of different sensibilities (I tend to the associative and fragmentary. The other judge, once I found out the name, is from the narrative lyrical stream that is this country’s dominant stream).

Starnino will be happy to know that both lists were half formalist work. In other words it didn’t make any difference, neither away from the stream or to it, what stream the work was. And our short list of five – combined same choices (the sixth had to be turfed for a technical reason) – was 60% formalist. And our ultimate choice was Asa Boxer’s, The Mechanical Bird, a formalist book. In other words, stream doesn’t matter at all. The poet senses great work.

Very briefly, below, some of the streams, I encountered – and some books crossed boundaries – and one could argue that something, like, say, gay writing isn’t a category at all as any of the poems could be written in different ways. My suggestion is to just pick up the poems novel aspect and put it in your mind. Don’t disregard it. You will be a better poet, and that is what it is all about.

Steven Ross Smith – flutter tongue 4 – sound poetry, no narrative, no form but what the occasional phrase about father, or son suggests organization

Sylvia Legris – Nerve Squall – hyper squeezed, two-word lyricism, Latinate, scientific, word riff, choppy rhythm, must slow mind down and then text jumps out at you.

Anne Simpson – Quick – very good design that fits her high intellect

Brian Henderson – Nerve Language – about the life of a tortured human being – fabulous work, but difficult, fragmentary, oblong rhythms, footnotes

Rob Winger – Muybridge’s Horse – about the life of a particular human being, inventive poem structure, best book design in the decade, like Collected Works of Billy the Kid, see the first poem for the technique of organizing: being between two states, a list of such things

Colin Brown – The Shovel – huge intellect, writing in virtually all the forms out there, fragmentary

Susan Stenson – My mother agrees with the dead – best completely accessible, narrative, lyrical book I have ever read, no extra, not one word too few

Barbara Nickel – Domain – One of our best young women writers – glosa section – the formalist stream

George Murray – the rush to here – all sonnets, marriage of neo-conservative form poetry with spectacular poems

Asa Boxer – The Mechanical Bird – all sonnets, form poetry stream

Chritopher Doda – Aesthetics Lesson – spectacular glosa section based on John Donne

Bill bissett – ths is erth these are peopul – the guy who started performance poetry and writing phonetically, gay writing

Wayne Clifford – The Exile’s Papers – all sonnets written in 19th century diction

Arlene Pare – Paper Trail – a book about her white collar jobhalf poetry/half prose, a between streams form.

Louise Bernice Halfe – The Crooked Good – female aboriginal writer and great.

Agnes Walsh – Going Around with Bachelors – accessible, performance poetry and a cd at the end, NL writing

Larry Small – Around the Red Land – NL writing about NL accessible, narrative, lyrical, about the sea

Rachel Zolf – Human Resources – sentence generator poems using internet sites for poems, again office work

Dennis Lee – yesno – tight, stripped, ee cummings, word play, epigrammatic, associations of one word and then move with it

Kathleen McCracken – Mooncalves – poetry and images inspired by one another

D’bi.young.anitafrika – rivers… and other blackness… between us – women of colour and with the influence of Caribbean rhythms and music

David Bateman – Impersonating Flowers – gay writing, not at all in the closet

Susan McCaslin – Lifting the Stone – poems about Christian religion

ThammaVongsa – Found – found ‘poetry’, a diary, and the neatest execution of design used to make the all the poems stand out and be moving in a small format.

There is also poetry that has no language at all in it – unlanguaged poetry – but I did not ‘read’ such a ‘book’. Dub, slam,…

Oh, and, see Carolyn Force’s The Blue Hour, for its 40 page abecedarian poem that has as its only organizing principle that lines are listed alphabetically, it’s all over the map, but the mind puts structure into it to make it comprehensible. You don’t need form to see form.