Vancouver Writers Festival to honour poet Patrick Lane
Jane Urquhart calls Patrick Lane “our most essential poet: tough, tender, fearless, and beautifully dangerous.” On Saturday night, Urquhart, Margaret Atwood and others will gather to pay tribute to Lane as part of the Vancouver Writers Festival.
“Praise or roasting, I don’t care,” says Lane, clearly looking forward to this acknowledgement from his peers.
“It’s an odd sort of celebration of my life’s work—this part of my life’s work,” he is quick to add, laughing.
Lane turned 73 last March and has published 25 volumes of poetry, including last year’s Collected Poems, which he describes as “a big book, a door-stop, a real tome.”
He reckons it will take him the rest of his life to sell it.
“People get tense when a book costs more that $35.00,” he says. “I paid a lot for that book in many ways—50 years of writing, discipline and perseverance and the adversity out of which it came. It’s my gift back to the world, to a culture that loved me in spite of myself. I was an angry man when I was young.”
Early in his career, critics faulted Lane for his violence, which they felt was gratuitous, but Lane explains that his poems were violent because he bore witness to life in BC’s sawmills in the 1960s.
“A poet’s job is always to pay attention,” says Lane, “close, careful attention, using words like objects, structures on a page that change us inside emotionally.”
Influenced by the social unrest of the 1930s, and the Canadian labour movement, he turned his attention to “social concerns and the struggle of the working poor.”
“I left school, got married and worked in the mills. I was one of them. I saw it first hand. I saw what the bosses did and what happened in families, family violence. As an industrial first aid man, I had access to things usually only a doctor saw. They still matter to me.”
Whatever else may have fed his poetic imagination, it was the land itself that shaped and continues to shape his thought and feeling.
“I believe in the local in the same way that William Carlos Williams believed,” says Lane. “This place, this West of mine: that’s my country.”
Lane used to tell his students in Montreal to get out and see the rest of Canada. Many of them had been to Europe, but few knew anything about the vastness and splendor of their own country.
“Buy a $200 car and head West,” he’d tell them. “It should take you about three $200 cars to make it to Vancouver.”
As much as the Canadian landscape inspires our literature, geography can also work against the western writer.
“People feel ignored by the establishment back East,” says Lane. “They pay even less attention to us now than they did ten or fifteen years ago.”
As a young poet, Lane ventured back East. “That’s how I bridged the gap. You have to leave and live in Toronto to establish your credentials. But I was also really interested in meeting the poets I’d only read about, like Irving Layton.”
Lane laments what he calls “the enrichment of abstraction over the object” in contemporary literature.
“Description is less and less important. Most readers won’t tolerate description of landscape. They’ll run downtown for a latte. It’s our endless need to be excited—caffeine and the iPad—and so the landscape disappears. Metaphor disappears.”
Which calls to mind William Carlos Williams’ famous cry in Paterson: “No ideas but in things.” And gives us an even more compelling reason to cherish and celebrate the work of Patrick Lane.
I leave you with his poem called “Bonsai.”
Far off in the cedars the jay screams his morning song.
I hear the words in the twisted trunk of the yew.
The woman before me told the tree to suffer for her sake.
The old can’t be made young again. The tree can’t be undone.
The wind weaves ribbons through my fingers. Stillness waits.
The winter fish eat the dawn slowly, their bodies consume.
Water has its own way. There is a new silence at the end of a poem.
The jay laughs as he torments the robin. Never mind, I say.