John Berryman is reported to have said that the elements of a good poem are imagination, love, intellect, and pain. This is a good list. I’d lead with love; and I would also specify that by imagination I don’t mean unusual imagery or linguistic pyrotechnics. I mean the ability to think analogically: to suss out genuine metaphoric connections—in the world, in the heart, in the mind, among all three—and to render these in apt linguistic music. This ability to think analogically is the source of the clarity that characterizes achieved lyric poems. It gives them a startling coherence. It is also, in my experience, not something that can be willed or conjured by linear intelligence. Lyric talent consists first and foremost in a kind of receptivity—an ability to pick up on non-linguistic resonance.
I am under no illusions that Berryman’s list, or my reading of imagination, will find favour with every respected poet, nor that every poet I respect would agree with me about which poems best exhibit these characteristics. The ability to read analogically, in my experience, shifts with life circumstances. A poem that is opaque when one first encounters it may become transparently coherent at a later date; and vice versa. Which only confirms what we know already: poetry is a difficult business.
My thanks to everyone who offered poems for consideration. I learned a great deal. Special thanks to Spencer Gordon for his generosity and good humour.
Phillip Crymble has a superb ear. “Paydays” is a sophisticated piece of linguistic music, rooted in complex elegiac emotion.
—Jan Zwicky, Thomas Morton Memorial Prize Judge for Poetry, 2016
Sitting here at the Hortons, so you know this is important.
—Gord Downie, “Vancouver Divorce”
On paydays back when we were boys—the dinner smells still
hanging in the kitchen and the entryway—my father’d light
a Rothmans at the table, search the pockets of his pearl-snap
denim workshirt, find some silver or a dollar bill—send us
out into the brittle winter twilight. A tradesman with three
mouths to feed, divorced, his thumbs and fingers cracked
from years of crimping leads and wiring breakers, he made
the most of precious little—drove an oil-burning AMC
sedan—had it up on ramps at weekends. The Esso station
down the street from Stelco closed its doors in 1963. Tim
Horton took a flier on the forfeit lease—used the money
he earned anchoring the blue line for the Maple Leafs to seed
a modest business. The rest is now our history as a people.
Unmodified, a Seventies Pantera runs the quarter in the low
14s. Included in the fine print of his late September offer
sheet, the one that Horton died in clipped a storm drain
on the QE East—collided with a wall of armoured concrete.
That winter back in ’83, my father spent his evenings ripping studs
and driving nails, drinking cans of Old Vienna at the workmate—
keeping time to Kenny Rogers and the rhythms of the Skilsaw blade.
By June he’d hung the sheetrock—mudded over all the joining tape—
bought Cinzano and Campari for the wet bar—ordered Tennents
Lager spill mats and the brackets for an optic rail. Detectives
at the Lake Street exit crash scene found barbiturates and eyeglass
frames, some wine-tipped cigarillos and a monogrammed black
suitcase. Discovered in the swale grass—prone and muddy
by the chassis plate—a shattered fifth of vodka like a nestling
too far gone to save. The year I started grade thirteen, our sage green
Lady Kenmore blew a washer—filled the basement like the basin
of a floodplain after thawing rains. My father put on slippers, trudged
through water grey as spillage in the bilge-well of a submarine. When
they pulled the spiral deck nail from his instep in emergency his foot
was like a staph-infected udder. That night, he woke from fevered
sleep not knowing who he was—as if his memory’d been winded—
tripped its circuitry. Bobby Baun and Billy Harris carried Horton
to his grave—the Chief and Allan Stanley—old teammates
from the glory days. Mourners lined the sidewalks. It was sunny.
Minus 17. And I’m back home with my brother. Back in ’83.
Our wind-abraded cheeks like they’ve been slapped. The yellow
light inside the kitchen. Mugs of builder’s tea. The box of payday donuts
on the table like a centrepiece. My father with a dish-cloth on his shoulder.
Phillip Crymble received his MFA from the University of Michigan and now lives in Fredericton where he is a PhD candidate and SSHRC doctoral fellow in the English Department at UNB. A poetry editor at The Fiddlehead since 2012, his poems have appeared in The Malahat Review, CV2, The Literary Review of Canada, The New Quarterly, Arc, The 2011 Montreal Prize Global Poetry Anthology, Oxford Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013, The Forward Book of Poetry 2017, and elsewhere. In 2016, Not Even Laughter, his first full-length collection, was nominated for both the JM Abraham Prize and the New Brunswick Book Award for Poetry.