Friday, 14 November 2014

Canada's Mac Flecknoe

Having read Generally Speaking just before the Poems of Arthur Henry Ward, Jr., I was curious about just why the Richard Rohmer portrayed in the autobiography would feel compelled to not only write poetry but to pull whatever strings and use his connections to actually publish it.  Not once in the autobiography does he mention staying up late at night as a youth, reading Keats by candlelight.  Nothing in the book gives any clue that writing poetry would be of any interest to him.

And so having read it, naively expecting something that mirrored Canada's war poets (given Rohmer's military background) - earnest efforts at creating verse one half patriotic and the other trying to convey Rohmer's feelings about his service.  Instead, what I got was, was ....

Good lord, how to describe this free form nonsense?  Rohmer's idea of poetry seems to be that it exists to allow one to vent about whatever issues he has - critics, smokers, read Chris's post for a better explication - using this drunk-on-words style of free-association, clumsy adjectives and sometimes painful neologisms ("insanist", "missingly","smokee"  - the latter being one who breathes second-hand smoke).  As Tommy Lee Jones put it in The Fugitive, "What - a - mess". 

But what drove Canada's most decorated veteran to write and publish this stuff?  Did he really hate critics that much that he needed to create a poem that eviscerated them to a level that would have you believe they are likely the most evil people to ever walk the face of the earth? Is Arthur Janov your main inspiration? This is a poem where he equates himself with Tchaikovsky, Picasso and Hemingway (and for the record - this is the author of Ultimatum saying this).  Stanza after stanza heaping scorn on critics, he consigns them all to the lavatory in the final lines - ending with "I go now to my own lavatory purgatory to brood and brew".   I cannot and will not think any further what he means by "brew".

His approach seems to consist of taking poetic conventions and bending them to his need to rant.  For an example, in Smoker, we get treated to a lesson in alliteration.  Following summing up of smokers as "polluters", we get "parasitical", "particles", "permeating", "penetrating", "puffs", "particularly", "privacy", "pasty", "prime", "puffer", "pungent", "pulsating".  In Plumber, a more advanced lesson: "slicing slander", "destructive denigration" and (my favorite) "escalating expansionist geometric growth".  Someone was paying attention in high school English.

Rohmer's idea of poetry form is that is should first and foremost show off your vocabulary and your ability to twist words.  Time after time we get not one but two words, joined by a slash, that seem to be there to show that a good poet always has two words for every situation available.  Some examples:

- long/short

- home/family

- seeks/receives

- intellect/reason

- others/self

- true/false

- potential/actual

- found/conjured

- probing/uncovering

- profession/calling

- peer/peek

I could go on, but you get the point.

I'll sidestep any discussion about sex or politics, because Chris's post handles it so well, but I do want to end by addressing Brian's question "who is Arthur Henry Ward, Jr.?".  Some clues:

"I am a critic!"

"Visionary I am"

"I am an aura"

"Woman I have been"

"I am a private person"

"Politician am I"

"A plumber am I".


  1. What intrigues me most is that the Rohmer of Generally Speaking is so at odds with the man who wrote Poems. The former seems a goodnatured, fairly modest fellow, whose greatest grumble comes from not being recognized for a monument he worked on with Conrad Black and Galen Weston. The poet behind Poems, reminds me of the damaged souls who walk the streets raging semi-coherently about… oh, let's say, smokers, television and armageddon. He is simply not a man who could've achieved anything even remotely close to anything - not one - that Richard Rohmer has done.

    So, I ask: Is Arthur Henry Ward a character?

    If so, Poems is Richard Rohmer's greatest work.

  2. I'd prefer to take it that way - that Arthur Henry Ward Jr. is a character - than believe they're real.

    1. Agreed. That said, I just can't accept Richard Rohmer as a man who would write poetry under a persona. To be honest, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around him being a poet.

  3. There's some serial killer movie where the killer drives the cops crazy by establishing a pattern and then completely breaking it. That's what it's like to read a bunch of Rohmer novels, then How to Write a Be$t $eller, then Generally Speaking, and then Poems. First you start getting a sense of Rohmer from the fiction: A quiet man who likes war, banking, oil, government-by-white-guy, a good conference and a nice expense account meal. Then you read Be$t $eller, and you get the other stereotype entirely: The rich hack author who wants to tell you a few things about his movie deals, and cracking the US market, and how fancy writing is for longhairs. And who spends all day -- every day -- planning his next book tour and his next argument about cover art. Then you get to Generally Speaking, and he hardly mentions the books at all. 30 years of novels and nonfiction are less important than the afternoon he showed the Queen a car. Then there's the poems. Where a frothing ego bastard hates everyone, especially critics. Because they like money. And he's all about art, disarmament and women's liberation. It's a weird one, all right.

    1. Would that I could quote from Generally Speaking, but I've returned it to our local library (which in turn returned it to the distant library from whence it came). That said, I'm pretty confident Rohmer says something about needing to be published in the States to make decent money (the six figures coming from General falling short). He also more than implies that his own writing no longer pays… which begs the much quoted question: "why bother writing it?"

      Generally Speaking and How to Write a Be$t $eller were published twenty years apart.

  4. Wow. 20 years. And he wrote Ultimatum ten years before Best Seller, and that was 30 years after the war. More than half of the history of Canada fits into Richard Rohmer's lifetime.