To Sleep, To Love
W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.
The inevitable first response is that, in the phrase “Essential Poets Series,” the adjective is premature — but perhaps Ken Norris is not to blame for that ill-considered piece of publicity. Though he already has a number of slim poetry volumes to his credit, he is still a young poet feeling his way. I confess that I am not particularly impressed with the earlier volumes I have read: Vegetables (1975), Report on the Second Half of the Twentieth Century ( 1977), and Eight Odes (1982). The first suffers badly by comparison with Robert Kroetsch’s contemporaneous Seed Catalogue; the second, in insisting that we live in a hell of a world, demonstrates what hardly requires demonstration; the third intersperses adaptations from Neruda with personal poems in what I find a puzzling blend.
To Sleep, To Love is decidedly more satisfactory. It consists of quietly thoughtful, integrated poems about the hallowed subject of love, but the phrases and rhythms are well turned and they eventually create their own authority. They remind me of those unpretentious, relaxed, personal, curiously affecting poems by the T’ang Dynasty Chinese poets. One remembers the tone of the whole rather than individual units. Often the simplicity takes on a moving eloquence:
What I want
is a love affair
as soft as a snowfall
& words to write of it
that do not describe but become
I never imagined it would be like this
to care for you; this love is no prayer or blessing but it is all that I have.
By dropping the fashionable effects of much of his earlier verse (juxtaposed poems and news items, self-conscious emphasis on the traditionally non-poetic, etc.), Norris has ironically — or perhaps not so ironically — begun to find his authentic voice. He has (I think wisely) aligned himself with that recent group of poets, mainly in Montreal, who have found new possibilities in traditional subjects and traditional forms (though his “odes” are hardly orthodox). Still not, in my view, an “essential” poet, Norris proves here that he is a quickly improving and certainly promising one.