A Way With Words

Last evening was a busy evening in town for meetings, readings, and exhibition openings. Fortunately I was able to attend a portion of a poetry reading by Thomas O’Grady at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery hosted by Bookmark, one of our local independent book stores. Thomas is a member of a well-known Island family with strong Irish ties and is the Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts. His sister is a good friend and through her we have met Thomas and other members of the family.

It was a pleasure to hear him talk about his recently released poetry anthology Delivering the News and I was in time to hear him read several of the poems from it. “Seeing Red” the first part of the book is chiefly reflections on his childhood here in Prince Edward Island.

The second last piece he read came from that section and was the poem that gave his book it’s title. He introduced it with a reference to a Robert Harris painting in the collection at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery that hung behind him. In the undated portrait – Harris was active in the late 1800s-early 1900s – a young newsie stands at the corner of Queen St and Sydney St here in Charlottetown hawking what may be his last paper of the day. Save for the now paved street and cement sidewalks the view is exactly the same today.

Don’t Lose the News for Two Cents, Mister
Robert Harris – date unknown
Confederation Centre Art Gallery

Thomas recalled his own career as a less than willing paper boy that was the inspiration from the poem. And he wryly commented that anyone who ever had a paper route knew the truth of that last line. As well as the gentle humour of that line for me the poem also catches that time of our young lives when our troubles of the moment outweighed those of the wider world.


On wild March days that cotton canvas sack
held rain like a tent and hung so low it thumped

a sodden beat like a leaden weapon sheathed
against my thigh. Schoolboy short, I cinched the strap

up high in a knuckled knot (my collarbone
still sports a phantom bruise) and shouldered on.

From door to door I bore the soggy news,
street by street - Churchill Avenue, Spring Park Road...

War, Pestilence, Famine, Death. Was I deaf
to the headline roar of my unwieldy load?

Weight of the world. Art of the backhand toss.
The guileless messenger shot at and missed.

On Friday night I tallied my receipts
and somehow ended, always, at a loss.

DELIVERING THE NEWS - McGill-Queen's Press - March 2019
by permission of the author.

Over the next few days I intend to make my way slowly through the collection savouring his memories and the language. In a recent article Thomas quotes a remark of the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes: “The English language has always been alive and kicking, and if it ever becomes drowsy, there will always be an Irishman.” Fuentes might have added or an Islander with Irish roots.

Delivering The News can be ordered through the publisher McGill-Queen’s University Press here. An eBook edition will be available shortly.

May 16th is Waiters Day. Created by London Hilton Restaurant Manager Fred Sirieix, his goal is to stop people working in the food service industry from being perceived as unskilled, and instead as hardworking people doing jobs that require many skills and can lead to rewarding careers.

Printemps boréal

The great American poet and literary translator Richard Wilbur died yesterday at the age of 96. He published his first poem at the age of 8 and was to continue writing and publishing until he was well into his 80s. He worked in traditional forms and in a style that emphasized wit, charm, and gentlemanly elegance. Nowhere was that style more apparent than in the lyrics he wrote for two of the best known pieces in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide: Glitter and Be Gay and Make Our Garden Grow.  And it is no small that his source and inspiration for the two pieces came from the French of Voltaire – an author equally known for his wit, and charm, if not so gentlemanly elegance.

I first became aware of Wilbur when the Stratford Festival presented his translation of Molière’s  Tartuffe  perhaps the best known – and most frequently produced – version of his ten translations of the French writer’s works.  His translations of Racine and Corneille proved that the tradition of Alexandrine couplets could sound as beautiful in English as they do in French.

In Spring of 2016 I created a small video of Wilbur reading his translation of a Rondeau written by Charles, Duc d’Orléans in the 15th century.  I offer it again as a tribute to the wit, charm and gentlemanly elegance of a great poet.

Willy Or Won't He

As we slept the sleep of the innocent this past night Spring crept over the windowsill, to quote Eliza Dolittle.  To celebrate I thought I’d post this little rondel that was composed to celebrate that event one spring in the mid-1400s by Charles, Duke of Orléans as he gazed out his window in the tower of London.

American poet and literary translator Richard Wilbur is famous for his ability to take the theatrical poetry of Molière, Racine and Corneille and make it sing as successfully on stage in English as it does in French.  Here he takes the thirteen lines of the good Duke’s medieval verse and gives them a grace, elegance and economy of language the equal to their original text.

The rondel was a popular French verse form in the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance: it’s a deceptively simple poem generally made up of two stanzas of four lines…

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