Johnson is featured, along with Susan McCaslin, at London Open Mic Poetry Night on May 7th, 2014.
In preparation for the event, we interviewed him, with some of our questions reflecting Johnson's unique background: thus the problem of whether and how students can develop their own poetic voices within the strict and heavy course structure and academic environment of a university. We asked for advice. Below are pertinent excerpts. Stay tuned for the full interview, along with a group of Lee Johnson's newly published poems, to be posted this Friday, May 2nd.
Poetria Nova (St. Thomas Poetry Series, 2014) is Lee’s first book of published poetry, a selection that draws on his love of Nature, Renaissance and Romantic poetry, music, astronomy, and mathematics. All these interests flowed into his formal career as a Professor of English who was noted for his insights into the art of poetry and its history, going back to classical times. Essays on Virgil, Milton, and T.S. Eliot, among other masters of the metrical art, emphasize the range of Lee’s inquiries. At that time, most of his energy as a writer went into academic studies; now in retirement, he is returning to his essential love of poetry that, like an underground stream, nourished him throughout his years of earning a living. He works with traditional metric, geometrical progressions, and rhythms in a way that makes Pythagorean and Medieval number theory new for our times.
Interview by Stan Burfield, organizer of London Open Mic Poetry Night
.......Towards the end of my second year as an undergraduate, I had to take a course on English and British literature. One of our tasks was to read large sections of Wordsworth’s long poem The Prelude. My usual habit was to read material for these “incidental” courses in the late afternoon before dinner at the college residence and to work on my “serious” science courses after dinner, well into the night. I started reading The Prelude around 4 p.m. and stopped around twelve hours later, just before dawn the next day, having forgotten to eat or to sleep. ......I soon thereafter started to devour poetry from all eras, including eastern traditions. .....I could see a line of influence from Virgil to Milton and from Milton to Wordsworth: in fact, the Fourth Eclogue, Lycidas, and the Immortality Ode are all deeply interlinked in their themes and even in their smallest details of sound and form in their status as three of the greatest short poems in western civilization.
SB: Do you have any advice for young poets who are starting out at university?
LJ: There is obviously a strong connection between what one reads and what one writes. Read as much, and as widely as possible, so that your own voice can be formed without having been commandeered by only one or a small handful of other voices. Say, for instance, that you are “drunk” on Keats, a most understandable condition. Unfortunately, your own poems will sound like recycled Keats but will be inferior to his voice, which he attained after writing typical verse of his time, when he composed his sonnet on Chapman’s translation of Homer. Typical verse of any era, it seems to me, is likely to assert itself in the critiques that inspire classes in creative writing. Such classes certainly stimulate you to write, but the standard of what is expected will be the collective consciousness or superego of the time. Your own voice will still need to form itself. Perhaps that is best done by reading as much and as widely as possible so that no one voice, individual or collective, dominates your sensibility and prevents your own voice from emerging. It is of supreme importance to realize that poets are as distinct and different from one another as people in general are: there is no such thing as The Poet, of which we are all emanations. There are millions of poets, all unique. There is consequently no one right way to compose poetry. Wallace Stevens was a school of one; imagine him having to endure critiques in a creative writing class.
....... It seems clear to me that I have always been most entranced with poetry that “sings” rather than merely “talks”: there is a music in the poems of my most beloved poets, whether ancient or modern. Yeats, for example, often wrote poetry that is intellectually not of the highest order; but, my goodness, does his poetry sing! So much so, that he is probably the finest modern poet who has written in English.
.......doing something interesting with language and form in relation to the history of poetry is more important than simply expressing oneself in verse. My only claim for Poetria Nova is that it offers something a little bit different by emphasizing form and the art of poetry itself.
.......My academic interests, such as those in my 1982 Toronto Press book on Wordsworth, simply feed into my larger interest in being alive with such a keen sense of strangeness about being alive in such strange things as the Universes of space-time and mind. Poetry is thus not an end in itself but a major way of exploring the nature of Being.
........ Yeats mentioned that he knew a poem was finished when he felt it “click” with that perfect blend of form and expression. I know exactly what he meant, but it is not something one can explain all that clearly. The literary experience is far too complex for that.
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, covered terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Except for the coldest months, the terrace is open to the parking lot behind. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: May 7th, the first Wednesday of the month, at 6:30.
LIVE MUSIC: Singer/songwriter Carly Thomas will open the event, at least by 6:30. She will also perform during the intermission and at the end of the event.
THE FEATURED POETS, first Lee Johnson, followed by Susan McCaslin, open the poetry portion of the event at 7:00, followed by a Q&A. Read interview and poems by Susan McCaslin
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, there is about 1.5 hours of open mic, ending about 9:00 pm. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the reader`s list, which is on the book table at the back. It's first come, first served.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates to London Open Mic Poetry Night receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked after the intermission. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society. Donations are our only source of income. We still haven't paid off our initial debt!