UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO LINKS
Tom Wayman. From "Introduction: Glad I Was Born" in Did I Miss Anything? Selected Poems 1973-1993. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour Publishing, 1993
Nineteen nintey-three was the twentieth anniversary of the publication of my first book of poems, Waiting For Wayman. ...These two decades have been a wonderful experience for me as a writer, and for my poems. Together we have had more than our share of recognition, media attention, public readings and literary festivals, magazine and anthology publication, grants, translations into other languages, awards, writer-in-residenceships: everything, in fact, that any author could want. Meanwhile, I have watched helplessly as the art form I love has diminished in the public's perception of its value and importance. Arrayed against poetry are a swelling and seemingly unbeatable coalition that includes a declining readership for any written material, the adoption of poetry as an instrument of torture in our secondary school classrooms, and the confusion by a number of authors between obscurity of presentation and depth of thought, and between exclusiveness and superiority.
However, like a steadily-promoted deck officer on the Titanic, I have been having a marvellous time as a writer. During the past...years my poems have taken me to fascinating places, and introduced me to many astonishing and delightful people, that otherwise I never would have known. I also have been privileged to help bring into being--along with dozens of others--a new movement in poetry, literature, and the arts generally: the incorporation into the human story of the actual conditions and effects of daily employment. In this task my contribution has been the editing of anthologies and the writing of essays, in addition to my own poems. The endeavor, however, has introduced me and my poetry to non-literary audiences that the already-blazed cultural trails would never have led me to. These audiences, along with the first-year college classes I teach, have provided me with a continual reminder of the ever-widening gap between literary pursuits and the concerns of a majority of my fellow citizens.
And yet, my poetic aim [aways] has been to provide an accurate depiction of our common everyday life. I have tried to combine this with a sense of humor and with a vision of a better possibility for people than what we have so far achieved. My hope is that the latter two aspects of my writing provide perspective on the balance of what I portray. As for spirituality, I long ago was a convert to the concept expressed by Robert Bly in his poem "Turning Away From Lies" (from The Light Around the Body, 1967): "The Kingdom of Heaven does not mean the next life / ...The two worlds are both in this world."
Overall, my intention is that the complexities revealed by my poems should be the complications of our everyday existence, rather than newly-created difficulties or mysteries generated by tricks of language or poetic form. Clarity, honesty, accuracy of statement have been my goals--subject to, naturally, the limits of human discourse found in every genre or means of communication. My aim is that my poems should be useful: to myself, and to others who share my community and world. I mean these poems to be a gift; I want my poetry to be a tender, humorous, enraged, piercing, but always accurate depiction of where we are--as individuals functioning in a society, and as members of a rawly self-conscious species now occupying the third planet from a nondescript star.
Much that I have encountered in my life in the way of events, individuals, and popular and high art has influenced my writing. In poetry, two important Canadian influences were Earle Birney and Al Purdy. I was impressed by the range of their subject matter and by their careful craftsmanship, even though the latter often appears within a deceptively conversational tone. Internationally, my major influences were T.S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda. I attended university at a time when Eliot dominated English letters. For many years the shadow of Eliot lay across whatever I wrote; my "Asphalt Hours, Asphalt Air" is an attempt to banish that dry darkness forever. The poem is based closely on Eliot's "The Waste Land", but my poem places its concerns within a landscape of contemporary North American industrial and societal myths and activities. Neruda has been a much sunnier and more vigorous model for me. The Chilean poet's attention to the real elements of this world--things--finds reflection in my writing in "Kitchen Poem", for example. And Neruda's huge affection for people has influenced many poems of mine, including "New and Used", where the initial inspiration came from Neruda's poem about a Valparaiso clockmaker.
What I bring to poetry that these writers do not is the centrality of daily work to our life. I believe that to try to articulate the human story without depicting the core of daily existence is a tragic mistake. We all dream of a world without work, but we remain victims of our form of social organization as long as we--and our art--refuse to honestly consider how our jobs shape us, positively and negatively.
An imaginary world where we do not work to survive may be an adolescent dream, and may offer a picture of a more beautiful existence than is now an actual possibility for us. But sooner or later a functioning adult must face and make choices that involve work. The alternative is to remain dependent--on luck, chance, friends, relatives, the mercy of those with more power, the state. That is why I believe what I write is the literature of the future: an adult literature. As I stated in my 1983 book of essays, Inside Job:
Just as a child or adolescent often does not understand work or money, so our literature mostly has ignored these and focussed instead on the unlikely lives of those whose day-to-day existence apparently is not governed by concerns of work or money: the rich, killers, outlaws, or fantastic representations of people doing certain real jobs (doctors, cowboys, policemen, and so on). The new work writing takes up the challenge of portraying the world an adult sees and attempts to understand and/or change. A grown person who constantly evades having to cope with reality, who lives in a world of dreams however beautiful, we consider immature if not mentally ill. The contemporary industrial writing provides maturity and a healthy balance to literature.
Because most of us do not like what we see when we look at our jobs, we frequently engage as individuals and a community in acts of denial about daily employment. Most jobs constitute a "distinct society" we participate in each day, where during the central part of our existence most of the democratic rights and privileges Canadians enjoy off the job are suspended. Briefly, we live our productive lives--the majority of our waking hours--as free-lance serfs. We are free to chose and change the masters we will obey for money, free to be destitute or marginal, free to go into debt, free to purchase as many of life's necessities and/or drugs and toys as our rate of remuneration permits. We are even free to employ other serfs. But most of us at work have no significant control over what happens to us, over who gives us orders, over the organization of production, over the distribution of the wealth our labor produces, over the social uses of what we create. The alternative of self-employment often turns into self-exploitation as we strive to remain competitive with enterprises employing serfs.
Our denial of this state of unfreedom leads ourselves and many of our cultural products to ignore the realities of the present, as well as the painful and frightening and exhilarating effort necessary to change the present. Instead, there is an urge to leap forward to an imaginary era where what is denied today never has to be looked at or understood, or changed for the better in the face of enormous opposition. But an adult literature does not pretend to have already resolved our current dilemmas; this literature cannot be categorized as post-modern, post-industrial, post-feminist, etc. Adult art recognizes itself instead as pre-liberation. Firmly anchored in the realities of the modern era, such art acknowledges and responds to the industrial organization of the globe and that organization's attendant inequalities and injustices concerning class, gender, race, ecosystems and more.
This is not to say that an adult poetry must be dreary. No one has ever, for example, accused my writing of that. To an adolescent, adulthood may seem a reduced state of being, as responsibilities and commitments limit the boundless possiblities of dream. But to a functioning adult, skills and knowledge gained make possible the creation of a life, not merely the response to it. This sense of strength, of efficacy, of potential power to solve problems that are encountered and thus to tangibly shape the world a better way, move the competent adult out of passiveness into life-enhancing activities that can benefit both the self and the surrounding community.
In any case, every human emotion is part of adult life, that is, of work. Joy, wonder, laughter, games, rebellion, lust, love can be experienced at the jobsite, since work--however undemocratically structured today--is in its last analysis a place where human beings gather to remanufacture the world. Yet every activity found in the shop or office or factory is warped by its occurrence within a more-or-less authoritarian environment, just as our lives are warped by our and our neighbors' daily participation in this environment. We deny this, as a society, at our peril. I do not see my role as a literary artist as contributing--through denial--to the ongoing affliction of myself or my friends and co-workers.
Instead, the task of helping build an adult literature remains an enormous challenge, that I know will involve my writing for many years ahead. [My writing to date has] sketched the outline of my participation in a new and maturer direction for poetry. I cannot imagine a more exciting moment to practice one's writing than at the beginnings of so momentous a shift in art. As an author, I owe much to many people who have helped me and my poems; some of these are listed on the Acknowledgements [pages of my books]. But the core of my gratitude must go to my readers, who despite the prevailing aesthetic have welcomed not only my poems but also the vision of literature toward which I struggle. It is ultimately my readers' response that has made my artistic adventures during these decades such intensely rewarding ones. How can I express an overwhelming gratitude? Near the end of Marcel Camus' 1958 film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), the grieving Orpheus asks this same question of his beloved Euridice, whose dead body he is carrying in his arms. She has given him total happiness, has immeasurably enriched his life; how can he tell her this? His friend Hermes, who like Orpheus in Camus' version of the myth is a Rio de Janeiro transit company employee, advises: "Say a poor man's word, Orpheus: 'thank you.'"
To all my readers, then--past, present and future--I say: thank you.
Tom Wayman's works copyright © to the author.