Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Cultivating Poetic Sensibility with Phil Jenkins

Phil Jenkins started the final afternoon event of the Writers Festival by limning the question of what “poetic sensibility” is and why it is such an essential quality to have in not only literature, but in life itself. The architecture of religious texts, such as the Bible, were presented as the archetype of what we gropingly classify as ‘creative non-fiction’ at the slightest hint of imagination.


According to Jenkins, the heart of the desire to suffuse an inventive quality that breaks the mould when writing or making an artistic statement, is to really get at the truth; not capital T truth but truth nonetheless. Or in James Wood’s words, “...the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.”


Jenkins makes the astute observation that almost everyone who is literate, writes but what distinguishes a writer is that (s)he re-writes; with poets perhaps re-writing the most. The anecdote of Jenkins’ poet friend who takes an hour-long stroll for every line of poetry summons up images of the painstaking work of historians like Robert Caro, who has spent decades on a single subject – in his case the life of Lyndon B. Johnson.


When it comes to documenting reality, too often the dogged stance of being objective “has got in the way”. As Gloria Steinem put it to Moses Znaimer, as “the new journalism” which promulgated a personal style came into vogue in the 1960s, “some of the tears need to get into the story” - when speaking of a New York Times reporter who sobbed while recounting President Kennedy’s assassination, over the telephone. While professing the vital role of the poet in “conducting emotional research and development” what Jenkins is implying is that the role of bringing lyricism should not be left to the poet alone (or alternately, that poets need to get busier!) Michael Ondaatje’s memoir Running In The Family and Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri Di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) were held up as examples as works of documentary that transcended stale objectivity whilst simultaneously not betraying it in a fit of artistic license.


This is no easy task; anyone who remembers the defrocking of James Frey in the wake of his mostly fabricated memoir A Million Little Pieces can understand the tension inherent in Ken Kesey’s statement, “it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” Ondaatje describes his grandmother dying by being consumed by a tsunami whereas the real cause of her death was alcoholism. Not literally true but poetically so. On closer inspection, James Frey’s attempt evokes sympathy when considered alongside a very creative profile on the man and his later endeavours.


Jenkins accidentally uttered the phrase “poese” (an amalgam of poetry and prose). And it stuck – with him joking that if Shakespeare were permitted his numerous neologisms, then surely he was entitled to one.


As the hour wore on, Jenkins himself got personal. When discussing other books, Jenkins stated that he felt uncharitably towards Noah Richler’s This Is My Country, What’s Yours? since it fails to discuss works of poetry in its survey of Canada’s literary landscape. Jenkins also called for “poese” to sink into our political life. “When was the last time a politician’s speech made you cry?” was a preamble in reference to Jack Layton’s farewell message.


He was on shakier ground however in decrying “conservative” politics as being devoid of compassion and thus immanently incapable of the “poetic sensibility” he was espousing .T.S. Eliot would have surely been surprised to be told he lacked it. Jenkins is certainly entitled to his political views, even have them influence his oeuvre: but his implicit assumption that everyone in his audience shares them brandished an unfortunate lack of decorum and open-mindedness. 


Jenkins ended by taking some questions from the audience. One of his suggestions mentioned that writers should learn how to weld, so as to appreciate the craftsmanship required with words. His delightful characterization that “a well-written sentence is like a lozenge” left an urge to consume, encounter and produce words which get at the real. An experience for which in some places, the courageous are dying to live