George Murray has written six books of poetry and a children’s book. He has won or been shortlisted for numerous literary awards. From 2003 to 2011, he was the editor of Bookninja, a popular literary website. In 2014, he was named Poet Laureate of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. You can follow him on Twitter.
Sadly, I didn’t discover modern and contemporary poetry until after high school. I read mostly fantasy and science fiction novels then. But I did read poetry and plays for class, and the first time I really remember connecting with poetry on a metaphorical level was during a study of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The teacher was parsing out some of the language Lear used to metonymically convey his feelings for his daughters and I suddenly “clicked” with it. I really “got” what he was doing. After that one Grade 11 class, I felt I could read and understand most Shakespeare.
I mostly wrote short stories and plays in high school. Later, in university, I had to take a poetry course as part of my degree and it sort of busted me open inside. I just started writing non-stop. I gave up fiction and went straight to poems. I didn’t think of myself as a poet for many years. I’m not even sure I do now. At first I just called myself “a writer.” Then I called myself an “apprentice poet.” Now, 20 some odd years later, I would say I am maybe close to finally being a “poet.”
The poet’s job is to experience epiphany and convey the thoughts that arise from it in ways that evoke epiphanies in others.
I often tell my students that all people (nurses, plumbers, stock brokers, cab drivers, pilots, cashiers, kids, parents, cops, drill press operators, etc. etc.) have epiphanies – fleeting moments of connection with, and understanding of, the world and the deeper meaning of what it is to be human. Maybe they’re staring a sunbeam with dust motes floating in it and they think, “Man, there’s something deep here… There’s something about the dust in this sunbeam that reminds me of the transient nature of life… Whoa…”
The difference between them and people who write (and read!) poetry, is that poets train themselves over many years to, 1) recognize when they are having an epiphany, 2) write down notes about it as quickly as possible, and 3) craft those notes into a form that is inspiring, beautiful, illuminating, and evocative.
Our job is to write something that takes our own experience and uses it to evoke a response in the reader that lets them have their own epiphany.
“Cowboy Story” is an examination of how what’s internal (blood, words, etc.) become external, and how that sullies them for the person who originally held them. The blood inside a person is clean, pure, and crucial; blood outside them is gross. Sometimes it feels the same way with words. You set them down on paper outside you and they can no longer live. They stagnate. This idea is set against the cowboy movie shootout metaphor in which everyone is blasting away, hoping to hit something, but no one seems to. Like many poems, it’s a big metaphorical examination of poetry itself.
I love the works of Frank O’Hara. I don’t write a lot like him, but I do enjoy reading aloud his jazzy riffs on life, death, and love. He makes it look so effortless. His “Lunch Poems”, written in New York way back when, are an amazing record of what it was to be alive at the time. “The Day Lady Died” is an amazing piece of Americana and deserves to be set to memory!