Ottawa poetically perceived: The Collected Poems of William Hawkins

hawkins_coverWilliam Hawkins. The Collected Poems of William Hawkins. Edited by Cameron Anstee. (Chaudiere Books 2015).

In 1971, at the end of his first decade of publishing, in his first Selected Poems, The Gift of Space, William Hawkins wrote: ‘I write about what I get into. I did not invent / death.’ It’s a neat, if somewhat morbid, summary of one young man’s poetic vision, & by that time he had moved through a highly lyrical, modernist, passage of poetry writing in Canada & Mexico (which he had visited on a Canada Council grant in 1968, & where he wrote most of the death haunted poems of The Madman’s War). The poems of that first decade take up two thirds of this lovingly edited collection of the Ottawa poet’s work, & it’s arguable that much of his best work also appeared in that period.

As the editor points out in a useful if short introduction, ‘Living Now in Ottawa: William Hawkins at the Margin,’ Hawkins was one of the young poets Raymond Souster included in New Wave Canada, which so shook up the Canadian poetry scene in 1966. Like many of the others there, he had read & been influenced by both the Beats & the New American Poetry. But he was also something of an outsider, living in Ottawa, far from both Toronto & Vancouver, where most of the others in that anthology lived, wrote, & communicated with each other on an almost daily basis. That distance had both positive & negative effects I suspect, one of the latter being his turn to silence in the mid-seventies, a silence that lasted for 2 decades, at least in poetry (he is also a songwriter, & his work has been performed throughout his life, I believe).

This huge Collected, then, contains poems mostly from the poet’s twenties & thirties, the years (especially at that time) in which a young male poet full of piss & vinegar would write a lyric, however modern, in which is own personality thrived. That his can be witty, sharp in its observations of life (mostly in his city, the capital of Canada, & therefore always open to lively critique on many levels. And in which, the young poet also pursues his lovers, in the traditional poetic manner. His book, Ottawa Poems (1966), testifies to all this: ‘The crazy river-abounding town / where people are quietly / following some hesitant / form of evolution / arranged on television / from Toronto.’ And there he is, casually prescient about some other young punk in the future he could not have imagined as he wrote: ‘someone will come & take me away. / For smoking shit or pissing on the / War Memorial.’ And yet, in that city he also thinks of ‘You in the morning,’ for whom he ‘would like, to // charge time with love.’ Even when ‘everyone’s a Trojan Horse / filled with tender & vicious weapons / & no openings, no / apparent openings.’

Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind hovers behind a lot of the early poems, not a direct influence so much as a way of seeing & writing about the city in which Hawkins lives. Yet, his early long poem, Louis Riel, is very much a Canadian product, a sly & sideways take on the documentary, & something special for a writer in his mid-twenties. It’s one of the best things in this Collected, & makes a reader just a bit sad that Hawkins never tried anything like it again. His visit to Mexico later in the decade led to a small book that certainly holds together as a single experience notated in a series of small poems, full of ‘certain /peculiar shadows / only we seem aware of / and admit.’ And it’s there that, knowing ‘nothing of love, there’s nothing to know, / You never see it coming, nor see it go,’ the young songwriter/poet offers a lyric cry: ‘Today I am left with struggle, / trying to create / a new myth for males.’ Perhaps it was all too much, or just couldn’t be done.

There are some fine poems in the last part of the book, but some of the most interesting, like the ‘Mysteriensonaten’ series are from the mid-sixties. Although as a young poet he disdained rhyme, he uses it quite a bit in the new poems, perhaps a crossover effect from the songwriting. Certainly, the newer poems approach the fact of mortality from a new, aging, perspective, but there is nothing to match, say, John Newlove’s brilliant & bitter poems on the subject.

All in all, however, The Collected Poems of William Hawkins is a most worthwhile endeavor, a reminder to some & an introduction to many others, of a witty, sardonic, voice from outside the main centres of Canadian poetry in the late 20th century. It would sit nicely on a bookshelf with Stephen Cain’s edition of bp:beginnings as a significant pointer to how much some young poets accomplished in that now golden time.

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3 Responses to Ottawa poetically perceived: The Collected Poems of William Hawkins

  1. Sheila murphy says:

    Very insightful review, Doug, and fills in a part of the picture for me. Balanced perspective regarding that “now golden time” that feels distant, indeed.

  2. Pingback: Radio, Readings, Reviews | Cameron Anstee

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