One of the beneficial side-effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (if one can even speak of such a thing) is that it has produced a bump in people searching out and reading poetry. There is a reason people turn to poetry in times of crisis, says former poet laureate of St. John’s, Newfoundland, George Murray. “Sometimes the direct narrative sense of an event doesn’t really compute,” Murray says. “What poetry can do is get to an emotional sense of it. Especially when we’re isolated, reading is a great way to connect with other minds.”
The author of eight collections and a volume of new and selected poems forthcoming in 2021, Murray has been both a practitioner of and fierce advocate for poetry in Canada. He is also a committed teacher of the craft and in 2021 is offering a pair of online workshops, under the collective (and somewhat cheeky) title Walk the Line, that aim to teach the fundamentals of poetic practice. “The Poet’s Toolbox” is an eight-week beginner’s course that introduces participants to poetic form and the basics of poetic structure and mechanics. The eight-week intermediate course, “Built from Scratch,” shows how those basic tools can be used to create functional and integral original poems.
Murray has teaching experience, including a part-time faculty position at the University of Toronto that he gave up because he also had a day job in marketing and he thought the teaching post would be more beneficial to a working poet without another steady stream of funding. Shortly thereafter, Murray’s marketing job disappeared, and he found himself both wanting to teach again and needing a source of income. His original idea was to travel around the country to promote his new and selected while also offering one-day poetry workshops in various places to, in his words, “maximize the visit.” When COVID lockdowns made that scheme potentially unworkable, he pivoted to an online format for the two workshops.
“I find teaching really grounds me as a poet,” says Murray, who never himself took an MFA. “I did creative writing in my undergrad, but I’m not much of a product of the academic poetry community.” Notwithstanding the lack of academic credentials, Murray has plenty of experience teaching poetry. In addition to his time at UofT, he has lectured at Princeton and for the New School in Manhattan. Nor does the idea of virtual teaching make him nervous. “The technology doesn’t frighten me,” he says. “It’s all just content management systems.”
As to the perennial subject of whether poetry can be taught, Murray is unequivocal in asserting that it can. “I truly believe that every single person in the world has these moments of connection, of deeper understanding of their condition in the world around them,” Murray says. “The difference between a trained poet and Joe Plumber or Joe Doctor or Sally Lawyer is that the poet is trained to recognize that moment, to capture it as close to the moment of epiphany as possible, and then turn that into something beautiful on the page.”
The only difference between Murray and his students, he says, is that he has spent the past twenty-five years reading, studying, and writing poetry, working with the core concepts and traditions that allow him to take raw experience and render it into poetic form. “When I turn it into a poem, I’m using pieces of the sonnet, like the volta, or I might be using a turn from a haiku or I might be using a lining system I’ve learned from Anglo Saxon poetry,” he says. “These are tools that are learned.”
One of the things Murray hopes to do with these workshops is to demystify poetry and present it instead as a craft that is much more broadly accessible than some abstruse academic approaches might make it seem. In talking about this, he avoids the language of the academy, preferring instead the language of the trades. “You can apprentice as a carpenter, and learn to nail two boards together and learn to build the frame of a house. But in order to be a cabinet maker or a fine furniture designer or whatever, you have to go those extra steps,” he says. “I’m basically teaching you to be a carpenter and your talent is what’s going to take you to the next steps.”
Murray is equally eager to counter the idea that poetry must be practiced at some unachievable level; even the greatest poets don’t reach the lofty heights of genius at every attempt, he argues. As an example, Murray (somewhat courageously) offers the beloved late Irish poet Seamus Heaney. “Everyone talks about every book of his as a masterpiece. Not true!” Murray says. “Electric Light is a masterpiece. But there are other books that are just like Seamus Heaney doing an impersonation of Seamus Heaney.”
Instead of judging one’s own poetry by comparison with the greatest poems ever written, Murray suggests that it would be more beneficial to restrict any competitive impulses to oneself and strive simply to improve with each successive endeavour. “You’re not striving for a masterpiece,” he says. “What you’re striving to do is beat your best time. I’m trying to grow every time I write a piece, I’m trying to get better. I’ve learned over twenty-five years of doing this to recognize what’s mediocre from my point of view and try to cut that back.”
Murray says that his own practice has changed as he’s matured both as a writer and a human being, though one thing remains constant: the rigour of knowing how much to keep and how much to toss out. This rigour has only become more entrenched as the poet has become more deliberate in his practice. “In the old days, when I was writing much more, if I wrote 100 pages, I threw out ninety-nine,” he says. “Now, if I write 1,000 pages, I’m throwing out 999. This new and selected that’s coming up – the ‘new’ part is thirty pages that I’ve written over the last six years or something. I used to write that in six months.”
This is the kind of discipline necessary to produce good work. But Murray is also careful to manage his own expectations about his work and what it might yield in the future. “I will be very satisfied as a poet if I were to create between one and five perfect poems – poems as great as Seamus Heaney’s greatest poem or a poem as great as anything from Plath or Hughes,” Murray says. “If I could create a handful of poems that good, that would be fantastic.”
And if there’s one thing that he would like his prospective students to understand, it’s that learning the art and craft of poetry is an ongoing process, and one that doesn’t ever really end. “I’m turning fifty in April, but I still refer to myself as an apprentice poet.”