Category Archives: Poetry

Seamus Heaney: a sunlit absence

Seamus Heaney, 2008. Photo courtesy of Tom Szustek.

Close your eyes and imagine living in a culture where the death of a respected poet commands a standing ovation from a stadium full of sports fans.

Do this even if you haven’t read a poem in years.

Ireland, North and South, is in deep mourning for the loss of Nobel Prize winning poet, playwright, translator and teacher, Seamus Heaney, who died in Dublin on Friday, at age 74. But they are not alone, as admirers from around the world continue to express their sympathies and sense of loss. The number of obituaries is staggering.

Poetry itself isn’t about numbers; but listen to these. On Sunday, two days after Heaney’s death, 80,000 football fans stood and cheered in his honour for three minutes at the All Ireland Gaelic football final. At his funeral in Dublin yesterday, 1,000 people attended. Amongst family and friends were actors, rockers, politicians of various stripes, presidents and prime ministers.

Heaney in a 2012 interview. I chose this photo because of how very Irish he looks here! Photo courtesy of The Royal Irish Academy.

In a tweet for Descant on Friday, longtime co-editor Paul Fowler reminded us of Heaney’s revered translation of Beowulf. Here’s Heaney reading from this translation. Put your feet up and close your eyes:

Heaney wrote about universal themes of family and faith and obligation and death. But he also wrote about what is still euphemistically referred to as “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, where he was born. Even in his books that do not directly address this uncivil war, readers can often feel him grappling with the political, religious, social and cultural divisions that are still working themselves out today.

Tragedy, of course, breeds comedy, especially in the Irish. After his stroke in 2006, Heaney was fitted with a pacemaker. His friend and fellow poet Paul Muldoon tells the story that Heaney loved to quip, “Blessed be the pacemakers.”

Heaney, with family members, at a party in his home in Dublin, 1979. Photo courtesy of Burns Library.

According to his son, Michael, just minutes before he died, Heaney sent his wife, Marie Heaney, a text, in Latin: “noli timere.” Do not be afraid. A moving and reassuring message for his wife, indeed. But the second Irish poet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1995) since W.B. Yeats (1923) may have also meant to leave a statement of courage for other poets and thinkers. Speak up; be not afraid.

In June 2012, Seamus Heaney was awarded the Griffin prize for Lifetime Achievement at Koerner Hall in Toronto. It was possibly one of the best-kept literary secrets because as far as I could tell, everyone in the room was surprised when it was announced and Heaney walked onto the stage.

I was there, and I can tell you that we got to our feet almost as fast as those football fans, and we clapped and cheered and stood like that for almost 3 minutes. Later, when I lined up to get his autograph, I saw that he looked tired  so I didn’t try to chat him up. I thanked him for all his years of work and he nodded quietly and signed my poster.


Seamus Heaney was buried yesterday, in Bellaghy, County (London)Derry, Northern Ireland, beneath the kind of turf that his father and grandfather worked, but Heaney never did. Instead, as he explains in this 1994 interview for the Paris Review, “The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself—as a vocation and an elevation almost.”

For Mary Heaney


There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

(Seamus Heaney, from North, 1975, Faber and Faber, p. ix)

Announcing the Finalists for the Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem

On Wednesday, February 20th we will celebrate the memory of Winston Collins by announcing the winner of the 2012/2013 Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem. In anticipation of this occasion we’d like to share with you the finalists for the prize, chosen out of the many who have been reviewed.

Here are the finalists (not listed in a particular order):

Richard Scarsbrook: “Fortune”
Laura Lamont: “Night Vision”
Elizabeth Greene: ”Summer’s Children and Their Mother”
Terry Ann Carter: “Letters of War”
Hector Williamson: “Aesthetics Come Slowly”
John Lee: “Bringing the Farmhouse Down”
Margot Maddison-MacFadyen: “The Emergent Seed”
Joan Crate: “Leda”

For more information about the prize please visit our website:

End-of-Summer Thoughts on Dennis Lee’s ’400: Coming Home’

… You are on the highway, there is a kind of
laughter, the cars pound
south. Over your shoulder the scrub-grass, the fences,
the fields wait patiently as though someone
believed in them …

Descant #39: Dennis Lee Special IssueIt’s been almost 40 years since Dennis Lee’s ‘400: Coming Home‘ was published as the opening piece in Civil Elegies and Other Poems. But Lee’s meditation on the freeway between Toronto and Barrie, the route so many summer vacationers take north from the city, has lost none of its resonance.

Reading the poem this time of year in Toronto, where much of Civil Elegies is set, its element of tragicomedy is more palpable than ever. In this climate, where our compulsion to take advantage of summer light and heat can reach a frantic pitch, ‘there is a kind of laughter’ amid the ‘swish and thud’ of traffic heading south back to the city. The poem doesn’t offer any particular cause or source for this laughter, but perhaps we can begin to understand the muted joke when we observe our own customs from a distance. On the highway with Lee, what had seemed real and solid suddenly seems arbitrary:

Back in the city many things you lived for
are coming apart.
Transistor rock still fills
backyards, in the parks young men do things to
hondas; there will be
heat lightning, beer on the porches, goings on.
That is not it.

The poem begins and ends with, ‘you are still on the highway.’ We are still on the highway moving toward the idea or ideal of a life and the void on the other side of it. Across the median, the escarpment rises above us and ‘the edges / take care of themselves.’ In this in-between space, an undefined freedom could be another cause for laughter: ‘there is / no strain, you can almost hear it, you / inhabit it.’

Many of the themes that Lee will take up in the nine elegies that form the second part of the book appear subtly here. Among them are materialism, the inertia of routine, our exploitation of the land, and ‘void.’ In ’400: Coming Home,’ his political concerns are not yet explicit, but the intense spirituality of the poetry is immediate. And as we discover when reading Lee, the political is not divisible from the spiritual.

This poem does much more than appeal to one’s bittersweet experience of the end of summer, one’s nostalgia for the country, or the thrill of the highway—its impact is complex, its voice both serene and troubled. At the time of its writing, Lee was trying to find a new language and a new way of being in colonized space, but the cadence that began to guide his line was more elemental than a nation or way of life (see his essay, ‘Cadence, Country, Silence‘). Four decades on, this cadence still feels new. Though the setting and events in ’400: Coming Home’ remain very familiar, in the act of reading this poem we also still find ourselves at an uncanny remove from what is habitual and known in our lives.

[Pictured above: Descant #39, the Dennis Lee Special Issue, Winter 1982]

DESCANT Congratulates 23 Poets

Further to our blog entry of February 16th, we would like to confirm the names of each poet short listed for this year’s Winston Collins Prize for Best Canadian Poem.*

For 2011, our ‘short list’ includes the names of 23 individuals. Their names and poems are as follows:

Wendy Brandts                         Ardent Awakenings

Roger Bell                                Oh Wendy

Barry Butson                            Things I Touch

Terry Ann Carter                       The Call

Joan Crate                                Cherry Jam

Barry Dempster                        A Circle Of White Deck Chairs

Kildare Dobbs                          September 1939

Kate Marshall-Flaherty             Apocalypse of Bees

Susan Glickman                      Things From Which One Never Recovers

Elizabeth Greene                     Planet of the Lost Things

Gillian Harding-Russell             Gerontian Thoughts

Margaret Hollingsworth            Some Sage Said

Sheldon Inkol                          She Does Not Want

Ellen S. Jaffe                           Remembering September Tenth

Ellen S. Jaffe                           Continental Drift

Donna Langevin                      In Lieu of an Obit

Kathy Mac                              Lachesis Descends from the Mountain Alone

Anna Mamcini                        The Treeplanters

Talya Rubin                            Leaving the Island

Renee Sarojini-Saklikar           June 1981

Karen Schnidler                      Brief History

Susan Stenson                       Romantic Poetry

Josh Stewart                          Skeleton Beach

Myna Wallin                          The Self As Both Object And Subject

Descant congratulates each of these poets for their fine contributions to Canadian culture and contemporary literature.

We would also like to thank everyone who participated this year. We invite you all to consider entering our 2012 competition this fall. More details about next year’s event can be found at:

* We wish to confirm that all short listed entries will be clearly cited on our blog and website in the future. This information was not included in our previous blog entry, for which we apologize. Staffing changes this January led, regretfully, to a few items ‘slipping through the cracks.’ Again, we apologize for this temporary oversight.

Winston Collins Winner and Honourable Mentions of 2011


On February 8, 2011 Descant announced the winner and two honourable mentions for this year’s 2011 Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem at Supermarket, Toronto. The night went off wonderfully with a speech from Descant’s editor-in-chief, Karen Mulhallen. We were lucky enough to have readings from Linda Woolven, Elisabeth de Mariaffi, Giovanna Riccio and R. Brian Rigg, as well as our three finalists who also read their winning poems (Pamela Porter read via a uTube video).

The winner of the Winston Collins Prize and $1,000 in prize money was Barbara Schott, with her poem Thin Ice. The judges described this winning poem: “This poet has turned a winter drowning into a rumination on our own personal descent into a cold wet world…’Thin Ice’ works on the surface as an accounting of failure, of childhood promise that is doused and expectations disappointed. Yet the beauty of the world surrounds us, our final breath is full of the sight of it…It is a humble poem about the ego and about ego’s loss, and while we submerge into the icy depths we read the poem – it is about us! – scrawled on the bridge above.”

Honourable mention, winning $250 in prize money, was Carla Hartenberger, with Naked in the Sun. The judges spoke highly of this poem, “By the last words of this poem the reader may be filled with such a sense of loss and heartbreak that they may not be sure whether it was the poem that effected them so… That is because the summer that the poet recalls having spent in her youth with a sweetheart resonates so strongly that it will undoubtedly remind the reader of a summer they too had at some time. The poet uses a breathless, frolicking stream of consciousness to achieve this.”

Honourable mention, also winning $250 prize money, Pamela Porter with The Place of Feathers. The judges said this about her poem: “The author sees a landscape covered in feathers and allows herself to come to the conclusion that it was a multitude of angels that passed this way. This short poem describes the way that the natural world can transport us into the realm of myth and narrative. ‘The Place of Feathers’ takes an arresting moment and essentially arrests it, holding us there to feel that moment over and over again.”

The competition was fierce in its fifth anniversary, approximately 100 submissions came in from across Canada—from Victoria, British Columbia to Chateau Guay, Quebec; from Whitehorse, Yukon to Goulds, Newfoundland; from Canadians living as far away as Australia. Two rounds of judging narrowed the list down to 27 contenders, then to the final three.

The event was also for the launch of D151: Winter Reader, which is available in stores now. Descant would like to congratulate Kathleen Painter on organizing a wonderful evening and producing an enchanting issue. If you would like to have one delivered to your home, then please subscribe today by clicking here

Descant would also like to congratulate the three winners, as well as all those who made it onto the short list. We would also like to thank those came to the event on Tuesday 8th, we hope you had an enjoyable evening.

The Scream Literary Festival 2010: July 6 — 12


Get ready for this year’s The Scream Literary Festival — six exciting days of literary events across Toronto!

Now in its 18th year, The Scream is a tribute to all that is radical, provocative, and new in literature. Events of all kinds will be happening throughout next week, all leading up to the massive main attraction: The Scream in High Park, a super-sized poetry reading in the beautiful outdoors.

Find a list of this year’s happenings (with links to their respective Facebook event pages) below! And you can visit The Scream’s website for even more details.

Welcome to the Carnival: An Evening with Steve McCaffery and David Antin (Tuesday, July 6 @ 7 pm) The first event of the festival features readings by “two of literature’s greatest provocateurs” (in fact, one of them, Steve McCaffery, is a past DESCANT contributor!).

Choose Your Own Poetic Adventure: A Scream Pub Crawl (Wednesday, July 7 @ 7 pm) A huge, sprawling poetry-reading event — featuring past DESCANT contributors Gary Barwin, Michael Knox, Nathaniel G. Moore, Emily Schultz, Daniel Scott Tysdal — former Now Hear This! S.W.A.T writer and DESCANT blogger Zoe Whittall — and many, many more writers!

The Centre for Sleep & Dream Studies (Wednesday, July 7 @ 11 pm) Poetry, sound and dream diagnosis are combined in the work of Canadian poet and artist a.rawlings!

The Hand That Feeds (Thursday, July 8 @ 7 pm) A celebration of Canadian arts policy that features past DESCANT contributor RM Vaughan, as well as NOW HEAR THIS! S.W.A.T. writers Angela Szczepaniak and Natalie Walschots!

My Voice Says So: The 25th Anniversary of bpNichol’s Zygal (Thursday, July 8 @ 11 pm) A gathering to celebrate the work of bpNichol – the well-known Canadian poet who was featured in DESCANT’s second-ever issue in 1971 (and again in 1988)!

A Prairie of the Appetite: Margaret Christakos’ Excessive Love Prostheses (Friday, July 9 @ 7 pm) A book-length dinner reading inspired by the work of past DESCANT contributor Margaret Christakos.

Wax & Comb: The Scream’s Moustache Gala (Saturday, July 10 @ 7 pm) Featuring live music and contests for the most innovative and impressive facial hair — start growing ASAP!

YouthTube: User (Re)Generated Content (Sunday, July 11 @ 4 pm) A digital presentation of poetry that encourages participation and contribution from the audience.

Old School vs. New School (Sunday, July 11 @ 5:30 pm) A panel of experts on the written word debate the meaning — and the future — of “radical” literature.

The Scream in High Park (Monday, July 12 @ 7 pm) The main event — featuring past DESCANT contributor Michael Lista along with many other talented writers reading at the Dream Stage in High Park!

HEAR/HEAR Reading Series – Wed Apr 21!

HEAR/HEAR Reading Series

Wednesday, April 21 (doors at 6:30pm, readings at 7pm)

@ The Free Times Cafe (320 College St.)

Descant excitedly invites you to HEAR/HEAR Reading Series! For its first installment of the year, NOW HEAR THIS! Toronto’s arts-based literacy organization is bringing the community together for an ALL AGES Reading Series to celebrate writers getting involved with youth and encourage the support of local authors right here in Toronto.

On Wednesday, April 21st at 7pm NOW HEAR THIS! will be showcasing their extremely talented Writers-in-Residence. Featured writers include: Andrew Daley, Adrienne Gruber, Rebecca Rosenblum and Julia Tausch who will be sharing their evening with the community reading exciting new works. This event will be held at The Free Times Cafe located at 320 College St. A comfortable new dig for the HEAR/HEAR readings; the cafe promotes music and art in a cozy atmosphere for friends and artists to share their passions.

Help us celebrate with NHT! and start the new season in support of their upcoming projects and literacy program. Feel free to come a little early for dinner and drinks! Also featuring a special door prize give-away sponsored by This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, you won’t want to miss out – we know Descant won’t!
Please visit:

Save the Date: DESCANT 148 Launch!


Descant 148: The Search for Happiness / Descant Spring Issue Launch

Monday, April 19, 2010 / 7:30pm
The Victory Cafe (581 Markham Street, 2nd Floor)

It’s that time again, literary ladies and gents! Descant is launching its 2010 spring reader at The Victory Cafe, featuring readings by contributors Emi Benn, Roo Borson, David Day, Larry Frolick and Alex Pugsley.

Entitled The Search for Happiness, this issue tackles one of life’s greatest struggles for the unobtainable through poetry, fiction, memoirs and travel essays. Can a person ever obtain genuine satisfaction? Contributing editors Mark Kingwell and Rosemary Sullivan delve thoughtfully into the topic, while long-time Descant writer Larry Frolick offers up his memoir-in-progress, “Dark Side of the Moon.” Descant 148 also features portfolio and cover art from acclaimed artist Anitra Hamilton, and portfolios from American sculptor Jim Hake and Canadian media-artist John Massey.

Expect another bang-on event of delectable ideas and riveting readings! Don’t forget to RSVP to the Facebook event.

You can catch a sneak peek of our beautiful new issue on our website HERE.

National Poetry Month features DESCANT Editor-in-Chief

karens image1.jpg

Thursday, April 8, 2010 / 6-8pm
Lillian H Smith Library (239 College Street, at Spadina Avenue)

National Poetry Month
Readings by Dennis Lee, John Robert Columbo, Robert Priest, Karen Mulhallen and David Day

Descant reminds you that April is National Poetry Month. For more than a decade, under the direction of the League of Canadian Poets, this country has dedicated early spring to the celebration of poetry and its place in our national culture. The festivities begin on April 1 with the 2010 National Poetry Month’s Official Launch at Ben McNally Bookstores (366 Bay Street, Toronto), from 9-10:30am. Events will continue throughout the month, at various venues across the country.

In particular, Descant recommends an evening of readings by poets Dennis Lee, John Robert Colombo, Robert Priest, David Day and Descant Editor-in-Chief, Karen Mulhallen. Join Toronto’s literati in the lower level of the Lillian H Smith branch of the TPL on Wednesday, April 8 as these local talents share their words.

Announcing the 2010 Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem Winner!

Descant is pleased to announce the Winner and Honourary Mentions for the 2010 Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem!


Descant Editor-in-Chief, Karen Mulhallen, presented the $1,000 prize in honour of Newfoundland poet, Leslie Vryenhoek, during a celebratory reception at Toronto’s PageWave Graphics last night.

The Collins Prize commemorates Winston Collins, a writer and enthusiastic teacher of literature at the universities of Cincinnati, Princeton and Toronto. The annual prize perpetuates his remarkable talent for encouraging self-expression through writing. The response to the fourth year of this competition exceeded expectations. Submissions came in from across the country by first time and seasoned poets alike, attesting to the quality and diversity of poetry in Canada.

The judges for this year’s award — Nora Kelly and Eric Wright — were struck by Vryenhoek’s winning poem, “Letitia’s Cold Footsteps,” and praised it for its nuanced exploration of alienation. “‘Letitia’s Cold Footsteps’ takes us into the strangeness of arrival in a new country and makes us shiver. The chill of forty below and the chill of alienation are inextricable: we can see little clouds of frozen breath with each compressed utterance. The linking of the speaker with her nineteenth-century predecessor and spiritual twin is a wonderful device, beautifully imagined and creating a distinctly Canadian poem.”

Also recognized during Friday’s announcement were Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst, currently a resident of Australia, and Toronto’s Myna Wallin. Both received Collins Prize Honourable Mentions and $250 awards.

In “Eating Quince with Musicians,” Hiemstra-van der Horst offers readers an “elegant meditation on metamorphosis, both mental and material”. The judges celebrated her work for its sensual sophistication and suggested that “The poet listens, tastes, and remembers, senses afloat, dipping into the past and then surfacing again, drawn by a perfect but fleeting moment.” Hiemstra-van der Horst is a visual artist and writer. She has recently been anthologized in Approaches to Poetry: the pre-poem moment, edited by Shane Neilson (Frog Hollow Press).

The judges called Wallin’s work “A poignant incantatory poem that draws together the speaker’s worries, weaving a spell around her fears.” In “Death, Wildlife and Taxes,” Wallin allows poverty and illness to “hover like evil spirits who must be placated by spiritual offerings.” Her poetry and prose has appeared in numerous literary journals. Her first book of fiction, Confessions of a Reluctant Cougar, is set for publication in Spring 2010 with Tightrope Books.

ABOUT THE WINNERLeslie Vryenhoek is a poet, writer and communications professional based in St. John’s. Her work has appeared in journals and magazines across the country and internationally. In the fall of 2009, Oolichan published her first book, Scrabble Lessons, a short story collection. Leslie has just completed a manuscript of poetry exploring notions of home and belonging, with support from the Canada Council and the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council; “Letitia’s Cold Footsteps” is part of this manuscript.