‘You don’t look like a Canadian.’
Saul Bellow to Robert Sward.
Robert Sward and his poetry inhabit what poet and critic Jack Foley calls “an enormous in-between.” He is celebrated as one of the great Canadian poets—a fact substantiated by the recent nomination of his new book The Collected Poems: 1957-2004 for the Governor’s General Award (Canada’s version of the Pulitzer Prize). Yet he was born and raised on the Jewish North Side of Chicago and served in the combat zone in the US Navy during the Korean War.
Regardless, he is technically a citizen of Canada. And yes, one of his five (that’s right, five) wives and two of his five children are Canadian. And yes, the publisher of his Collected Poems (Black Moss Press) is Canadian. But Sward has spent the last 20 years living, writing and working in Santa Cruz. Hmmmm. The man’s personal borders have been blurred beyond recognition. Is he American or Canadian? Does it matter?
“I don’t make a distinction between the two,” he says. “I’m a citizen at heart of both countries and worlds. I went up [to Victoria] to give a 45-minute poetry reading in 1969, it turned into a ten-month visiting faculty position, which turned into a 14-year stay, but my heart is in the States.”
Nonetheless, he acknowledges that Canada is a great deal more generous with her poets.
“The government up there is doing way more for the arts than down here at the moment,” he says. “They certainly seem to value the publishers of poetry and the different venues for poetry and paying poets.”
Yet Sward’s extraordinary body of work, the best of which appears in The Collected Poems, also seems to straddle numerous worlds.
“I don’t identify myself as a New Formalist, a beat, or a post-beat,” he says. “I do write New Formal poetry and I’ve smoked a joint with Ginsberg, but I don’t associate myself with any one school or group or style. I never have. It’s always seemed to me to be somewhat unseemly for poets to gather together in little groups and schools.”
When he was teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop in 1968, he was the only poet writing solely in free verse. When everyone had switched to free verse he was experimenting with forms again. Sward follows his instincts, not trends, and these impulses have served him well. Over the last 50 years, he’s published 20 books, including three different volumes of selected poems.
“This new book is actually a ‘collected selected,’” he says.” “It’s what I regard as my best work.”
He may not be associated with any school or movement, but Sward has his allies. He describes the process of compiling The Collected Poems as a collaborative process with his writing group, a collection of friends and well-known Santa Cruz poets that includes David Swanger, Charles Atkinson, Dion Farquhar and Tilly Shaw.
“We’re very different poets,” Sward says. “For instance, Atkinson writes more about nature while Swanger is more urban, but we’re able to bounce work and ideas off each other. Some of the poems have been revised and reading them aloud or hearing others read them aloud is my chief way of revising. The group is invaluable in that sense.”
The scope of Collected Poems is remarkable, covering as it does 50 years of poetry and life. From early poems written from a child’s point of view, such as “Uncle Dog the Poet at Nine” and “The Kite,” to more mature works like “Hello Poem,” “Turning 60,” “Heavenly Sex,” “Rosicrucian in the Basement” and “Statement of Poetics,” Sward’s work frequently bursts with humor and exuberance and sexuality while somehow always acknowledging the mystic and the divine.
Much of his work is taken from personal experience, yet he is quick to point out that even the most intimate personal memories take on a sovereignty when they hit the page and are no longer just memories, but something new and independent of their creator.
“You have to let it go and let it be what it needs or wants to become,” he says. “I’m currently working on these father poems. He’s beyond—he died in the early eighties, but I can still hear his voice; he’s something of a muse. Yet I’ve found that he’s like and not like the sequence of poems that have evolved.”
As Jack Foley points out in the introduction to The Collected Poems, Sward “is a well-known poet, but he is not nearly as well-known as he should be.” Reading his work, there is no doubt that Sward’s work is world class, yet his fierce independence and refusal to be classified have probably made him a harder sell.
Which is all fine and good with Robert Sward. At the ripe age of 70 and on the verge of an unprecedented amount of recognition in both Canada and America, he continues to happily float in the “enormous in-between” like a happy bodhisattva.
Poet, teacher and editor Robert Sward will give a poetry reading and talk on Saturday, Feb. 12, at 2pm at the Pine Inn in Carmel. Sward will talk on the subject of literary friendships and he will read from his recently published The Collected Poems, 1957-2004 as well as new work. Admission is free.