And Still We Sing – A New Year’s Eve Celebration of the Life and Poems of Patrick Lane

It is late October, 2012, last evening of the Vancouver Writers’ Festival. There is music in the big room already. Music made by voices. The event starts in thirty minutes but many of the four hundred-or-so chairs are already filled. The music is sweet and unique. Those particular voices. Those places in the room where people greet each other – men and women brought here by another music – the songs, the poems of one of Canada’s most accomplished poets, Patrick Lane age 73, published in their entirety in his Collected Poems from 2011.

Today, it’s the last day of 2012 and I greet this last day in words motivated by a promise to myself that I would capture something of that special celebration of the life and poems of Patrick Lane held on an autumn night in Vancouver more than two months ago.

As I have read Patrick Lane’s poems over and over I have been struck by the many references to singing, to music, inside his poems. This was brought further home to me during Patrick’s celebration when in the eight or so poems he chose to read there it was a few times but especially in his poem The Beauty: And still we sing./ That is beauty. This is a poem he often recites at a reading by memory. It is that important to him. (This, and all other Patrick Lane poems and excerpts are included here with the kind permission of the author.)

The Beauty

This too, the beauty
of the antelope in snow.
Is it enough to say we will
imagine this and nothing more?

Who understands that, failing
falters at the song.
But still we sing.
That is beauty.

But it is not an answer
any more than the antelope
most slender of beasts
most beautiful

will tell us why they go
going nowhere
and going there
perfectly in the snow.

from The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane, Harbour Publishing 2011

Today, as I talked to Patrick about last minute details of the retreat he is leading for nineteen of us starting this Thursday, I asked him about all the singing references in his poems and he said in so many words that, of course, poetry is music. Then specifically he added: poetry is a voice raised to deliberate song.

And such songs Lane sings! That night in October he sang us poems including The Bird, Stigmata, Witnesses, Fathers and Sons, Moths, The Beauty and Red Bird Bearing on His Back an Empty Cup.

From Fathers and Sons this:

Wait for me. I am coming across the grass
and through the stones. The eyes
of the animals and the birds are upon me.
I am walking with my strength.
See. I am almost there.
If you listen you can hear me. My mouth is open and I am singing.

My mouth is open and I am sing. Yes! And from Moths:

Who I am falls behind and all I can see
are the dead who have gathered here to free
this hour from the many hours.

Pale moths, soft birds of the night.,

move among their grey faces, touch
their small shy feet, cleanse what must be
cleansed in this dark where the dead have come
for blessing. Touch their lips
with your wings so they may sing.
Be to them what the heart is when it sleeps.

Touch their lips/ with your wings so they may sing. Again, yes. And in the way of the alchemy of words Lane, in the four day retreats he leads on Vancouver Island each year, surely touches the lips of the poets there and they sing! In a meditation Lane sent out for the January 2013 retreat there it is again: the singing:

I stood once inside such a bell in a Buddhist monastery in nether China thirty-five years ago and the force field within that huge bronze chamber was of the void that could only be given utterance by striking it. What violence it takes to create a song. What a life we must lead so we may sing.

What a life Lane has lead, great joys and unspeakable sufferings, so that he could sing so exquisitely. And in his retreat meditation Lane quotes a small poem from another master, the Japanese poet, Basho. What a life Basho led. What songs he sung, especially this one from 1689:

The beginning of all art:
  a song when planting a rice field
   in the country’s inmost part.

Ah, the subtle metaphor Basho excelled at. Perhaps there is a rice planting song but there is also another song: the song we sing when we plant what we can inside the deepest parts of ourselves. What a song that is. What poetry grows there with careful tending. The tending Lane has practiced as both master gardener and master poet all these years.

For those of you who know the poems of Patrick Lane I encourage you to go back through his Collected Poems and be surprised by the poems you don’t remember or never read. And for those of you who have never read Lane I invite you to find his poems and read the music that comes from this man’s heart. And for extra light and shadow to enrich the reading of his poems find a copy of his astonishing 2004 memoir – There Is A Season (published in the U.S. as What the Stones Remember). Written during his first year of sobriety in more than forty years, this book will horrify you, harrow you and ultimately amaze you with its inspired singing. And what a triumph. Lane has been sober now for more than twelve years.

Many poets and writers came to honour Patrick Lane on that autumn night a few months ago. They included Patrick’s wife Lorna Crozier, another one of Canada’s finest poets, Jane Urquart, Margaret Atwood, Brian Brett, Gillian Jerome, Stephen Price, Sean Virgo and Susan Musgrave. Peers, friends and former students. All there to pay tribute to one of Canada’s truly important literary voices.

And how appropriate that Peggy (Margaret) Atwood was there. A novelist and poet recognized around the world, she and Patrick both came of age together as Canadian writers in the 1960’s. And she was the editor of Lane’s 1974 volume, Beware the Months of Fire. It was there a variant of the poem she read at the celebration, As It Is with Birds and Bulls, was first published.

Having left their women in the dust
outside the sanctuary of the pit
the men, gambling on the bloodline
of birds, hunch with their cocks.
Legs plucked carefully and spiked with spurs
the roosters, born to killing,
beat the still air with wings
and tear at the gloves that bind them.

The sand is cleaned of blood.
Pit masters run pepper
under the arched green of tails.
The birds are thrown.

I gamble on the smaller bird
because it is afraid.
Survival lies in the death you make
believe. As it is with birds and bulls
so with men. They do not hate what they are
they hate what they cannot be.

The survivor crows and falls
blood splurting from its bill.
I collect my money
as the sun stumbles over the line of adobe.
The men sit inside and talk of birds.
The women sit outside and talk of men:
mouths full of coca leaf, they squat
beside gaping bags that receive the dead,
quick fingers tearing
the last feathers from the birds.

Harsh but perfect music in this poem. The song of death’s horror, its beauty. The rooster, crowing, still singing, in victory as it dies. And years later singing it differently through a wild antelope Lane says: And still we sing. /This is beauty. And still Lane sings in spite of loss, in spite of addiction and because of beauty.


  1. Liz
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Bravo Richard,
    There is no finer way to end this year and begin another than with our great mentor and friend Patrick. Certainly because of the poet he is, but also because of the person he is; he invites us all to find our own music.

  2. Richard
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks Liz. See the Rumi below. Patrick does that for me. As does Gilbert. The great poets let us catch something from them! Lane as much as any because he gives us his heart.
    Here’s Rumi in Landinsky’s new translation:
    The Provinces You Effect

    Open up a rare shop. Give competition to the finest brothels.
    Let people catch something from your heart that will cause
    no discomfort, but help them to sing.

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