Robin Blaser, CM, poet, academic, activist (born 18 May 1925 in Denver, Colorado; died 7 May 2009 in Vancouver, BC).
Robin Blaser, CM, poet, academic, activist (born 18 May 1925 in Denver, Colorado; died 7 May 2009 in Vancouver, BC). Robin Blaser was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s and 1960s. His poetry explores the power of language and its role in defining and creating human experience. In his work, Blaser played with form and line, often blending layered verse with narrative prose. He was a recipient of the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize and is a Member of the Order of Canada.
Early Life and Education
Raised in Idaho, Robin Blaser moved west in 1944 and became involved in the poetry scene in Berkeley, California, with poets Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. In 1955, Blaser began his academic career as a librarian at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He read at a poetry festival in Vancouver in 1966 and immigrated to Canada later that year after accepting an invitation to teach at Simon Fraser University (SFU). He became a Canadian citizen in 1972 and worked at SFU until his retirement in 1986
Blaser was a prolific writer, completing 14 collections of poetry, 11 books of essays, an opera libretto, The Last Supper (2000), and several works of translation. Two of the major influences on Blaser’s work were the natural world, which reflected his love of gardening and trees, and characters from classical literature, which he studied in the original Greek and Latin. Blaser was also fluent in German, French, Italian and Portuguese. Sly, dry and witty humour is one of the characteristics of his work, sometimes cynical, sometimes sarcastic, and always intelligent. His personal appearances at readings and festivals drew large crowds because of his humour and because he talked about poetry with authenticity and a relentless belief in its value.
Blaser’s first series, The Moth Poem, was inspired when he discovered a moth trapped in his piano, then in a brimming ashtray. Blaser uses the moth as a metaphor to suggest the ephemeral nature of language, the struggle of the poet, and the very nature of the world the poet tries to express:
the moth in the piano
will play on
frightened wings brush
the wired interior
of that machine
The moth is a figure for the poet, who will “play on” in face of the “machine” of a society that has marginalized poetry. Blaser begins with his individual experience with a small creature and expands it to the epic or universal experience revealing how every life is part of a larger universe.
The Cosmos of Language
Blaser believed that language is the cosmos of poetry and poetry’s job is to create a cosmos that is ever expanding and reflects all the worlds that make up the human experience — “Worlds folding into worlds.” For Blaser, every language learned gives the speaker another world in which to move, new ground upon which to connect with others and thereby expanding all worlds — both inner and outer, the poetic and the real. In his poem “The Medium,” for instance, he describes the character of language in this way:
it is essentially reluctance the language
a darkness, a friendship, tying to the real
but it is unreal
the clarity desired, a wish for true sight,
For Blaser, language never frustrated him; it fascinated him with the possibilities its complex “tangle” could mean.
Blaser’s most famous poem, “Even on Sunday,” written for the 1990 Gay Games in Vancouver, raises our awareness of the danger of society’s drift to homogeneity. Beginning with the darkest of humanity’s failings, he spirals down to individual responsibility. In the course of the poem he cites the suffering of the Holocaust, racism in the United States, and the exclusion of women and gays from the full range of human rights around the world. He combats “all forms of outsiderdom” and demands that the humanity of full inclusion not “be merely law, like free speech, but a mental practice.” His enduring belief was that the constraints a homogenous society and culture places on individuals deny “our very existence as different.”
Over the course of three decades, Robin Blaser wrote a series of poems he called Image-Nations. Many explore icons and rituals in our society: mythic figures, religious sacraments and sacred language. In Image-Nation 9 (half and half, for example, Blaser demystifies the mythic gods, reducing them to forms that help us to better understand their role in our lives:
there are shining masters
when I tell you what they
look like some of it is
their blue hair
but they are not ourselves
In Image-Nation 21 (territory), he refers to the ritual of death and remembrance, suggesting the poet’s role of expanding the cosmos: “... he did not search / out death or courage, did not / found something, a country, / or end it, but made it endless...” The ideas of expansion and inclusion were key themes for Blaser, who believed each of our individual worlds was worthy of being part of the greater cosmos.
Robin Blaser’s acclaimed book of essays, The Fire, is a collection of his thoughts on poetry, poets and the community poets need in order to “hold and record the passionate relation with the outside world...” Blaser’s essays include the voices of many fellow poets, writers and thinkers, letting the reader feel privy to an expansive dialogue about poetry, and its role in our lives, expressing Blaser’s belief that poetry provides us with a view of the whole world.
In 2005, Robin Blaser was appointed a Member of the Order Of Canada for his contribution to Canadian culture and the arts. The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry’s first Lifetime Recognition Award was given to Blaser in 2006 and he won the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize for his collection The Holy Forest. He was Professor Emeritus of Simon Fraser University, where he began teaching in 1966. Granted Canadian citizenship in 1972, Blaser received the Order of Canada in 2005, Canada's “highest civilian honour,” awarded for a “lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.” He was Professor Emeritus of Simon Fraser University, where he began teaching in 1966. Granted Canadian citizenship in 1972, Blaser received the Order of Canada in 2005, Canada's “highest civilian honour,” awarded for a “lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.” He was Professor Emeritus of Simon Fraser University, where he began teaching in 1966. Granted Canadian citizenship in 1972, Blaser received the Order of Canada in 2005, Canada's “highest civilian honour,” awarded for a “lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation The Capilano Review, a leading literary journal from North Vancouver, BC, remembers Blaser annually with the Robin Blaser Poetry Award.
Stan Persky and Brian Fawcett, Robin Blaser (2010); Miriam Nichols, ed., The Holy Forest, Collected Poems of Robin Blaser, Revised and Expanded Edition (1993, rev 2006).