Poetry is the apotheosis of the arts because it includes the others. Music and painting can speak to us without words, but poetry without music and images is dead. A poem lives by its rhythms and melodies, its assonances and dissonances –the sound patterns it creates–as well as by the imagery that colors and animates its world.
My father was a pianist; he told me that as an infant I lay under the piano in a cradle which he rocked with one foot while he applied the other to the pedals as he practiced for his concerts. No one could have asked for a more solid foundation for writing poetry. When I received the Norma Epstein Award for Creative Writing as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto with a sonnet cycle, Northrop Frye, who was on the jury, took me aside and said: “Henry, you have an unfailing ear.” Little did he know it was trained in the cradle.
Music has remained central in my poems, and I try my best to make it audible when I recite them. If a text reads like prose, it is prose – however it’s laid out on the page. The language of poetry is metaphor. Metaphor lifts a text beyond itself because it embodies the connectedness of all things and points beyond language to the mystery at the heart of the world. A poem opens its heart only in a private dialogue with a reader. It has its meaning in simply being there – like a tree: you can pass by without taking note, or you can stop and admire, enjoy, recline in its shade, relax and reflect, climb it for a larger vista, but you cannot argue with it. In an age in which everyone is ceaselessly driven by ulterior motives, poetry provides a harbor of disinterested tranquility.
However, at a time when our very survival is at stake, poetry must also confront political realities – not in the service of some political party or ideology, but to challenge human beings to assume responsibility for our world. It involves, as Hamlet would have it, holding as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
A combination of experience and disposition has led me to combine the lyrical and the epic in my poems. I have published 20 collections of poetry, many of them cycles of poems such as Cantos North, which has been described as a Canadian epic; Coming to Terms with a Child, a commemorative poem about my childhood in Nazi Germany; and, most recently, Seasons of Blood, a meditation on nature, science and history, which I regard as my magnum opus, though it may be unfinished.
There is an interesting analysis of Cantos North by Prof. H.Markus at the University of Goettingen: