My Life in Books

7 books and poems that inspire Governor General's Literary Award-winning poet Richard Harrison

The author of On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood shares the books he loved reading.
Richard Harrison's poetry collection On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. (Keeghan Rouleau)

Richard Harrison is a poet and essayist. Harrison won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry for On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood, a personal, moving elegy on his relationship to his father and a love letter to poetry.

Below, Harrison outlines the books and poems he's loved reading over the years. 

McElligot's Pool by Dr. Seuss 

Theodor Seuss Geisel was an American author, poet, animator, book publisher and artist. (Gene Lester/Getty Images/Random House Children's Books)

"This was among the many children's books that my mother read to my brother and me when we were very young. McElligot's Pool was one of the first that I learned to read myself, partly because I liked the art — Seuss was working in paint then — and partly because it's a story about a list of things, and I always liked those. Later, I saw that this list in particular, answering adult 'realism' with a boy's fantasy of a fishing line that travels to the ends of the ocean, catching creatures more bizarre and wonderful with the turn of every page, is the anthem of the artist, of creativity and — to quote a psychotherapist friend of mine — a map of the unconscious. It's also a great book to read to prepare yourself for the heroic couplet and masters of the form like Alexander Pope and from there the sonneteers."

The Iliad by Homer

Homer is the name ascribed by the ancient Greeks to the author of the Iliad. (Wikimedia Commons/Oxford University Press)

"I love the epic because I love this epic. It prepared me for history and the novel at the same time. I devoured Greek and Roman history as a result (and studied Latin — a wonderful thing to have if you want to either teach English or contribute to its literature, or both). And when it came time to read Moby Dick and War and Peace, I knew I could do it — I'd been through the Trojan War. But it isn't just an epic about war, it's about politics and emotion, and leadership under confined conditions and great pressure, so it also taught me how to love hockey."

Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas

Fern Hill is a poem by late Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. (Getty Images/New Directions)

"This was my father's favourite poem of all the poems he knew by heart. I talk a lot about how his recitations of his favourite poems and his readings, including the ones I imagine him making of my own poems, are the readings I hear in the poems I love most and want to hear echoed in my work. In that sense, my father reading Fern Hill is a kind of worship for both of us. And it's an odd one; it's really a poem about failure, about how death and time take us and all we can do is sing in our chains (maybe that's all art is). I have a recording of my father reading this poem as an old man but a while before he went into the Lodge because of his oncoming dementia. At the end of the poem, he bursts into tears."

Avengers Annual (1967) #2 by Roy Thomas, illustrated by Don Heck & Werner Roth

Roy Thomas is an American comic book writer and editor (Marvel/Wikimedia Commons)

"I've loved comics all my life. I teach courses in them now. And I see now the superhero drawing together my father, and the cast of the Iliad, and hockey players into one figure. This particular comic pioneered in the late 1960s the idea of the superhero as danger to the world they protect. Even in the first Superman comics, the authorities are worried about the potential threat posed by the Man of Steel, but Superman stays on the side of good, so everything's cool. In this Avengers Annual, Roy Thomas turns the Old Avengers into tryants. Their motive? To solve the world's problems that superpowers can't solve. But the New Avengers — Captain America, Black Panther, Hawkeye, Goliath and Wasp — have to stop them to preserve the world's freedom. What the book shows, too, is how Thomas's sense of the novel (the New Marvel) has taken over from Kirby and Lee's Old Marvel sense of the comic story as fable, myth or epic."

Poems: New and Selected by Patrick Lane

Patrick Lane won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry in 1978. (Chris Hancock Donaldson/Harbour Publishing)

"This is the book Patrick won the Governor General's Literary Award for. As a result, he toured Canada, and he came to Trent University while I was an undergrad there. The poems are astounding. Lane is a giant. I saw him hold the whole room he read to in his hand, and I was in that hand while he read. What was so pivotal to me was not the 'I've just had my life changed' moment. Great art does that, but the way it was changed was unique. For the first time, since Lane wrote of the rough work in the interior of B.C., and hard necessities of his life, and, well, Canada, I felt the door open that said my connection to poetry wasn't restricted to reciting the work of others, but that its substance was within my reach. Poetry was something I might write. So of course, I imitated him. And then spent years imitating many others others until I arrived at something that was mine."

Against Method by Paul Feyerabend

Paul Feyerabend was an Austrian-born professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. (Verso Books/Wikimedia Commons)

"Some books don't necessarily change your mind, but they change your thinking — make it bigger, teach it to make leaps and pay attention in ways you never did before. This is one of those for me. Essentially, Feyerabend argued against the objectivist worship of scientific method, one that removed all that was human in it, and offered me instead a wittily argued view of science as human creativity. Instead of the quest for an impossible certainty, he let me see scientific progress as muddy and confused and inspired and only occasionally as clear as anything else we do for love."

The Father by Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds is an American poet. (Alfred A. Knopf)

"Every writer will tell you there are books they have a relationship with in which each side — writer and book — age together and grow. At first, The Father taught me to see my father (and from there all things) in a way that acknowledged, understood, even loved everything that lived in him, from his most godly side to his most monstrous. Once that spiritual work was done, Olds' work began teaching me metaphor, the language most important for a poet's work. Every poet needs to understand how the world is both is what it is and something else at the same time: it's that understanding that reflects and fuels their creative relationship with it. Olds made her father into the planet itself. That's how she forgave him and made him art."

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