Looking for Owls: the Quest Motif in Tom Wayman's Poetry

by Wendy Keitner

Ten years have elapsed since the publication of Waiting for Wayman, and a volume of Tom Wayman's selected poems has been issued abroad. The time seems ripe for a retrospective look at the writing of this disarmingly direct, accessible, political writer, a self-confessed "reality junkie," and the heir apparent to Al Purdy and Milton Acorn. His goal is clearly stated. Commenting on the style and direction he has chosen for his art, Wayman has pointed out on several occasions that his aim is "to write what it is like for me to be alive in these years in the twentieth century in North America" and "to present as accurately as possible the conditions and quality of our contemporary life."1   His approach is basically documentary; he searches for truth rather than beauty, explicitly denying that portion of the Romantic aesthetic which claims that beauty is truth, as well as truth beauty. Wayman argues, more passionately than logically, that "the truth is always beautiful, because I believe having an accurate knowledge of what this world is like is the first step in the many necessary to improve .2

     Setting himself up as a contemporary Everyman whose mission it is to report "the truth" about modern capitalist North American society, Wayman focusses his observations through the filter of his own experience or that of a small band of friends and co-workers, often utilizing a persona named "Wayman." The intimate connection between self and society is underscored by Wayman's response to an interviewer's question about whether or not his poems are primarily social and political vehicles. Wayman replies, "There's nothing that happens to me or my friends or my family or the people that I meet that isn't a part of my life, so a lot of social information and events end up in my poems."3  Despite the current consciousness that the personal is also political, it is possible, for purposes of discussion, to separate Wayman's early poetry — the most striking and characteristic feature of which is its social and political commitment —  from his more recent work, which places an increasing emphasis on the solitary self. A survey of Wayman's writing over the decade that it spans suggests that there are three discreet if interrelated paths explored in his central quest for truth: (1) the development of a new orientation for poetry; (2) the critical investigation of the existing socio-political order; and, primarily in the recent work, (3) the search for himself and for an understanding of his place in the universe.

     Although no claim can be advanced for Tom Wayman as a highly articulate or profound aesthetician, one substantial thematic concern of his poetry is art itself. Some of his writing on the subject is light-weight and even self-mocking (the early "Waiting for Wayman" or "Dead End," for instance). But his more serious poems and statements about the function of literature underscore his position as Marxist, pragmatist, and moralist. In the interview with Jon Pearce cited above, Wayman builds his case as follows:

What controls all of us is the necessity of having those things that we need to live — from a place to sleep at night and food to eat and clothes, on up to ways to amuse ourselves. All of that is controlled more or less by money, so economics has go to be in the poems. But economics is not separate, as we all know, from politics. (p. 198)

     The primacy of work, which must be done in order to supply the necessities of life, is underscored by the themes and the images of a large number of the poems in Wayman's six poetry collections (brought together in Introducing Tom Wayman: Selected Poems, 1973-1980). It is highlighted, too, in introductions to his own poems and to collections he has edited of poems by others. The clearest statement of his conviction about the centrality of work in life, and, therefore, ideally, in literature, is made in the Introduction to the 1976 anthology, A Government Job At Last. Here Wayman writes:

So much English poetry has dealt with the themes of love and death, and so little before now has dealt with the subject that preoccupies most of the human race for most of our time alive on the earth: work, the work we must do to stay alive, the work that affects every aspect of our existence (including our loves and deaths).4

Wayman's work poems, set almost exclusively in an industrial rather than an agricultural or domestic context, represent his attempt to correct this perceived, historical imbalance. And his art poems argue that the poet's work is to create an artifact which ought to be socially useful and nourishing.

     "I want words that are food / that fill people up / that make them good to each other," he writes in "What I Want," a poem which welds poetic practice to aesthetic principle by means of imagery supplied by the workplace as well as by nature. Wayman argues that the poet ought to be the producer of something not just beautiful and fresh ("Words out of the soil like new blades of grass"), but also effective ("Words with the power of huge industries / a thousand men a shift").5   A companion poem, "The Country of Everyday: Literary Criticism," indicates what Wayman is against: works of art which are overly introverted and intellectualized, formally polished but contextually irrelevant. It contrasts "every dazzling image" produced by the self-reflective, art-for-its-own sake poet with the "thousand hours someone is spending / watching ordinary television," and the vicarious martyrdom of those poets who merely "claim to know what it's like / to have a crucifix wedged in the throat" with the self-annihilating, daily drudgery of "the housewife endlessly washing / linoleum, sheets, fruit dishes, her hands / and the face of a child" or "the girl who stands / in the cannery line twelve hours in season / to cut out the tips of the fish."6   The poem thus exposes the steep cleavage between the rarefied, effete realm of the bourgeois artist to whom Wayman is strongly antipathetic and the challenging, tragic world of the workers whom he celebrates. The poem ends grimly subdued:

When the poet goes out for a walk in the dusk
listening to his feet on the concrete, pondering
all of the adjectives for rain, he is walking on work
of another kind, and on lives that wear down like cement.
Somewhere a man is saying, "Worked twenty years for the
City but I'm retired now."
Sitting alone in a room, in the poorhouse of a pension
he has never read a modern poem. (p. 124)

The condensation of expression and the highly effective figures of speech contained in these lines — "lives that wear down like cement" or "the poorhouse of a pension" — combine to make this one of Wayman's most successful art poems.

     What Wayman wants is poetry which can both offer "a brief moment of enjoyment" and also go beyond this to "put down roots in someone's mind."7 Yet in his eagerness for documentation, for establishing the record "I was here in the day / which was like this, to me,"8 all too often he produces a truncated brand of journalism, colloquial and having popular appeal, but not crafted into a form either sufficiently urgent or original to endure. A loose grasp on style, coupled with a narcissistic bent — emphasized by flamboyant pronouncements such as "the news is what happens to me"9 —  perhaps are the root causes of what makes Wayman so far a one-good-read-only poet. In some of his funniest and most original work, we not only watch Wayman making love or a poem, we watch Wayman watching Wayman making love or a poem. It is marvellous entertainment, but the potentially creative acts only rarely lead to any notable genesis or self-transformation.

     In trying to write honestly about what it is like for him to be living in twentieth-century North American society, of course, Wayman is describing from a particular point of view "the conditions and quality of our contemporary life." Setting his work apart from that of innumerable other Canadian, American, and British poets of this century who record the fragmentation, alienation, and divorce that seem to be the predominant features of modern Western societies, Wayman has succeeded in carving out a niche for himself as an overtly political writer by utilizing a Marxian perspective. His critical investigation of the existing socio-political order is based on his personal experience in the labor force as a worker on construction sites and in truck and car factories, and, in these industrial poems, the ranks of the villains and heroes are sharply divided. The enemies are the captains of industry  —  factory bosses, supervisors, managers, owners, well-heeled executives of big corporations — as well as self-serving governments and the engulfing, octopus-like arms of their agencies, commissions, and armies. Wayman's heroes are the unprotected victims of this acquisitive, industrialized, capitalist society — ordinary, powerless, plodding laborers and citizens, the "little guy" and also, in his newer work, the exploited and harassed "little woman" who toils either at home or in the marketplace.

     Claiming to document nothing more or less grand that "the country of everyday,"10 Wayman's poems are based on the premise that the life-blood of the body politic is supplied by the daily labor of the proletariat. This Marxian orientation, which gives direction to his critical notions about the function and value of literature, also provides subject matter for his poetry. Poems on logging, automobile manufacturing, and large-scale construction (given special emphasis when grouped together in sequences of work-centered poems such as the "Industrial Music" suites in Free Time and Introducing Tom Wayman) focus sympathetic attention on the bone-wearying, mind-numbing realities of the daily routines of a dehumanized, mechanized workplace and are marked, initially, by moral outrage and revolutionary zeal.

     "The Old Power," "Picketing Supermarkets," "Welfare," and the ominous "Dream of the Guerillas" are some of Wayman's best sociopolitical poems. "The Old Power," for example, celebrates the validity of the union ideal and its proven power as a workers' strike takes effect: "Like an old myth that works / the truck factory is shut down.11" "Dream of the Guerillas" issues a frightening, subterranean, seemingly irresistible call to action: "The slogans are calm on dim walls. The clock, / the clock says: now / the guerillas are coming and you must go with them."12   Nevertheless, the attempt to place Wayman in the larger context of current left-wing ideologies, modern labor, and workplace concerns does not yield a sharp, sustained, and deeply compelling picture. Wayman has not articulated his Marxism in precise detail, and certain key aspects of his politics cannot be brought into hard-edged focus. Moreover the assured optimism and moral certainty characteristic of the early poems exposing the flaws in the existing order are connected to Wayman's youth and the strong solidarity of the student movements of the sixties; over time they weaken and then disappear altogether from his work.

     With the Vietnam War raging and excessively profitable oil companies flexing their muscles, the main objectives of student and worker activists for a while seemed relatively clear. "To see the truth of what is," Wayman wrote, "is to want to change it."13  Though not providing a blueprint for action, Wayman's poems affirm his belief that social progress was guaranteed: "All anyone had to do was read, to agree / and to agree, to join. Nothing else was possible / and it was already happening."14  In the heady days of the S.D.S., student radicalism, antiwar protest, and social ferment, it seemed to Wayman and his young leftist associates in Fort Collins, Colorado, that they were at "the centre of the human universe."15   They sensed that "there was an understanding that we were the leadership: / that the only way forward was our way, that what we wanted / was what everyone wanted, if they only understood themselves."16

     The brutal, military overthrow of Salvador Allende's democratically elected socialist government in Chile in 1973 caused a stunning change. The ensuing death of Pablo Neruda, whom Wayman admires supremely (praising him as "one of the greatest poets of our century and I think of all world literature"17), occasions "The Death of Pablo Neruda" and the related, reflective sequence, "The Chilean Elegies." Overwhelming loss and an existential discontent are new themes echoing through Wayman's poems after this period. The moody, meditative, and at times bitter "Rainshadow" charts the shift: "I began with uneasiness: something that went wrong with a life / and the lives around me."18 By the mid-seventies, disillusion replaces the earlier, euphoric intuition of immiment, positive, social change. The ending of U.S. military invovement in Vietnam, instead of leading to a consolidation in the ranks of the Left, seemed to rob it of a unifying political goal, so that the quest for a just, socialist state seemed actually further away than before.

     The splintering of the Canadian Left and Wayman's consequent sense of isolation are the subjects of the despondent and ironically titled poem, "The Indochina Victory Celebration, April 26, 1975." The autobiographical persona has a sense not merely of standing still, but rather of losing ground, of "flying backwards / down a long tunnel or road, into the darkness"19 — the very opposite of a movement which might issue in rebirth and illumination. In sadness and retrospection he comments in "Rainshadow": "We accepted the old lie that the truth would make people free. So we sold them the truth, or gave it away / and waited for their indifference to turn into a regiment" (p. 8). "The Indochina Victory Celebration" concludes, "If we believe we are moving from victory to victory, we are wrong" (p. 36).

     To the initial quest for a political solution (albeit defined only in generalities) to the problems of the proletariat in North America, and the concomittant quest for a new poetics to highlight the value and the daily realities of the contribution of the working class, is added, then, in Wayman's mature poems, the subtle and elusive search for lost harmony, wholeness, direction, and hope. The change, discernible in A Planet Mostly Sea (1979) and Living on the Ground: Tom Wayman Country (1980), is primarily an existential one, not an artistic departure consciously chosen in an effort to make the poems function to a different end. His models for poetry remain the Beats, Robert Bly, and, in Canada, Birney, Purdy, and Acorn. Yet adding together the self-assured, early, revolutionary poems with the doubt-clouded, subdued, introspective ones of recent years, the sum of Wayman's work to date suggests the rebel without an active cause, the poet with only marginal faith in the regenerative powers of the imagination, and the moralist lacking a full-fledged moral vision.

     Although the precise dimensions of the dilemma are often obscured by the attractive camouflage of gentle, self-directed mockery, poems such as "Someone Else" or "Interview 2: Ambiguity" point to a major weakness at the heart of his work, namely, the haziness of his vision of a better life. This lack of clarity, in fact, is the subject of a few poems, including the title poem of his very first book. "Waiting for Wayman" concludes:

"I think about it," Wayman says,
"women or drinking or
messing around.
I don't see what it leads to.
I mean, of course I know, but I don't feel
What they're supposed to do when you get them.
What do you have? I mean
you feel good but then what?
Where does it go, and
what's it to do with me?"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"I think," he says
"I should write a poem about this." (p 16)

"Waiting for Wayman" offers a comic, colloquial, and contemporary restatement of the ageless theme of the apparent meaninglessness of life; it manifests a philosophical fuzziness which is not clarified over time; and, significantly, it presages the central quest motif — the search for himself and for an understanding of his place in the universe — which lies at the heart of the more sombre, speculative poems written as he approaches middle age.

     The lack of any all-embracing political, philosophical, or religious system which could begin to make sense of the chaos of contemporary history is the theme of the interconnected poems of "Long Beach Suite" from A Planet Mostly Sea. These poems do not represent Wayman's best or most typical work, most of them being still-life canvasses of landscapes which are devoid of people, work, love, and humor. The "Night Sky" section, however, offers a haunting evocation of eery, stark emptiness, of the vastness and silence of space, which Wayman now confronts:

I stare at the night sky
in a universe nearly empty,
on a planet mostly sea,
where we live on a shore or margin
that whatever men say
is all we have of the Earth. (p 55)

Emptiness — not just physical, but emotional — becomes an even more substantial motif in Living on the Ground, a collection of poems which provide variations on the central theme of disappointed expectations. "What sort of people had we become at this distance from the '60s?" Wayman ponders as he reunites with his friends from graduate school days. The poems piece together the fragments of his friends' lives after the interval of a decade; the stories tell of war atrocities witnessed in Vietnam, elections lost, divorce, and unemployment. The young men of his generation, from whom he had expected greatness, have managed to survive, but their values have not prevailed, and they all seem to share a general sense of purposelessness. Far from transforming North American society, Wayman judges, their achievement is merely "to be living their lives just like anybody," still searching with no end in sight for "something better / that has nothing to do with money" (p. 22).

     The title, Living on the Ground, comes from a line in one of its best poems, "Listening to Country Music in the Cabin of a CPAir 747 Jumbo en route Toronto to Vancouver." Country music, with its woeful themes, is the ostensible subject. The music, "despite the banality of the words / and predictable tune" catches the "harshness / in ordinary things" and resonates with Wayman's own unhappy mood, his

disappointment in all
that was promised, that even some of the songs
promise: how it was to have been
to have finished school, to marry,
to have steady work, own a house,
to have children . . . .

The music, "ephemeral but enduring," sums up for him "what it so often is like / living on the ground" (p. 86).

     In the brief, prose introduction to another fine poem, this one on the subject of questing itself, entitled "Looking for Owls," Wayman makes a comment which can be applied to the surprising change of course that his recent work suggests. He observes that "Once in a while in the country I've set out to look for one thing and discovered something quite different" (p. 51). The poem begins with the literal quest of the speaker and his friend, Michael, for snowy owls in the barn of a deserted, Saskatchewan farm in the windswept chill of November. What they find instead of the owls, which have departed, is the grotesque, charred carcass of a large animal inexplicably mutilated and incompletely burned. Instead of something small, beautiful, and pleasing to their senses, the men have run up against something massive, repulsive, and without reason. The final stanza of the poem, in simple but compelling terms, symbolizes the tragic, incomprehensible nothingness that engulfs Wayman's later poems.

There were no footprints or tire tracks. Only the earth running to a far line of trees on the horizon and the wind along the furrows with nothing to say about the scorched pile that had been an animal beheaded and left in the November field
where the cold sky
stared down like the eye of an owl
that also wasn't there. (p. 52)

     No longer operating within an explicit, political framework, with male friendships numerous but not, finally, sufficient, with everyday life not much more than a random mix of violence, ignorance, intolerance, and hard work for inadequate return, Wayman's newer work would be unrelievedly bleak were it not for the few redeeming touches his universe affords — rare glimpses of compassion and still uncompromised hope. The award-winning poem, "Garrison," for example, celebrates the unique individual who manages not to conform and buckle under, but who, defying all odds, keeps "running towards Jerusalem" with the hope for social amelioration still burning inside. Other poems on the subject of love for women and for children, though few in number, range widely from the humorous, early "Wayman in Love," through the boisterous, Rabelaisian "Bidding Farewell Before Setting Out," the raunchy "Poets Fucking by Moonlight," and the slender but polished "The Season of Eden," to culminate in three deeply moving, longer poems — "Childermas Hymn," "The Kiss and the Cry," and "Teething."

     The qualities of tenderness and compassionate understanding which are highlighted by most of these love / sex poems offer a startling contrast to stories of building, boozing, and fighting, the macho subjects which, yoked incongrously to his sensitive, hippie-type, worker-poet persona, have established Wayman's popular reputation. Interestingly, these gentler subjects seem at last to provide inspiration for poems which may be destined to endure rather than simply to edify or entertain. They give voice to some of the frustrations and difficulties of contemporary living, although they still do not, at this stage, suggest any resolution to the multiple and complex problems of human relationship in our turbulent, moral and social order.

     In this thematic area, a positive development is discernibie. "The Season of Eden" and "Bidding Farewell Before Setting Out," both from Waiting for Wayman, are minor, early treatments of the subjects of love and sexual desire. The first is interesting primarily in that its mellifluousness reveals a capacity for structuring sound which is often noticeably missing from Wayman's work. The second highlights his anti-intellectual bias in its sweat-in-the-armpits realism. "Untangling" and "The Kiss and the Cry," both from Money and Rain, are more complex poems which concern isolation and relationship. "Untangling" is about the psychological state of a man whose long-term relationship has come to an end. Characteristic of Wayman's most original writing, the imagery is chosen from the workplace. The initial coming together of the two lovers under one roof is likened to the formation of a company. In time, the daily reality of company life devolves into marking time and longing for freedom; but, off work, the man confesses that he feels curiously depleted. Finally, the termination of the relationship is compared to being axed from the workforce. Recognizing the emotional necessity of reconnecting, the persona looks back to the separation with regret, and he reflects:

a part of your life
marked off and left back there like yesterday's timecard,
like talking about the details of your last job,
like starting again to look for
another necessary tangle. (p. 143)

     "The Kiss and the Cry" is a subtler, more sustained, and more moving treatment of the theme of starting over, raw and exposed. It concerns a man and a woman, both nearing thirty. The season is late fall; the time, night; the air, chill. As the two lovers embrace, it seems as if the sound of sobbing encircles them and soon threatens to swamp them. The sobbing initially seems to be coming from the two partners they have rejected — the woman's husband from whom she has recently separated and the man's previous lover. But the noise continues to increase into "an avalanche of crying" — which, in their imaginations, seems to originate with their parents, their friends who are lonely or embittered that night, and unknown numbers of others who are trapped in unhappy marriages. Misery shrouds them, making the man think of "those worn out today at their work / tears of the crippled, retarded, tears of the mad / the strange, broken tears of the hungry, the sick, / and the effortless, hopeless, continual tears of the poor." And he, too, succumbs to the flooding waves of "painful, uncontrollable" sobbing, "driven by some horrible loss / I had not yet discovered" (p. 148).

     The persona reborn from the crucible of this pain seems to be given another incarnation, not as lover, but as father this time, in "Teething." This poem, from Living on the Ground, is one of those rare poems written on the subject of fatherhood, of nurturing manhood, and it is one of the , most satisfying of Wayman's career. Ultimately he finds a haunting voice I for his tragic vision of lost youth, lost idealism, the hopefulness of the sixties, all temps perdu. As the father rocks his fretful baby,

           the chair
rocks out a decade of meetings, organizations, sit-ins.
It rocks out Chicago, and Cook County Jail.
It rocks out any means necessary
to end the War, fight racism, abolish the draft.
It rocks out grad school and marriage.
It rocks out Cambodia, and at  last
jobs, a new country, and a child.
           But the chair
falls back each time
to the centre of things . . . . (p. 80)

In the dark winter night, the cry of the child in pain comes to symbolize the "Cry of the world."

     No domestic island in the wilderness of misery, deprivation, and dehumanizing work is created by Wayman either here or elsewhere, although "Childermas Hymn," which celebrates the birth of a child, comes closest. One can fairly conclude that the poet who, back in 1973, wrote, "You want to go somewhere and call it home and lie down," so far has not got there. Neither work-centered poetics, leftist politics, nor a philosophy of narcissism has yet brought Wayman squarely face-to-face with the beast at the heart of the labyrinth. The quest for a renewed political and social order, reinforced by an exploration of new directions in poetry, has led to further and more complex journeys of the soul; but, at this stage, it is the quester himself and not his quarry that seems snared. 


  1. "The Lives Behind Things: Tom Wayman," in Jon Pearce, ed., Twelve Voices: Interviews with Canadian Poets (Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1980), p. 198; and Afterward, A Planet Mostly Sea: Two Poems (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1979), p. [64].[back]

  2. Afterword, A Planet Mostly Sea, p. [64].[back]

  3. "The Lives Behind Things: Tom Wayman," Twelve Voices, p. 198.[back]

  4. (Vancouver: MacLeod Books, 1976), p. ix.[back]

  5. For and Against the Moon: Blues, Yells, and Chuckles (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974), p. 37.[back]

  6. For and Against the Moon, pp. 122-23.[back]

  7. "What Good Poems Are For," Living on the Ground: Tom Wayman Country (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980), pp. 9-10.[back]

  8. "The Country of Everyday: How to Sing About It," For and Against the Moon, p. 144.[back]

  9. "The Chilean Elegies: 1. Salvador Allende," Money and Rain: Tom Wayman Live! (Toronto: Macmillan, 1975), p. 120.[back]

  10. Title of poem series, For and Against the Moon, pp. 107-55.[back]

  11. Money and Rain, p. 88.[back]

  12. Waiting for Wayman (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973), p. 25.[back]

  13. "The Country of Everyday: The Reality Junkie," For and Against the Moon, p. 139.[back]

  14. "Rainshadow," Money and Rain, p. 9.[back]

  15. "Gossip," Money and Rain, p. 48.[back]

  16. "Rainshadow," Money and Rain, p. 9.[back]

  17. Prose commentary introducing "The Chilean Elegies: Neftali Reyes," Money and Rain, p. 121.[back]

  18. Money and Rain, p. 8.[back]

  19. Free Time: Industrial Poems (Toronto: Macmillan, 1977), p. 35.[back]