What follows is pretty much the text of a 12-minute presentation I gave on 19 October 2011 at the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference. I thought I was supposed to talk about poetics, but most of the other presenters gave short readings. As if to compensate, I very presciently included two poems in the talk: “Embouchure” and “The Clash Takes Kerrisdale.” An audio file of the presentation can be heard if you’re so inclined on my website, www.kevinmcneilly.ca. And here is the presentation.
So, there is a lot to be said and very little time to say it. Which seems to me, to start with, to be one of the prime virtues of poetry, or at least of the poetry that I think I want to practice: its intensity.
Vertu (not its near-homonym virtu) once meant, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s urbane Middle English, something like strength or intensity, or maybe life-force. (Machiavelli even takes up a latter-day, more cynically urbane sense of the term in The Prince.) April rainshowers, say the famous opening lines of Chaucer’s big prologue, have “bathed every veine in swich licour / of which vertu engendred is the flour.” Closer to us, Dylan Thomas translates and refigures vertu, almost as famously, as “force”: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower . . . .” When I first heard Thomas reading that exact poem on LP – checked out from the public library in Truro, Nova Scotia, for two weeks when I was fifteen, in the midst of my own green age – I began I am sure now to feel that force, that intensity, not simply as a kind of pubescent, sappy, erotically-charged nature, but as something more essentially verbal, as a particular sort of audible wetness, a mouth music. I liked how he sounded.
I have a story. I was once in a bar with Don McKay. This sounds like a repurposed Al Purdy story, but it isn’t. Don was my teacher, and I was a graduate student at Western; the bar was an ersatz English pub called Chaucer’s, in London, Ontario. This was a while ago, at a point in my life when I know I was consistently trying too hard. I was trying to impress Don by telling him spiffy things about poetry, and he was politely listening to whatever it was I was saying. I somehow got on to Dylan Thomas, about whom I knew Don had written. I thought I might impress him with my newfound graduate student dismissiveness, which I believed he might take for a sign of burgeoning critical acumen. I made some offhand remark about “all that Dylan Thomas shit.” I actually meant it as a kind of complement to Thomas, in a sort of punk-jazz streetwise argot, which for some reason utterly lost on me now I thought seemed appropriate. Now that I reiterate it, though, it’s more or less just plain shameful, but that’s pretty much how I said it. And as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I had miscalculated. So. Don set his beer down, gently, and, still looking at his glass, said calmly, “Well, I wouldn’t say that.” At that moment, I think I learned two important things. First, you shouldn’t pretend to say things you don’t mean. And, second, the poets I admire take poetry, all poetry, seriously. It’s something like an article of faith to them. (I want to say, to us. But I can`t quite.) Those poets tend to mean what they say.
Jayne Cortez says that saying what you mean, that voice, is a matter of putting your mouth on paper, which is an idea I like plenty. But I also think that voice is a matter of lifting your mouth off the paper again, and of maybe having left a bit of yourself – a little slaver, say – behind: phonic fibrils, a dissolute, salivary ink. Voice is a species of contact or exchange, fleshed out liminally and even awkwardly across the page. Swapped spit, an embouchure. This poem, “Embouchure,” opens a collection of the same name, which is a sequence of historically-minded impersonations of jazz trumpeters from the early twentieth century. For me, the poem lays claim to a kind of embodied poetic.
You get as good lip
service as you give.
Chops will ever out the fake:
line never cut grace
notes from a sloppy
wad of clams. Trued up,
a well flubbed phrase ought
to betray nothing
more than lacquered horn,
the schwa blat of hand-
polished, open brass.
Style takes care of its own;
chops make the rep.
An off mouthpiece can cut
you like shrapnel.
Know the hard limits
of your instrument,
and work its righteous edges.
Be the pro.
Then come the call,
let rip a proper lick.
It seems like this poem might just be about the difficulty of playing a trumpet, which is a notoriously hard instrument from which to get a deliberate, workable sound, and on which to find something like a voice. But this poem is actually more or less about how I think I want to write. It feels to me like, whether or not you can finish it out, the poetic gesture begins, as this poem ends, with a specific commitment. As Charles Wright puts it in his elegy to another trumpet player, Miles Davis, we need to confront “those two dark syllables, begin,” as syllables, and commit to the verbal arc of line, of strophe, of page. Mouth to mouth.
Commitment often has its politics, hazy though they may sometimes be. My other main source of poetic drive, and of its cultural politics, when I was adolescent, was Joe Strummer, was The Clash. I like music. When Jacqueline Turner was convening this panel, over e-mail, she suggested we read new work. Here is an unpublished, narrative piece called “The Clash Takes Kerrisdale,” which is – as you might be able to hear – also a response to some other forebears, whom I try to take seriously, and at their word.
The Clash Takes Kerrisdale – 26 June 1982
Du mußt dein Leben ändern. —Rainer Maria Rilke
Will the dead poets notice our lines appearing among them,
Or are their ears filled with their own music?
—George Bowering, Kerrisdale Elegies, 2
With Topper sacked, Paul and Mick wouldn’t stop
bickering backstage like a pair of married wanks.
The whole set pretty much sucked now. When Joe
snarled “Career Opportunities”
into his taped-up mike
nobody in the makeshift mosh pit looked
as if they’d ever get wise to the in-joke: four
self-styled punk rock warlords
who’d eviscerate all comers
from naff dandies to mohawked hypocrites, slagging
the replicant rock stars they couldn’t help
becoming even if they’d wanted to. They talked
the roadies and stagehands into scrawling
the band’s last will and testament in red spray-paint
on a backdrop of quilted flags they had
suspended from the arena rafters (beside
the minor-league pennants and a mock-up
of local hockey jock
Cyclone Taylor’s retired jersey):
a graffiti patchwork of song titles
like “Clash City Rockers,” “Safe European Home,”
“Jail Guitar Doors” and “Police on My Back” —
the greatest hits they never had
and never thought they would.
When Mick asked, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,”
they all knew the answer. A Kerrisdale skating rink,
somewhere in white-bread west coast Canada,
was no substitute for the Hammersmith Palais.
True to form, Joe finished by mouthing off
about the art of politics,
the politics of art.
Each show like this left them less sure
they’d ever changed the world.
The point, for me, isn’t the despair of quietism, but to confront, poetically, the very possibility of commitment, this time as a poetic article of faith, but of a very particular kind. “Art and the planet tell us,” P. K. Page writes in her Simon Fraser convocation address, “change your life.” She’s translating Rilke’s archaic torso, as he attends to his own artistic imperative, but if you look to the original German – Du mußt dein Leben ändern – the poem’s demand is not only that we change, poetically, but also more literally that we live otherwise. You must make yourself other than who you are. And it’s that otherwise, the discomfiting of self and of voice, that haunts me, both as an earful of gentle shame and as a mouthy plenitude. It’s what makes me want to write.