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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.
The cheap contrarian tactics that permeate Michael Lista’s recent National Post blog entry, “The good in bad reviews,” do more to provoke acrimony than to invite the kind of genuine disagreement he appears, in the piece, to crave. To his credit, he has succeeded in provoking me, as a committed reader of poetry (and as someone who worked for a number of years as an associate editor, responsible for book reviews, at a scholarly journal, Canadian Literature), to reconsider what I think a well-crafted review needs to do. “The purpose of a review, good or bad, is to begin a conversation, not to end it,” he writes, an assertion that sounds as inherently laudable and reasonable as it is slippery. (I’ll come to what I think are some of the buried complexities in such claims in a moment.) He certainly has, well, not so much initiated a conversation as needled me – and, I’m assuming, many other readers – into reactive self-critique: no one, after all, likes to be called out as uninformed or misguided, which is what his short editorial frequently does. (I’m pussyfooting: what I mean is, when Lista declares “Enough of this bulls–t,” I can’t imagine anybody wanting to admit to themselves that they might be knee-deep in complicity. —Or would they? The rhetorical feint in such “straight-talking” faux-bluntness presumes, after all, that a reader won’t be inclined to push back, but prefers to be led, and to be told directly: that he or she likely won’t have the temerity to call bulls–t on Lista’s bulls–t.) Straight up, his review of reviewing made me mad, which is why I have taken a few days to reconsider what I actually do think, so I won’t feel like I’m being pulled, in my own small way, into a non-starter of a debate I’m somehow predestined to lose, and that, really, I don’t want or need to have. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to think about, to re-consider and to re-view, here. But I won’t have Lista’s article setting the terms or trajectories of that discussion: he’s wrong, and wrong-headed, and his text should serve as no more than a point of departure, and as an entry into a wider cultural conversation from which, on the evidence of invectives such as this, he has effectively excluded himself.
Lista’s piece is occasioned by the re-posting on the CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) website of an essay by Jan Zwicky on “The Ethics of the Negative Review,” which originally appeared in the fall 2003 issue (no. 144) of The Malahat Review. (Both Zach Wells and Carmine Starnino offered rather mean-spirited rebuttals to this essay some years ago, doing what Starnino calls “speaking truth to stupidity” but which, from my vantage point, only comes off as misconceived and unconvincing harangue. Lista has now joined their sidelined and fading fray, as its new epigone.) It’s Zwicky’s thinking I really want to engage now, because her essay deserves the sort of careful and considered attention that she invites from herself, poetically, as a reviewer and as a reader of the work of others. But first, I feel like I have to get this Lista business out of the way. The key failing of his meta-review, and what I believe in the end got my dander up, is a lack of strength in the writing. Lista’s approach and prose style are consistent throughout; for instance, he gets up a head of steam when he takes on Zwicky’s opening mention of Byron’s lament that “the critics killed Keats”:
Cue the violins, folks. The essay, woozy with Romantic anemia, begins by paraphrasing Byron’s idiotic diagnosis that “the critics killed Keats” (Keats died of an infection of the tubercle bacillus, TB), and along its way manages to summon every black-beret cliché about the poetic temperament, so that by its conclusion we can all but smell Chatterton’s extinguished candle. And beneath those black berets are the empty heads of red herrings and straw men.
The flippant evocation of “folks” and the pointless correction of Byronic hyperbole with smug fact-mongering point up his attempt to produce a kind of audience solidarity in elitism, the sort of bluster I mentioned above that appears designed to silence rebuttal. More significantly, Lista seems to mistake his own meanness and invective for candour and critical acuity. “Call me old-fashioned,” he opines, “but I think the truth sounds beautiful, and there’s an intrinsic value in discovering what writers think of each other’s work.” I don’t think this is discovery, nor that the writing evinces even the sort of Leavisite clarity it purports to desire. His version of the Keatsian collision of beauty and truth – a collision that, with considerable philosophical heft, informs much of Zwicky’s poetry, it turns out – doesn’t convince me; Lista’s “truth” needs to be put in scare-quotes, because it presents a narrowness of vision – the hypostasis of a very particular Anglo-American positivism, I’d say – as truth itself, and elides the varieties of aesthetic experience, experiences, in a misdirected yen for what reductively offers itself up as fact, but turns out to be deeply and thoroughly socially and culturally coded: masculinist, old-fashioned and contrived. Zwicky, in the essay confronted in Lista’s piece, laments that “we are a culture, perhaps a species, drunk on a narrow notion of assertiveness and virility.” It’s hard not to see this brief National Post rant as a case in point. (Zwicky has since published a response to Lista, well worth reading.)
So, as I said, I’m using that text as a point of departure rather than as a substantive interlocutor, and I’m happy to leave it behind now. I can’t hope to be critically thorough enough in a blog entry such as this one, but I want to take up three issues arising out of Jan Zwicky’s take (pace her title) on the ethics of positive engagement, of poetic listening. They’re biggish abstractions – truth, gender and community – but they connect in specific and situated ways in what I understand as her poetics. That conceptual ecology also partakes in some of the work being done in and around the CWILA site, as members of and adherents to this loose, emergent collective start to reconsider and reframe – to review – what constitutes a listening community.
Okay: truth. And, notably, truth with a down-case t. It might appear on first pass as if I might be trying to ally Zwicky – and that’s my Zwicky, the Zwicky I read, not the real Jan; the poems not the person – with a more relative conception of truth, of truths plural: that cultural and social and biological differences produce a multiplicity, and that it is dangerous and ethically fraught to lay claim to any sort of unified or holistic truth. But, postmodern relativisms are very un-Zwicky; she has, from the outset of her writing career, consistently sought out, not merely alterity, but “Absence,/ Clear, still space where truth might echo” (Wittgenstein Elegies23). Writing wants honesty, clarity, truth. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t a call for a mere rhetoric of candour, for sounding like you’re being direct. Zwicky might not agree, and my reading of her is certainly coloured by her reading of Robert Bringhurst, but I hear Parmenides in these early lines as much as a mystical version of Wittgenstein: that truth has no negative. This Parmenidean ontology isn’t anodyne, but instrumental: ex-istence as outward making, as productive, or – in a refabricated and ancient Greek-ish sense – as poetic, poieitic. Absence (and I’m starting to sound like E. M. Forster now) is not non-existence, but opening, an acoustic space (note the “echo”) into which attention – particularly poetic attention – can enter. Representation and semiosis – and this is Zwicky’s understanding of metaphor, I think – become compiled soundings, resonances. This all might seem a bit murky the way I’m articulating it, but it’s important to acknowledge Zwicky’s insistence on the laser-like precision of metaphor, its absolutely non-Romantic quality. There is nothing woozy or anemic about her work, ever. At least, there is a precision to which she aspires.
That exactitude, moreover, is not dialectical – not an excrescence of negation – but responsible. That is, it tends to engage its objects, whether textual or material, with both responsiveness and respect. Such responsibility is what I take to be the ethical dimension of reviewing, of the art of reviewing. The conversation, the call-and-response into which the poem or the review enters, is not characterized for her by antithesis – not by “answering” in the Old English sense of and-swerian or rebuttal – so much as by a flexible and porous mode of address, not merely talking to but talking with. This coexistence, which is not passive but interested, seems to me to open up a means to talk about gender that doesn’t immediately lapse into antithetical binaries (and so to offer me some sense of why I want to participate in work such as that being done by CWILA, which seeks practically to redress gender inequity in literary reviewing). Gender tends by us all to be understood antithetically, femininity as the negation or contrary of the masculine. But the sort of strength, the virility, that Zwicky wants to offer poetically against narrow negations – to offer as truth – refuses that binary in favour of outward gesture, of the act of opening as constitutive of another, better sense of what gender might be, might become. Like many readers, one of my favourite and much-revisited Zwicky poems is “Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115” from Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, a meditation on musical meaning, on rural Saskatchewan farmland, and on Johannes Brahms’s passion for Clara Schumann. It confronts the erotics of absence, and frames the vital inclinations of one human being for another as the stuff of gender. What I mean is, with its inherently relational declaratives – “That we shall not forget to honour brown / its reedy clarities” – the poem constitutes a mutuality of difference (reductively put, woman to writing man writing to woman) both as honorific and as corresponsive. The promissory syntax – this poem is highly illocutionary, a largely self-constituting speech act – opens into a layered verbal ecology, which I have noted thematically but which can also be seen here acoustically, in the network of phonemic echoes (listen to the rs in the lines I’ve just cited) and structurally, as a form of hailing or prayer. Tellingly, the poem provisionally ends with a beginning, with a gesture outward from the verbal to the intentional: “That a letter might honestly / begin, Dear beloved.” If the poem itself can be understood as a (Brahms-like?) love-letter, still held in abeyance, still virtual and absent, it also prays for, and effectively derives, strength – honesty, clarity, truth – from the relational work of saying itself into existence. Gender, constituted in the beloved, is an opening to mutuality, a beginning.
That’s all a bit abstract, I suppose, but it does suggest something about why Zwicky, in her discussion of reviewing, tends to separate the aesthetic and the political: hers is an aesthetics of engendering rather than a gender-politics. But I also think that a case can be made for a politicizing of that aesthetic, insofar as the thoroughly lyric language pushes, I’d say, toward a form of community: not an anodyne, flattened out gathering of allegiances, but community in difference, community as difference, as a sharing of what we don’t exactly hold in common, a set of convergences and of divergences. I seem to be tarrying with negatives here, a hazard no doubt of trying to write about alterities. It might be best to understand this promise of community, this community-to-come, as shared listening: listening not as deference or as passive reception but as co-participation in the human. Which, it turns out, is how Zwicky seems to understand the art of the review:
The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture. I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity. But listening — real listening — requires that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go.
I don’t agree completely; I don’t accept that the ego disappears in listening, so much as that it collaborates with its others, that it remakes itself amid their echoes. But Zwicky’s gesture, at responsive and responsible sharing, sets that conversation in motion.