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These Poems, She Said: Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst

Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst read together at Green College, at the University of British Columbia, on Wednesday, March 20, in the late afternoon: the last event in this year’s Play Chthonics series. I was set to introduce them to the 40-odd people who had come to hear them in the Graham House fireside lounge – a capacity crowd for a poetry reading, for that intimate space – and Jan reminded me about one of the first times we had met, which was in a two-term graduate seminar led by Don McKay at Western in the fall-winter of 1986-87. She was teaching philosophy at Waterloo, I think, but would come weekly down to London to audit the Monday evening class; her Wittgenstein Elegies had been published by Brick Books earlier that year. I was a master’s student, and was just getting underway writing what would turn out to be a thesis on the poetry and poetics of Robert Bringhurst, which McKay was supervising. The seminar was called “Poetry After 1945,” if I am remembering right, and each week was focused on a different book, a different poet – chosen, I’m pretty sure, not for any particular thematic or ideological reason, but because Don was interested in them, and he thought that theirs were poems that we ought at the very least to know about, to know: Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead, Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, John Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ted Hughes’s Crow, Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies, and selected poems from Denise Levertov, Daphne Marlatt, Seamus Heaney, Charles Olson, others. One guy in the seminar was keen to do something with Sylvia Plath. (I remember also discovering, through Don, Charles Wright’s The Other Side of the River that year.)  And, near the end of term, Don had put on Robert Bringhurst’s The Beauty of the Weapons.
I don’t know what had drawn or what was drawing me into Bringhurst’s work at the time, whether I had picked it out from McKay’s syllabus, or found it on my own and then taken the seminar to hear more about it and to encounter those poems more fully. There was something that spoke to me quite forcefully and seriously in those days, from Bringhurst’s writing, something important. And he was also one of the few poets I had discovered who had a rigorous interest in philosophy, in thinking. What caught my ear was that Bringhurst didn’t ever merely namecheck Heidegger or Levinasor the Pre-Socratics, never merely rehearsed  Zen traditions (via Gary Snyder) or First Nations mythtelling; he took these inheritances up with a keenness, a self-awareness and a deliberateness that I had never met before, and he did it not simply in but through poems, as poetry. Bringhurst aimed to have his work converse, materially and essentially, with what Kinnell called(in his brief “Prayer”) “whatever what is is.” Later poems would make this conversation more formally explicit – his “Blue Roofs of Japan” had just appeared in Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, Bringhurst’s just-issued collection from McClelland and Stewart. The way I remember, it was this kind of poetically-informed conversation to which I hoped that seminar aspired.
By the start of second term, after I had been working at Bringhurst’s books for some time and with the in-class discussion of his poetry fast approaching, I was certainly aware that both McKay and Zwicky had been somehow more directly and closely implicated in his writing than I might have realized at first (although I knew McKay knew Bringhurst personally, and had sent him a few questions on my behalf about sources for poems). “Sunday Morning,” from Pieces of Map, is dedicated to them both, and suggests a kinship of thought and approach – around listening, around wilderness, around alterity and ontology – that Bringhurst characterizes as an interest, an inter-esse, in “the musical density of being.” Their poetry, in many and various registers, aspires to sing, to attain the condition of song. They were concerned, in the late 1980s, to reactivate a particular trajectory of the lyric, its noetic intensities.
So, what happened in the seminar was: one of the assignments involved presenting a close reading of a poem. I had chosen to examine Bringhurst’s “These Poems, She Said,” partly in response to an emergent line of questioning in the class around gender politics. Bringhurst placed the poem first in his selected, to enact a distancing irony, and to suggest a self-awareness about the contingency of the seemingly sculptural monumentality, the mythic reach, of the texts that followed:
         These poems, these poems,
         these poems, she said, are poems
                  with no love in them. These are the poems of a man
                  who would leave his wife and child because
                  they made noise in his study.
                  [. . .] These are the poems of a man
                  like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not
                  comprehend but which nevertheless
                  offended me. (Selected Poems 75)            
The gesture at Plato isn’t just a philosophy joke about an authoritarian metaphysian’s aversion to the erotic. (It’s worth comparing Zwicky’s recent Plato as Artist, which recuperates an alternative Plato.) Bringhurst creates a miniature Socratic elenchus, replete with self-deprecating irony. Uncharacteristically for Plato, however, the interlocutor in this poem is female; the text’s antithetical manoeuvres, shifting from iterated critique to discomfited reaction, both sustains the authority of the male poet’s voice – everything remains filtered through him, and he is the one who affirms, at the poem’s close, that the woman’s voice has spoken “rightly” – and also dismantles any grounds he might have, other than a kind of empty verbal aestheticism (“You are, he said,/ beautiful”), to claim argumentative high ground. He sounds like he wins, but he can win only by losing, since the love he craves entails receptive openness rather than the abstract and detached rhetorical management of a well-turned phrase or line. In the seminar, I think it was difficult for me to hear the conflictedness at the core of the poem, and instead I focused only its apparent claim to rightness, its mistaken feel of surety. This reading, as you can imagine, didn’t sit well with Jan, and she told me so. What she valued in the poem wasn’t any feint of attention or pretense of listening, but a deliberate, intentional disavowal of ego; the poem, for her, in the white space that slashes through its penultimate line on the page, opens itself to what remains otherwise, to its ungovernable outside. (As I write this, I don’t think those would have been Zwicky’s terms; this is me, I’m sure, re-casting her critique. But however she put it, her point was a good one.) She argued.
         What came out wasn’t just a corrective for me. More importantly, it was the sense that there were real stakes here, that something in this poetry mattered. And what mattered was the honing and the intensification and the acuity of thinking, of thought as an exacting, lyrical unknitting of selfishness, of self. That debate about poetics wasn’t just a remedial exercise, but an enactment of this rigorous openness, one that takes itself seriously. “Knowing, not owning” as Bringhurst puts in what he then called “Thirty Words,” which he would incorporate into his “credo” in later editions of his selected poems: “Praise of what is, / not of what flatters us / into mere pleasure” (Selected Poems 159). Neither Zwicky nor Bringhurst takes this demand lightly; poetry is careful, serious business, and since that evening seminar in 1987, I have tried to learn from and through their work – and I continue to do so – to correspond with, to be responsive to and responsible for, that care.
Robert Bringhurst Reading at Green College
         The Play Chthonics reading, for me, reactivated this commitment to a poetry that matters. Both Bringhurst and Zwicky presented principally new work, but their tactics and idioms were still closely and thoroughly enmeshed in the kinds of lyric thinking they have been practicing, in their distinctive ways, for decades, and for which I have, for decades, admired them. Bringhurst read from a set of what he called “language” poems, works that have little to do with idiomatic American experimentalism, but addressed themselves to the foundational becoming, the ontological pluralism, that he has pursued throughout his career. Zwicky’s poems, by contrast, focused elegiacally on the essential unknowability of things, on lost connections and on gaps and silences. But her poems also distill their music from that loss, a music that wants to draw out some of the human resonances with a world in which we are all implicated, to converse openly with the unvoiced plentitude of what we are not, which is also what we are. At different points, both she and Bringhurst coincidentally described encounters with a heron as an image of this attentive address.
         After the reading, I picked up a copy of a CD that Zwicky had recorded (in June 2011) called, simply, Jan Zwicky Reads. I have been listening to it off and on for the past month. As at the live reading, I find that as I listen certain of her lines seem to hang in the air, to resonate: “that bare light not yet sweet with birds.” Zwicky’s melopoeic technique, her mastery of the phonemic music of language, evident here in the audible meshwork of consonants and gently modulating vowels, is more than “sweet” craft; what inheres in these voicings – I’m sure that’s the right term for this lyric practice – is more than the mere pleasures of listening. Zwicky offers in small, in lines such as these, a musical elenchus, a negation (“not yet”) that highlights the hiatuses and epistemological uncertainties that poetry seeks to bridge, as metaphor, but also construes as its substance, as its inevitable shortfall, again as metaphor, as approximation, as asymptote: a version, I’d say, of what Bringhurst has called, translating Paul Celan, “the caught light’s closeness / to audibility” (Selected Poems 143). The sweetness Zwicky’s poetry seeks out is never the sugary or the saccharine, but is consistently a resonance, a harmonic sweet spot, where the disparate textures of an unclosed world can briefly, barely, touch and argue, catch and hum, collide and sing.

Mixed Materials: Raymond Williams Meets Don McKay

Here is another review-essay that seems not to have made it into the pages of Canadian Literature during my time there as an associate editor, although it was written – the date-stamp on the document file puts it at January 2003 – about unsolicited review copies of books sent to the journal. I hope you can pardon the datedness of some of the references, but I thought it might be worth getting it out into the world, making it a little bit worldly, if only to mark one of my attempts to get Anglo-American intellectual work to resonate with some of its less-obvious Canadian counterparts – in this instance, trying to set up a reading of Don McKay through an overview of some reissued Raymond Williams (and some new-ish, at the time, Edward Said).
New Contexts of Canadian Criticism, a 1997 Broadview Press anthology of cultural analyses collaboratively edited by Ajay Heble, Donna Palmateer Pennee and J. R. (Tim) Struthers, offers more than an update of its namesake, Eli Mandel’s classic (and out-of-print) collection of cultural backgrounds; it also presents theoretically-informed forays, through a set of variously Canadian discursive lenses, into the concepts of context and worldliness: a spate of essays that gesture heterogeneously at the possibilities inherent in a distinctly Canadian materiality— which here suggests everything from historicism to autobiography, from socio-economics to bibliography. Still, the first name mentioned in the book – and a critic who, enmeshed in contradictions and pluralities of his own, appears to set the irresolute tone for the collection – is not a Canadian, but Raymond Williams, late professor of Modern Drama at Cambridge. In the last five years or so, Williams’s unstable and disputatious amalgam of Leavisiteformalism and Lukácsiansocial realism  — which he had come to call “cultural materialism,” and which arguably gave rise to Cultural Studies in the English-speaking world — has undergone a recuperation that, national provenance aside, has a tangible, even material, bearing on practices of Canadian criticism, in its several and conflicted guises.
1.
Before I come to any overtly Canadian content, I want to touch on Williams’s worldliness, to suggest how his method might start to be dislodged from its British sinecure and beach itself on the other side of the Atlantic. Williams’s influence is audible (despite a paucity of direct reference) in Edward Said’s finely crafted Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (from Harvard UP). Williams’s impact registers more than in Said’s style, which has the transparent surety of a public intellectual at his peak; Said reads Williams as the voice of “an emergent or alternative consciousness allied to emergent and alternative subaltern groups within the dominant discursive society” (244), and — perhaps surprisingly, given Williams’s rather ardent Oxbridge traditionalism — as a figure of critical radicalism closely akin to Antonio Gramsci (from whom the vocabulary in the passage I have just quoted is drawn), Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno. Williams probably wouldn’t endorse this reading, particularly the Frankfurt School associations, but it does speak closely to the recuperation of Williams in recent literary criticism, criticism that concerns itself with addressing, and moving non-regressively beyond, the impasses and stalemates of a postmodern condition. Williams, for Said, has been “responsive to the real material texture of socio-political change from the point of view not of what Adorno calls identitarian thought but of fractures and disjunctions,” of the “non-identitarian” thinking that Adorno’s own negative dialectics pursue; Williams writing is not, like Adorno’s, an especially philosophical or conceptual interrogation of these critical alternatives, but instead offers their verbal enactment:
To Williams, quite uniquely among major critics, there is this capacity for seeing literature not as a Whiggish advance in formal and aesthetic awareness, nor as a placid, detached, privileged record of what history wrought and which the institution of literature incorporates with sovereign, almost Olympian prowess, but rather as itself a site of contention within society, in which work, profit, poverty, dispossession, wealth, misery, and happiness are the very materials of the writer’s craft, in which the struggle to be clear or to be partisan or detached or committed is in the very nature of the text. (469)
Williams, as writer, reworks this struggle as he reads and responds; like Said’s, his criticism is suffused with a public, pedagogical imperative. Teaching, for Williams, whether in postwar night-schools or rarefied universities, is a matter of social justice and of the redistribution of cultural wealth, of access to empowerment and to the contingent, pressing formations of identity and self-worth that circulate in the world, and that find themselves embodied, better than anywhere, in the literature of a national tradition. Not that Williams is parochial: for Said, he is the best example of a worldly thinker, one who seeks to restore “works and interpretations of their place in the global setting” and to “engage with cultural works in [an] unprovincial, interested manner while maintaining a strong sense of the contest for forms and values which any decent cultural work embodies, realizes, and contains” (383). Williams’s essays, like Said’s, aspire not to dispense high-blown wisdom but to “teach the conflicts,” as Gerald Graff put it: to enable readers to enter crucial debates in cultural politics and to contest meanings and values, rather than to acquiesce to the false gods of scholarly and cultural authority.
Peterborough’s Broadview Press has also reissued, as “encore editions,” two of Williams’s important works from the 1960s: The Long Revolution and Modern Tragedy. In both, Williams takes up challenges facing the public intellectual, and takes those challenges seriously. He aspires not only to transparency in his prose — framing questions of cultural value in a style accessible to the common literate reader — but also to putting at issue the dynamics of societal transformation — through emergent literacy, through public education and through political heuristics — in writing itself.
He begins Modern Tragedy (1966) by describing a conflict built into the term tragedy, a tension between its literary and its common meanings; he notes how theoreticians and literary scholars have tried to narrow into a “particular kind of event, and kind of response” that is not merely “death and suffering,” or accident, or “simply any response to death and suffering,” the sense commonly called tragedies “in ordinary speech and in the newspapers,” a usage regarded as “loose and vulgar” by academics (14). As long-term readers of Williams will recognize, he never tosses off a word like “ordinary,” and it soon becomes clear that he stands apart from the academics he parodies, finding himself impelled ethically to discover what scholars and theoreticians tend to dismiss, the “actual relations” we “see and live by, between the tradition of tragedy and the kinds of experience, in our own time, that we ordinarily and perhaps mistakenly call tragic” (14-15). The so-called mistakes people make in everyday language, for Williams, are not so easily put aside, but point significantly to literature’s relevance: why it matters and how it materializes in the world. He doesn’t cast critical scholarship aside — the second half of the book is a survey, revised from his lectures on modern drama at Cambridge, of innovations in modern European theatre, a thoroughly academic enterprise — but pursues instead the historical, cultural and institutional conflicts built into both the genre and the concept of tragedy, and transforms what might on first glance seem like a dry piece of literary exegesis into a compelling profession of revolutionary dialectics.
In the book, we oscillate between literary and political problematics, as opposed to progressing from one to the other; it’s significant that Williams concludes with, rather beginning from, literary exempla. Literature, for him, is not as creative work separable from everyday life — as he puts it in The Long Revolution, art neither attains a transcendent priority nor dawdles as secondary, leisure-time activity, both of which, he asserts, are “formulations of the same error” of dividing the creative from the ordinary (54).  Literature is for Williams concerned instead with “communication,” by which he means not simply its “transmission” but the “social fact” of the aesthetic, its recognition and re-inscription of “reception and response,” of audience, into its own fabric: “Art is ratified, in the end, by the fact of creativity in all our living. Everything we see and do, the whole structure of our relationships and institutions, depends, finally, on an effort of learning, description and communication. We create our human world as we have thought of art being created” (46, 54). Material and last causes, poetic making and revolutionary disruption, interweave in Williams’s cogent syntax; his critical method is deceptively banal, but his argument, if we attend to it carefully, is as disturbing as it is affirmative — not to draw art down to some lower level of the everyday, but instead to perceive “creative interpretation and effort” in living, to attempt to abolish all such levels and stratifications, as embodiments of social and cultural imbalances. His methodology neither reduces art to sociology, nor detaches the aesthetic from the lived, but pursues the communicative processes that link text with social or historical context, to see “works and ideas in their immediate contexts, as well as in their historical continuity” (16), a social aesthetics. His historicism evinces a kinship to Foucauldian genealogies, as we trace, for example, the evolving conceptual shifts in the term “tragedy”:
The tragic meaning is always both culturally and historically conditioned [. . .]. The essence of tragedy has been looked for in the pre-existing beliefs and in the consequent order [of a society], but it is precisely these elements that are most narrowly limited, culturally. Any attempt to abstract these orders, as definitions of tragedy, either misleads or condemns us to a merely sterile attitude towards the tragic experience of our own culture. (52-53)
Despite a shared humanist vocabulary, Williams’s work on the genre is diametrically opposed to the archetypalism of his near-contemporary Northrop Frye, which pursues exactly those “abstract orders,” abstractions Williams understands as historical products, rather than as structural fixities of a verbal universe that is ultimately divorced from real human experience.
By historicizing even his own critical apparatus, Williams hopes to push through the aesthetic — here framed as tragic redemption — toward a broader ethics he names revolution. In Modern Tragedy he appears at crucial junctures to inhabit a moment of critical reflex, at which the generic structures of classical tragedy overlap with the social forms of their communication: tragedy provides the structural basis for its own interpretation and application. For example, he takes the Aristotelian apex of anagnoresis, or recognition, and overlays a Marxian rubric of emergent class consciousness as revolutionary flashpoint, to explain the gap between the ideal of revolution and its repeated ossification and failure in real human societies, as well as the epistemic break between the literary and the ordinary:
At the point of this recognition, [. . .] where the received ideology of revolution, its simple quality of liberation, seems most to fail, there is waiting the received ideology of tragedy, in either of its common forms: the old tragic lesson, that man cannot change his condition, but can only drown his world in blood in the failed attempt; or the contemporary reflex, that the taking of rational control over our social destiny is defeated or at best deeply stained by our inevitable irrationality, and by the violence and cruelty that are so quickly released when habitual forms break down. (74)
Williams attributes this impasse to a self-defeating liberalism, that he regards as “hemmed in on all sides” (73). His attitude is never defeatist, however, and by reading the modern European canon of tragedy, he projects — progressing from Ibsen through Ionesco to Brecht — a “new tragedy” that refuses to accept the contradictions of human injustice as inevitable, and moves through that “recognition” to break down the “fixed harshness” of any regime, revolutionary or not, with the ongoing “struggle [to] live in new ways and with new feelings,” and by “including the revolution” in “ordinary living,” to “answer death and suffering with a human voice” (103-4). Admittedly, this insistence on the potentially revolutionary character of the ordinary, as redemptive, remains something of a sticking point for Williams’s readers, because of his mystification of “experience” as resolutely unassimilated by abstract or literary forms, even as those forms seek either to contain or to unleash it. Williams’s theory of tragedy, for this reason, is largely anti-cathartic, not because it does not aim toward changing minds, but because he does not want the energy of that change to be dissipated in aesthetic experience: communication, instead, transmutes pathos into ethos, affect into responsibility.
         The resurgence of a human voice in literary forms even as arch as tragedy produces revolution, however “long,” subtle and attenuated, because it speaks to the fundamental emotive substructure of community (an argument closely akin to Herbert Marcuse’s aesthetics of liberation): “A society in which revolution is necessary is a society in which the incorporation of all its people, as whole human beings , is in practice impossible without a change in its fundamental form of relationships. [. . .] Revolution remains necessary [. . .] because there can be no acceptable human order while the full humanity of any class of men is in practice denied” ( 76, 77; original italics). That revolution should “remain” and endure, rather than find a sudden, violent social articulation, is for Williams a consequence of his New Left mistrust of revolutionary regimes and of revolution’s essentially cultural character; culture, as he defines it in The Long Revolution , names a “creative” process — the “long revolution” locates itself not a fractal shock, but in “the essential relation, the true interaction, between patterns learned and created in the mind and patterns learned and made active in relationships, conventions and institutions. Culture is our name for this process and its results, and then within this process we discover problems that have been the subject of traditional debate and that we may look at again in this new way” (89). This Leavisite insistence on the rediscovery of tradition and an Arnoldian vocabulary of true pedagogy, of what must be “learned,” hardly appears revolutionary at all. But Williams’s rhetoric is designed not to shock but to educate, to forge connections between his own ethical imperatives and a popular status quo enmeshed in histories — such as that of literacy, which Williams explores in this book — that have been misrecognized as stasis, as tradition. When Williams writes, with calculated banality, that he wants to look at culture in “this new way,” he is not falling back into the reactionary radicalism of Thomas Carlyle or Matthew Arnold, whom he often quotes approvingly, but trying to engage with what he calls “a necessary tension in language,” particularly in its popular manifestations in organs such as the press, “between powerful impulses to imitation and to change,” a tension that he understands as “part of our basic processes of growth and change,” and of the human movement toward fundamental betterment. Simply put, you need to speak in a language that can be understood, or you will get nowhere, and no change, revolutionary or otherwise, is possible; you need to discover, in the commonplace or the “traditional,” a revolutionary moment (a critical tactic that is closely reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci’s work on the “national-popular”).
The Long Revolution closes with an extended meditation on “Britain in the 1960s” — a period that was only just about to unfold — which Williams clearly intended as a gesture toward critical immediacy, an attempt to historicize his own present and to map its socio-cultural tendencies (as he does early in the book for the 1840s, the remoteness of which from his own time offers a more rigorous and clear-sighted approach to the selective and accumulative processes of history and historicizing; it is difficult to step back from your own present, even contingently). His critical project, however, is not so much utopian — a concept he associates with a liberal idealism content to proclaim the virtues of such things as education, participatory democracy and “common culture” while still “leaving our training institutions as they are” (176)  — as it is hopeful, that “unevenly, tentatively, we get a sense of movement, and the meanings and values extend,” that language, in other words, gets put into practice, “keeping the revolution going” (383). To this end, Williams precedes his social and historical reflections with a call for renovated literary form, what he calls a “new realism” that is “not the old static realism of the passive observer,” a writing inured in regressive objectivity that, though “nostalgia and imitation” merely reinforces oppression, but is instead “necessarily dynamic and active,” not so much the mere representation of social reality as one means of its continual establishment, by which Williams means that writing enacts “this living tension, achieved in communicable form,” the process he calls “culture,” a negotiation between pattern and practice, imagined ideal and lived reality: the “achievement of realism” in the contemporary novel, as praxis rather than telos , is for Williams both “a continual achievement of balance,” the temporary resolution of this tension, and “the ordinary absence of balance,” the dialectical resurgence of a lived asymmetry, an ethical call (316).
2.
But Williams, sadly, does little better than gesture toward this form. The unavoidable conceptual haziness of “experience” in his work needs to be honed away, and the formal character of that realism more carefully articulated, if his hope is to be (no pun intended) realized. I think that Williams’s realism can be supplemented with a kind of late phenomenology to affect such a precising, specifically that of Emmanuel Levinas, and specifically its inflection in the work of a Canadian poet, Don McKay. There are certainly a number of significant caveats to such a claim: Williams had little sympathy for the privileged defamiliarizations of a phenomenological poetics, one that insists on personal consciousness-raising, poetic complexity or intellectual pretense; Levinas, at least in his work up to Totality and Infinity (1961, tr. 1969), expresses a fundamental distrust of the aesthetic, particularly poetry, and outright refuses any kind of socially or politically engaged writing; and McKay’s own poetics repeatedly discover their indebtedness to Martin Heidegger and, more recently, to Levinas himself, but leave Williams and other social realists largely unmentioned. Still, I think that a coalescence emerges from this conjunction, particularly when Williams is re-read in the way I have been suggesting, and on Canadian turf no less. McKay’s Vis-à-Vis (from Gaspereau Press) is a collection of essays and poems that ostensibly focuses on “nature poetry,” but in fact accomplishes this difficult conceptual mix, in discrete textual space.
McKay’s reflections gather around a set of recurrent concepts: wilderness, alterity, translation, apparatus, place. Poetry is not, for him, a form of apprehension — of consciousness as possession or appropriation — but a release, through language, into what cannot and ought not be completely grasped: a form of listening or attentiveness that honours, and pays homage to, what McKay calls wilderness, which he describes as “not just a set of endangered spaces, but the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations” (21). His work finds an imperative in the intersection of the ethical and the ecological, and seeks to revise our sense of home-making, as a collision of oikos with poiesis , to point to a fundamental form of human responsibility for the world, a revision and an extension of Heidegger’s shepherding of being. Where justice in Raymond Williams’s work adopts a human face, and seeks a better form of human society, for McKay justice must necessarily find a prehuman foundation, must at least gesture beyond its own narrow limits. While acknowledging the inevitable and obvious humanness of language and perspective — an echo of Heidegger’s insistence on the humanity of what the philosopher named Dasein — McKay rethinks this anthropocentrism in terms of response and responsibility, producing a version of what Levinas calls “l’humanisme de l’autre homme, ” the humanism of the other person: “nature poetry should not be taken to be avoiding anthropocentrism, but to be enacting it, thoughtfully. It performs the translation which is at the heart of being human, the simultaneous grasp and gift of home-making” (29). Writing nature, that which is outside or beyond the human, is an essentially human act for McKay, a practice he describes by taking up Levinas’s image from Totality and Infinity of the face — le visage , as in vis-à-vis — as wholly other ; McKay refuses the stalemated, dyadic archetypalism of Margaret Atwood’s “The Animals in that Country” (who have either human faces or “the faces of no-one,” a forbidding juxtaposition of mutual solitudes), and instead gestures toward an otherness that is both vital and responsive, as gift and grasp: “we can perform artistic acts in such a way that, in ‘giving things a face’ the emphasis falls on the gift, the way, for example, a linguistic community might honour a stranger by conferring upon her a name in their language. Homage is, perhaps, simply appropriation with the current reversed” (99). McKay doesn’t idealistically renounce human grasping —  in the capacity of language, for example, to name and overwrite what it cannot finally possess, to give a human aspect, catachrestically, to that which is beyond it, making the stranger a familiar — but suggests that such forms of naming and writing, while unavoidable, need to be enacted thoughtfully, responsibly.
Heidegger’s definition of the tool, as that which is to hand, provides McKay with a crucial instance of how to produce such thoughtfulness, as he revises — in ordinary language, through anecdote and reminiscence — a defining human moment, the utility in taking up a tool, as an encroachment of the non-human, of wilderness: “That tools retain a vestige of wilderness is especially evident when we think of their existence in time and eventual gradation from utility: breakdown” (21). He describes the stuff we find at yard sales and in garages — a disused hand-turned meat grinder, for example — as evidence of this inevitable slippage, of what sounds like a vestigial otherness, as its apparatus, its techincal human contrivance, is foregrounded in its collapse into uselessness. (He attaches a military terminology for waste ordinance to this collapse: Matériel , a word that for him marks not only human appropriation but also, as apparatus, resurgent wildness, and that he defines as “any instance of second-order appropriation, where the first appropriation is the making of tool, or the address to things in the mode of utility,” an infliction of the human “rage for immortality on things, marooning them on static islands” as pollutants, as discards [20].) But McKay is careful not to slip into naive appropriations, by idealizing an otherness in language itself, whether common speech or poetry: “poetic attention is based on a recognition and a valuing of the other’s wilderness; it leads to a work which is not a vestige of the other, but a translation of it” (28). This, again, is a Levinasian claim, that hinges on a distrust of the illusion, within the aesthetic, of an incorporation of its outside, to make meaning of the world, to represent; poetry, for McKay, is an example of the foregrounding in language, lovingly, of its inability to represent, of its artifice, its apparatus, even as it describes the human necessity of representation or of making sense: “Poetry comes in here, as a function of language in its apparatus-nature, and not its crowning glory. Poetry comes about because language is not able to represent raw experience, yet it must; it comes about because translation is only translation, apparatus is apparatus” (65).
This separating off of language from world does not, however, occasion a move into post-structuralism, which McKay repeatedly acknowledges as his own philosophical reflex; but his writing takes up the Levinasian il y a (again, a revision of Dasein , there-ness) as opposed to the Derridean il n’y a pas (a accession to the pervasive texuality of the human), and language, for him, is not so much a giving in to limits as a gift, a gesture toward its outside: “The first indicator of one’s status as a nature poet is that one does not invoke language right off when talking about poetry, but acknowledges some extra-linguistic condition as the poem’s input, output, or both” (26). “They’re out there, the unformed ones,” he opens “The Canoe People,” a reworking of a figure from Robert Bringhurst’s Haida translations (77), linking that sense of place, there, to displacement, a floating outside, as these mythical strangers maunder “their wayless way/ among the islands, and now even/ into English with its one-thing-then-/ another-traffic-signalled syntax” (77-78). The point of Bringhurst’s complex work, he implies, is not and cannot be appropriation, but rather, as translation, it manifests an honouring of what it is not, and an insistence on that alterity as the foundational stuff of poetry: an offering of gifts, as thanks, as listening. Poets, McKay claims — and by these he must mean poets such as himself, since he excludes by implication much of the work of those inured in post-structuralism, from the language poetry of Christian Bök to the ideology-critique of Steve McCaffery, even as he shares their vocabularies — “are supremely interested in what language can’t do; in order to gesture outside, they use language that flirts with its destruction” (32). McKay’s terminology is, again, Heideggerian, and he echoes the concept of Destruktion , which Derrida translates into deconstruction ; that flirtation, however, is neither playfully ironic nor dead-ended in itself, but hopeful, a saving grace.
The image of lichens, with which the book concludes, offers a metaphor, which is to say a translation, a mutuality of word and world, as the rock plants both embody and represent “that tiny, shocking, necessary invasion; that saving of language from itself” (106). Poetic language — and this, for me, is how McKay both supplements and refines the problematic posed in Williams — materializes the attempt at what Williams calls “communication” and McKay writes of as gift, the responsiveness and mutuality that clings, like lichen, in words. Both Williams and McKay can be, as I have already pointed out, deceptively colloquial and quotidian. They seek out, in the everyday and in common speech, a “new way” that was always present, an ordinary revolution.
The Books
McKay, Don. Vis-à-vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness.
Kentville, NS: Gaspereau P, 2001. Print.
Said, Edward. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. Peterborough: Broadview
P, 2001. Print.
– – -. The Long Revolution. Peterborough: Broadview P, 2001.
Print.

Ear Trumpet

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:
                           the put-on
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.
Commit.
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.