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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.
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.