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Fred Wah Speaking, and a Little “Ayler Music”

Thanks to Fred Wah, who gave a very fine and intellectually poised talk yesterday afternoon—“Permissions: TISH poetics 1963 Thereafter – ”—as the 2013 Garnett Sedgwick Memorial Lecture here at the University of British Columbia. He described the emergence of his own poetics alongside the founding of the mimeographed poetry journal TISH by a small group of student poets, studying with Warren Tallman and Ron Baker, among others, in the English Department here in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (The history of TISH is by now fairly well documented: see work by C. H. Gervais, Eva-Marie Kröller, Frank Davey and Keith Richardson. Those young poets—George Bowering, Frank Davey, David Dawson, Jamie Reid and Fred Wah—would go on, along with others associated with the group including Daphne Marlatt, to have substantive impacts on English-Canadian poetry and poetics.) Wah’s title, “Permissions,” alludes to the first poem of Robert Duncan’s The Opening of the Field (1960):
                        Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
                        as if it were a given property of the mind
                        that certain bounds hold against chaos,
                        that is a place of first permission,
                        everlasting omen of what is. (Duncan 7)
Wah suggested that Duncan’s visit to UBC in the summer of 1961, following on the publication of The Opening of the Field, offered an opening for him into a set of poetic possibilities, and presented “a place of first permission” in as much as it directed his thinking toward place, and seemed to offer him permission “to engage the local,” to turn to his own locale, Vancouver in 1961, as viable source matter for poetry. He remembered the impact of Duncan reading this specific poem at the university that summer. (Extensive audio of three lectures at UBC by Robert Duncan, delivered from July 23 to 25, 1961, and attended by Wah, can be found hosted on the Slought Foundation website, in a cluster curated by Louis Cabri; Cabri has edited Wah’s selected poems for Wilfred Laurier UP. The Fred Wah Digital Archive provides open access to essential materials, ranging from manuscript to video recordings, from throughout Wah’s body of work.)
            His lecture traced a trajectory of concern in his own poetics, over the course of at least 50 years now, from place to face to race, as he put it, coming to his more recent interest in cultural hybridity. But at all points, he suggested, he remained attentive to particular figurations of opening, with Duncan’s text serving as locus (non) classicus, coalescing in the “space of [creative] equivocation” marked by the hyphen, an equivocation between permission and restriction that gives rise to certain uneasy formal traits in his writing. He referred to the impact of Gary Snyder’s innovative diction (in “Riprap”), of Robert Duncan’s “tone-leading of vowels,” and of Charles Olson’s projective verse, a “poetics yet to be found out” in which prosody served as a musical, generative tool. I don’t want to give the wrong impression; most of Wah’s talk was historical and anecdotal, and he occasionally drew out members of the audience (such as W. H. New) who had also been studying at UBC at the time. But I think I was drawn, as I listened, to the more technical and formal claims Wah made, his disclosures – sometimes in passing – about how his own ear for language works. Jazz improvisation, he suggested, “flipped him into poetry,” and as in jazz, he liked to play around with the music of words. I asked him afterward during the question period if he could elaborate a little, and he said that he understood improvisation “as a way of questioning assumed structures,” drawing analogies in particular with the capacity for chafing at the strictures of composition (and overly careful composure, perhaps) in the awkward excess of “the long phrase, the long ad lib.” (“I never did do well at composition,” he admitted.) A trumpet player himself, he referred to Miles Davis and Chet Baker; I understand the subtle instabilities Wah suggests he hears in both of those players’ phrasings, although I’m not sure about the length of their lines. In any case, the sense of the poetic line as interrogative breath seems to me to be crucial here, and something at the core of how Wah’s writing happens.
            I first came to Wah’s poetry in the early 1980s when I was an undergraduate at the University of Western Ontario. I found a copy of his Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh (fresh and unopened from Coach House Press) on the shelves in the Weldon library, and I remember what struck me most were the indentations and spacings of the poems on each page, their typographical shapes. What caught my eye, too, was what I recall as a reference to Albert Ayler, to “Ayler music,” in one of the texts. I was getting deeper and deeper into Spiritual Unity and Vibrations and Witches and Devils at that point, and here unexpectedly, surprisingly, was someone writing poems that emerged, somehow, out of that open listening. It had been years, but before Wah’s talk I tried to search out the phrase, to find where it came from. It wasn’t, it turns out, from Wah’s book. It’s funny how lines can blur. I re-located it in George Bowering’s introduction to an earlier selected poems from Talonbooks, Loki is Buried at Smoky Creek (1980):
What the referential-descriptive mind sees as disorder (Chinese or Ayler music, for examples) is really part of another order. & not a competitive one, either.

So Wah is essentially a musician. He does not write fiction because his aesthetic is not geared to construction. (Once, trying to build a cabin, he put the hammer thru his front teeth.) Rather his muse urges continuity, making a line of music that disappears as it goes, like mist thru the branches. He blows solos that derive their meaning from their con-text (see how many of his poems are “letters” to other poets), in the whole forest of the composition. With others he conspires to sound our world.
He is the most musical of us all. (Loki 17)
The disorder-order dyad, which Wah reframed yesterday in his talk as permission-restriction, still obtains in his thinking, and Bowering’s intro is replete with resonances and flares (although he doesn’t quite anticipate the “bio-fiction” of Diamond Grill, and he makes Wah’s partial “Chinese” background seem a little too unproblematic). But when he says that “with others”—and Wah is, preeminently, I’d say, a poet of shared and open alterities—Wah sounds our world, sounds us out and sounds out to us, I think Bowering has it exactly right. And it’s this improvisational word-music, which some of us years ago thought we might have heard in a kind of generative relation to Albert Ayler, that Wah continues to pursue, and to make happen.
Some Books I Cited
Duncan, Robert. The Opening of the Field. New York: Grove, 1960.
Wah, Fred. Loki is Buried at Smoky Creek: Selected Poems. Vancouver:
Talonbooks, 1980.
– – -. Breathin’ My Name With A Sigh.Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1982.

Welcome to Us 1

In recent, post-Olympic months, Carol Ann Duffy has published what appear to be two of her laureate poems in The Guardian, poems that I want to gloss here and in a subsequent post. “Translating the British, 2012” was printed on August 10, and is an in-country paeon to the multinational London Summer Olympics. “White Cliffs” showed up on November 9, and is a celebration (in the guise of a crumbling sonnet) of Britain’s famous stretch of channel shoreline.
Her Olympic poem presents a postmodern species of choric ode, counterpointing an almost – almost! – saccharine, hyperbolic nationalism (“we … we … we …”) with a set of incisive swipes at the contemporary British banking crisis. At first pass, her mixed, even duplicitous tone can seem confusing, although it’s not out of keeping with the antithetical form of the classical ode. Duffy deliberately mimics, I’d say, the confused and contradictory reception of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Games, openly gesturing at Boyle’s spectacularly over-the-top dramaturgy: “The queen jumped from the sky / to the cheering crowds.” Erik Simpson notes what he calls the “double-edged weirdness” of Boyle’s “presentation of British cultural history,” a presentation that both feted and (playfully) excoriated English accomplishment. Duffy’s poem zeroes in on the crux of this contrariety by pointing, slightly more obliquely, to Kenneth Branagh’s peculiar recitation during the ceremonies of Caliban’s “The isle is full of noises . . .” speech from The Tempest: “We speak Shakespeare here, / a hundred tongues, one-voiced.” She’ll return to the nationalistic textual iconography of Shakespeare in “Dover Cliffs,” but in “Translating the British, 2012,” name-checking him serves as a metonomy for the globalization of English language and culture, or, even further, for what Harold Bloom grandly names the “invention of the human.” Translation, from this angle, means the assimilation and absorption of all that is other, as we come to re-discover – while we watch and listen, and even read – the genesis of a universally propagated figure of humanity in our own proxied and simulated Englishness; Britannia still rules the airwaves: “Welcome to us.” Branagh’s elocution provoked uncertain reactions, particularly from the English-speaking – especially, American – cultural establishment; writing in USA Today on July 27, Michael Florek can’t decode what’s going on (“Well,” he shrugs, “at least [the words] sounded nice”) and turns to James Shapiro, Columbia University professor and Shakespeare expert, for an explanation, which he doesn’t really give. In the segment, Branagh is dressed as Victorian railroad builder Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and recites the speech from what appears to be a cloned pastoral hillside, visual evidence of some “green and pleasant land”; historical, dramatic and ideological frames seem to have collided and smeared:
“Why you would choose Caliban’s lines as — in a sense — a kind of anthem for the Olympics, I’m not sure,” Shapiro said. “If you gave those lines some thought, especially in the light of the British Empire, it’s an odd choice. . . .The lines are quite beautiful, and I guess they wanted to rip them out of context and talk about how magical a place the British Isles are.”
Shapiro is quoted, by way of clarification, inconclusively:
“Why give him the lines Shakespeare wrote for a half-man, half-beast about to try to kill off an imperial innovator who took away his island? I don’t know,” Shapiro said. “You would probably have to ask the people who designed the opening Games ceremony what their thinking was.”
Duffy’s apparent précis of the speech at her own poem’s outset seems intended to meld a welter of noises and voices into a univocal nationality, a definitive “we” that wants to collect a listening world attentive to their noise into a latter-day empire, the Anglo-human globe. But if that’s really the case, then, like Boyle, she has quoted Shakespeare badly, confounding literary-historical and cultural frames: in the play, Caliban remarks how “a thousand twangling instruments” hum at his ears, “and sometimes voices,” which is the text we might think we hear repurposed in Duffy’s lines. But it isn’t. Her thinking, like Boyle’s, is actually a bit crooked. The reference to a “hundred tongues” gestures at Cecil Day-Lewis’s version of Virgil’s Aeneid, not Shakespeare. Another nation-founding cultural hero, rendered by Day-Lewis in idiomatic English (and, notably, his translation was broadcast nationally over BBC radio in the early 1950s), Aeneas in Book VI of the epic is confronting the Sybil, asking for information about the horrifying noises – not the sweet sounds – he can hear coming from Tartarus:
                        Scared by the din, Aeneas halted; he could not move: −
                        What kinds of criminals are these? Speak, lady! What punishments
                        Afflict them, that such agonized sounds rise up from there?
This is, in many respects, the antithesis of Caliban’s speech, although it bears remembering that Caliban is also pinched and tortured by the very spirits who serenade him. The Sybil – and Duffy, it seems to me, positions herself wryly in her poem as a vatic “lady” – catalogues as many of the tortured cries as she can, but finds her speech limited when faced with describing atrocity after atrocity, and so breaks off:
                        No, not if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths
                        And a voice of iron, could I describe all the shapes of wickedness,
                        Catalogue all the retributions inflicted here.
The “hundred tongues,” that is, refers not to univocal plenitude but to the failure of the voice to be iron, its incapacities; these lines offer not a celebration of collective joy, but the refusal of pervasive and overwhelming agony. We should, in other words, be more afeard of what we see and hear, more than we are likely to be. But, like Boyle’s sensational kitsch, Duffy’s poem seems – seems – to want to smother our critical anxieties in swathes of triumphalism.
            Or does it? If Boyle’s staging of England was able to introduce a degree of historical-social critique, Duffy’s double edge is all the more forthrightly presented, as she deftly shifts registers between the descriptive and the metaphorical, around the intersections of political economy and participatory spectacle in sport. The London Olympics came on the heels of one more crisis for the English banking system, the so-called Libor scandal. For Duffy, the “we” into whose midst her readers are welcomed is a scandalized and angry body politic, a British version of the 99%:
                        We’ve had our pockets picked,
                                                                                    The soft, white hands of bankers,
                        bold as brass, filching our gold, our silver;
                        we want it back.
The subsequent medalling by the roll of British athletes she names in the poem becomes payback in a number of senses, both an affirmation of national muscle-fibre and metaphorical reimbursement, the filched sterling and Anglo-Saxon geld imagined returned to the people.
            It’s worth remembering that this return is linked to the translation evoked in Duffy’s title, which isn’t just a question of the – albeit, gently ironic – global dissemination of Britishness but also of the poetic work of metaphor. (Both trans- latio in Latin and μεταφέρω in Greek mean approximately the same thing, to move or to carry across.) Duffy’s text quickly recognizes the obfuscation inherent in all metaphor-making, particularly around the media language of the banking crisis: “Enough of the soundbite abstract nouns, / austerity, policy, legacy, of tightening metaphorical belts.” Even while her poem retains traces of Tennysonian bathos (in the smugly haughty, over-the-top “Enough . . .”), it also dismantles its own inclination to establishment-sanctioned poeticisms and substitutes for metaphor a strong claim on common reality, shared and propagated through in our investments in sports heroes: “we got on our real bikes, / for we are Bradley Wiggins, / side-burned, Mod, god.” The glancing nod to Quadrophenia(and The Who also performed in the Olympic closing ceremonies) suggests working-class disaffection and also images of natty mods on scooters, but this exaggerated haling of cyclist Bradley Wiggins is more than a sentimental investment in the distraction of sport. The reality of “our bikes” isn’t a hypostatizing of false consciousness, but a debunking of another of those bankers’ metaphors by actively literalizing, by a knowing public. The Telegraph on 11 July 2012 carried a story debunking the Bank of England’s absurd “idea for tackling the financial crisis: six bicycles”:
The Bank of England considered buying bicycles so that its officials could continue to move around in the event of a full-scale financial meltdown, the former City minister disclosed last night.
The national bank wants to appropriate another form of translation – the forward motion of the Olympic cyclists and of everyday people in bike lanes – to secure that its rarefied system of schemes and exchanges, its economy, keeps moving. Duffy’s poem, by re-appropriating the bicycle, converting it into nationalistic metaphor and then refusing its own tropes in favour of contingently returning to, of expressing something of the realities of daily life – “we want school playing-fields returned” – offers not an assimilative or appropriative nationalism, but an invitation to start again, better. Togetherness and community, even as they sometimes rely on a cliché-ridden and potentially reactionary language of public address, can also emerge from the revitalizing work of excavating that very language for the remaindered kernels of “our” historical realities at its core – for its cultural purchase. At her poem’s close, which is really an opening, a beginning again promised by the sensing of “new weather,” Duffy positions “us” (both the English and her English-speaking readers) “on our marks,” which is to say both in a position metaphorically identified with “our” athletes and in a critical relationship to the marks on her page, poised to write back to her text.