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Here is the principal part of the text of a fifteen-minute conference paper I delivered in September 2007 at the University of Guelph, speaking at the colloquium of the Guelph Jazz Festival, entitled that year “People Get Ready,” and focused on the community-building and political engagements of improvised musics.
Fred Ho wants a music that speaks, and he wants to speak through music: “The music,” he writes, meaning for the most part jazz-derived improvisation, “has to and will embody messages, either explicitly (in the form of lyrics and/or song titles) or implicitly (in the sound and in its spirit).” To start out, I think, there are at least two things to note in such claims, of which Ho makes many. The foremost is almost unremarkable for its transparency, as it’s probably intended to be: Ho writes and speaks about improvised music as much as he composes and performs. The series of manifestoes, polemics and mandates that he has delivered, in essays and addresses over the last two decades, are instances of musical embodiment, not just statements about what he thinks his music does, but language forms representing the state to which his own music aspires: it wants to say what it means, directly and transparently, to its audience, “the people.” Second is a stylistic and grammatical point, really, a feature of his characteristic language that tends to be read back, by listeners of various persuasions, onto his music, often as stridency or brashness: Ho’s language, if we mean to treat it as in any way poetically shaped, is inevitably cast in an imperative mood. My question today, which I want more to pose than pretend definitively to answer, is how concretely music works toward what we might take for meaning. I want to take Fred Ho at his word. Can a baritone saxophone solo, for example, of the sort you’re hearing now, be said to speak? [Fred Ho’s arrangement of “Naima” was playing in the background, as I presented.] How does music aspire, beyond obvious programmatics, to the condition of speech? What exactly is being declared?
Jazz journalist Bill Shoemaker has written, perceptively and with a somewhat troubling accuracy, that
There are many musicians throughout jazz history who have been labeled revolutionaries, but that’s usually because of their musical accomplishments. Fred is a revolutionary who uses jazz as his medium.
The presumption, coming out of Ho’s work as much as Shoemaker’s well-attuned audition, is that sound can carry political and social meaning directly, formally; that revolution isn’t a trope but an aesthetic practice, enacted both for and with audiences. Ho describes the reaction he wants from listeners as akin to those of a child, who can “be both spellbound and revolutionized” by a given performance; music at once enthralls and enables, two countervaling states of raised consciousness – piety and critique, mimetic wonder and diegetic detachment, in a sense – that inhere in his populist claims. To play for the people, if you think about it, is both to invite mimicry and to call for unruliness, to refuse that same invitation. How, if music means to speak, can “people” be empowered by the cultish image of the inspired soloist, by his polemic force, exactly to speak out, not to be silenced by the verbal or expressive force of that declaration?
There’s a deeply embedded formal contradiction here that speaks to the nature of a musical politics, and to the ways in which music operates, I think, as a cultural pedagogy, as instruction in democratic or revolutionary forms of critique. In a talk at the triennial conference of ACLALS on 19 August 2007, Henry Giroux spoke with some dismay about what he called “the politics of disposability” among American young people, calling for a renewed and hopeful cultural pedagogy, following Paolo Freire, a radical futurity that dignifies people “so that they can become fully free.” This is Fred Ho’s vocabulary. Not only is it necessary to foster critical engagement among students with the cultural materials in which they find themselves immersed, teaching how to “read critically,” but there is a pressing need, Giroux argues, “to prepare students to function as critical agents capable of understanding, engaging, and transforming those discourses and institutional contexts that closed down democratic public life” (119). They need to take part. Despite his deep suspicions of aesthetics, which he suggests is tainted by “the residue of nostalgia and elitism” and also “seems particularly out of date, if not irrelevant” given the pervasiveness of a largely debased popular culture (are there echoes of Adorno here?), Giroux insisted on moving beyond critical thinking toward enabling students as “cultural producers,” as makers, as co-participants. But what do such arts sound like? Should we still be cautious of aesthetics, given the barometers of taste and technique that tend to manifest in such contexts? How do we face up to the demands of a democratic or popular art, of its audience? We’re negotiating a tension over the declamatory and the formal here: the expressive and the well-made. Addressing the rigour of our engagement depends, if you think about it, on a set of standards against which the openness of that participatory dynamic mitigates.
Fred Ho’s music operates, I think, on versions of this tension, negotiating the uncertainties and challenges between naïve, expressive directness and aesthetic detachment. As a composer and improviser, Ho has pursued remarkable and effective fusions of Asian heritage and folk forms with African-American avant-garde jazz, and many of his ballets, operas and suites – as extended idioms adapted from their “legit” Eurocentric counterparts and re-imaged as culturally porous, collaborative events – have been realized in complex, poly-dimensional, multi-media productions. These structural and conceptual pluralities have become hallmarks of Ho’s creative enmeshment in the unsettled and unsettling irresolutions of his diasporic cultural status, as an Asian-Pacific American. Difference and contrariety are, in Ho’s work, not problems to be resolved but constitutive elements through which liberation, both as a raising of consciousness and as tangible political transformation, might be sought. At the same time, Ho openly acknowledges his debt to the social polemics of Black Nationalism of the 1960s. His work as a writer (represented, for example, in his contributions to the anthology Legacy to Liberation, 2000) remains seemingly bound up in identity-politics and Marxist apologetics, an often fiercely uncompromising discourse that appears, as I’ve noted already, stylistically and theoretically at odds with his radically destabilizing musical practices. At the same time, if you’ve been able at all to listen to the baritone solo and now to his arrangementof John Coltrane’s “Naima” playing in the background, you realize that his music, on the surface, is not premised on inaccessibility or difficulty, consistently, but repeatedly seeks out – through riffs, repetitions, allusions to popular idioms – to involve listeners in its unfolding. The baritone solo, while offered up as an extension of the lineage of Sonny Rollins, Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, doesn’t aspire to Gunther Schuller’s musicological complexities or to radical serialism. Similarly, Ho’s admiration for poets such as Amiri Baraka or Kalamu ya Salaam appears to have much more to do with the verbal directness of their political interventions, with their emphasis on declarative immediacy, than with their linguistic or formal innovations. The title of the suite from which this music is taken bespeaks the politics of verbal directness and transparent engagement that Ho craves: “Yes Means Yes, No Means No, Whatever She Wears, Wherever She Goes.” Meaning, while at issue, wants to be denuded equivalence, unmarred by subtleties or doodads. The lyrics by Ann T. Greene, Andrea Lockett and others for the suite, a pro-feminist anti-patriarchal work commissioned in 1993 by WHAM! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization) and BWARE (Brooklyn Women’s Anti-Rape Exchange), pull no punches. While resolutely opposed to sexual violence, the work, for Ho, has its roots in reactive physical confrontation: “My mother is a survivor of domestic violence, and as a young teenager, I physically fought my father to stop him beating her. I now see this as my first
revolutionary insurrection and challenge of patriarchal authority.”
Still, when Ho asks, in a recent artist’s statement, “how does music free us?” he draws attention to sonic texture and to poetic structure as inherently, crucially political, focusing our ears on how that challenge occurs, physiologically and consciously, rather than simply what it might be about. Ho’s apparently naïve preference for uninterrogated declamation – what some critics have dismissed as crude stridency – actually involves him, along with his listeners, in a difficult dialectic, a deeply rooted tension over the nature and practice of expression itself: of the interconnections between doing and saying. Paul Gilroy’s discussion of jazz and diaspora in Against Race – where he argues for “new possibilities and new pleasures” enabled by the fundamental dislocations of diasporic non-identities – provides a starting point for re-thinking Ho’s indebtedness to racial nationalisms, and for a more careful and attentive reading of his mesh of sounds and words. Coming to Gilroy might seem problematic in this context, given Ho’s overt attachment to what Gilroy dismisses as raciology, but Ho’s frequently discussed but still largely uninterrogated adherence to black nationalism – particularly as a non African American – finds one of its moments of coherence in the context of diaspora. How can a Chinese-American seriously compose a Black Panther suite, for example? There’s no reason why he shouldn’t of course, but the racial politics explicit in this work certainly trouble that allegiance, although trouble is exactly, I think, what Fred Ho might be about.
Working to define “the distinctiveness of diaspora poetics” (335), Gilroy cites Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka’s (1967) poetic formulation of “the changing same”:
This changing same is not some invariant essence that gets enclosed subsequently in a shape-shifting exterior with which it is casually associated. It is not the sign of an unbroken, integral inside protected by a camouflaged husk. The phrase names the problem of diaspora politics and diasporic poetics. . . . Invariably promiscuous, diaspora and the politics of commemoration it specifies, challenge us to apprehend mutable, itinerant forms that can redefine the idea of culture through a reconciliation with movement and dynamic variation. (“Diaspora and the Detours of Identity” 336; Against Race 129-130)
James Clifford, among many others, criticizes this formulation inasmuch as it tends to abstract and to diffuse collective political and social agencies, the possibility of there even being a “people”:
diaspora discourses such as Gilroy’s refuse to let go of a “changing same,” something endlessly hybridized and in process but persistently there-memories and practices of collective identity maintained over long stretches of time. Gilroy attempts to conceive the continuity of a “people” without recourse to land, race, or kinship as primary “grounds” of continuity. What, then, is the persistent object of his history? How to circumscribe this “changing same?” (Clifford 320)
This is a serious issue for a version of what I’ve heard here start to be called social aesthetics, I think: how effective to locate and to speak to a popular audience.
Ho’s recording of John Coltrane’s “Naima” (1998) – with lyrics by poet and journalist Andrea M. Lockett – offers listeners an opportunity to address Ho’s deliberately conflicted relationship to the radical sixties, and also suggests how a dynamic critical relationship between Ho’s work and his multiple cultural and musical heritages – what he names a practice of radical respect – has the potential to enact a model for new and liberated human communities, an arduous and challenging idealism he calls, following Sun Ra, embracing the impossible.
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:
– – -. Breathin’ My Name With A Sigh.Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1982.
I have been listening to Atemwende, a recent CD of music composed by Bojan Vuletić for string quartet and trumpet. His work is new to me, and I bought the CD because of the presence of Nate Wooley on the recording. The composition is a suite in nine movements, and each section is derived from Vuletić’s reading of a poem by Paul Celan. These aren’t settings of text, and there is no vocalist, but Wooley’s idiosyncratic trumpet lines often cleave close to the range and timbre of the human voice, and the music sometimes seems to aspire to the condition, to the textures, of speech, particularly in the trumpet obbligatithat occur in most of the movements. I can’t really comment knowledgeably on Vuletić’s compositional method, although there are times when the textures he achieves remind me of the chamber music of Giya Kancheli, or of Krzysztof Penderecki in a rhythmic mood. But that’s just an impression: the music is accomplished and well-crafted.
It’s very tempting to hear the suite as a series of sonic allegories, as mimicking the collapse of meaning in much of Celan’s later work – a poetry that skirts the epistemic and phonemic edges of its own language. Vuletić invites exactly such an interpretation when he cites, in lieu of a liner note, a key passage from Der Meridian, Celan’s 1960 acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner Prize (the translation, uncredited on the package, is by Rosmarie Waldrop):
Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way—the way of art—for the sake of just such a turn? And since the strange, the abyss and Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automaton, all seem to lie in the same direction—is it perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? It is perhaps here, in this one brief moment, that Medusa’s head shrivels and the automaton runs down? Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?
Celan’s challenging poetic, I want to say, ties neither to inspiration – to the romanticizing of personal transcendence – nor to expiration – to a fraught modernist teleology of collapse. Instead, it seeks in the dissolute fraying textiles of his own language (a dire and lyrical German that offers him both enmeshment and estrangement) a semiosis, a graining of air across the larynx. Celan’s voice, the “I” that finds itself estranged poetically from itself, that appears to inhere in that very estrangement, can also temporarily – extemporaneously, for “one brief moment” – find the means to sing: es sind / noch Lieder zu singen jenseits / der Menschen (Faddensonnen, “Threadsuns”). That passing contact with a music other than or “beyond the human” can happen so fleetingly it’s hard to trust it happens at all: it’s worth listening to Celan himself read to hear if that breathturn can be made audible in his own elocution.
Eric Kligerman reads Celan’s Atemwendedifferently, as the moment in a poem when mimesis dissolves into a terrifying, stony silence; representation, as achieved semiosis, collapses into empty phonemes (as it does, literally, at the close of Celan’s Keine Sandkunst, “No More Sandart” – Tiefimschnee, / Iefimnee, / I – I – e), a loss which for Kligerman can be mapped over “the horror of an historical erasure” (118-9), an address to the unspeakable event of the Shoah. Celan’s poetry, for me, offers no simple redemption, but neither does it fall to pieces before the unspeakable; I take Kligerman’s point, but I still want to claim that Celan’s words effect a contingent but necessary return to the aural grounds, the sound-loam, into which human speech roots itself and from which it emerges. It’s risky, I think, to attempt what Vuletić attempts in recasting Celan musically, in as much as those settings might pretend as glib heurisms to give voice to the unspeakable, rather than, as Celan seems to seek to do, to find a language that takes up a fraught alterity at its core. “After Auschwitz,” as Theodor Adorno puts the problem in Negative Dialectics, “our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate,” because such sense-making, for Adorno, is altogether too bleak, an “absolute negativity” (361). Celan’s poems, I believe, respond to this terrible linguistic quandary, this crisis in sense itself, not by refusing to speak, but instead by attempting to voice that resistance as feeling, as such.
It’s tempting for me to hear Nate Wooley’s untempered trumpet lines in Vultelić’s suite as a tense, unruly sound-commentary on the through-composed string quartets. Wooley sounds very occasionally like a kind of Maurice André-Chet Baker hybrid, but more often produces a species of brittle, breathy, steel-wool (pardon the pun) sound. The seventh section, named for an early Celan poem Zähle die Mandeln, opens with a single tone (a concert G?) attenuated through circular breathing and played into what sounds like an aluminum pie-plate (I have seen Taylor Ho Bynum produce a similar timbre using a CD-R as a mute); the quick, resonant rattle not only picks up overtones, but also essentially de-tunes the sound, shivering the harmonics into a myriad of metallic threads; when the note moves a whole step, and Wooley’s starts alternating between G and A, the effect is to overlay a stannic breathy wash onto the audible effort of embouchure and string to find the sweet spot in their given pitches, to make their notes resonate and sing. At those brief moments, as sound-grain and resonance pull at each other, I think I hear a kind of breathturn begin.
Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New
York: Continuum, 1973. Print.
Celan, Paul. Collected Prose. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Manchester:
Carcanet, 1986. Print.
Kligerman, Eric. Sites of the Uncanny: Paul Celan, Specularity and the
Visual Arts. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. Print.
Vuletić, Bojan. Recomposing Art: atemwende. Nate Wooley and the
Mivos Quartet. Ignoring Gravity Music IGM 12-13. 2012.
What follows is a lightly trimmed (from what was, in fact, an unfinished document) and revised version of a review-essay intended (in 2005) for publication in Canadian Literature, but which never made it (not for reasons of quality, I hope, but because – I’m assuming, I’m assuming – of space constraints and special-issue themes, which caused it to be bumped until it became too dated.) I think it still raises some relevant issues, though, and also engages with David Solway’s poetics and poetry in what I hope is a disinterested and rigorous manner. It also bears on current debates over negative reviewing in Canada.
David Solway was fast becoming our Alexander Pope. In the introduction to the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, W. B. Yeats disparaged T. S. Eliot as “an Alexander Pope, working without apparent imagination.” My intention with this echo isn’t some sort of elaborate literary name-calling, but to describe what I hear as divisiveness informing much of Solway’s work, both poetry and polemic. In the preface to Director’s Cut: Essays (Porcupine’s Quill), Solway acknowledges that his sharp-edged and aesthetically partisan writing may draw “charges of self-righteousness, presumption and pontifical imperiousness of temper” from academic critics who, in his view, immerse themselves in “diffidence and complicity” by praising and promoting the work of inferior or insubstantial writers; he excuses his often harsh, even vindictive tone by claiming the ethical superiority of the satirist, the judiciousness and balanced erudition of a witty man-of-letters — whose crafted, caustic voice is uncannily close to that of Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.” There are several direct and approving citations of the eighteenth-century poet in Solway’s essays, but their relation is more than occasional. Solway’s insistence on rationality and mastery, fitness and form, not just in his own poems but in any good writing, suggests on first pass a transplanted neo-classicism that draws heavily on both Pope and Eliot as its forebears.
Separating the sheep from the goats, as narrowly and as rigorously as he can, appears to be what Solway understands as “responsible” criticism. To seek out “quality work,” he asserts, is to ply “the counter-discourse of antithetical discrimination,” by which he means to be thoroughly and carefully withering toward any Canadian poets whose work he dislikes — which, he openly admits, is most of it. To pull his punches would be “a way of evading responsibility,” and he strives “to cease trading in the usual velleities and placebos that double for criticism in today’s literary environment and embark on a process of audits and disclosures to reveal the real value of most of the work now being mass-produced.” The wool, in other words, needs to be pulled from most of our eyes, and the sloppy populism and prosaic flatness of what passes for poetry needs clearing: so we are invited, rather forcibly, to trust in the surety of Solway’s ear and eye, and in the acuity of his shit-detector. (Irving Layton’s deluded Neruda comes to mind.) And many times this trust pays off. Solway’s enthusiasm for his fellow poets of Anglo-Montreal and environs, including Michael Harris, Robyn Sarah, Peter van Toorn, Eric Ormsby and Carmine Starnino, is catching. And while much of his effusiveness smacks of nepotism and cliquishness — most of those he praises tend to be personal friends and acolytes, a network he openly acknowledges in “Double Exile and Montreal English-Language Poetry” — his exactitude and unflinching engagement with their texts nonetheless sustain his approval, and encourage mine. And while none these poets (perhaps with the exception of van Toorn) is as obscure or unlauded as Solway claims, the very fine poems he cites certainly call out for fuller critical engagement and a wider, thoughtful audience: as wide as poetry might have, these days. Solway makes me want to read more of them than I have, and to keep reading.
There is, however, a backlash to the lauds, which I think is truly unfortunate and which detracts from all this well-deserved praise. Solway seems so invested in contrariety as to be unable to resist attacking, without serving any substantial critical purpose, those whose writing he cannot, usually for merely ideological reasons, abide. His thinking is antagonistic, and often casts him, as the apologist for his cohort, in the role of scrappy underdog. In “The Great Disconnect,” the long-winded ramble from poetry sample to sample that closes his prose collection, he contrives an extended set of duels between counterposed pairs of poets in order to prove the neglected worth of less famous but, in his view, more technically and imaginatively accomplished writers: Ricardo Sternberg defeats Margaret Atwood, Brent MacLaine out-writes Anne Michaels, Norm Sibum takes down George Elliott Clarke, Mary Dalton pins Christian Bök, Carmine Starnino routs Jan Zwicky and, in the final round, Rodney Jones conquers Michael Ondaatje. (There are other crucial matches, although it takes three poets — Ormsby, Harris and Sarah — to overcome Anne Carson, which doesn’t seem sporting, and the spectres of W. H. Auden and Al Purdy grappling for linguistic supremacy is patently absurd.) What strives to pass for critical acuity in such writing is, sadly, too contrived, too forced. Solway seems to me to displace his own need to wrestle with those “bad poets,” this “crowd of mountebanks” (he must have been feeling vaguely Shakespearean), as he tries to labour “in defiance of the aesthetic and political orthodoxies of the times,” and to produce, at times in spite of his contrarian rhetoric, a reactionary orthodoxy of his own; insisting on the artificiality of poetry — on the character of its making — leads him to insist that the poem is a “shapely utterance, . . . a constructed linguistic object irradiated by lexical joy no matter what its subject” (original italics), but I fail to see much of a critical point in such a truism. All of the writers he cites, both pro and con, surely recognize this assertion as a given, and find themselves called to their work by an irreducible love of language. And an insistence on “lexical” joy, while conceptually attractive, is also a troubling blurriness from a writer who insists on verbal precision; I hear next to no joy in Solway’s writing, which leads me to worry over what he might mean by it here, amid the smirking. Given, for example, Jan Zwicky’s pervasive desire to uncover joyous, vital ecologies in poetic metaphor, I can’t help but suspect Solway of being wilfully tone-deaf to the obvious virtues and to the achievement of her writing, and of covering his tracks in misleading mystifications. I still take his enterprise seriously and sincerely, and admire his astringent demand to hear, from any poet, words in their fullness, but I can only deplore the lack of humility or of any willingness to listen beyond his own narrowly drawn poetic confines. For instance, “The Trouble with Annie,” his extended attack on Anne Carson, whom he regards as a poetic imposter, comes off not as “a reality check” but as whiny petulance and petty jealousy at the success of another writer, trying in vain to justify itself as objective critique. (He tends to be hoist by his own pedantic petard, questioning the accuracy of Carson’s scholarship while — when he mistakes a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts for Carson’s fragmentary postmodernism, for instance — his own reading turns sloppy and uninformed.) Any possible joy in words ultimately gets reigned in by an astringent measure, his hard critical yardstick. Despite his acclaim for colleagues and mentors, Solway refrains too often from praise, from teaching us how to praise, a task Auden once assigned the poet — and, I think, the poet-critic. Instead, stymied amid so much critical potential, and so richly varied a national poetry, he finally strains to direct his considerable sensitivities toward an ignominious end: picking imaginary fights where he could be discovering imaginative vitalities.
One last point on Solway’s criticism. I think that he would probably be unhappy with the possessive in the opening sentence of my remarks, that “our,” which implicates his work in a kind of cultural nationalism. His essay “The Flight from Canada” offers a cogent and persuasive alternative to what he calls the “Canadian content syndrome,” a canonizing of Canada’s national literature based not on qualitative discriminations but on the mere fact of its being Canadian. Still, Solway doesn’t actually refuse a national cultural thematics so much as re-think it, carefully and provocatively. It isn’t, for him, a question of poetically formulating, or adhering to, an identity but of inhabiting its negation: “it is precisely the comfortless absence of a secure identity, the rootlessness, the sense of radical alienation which is our greatest gift and blessing.” He wants, he asserts, identity “solidly founded in difference.” He becomes ours, in a sense, by refusing us. But claiming a solidness for that foundation also distinguishes his work from more openly alternative poetics; difference, for him, means “that each poet can work up the materials of place and language into that signature alloy we call individual style”; flight is predicated on a thoroughly conservative cosmopolitanism, a flight made radical, in other words, only by its rootedness in the solid ground of a distinctive poetic diction. This conceptual mix may be, at its base, self-contradictory, but surely Solway has managed at least to point up a viable means of confronting poetically, formally, the question of a late nationalism, of the differential ethos of the Canadian.
This somewhat fraught cultural nationalism is inflected by historical narrative in Franklin’s Passage (McGill-Queen’s UP), a book-length sequence of poems by Solway that map out an attempt to re-discover and make sense of John Franklin’s doomed Victorian expedition through the fabled Northwest Passage. Much has been written on, and overwritten, Franklin — including Margaret Atwood’s recent lecture in Strange Things, in which the expedition becomes an archetype for the alienated Anglo-Canadian psyche, more finely developed than her early efforts at a national literary thematics in Survival, but still part of the same cultural project. Rather than contribute more of the same, Solway produces not so much countermyth as a series of reflections on the processes, both solitary and collective, of myth making. In the face of his professed distaste for postmodern antics of pastiche and self-consciousness, Solway appears to want to show us how it’s done: a finer tuned, better turned reflexivity. The collective first-person – some form of a communal Anglo-Canadian voice – shows up, despite Solway’s difficult nationalism, in the first line of the first poem, a “dedicatory” sonnet:
We voyage as companions in ships
there’s no way to abandon or desert – on
authority of Mowat and Berton
who chart our encounters with the weathers
that beset our soul. (2)
Almost emblematically, “Dedicatory” appears as the verso – the flipside – of the collection’s first page, which reprints a set of four epigraphs, as if this poetry were at its best an epigone commentary, an act of coming after if not too late. Years earlier, in “A Poem for my Sons,” Solway cautiously thanks his children “for the rejuvenating faith in epigones” (Selected Poems 59), suggesting both the inevitability of his own position in whatever literary history may come as a late arrival, compelled to be retrospective and deferential, and the poetically empowering humility, of all things, of the afterword, overwhelmed but also revitalized by the long burden of a past. Here, too, faced with the task of retracing not only Franklin’s steps but the tracks of all those who have already written (populist historians like Farley Mowat and Pierre Berton, say), Solway nevertheless affirms the poetic necessity of rewriting, of continuing the process and of remarking the passage of his own work as a writer. He may suspect the tiredness of an thoroughly assimilated Canadian myth, of telling the same old story over again, but he also asserts, plainly, that we have no alternatives but to re-confront what we’ve been told, and to remake something vital of it.
The project, after all, never closes off, as succeeding generations of writers inherit, interpret and retell, driven by a desire for veracity that can never be satisfied by this or that brief hypostasis: “We are always at least one chronicle from the truth.” The need to rectify the fragmentary and unkempt details of human experience into pattern, into the fixity of form, is not predicated, for Solway, on the neatness of fictitious national, cultural or literary archetypes or on any claims of achievement; rather, his formalism remains projective and aspirant, a “dream,” a longing for a completion he recognizes that, however neat or succinct appearances may be, he cannot finally claim:
One way or another we are stuck here,
clenched in the dream that drove us far from home
to confront the narratives we’ve come from
and try to make asymmetries cohere.
Despite the enclosures of the envelope rhyme here, for example, the spectral chiasmus of rime riche and slant rhyme (“. . . from home / . . . come from”), alliteration, vowel echoes marks both an aspiration toward symmetry and the unfinished business of writing itself, as it traces a sustained counterpoint of formal elegance and common, loose chat, the promise of coherence set against “a process called decoherence.” For Solway, Franklin can only ever be “partially intelligible,” which is to say both interpreted and fragmentary; the poet wants to take what remains beyond account, “beyond the imagination / of the present moment,” a vague outside that slips from verbalizing, and give it an accounting: if he can’t ever confirm or uncover historical truth, converting the unknowable “into something / decipherable, / a legible report,” what he can do is account for himself as a mediating, intervening presence in that uncertain history. His measured verse, as he puts it, also “resists the illusion of measurement.”
Even if “there is no way to tell” what happened, even if the writer can only strain to produce “a forced passage,” “as if listening for the sound / that no one else can hear” when faced with an insurmountable barrier of silence, “we can always,” Solway asserts “photograph ourselves,” acknowledging openly that history is never a given but is always made by – and inflected by, fabricated by – somebody doing the telling: “We can always tell another story.” This accounting becomes far more than deferential acknowledgement in Solway’s text; out of “the kingdom of contingency” – a moniker, it sounds to me, for the postmodern condition and for an attendant dearth of cultural literacy and historical sense lamented by academics such as Fredric Jameson – Solway draws both healthy refusal, that inherent formal resistance, and a renewed vitality; even if poems appear to become “a casting of words / accounting for nothing but recurrence,” that accounting also finds its passage in the same “arc of discovery and loss” that Solway imagines in Franklin, a reflexive vacillation that “bear[s] us back, astonished, to ourselves.” Poetry can still astonish, even amid the self-involvement of a deprived and faltering present. There isn’t much of the historical Franklin in Solway’s book; it’s mostly about Solway, trying to compose for himself viable historical poetics, and to enact it. But, frankly, that’s the point: poetry as aspiration, effort, remaking – poetry as needed, as need.
Poet Yves Gosselin, despite his candid admission in his preface that “[il] connai[t] peu David Solway,” offers a fine and representative overview of Solway’s work, translating forty-odd poems as Poèmes choisis 1963-2003 (Éditions du Noroît). Solway had for some time published translations of Québécois poetry in Books in Canada – I am not sure if he has translated Gosselin’s work or not – but in some measure these translations return the favour. While Gosselin’s own poetry tends (to my ear, at least) toward concision and declarative rigour generally in a rather clipped short line – peruse such volumes as his Programme pour une mort lente and Les guerres sont éternelle, or the more recent La mort d’Arthur Rimbaud (the latter also from Noroît) – his versions of Solway are much less compact or honed. For example, Solway’s “Pip” – a lyric from his 1979 collection Mephistopheles and the Astronaut that describes the “slow disintegration to his elements” of a man lost at sea, a figure, perhaps, for Solway himself as disillusioned poet-critic – loses much of its sonic craft, its carefully worked echolalia, when provocative and sharply edged conceits like “lonely in the frantic vatican of himself” get converted by Gosselin into prosaic précis: “solitaire au milieu de sa proper agitation.” The sense is there, but the poetry has fallen away. Compare
Encompassed by the hard horizon, he pondered
his gradual declination to the void,
his northless destiny, his loony afternoons
and slow disintegration to his elements
Cerné par l’horizon impityoable, il a pris la mesure
de sa derive progressive vers le néant,
de son destine sans direction, de ses après-midi de folie
et de sa disintegration lente, réduit à ses elements[.]
“Cerné” – encircled or surrounded – is a nice choice here, and suggests, I think, a certain tightness or enclosure against the deathly limitlessness of the ocean, but it also elides the sustained metaphor that surfaces in Solway’s lines, that of magnetic north; Gosselin’s version is literally north-less, which essentially catches Solway’s drift here but loses its textures. While I can’t expect Gosselin to reproduce Solway’s phonemic music in French, I think it’s fair to ask, given Gosselin’s obvious verbal craft in his own work, for more than a crib or gloss on the original. The hardness of the poem is, I think, an essential aspect of its presentation, and something of that sculptural deftness needs to come across in translation. The opening of Solway’s earlier “New England Poets” – “New England poets grow tall and coniferous. / They are famous for their disciplined metres / and their evergreen intelligence.” – articulates with measured irony the uncompromised relationship to poetic discipline that Solway’s criticism also constantly pursues: he notes the poets’ metrical regularity in a line that both lightly and deliberately overwhelms its rhythmic containments. Gosslelin’s version, however, seems to lose its boundaries altogether:
Les poètes de la Nouvelle Angleterre sont grandes, ce sont des confères.
Ils sont célèbres pour leurs poésie bien sage
et leur esprit de conservation séduit toujours les generations d’étudiants.
Again, key tropes – “evergreen” – get dropped and over-reaching glosses – what students are those? – get introduced, but these things happen in any translation; what concerns me, though, is the rhythmic incoherence of the lines themselves, their relinquishing of muscle-tone or definition. To be fair, Gosselin’s translations offer moments of intensity, of thick poetic cross-pollination, but all too often the crisp edges of Solway’s lines are lost in Gallic sesquipedalian diction. Still, in returning the favour of translation, Gosselin gestures toward invigorating a key trajectory of Solway’s cosmopolitan cultural flight.
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.