Text in the City: Music Somewhere Near a Griffin

by Garry Thomas Morse

It is most certainly a terrible affair to quote oneself. However, the Griffin has called forth this prophecy by giving out the oracle of “McFadden” and I must heed it, must even get personal.

That’s a poem from my second book Streams (LINEbooks), which seems almost pertinent just now, as the entire book is an oddball tribute to my favourite book by David McFadden, which is his Gypsy Guitar (Talonbooks). Hey, here’s a poem from that:

Makes you feel a little something in the bones, n’est-ce pas? Maybe a hint of Mallarmé imagining a barrel organ outside his window or something to that effect. Long delicious prose poems, eh? In Canada, we tend to call them “novels.”

I’m thinking of McFadden because his book of poetry What’s the Score? (Mansfield Press) is a finalist for the 2013 Griffin Prize but I am also thinking of music in poetry, which is something I greatly admire. Riffs on music, talk of music, feeble to brilliant attempts to try and capture music in poetry, which most anyone will assure me is an impossible task.

Riffing on the Griffin is also a way of meandering here and there about a few things that are often on my mind. Not to pull a Joaquin Phoenix, but strictly off the record, I’ve never understood how prizes relate to poetry, exactly, and a number of acclaimed poets have confessed a similar sentiment in my presence, in one way or another. One would hope that a poet only gets into the racket out of an imperative need to do so, if not a compulsive love, implying all the emotions and forms of resentment love can contain. In that case, how can a prize for being the greatest lover compare to said love itself?

Jan Zwicky gets at this notion of poetic essence more in Auden as Philosopher: How Poets Think, a book that I mentioned in my last Text in the City post and part of the Ralph Gustafson Lecture Series on Vancouver Island:

Some of what gets called poetry, indeed, some writing that wins poetry prizes, is exclusively verbal pyrotechnics, and it pointedly, often explicitly, eschews any pretensions to ontological resonance or insight – a ‘poetry’ for our times, perhaps. And some of what gets called poetry – usually by our doting parents, or our kind friends, or ourselves, in the first flush of excitement at having got something down on the page – has its genesis in an experience of being, but is not ‘fitting’ It fails to enact the experience for any reader who wasn’t actually there. These social facts about the proliferation of non-poetry are, however, no cause for concern. Hucksters are and have been and will continue to be a fact of life in every culture; and the presence among us of closet poets, Sunday poets, and beginning poets of all levels of commitment is, in fact, a cause for rejoicing.

Of course, yes, I think poets should be honoured for their excellent work and their dedication to the craft and for their lifetime of work. In fact, the Griffin has honoured many poets I admire, including McFadden, so prize season is giving me an excuse to say a few words about them. Nor should it be lost on you, chère lectrice, that prizes provide a socially acceptable excuse to shamelessly plug the books of your favourite authors, which is another way of giving those dead trees a bit of room, a bit of air and light.

Precious Artifact: evidence of note passing during the 2012 BC Book Prizes

Of many esteemed poets I have had the fortune to encounter and remain in touch with over the years, it goes beyond an honour to count Sharon Thesen among my friends. It was in fact a situation involving a prize that gave me the chance to meet her and “rubber cement” our aesthetic camraderie. Over the years, I have been mostly aware of the generosity she has shown her students through her students, and she has shown me the same courtesy by engaging my poetic work like no other. To know that she went home with her car full of Lulli or returned to practising Bach means that she was receptive and listening and hearing something that may never have even existed, and that is worth more than any prize to me, personally.

However, a few words are in order about her contributions to Canadian literature, including her timely extension of Michael Ondaatje’s project in the form of The New Long Poem Anthology (Talonbooks), which offers the reader examples of serial, sequential, and lengthy poems by many notables. I often advocate this book as a starting point for anyone wanting to know more about Canadian poetics. Thesen’s edition includes work by poets Steve McCaffery, Erin Mouré, Anne Carson, Patrick Friesen, Lisa Robertson, Don McKay, George Stanley, Jeff Derksen, and Yolande Villemaire.

Add to this Thesen’s efforts to bring to light Frances Boldereff’s impact on the course of 20th Century poetics through her ongoing correspondence with Charles Olson, as edited by Thesen and Ralph Maud in Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence (Wesleyan University Press) and the forthcoming book After Completion: The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff (Talonbooks).

Perhaps most resonant with the “aboutist” work of George Stanley, Thesen’s poems are so often beauties, most of them still lifes in motion, often right in the middle of something, perhaps going through something at the same time, feeling around through more than a few particulars, as in “Winter Solstice”:

     Alone and thinking
     like a shopper
     perusing goods in a bin. “What is this?”
     we ask of the world and the world
     comes over and says, “That’s for wiping
     the breath off your windshield“–
     as we drive around worrying
     or stand among the shivering
     perishing birds doing up our coat buttons
     & seatbelts suddenly elderly & forsaken.

That’s from Thesen’s collection of books in News & Smoke (Talonbooks) as is this bit of “New Hamilton Watch 09/07/94”:

     When one of her clients under hypnosis saw someone
     crawling toward him saying “Louis the Fourteenth”
     over & over again she said “Look down,
     look around“–he did
     and it turns out he’s only someone
     standing beside Louis the Fourteenth!

The psychical stakes are getting higher because poetry is either divining a lot of cards with words or even particles on them or being an excellent word-card counter. Someone like that might even listen to a gift of Lulli-ish fanfare on the way back to Kelowna, although I’ve probably said enough about artistic revenge and Ovid’s frogs in Versailles, I think, to last a lifetime. We find a kind of music here and in her parody poem “Tinseltown” from The Good Bacteria (Anansi), which has a lyrical air akin to Romantic ballads and yet expresses the Camus-like banality of our excessively commercialized lives:

In Oyama Pink Shale (Anansi), there are instances so painterly they are like something out of a poem, which is to say something out of life, as in “From Toledo”:

     Spring: that far-off moment!

     For now, a light rain pesters
     a sepia scene. I run upstairs
     from unrolling a mauve shag rug
     to find at the door a young woman
     delivering flowers – an autumnal
     arrangement, dark reds,
     deep yellows. Her
     white happy van drives off. I brush
     mauve fluff from my hands and
     slip The Song of the Sibyl into the player.
     Its plangent notes occupy
     the cavernous cathedral.

Not long ago, I was over the moon or even “in the moon” to receive the aforementioned Auden as Philosopher: How Poets Think in the mail from Jan Zwicky, which at the time came to me as fortifying tonic and dominant, linking my fondness for Ralph Gustafson’s musicality with my ardour for Zwicky’s own musical lines. As musicians writing poetry, I am struck by their intentionality, their careful attempts to treat the page as a kind of staff, an area of sounds, rests, and ghostly silences.

In Zwicky’s Songs For Relinquishing the Earth (Brick Books), in her poem “Cashion Bridge”, there is wonderful rhythm and undulations as “the poet” muses over Anton Bruckner’s Second Symphony, conveying the very sentiment of a musical oeuvre that was mocked by some as Pausensymphonie – the symphony of pauses:

rob mclennan, the author of Glengarry, has written quite a thorough piece for Open Book Toronto about rural aspects of Canadian Poetry in which he notes the following about this poem:

Another poem of Zwicky’s from the same collection, the eight-page meditation “Cashion Bridge,” is absolutely lovely, and thick with county, and, unlike McKay’s work in the same geography, manage to place the little cabin in a way that he had never, making it much easier to potentially find. Referencing such in an email to David G. Anderson, who runs the Glengarry Historical Society, he told me that the Cashion Bridge crosses the Raisin River and connects the South Branch Road with the Street and Indian Lands at Cashion’s Glen, just outside of Williamstown.

This piece is very helpful in relating the complexity in Zwicky’s work, which can be approached in terms of the personal and the communal for those upon the earth, and also in terms of a more aesthetic space brimming over with echoes from one’s own interior. Songs, a facsimile of her 1996 hand-made book, has lyrical and prosaic movements, and with a freeform experimental sensibility that presents a counterpoint between musical works (concert music) and what Zwicky calls “ontological resonances.”

As for Zwicky’s chillingly beautiful Forge (Gaspereau Press), it is rather more in its Sunday best, rather more austere, rather more like the sound of Plato’s Muse upon the tripod delivering cool uncanny pronouncements:

                   Lyric poets are always trying to approach the issue
     by forcing speech to aspire to the condition of music. Bach
     comes at it from the other end: he infuses music with a sense of
     the terrible concreteness, the particularity, of the world. And
     enlightenment? – Acceptance of, delight in, the mystery of

I’m not sure if it helps us to consider that Bach was something like kapellmeister candidate number six when applying for work in Leipzig and elsewhere, airing Brandenburg Concerti in a local cafe. In his later life, his preoccupation with Lulli and the “French style” gave him the rap for being out of touch with contemporary music. Indeed, the intricate complexity he injected into those melodic dance suites was too much for the audience of his day, and his work was more or less brushed aside and forgotten until Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven each began to study his music and adapt their own compositions to echo that unwieldy baroque style.

Just now, Colin Browne’s book The Properties also springs to mind. Not to speculate with my personal bias in favour of its being a current finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Prize, I think it is fair to say this book is exemplar of Talonbooks’ poetry list and on account of its esoteric subject matter, along with its mixture of whimsy and careful erudition, is a leading justification of why Talonbooks exists. My personal favourite in the book is his poem called “The Laurel”, which as you may observe, is charmingly “inexcerptable”:

Guess you get the idea. Generally, the subject is Richard Strauss’ concern over the persecution of his librettist for his opera Daphne, namely Jewish writer Stefan Zweig who in the wake of overwhelming authoritarianism and nazism committed suicide with his wife in 1942. Browne deftly weaves together this narrative (attacca) that has the air of a Schnitzler novel, with quotations from Zweig’s libretto.

I would be remiss in not mentioning Light Sweet Crude (LINEbooks), dedicated to the memory of Nancy Shaw (1962-2007), a very interesting experiment by Catriona Strang and Shaw, which includes the section Cold Trip (originally published as a chapbook by Nomados). The book also includes an afterword about the theory backgrounding this collaboration with composer Jacqueline Leggatt:

In Cold Trip, we probe the relationship between music and poetry, as well as romantic and contemporary conceptions of the lyric (Schubert meets the Ramones). We dwell in multiple time scales conjuring the past through sensations of the present, while eliciting the present through residues of the past. More pertinently, we mess with times scales as they both accelerate and slow down. We interlace notions of speed, efficiency and instantaneousness with melancholy, sluggishness, and breakdown. Like Schubert’s, our songs are queries of the sublime–its envelopment of the beauty and/or horror of the self, nature, war kindness, passion, and disaster. Through song, we perform in musical and verbal scale, testing Schubert’s intense commitment to nature and inner life through our encounters. I am particularly fond of “My Faithful Copyist”, which serves as an elegant and charming sort of envoy, definitely with more substance than the original lyrics in the Schubert lieder.

I am particularly fond of Shaw and Strang’s “My Faithful Copyist”, which serves as an elegant and charming sort of envoy, definitely with more substance than the original lyrics in the Schubert lieder:

Let us close on that note and while it’s National Poetry Month or Griffin Season or whatever, stop where you are, take a deep breath, and inhale a poem or two, why don’t you? And if you’ve already reached the cheery Facebook stage of TurboTax, maybe also check if buying a book or two from your favourite independent bookseller won’t break the bank.

Ah well, good night and the very best of luck to all of you!