Tuesday, August 18, 2009

John Thompson, 1977

So far, two Canadian poets--Phyllis Webb and John Thompson--have made the ghazal, a Persian and/or Urdu form of poetry consisting of couplets (rhymed in one version not in another), their own. Many of Thompson's lines inscribe themselves: "Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats./Why wouldn't the man shut up?" Both poets take the personal dialog with the other, with the beloved, to very interesting places. In Thompson's case a bloody interrogation. Yvonne Blommer offers an insightful reading of Thompson's Ghazal XXI over at Arc. The ghazals that make up Stilt Jack have been referred to as a long suicide note: all 38 apparently written while on sabbatical in Toronto shortly before he died, at just 38. Stilt Jack was only his second book of poetry. I know little of Thompson other than those 38 ghazals, a bit of essential reading for Canadian poets I think. Fraser Sutherland however, seems to know a little more:
John Thompson's death and work is the stuff of legend, or at least of heady anecdote. These days professors, too busy fighting sexual harassment cases, don't usually indulge in drunk driving-or at least aren't caught much. Nor do they typically stab hunting knives into tavern tables or randomly fire off shotguns. Thompson did such things, and his publicized rows with Mount A.'s administration were only matched by the devotion he inspired in his friends, students, and colleagues. The last two days of his life were spent drinking with students, drying out in the Sackville jail, and visiting a fellow poet. As a permanent division of labour this was plainly untenable.
Ah the ill-mannered, swaggering, ruggedly handsome, egotistical poet. We can't resist them can we? Well, I can resist that personality, but when the poetry matches it in terms of the rawness, the ability to go the edge of the form, or content, then while I might not swoon, I do stand at attention. It's rarely the case however, that the ego matches the work, or rather the work matches the ego.


Now you have burned your books, you'll go with nothing.
A heart.

The world is full of the grandeur,
and it is.

Perfection of tables: crooked grains;
and all this talk: this folly of tongues.

Too many stories: yes, and
high talk: the exact curve of the thing.

Sweetness and lies: the hook, grey deadly bait,
a wind and water to kill cedar, idle men, the innocent

not love, and hard eyes
over the cold,

not love (eyes, hands, hands, arm)
given, taken, to the marrow;

(the grand joke: le mot juste:
forget it; remember):

Walking is all: readiness:
you are watching;

I'll learn by going:
Sleave-silk flies; the kindly ones.

Someone in New Brunswick is busy stenciling lines of poems on the sidewalks...love it.

More lines I couldn't resist. Such couplets. Oh, if poets would attend to the couplet.

From XXV

In a dark wood,
and you in a strange bed.


The blood at night sounds
with your swimming.

From VI

I want to cut myself off. Bone says:
I'll dance with you and you with me.


I'm waiting for Janis Joplin: why,
why is it so dark?

I've just learned that Arc Poetry Magazine out of Ottawa has devoted its summer issue to Thompson. Well now. Very much looking forward to that. Particularly Rob Winger's thoughts.


Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Seeing the title of this post freaked me out a little because I had a grandfather named John Thompson who died in 1977. No relation, as far as I know. And alas, no such wonderful poems.

Peregrine said...

Don't know if this rambly comment worked the first time--

I've just been reading Agha Shahid Ali's _Ravishing Dis/Unities: Real Ghazals in English_ and experimenting with the stricter formal constraints he denotes as essential to the ghazal. (I'm leaving Ali's rebuke on the cultural politics of "absconding" with an ancient form out of the equation, for the moment.) Previously I'd conceived of the governing unit of the ghazal as being the couplet, as you've laid out here--thinking that a ghazal's rather hypnotic cadence is due to the couplet's terseness and simplicity, and its internal and contextual disjunctions. In Ali's examples, though, momentum seems to build from the repeated rhyme and recurrent final phrase of the couplet's second line. He's also a stickler for metrically-consistent couplets, so that each couplet-unit, with rhyme and "chorus," becomes a box that the poet has to fight her way out of. Thompson doesn't get in the box in first place (thankfully for his readers!), scrapping consistent metre and rhyme to such wonderfully lonesome effect, a body off-kilter. I can't picture Ali's rhymed, metrically-symmetrical couplets hitting the melancholy yearning that Thompson strikes in his looser renditions--and longing is, after all, the ghazal's raison d'etre, no?

Lemon Hound said...

One of the few ghazals in that book that really strike me (or struck, as it's been a few years since I read it...) as successful is Muldoon's...I appreciate Ali's vision, but I'm not convinced that it's the only way to write a ghazal, or indeed that his strict version of the form translates well into English.

Thompson uses the form, makes it his own it seems to me. The couplets are not closed, they work in other ways. I do recommend you read Rob Winger's essay in Arc. I liked to it in the post.

elusiveellipsis said...

I love Eve Joseph's work in her poetry collection "The Startled Heart".