canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Poetry For Dummies: A Reference for the Rest of Us

by John Timpane and Maureen Watts
Wiley Publishing Inc., 2001

by Shane Neilson

I approached this book with smug self-satisfaction. The elitist in me, the poet, was credulous about the prospect of making poetry palatable to ‘dummies.’ I believed that poetry possessed an ineffable, superior quality that kept it accessible only to its chosen initiates; people, in other words, like me.

So though I came to this book to be dismissive, I have remained between its covers to learn. Foremost among Poetry For Dummies’ lessons is that poetry is inherently egalitarian. Else why would a book on poetry even be produced for the ‘For Dummies’ series? One of the signs of validation in the twenty-first century is enshrinement in the Dummies pantheon. That a book on poetry is now in this series – along with Huskies For Dummies, Guitars for Dummies, and Woodworking For Dummies - attests to the practical application of poetry in everyday life for the average person.

Heretofore, the public was dependent on world-class poets – elitists all - for their how-to manuals on the venerable art. Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry is the most recent and prominent example where a professional poet lapses into professorial prose, beginning his book with a lot of hand-wringing about how he meant to write an entry-level text but fatally compromising the book with terminologies and jargons. That Timpane and Watts, the Dummies authorial duo, are obscure recommends the book as an unsanctioned, unofficial text. Not holy writ from on high, Poetry For Dummies is the basics as written by poetry plebes- for other plebes.

Looking in hindsight at recent events, it seems inevitable that such a book would appear. There has been in this country a poetry renaissance: poetry appears in the public transit systems of many major cities; for several years, The Globe and Mail devoted a page of its Books section to the discussion of a different poem each week; a few years ago, Christian Bök’s book of lipograms, Eunoia, got common people –poetry ‘Dummies’- talking about poetry. They spoke with their wallets: Eunoia became the best-selling book of Canadian poetry in history. With all that poetry flying around, an unpretentious reference work was needed.

In its quiet way, Poetry For Dummies fills that need by setting out – and to my mind, accomplishing - the resuscitation of poetry from most everyone’s dead, dull, indoctrinating exposure to it in grade school. Constructed in three parts, the first (and best) is devoted to the reading and understanding of poems, advising us to read poems closely, then reread them, and then read them aloud. The mechanics of poetry – simile, metaphor, tone, subject, meter, narrative, assonance, dissonance, alliteration, allusion, symbol - get discussed but never without the reference point of real poems. Most importantly, we are told to identify how the poem makes us feel. All this might seem obvious to anyone with the most passing familiarity with poetry, but the first part of the book puts each of these tenets into practice over the course of ninety pages, and it’s how the data is displayed – as could be said with poetry - that’s important, not the information itself.

The second part of Poetry for Dummies is a survey of the history of poetry, from its Mesopotamian beginnings to the avant-gardists of today. This section reads like a treatise on Earth’s topography as seen from an orbital space station. Over here is India; there is Italy; now France and England are coming into view; quick, there’s Japan… but the Dummies authors are honest about this, stating in chapter six that:

In this chapter and the next, we tell the story of 5000 years of poetry in about 7000 words. In this chapter, we take on the first 4700 years- a tough job, so we have to move fast.

To their credit, these gaps are filled somewhat by reading lists that mention seminal texts and translations from the respective eras.

Part Three ministers to the aspiring poet, providing him or her with the information necessary to write traditional and free verse. The instruction is stock creative writing course fare: read a lot, write a lot, trust instinct… the advice can be as hackneyed as, "Be awake to your own processes. Just as an athlete gets to know her body and its ways, get to know when your mind is most open to the music." We are told to keep a journal and develop regular habits. Also to "…find a reason to care and something - many things- to care about." There’s nothing wrong about the prescriptions of Poetry for Dummies - they offer many different ways to write a poem. I just wish that, as they advise their charges to do, they’d be more specific.

As a poet, I admit that much of the book’s contents were no surprise, but that attests to the book’s sureness of aim. Timpane and Watts’ discussion of poetry isn’t marketed for the practicing poet, it’s marketed for the pre-poet ripe for gushing, unPinskyesque sentences like, "Your local library is a great source for poetry- and best of all, it’s free!" The discussion also occurs amidst icons –yes, icons- meant to serve as quick text references. (My favourite is the Bomb, used to warn the reader against particularly horrible habits.) On occasion, pictures are used to add atmosphere.

But more than the visual doodads the publisher put in to Dummify things, the most endearing quality of this book is that it’s enthusiastic about the riches of poetry without being didactic. A reader could be alienated if the tone were earnest; why dress up poetry, a subject that needs no dressing up? Instead, the book is matter-of-fact about the power and value of poetry, presenting poetry as a transformative art as a matter of course. This is the attitude of a good teacher. In fact, it’s downright heartening to read what the teachers, Timpane and Watts, believe poetry can do:

Oh, and one promise: if you let poetry into your life –if you read aloud and read attentively, discover how to interpret poetry for yourself- you’ll start seeing benefits, including a broader life, a more sensitive awareness, and a more flexible spirit.

Though this book has refreshed, reminded, and even inspired me, I must be ungrateful for a moment and point out flaws. One missing element is a mention of the preconscious, animalian response to good poems that poetry-reading people have, or as T.S.Eliot put it, "the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin." Such a concept may, I admit, be too mystical for a basic text that’s supposed to demystify the art.

The book places too much emphasis on biography in its conception of poetry. Readers are told to familiarize themselves with the poet and his times in order to unlock the secrets of poems, yet no mention is made that poems must stand on their own sans biography as a true test of the work as poems. Biography can enrich a poem, but it can never prop up a poem.

Because this book is a sampler of sorts, care must be taken when it is time to list - the lists are often all that is said about particular trends and schools of poetry. The authority of the Dummies authors is called into question when they include names like Dylan, Lennon, and McCartney in their roster of ‘Postmodern Greats.’ LL Cool J is purportedly a ‘Global Great!’ Yet if the lists cannot be taken completely at face value, they do provide one useful bit of data: Erin Mouré is mentioned – along with Margaret Atwood and Nicole Brossard - as one of Canada’s all-time important poets. Mouré? We must scrub her off that list, lest an international public think Canadians have cornered the market on unintelligibility.

Though almost anyone – including Mouré - can be brought to poetry, not everyone can write it. Sure, anyone can string a few words together, but for a piece of writing to be called a poem, it must earn that designation. And this stern evaluative attitude is not one espoused in Poetry For Dummies. Rather Timpane and Watts are antic co-ed cheerleaders. They write, "So who gets to be a poet? Anyone who wants to be." I have my doubts. For example, in the first writing exercise of the book, the authors create their own example of a ‘poem’ written about a sunset. They estimate their own efforts as follows: "Did we come up with Shakespeare? We didn’t have to - our aim was to find fresh ways of making our readers experience a sunset." Actually, that sounds like the aim of a dabbler, of someone unserious. A poet would attempt more; and though it’s grandiose to try to vault over Shakespeare, from diminished expectations come diminutive poems. Their poem, moreover, is bad - especially when, as they say, they are going "for maximum meaning and emotion":

Sunset spilled on the rug, stained
XXXXXXXXthe fabric, can’t get it out of my brain. It’s lava, hardening
to darkness.

First of all, why the unconventional typography? The rhyme of ‘stained’ with ‘brain’ is rather plain. And the cliché in "can’t get it out of my brain" should be banished. Finally, the conclusion of ‘to darkness’ sounds rather portentous. In summary, so many transgressions against style in such a short poem suggests that the authors might be better at sticking to the reading end of the poetry spectrum.

This writing exercise comes in an ominous place - in the first chapter of the book, where poetry is introduced and allowed to stain reader’s brains so that it can’t get out. ‘Forget everything that comes after,’ this exercise seems to say; ‘all the chapters on metaphor, metre, and rhyme, you don’t need them!’ I feel it was a serious mistake on the part of the authors to encourage readers to write poetry before they were really told what poetry is, especially since the book does such a good job of that; it’s like going off half-cocked. This is an error that is also reflected in Canadian Poetry ad nauseum, as I will attempt to show.


Five Years of Tips: The Governor
General’s Award 1999-2003

The following is an examination of the past five years of GG laureates and where these books transgressed against taste as formulated in the ‘tips’ area of the Poetry For Dummies manual.



The year of "Be Tough With Yourself. Cut out anything that you’ve seen in print before (the George Orwell Rule.)" p. 152, Poetry for Dummies

Tim Lilburn, Kill-site, McClelland and Stewart, 2003.

Tim Lilburn’s sixth book, Kill-site, owes so much to the late Ted Hughes’ shamanistic vision, or as Lilburn puts it in a poem, "First theology is mystical theology," that I ask if the poetry of this book needed to find utterance at all: Big Ted is a more precise, more encompassing, and more vivid poet than tiny Tim. Because Lilburn worships at Hughes’ animalian altar, it’s no wonder that that theology line is followed by "The fox moves quickly on the snow" - a homage to Hughes’ celebrated "The Thought-Fox." And this borrowed fox reappears throughout the collection, but never so memorably as in Hughes’ poem.

If Lilburn could be thought to major in Hughes, he minors in another poet intimate with nature, namely D.H. Lawrence. Consider the following excerpt from Kill-site:

thunder mourning under the chokecherry thicket, nubbly
insistently not-there wind, whose great belly is the chokecherry thicket, the
black fountaining of its fed and pleased haecceity- descended ear-sleep,
it is quickly for that one slow thing whose girthy-
it is multi-stomached- hairy-armed waiting,
its stay-in-place waiting, makes for the right arm
of the as-I-am thicket…

Note the similarities of rhythm and repetition with Lawrence’s "Bavarian Gentians:"

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time, torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day

Lilburn’s ‘thicket’ is Lawrence’s ‘dark,’ though Lawrence’s poem doesn’t need the added effect of tangled syntax to make a metaphor. There are other similarities: both pieces ceaselessly circle back to their initial images while simultaneously adding detail to them. They share y-vowel use as well as a fancy for hyphenated words. Although in Lilburn the hyphenation habit becomes a mania: in some places the number of hyphens rivals the word count. Consider "This":

XXX…the jacklit, god-on-a-pin the colour of a snow-moth-eyed collie.
And also the two truck tire track-through-excited-but-self-clasped-grass

I’m reminded of Martin Amis’ objection to Truman Capote’s overheated, over-hyphenated prose in Answered Prayers. Amis quotes:

‘A rollicking soldier-sailor-marine-marijuana-saturated Denny-Jean cross-country high-jinks’, for instance, ‘or a pasta-bellied whale-whanged wop picked up in Palermo and hog-fucked a hot Sicilian infinity ago’… The style is as promiscuous as the narrator.

Derivativeness aside, this book’s chief deism - nature mysticism - is supplied in embarrassing, soft focus patches that do injury to Hughes’ and Lawrence’s memory. What Lilburn intends is epiphany; what results is bathos. In the title poem, a deceased fellow named ‘Henry Kelsey’ has the following happen to him:

And because he was under the ground, everything came to him- he
saw a face of wheat, a face
of mineral beam, nipples of stones, a face
of winter in things, a face of what is
at the back, the watery, the alto part of the mind,
showing through skin.

It’s the magical mystical moment one dreads when reading poetry: dead people seeing faces of wheat and mineral beam at the watery backs of their alto minds. And note the lack of music in this snippet: the line breaks are as random as the sense. There is indeed a good deal of repetition, but in such a brief passage three mentions of ‘face’ is overkill. There is much, much more of this wooly mysticism to be found in Kill-site – one further example: "…enter the before-room name of the unnamed/ name…" - but in order to avoid becoming repetitious myself, I shall move on to 2002.


Not the year of "Poetry constantly presents its readers with bursts of concentrated emotion…" p. 12, Poetry For Dummies

Roy Miki, Surrender, The Mercury Press, 2002.

In this book, it is difficult to pick just one offense against style and taste; Surrender is instead a repeat offender. If one thing stands out before all the others, though, it is the utter tonelessness of Miki’s poetry. In what is essentially a book of nonsense verse, Miki manages to avoid evoking a single feeling (except perhaps frustration at his sheer obscurity).

I’m not advocating that all poems should have a meaning, but every poem should at least attempt an emotion. In the poem "Lisbon," Miki states with a straight face: "the abstraction summons all." I don’t agree; poetry should be visceral and felt as much as contemplative and intellectual. By habiting in the realm of emotion – a place of immediate experience - much more can be summoned in a poem than with baffling abstractions. What can be made of a poem like "attractive?":

The distaste for turmoil
embroiled oceanic slips
like wandering on tarmac
looking for insularity
finding dry grass
the promise of unbridled
recompense- risen dough
in the non-chalence forms
bleached by similitude
the probate will runs on
neutral- gravity’s weal
it’s the sonic boom
of a lingual disequilibrium…

I’m at a loss to divine a meaning from this poem, which continues on in the usual obscure fashion. Indeed, confusion’s a constitutive experience when reading through the whole book. But I must ask: who wanders on a tarmac desiring insularity? Where did the "probate’s will" come from? Why do the stanzas appear to be to be randomly composed? And isn’t there a tell-tale tepidness to the technique, a reliance upon stating –I hesitate to call them emotions- vaguenesses like "insularity," "recompense," and "similitude?" Would that there be a verbal "sonic boom" the poem describes! Instead, the reader is immersed in a ‘lingual disequilibrium’ that, because there is no reference point or orientation in tradition, cannot be accessed by readers other than the most fervent members of the L=A=N-G=U=A=G=E sect.

Miki anticipated these objections himself, writing later in the same poem as if he were speaking through a critic’s mouth:

…let’s get serious a poetic
text has to resonate
to transport emotion to an
island called identity.

Well, absolutely. That he’s aware of the criticism is good; that he chooses not to heed it is understandable. After all, Miki thrived long before he was feted by the GG jury. In Canada, he had no reason to be intelligible, he was rewarded precisely for being unintelligible. Consider "material recovery two":

resin does not resonate
ricochet does not return
rebellion does not make
an easy truce with frenzy
arrested weights
where did that come from?…

Where indeed. How resin relates to ricochet is beyond me, other than both start with the letter ‘r.’ A ricocheted object can, in fact, return to the point of where the body in motion started – a bullet, say - if the bullet hits other objects properly, though I’ll admit this is very rare. (Shane’s Guns for Dummies rule #1: don’t shoot in an elevator.) "Ricochet" and "rebellion" interact in interesting ways – rebellions are often armed, and there is always a chance of rebellions ending up in the deaths of the ringleaders - but "arrested weights" is plain bizarre. How can a weight get arrested? And why is this unfocused image in the poem?

"material recovery two" hurtles towards more prosaic strangeness, like with all Miki poems. In order to complete the book, the reader must abandon the fruitless process of asking questions – a faculty necessary to enjoy poetry fully- and simply accept that this bland book isn’t meant to make you feel or know anything. You must, in other words, surrender. Surrender to instances like


one more


XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXfor the road[kiyooka]

Aha indeed. This passage belies Miki’s greatest offense - he doodles on his keyboard and inflicts the results on us, his unfortunate readership. With the "one more/chapbook/for the road" bit he’s saying that he put little effort into what he was doing, that it was impromptu and unserious. Surrender is anti-poetry; it deserved no award, and that it won the GG suggests the irrelevance of the institution.


The Year of "Keep a Journal," p.147-149, Poetry for Dummies

George Elliot Clarke, Execution Poems, Gaspereau Press, 2001.

As a method of generating poetry, the Dummies authors advise neophyte poets to start a journal. There advice is as follows:

A journal is a single, locatable repository for your writing, a stockpile of raw material for future poetry… [make] lists of subjects to write about…

A cautionary note is sounded, however, when the Dummies authors go on to say:

Most journal entries aren’t poems just yet- they’re the raw material for poetry… distinguishing between a journal entry (in which you just say something) and a poem (in which you use language and thought to make something new happen) is important.

To write poetry, then, the Dummies authors suggest poets should make a list, but check it twice; they mean for their charges to keep a journal, but refine its contents into poetry, where, as they say later, "an event takes place. Something happens to the reader."

Too often in Execution Poems, a book about two black killers in 1940s New Brunswick named George and Rufus Hamilton, there is unmitigated and unmediated journal entry. Consider the blunt transcription of facts in the deliberately provocatively-titled "George & Rue: Pure, Virtuous Killers":

They were hanged back-to-back in York County Gaol…

They sprouted in Newport Station, Hants County, Nova Scotia, in 1925 and 1926.

They smacked a white taxi driver, Silver, with a hammer, to sack his silver.

They bopped Silver and hit backwoods New Brunswick in his black cab.

They slew him in the first hour of January 8, 1949, A.D…

Not much poetry to be found here, only the cribbed data from a crime report. As Robert Lowell put it, poetry should be an event, not the record of an event. Yet "George & Rue: Pure, Virtuous Killers" is all record. Even its contents have been taken from the official record. But this isn’t Execution Poems’ only instance of list: in "Child Hood I", Clarke writes in an aside:

(I miss peanut butter cookies, her sewing machine, the grey gloves

she let me present to a schoolgirl, her preacher-lover-dad’s second-

hand Shakespeare and tattered Scripture she taught me to read…

Here Clarke seems to be following the dictum of "keep a journal" on behalf of his characters, who record their sensations and memories in list fashion. Yet poetry doesn’t exist in list; as Timpane and Watts admonish, lists and other journal entries are only the "raw material" for poetry. There is much, much more of this "raw material" to be found in Execution Poems, like the following list of random violence from "Child Hood II":

A boy’s right arm stuck to a desk with scissors; a father knifed in the gut

while shaking hands with a buddy; two Christians splashed with gasoline

and set ablaze in a church; a harlot garroted in her bath; a bootlegger

shot through the eye in a liquor store; a banker brained in a vault: two

artists thrown into the Gaspereau River with their hands tied behind

their backs; a pimp machine-gunned to bits outside a school; a divine

getting his throat slit; a poet axed in the back of the neck; a Tory buried

alive in cement; two diabetics fed cyanide secreted in chocolates; a lawyer

decapitated in his office.

Again, nothing much can happen to the reader because of the sheer randomness of these disjointed impressions. All that can be gleaned is that it’s a harsh world George and Rue grew up in. Consider "Identity II" as a final example:

Hatchets of sunlight; a horse’s black ass; a decayed dreamer in a cell

of dung; Ma in an attitude of licking my bum; grotesque, gaudy insects; disgusting infants with snake’s heads; me inside a drum hammered

shut, cringing; vomiting; statues with eyeholes bandaged over; reptiles’ puncturing fangs; plush cockroaches crawling and crawling into and

out of my mouth…

And on it goes, more raw material that gets rawer and rawer. Notice the lack of music in the piece; the sounds of poetry are absent in this mere accumulation of imagery. It reads like automatic prose.

From these passages, one suspects Clarke keeps a journal, writing down his thoughts, choice words and phrases. The obvious next step is the refinement of these lists of phrases into something workable as poetry.


The Year of "Slave over your line endings!" Poetry For Dummies, p. 163

Don McKay, Another Gravity, McClelland and Stewart, 2000.

In Poetry For Dummies, the authors make special mention of the art of the line break. They state:

Poets realize that line endings carry a certain emphasis or pressure. Your lines should end where they end for some reason. The way a line ends- where, and after what word or punctuation mark- should be the best way to end… take special care with line endings! Line endings generate much of the tension, much of the specialness that makes [free] verse verse.

Don McKay is more than an able poet in other regards; I reviewed this book favourably on its initial publication, but one thing has troubled me in the years since: McKay’s is inept with the line break. Consider the first stanza of the first poem in Another Gravity, "Sometimes a Voice (1)":

Sometimes a voice- have you heard this?-
wants not to be a voice any longer, wants something
whispering between the words, some
rumour of its former life. Sometimes, even
in the midst of making sense or conversation, it will
hearken back to breath, or even farther,
to the wind, and recognize itself
as troubled air, a flight path still
looking for its bird.

The line breaks here seem random and disconcertingly weak. The "this," "something," "some", "itself," and "it will" are symptomatic of a poet with "something" to say and perhaps eventually "it will" come out but, at present, who has an incapacity to say "it."

All these line breaks end flatly, without a noun. And note the tendency here –carried forward throughout Another Gravity- to make line breaks on monosyllabics. The only two decent breaks come in six and nine with "farther" and "bird", though nine is the end of a stanza and demands a strong finale. The poem continues:

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXI’m thinking of us up there
shingling the boathouse roof. That job is all
off balance- squat, hammer, body skewed
against the incline, heft the bundle,
daub the tar, squat. Talking,
as we always talked, about not living
past the age of thirty with its
labyrinthine perils: getting hooked,
steady job, kids, business suit. Fuck that. The roof
sloped upward like a take-off ramp…

Here things pick up somewhat. We begin ominously with an unprepossessing "there" and an outright deflationary "all" but then move on to vigorous verbs like "talking" and "living" and strong nouns like "bundle," "roof," and "ramp." Yet McKay persists with his "it" fetish in line 16. The rest of the poem is itself a downhill ramp:

…waiting for Evel Knievel, pointing into open sky. Beyond it
twenty feet or so of concrete wharf before
the blue-black water of the lake. Danny said
that he could make it, easy. We said
never. He said, case of beer, put up
or shut up. We said
asshole. Frank said first he should go and get our beer
because he wasn’t going to get it paralysed or dead.

Line 20 propagates McKay’s "it" fetish. Line 21 should have ended on the word "wharf," not "before." Three "said" endings with lines 22, 23, and 26, because they are crowded so close together, sound repetitive and flat. (The end-rhyme with "dead" is nice, however.) Note again the lack of variation in syllable count (one) with McKay’s end words. The poem continues:

Everybody got up, taking this excuse
to stretch and smoke and pace the roof
from eaves to peak, discussing gravity
and Steve McQueen, who never used a stunt man, Danny’s
life expectancy, and whether that should be a case
of Export of O’Keefe’s. We knew what this was-
ongoing argument to fray
the tedium of work akin to filter vs. plain,
stick shift vs. automatic, condom vs.
pulling out in time. We flicked our butts toward the lake…

There are fewer missteps in this passage, although they are there. Line 31 should conclude with "man," not "Danny’s." Ending a line with "was," as with line 33, lessens the rhetorical pressure of any poem. And to end a line with "vs." is just lazy, indicating the poet haphazardly slapped the poem down on the page. The poem continues in this vein, as does the book, wherein "it," "as," "and," "to," "this," "that," and the atrocious "the" chronically appear at the end of McKay’s lines.

If McKay were to pay more attention to his line breaks, if he were more conscious of the discipline of the line break, then his poems would have more concision, rigor, and ultimately more "emphasis" a la the Dummies authors. If I have not made many suggestions as to alternate line breaks, it is because the poems of Another Gravity do not suggest alternatives. The poems have been written without consideration of the break and would be radically different if the line break were kept in mind during composition. The most obvious of the benefits of revision would be an elimination of the inarticulate "it-ness" of the book.


The year of "Cut everything you don’t absolutely need." p.167, Poetry For Dummies

Jan Zwicky, Songs For Relinquishing The Earth, Brick Books, 2000.

Jan Zwicky is not a catastrophic poet a la Miki; in fact, in this GG bestiary she’s arguably the best with metaphor, the very lifeblood of poetry. A few remarkable instances of metaphors include reinvigorating that granddaddy of tired metaphors, the heart, by comparing it to a "rainbarrel." Another fine metaphor comes when Zwicky compares dawn to a "paddle" slicing through the "horizon." Yet she is the most bathetic poet of the bunch assembled here, and that’s because the endings of her poems are egregious. Zwicky is a good starter but a terrible finisher. Consider the first stanza of "Open Strings":

E, laser of the ear, ear’s
vinegar, bagpipes
in a tux, the sky’s blue, pointed;

Signature Zwicky tricks include the deft metaphors in which the musical note E is "laser of the ear," "ear’s vinegar" and "bagpipes in a tux," all arresting and, more importantly, new. Yet the poem cannot continue the pace:

A, youngest of the four, cocksure and vulnerable, the white kid
on the basketball team- immature,
ambitious, charming,
indispensable; apprenticed
to desire…

The death of any metaphor is overelaboration; it should be left to stand on its own, and Zwicky feels the need to qualify A beyond "the white kid/ on the basketball team" as "ambitious, charming,/ indispensable" and "cocksure and vulnerable"- wholly unnecessary. The "apprenticed to desire" bit is unapt in the way the white basketballer metaphor is not –one could say that all the other musical notes are "apprenticed to desire." But this betrays a lesser Zwicky tic, cribbed from Tim Lilburn: a constant recourse to vague mysticism. Yet the real travesty comes at the poem’s conclusion:

are ambassadors from the republic of silence.
They are the name of that moment when you realize
clearly, for the first time,
you will die. After illness,
the first startled breath.

Just what is the poet going on about here? Zwicky stakes too great a claim for the power of this music. People realize they may die "clearly" when they become ill or come in close contact with an accident; that’s when "the moment" Zwicky’s talking about really comes. This business about listening to music and being so wounded as to be utterly transformed is, admittedly, a possibility for some- but this poem is unconvincing, largely because the conclusion oversteps its bounds. This poem does not revolutionize my spirit so that I have realized, "for the first time," that I will die. (Actually, I’ve long been aware of the fact.) And because it declaims that open string music will do this, I demand the poem making this claim to do the same.

There’s much more of this silly vagueness to ruin the conclusions to otherwise good poems. "Bartok’s Roumanian Dances" is almost identical to "Open Strings":

XXXXXXXXXXXXAnd lungs drawing breath,
feet kicking rhythm, the body
headlong in its worship of the air,
or the air,
which is boundless and momentary.

Cut cut cut such nonsense out. Enough of this so-called breath- and body-knowledge, repeated ad infinitum in this collection. Enough also with concluding banalities like that at the end of "Bill Evans: ‘Here’s That Rainy Day’": "There is sadness in the world, it says,/ past telling. Learn stillness/ if you would run clear." Poetry for Dummies should add to their rules : no weak-kneed ‘–ness’ words at the end of poems. Yet when Zwicky’s not vague or banal, the conclusions are clichéd, like in "Bill Evans: Alone": "…Says/ we hadn’t the ghost of a chance, says never/ let me go."

These are not isolated instances. Whole swaths of Zwicky poems could be jettisoned, with much better poems as a result. In the non-transparent "Transparence," there’s this extended bit of ponderous prosody:

XXXXXXXXXXXX…the experience,
unless you are freakishly lucky- like
that woman, thrown from her car, her car
rolling and bouncing up one side of the embankment and then
back down, to land on top of her, except
the roof had been dented by the guardrail
and it came down with the hollow
over her and she escaped

Whew. Not only is this a mouthful, it’s also compromised by cliché. The woman is "freakishly lucky" and she "escaped unscathed." The words "her car" appear twice in succession; indeed, the pronoun "her" is overused, a strange circumstance for poetry that is, qua the book’s title, aspiring to be music.

Perhaps Zwicky is aware of her tendency to drone on and on; mid-poem in the eight-page "Cashion Bridge", she writes "But this isn’t/ what I meant to try to say" and a page later writes "But this isn’t/ what I meant to tell you either." One wonders: when will the poem ever commence? Such noodling should be banished from a poem; a poem should not perseverate, it should disclose. But then again, perhaps the fault lies not with Zwicky, who does write well in patches, but with her editor, who should have excised much in this book.









TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

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ISSN 1494-6114. 


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