the poetics of failure & geography in "spare moments: seventeen (failed) ottawa ghazals"
quick ghazal while waiting for the boys
at bethel house, frank street,
february 27, 2006
as paul says, the weekend
where he lives
a significant streak
of white light windows
& last considered fall
shattered, a recovered sense
; of white-hot rooms
token through, violet; drizzling
outside snow, turned sideways
on its monday ear; a film
blue in the sock-drawer face
; diary entries shorthand
to the limpid shore
I am every day reveling more
in the adolescent past
like a latchkey dial,
descendant of needles & crumbs,
an underground claim
a track of maritime laughter
cowled, & caught on
each moment further, a sap
snap loss of natural light
a day progresses
While working on my essay on Jon Paul Fiorentino's "Transcona and poetics of failure," I became quite interested in the poetics of failure as presented not only by him, but by other poets such as Phyllis Webb, as approached through her "Poems of Failure" in Wilson's Bowl, and in her Sunday Morning: Thirteen Anti-Ghazals (some of which were reprinted in her collection The Vision Tree, Selected Poems). I had always been interested in her writing, but struck by the ghazals she worked (she was but one of many who wrote ghazals almost immediately after the appearance of John Thompson's posthumous collection Stilt Jack, but author of the few memorable ones). Still, there was something constraining about her ghazals, writing five tight sets of couplets; was that her consideration of failure?
Ten white blooms on the sundeck.
The bees have almost all left. It's September.
The woman writers, their heads bent under the light,
work late at their kitchen tables.
Winter breathes in the wings of the last hummingbird.
I have lost my passion. I am Ms. Prufrock.
So. So. So. Ah—to have a name like Wah
when the deep purple falls.
And you have sent me a card
with a white peacock spreading its tail. (p 146, The Vision Tree)
Part of what appealed to me about the ghazals of John Thompson was that his sense of the couplet wasn’t absolute, and his version of the ghazal more a guideline than a rule, making his form far more open and appealing; how to write something that makes sense to the language and cadence of the poem if it varies from the form? Is the failure that Webb and Douglas Barbour portray (anti-) in the fact that their poems are more strict, or is it something more?
I have always been partial to the Persian carpet idea, working a variation of the poetics of imperfection and rough work; only God, it is said, can make something that is Perfect, so a deliberate error is included in every rug (although notions of precision and perfection are noticeably different considerations). Perfection and control are all but fallacies, and can only lead, in many ways, to purposeless frustration; the arrogance of building something that could be Perfect, to the Persian carpet-makers, fell into the same trappings of ego as did Mary Shelley's Doctor Frankenstein, who created his monster, or the Jewish Rabbi in Prague, constructing his Golem of such legend. What is that notion of Perfection in a poem; on the other side, why are so many working to embrace failure? Is it simply a hold-over from Modernism? Can or should a poem always be Perfect, or is there simply a point in the process that the author just stops reworking a piece. Poets such as Earle Birney and Irving Layton apparently tinkered with poems even well after they were originally published, and in books, no less, leaving multiple versions as the "authoritative," and a bibliographical mess. In an interview I did with Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley (published in Rampike), he talked about this same revision process, in reworking a second edition of his Bloody Jack:
I remember many years ago Dorothy Livesay's inveighing against Earle Birney's reworking of some of his early poetry. This would have been about 1975 or so. It was misrepresenting the poetry, she said, it was seeking to alter the record. It was lying about history. I never found it easy to disagree (though I often did) with dorothy, who was strong-willed and tough, but I summoned a modest demurral. why would you think so? I said. The record is there, the poems as they earlier appeared enjoy their continued lives, as they were then published. (As they were then, are now, and ever shall be. Word without and.) Why can't Birney have another go at them, they're his poems?
I still believe this. The poems are there in their stages and they are available to anyone who would wish to find them. To argue against that move is to deny a writer any chance of 'improving' texts or of bringing them into new possibilities. Even if you left the texts 'as they are,' they still in crucial ways are not 'what they are [or were].' Even 'fixed' words come unfixed in reading-from person to person, from time to time. Why not accept that unfixing in the rewriting as well as the rereading? In any case, I had a lot of material laying around from the first go at Bloody Jack, and had written a few things since. I jumped at the chance to get the book back into print, but also to revisit it, re-imagine it. I was really pleased to have that chance. What else could become of this? What potential is there to be followed, what energies and soundings to be let loose? What tunings to made? Who would want to foreclose on that? I am so given to molestation of language I couldn't keep my hands off the poems, wouldn't leave them alone. (p 41)
To revisit a text isn’t the same as a consideration of failure or imperfection, but it goes toward the idea of poetic craft as not always that of a diamond cutter; the one perfect shape is not always the goal. The poems that make up the work-in-progress "spare moments: seventeen (failed) ottawa ghazals" (a section of The Ottawa City Project) are those of a hastily-written work through that process of perfection and failure, just as they work through and against the disconnect of the John Thompson ghazal. Unlike Thompson, there is no specific over-arcing narrative, as his thirty-eight ghazals seemed to have; the pessimistic turn of his thirty-eight years against his final output; instead, these ghazals inhabit an arbitrarily (seemingly) chosen temporal placement, written geographically as a daily log, without real beginning or end. Still, the idea of "quickness" in the poems works toward those imperfections, and those immediate lines that could not have been captured in slower moves, as another variation on Fred Wah's "drunken tai chi" from his Music at the Heart of Thinking.
But working deliberately off is different than failure; what is it about the ghazal that provokes such feeling of deliberate imperfection? Why not just write "ghazals"? What is it that makes the author claim of their own work, set loose upon the world, with the tag line that tells you they feel their own works, while still released into the world, are "not enough"? Edmonton poet Douglas Barbour, a huge fan of the writing of Phyllis Webb, worked his own version as failure, as anti-, when he published his Breath Takes: anti-ghazals. What is it about the form that makes the author feel, that to succeed, they must also ultimately fail? As she wrote in her note for the poems at the end of her selected:
These poems, composed between November 27 and November 29, 1981, were written on unlined file cards (6"x4" and 3"x5"), beginning as an exercise in the Ghazal form and ending in a quiet storm of six on Sunday, November 29.
In the previous spring I had belatedly discovered the Ghazals of John Thompson in Stiltjack, published posthumously by Anansi in 1978. Knowing little more about this ancient Persian form than what Thompson had said in his preface, my plan was to write one a day, though I usually wrote more than one when I stayed with the discipline. The plan was to interrupt for most of October and November. But as I learnt more about Ghazals, I saw I was actually defying some of the traditional rules, constraints, and pleasures laid down so long ago.
"Drunken and amatory" with a "clandestine order," the subject of the traditional Ghazal was usually love, the Beloved representing not a particular woman but an idealized and universal image of Love. The couplets (usually a minimum of five) were totally unlike the conventional English couplet and were composed with an ear and an eye to music and song.
Mine tend toward the particular, the local, the dialectical and private. There are even a few little jokes. Hence "anti Ghazals." And yet in the end (though I hope to write more), Love returns to sit on her "throne of accidie," a mystical power intrudes, birds sing, a Sitar is plucked, and the Third Eye, opal, opens. (p 156-7)
Imperfection can be approached the same way as intuition, and can come with its own sense of surprise, much like what has been said about knowing and unknowing. In the opening paragraph to his essay "Writing as a General Economy," Steve McCaffery wrote:
I've chosen to approach writing and the written text as an economy rather than a structure. The latter tends to promote essence as relational, which has the clear advantage of avoiding all closed notions of the poem as "a well-wrought urn" but suffers from a presupposed stasis, a bracketed immobility among the parts under observation and specification. As an alternate to structure, economy is concerned with the distribution and circulation of the numerous forces and intensities that saturate a text. A textual economy would concern itself not with the order of forms and sites but with the order-disorder of circulations and distributions. A writing by way of economy will consequently tend to loosen the hold of structure and mark its limits in economy's own movement. (p 201)
Further into knowability, writer and critic Stan Dragland, in his introduction to the collection Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays & Interviews, wrote:
For the writers of Poetry and Knowing, the world is not text. They feel the world's priority to words, its uncorability by words. Their homage to language honors the limits of words. Most of them are, with Dennis Lee, "summoned to a knowing outside of language altogether." "The world is its names plus their cancellations," says Tim Lilburn, "what we call it and the undermining of our identifications by an ungraspable residue in objects. To see it otherwise, to imagine it caught in our phrases, is to know it without courtesy." [Don] McKay senses that a line can be drawn between the poststructuralists who find plenty of room inside the prison house of language with its infinite play of signification, and those who badly want out, and in to non-linguistic states. (p 12)
I'd worked my variations on ghazals before, in spotted poems here and there, including the Phil Hall influenced "52 flowers" (excerpted as the chapbook Perth Flowers), or the earlier, more focused effort of the collection a compact of words, which was as a direct result of discovering my own copy of John Thompson Collected Poems & Translations (ed. Peter Sanger), and the opening poem of Stilt Jack:
Now you have burned your books: you'll go
with nothing but your blind, stupefied heart.
On the hook, big trout lie like stone:
terror, and they fiercely whip their heads, unmoved.
Kitchens, women and fire: can you
do without these, your blood in your mouth?
Rough wool, oil-tanned leather, prime northern goose down,
a hard, hard eye.
Think of your house: as you speak, it falls,
fond, foolish man. And your wife.
They call it the thing of things, essence
of essences: great northern snowy owl; whiteness. (p 107)
I've also worked my variations on time and place before, working poems that reference geography and place themselves very much where they are situated; some have argued that temporal/geographical hooks are all, in the end, I ever work. The only way around an idea that holds too often is to write fully through it, whether working the referencing other writers and their works in the ongoing books of the other side of the mouth, or by writing daily ghazals that reference a specific time and place, but only in the title. In many ways, much of the daily series (that lasted seventeen days, with little overlap of geographic location) could be interchangeable underneath the title; writing less the exploration than the inference or allusion of subject and moment. Where do the poems subsequently hold?
Barbour, Douglas. Breath Takes: anti-ghazals. Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2001.
Cooley, Dennis. Bloody Jack. Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1984; second edition, Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2001.
Dragland, Stan. "Introduction: hunch and hunger," Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays & Interviews. Ed. Tim Lilburn. Kingston ON: Quarry Press, 1995.
McCaffery, Steve. "Writing as a General Economy," North of Intention, Critical Writings 1973-1986. New York NY: Roof Books, 2000.
mclennan, rob. a compact of words. Ireland: Salmon Publishing, 2007.
_______. "interview with Dennis Cooley," Rampike. Volume 14, No. 1; Windsor ON: 2005.
_______. the other side of the mouth. Toronto ON: BookThug, 2001.
_______. The Ottawa City Project. Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2007.
_______. Perth Flowers. Vancouver BC: Nomados, forthcoming.
Thompson, John. Collected Poems & Translations. ed. Peter Sanger, Fredericton NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1995.
_______. Stilt Jack. Toronto ON: Anansi, 1978.
Wah, Fred. Music at the Heart of Thinking. Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1987.
Webb, Phyllis. Sunday Morning: Thirteen Anti-Ghazals. Lantzville BC: Island Writing Series, 1982.
_______. The Vision Tree, Selected Poems. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1982.
_______. Wilson's Bowl. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1980.