from A river runs through it: a writing diary
, collaborating with Julie Carr
When contemplating poetic rhythm, I also think of Vancouver poet Fred Wah. I think of him, too, in the notion of “response,” prompted in part through the collected edition of his Music at the Heart of Thinking (2020), a new volume collecting the one hundred and seventy numbered poems in this sequence-to-date for the first time. Wah, too, who has offered Williams as a direct influence, specifically his Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), which we discussed in my 2015 interview with him for Jacket2:
Q: What is it about William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920) that has been so important to your work? Is it purely the fact of introducing you to the possibilities of improvisation, or does it go beyond that?
A: No, I was introduced to the possibilities of improvisation through the immediacy of composing a “moment” while ad libbing on the horn. Williams came a little later, around 1961, as an affirmation of an improvisational condition, or possibility, in writing. I picked up a copy of Number Seven of the City Lights Pocket Poet Series Kora in Hell: Improvisations at Duthies downtown for a buck and a quarter. I might have done this after being quite rocked by Williams’ “The Desert Music” which we had looked at in Warren Tallman’s 406 Poetry class at UBC.
At the time, I didn’t contextualize Kora historically (first published in 1920 (I didn’t see Spring and All, 1923, until later). What I read was syntactic noise. The text rambled wonderfully all over the place, the writing and the writer in sync with each linguistic moment, totally open and unpredictable: “When beldams dig clams their fat bums (it’s always beldams) balanced near Tellus’ hide…” etc., not narrative but focused on the word, the syllable, the sounds, the phrase (rubbing against the sentence). I didn’t register “prose poem” formally until later, with Music at the Heart of Thinking. But that drive in the syntax, non-sequential, non-sensical, the edges of phrase and word, provided me with a clear sense of the units of composition I was interested in playing with and exploring with. And critical attention to improvisation and Williams (like Gerald Bruns’ excellent essay, “De Improvisatione,” and Stephen Fredman’s fascinating reading of Kora in his book Poet’s Prose) became useful when I was “teaching” writing. A contemporary, and a friend, Jack Clarke (see In the Analogy), from my Buffalo days, a wonderful jazz pianist and Blake scholar, during the 70’s and 80’s was also writing improvisation as poetry and that sustained my ongoing attraction to such formal attention. Fredman quotes Williams at the start of his chapter on Kora with Williams’ characterization of his “Improvistions”: “Their excellence is, in major part, the shifting of category. It is the disjointing process.”
The best response to a poem, after all, is another poem. Was it Margaret Atwood who first offered that? The first ten poems in the sequence, as Wah’s notes acknowledge, were “written for and published in an issue of Open Letter (5.7 [Spring 1984]) on notation,” a project originally prompted by bpNichol and Frank Davey (there are at least three Open Letter issues “on notation”). The original handful of poems might have been prompted by an idea on notation, but the poems quickly evolved into a sequence of responses, whether composed as individual pieces or short groupings of pieces, to music, visual art, theory and poetry. The first sixty-nine pieces later appeared as Music at the Heart of Thinking (1987), with a subsequent thirty-five appearing as part of Alley Alley Home Free (1992). Subsequent pieces collected in the volume originally emerged through numerous literary journals, festschrifts, anthologies and further of his trade titles, existing as a thread across the length and breadth of his work since, encompassing nearly forty years of composition. There is something fascinating about a poetry title composed across four decades, especially one that emerges out of a particular thread excised from the rest of his work. How does this one thread exist in relation to other pieces he’s worked on, across that same period? Perhaps at some point down the road, a similar volume might compile Gil McElroy’s ongoing “Julian Days,” another sequence of poems focusing equally on “response” as well as an attention to form, language and breath. To pull out and compile a single thread, what is the portrait that might emerge? As Wah writes to introduce those original pieces in Open Letter:
THE FOLLOWING ‘DRUNK’ WRITINGS ARE NOTES FOR TALK. IN THE explication of these estranged pieces lies possible coherences for some sense of writing as a notation for thinking as feeling. The difficulty is literal and intentional. I’m wary of any attempt to make it easy. ‘language [the true practice of thought]’ Kristeva says or Jack writing yesterday with reminders all through his letter, mind stumbling over itself not recognizing stuff ‘till later,
That last part of your letter makes me remember Wittgenstein’s saying ‘don’t think, look.’ And if the ‘dogmatic order’ is only in the para-text of perception, then … the syntax of thinking in its (linguistic) periodicity is always going to elide that bump or ‘nipple’ Juan de la Cosa’s eyes included (but you’d have this already from Henry Lee and Benjamin L.).
And then the gates open to the ‘double,’ the binary. Emic. Dialogic.
Perhaps this all returns to Williams, after all. In many ways, Wah’s “Music at the Heart of Thinking” is built in a manner opposite to a project such as Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley’s impossibly-large and ongoing “Love in a Dry Land”: where Cooley’s is a single project nearly thirty years in the making, with threads excerpted for book publication, Wah’s appears as a single, occasional and ongoing thread. His is a sequence of occasionals sprung from a shared impulse of improvisation and response; a project that adds poems as they are needed, potentially for as long as he requires them. The idea of “drunk writings” he mentions in his original introduction, is something he referred to in that first trade volume as “drunken tai chi”: a master craftsman deliberately compromised, forcing themselves to work more intuitively, and allowing the unconscious to take over. In the note at the back of the current collection, he continues that particular thread, writing that “The ‘MHTs’ became, for me, a niche for a compositional attention I wanted to explore in particular ways. I had been attracted to the prose poem through my attempts at the utanikki, the poetic journal. Within the prose poem I was interested in upsetting the tyranny of the sentence as a unit of composition. The resistance to closure and syntactic predictability implicit in contesting the sentence is a dynamic also shared with the long poem.” As his opening note to the current volume, “One makes (the) difference,” begins:
To say: “I don’t understand what this means,” is, at least, to recognize that “this” means. The problem is that meaning is not a totality of sameness and predictability. Within each word, each sentence, meaning has slipped a little out of sight and all we have are traces, shadows, still warm ashes. The meaning available from language goes beyond the actual instance of this word, that word. A text is a place where a labyrinth of continually revealing meanings are available, a place that offers more possibility than we can be sure we know, sometimes more than we want to know. It isn’t a container, static and apparent. Rather, it is noisy, frequently illegible. Reading into meaning starts with a questioning glance, a seemingly obvious doubloon on a mast.
The “Music at the Heart of Thinking” poems, a project that emerged out of Wah’s attention to improvisation and response appears to be the thread of his work where he more overtly explores the possibilities of improvisation alongside ekphrastic movement, allowing the poems a looseness, and trusting them to land as they should. Set together for the first time, the ebb and flow of the series is interesting, as the poems expand and contract, reach out and retreat; from compact prose poems to sentence-stanzas, exploring both the breath-line and the poetic sentence. “The plateau of the poem,” he writes, to open “127,” “pulling a story from a fire / smouldering under foot / on a periphery of words / as things while sentenced [.]” The series also evolves from more general explorations to specific responses, whether to specific people, artworks or thinking, such as “Music at the Heart of Thinking Eighty-Something,” after Christine Stewart, that includes: “Where to go to get the word rubble now or as you say fair / producing sky weather may eventually.” Wah’s has always been a poetic simultaneously engaged with breath and quick thought, language and deep meditation on being, identity and theory, and Music at the Heart of Thinking provides an ongoing example of just how powerful a master can be, even as he allows himself the quick line, the quick sketch; allowing himself to relax, and let go.
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