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Essay

Sandy Shreve on Barbara Nickel's "Busking"

(How Poems Work, September 2003)
Years ago, I read that Canadian poet Alden Nowlan said poems are ‘little epiphanies–everyone has them, but poets write them down.’ His comment comes to mind when I read Barbara Nickel’s work–especially her sonnets.
In “Busking,” a violinist has taken her music from the stage to the streets. Nickel enlivens a familiar market scene with language so vivid it awakens all our senses and leaves them tingling long after our eyes leave the page. The ‘little epiphany’ here is something we all know–that music, indeed all art, is food for the soul. Nickel ‘makes it new’ in the spirit of Ezra Pound’s dictum when he urged poets to write in free verse, but she does so through one of our oldest received forms, the English sonnet. …

Years ago, I read that Canadian poet Alden Nowlan said poems are ‘little epiphanies–everyone has them, but poets write them down.’ His comment comes to mind when I read Barbara Nickel’s work–especially her sonnets.
In “Busking,” a violinist has taken her music from the stage to the streets. Nickel enlivens a familiar market scene with language so vivid it awakens all our senses and leaves them tingling long after our eyes leave the page. The ‘little epiphany’ here is something we all know–that music, indeed all art, is food for the soul. Nickel ‘makes it new’ in the spirit of Ezra Pound’s dictum when he urged poets to write in free verse, but she does so through one of our oldest received forms, the English sonnet.

Years ago, I read that Canadian poet Alden Nowlan said poems are ‘little epiphanies—everyone has them, but poets write them down.’ His comment comes to mind when I read Barbara Nickel’s work—especially her sonnets.

In “Busking,” a violinist has taken her music from the stage to the streets. Nickel enlivens a familiar market scene with language so vivid it awakens all our senses and leaves them tingling long after our eyes leave the page. The ‘little epiphany’ here is something we all know—that music, indeed all art, is food for the soul. Nickel ‘makes it new’ in the spirit of Ezra Pound’s dictum when he urged poets to write in free verse, but she does so through one of our oldest received forms, the English sonnet.

The first quatrain gives a wide-angle view of a bustling, colourful farmer’s market. The air is permeated with scents and sounds. Nickel draws us into the scene by piling image upon image, pulling us deeper into the poem as we move from line to line. In the next quatrain, she adds the buskers’ music, linking it to the rest of the produce—“seeds spill down, / and juice and music mash up in a sieve.”

Then Nickel zooms in on the violinist. At one level, this quatrain, in conjunction with the preceding two, can be read in the tradition of the work poem, with its portrayal of busking from the perspective of the performer.

But another layer of meaning to the poem emerges in the closing couplet—which in the English sonnet is where the images of the quatrains culminate into a central theme. In this one, the timeless and the ephemeral merge and become interchangeable.

Literally the “shadow” here is cast by the violin as it’s being played. A child moves to the rhythm which he sees and hears, and from the perfect boy / joy rhyme we know he’s having a great time. But “the shadow of my joy” is also attributed to the violinist (“my”), reflecting her pleasure in recreating a piece of music composed centuries ago.

Musician and child are linked in a fleeting moment of shared joy occasioned by a timeless composition. The shadow, figuratively the long reach of the finest art, becomes the agent of the author’s ‘little epiphany’—the recognition that art is not an optional pleasure. Rather, now as throughout the ages, it provides us with a sustenance that is as essential to humanity as food.

Nickel is an accomplished violinist as well as a poet, and her musical sense is evident in every technical aspect of “Busking,” from her accomplished rhymes to her skillful combination of enjambed and end-stopped lines. For instance, she deftly varies the iambic metre to underscore the difference between playing for loose change at a market and performing in a concert hall. Reversing the iamb on key words such as “juggle” and “Mozart” emulates interruptions that would not occur in an auditorium. At the same time, these are mild alterations to the overall iambic pentametre pattern, implying the interruptions belong to, rather than disrupt, the music.

The Gladys Elegies received the League of Canadian Poets’ Pat Lowther Memorial Award in 1998 for the best book of poetry written by a woman in the previous year.