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Essay

Yvonne Blomer on John Thompson's "Ghazal XXI"

(How Poems Work, March 2004)
The ghazal (pronounced “guzzle”) is a Persian form of poetry brought to Canada by John Thompson with the posthumous publication of his second book, _Stilt Jack_ in 1978.
Though Thompson and those after him have simplified the English form, the ghazal remains image-based rather than narrative: the poet ties couplets together through recurring objects and images.
_Ghazal XXI_ is a series of nine couplets. The poem is a slow, visual progression from poem to fish hook out into the world of nature and back. It is broken into two sentences, but punctuated to show the relationship between lines in couplets and objects in those lines, so that the poem is the hook, the women are the wind….

The ghazal (pronounced “guzzle”) is a Persian form of poetry brought to Canada by John Thompson with the posthumous publication of his second book, Stilt Jack in 1978.

Though Thompson and those after him have simplified the English form, the ghazal remains image-based rather than narrative: the poet ties couplets together through recurring objects and images.

Ghazal XXI is a series of nine couplets. The poem is a slow, visual progression from poem to fish hook out into the world of nature and back. It is broken into two sentences, but punctuated to show the relationship between lines in couplets and objects in those lines, so that the poem is the hook, the women are the wind.

The ghazal (pronounced “guzzle”) is a Persian form of poetry brought to Canada by John Thompson with the posthumous publication of his second book, Stilt Jack in 1978.

Though Thompson and those after him have simplified the English form, the ghazal remains image-based rather than narrative: the poet ties couplets together through recurring objects and images.

Ghazal XXI is a series of nine couplets. The poem is a slow, visual progression from poem to fish hook out into the world of nature and back. It is broken into two sentences, but punctuated to show the relationship between lines in couplets and objects in those lines, so that the poem is the hook, the women are the wind.

From the second couplet on, I imagine Thompson at his desk watching the world outside his window, but separated from it. It is important to distinguish the “I” in a poem from the poet himself, but in the case of Thompson’s ghazals the experiences of the poet closely reflect those of the narrator, making it difficult to separate the two.

At the writing of this poem, Thompson’s wife and daughter have left. Women’s “too many” words are like the wind, but the wind is more tangible. Our eye moves, in the next couplet, from wind to sky. The thread in the sky recalls the fish hook—a longing for a bird’s-eye view. Throughout the poem the hook represents the poem, the thing that holds the narrator and releases him at the same time.

From wind to sky, we move to the sun. The burned books in the fourth couplet are prophetic of the books Thompson lost when his house burnt down four months after the writing of this poem. However, without the facts of his life, the sun in the poem remains a powerful object. It plays a roll in making us realize the weakness of words; it reveals what we don’t want to see when it shines on the “done beer can”; it even gives life to flies in the window.

In the fifth couplet, Thompson comes to a decision to sit quietly, “let the sun/ and the animals do their work”. This shows the power and activity of the natural world versus the inertness of man. In the last line of the sixth couplet remorse and self-loathing surface when he becomes the “done beer can shining stupidly.” The beer can, useless and empty, brings to mind Thompson’s alcoholism. In the introduction to John Thompson, Collected Poems and Translations, Peter Sanger writes, “But he [Thompson] always eventually returned to a sense of responsibility for what he had done to himself and others. That responsibility is at the heart of Stilt Jack.”

From revelation we move to decision and an exit from the poem. In the seventh couplet a reversal takes place. Rather than the fisherman struggling to catch and reel in a fish, the hook: “honed barb drowsing in iron water” draws the fish, which takes the fisherman out to water. He enters an “absurd” dream state, heads toward an “absurd” heaven, leaves behind an “absurd” offering—which he also goes to.

Though this ghazal stands on its own, I recommend reading the entire 38 poems so the reader can gain a fuller sense of the struggle Thompson portrays.