How Poems Work: A Brief History of the Canadian Ghazal


At a certain point in John Thompson’s Stilt Jack, the author looks up and away from trout, stones, water, bait, and hooks, and re-focuses his intuitive gaze:

Sometimes I think the stars scrape at my door, wanting in;
I’m watching the hockey game.

The complexity achieved in these two lines deserves public quotation, and its source should be a fixture in any overview of contemporary Canadian poetry. Since its posthumous appearance in 1978, Thompson’s book has been what Lorna Crozier calls a “classic among writers, passed by word of mouth and from hand to hand.” In terms of influence, it’s an earthquake. It shifts the ground of Canada’s lyrical poetics. That’s why Atwood says “certainly for readers of Canadian poetry in the 1970s this is an essential book”; why Ondaatje claims that “John Thompson was our bright, brief star”; and why Patrick Lane enters into shameless superlatives: “No one who reads his life’s work can go away unchanged.” That’s certainly been true for me.

Yet, Thompson is excluded from the mainstream. He’s never anthologized, and except for the invaluable, pioneering scholarship of Peter Sanger, he’s rarely discussed with critical acuity. Instead, we get myths of the man that obscure conversations about the incredible imagination of his work. In a way, Thompson suffers the same fate as Glenn Gould: instead of talking about technique, innovation, challenging complexity, microphones placed on strings, couplets placed against traditions, most commentators simply dismiss or celebrate these guys as mad geniuses. That’s not good enough. Instead of discussing Thompson’s wondrous allusiveness in Stilt Jack, folks tend to focus on the dark torment of its composition, citing house fires, hunting rifles, alcoholism, and tenure battles rather than zeroing in on the poems themselves, the worlds they open and the arcs they trace.

The legend of Thompson survives because of this treatment, but I think Stilt Jack deserves more than such an underground celebrity. That’s why I’ve spent the last few years writing on the ghazal’s emergence in Canada, and why I’m writing here. I’m trying to follow the advice Cary Fagan offered over two decades ago: “Not for his death should John Thompson be remembered, but for Stilt Jack, an astonishing and elusive work that is one of the finest collections of poems ever written in this country.”

Like Thompson himself, his chosen form is often skimmed rather than understood. Open a Canadian literary journal, or attend any given open-mic, and you’ll likely find attempts at English-language ghazals. Some of these shine. But, the ghazal in English isn’t an easy form to get right, even if it’s simple to make a poem seem like a ghazal. What’s happened to the ghazal in the last 25 years is what happened to the haiku in the last 50: a wondrous break from logic that stages formality to accommodate sloppy musings as deep insights. Such pretension doesn’t make a ghazal, a haiku, or any other poem. What does make a ghazal is the query I hope to answer here. (In other words, I’d rather concentrate on how folks get the form right than weakly abusing those who, in my view, get it wrong. When Adrienne Rich said such insults formed enclaves “defined by little sects who feed off each others’ errors,” after all, she knew what she was talking about.)

While the form is obviously different in 20th-Century North America than in 19th-Century India or 12th-Century Persia—where it was the dominant lyric style—its central purpose can be gleaned in any language. Thompson realized this:

There is, it seems to me, in the ghazal, something of the essence of poetry: not the relinquishing of the rational, not the abuse of order, not the destruction of form, not the praise of private hallucination.

The ghazal allows the imagination to move by its own nature: discovering an alien design, illogical and without sense—a chart of the disorderly, against false reason and the tacking together of poor narratives. It is the poem of contrasts, dreams, astonishing leaps. The ghazal has been called “drunken and amatory” and I think it is. But what is a ghazal, exactly? And why do poets like Agha Shahid Ali claim so vehemently that those writing in English (who often mispronounce the form as “gazelle;” it’s closer to the word “guzzle”) are pillaging a literary museum to exoticize its artifacts? You can’t stuff whatever you want into a ghazal, he says; it’s a form that’s bigger than you are. “The ghazal is not an occasion for angst,” he says, “it is an occasion for genuine grief.” It’s not amorphous, but precise. Not eagerly waiting to be filled, but fighting against lazy egotism. So, in the late 60s, Ali says, “Those claiming to write ghazals in English (usually American poets) had got it quite wrong, far from the letter and farther from the spirit. For those brought up in Islamic literary traditions, especially the Persian and Urdu ghazal, to have many of these arbitrary near-surrealistic exercises in free verse pass for ghazals was—is—at best amusing.”

see issue for full essay.


an Arc Essay [read more essays]
Published in Arc 62: Summer 2009
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