Poetry is Dead, Ho-Hum Six Quotes from Virgil Thomson

Its death decreed with nauseous insistence, the stuff simply won’t die. In fact, it can be argued that poetry is being reborn today as spoken word, folk-song, open-mic rap, text message and audiobook. Taking us back to poetry’s oral origin: the sound of the human voice in Homer, Ovid, Indigenous myth and Norse saga. 

American composer Virgil Thomson — a famously difficult and take-no-prisoners critic — sets out six insights into the role of the poet in modern society:

  • Society today has no place for poets. Science, computing, big data, artificial intelligence, journalism, fiction, religion and politics – ancient bailiwicks all – are now closed to them.
  • Poetry doesn’t pay anything at all, of course. It won’t buy a beer, subway or bus fare, drugs or Netflix. Nor does it prevent the darkest despair from seizing them when all alone.
  • Everything poets do is desperate and excessive. They eat like pigs; starve, tramp, get arrested, steal, abscond, betray, blackmail and dope. They come down with every known disease, not the least being solitary dipsomania.
  • But some poets are truly brave with incredible loyalty; they are the last of honour and chivalry. 
  • Some people think poets are just being fanciful when they talk magic and sorcery. Not so. Poets are the only people in the world with any profound prescience about the unchaining of the dark forces that have so shaped and shaken the modern world.
  • The poet’s chief utility is to help us to fight those dark forces with evolutions not only picturesque — but sometimes salutary, instructive and grand.

Excerpts, Survival of an Earlier Civilization or Shades of Poets Dead and Gone

A Virgil Thomson Reader

1981

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From the archive: Harry Redl, Photographer to the Beat Poets

By Alex Rose

Harry Redl had a keen eye for cultural dissonance. 

An Austrian serving with the German navy in the Baltic Sea, Redl was captured by the Americans in 1945. After the war, he emigrated to Canada, taking various jobs in Vancouver: waiter, logger and shipping clerk. In 1956, hoping to freelance as a photographer for Life magazine, he bused to San Francisco, ground zero for the Beat Generation. 

Redl was astonished by the energy swirling around him there and stayed to set up a studio in North Beach, where he befriended and photographed the angel-headed geniuses who rejected the button-down repression of post-war North America. Brandishing his $100 Rolleiflex, Redl would take more than 8,000 photographs over the next three years (1957-60). His black-and-white portraits—natural light and settings—document the now-famous bohemians in their habitat. 

In a 1957 shoot, Redl snuck his camera into the visitor’s room at San Quentin to snap a wary Neal Cassady, then serving three years for possession of marijuana. Cassady was no intellectual, Redl recalls in an interview in his West Vancouver studio, “but was the bisexual bad boy of the Beat Generation—a good-looking truck driver and conman who liked to fuck.” 

Cassady was the muse who had driven Jack Kerouac to his typewriter to depict the exploits of his friend. In his book, The Long, Slow Death of Jack Kerouac, Jim Christy describes their first meeting in 1946: “ ….a maniac of energy, and just a plain maniac. His name was Neal Cassady. When the two men met, each met his other half, and they handed each other the ticket to mortality.” One year later they hit the road together in a journey since raised to myth. 

Kerouac’s book On the Road brought Cassady into the pantheon as “that mad Ahab at the wheel,” who compelled a generation to do the same. Redl recalls how the cult picked up elements of jazz, the drug culture and the normal rituals of adolescent seeking which grudgingly admitted to its ranks a few young women (then called “chicks”) wearing black turtlenecks and sandals. 

The poet Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac competed with each other for Cassady’s bed. Madly in love, Ginsberg won out and said so in his poem The Green Automobile, “honking my horn at his [Cassady’s] manly gate.” In a time long before AIDS, Cassady slept with hundreds of partners, male and female. 

Ginsberg was the star attraction of poetry festival held at the University of British Columbiain 1963. My father, Ron Rose, was sent to cover the story for The Vancouver Sun. But, the young reporter was able to file just three inches, “because every other word out of Ginsberg’s mouth was fuck.”

Redl soon met poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose bookstore, City Lights, published Ginsberg’s first book, Howl (1956), an angry indictment of America’s false hopes and broken promises. Howl was seized by the U.S. government under obscenity charges, but the charges were eventually dropped. 

Redl was there to capture it all: the mysticism, energy, the sense of being alive—even if served up with an insistent and self-referential homoeroticism that seemed to exclude most women. Most of all, Redl was struck by the spontaneity of his subjects and their new world. Ginsberg’s doctrine of “first thought, best thought” encouraged him to see as poems all sorts of prose jottings and notebook scribblings, and his belief that poetry ought to provide seamless transcriptions of the mind encouraged him to publish the jottings and scribbles. Far more than window dressing for youthful rebellion, the Beats utilized a new kind of free verse, accompanied by jazz, to proclaim the virtues of sex, drugs and Buddhism. 

Not surprisingly, they offended the literary gatekeepers of the time. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon has but two passing references to Ginsberg, who died in 1997; none for Kerouac and the Beats. But today a new generation of young hipsters in Brooklyn, San Francisco and Vancouver is revisiting aspects of Beat cosmology and art, appropriating and tailoring older ideas for a digital world. 

“Back in those days, Ginsberg was rail-thin,” Redl recalled in a 1999 interview with me. “Allen was such an honorable man, filled with compassion and caring, so convinced of the genius of his friends that he dragged them on to the stage with him so they could make a living.” In retrospect, Redl believes, the Beats rejuvenated literature by returning to the oral tradition. “When Ginsberg stood up and read his poems—such vitality, such rhythm—people sat up in their seats.”

Readings at New York’s Village Vanguard in 1956 attracted a young Canadian student named Leonard Cohen, then studying at Columbia University. One year later, he was on stage at Dunn’s Steak House in downtown Montreal putting his own poems to music, writing morose ballads about love and death in a deep, rough-hewn voice that would change pop music forever. 

But promiscuity, recklessness and madness do not necessarily equate with sunny enlightenment. At least not for Kerouac who, despite new-found fame, rejected the advances of the girls who waited in the pubs — choosing instead to spend most of his time at mom’s house. When Kerouac died, he left everything to the woman he most loved throughout his live — his mother, Gabrielle.

What sad decline. Old friends shook their heads at the fat and surly recluse who seldom ventured out of the house unless to trade punches at the local bar. When Cassady landed in jail, Kerouac refused to send bail money. “I’m no psychiatrist but I think Kerouac was afraid of the feelings he had for Cassady,” Redl says. “It must have tormented him that all his favorite people were all homosexuals, yet he lived with his mother.” 

Cassady died in 1968 at 42. His heart exploded as he ran alongside a train in Mexico. Kerouac himself would die two years later, at 47, of complications from alcoholism.

Sadly, Redl remains largely invisible to many Canadian curators, perhaps confused by the fact that almost all his portraits are Americans. With sneering vituperation, Redl recounted the politically correct parochialism of one North Vancouver gallery director who, after leafing through the archive, had the audacity to say: “Beautiful work. But have you got any more Canadians?” 

Redl died in Vancouver in 2011. In the end, he returned again and again to a subject that haunts any serious artist. Redl dreamed that one day, his astonishing portraits of the Beats would be bound and published in a book—so that a new generation can see for themselves the poets who turned the modern world on its ear.

Coffee shop, Lee Bacchus

Self-Portrait, Harry Redl

Allen Ginsberg, Harry Redl

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That Summer at Squitty Bay

Excerpt, A Killing at Easter Hill, a serialized novella by Alex Rose

That morning we met Miro, the caretaker who lived in the cabin one cove over. He must have been briefed by the colonel because he was friendly and accommodating from the first, helping us move in and get the babies settled.

Miro seemed to understand we had come to the island to rest, to get away from people all July and August. But by the end of the first week, we had questions about the colonel’s log home, about the property and best place to fish. As if on cue Miro would appear, his Mannlicher-Schoenauer bolt-action rifle in hand.

He knew we were curious about the rifle and said he used it to hunt wild sheep and deer that lived on the island.

Over the summer we heard rumours about Miro: that he had been a Czech freedom fighter, that he was an expert marksman and that the colonel hired him as a warning to the drug dealers who grew marijuana in the fields across the road. (The islanders tell the story of how one dealer, who after betraying his family, had been strapped to the engine block of a rusting car and pushed off the cliff and into Johnstone Strait. Police divers never did find the corpse.)

That summer at Squitty Bay, it was fine and hot. While Beatrice worked on her manuscript, I hiked and swam with the children and learned to fish for salmon and rock cod.

One afternoon on a bluff looking across the strait to Mount Washington, I fell asleep to wake up with the sense a rifle sight was aimed at my head.

Miro invited me to go hunting. We followed the rocky trail across the granite shale at the base of the cliff before heading back up another trail, one groomed by wild sheep and Fallow deer. Weeds broke into blossom in the heat of the afternoon. Miro waved me into a kneeling position behind a favourite tree stand. He loaded one bullet into the chamber before passing me his rifle. I was to kill the animal with a single bullet into its “boiler room,” the heart and lungs.

Sometime later a Fallow deer wandered into the clearing.

I took the shot but missed. The bullet ricocheted off a rock. The deer leapt up and bolted into the scrub.

Next afternoon, Miro arrived with a rack of wild lamb; we cooked it over an open fire — with fresh rosemary and tomatoes and beans from the colonel’s garden.

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Foul Bay Rambler

Excerpt, A Killing at Easter Hill, a serialized novel by Alex Rose

We met Tal in journalism school and he was just the thing for it. Short, pugnacious, he was a revving engine of  a man with a shock of blonde hair falling into his face.

Tal had gone to an elite prep school and was a close reader — devouring the books we loved but on a level deeper — and employing a convoluted academic theory to investigate construals of truth — actually his longing for a kind of innocence and transcendence beyond the profane world he claimed we live in.

Finn Slough is a tiny Fraser River fishing community located at the south end of No. 4 Road in Richmond, B.C. Lee Bacchus image

He was a great talker, our Samuel Taylor. Tal knew every lyric of Astral Weeks, every Eliot Christian reference and — in our heaviest rotation — all smut and scandal of Larkin, Joyce and Ginsberg. On long rambles through the crunch of Vancouver’s leafy West Side we chortled at Pynchon’s world of paranoia, sex, conspiracies and shadowy government agencies so persuasive that, under Tal’s tutelage, we began to see such signs and signifiers everywhere.

Tal had written a paper on Lawrence and surprised us by saying the poems were better than the famous prose. Tal hammered home the Lawrence dictum that ours is essentially a tragic age — so we refuse to take it tragically.

But life intervenes. I introduced Tal to Florian and he was smitten instantly. He fell hard, his world turned aslant. Florian had inherited heaven’s graces and then some. Tall and handsome — a Byronic crown of curly black hair — all the girls and more than a few of the boys clamoured for the pleasure of his company; the mystery, the wit and inclusive humour that could turn cruel for no reason whatsoever. (Combing though a psychoanalytic dictionary, we chanced upon an entry that described Florian’s seductive personality — but were never able to find it again).

In Florian’s company Tal turned coquette and suitor — despite himself, despite his intellectual rigour. A man in love unknowing, he turned silly and fey — turning up at Florian’s flat at Alma and 2nd unannounced, every and all hours. 

Flattered at first and amused by Tal’s exculpations, Florian soon enough began diluting the experience making Tal ever more determined in wounded pursuit. 

One Saturday morning, I was witness to a humbling contumelious. I came up the stairs to hear Tal whining, begging for comfort, for Florian’s approbation. ‘I’m fat,’ he sobbed.

Florian had turned his back, a slim silhouette looking down into the street.

‘What can I do?  Look at my fat,’ grabbing at a great loose gut spilling out over his belt. ‘Help me, Florian — please.’

‘You are fat. Too fucking fat. And a vexation to my spirit,” said Florian, holding the door. 

‘Don’t  you understand you’re not my problem.’

Some time later Tal  and I worked the Monday night council beat at the New Westminster Columbian newspaper, a farm league for the big-city papers. Forty bucks a story.

It was a tawdry affair with bad flourecent lighting that helped hide the burned out lives hunched over cheap computer screens driven by a flickering orange curser. Hacks, liars and toadies toiled away while diminishing time before deadline became more and more valuable. Cursing, sarcasm and threats ruled the rim as the younger reporters — or those who still gave a shit about municipal politics — tried hard to believe they were professionals, not just scum.

I was updating a Port Moody sewerage story when Tal sidled up to my desk. Greying teeth, cascading dandruff, soiled gym socks and more than a whiff of failure.

‘What’s up? What’s your story?’ I asked.

‘Nada. No news from Surrey,’ Tal said.

‘Whoa.  You got to come up with something, buddy. A feature on the farmer’s market, the wrestling champ from Queensborough — the bore who collects classic cars, anything. The editors expect it. The game, you know.’

‘No. Nothing. Not any more,’ Tal said, storming out.

————-

After he was fired, Tal quit journalism and embraced his true calling — a kind of intellectual Christianity. And flacking for a non-demoninational charity he met and married a woman priest — an expert on Elaine Pagels — and moved to Foul Bay.

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Excerpt, A Killing at Easter Hill, a novella by Lars Kohesiv

Fifteen years ago they bought the bishopric near Lime Kiln Point on San Juan Island and have lived there ever since. Before retirement, Denise commuted every week to Seattle Medical Centre, where she worked as a psychiatric nurse. Monday to Friday she stayed at her mother’s home on Capitol Hill while Piers stayed on the island, working as a “mediation consultant.” (About his actual occupation there was an insistence of whispered innuendo — gigolo, grifter, con man — but here on the Coast with few real jobs, such talk is common enough.)

A tall man with close-set eyes who marched along in an exaggerated show of vigour, Piers was born in Argentina and came to the U.S. as a teenager. As an ice-breaker, he describes himself as “more Brit than the British.” He has the plummy accent down, using it to great effect when the local theatre stages My Fair Lady and Major Barbara. He was also elected councillor for the Islands Trust, coming alive in public Q & A sessions.

Over the years, the two built a working garden with fresh vegetables to get them through the year. A handsome border of flowers — each coming into bloom in sequence — completes the picture, alongside a maze of deer netting, de rigeur on all the Gulf Islands.

They also built a pond and, over time, stocked it with exotics such as Green Spotted Puffer fish, Sting Rays — all brightly-coloured, shimmering. Late in the afternoon, sipping gin and wine, they sat beside the pool, luxuriating in the pride of their accomplishment. 

But the fish proved easy picking for raccoons and herons. A series of nets and traps were deployed to thwart the marauders but were less than successful: the Blue heron with its dagger-like beak.

One day, as Denise came up the long driveway to the bishopric, she heard the blast of a shotgun. Pulling into the driveway, walking round back, she saw Piers standing by the pool, a dead heron in one hand, a smoking shotgun in the other, his face beet red and wreathed in triumph. As if in supplication, he held it up to her — that bleeding and broken thing. 

For the first time, Piers had killed for her. And they were both very happy indeed.

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Still Life with Apples

Oil on canvas

Walter Giesbrecht, 2011

Edouard Manet once called still life “the touchstone of painting.”

A still life, derived from the Dutch word stilleven, is a piece that features an arrangement of inanimate objects as its subject. Usually, these items are set on a table and often include organic objects like fruit and flowers and household items like glassware and textiles.

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“Game(s) On” – New Book by Tewanee Joseph

Ten years ago, as CEO of Four Host First Nations, Tewanee Joseph was widely credited with “putting an Indigenous face” on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Since then, Indigenous stories have become integral to the daily news mix in Canada — with articles about pipeline protests, land and resource battles, missing and murdered Indigenous women and poisoned drinking water on reserves — as well as features on art, culture and politics.

In his new book, Game(s) On, Tewanee Joseph writes about the new inclusiveness dramatically reshaping Canadian society. Biracial — Maori father and Squamish Nation mother — the 46-year-old tells of his struggle to understand the forces that shaped him, growing up hard on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. And, how his love of lacrosse saved him and how he was protected at every turn by his mother.

His is a powerful book of self-discovery with illuminating insights into the problems not only of race and class, but of culture and ethnicity. Since his Olympic victory, Joseph — working in business, youth sports and education — has become an influential voice throughout this country. Feb. 2020 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the Four Host First Nations success. His book will be featured there.

Walhachin Press, the North Vancouver-based indie co-op, will publish the book. Alex Rose is providing editorial services.

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