End it all and everything you’ve ever written is transposed into the score of your demise. In an instant, your oeuvre becomes a long, rather mannered suicide note. Your corpus becomes your corpse, and readers will dissect it like coroners. Behind every darkly turned phrase they’ll detect the angel of death.
Before Twitter, the best way for a poet to advance his career was by offing himself. The sort of splashy gesture that might catch the distractible eye of a reporter, it also has the happy side effect of radically reducing a poet’s cost of living. The only obvious drawback is that he has to resign himself to being forever misunderstood.
End it all and everything you’ve ever written is transposed into the score of your demise. In an instant, your oeuvre becomes a long, rather mannered suicide note. Your corpus becomes your corpse, and readers will dissect it like coroners. Behind every darkly turned phrase they’ll detect the angel of death. Reading the poem “Edge,” from the end of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, everybody knows—wrongly—she could only have been thinking of one thing when she wrote: “The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment.” In other words, killing yourself encourages people to read poetry in the worst possible way, as an enigma—what is the poet trying to say?—waiting to be deciphered.
About this at least, Margaret Atwood was right: Canadian poets have for the most part been survivors when it comes to suicide. Having killed ourselves in fewer numbers, we’ve also produced fewer books that can be interpreted as suicide notes like Berryman’s Dream Songs. Richard Outram’s death by his own hand seems to have had more to do with the despair of losing his companion, collaborator, and wife at the end of a long life than with his succumbing to a lifelong depression; his suicide doesn’t transform his body of work either. Our only notable exception is the great John Thompson, whose mysterious death at 38, of either suicide or accidental overdose, casts a pall over his mercurial masterpiece, Stilt Jack (
John Thompson: Collected Poems and Translations, edited by Peter Sanger, Goose Lane Editions, 2015).
Born in England during the Second World War, John Thompson arrived in Canada in the autumn of 1966, having accepted an appointment as assistant professor of English at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. An avid outdoorsman and fisherman, he moved his family—his wife Meredith and their two-year-old daughter—to an idyllic little farmhouse where he wrote the mostly happy poems of his first collection, the promising but innocuous At The Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets.
Thompson, though, liked to drink. Peter Sanger’s generous and comprehensive introduction to Thompson’s Collected Poems recounts how towards the end of the 60s, Thompson’s drinking, and what Sanger calls his “uncompromising presence (or absence)” began to complicate his life. In a story as old as CanLit itself, a small, prurient group of English professors felt that Thompson was “irresponsible,” “a subversive and a failure as a writer,” and pressured the University to withhold tenure from him when his four-year probationary term of employment expired. Although there was a larger group of professors—and indeed, students—that disagreed with the mischaracterization, in the spring of 1970 the university president, one L.H. Cragg wrote a letter to the future author of Stilt Jack explaining how “most of the tenured members of your Department entertain serious doubts about your potential.” For many of Thompson’s admirers, the episode is a testament to the radical incompetence of the Mount Allison English department, its abject failure in firing a writer who in short order would matriculate from its faculty to its syllabus.
The students of Mount Allison ended up revolting, and eventually the University reinstated Thompson. But by 1973, the year Anansi published his first book, Thompson’s life was disintegrating. His wife and daughter left him, and the house he’d moved into was isolated, freezing, and dilapidated. By Sanger’s account, Thompson’s drinking was now more or less out of control. It was under these conditions he began to compose Stilt Jack.
Published posthumously, Stilt Jack is a collection of 38 ghazals, a poem for every year of Thompson’s life. He includes a brief primer on the form as an introduction, where he explains the ghazal’s origin in ninth century Persia, and its formal conventions. The ghazal, he writes, “proceeds by couplets which (and here, perhaps, is the great interest in the form for Western writers) have no necessary logical, progressive, narrative, thematic (or whatever) connection.” That’s not quite right though, as the poems in Stilt Jack do have a kind of logic—alcoholic logic. Thompson ends his introduction by writing: “The ghazal has been called ‘drunken and amatory’ and I think it is.” Thompson’s interest in drinking, in other words, wasn’t strictly recreational. In 1962 he published a translation of Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat.” In 1966, he edited and helped translate a book on Paul Claudel and his “l’ivresse poetique,” which Thompson himself rendered as “poetic drunkenness.” And in Stilt Jack, he managed, more than any poet since Baudelaire, to distill the feeling—and the meaning—of being intoxicated.
The first poem opens with a tone any barfly will recognize, the self-admonishing second person of your conscience telling you that you’re ruined: “Now you have burned your books: you’ll go / with nothing but your blind, stupefied heart.” But the formal conventions of the ghazal don’t let Thompson dwell in melancholy very long, and soon his spirit is buoyant again with the impossible optimism of a booze hound trying out the old geographical solution: “In this place we might be happy; blue- / winged teal, blacks, bats, steam / from cows dreaming in frost.” His state of mind turns not only between poems, but between lines, which can start despairingly and end carefree: “I can’t talk to God. Tonight, I dug / three hills of potatoes. Sadness, what’s that?” Or even faster, when he pivots on the most devastating comma in Canadian poetry: “Breaking my heart, laughing.” Elsewhere, he turns from prophet to couch potato in a colon: “Sometimes I think the stars scrape at my door, wanting in: / I’m watching the hockey game.” You get the sense that Thompson’s punctuation is well irrigated.
In other words, Stilt Jack transforms the formal conventions of the ghazal—its elisions, its violent mood shifts and pirouettes of sense—into the sound of a mind in its cups. I mean that as a compliment. It’s easy in our cultural milieu to conclude that a poet with Thompson’s thirst was indulging his self-destruction, aestheticizing it, but Thompson’s poetic inebriation isn’t the slacker, secular blotto of a Charles Bukowski or an Al Purdy, but rather the resigned, world-weary, almost religious drunkenness of Baudelaire, who, tongue firmly in cheek, advised: “Always be drunk. That’s all there is to it … on wine, poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.”
Sanger, in his introduction, notes that Thompson would, in conversation, call his poems “guzzles,” which, he’d explain, was the truer pronunciation. “The pun, I suspect,” Sanger dryly notes, “had more sinister implications than some of his friends realized.” Sinister maybe, but telling too, as Thompson was making the same connection as Baudelaire between the shitfaced state and the poetic sensibility. Much ink has been spilled about the “elemental” nature of Thompson’s work, and it’s true—his poems are full of irreducible bases to which his mind frequently returns: fire, books, blood, hooks, fish, stones, birds, houses, wives. As anyone who drinks—especially anyone who drinks alone—knows, that’s what booze does, boiling off the superfluity and imperfections of a day until all that’s left is the insoluble. It’s the distillation that complicates your life as it clarifies your mind.
The reason why booze is such a potent wellspring for Thompson is because it gives him access to the contradictions that reside at the heart of all great poetry. Booze is the poison that fortifies, the chaos that clarifies, the love that banishes. Liquor’s logic is the logic of the dialectic, thesis and antithesis bound terribly and inextricably together. Its twin impulses are Freud’s Eros and Thanatos, driving us to ecstasy as we approach extinction. It’s booze that wrote: in the middle of life, we are in death. It’s booze that asks Hamlet’s famous question, which isn’t just the question of poetry, but the question of living: why love the thing that will eventually break our heart and then destroy us, life itself? It’s the logic of alcohol that gives Stilt Jack its power, it’s convivial elision and boozy about-faces, to vacillate between joy and desolation, humour and horror, life and death.
Thompson wrote in his introduction that there is no narrative to the ghazal, but there is one in Stilt Jack. It’s the story of travelling the harrowing passage of all great poetry, what Eliot described as “the gradual extinction of personality.” Often overlooked about Thompson, overshadowed by the tragic circumstances of his death, is how funny he was. David McGimpsey could have written this, but John Thompson did: “Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. / Why wouldn’t the man shut up?” Michael Robbins could have written this: “I’ll read Keats and eye the weather too, / smoke cigarettes, watch Captain Kangaroo.” But as the book progresses, you get a sense that the wheels are falling off. This is especially true of how Thompson writes about liquor. It starts off charming and funny: “I have so many beer bottles, I’ll be rich.” A foreboding chill creeps in mid-collection: “How far down on whiskey row am I?” By the end, it’s terrifying: “Love, look at my wounds, the shame I’ve drunk— / I wouldn’t wish such suffering on my bitterest enemy.” Of course, we should give Thompson enough credit to consider that the lyric “I” could be literary construction distinct from Thompson himself, and that its dissolution might be for aesthetic effect. But here’s the part everyone always forgets from that Eliot quotation: “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things.”
What’s also important to remember about Stilt Jack—something too often forgotten when a poet kills himself—is how radically alive the book is, and how hard it fights against despair. Some of Thompson’s more aphoristic couplets feel cribbed from the gospels: “Celebrate. Celebrate. Celebrate. / Death cannot celebrate thee,” or “If there’s joy for one day, there is, there is: / they that sow in tears: shall reap in joy.” My favourite is this, with its desolation row logic that shines so darkly: “If I give everything away / it’s because I want to take everything.”
Thompson didn’t so much give everything away than he had everything taken from him. A failed romance and sabbatical year in Toronto was punctuated in September of 1974, when his house in New Brunswick—and the books in it—burned down. It was as if the prophetic lines from the first and last poems of Stilt Jack were coming true. His divorce was finalized in 1975 and he went to live alone in a small apartment in Sackville. He wrote his will, in which he specified his desire to be buried in a pine box, just like in Stilt Jack. There’s a curiously formal technique that Thompson uses throughout Stilt Jack that’s worth mentioning here. In both individual poems, and throughout the book as a whole, Thompson returns to ideas and phrases and images that he’s introduced earlier, like a prognostication that’s become fact, a kind of call and response. By 1975, it looked like Thompson’s life was echoing his book. Except for one prophecy, which hadn’t jumped his poems to his life: suicide. In Stilt Jack the speaker twice turns his thoughts darkly to a shotgun. First, he writes: “Pigs fattened on boiled potatoes; horses mooning in hay; / in the woodshed he blew his head off with a shotgun.” Thompson did in fact own a shotgun, which he called Tobin. In Ghazal XVI he writes: “I’ll suck oil from Tobin’s steel and walnut.”
Then, in one of the final ironies of his brief life, in the spring of 1975, Thompson, drunk one night, fired a gun into the air from his backyard. A neighbour phoned the police who came and confiscated Tobin and another rifle. He was barred, by court order, from possessing a weapon for five years. It was Thompson’s final insult. He delivered the manuscript of Stilt Jack and phoned his editor—and erstwhile lover—to whom he confessed that he couldn’t quit drinking, because he couldn’t live without “joy and celebration in my life.” Later that night, he aspirated on his own vomit. Liquor and psychiatric medication were found in his blood, but whether he intended to kill himself couldn’t be determined. Unlike the definitive suicides of Plath or Berryman, even Thompson’s death is Thompsonian, his thirty-eighth year reverberating with the hopeful ambiguity of his thirty-eighth ghazal: “Will it all come back to me? / Or just leave.”
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Michael Lista is the author of Bloom (House of Anansi, 2010), The Scarborough (Vehicule Press, 2014), and the forthcoming collection of essays Strike Anywhere. He is the co-editor of the arts and culture review Partisan.
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