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Outlook - If Not Poets, Who?
by Brian Bartlett

When we open a book for the first time, we never know where our experiences with it and the author will end.

In 1972, while an undergraduate in Fredericton, I read in The Fiddlehead a few rivetingly clear, lithe poems by my older sister's English professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville. As co-editor of the short-lived, horrendously proofread small magazine Urchin, I asked my sister to give Professor Thompson a letter inviting him to send work. He responded with several poems and an encouraging note. Over a year later, when his first collection, At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets, reached Fredericton, I bought it and found more landscapes of barns, turnips, crows, horses, and snow translated into poetry of a tautly sinewed kind I'd never seen before. This wasn't just "landscape poetry". Human pleasures, doubts, and hungers were caught in a precise language of fierce moodiness. During a violent storm the next February, John Thompson read to a small audience at U.N.B. By then he was working on the ghazals of Stilt Jack, the anguished book he would finish just before his death two years later. To this day I haven't forgotten the impact of hearing the opening of ghazal IX: "Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. Yeats. / Why wouldn't the man shut up?"

Now, over twenty years later, one early winter night I phone another poet, Peter Sanger of Maitland, Nova Scotia, who published Sea Run: Notes on John Thompson's Stilt Jack in 1986, and recently completed editing Thompson's Collected Poems and Translations (Goose Lane Editions, 1995). I'm wondering, what prompts one poet to dedicate so much time and effort to another? Why spend over a decade studying, gathering, and editing another's work, as well as investigating his biography and influences?

Sanger tells me he never met Thompson. Reading At The Edge and the posthumously published Stilt Jack soon after their release, he felt drawn to the intensity and the meticulous craft of the poems. In 1983, the year his own first collection, The America Reel, was published, Sanger wrote an eight-part elegy for Thompson:

A language of leaves and water

was what he intended, words shaped

clear by commonplace things, shelves,

shafts, tines, strips of interior bark

suppled and woven for sieves and baskets,

ladles, tubs, all matter of tackle

trimmed to form by his knife....

Over the phone Sanger notes a few autobiographical parallels he has with Thompson-both, born in England, survived public-school training and what Sanger laughingly calls "its strange combination of rigour and anarchy"-but what deeply involved him was first and foremost the poetry. He was frustrated that nobody had gathered Thompson's work dating back to his student days in Michigan, and that in some circles anecdotes about Thompson's last years-drinking, wild driving, outrageous behaviour at parties, illegal use of firearms-overshadowed his poetry. Then Sanger had what he calls an "eerie experience": in Schooner Books in Halifax he found a second-hand copy of a 1963 anthology, A Garland for Dylan Thomas, which included an elegy by the twenty-five-year-old John Thompson. At that point Sanger began to feel "almost as if the task was choosing me."

He was also drawn to the editing challenge by what he calls his curiosity to track down the poems' textual variants and the sources of the many allusions in Stilt Jack. Identifying those allusions wasn't always cut-and-dried. In Sea Run Sanger said that a line in ghazal XVII-"I don't need Page's arm"-refers to the poet P. K. Page; later he found out that it alludes to the great baseball pitcher Satchel Paige (misspelled by Thompson). "Don't print that," he laughs, but later he gives me his okay, since the anecdote is a comic one that seasoned editors and annotators will sympathize with.

Thompson's revisions, Sanger believes, grew from two sources: his "extraordinary ear" that compelled him to rethink sounds and rhythms, and his desire to remove "anything that was too personal". One line of Stilt Jack that Thompson abandoned reads, "I threw myself to the dogs; they wouldn't eat." This seems to me a line of terrible power, more self-abasing than almost any moment in the final version, but he may have excised it to put some control over the nightmarish self-revelations in the sequence. Sanger suspects that, paradoxically, Thompson's writing of the book both helped draw him down "into a vortex" and "kept him together" near the end of his life.

What about the subject's poetic influence upon the editor? Sanger says he was wary of obviously echoing Thompson's work. He didn't become one of several Canadian poets writing ghazals after being ignited by Thompson's. The ghazal "is a form not to be taken lightly." Likewise, the "amount of concealed quotation" in Stilt Jack is "a dangerous model to follow, unless they serve a real psychological coherence.... And they do in Thompson. His reading was what he was."

Modestly, Sanger seems a bit perplexed that he-"with an M.A. in History, teaching at an agricultural college"-ended up as the key pioneering commentator on Thompson's work. He becomes impassioned lamenting that major Canadian poets have been "almost criminally mistreated" by scholars. Why, he wonders, haven't we comprehensive, fully annotated editions of the poems of F. R. Scott, A. J. M. Smith, W. W. E. Ross? Sanger hopes the Thompson Collected has high scholarly standards, as well as being "a text for people who love Thompson's work and love poetry." "Few writers," he says of Thompson, "leave a signature so clearly behind them." That signature should now be read by a wider variety of Canadians, thanks to Sanger's energies.

After our phone conversation, I wonder if it's regrettable that an excellent poet like Peter Sanger has sacrificed so much of his own poetry-writing time for the sake of editing another's work. Then I remember that Yeats edited Shelley, Baudelaire translated Poe, and, closer to home, several of our better poets volunteer as editors for small presses. If poets won't stand up to help other poets, who on earth will? l

Brian Bartlett's long poem "Brimming" appeared in the fall issue of the Malahat Review.


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