On the Poetry of Peter Dale Scott
If there’s one topic that calls out to be addressed in the first post on this blog, it’s my appreciation for the poetry of Peter Dale Scott. And the time is auspicious, as today, 11 January 2011, is his eighty-second birthday.
My familiarity with Scott’s poetry goes back more than ten years. I’d been reading Conjunctions for some time, when I picked up #33, mainly for the complete translation of Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (though the work of Yoko Tawada and Eduardo Galeano turned out delightful surprises, too). But what stood out for me were the four sections excerpted from Scott’s forthcoming Minding the Darkness (2000). Here was a poetry prima facie reminiscent of the late tercets ofWilliam Carlos Williams, but whose nearly prosaic plainness was underwritten by a complex, suggestive syntax (“language escaping / the rules of syntax // and prosody and aesthetics” as the poem itself put it, in the best reflexive, “postmodern” manner) whose difficulty, tracing the imaginative, emotional and intellectual struggle with what Dante called mala condotta, evil governance, and its relation to tradition and imagination, I found bracing, both in its challenge and its sincerity (“technique is the test of sincerity” Pound observed). As well, the poem employed that Modernist and most modern of techniques, what is loosely termed “intertextuality”, deftly weaving in italicized passages from a veritable library of culturally and historically global sources, emphasizing, with a humble honesty, the way every voice, especially a written, poetic one, is a polyphony of many voices. But what I found most compelling was how the poetry engaged the political and social world, in a way the best canonical poetry does (think of Dante, Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman, Yeats) and the way the writing most important to me did, that of Pound, Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, learnedly and in specific, concrete luminous detail. At the time, Spoken Word poets ranted and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets wrestled with Capitalism in the arena of the Sign, but here was an engagement grounded in facts, yet everywhere acutely, and sometimes painfully, aware of its own contingency.
When I learned that Scott would be reading in Montreal in the Rare Books Room of McGill University’s McClennan Library, I ordered in and read through the complete trilogy of which Minding the Darkness was the culmination. Here, my initial intuitions were confirmed. Indeed, those four excerpted sections could have served as a holograph for the virtues of the trilogy as a whole. However, the full scope of Scott’s achievement could only be apprehended within the context of the entire work. With its culmination in Minding the Darkness, the trilogy becomes one, epic work, Seculum, which brings to fruition the poetic developments of poetic Modernism in English and the poet’s formidable learning and ground-breaking research to investigate the present world order within the context of no less than much of the earth’s cultural tradition. The opening sections of Coming to Jakarta (1988) , the first volume, relate the poet’s returning home to Montreal and being reminded of boyhood days spent on the shores of Lake Massawippi, realizing now that some of his friends from those days grew up, took their place in “the CIA or perhaps / some heavier unnamed agency”, and were responsible for the installation of murderous regimes in Indonesia and, later, Chile. Scott, an ex-diplomat and member of the Free Speech and antiwar movements in Berkeley in the ‘Sixties, thereby inserts the personal into the political, grasping and following the threads that tie each of us into the social web. Nevertheless, however inextricably we might be caught up in society-at-large, we are also connected most immediately to other individual human beings. Such intimacies run as threads through the next two volumes. Listening to the Candle (1992) focuses its attention on the poet’s relationship to his father F. R. Scott (the eminent Modernist poet, politician, and constitutional lawyer) and mother Marion Dale Scott (a no-less prominent painter), each canto dedicated to a friend, acquaintance, or interlocutor, while the final volume takes as its occasion Scott’s marrying his second wife, Ronna Kabatznick. Throughout, such present, living connections are expanded to include the voices of tradition: as Scott himself observes in Minding the Darkness, “[t]o deal with the living / we must talk more bravely with the dead”. Scott, the humble poet-hero of his own epic, is no Whitmanian simple, separate person, but a complex, connected individual, at the intersection of the personal and political, present and past, and, most germane to the present world crisis, the secular and spiritual. As he writes in Minding the Darkness, “the poet must develop / the consciousness of the past / giving depth to ecology // economics politics / and of course religion”. Uncannily, in advance of the so-called War on Terror and/or Clash of Civilizations, before the vitriol of fundamentalists of all stripes, Abrahamic or atheistic, Scott’s epic develops a syncretistic spiritual sensibility that embraces, among other traditions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, and Buddhism, especially in their ecumenical, pacifistic, and, most importantly, compassionate forms. As Scott writes in the Afterword to the final volume, “both outer enlightenment (the current word is development) and inner enlightenment are damned, even murderous, if they do not honour each other.” Scott’s work is epic, a poem including history (or, in this case, using the term Scott himself has coined, “deep history”), a periplum of our age and predicament mapped via the course of one engaged, intensely-lived and thoughtful life. When Scott solicited questions after his reading, mine touched on this epic reach. I asked something like: “You have three books: the first that begins by invoking three desks, at one Virgil’s Nekyia, an Inferno; then Listening to the Candle, a Purgatorio; now an old man’s Paradiso: all weaving historical, luminous details, personages modern and historical, autobiography, taking up the Tradition, all written in tercets: is there a Dantescan intertext?”
Since that initial reading, I’ve had the good luck to meet and hear Scott again, and I had the honour of introducing him reading at the New York Open Center 17 March 2010, an introduction that condenses the impression his work has made on me since that fateful chancing on his poetry, before the beginning of this first, dark century of a new millennium:
“In one of the last poems from his latest book, Peter writes ‘I would go with the Tao te Ching / and aspire // to the condition of water.’ Even though this thought appears in his most recent work, it is not new to his poetry, for he writes in Coming to Jakarta, the first volume of his monumental Seculum trilogy, that it is ‘a poem of water’.
“This reference to water not only draws on the oldest sources of Chinese thought, but also refers to the beginnings of Western philosophy, for Thales, the first philosopher, is said to have said ‘All is water.’ So, just as water covers most of the surface of our planet, so Peter’s poetry might be said to be as broad and deep. It references a vast reservoir of learning: the poetic and philosophical tradition of the West — Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Pound, Eliot,… as well as the spiritual traditions of the world — Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
“In English, we speak of salt and fresh water. But, since we’re talking about the poetry of Peter Dale Scott, it is not unfitting, I think, to go back to the Sumerian and Babylonian, that spoke of bitter and sweet water. And Peter’s work, likewise, is bitter and sweet. Bitter, because, as those of you who are familiar with his work will know, his poetry deals with the dark bitterness of death, slaughter, torture, and oppression. However, there are sweet moments, too, of love, sympathy, and tender caring.
“Over the ten years I have been reading Peter’s poetry, I have seen it begin to flow a little more clearer, given more to a few surface sparkles, though no less broad or profound.
“As many of us here will know, the coming age is the Age of Aquarius, the Age of the Water Bearer. And I hope that the coming age will belong to Peter’s poetry, as he bears us the water of his poetry.
“Aside from such a grandiose and hyperbolic image, I would draw our attention to one more important feature of water: that it is essential, it is necessary to life. And Peter’s work, I would argue, is, likewise, as necessary to our mental and spiritual lives.
“Now, it gives me great pleasure to extend an invitation, which is a favorite among poets: ‘Let’s have a drink!’ Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Peter Dale Scott.”