John Michael Thompson (1938–1976) has become one of the most influential twentieth-century Canadian poets. His second book, Stilt Jack, a sequence of thirty-eight ghazals published posthumously in 1978, inspired and inspires the fashion of writing ghazals and nonce-ghazal couplet forms which has become one of the more common stylistic markers of English Canadian poetry during the last three decades. For a significant number of Canadian poets, writing such couplets in either overt or allusive homage to Thompson has become a rite of poetic passage.
There are three main reasons for Thompson’s influence. The first, most important, and permanent reason is the energy, subtlety, and precision with which he used language: his diction, rhythms, and forms. The second is what the Canadian poet A.J.M. Smith, his teacher and friend, described in a dust-jacket note for Stilt Jack as the immersion of Thompson’s poetry in “... a world of essences, primitive and chaotic, made of earth, air, fire and water ...” This aspect of Thompson’s work has always attracted the support of Maritime regionalists and of an audience eager to find alternatives to the principles and ambitions of contemporary urbanism and industrialism. The third reason for Thompson’s influence is interest in and respect for his life, or to be more accurate for a certain version of his life. Thompson himself helped create this version. In many ways (but not in all ways as will become apparent in the discussion that follows), Thompson was an autobiographical poet. Like Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, and John Berryman, all of whom are part of the allusive web of his work, Thompson transfused his poetry and his life. He shared some characteristics with the poets slightly older than he who became known as “confessional” — Plath, Sexton, the middle- and later-career Lowell. Yet Thompson was guarded in his confessions. In its autobiographical aspect, as in the form of his poetry and its observational naturalism, Thompson’s work was complex and at some levels contradictory. He was always a shaping artist, not a passive registrant.
The fullest account of Thompson’s life available appears in the Introduction to John Thompson: Collected Poems & Translations (1995). What follows is based upon that source, supplemented by some significant facts that emerged after that collection appeared.
Thompson was born in 1938 in the English industrial midlands in the village of Timperley, in the county of Cheshire, a few kilometers from Manchester. His parents, Harold and Beatrice (neé Wilkinson), worked in a cotton mill. Thompson’s father died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-six in 1940 when Thompson was two. When considering what happened next, it is important to remember the social and political situation of the times. First, from 1940 to 1941, the Germans heavily bombed English industrial cities. Second, the social legislation of the British Welfare State, including generous child-support and educational benefits, would be enacted only after the war ended in 1945. For his care, Thompson’s mother found it necessary to consign him to an uncle and aunt who lived in Manchester. She seems largely to have disappeared from his life. We know only that she managed to leave millwork by training to become an accountant, that she re-married and emigrated with her second husband to Australia after the war. She left Thompson behind. He would have then been about eight or nine.
I have been told by several who knew him that Thompson always expressed pride in his mother. But his childhood probably left him with those insecurities and emotional needs which are evident in the last four or five years of his life.
Thompson seems to have spent little time with his uncle and aunt. He became the kind of school “orphan” that the English private boarding school system of the time made possible. At the age of four he started school as a full-time boarder. By 1955, he had attended three boarding schools, the last being Manchester Grammar, one of the most academically distinguished in the country. He obtained his university entrance qualifications in English, French, and history.
Thompson was obliged by law at this point either to do two years of National Service in one of the British armed forces or formally postpone doing so until after completing university. He chose the latter. In autumn 1955 he enrolled in the BA program at the University of Sheffield. After passing first year Intermediate BA exams in economics, psychology, French, and modern history, Thompson chose psychology as his Honours degree area of concentration. He graduated with first class Honours in June 1958.
He started National Service immediately. He was assigned to the British Army Intelligence Corps and posted to Germany where he spent the next two years (years of the Cold War and political unrest in Soviet controlled satellite states) monitoring signals sent by a small unit of the Russian army that was part of the Russian occupation of East Germany. This experience would later surface, as we will see, as a telling symbolic structure during the course of the major mental breakdown Thompson suffered in 1974 and 1975 while he was working on Stilt Jack.
There is evidence that before he entered the army Thompson had already decided, with the encouragement of the Head of the Psychology Department at the University of Sheffield, to pursue graduate degrees in psychology. After he was discharged, he entered a master’s program in psychology at Michigan State University in East Lansing in 1960. In 1961, he switched his program (losing credit for his studies in 1960) to a master’s program in comparative literature. As he later wrote in a letter to a friend, he “began to write - 1960–61 or thereabouts.”
The major reason for this change in direction must have been Thompson’s own sense that he had a destiny to live as a poet. He thought in such consecrated terms, as both his books and his PhD thesis evidence. But he must also have been influenced by the ethos developing around him. The 1960s were a time when the conventions and restraints separating personal life, politics (manifest in the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war protests), popular music, poetry, and university life were being radically re-shaped. The Beat poets of San Francisco, Chicago, and New York moved from the periphery of culture to the centre. The poetics of Black Mountain, which influenced Thompson’s work mainly through the work of the Anglo-American poet, Denise Levertov (Thompson carried a signed copy of her collection O Taste and See  around with him as a talisman), became an orthodoxy while retaining the prestige of being avant-garde. The back-to-the-land movement promised a possible, practical, social, economic, and ecological sanity. This vortex of creativity and utopian aspiration was the defining context for Thompson’s personal transition from post-war England to North America.
What he experienced in East Lansing between 1960 and 1966 shaped the poetry he wrote in New Brunswick between 1966 and 1976. Thompson never wrote explicitly about this Michigan experience, but there is a useful account of the time and place by one of his Michigan State University friends, a man one year older than Thompson, enrolled like him in graduate studies in the Department of Comparative Literature. The American poet and novelist Jim Harrison, author of the novella Legends of the Fall, which was later made into the film of the same title, describes in his memoir Off to the Side (2002) some of the personalities, circumstances, and influences Thompson also encountered. Thompson is, in fact, mentioned in Harrison’s memoir as one of three of his fellow students who became “eventual suicides.” Harrison’s early poetry collection, Outlyer and Ghazals (1971), helped inspire the ghazals of Stilt Jack. (During the 1970s Thompson circulated duplicated typescripts of a gathering of Harrison’s ghazals among his creative-writing students at Mount Allison University.)
Thompson and Harrison shared as a teacher, mentor, and helpful friend the expatriate Canadian poet, critic, and anthologist A.J.M. Smith. Harrison wrote in his memoir: “I had learned to love the French Symbolists at a seminar taught at MSU by ... A.J.M. Smith, certainly the most influential course of my college years.”
It is very likely Thompson attended the same seminar. Smith was, in fact, one of the three members of the guidance committee supervising Thompson’s PhD thesis. For his thesis requirement, Thompson translated all the poetry that René Char (1907–1988) published between 1950 and 1960 not yet translated from French into English. Thompson preceded his translations with a one-hundred-page introduction analyzing Char’s poetics and the problems of accurate translation. It is the major piece of Thompson’s prose, and its enthusiastically positive account of Char’s poetics makes clear that Thompson was using the occasion to justify and refine his own poetic intentions and ambitions. Thompson presents Char as a poet of both physical actuality and of metaphysical implication, of Heraklitean flux, of the balance of opposites. He endorses Char’s stance as a poet-prophet, willing to take the risk of being accused of obscurity because he refused simplifications. “If Char’s speech is oracular,” wrote Thompson in his thesis, “it is because his poetry is always seeking out the moment underneath the static solidity of things, the clash of opposites, the contradictions behind ostensible orders. It shows us what is there by which we cannot yet see, or refuse to see ... The word in Char, then, always has this tendency to be a future word, that is, a prophecy, in the sense of discovery and revelation ...” Significantly, the last ghazal in Stilt Jack, written about a decade later than the thesis and a few hours before Thompson’s death, ends with the line “Friends: these words for you.” Those are Char’s future words, prophetic words. Beneath the line’s amenable, unostentatious surface, we are being asked to read Stilt Jack as Thompson read Char.
Char was probably not the only contemporary French poet Thompson read carefully in Michigan. Thompson’s later work shows more than a chance similarity with the work of Guillevic (a selection of whose poems in English translation was published by Denise Levertov in 1969); of André du Bouchet (whose Dans la chaleur vacante  and Où le soleil  bear parallel comparison with Thompson’s At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets); and of Yves Bonnefoy (whose depiction of elusive feminine presence in Du mouvement et l’immobilité de Douve  presages the elusive green eyed lover in Stilt Jack). Such influences account for the remarkably original nature of Thompson’s poetry during the late 1960s and early 1970s when Canadian poetry, especially in the Maritimes, was usually anecdotal, prosaically accessible, and tending more towards moral statement than metaphysical resolution.
The earliest poetry Thompson wrote shows little of French influence. It was written in 1961 as part of his courtship of Meredith Joan Marshall, a fellow student at Michigan State. They married in June 1961. The poems are love poems (Thompson was always a muse poet) written in free or very loose blank verse, using an idiom, syntax, and symbolism derived from the poetry of Dylan Thomas. These poems (there are three) remain unpublished. (I will use a quotation from one later in this essay.) Thompson’s first published poem appeared in a student-run periodical in 1961. Its title is “La cloche qui sonne” (“The Ringing Bell”). It is in French. It uses Char-like paradoxes of sound and silence, presence and absence, life and death. Of the eight other poems Thompson published between 1961 and 1964, two were English translations from Rimbaud, one of them being of Rimbaud’s “Le bâteau ivre.” In its time the best known of Thompson’s early poems must have been “The Man in the Wind: An Elegy for Dylan Thomas.” After its initial appearance in a student publication, the poem was republished in New York in a book of tributes to Thomas.
Thompson received his PhD in comparative literature (with specialization in French, Italian, and German) on 2 September 1966. Immediately after the ceremony, Thompson, his wife, and their daughter Jennifer Bronwyn (born 14 May 1964) drove in their overloaded Volkswagen sedan to Canada. Thompson had accepted an Assistant Professorship in the English Department of Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick. His choice of Sackville was largely the result of having consulted a map showing the large amount of wilderness in New Brunswick.
The Thompsons lived on rented properties between 1966 and 1973. For the first two years their home was a small, isolated, modernized house in Peck’s Cove, overlooking the Bay of Fundy, fifteen kilometres west of Sackville. In about 1968, they moved to a comfortable nineteenth-century farmhouse in Wood Point rented to them by the Tower family, also on the Bay of Fundy coast, some five kilometres west of Sackville. Both properties and their environs are settings for poems in Thompson’s first collection, the bulk of them being written while Thompson lived in Wood Point.
Thompson’s life in New Brunswick is dealt with in more detail than is manageable here in the Introduction to the Collected Poems & Translations. As a teacher he was reverenced and trusted by many students, disliked strongly by others. The university administration and a few of his departmental colleagues found him erratic, disconcerting, presumptuous, and undependable. He seemed to them to have only a casual interest in academic research and the niceties of collegial activity. Depending upon one’s premises, the cases for or against Thompson were fairly equal. Thompson’s premise (and we are likely to sympathize with it because of what he went on to accomplish) was that he could and should live mainly by, with, and for poetry. That premise had been developed and encouraged by the experimental skepticism and self-confidence of graduate student thinking at Michigan State during the 1960s. Such thinking was alarming and distasteful to many working in a small, rural university still mindful of its nineteenth-century religious origins.
Thompson had been hired on a four-year probationary appointment. In the fall of 1969, he was told he would not be granted permanent tenure. Mount Allison students rallied in his support in a mass meeting. So also did most of the Mount Allison teaching faculty, with the exception of several members of the English Department. The university’s administration was eventually forced to rescind its decision. But the result was not the clear victory for Thompson it may in retrospect appear. The events took months to unfold, months of constant strain; and Thompson was shaken by the harsh and very public criticism to which he was subjected. The university’s president accused him of “lack of breadth of interest and competence,” of also lacking “a substantial corpus of publications,” and rejected Thompson’s “requests for special consideration ... as a poet.”
Thompson’s immediate creative response was more intensive poetic activity between 1970 and 1973, during which he put together his first book, At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets (1973), and wrote nearly a third of the ghazals of his second, Stilt Jack (1978). But this creative activity was accompanied by a number of major changes in Thompson’s life, some of which were imposed, others chosen.
The first was that the Tower family decided to live once again in the Wood Point farmhouse the Thompsons rented. Forced to move, the Thompsons bought a battered, unoccupied nineteenth-century farmhouse located on the High Marsh Road some eight kilometres east of Sackville, just outside the tiny crossroads settlement of Jolicure. The country thereabouts consists mainly of large flat fields of hay, corn, and cattle pasture formed by draining the Tantramar Marsh, an area which stretches across low-lying land at the head of the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Wind blows across these fields almost every day. It is brutally cold in the winter, filled with migrating ducks and geese (which Thompson avidly hunted) in the fall and spring, and generous with animal, bird, plant, and crop life in the summer. This country was an inciting source of images and energies for Thompson, a paysage moralisé (like Wordsworth’s Lake District or Frost’s New England), a co-ordinating, poetic landscape for Thompson’s work between 1973 and 1976. The paradoxes and contrasts of its particular physiography and climate matched the same elements in his uncompromising, abrupt, and unpredictable poetics.
The second change in Thompson’s life in the fall of 1973 was the collapse of his marriage. The tenure crisis of 1969–1970, according to anecdotal evidence, seems to have weakened the bond between his wife and Thompson. It increased the frequency and violence of their quarrels. Thompson progressed from being a heavy drinker to being an alcoholic. He also began consulting a psychiatrist in nearby Amherst who prescribed medication for depression.
The condition of the Jolicure house complicated personal problems further. Thompson started renovating it immediately, tearing the inside apart before calculating accurately whether he had the money, time, and skill to reconstruct it before high winter, the unforgiving winter of the Tantramar winds, began.
Finally, publication of At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets in September 1973 was an equivocal victory. On the one hand the collection was widely and favourably received and was evidence of Thompson’s credibility as a poet and professor. On the other, it precipitated the collapse of the Thompson’s marriage. It led to a reading tour of Ontario in early December 1973 where Thompson met Shirley Mann Gibson (1928–1997), the managing editor of Thompson’s publisher, Anansi Press of Toronto, with whom he had been corresponding for two years. They immediately fell in love. Thompson sent her ghazal XIV, which contains autobiographical reminiscence of their first meeting. Gibson told me several times that she and Thompson did not physically become lovers on this occasion. But pledges must have been exchanged between them. A few days later, after Thompson returned to Jolicure, his wife left him and returned to Michigan, taking their nine-year-old daughter Jennifer with her. He and his wife were divorced in 1975.
Gibson visited Thompson in Jolicure in January 1974 for a few days. After she returned to Toronto, he wrote the uneasy but relatively optimistic ghazals XV, XVI, XVII (“Celebrate. Celebrate. Celebrate” runs one of its lines), XVIII, XIX (“I begin again ...”), and XX. If a reader is looking for a “real” addressee in these poems (an ambiguous approach, as I will discuss later), then it is not the “you” (Meredith) of ghazal II; it is, rather, Shirley Gibson.
Thompson was now eligible for a sabbatical year. He had the opportunity for concentrated creative and scholarly work as well as a new life with Gibson. He obtained grants for a research project examining the links between Ezra Pound and French poetry, planning to carry out his research in Toronto while living in Gibson’s apartment with her and her two teenage sons. Gibson returned to Jolicure to stay for about two weeks in July 1974. They then drove in Thompson’s Volkswagen, loaded down with possessions, to Toronto. By this time Thompson had completed some twenty-four of Stilt Jack’s ghazals.
At first, Thompson’s and Gibson’s life together went well. Her sons liked and respected him. But moments of great happiness were shot through with moments of instability. Thompson drank heavily, carried out none of the research he had planned, and his behaviour fluctuated unpredictably from being loving, understanding, and supportive to being annoyingly dependent, passive, and childishly erratic.
Two events in particular triggered the disaster that eventually occurred. The first happened after Gibson arranged a dinner at which Thompson met Robert Fulford, then editor of Saturday Night magazine. After their meeting, Thompson sent a number of ghazals to Fulford, who turned them down as being “not suitable.” The second event concerned the Jolicure house, which Thompson had left unoccupied. On 25 September 1974, it was burned to the ground, probably by an arsonist acting at random. Thompson dealt with the fire stoically in public, but in private he grieved over the loss not only of the house, but also its contents, including photographs, books, papers, drafts, and manuscripts. Only after the appearance of Thompson’s Collected Poems & Translations did Gibson tell me some of the details of Thompson’s subsequent breakdown in the late fall of 1974. One evening, he experienced a phase of acute paranoia. He believed a small, portable, electric room heater was a Russian eavesdropping device, kicked it to pieces, and took up a defensive position by the window armed with his loaded shotgun and two hunting knives. Gibson phoned her doctor who in turn phoned the police. When the doctor and police arrived, Thompson surrendered with no resistance. From police protective custody he was transferred to the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto, where he became a residential patient.
It would be easy to adopt a moralistic view of this incident, to say, for example, that Thompson should have had the willpower to avoid it. But mental illness is not to be avoided by willpower, or by avoiding ambiguous personal situations, poetic ambition, and alcohol. A more charitable, nuanced, and accurate reaction would be to consider the breakdown, especially given the form it took, which harks back to Thompson’s military service during the Cold War, as symptom of the mental strain he had suffered during and since the tenure crisis. My own belief is that Thompson lived under lifelong strain, starting with rejection by his mother and continuing during the struggles he had to make, alone, living by his wits, during his education in the highly competitive English schooling system of the 1940s and 1950s and during the adaptations he had to negotiate as an emigrant to North America. To venture a lay opinion, Thompson’s mental state had some of the symptoms we now recognize as indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Fearful of her own safety and that of her sons, Gibson ended Thompson’s stay in her home. To use her own words, he had become a “frightening presence.” Their relationship continued by letter and phone, but apart from a visit made by Gibson with Thompson’s daughter to Sackville at Christmas 1975, during which Thompson was in a condition of almost speechless depression, their close intimacy ended. Gibson continuously insisted Thompson must stop drinking before she could consider their living together again. Thompson, up to the very day before his death, refused.
He returned to Sackville and an upstairs apartment in a large old house on Bridge Street. His sabbatical over, he started teaching again in autumn term, 1975. Despite psychiatric care, involving major drug therapy, his depression deepened. From January to March 1976, he was a resident patient, diagnosed as clinically depressed, in Sackville hospital. In March, a new drug seemed to improve his condition. Accordingly, he was discharged at the beginning of April with the warning he must avoid alcohol.
He did not. Details of events during the last weeks of his life are given in the Introduction to the Collected Poems & Translations. He died by ingesting a mixture of prescription pills and alcohol in the early hours of Sunday morning, 25 April. Whether his death was suicide, as has been often stated, or not, will never be clear. The coroner’s verdict was accidental death. But Still Jack has a final, deliberate, testamentary quality in its very form. From Thompson’s own words in a letter to his friend and fellow poet, Douglas Lochhead, we know he intended the thirty-eight ghazals in the book to match in number the thirty-eight years of his age when he completed it. With only two full days left to live, he wrote the thirty-eighth ghazal on 22 April, leaving the only copy of it with a friend. To Lochhead, he gave a final transcript of the other thirty-seven.
The ambiguities surrounding Thompson’s death are strangely echoed by certain ambiguities characteristic of his poetry. On the one hand, his poems practise a decorum of privacy. On the other, they loosen that decorum and can be as confessional as poems by his slightly older contemporaries Plath, Sexton, and Lowell. On the one hand his poetry, especially Stilt Jack, is lyrically impersonal, deliberately fragmentary and cryptic in its evocation of events, and so loaded with literary allusion as to be distanced. On the other hand, his poetry presents itself, in the first person, as an immediate transcription of Thompson’s actual emotions and experiences and, particularly in the concluding ghazals of Stilt Jack, invests his words with lived weight.
It is impossible to reconcile these ambiguities by referring solely to Thompson’s life. Although the first-person narrator in both his books has recognizable anchorage in the facts of his life in New Brunswick, for example, it is only on the condition that the twenty-eight years he lived before he arrived there never occurred. The ambiguities can, however, be reconciled on a level other than the biographical. That level might be called the level of the imaginary or, to use a more resonant term, the archetypal.
In both his books, Thompson’s “I” is a poetic persona engaged in an archetypal quest that draws upon some aspects of Thompson’s life for exemplification. This “I” has a vision of what could be compared to Eden before the Fall, a vision of love, language, and nature in harmony. His “I” is a pilgrim looking for apocalyptic renewal in a restored Jerusalem. (Thompson introduced his reading of “Horse,” from At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets at the University of New Brunswick in spring 1974, by calling it “a small rural apocalypse.”)
Thompson’s “I” bears the same kind resemblance to the facts of Thompson’s life as Melville’s Ishmael in Moby Dick bears to Melville’s own experience on whaling ships, and it is by no casual whim that Thompson aligns his “I” with Ishmael in ghazal XXVIII, a centrally defining ghazal in Stilt Jack which marks a turn in the sequence’s final ten ghazals towards the poetic persona’s final transformation and Orphic dissolution.
Although it is most obvious in Stilt Jack, both Thompson’s books are structured by a quest pattern. In At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets, as we have it, the quest is Ulyssean. I repeat, “as we have it.” Thompson’s poetic persona begins the book in “Wife” watching his wife making bread. The book ends with “Onion” in which the persona returns to the family kitchen after a journey of poems taking him through what are frequently extremes of climate and physiography in rural New Brunswick. That pattern presents itself as redemptive and casts the wife as a Penelope figure, existing as the climax of the quest. But that interpretation has a certain predictable patness.
In truth, Thomson agreed to the pattern, but did not originate it. The pattern was actually proposed not by Thompson but by Margaret Atwood who edited the book. Her letter of report to Anansi (she had travelled to Sackville to discuss the matter with Thompson) is quoted in the Collected Poems & Translations. She explains that Thompson had little idea how to sequence the poems except by the alphabetical order of title. Thompson’s idea was not as strange as it may have seemed to Atwood. Thompson may have known Auden had used such alphabetical ordering in his first collection, and that manuscript collections of Middle Eastern poets (Rumi is an example) were often arranged the same way.
If Thompson had stuck to his schema, his book would have charted an A to Z. The first poem would have been “After the Rain,” the last, “Zero.” The book’s focus would have shifted from closure of the protagonist’s quest in the domesticity with which the published version now begins to a closure in which the protagonist faces an irresolution that is continuous and ominous. “Zero” is one of Thompson’s most violent and frightening poems. In the editorial solution that took place, “Zero” is placed almost exactly at the centre of the collection, precisely where it can be tempered by the poems that follow it.
Yet, it must be admitted that Thompson agreed to Atwood’s suggestion. He also, in effect, confirmed it by dedicating the collection to his wife. But at the very time At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets was being distributed for sale in early September and October 1973, he was writing what became ghazals I to XIII of Stilt Jack, which depict a poet-protagonist like the one in “Zero” who is solitary, beleaguered, and sexually adrift. I suggest Thompson’s original proposed arrangement of his first book was, imaginatively and logically, properly precursory to Stilt Jack.
In a letter of report Thompson addressed to his department head about the work he had done during his sabbatical year of 1974 to 1975, he described his work on a series of poems about “light and dark” which can only have been Stilt Jack. Perhaps Thompson was unconscious that he was echoing Dylan Thomas who, in 1934, described his own poetry as “the record of my individual struggle from darkness towards some measure of light.” Thompson, a teacher who once told a creative writing class that no-one could be a poet and not read the Bible, was certainly familiar with certain biblical quotations like “... let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light” (King James Version, Romans, 13:12) and “For thou art my lamp, O Lord: and the Lord will lighten my darkness” (K.J.V., 2 Samuel 22:29). Such biblical associations are central to full and careful reading of Thompson’s work. The “Lord” is invoked explicitly in four of Stilt Jack’s ghazals (III, XXII, XXIX, XXXII). One of these invocations incorporates words from the burial service of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (XXIX), the rite used at Thompson’s burial.
Light and dark are opposites. In Still Jack, they are visible cues to a series of other opposites: male and female, sacred and secular, soul and body, single and double, one and many, domestic and wild, up and down, past and present, poetic high style and vernacular low, freedom and license, sobriety and drunkenness, fidelity and treachery, the imaginary and the real, absence and presence.
If we are to think of Stilt Jack as a Ulyssean journey (ghazal XVII evokes Joyce’s version), continuing the unresolved Ulyssean journey of the original At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets, then the poet-protagonist, Thompson’s poetic persona, navigates between the clashing, crushing rocks of these opposites. The opposites are versions of the Odyssey’s Symplegades. This Ulyssean journey tracks the edge of “Down Below,” the poem whose first line provides the title of At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets. It also tracks the “edge of things” and the “dark edge, beyond which/ the black: your real/ hands and eyes” of “A Sleeping Man Curses the Summer” in the same book. To navigate this edge in both Thompson’s collections is to recall to their full original strength the otherwise exhausted-by-use metaphors “being on edge,” “walking close to the edge,” “balanced on edge,” and, of course, “double edged.”
For most of us, antinomian opposites are mediated into a livable compromise by tradition, habit, and the not very closely examined assumptions of our family, our social environment, institutions, traditions, and inherited moral and ethical beliefs. The poet-protagonist in Thompson’s two books can practice no such mediation. He has inherited nothing. He has no history. In At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets, history is exterior to him and in some poems (“On the Tolar Canal,” “Norman Tower’s,” “Cold Wind”) threatening and hostile to assimilation. The protagonist is compelled to discover his own form of mediation or, as ghazal XXXVIII indicates, give up trying to do so, leave an account of his failure (Stilt Jack), and, with grief, accept fate. In this respect the poet-protagonist in both books would seem to resemble Thompson, but the poet-protagonist, in contrast with Thompson, is largely freed from the explicative details of Thompson’s own life – his situation as a quasi-orphan in England, his emigration, the tenure controversy, the breakdown in Toronto in 1974, and so on.
Thompson’s narrative approach is to present the poet-protagonist in universal terms. Other characters in the books are similarly universalized. Of the female lover in Stilt Jack, for example, we know little more than that she has “ashen hair” (ghazal XXXII) and, probably, “green eyes” (ghazal XXII). We really do not know what happens between the protagonist and the “you” who is the lover in ghazals XIV to XXXVIII to make it impossible for them to live together. Only the twice repeated “not love” of ghazal XXXVII and some bitter, veiled allusions in that and other later ghazals insinuate a treachery in the female lover, not a failure in the male protagonist.
Such observations need making because they are often voiced by readers who reject Thompson’s poetry as incomprehensible or who are puzzled by its indifference to narrative clarity. But the reader of Thompson who stays with him has to accept that Thompson was interested in realism only if it indicated the archetypal. In the Urdu ghazals he read in translation, “you” might equally refer to the beloved, to the poet’s self or soul, and to God. Thompson adopted that convention. He chose literary allegiances accordingly among poets who practiced similar archetypal fluency: Dylan Thomas, Roethke, Berryman, Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Eliot, Char, Rilke, Yeats, masters of the Urdu or Persian ghazal such as Mir Taqi Mir (ghazal XXXV), Donne, Dante, Tu Fu (in Florence Ayscough’s translation which preserves a ghazal-like couplet form), and others. Many are present by concealed quotation or glancing allusion in Stilt Jack, which is one of the most allusive collections of poetry ever written. I have identified and discussed many of these allusions elsewhere, and it would be redundant to duplicate that material here, except to say that Thompson intended them not to baffle or intimidate the reader but to attach Stilt Jack to a certain lineage of archetypal thinking and poetic knowledge.
Therefore, the poet-protagonist in both Thompson’s books is engaged in an epistemological quest that is also a deeply personal one. In both books, the protagonist encounters birds, animals, other natural phenomena, and personal situations peopled by archetypal presences. The world of New Brunswick becomes a wilderness of symbols, like the wilderness Thompson saw on a map while still in Michigan. Entities briefly dissolve (ghazal XIV) or seem about to dissolve the conflict of opposites listed earlier above, at least for the intense, crystalline moment of the poem.
In Stilt Jack, the protagonist is also engaged in two further archetypal narratives in addition to the Ulyssean which provide an intertwined but secret thread of continuity. One of them is common in the poetry of both east and west. I have mentioned it already. It is the narrative of relationship between lover and beloved. It was sacralized by Dante and largely secularized by Petrarch. Various sacralized or secularized versions entered the mainstream of English poetry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, notably, for Thompson, in the poetry of Donne, who is alluded to several times in Stilt Jack, especially in the pivotal ghazal XXXVII.
The second archetypal plot in Stilt Jack is evident in the many references it contains to sea, fish, fishing, fire, and sun, beginning with the book’s first epigraph, a quotation from Yeats’ “High Talk” and continuing, by my count in no fewer than twenty-two of the ghazals. These references are contextualized by two inter-related myths. One is the well-known Christian association of Christ with the symbol of a fish, deriving from a Greek acrostic on His name and from several incidents in the Bible, including the miracles of the loaves and fishes and of Christ’s walking on the sea in Mark 7, 38-51 (among other gospels). The second myth Thompson, in effect, conflated with the Christian miracles. He probably found it during his university studies in psychology, for it appears in several of Jung’s books and from thence was taken up by some of Jung’s disciples.
I quote from a foundational text in Jungian studies, Jung’s Two Essays on Analytical Psychology:
In the decisive battle, the hero (like Jonah) is always swallowed by the monster ... Inside the monster the hero begins in his own way to deal with the beast, while the creature is swimming eastward with him to the rising sun. What he does is to cut out an essential piece of the viscera, the heart for instance, by virtue of which the monster lives, that is, the valuable energy by which the unconscious was activated. He thus kills the monster, which then drifts to land, where the hero, new born through the transcendent function (the ‘night-journey under the sea’ of Frobenius), steps forth, in company with all those the monster had previously devoured. Thus the normal condition is restored; for the unconscious, having been robbed of its energy, no longer occupies the dominating position.
This passage had been, I believe, in Thompson’s mind for a very long time. In April 1961, in one of the three unpublished poems he wrote to celebrate his forthcoming marriage, he wrote:
Begin at the dark
The night sea voyage of disease,
The swinging flesh run blind,
In freedom fashioning
Its chains ...
In Stilt Jack, the protagonist attempts both to walk on the sea of subconscious chaos and to raise from its depths the great fish of unconsciousness, symbol of the primitive, destructive energies he must control, he must ride (couplet 7, ghazal XXI), to overcome the conflict of opposites which will otherwise overwhelm him. In ghazal XXVIII, this fish is associated with the beloved and with Stilt Jack itself. An earlier version of the ghazal placed “John Thompson” where “STILT JACK” now stands in the ghazal.
Jung would have found nothing incongruous in this conflation of the archetypal, the mythological, the psychological, and the personal in Stilt Jack. But Jung frequently pointed out that entering the realm of the unconscious, inviting the unconscious to appear, as Thompson did in both his books, invites the danger of mental breakdown. All archetypes have a double face (a double edge). Fire can be both creative and destructive. When it cleanses, it is both. The creative mother may also be the destructive one. When she is Nature, or when she is, to use a Jungian term, an aspect of the anima, she may also, to use human terms, be either good or evil. Apollo, as Herakleitos pointed out, carries an instrument that may be either consonant lyre or death-dealing bow. The sun both illuminates and blinds, fructifies and desiccates, and the sea, like Leviathan, the great fish, can both bear all and swallow everything. It can carry the mariner to sunrise or enclose the mariner in sunless chaos. Light and dark. The fire of love and creativity or “the cinders of Apollo” (ghazal XXXIV), not “The poet: a cinder never quite burned out” (ghazal XIV).
Thompson’s poetry is not really ambiguous. It is narrative of ambiguities. It is not really contradictory. It is the narrative of contradictions. Does Stilt Jack end in victory or defeat for its protagonist? This is not a question that should be answered by reference to Thompson’s own death. If it can be, then Stilt Jack, as a work of art, is flawed. It becomes a mode of autobiography not a mode of poetry. What can be answered is that despite the bitterness of ghazal XXXVII, where love is denounced as “Sweetness and lies” (a punning dismissal mockingly evoking Matthew Arnold’s cultural prescription “sweetness and light”), there is a consolatory wisdom in the final ghazals. The protagonist reaches out of an isolation to try to sustain “other friends, lovers, grieving and passionate” (ghazal XXXVIII). Those words may persuade us one mariner at least ate a piece of the beast’s heart.
Peter Sanger, Summer 2013
Bibliography of (Selected) Primary Sources
Thompson, John. At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets. Toronto: Anansi, 1973.
---. Collected Poems & Translations. Ed. and introduced by Peter Sanger. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1995. (Contains the fullest biographical account available, bibliographical annotations on the poems, and a source bibliography current in 1995.)
---. I Dream Myself Into Being: Collected Poems. Introduced by James Polk. Toronto: Anansi, 1991. (This is not a complete collection. Polk’s introduction contains some interesting personal information, but it is not always accurate about Thompson’s life.)
---. “On Poetry and René Char.” The Antigonish Review 102-103 (Summer-Autumn 1995): 281-83. (Excerpts from Thompson’s thesis on Char, chosen by Peter Sanger. This issue also contains letters from and to Thompson regarding the tenure crisis and photographs and essays by those who knew Thompson. It also contains critical notes by Robert Bringhurst, John Bell, and Robert Gibbs.)
---. Stilt Jack. Toronto: Anansi, 1978.
---. Translations from René Char’s La Parole en Archipel and Other Works. PhD thesis, Michigan State U, 1966. (Available in some libraries in hard copy, as published by University Microfilms, Inc., 1990.)
Bibliography of (Selected) Secondary Sources
(For a full listing of secondary sources current in 1995, see the Collected Poems & Translations, pp. 275-78)
Atwood, M. “Last Testaments: Pat Lowther and John Thompson.” Second Words: Selected Critical Prose. Toronto: Anansi, 1982. 307-312.
Harrison, J. Off to the Side: A Memoir. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002.
---. Outlyer and Ghazals. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
Jaspers, K. Strindberg et Van Gogh, Swedenborg - Hölderlin. Trans. Hélène Naef. Prefaced by Maurice Blanchot. Paris: Les Editions Minuit, 1953. (Useful discussion of artists whocreated under extreme mental pressure. Blanchot’s preface is influenced by the kind of poetics Char endorsed.)
Jung, C.G. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Trans. H.G. and C .F. Baynes. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1928.
Sanger, P. “Night Sea Voyage: John Thompson.” Arc Poetry Magazine 62 (Summer 2009): 72-85.
---. Of Things Unknown: Critical Essays, 1978–2015. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2015.
---. Sea Run: Notes on John Thompson’s Stilt Jack. Antigonish, NS: Xavier Press, 1986. (Contains annotations on most of the allusions and concealed quotations in Stilt Jack.)
---. White Salt Mountain. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2005. (The chapter “Sand Mountain” is an essay on Thompson.)
Winger, R. “A Brief History of the Canadian Ghazal.” Arc Poetry Magazine 62 (Summer 2009): 27-36. (Contains an important bibliography.)
Zweig, S. The Struggle With the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche. Trans. E. and C. Paul. London: Pushkin Press, 2012. (An earlier, more accessible account of the subject dealt with by Jaspers above.)