In this essay, head editor Laura Ritland tells us what it was like to teach Jim Johnstone's poetry collection Dog Ear (Signal Editions 2014) to undergraduates at the University of Toronto Scarborough. The truth is, contemporary poetry ain't hard to love, and Johnstone's book is a knockout.
Last semester I taught about 60 undergraduate students as a teaching assistant for Daniel Scott Tysdal’s course in poetry at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. Of all the experiences poetry has led me to, this was one of the most gratifying and inspiring. This isn’t to say that being a teaching assistant is glamorous work; the explosive labor dispute this semester at UofT exposes the uglier and frankly depressing conditions of being a graduate student. But when contemporary poetry, students, and writers gather in the halls of academia, some 60s-era wood-panelled room, transformative things can happen.
Firstly, it’s worth knowing that Daniel Scott Tysdal is a brilliant poet in his own right and that his students are wild about him. “He looks like Shakespeare!” a student noted to me in tutorials. Secondly, Tysdal always incorporates a title of contemporary poetry into his curriculum – this year, Jim Johnstone’s Dog Ear. Winched together as smartly as Evel Knievel’s motorcycle, the book is a truly masterful collection, ambitious in its formal and conceptual scope, melodic, haunted, gritty, gorgeous. A skeptic might raise an eyebrow at an attempt to inspire a general audience to take interest in contemporary poetry (oddly, these voices tend to be poets themselves, which says something about our self-esteem). Indeed, even as I marvelled at Johnstone’s painterly application of allusions, his torqued imagery, the engineered compactness of his meditations on ontology, I was uncertain about how anyone not-a-poet would enter into this world.
Thankfully, Tysdal was teaching this course, not me. Each lecture started with the nuts and bolts of poetry – the image, poetic devices, meter, set forms – and moved into reading a poem from Dog Ear alongside something more traditionally canonical from Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets and Poetry anthology. For our lecture on imagery, we untangled the “white oak’s” branches of Johnstone’s “Ariadne’s Thread”; for metaphor, we looked at the “tuba, quartered” slipped within “Parenthesis.” “Drive,” read during our week on musical devices, was a favourite. The poem soars in long, songlike lines: “No one will find us in this city—not your valentine,/ not the line of dogs he’s chained by the throat.” Even if some students remained staunch enemies with prosody by that point, the music of Johnstone’s language wound its way into their hearts. All it took to enjoy these poems was to sit down and make the space to listen.
On a basic level, I’m saying something about contemporary poetry: that it’s easy to love, if you’re willing to listen. Equip yourself with a vocabulary in poetic devices and meter, and you’re set for maximum appreciation and possibly sublime transcendence. On a level of appraisal, I’m saying Dog Ear shines. If you’re looking for clever imagery, take the eponymous “Dog Ear”:
It was years before I learned to call
this prayer: the right-hand corner
of a page turned down to make another
In line two, “this” initially means “dog ear,” the place marker for a book. But as we follow the poem’s groove of logic, a matching image, another gear, presents itself in the form of the speaker’s wife’s “earring,” which is then compared to “words” written on a page’s margin. Dog-ear, earring, words. “This” isn’t just a book-marker, but time-markers, the meaning-making we substitute for loss.
A pause while I explain what I think is the nucleus of the book: Dog Ear is about meaning-making, form – both in the aesthetic and ontological sense of the word. As Johnstone said to me later over a chocolate chip cookie in Toronto’s Parkdale, what do we “dog ear” from a life and “why do we pick to write about one thing rather than something else?” Put another way, what determines the shape of a life and how we might we come to terms with the mechanics that drive our identities? What choice do we have in these determinants? Not only time, but biology, culture, language and art undergird these concerns. In “The Greater Good,” the speaker’s very literal, biological heart “valves … drain// like pigs skewered/ on a spit”; Evel Knievel’s self-portrait is a “dog-eared, a carnal mask mirroring/ half-lit splits of wood.” These speakers are heavy with their own materials. These poems are also conscious of their aesthetic foundations, apparent in the ekphrastic “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” or the dubious agency of the artist figure in “Freedom.” I can’t help but also add that this mesh of aesthetics and evoked experience is perfect for a poetry class: it invites readers to see the relevance of aesthetics to what it means to humanly exist. “Epoch,” the last of the collection, is perhaps the most moving example of this synthesis, and I won’t say much more except please read it.
But the best thing about reading Dog Ear with Tysdal’s poetry class? The day Johnstone gave his reading. Students snaked from the podium to the back of the lecture hall, waiting to get their copies signed at the beginning of class. Few of them had met a “real poet,” I found out later. They had been expecting someone quaint, fusty, “with leather elbow patches,” “the tweed jacket.” I wonder if, in these students’ minds, the poet Johnstone had risked becoming like any other printed name in their anthology, that the reason they had been expecting a fictional Wordsworth to stroll into the room was because our culture knows our dead poets, but not our living ones. Johnstone stated this with fewer words: “Poetry needs to feel relevant to them. And if it’s not, then it takes on the dead quality of its author.” But Johnstone – we called him Jim – was real. Jim was chill. Jim had tattoos. Jim was bemused by all the attention and read his poems in the voice he wrote them and the class spread open their books to follow along. After weeks analyzing his work on chalkboards and living his poems in our minds, we listened.
Jim Johnstone is the author of The Velocity of Escape (Guernica Editions 2008), Patternicity (Nightwood Editions 2010) and Sunday, the locusts (Tightrope Books 2011). He is the recipient of a CBC Literary Award, The Fiddlehead's Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize, and Matrix Magazine's Lit POP Award. Currently he's poetry editor at Palimpsest Press and an associate editor at Representative Poetry Online.
Daniel Scott Tysdal is the author of three books of poetry, Fauxccasional Poems (forthcoming from Icehouse 2015), The Mourner’s Book of Albums (Tightrope 2010), and Predicting the Next Big Advertising Breakthrough Using a Potentially Dangerous Method (Coteau 2006). Predicting received the ReLit Award for Poetry (2007) and the Anne Szumigalski Poetry Award (2006). Oxford University Press recently published his poetry textbook, The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough. In 2012, the UTSC student newspaper, The Underground, named him one of their four “Professors of the Year.”