Geomantic riposte: 'Auden as Philosopher'

Jan Zwicky is one of Canada’s most innovative intellectual figures and most skilled versifiers, particularly appreciated for her expressions of music and philosophy to be found in lyrical form upon the page. As a poet, philosophy teacher, and musician, Zwicky strives to give voice to the ecology of experience in her extensive body of work. Her poetry collection Songs for Relinquishing the Earth won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1999 and Robinson’s Crossing won the Dorothy Livesay Prize and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2004. In 2012, her devastatingly beautiful book of poetry Forge was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. If we may get a shade thinky, Jan Zwicky’s Auden as Philosopher: How Poets Think (Institute For Coastal Research), written for The Ralph Gustafson Lecture Series in 2011, in which she interprets W.H. Auden’s “kind of private Quicunque vult”, his own profession of faith in his Oxford lecture “Making, Knowing, and Judging” as a type of epistemology or perhaps a way of a poet knowing what she knows. Zwicky elaborates upon Auden’s use of two terms in particular, the Primary Imagination that “perceives sacred beings and sacred events” and the Secondary Imagination that can perceive beauty in such a way as to be able to articulately express, or fit into expression the sense of awe that is experienced by the Primary Imagination. Zwicky goes on to summarize Auden’s viewpoint:

 The passive awe of the Primary Imagination precipitates a desire to express that awe; the Secondary Imagination says that the expression must be both true to the experience and, if possible, intelligible to others; and it works to make it so. This is the origin of the work of art, which, according to Auden, is always a rite. The poems reveals its ritual nature in its “deliberately and ostentatiously different” use of language.

And poems. My word, yes, there are also poems.

Auden as Philosopher: How Poets Think by Jan Zwicky (Institute For Coastal Research, 2012, Page 47)


Not knowing, knowing:

each worse, each holding

decades in its hand: kitchens,

dumb jokes, kindness and the shine

on the knob of the gearshift in the February sun.

If there were a sword, a block, you think

you’d lay your head along that coolness,

close your eyes. But no,

the blood springs elsewhere, touch

flooding you with silence. You are born

and born again into your life.


 Geomantic Riposte: Leg Room


Before the dryer jars me    out of the world of the Vermeer Quartet     what

did those musical circles mean on that postcard    Hey, someone has to sing

over them Americanos in Regina Chapters        danse russe when the public

and the baby are sleeping on their feet carried away from     bad dude music

before talkies obstacle with manifest before bookish snow globes      Sure my

quintet for piano and strings    but have you heard my opera The Nose,   asks

Shostakovich WestJetting back with the Hamilton Ticats who get no    leg room either

but someone has to stand out awkwardly        run out into snow globe weirdly

happy     someone has to be Wagner in well funded silk brocade so Stephen Fry

can be transported      you know that night a café chair tipped over like a prop the

Norns wind fatidic rope around       why I sing Russian to the rabbits in this Ralph

Gustafson fantasie and miss you as much as i missed    that Brahms clarinet thing