Poetry – the sort of serious poetry that serious poets who take poetry seriously take seriously – can sometimes seem to the uninitiated eye to be a sort of glossolalia, or perhaps Wernicke’s aphasia: what are these words, and why are they in this order? Some sort of explanation is needed – a glossary, and a gloss: a gloze to keep the eyes from glazing and closing. Perhaps ironically, the kind of poems that do this are as a rule oriented to the same sort of cozy in-group, people who not only know what chapbooks are but think they matter, people who bask in the glow of each other’s mutual references.
Do you know what a sutra and a shastra are? These are texts from the Sanskrit tradition. A sutra is a condensed bit of teaching, tightly organized, often like lecture notes; a shastra is a gloss, an explanation, an explication – unfolding – of the tight sutra. There is a western form of poetry that is a bit like this, except that instead of using a condensed text as a basis for an expanded one, it takes a bit of someone else’s poem and treats it as though it were a text to be expanded on. In truth, it is more like jazz, improvisations on someone else’s theme. The opening quatrain or double quatrain taken from a fellow poet’s work are the nut of the matter, its raisin d’être (yes, raisin), and the poem built on it – four stanzas of ten lines each, the last line of each stanza being a line of the original, and the 6th and 9th lines rhyming with it – is like the chocolate coating: ah, a Glossette. Well, in this case, a glosa.
The glosa is such an uncommon form in poetry that Wikipedia knoweth it not, nor doth the Oxford English Dictionary. But many Canadian poets know it, thanks in large part to P.K. Page, who published a book Hologram, A Book of Glosas. Page is to Canadian poetry rather as Alice Munro is to Canadian short fiction (except that Munro is still alive): the doyenne. If she happened to decide to put together a book of poems based on a Spanish form from the 14th and 15th centuries, well, everyone stood up and took notice, and quite a few of them in turn wrote glosas on her glosas. I first encountered a glosa from her book more than a decade ago, when I was singing with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, premiering a new work by the Canadian composer Derek Holman: The Invisible Reality. Even now, reading her “Planet Earth,” on nearly every line I can remember the angular phrases we sang.
This word, glosa, has considerable phonaesthetic connections. The opening /gl/ has associations of shininess (gleam, glimmer, glow, glint) and the oral cavity (glottis), plus words (glossary) and a few other lexemes, all of which have some flavour of the swallowing gesture it suggests. The /s/ in glosa adds to a sense of shininess and slickness. But the final unstressed vowel keeps it lighter, more delicate. The source of the word is the source of glossary and gloss (as in “explanatory text”): Greek glossa γλῶσσα “language; foreign language; foreign word; word needing explanation”, coming by way of Latin glossa, which came to refer also to the explanation of the word.
And how is a glosa to read? Well, that depends. It may be as clear as glass; it may be a slog. The odds are not too bad that it will be precious and allusive, an in-group form, almost a glad-handing and logrolling to situate the poet in the world of poetic discourse and among its assorted personae. Of course it can be a bit more straightforward. And the development on the original theme may be less an explanation and more a wandering.
You may be thinking that this sounds, if in a defined poetic form, rather like what I, too, do with other people’s words. I will not deny it, at least not much. But as it happens, a few years ago I wrote a couple of glosas (in the midst of a spate of form poetry encouraged by Molly Peacock, who was teaching me a few more things about poetry), and I present them here as examples of the form (I make no claims as to their merits as poetry). A warning to those who dislike vulgarities: the first one has a couple. The second one is a modified form – it uses an 8-line extract; it opens each stanza with a line from the first quatrain and closes each with a line from the second. (I’m not the first to do this. I got the idea from Glenn Kletke’s “O Grandfather Dust” in In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry.) For both poems, the sutra, the theme for development, is provided by poetry in song form, one by Jefferson Airplane and one by Martha and the Muffins.
by James Harbeck
Lather was thirty years old today,
They took away all of his toys.
His mother sent newspaper clippings to him,
About his old friends who’d stopped being boys.
—“Lather,” Jefferson Airplane
The mirror’s chipped, the razor’s dull,
but this is how you be a man.
Come on, wimp, do it, scrape it!
A snag, a little drop of blood…
oh, yes, and now we learn to swear.
“Uh, fuck!” is all he thought to say.
His mother came in and she wasn’t pleased.
Let’s say it was funny in the retelling.
That ugly small child who tried to play
in lather was thirty years old today,
and he’s still ugly, still shaves,
still wonders if anyone will notice
that blood trickling down his neck.
He knows new people now,
a little assortment of friends
who come over and make some noise.
They seem more reliable than
the ones he had when he was young,
not memories he enjoys.
They took away all of his toys
once, and called him Wimpy Scarface.
You know what? Kids are shitty like that.
Kids think adults are mean and tough,
but adults at least remember what
it felt like to take abuse. Quite a lot.
They remember that day in fifth-grade gym
they took a hockey stick in the face
by accident, six or seven times.
And after, just to keep life grim,
his mother sent newspaper clippings to him
while he was laid up in the hospital.
Because others’ lives are worse.
But kids don’t know that it changes.
And some don’t make it, either.
So this is what grown-up is like:
less pain, or at least more poise.
And, hey, he was one who made it,
no crash, no throat slash, no bullet,
just the memory that destroys
about his old friends who’d stopped being boys.
by James Harbeck
I know it’s out of fashion
And a trifle uncool
But I can’t help it
I’m a romantic fool
It’s a habit of mine
To watch the sun go down
On Echo Beach
I watch the sun go down
—Echo Beach, Martha and the Muffins (Mark Gane)
I know it’s out of fashion
to go for walks on the beach,
or write poems, or whatever,
and pretty dumb to dwell
on a lonely twenty minutes spent
going to look at water and pine
when I was twelve, OK,
on some dumb school camping trip.
Well, the hell with it. Fine.
It’s a habit of mine,
and a trifle uncool,
to be nostalgic about
the nobility of loneliness
and tart young yearning.
It was actually a pretty good trip.
I tried to be the clown;
they let me play strip poker
and I almost felt I belonged.
Later I walked alone out in the brown
to watch the sun go down.
But I can’t help it
if that Martha and the Muffins song
was popular just then
or if we were by a lake at sunset.
It was a good tune. Who didn’t like it?
I learned what I wanted it to teach.
It told me I could love empty dreams,
and take loneliness as a virtue,
and leave behind what I could reach
on Echo Beach.
I’m a romantic fool.
It was a cold little lake
with cattails and mud.
There was no echo.
I walked out, felt lonely and noble, and walked back.
Then it rained and we went to town
to stay in a cheap motel instead.
But I have learned well. Now I write poems
And file them away, and when there’s not a soul around
I watch the sun go down.