How to honour dead poets: P.K. Page and the glosa form

Recognizing the influence of others is hardly plagiarism.

October 8th, 2010

It's an odd thing, in educational circles and beyond, our present obsession with plagiarism and intellectual property—the when and the where, the shame and the danger. I mean, of course we honourable, upright citizens want to recognize the work of others; of course we don't want to steal; of course we are concerned to plow our own furrow for our own wages.

But when you look at the world of the arts, recognizing the omnipresence of what we must at least call "influence" is unavoidable. Originality is a largely Romantic value, dependent on the notion of the artist as unique rather than representative, and much overrated, in the eyes of traditionalists. Did even Shakespeare ever invent one entire storyline? He did not. As T.S. Eliot famously wrote in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "Some one said: 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know." All the more refreshing, then, when an artist consciously makes use of the work of another, and asks us all to notice it.

P.K. Page was a widely revered poet who lived the latter part of her life in Victoria, B.C. She died on January 14 of this year at the great age of 93. In her long life, she wrote not only poetry but also fiction, non-fiction, and children's literature; she was recognized as a significant figure on the literary scene in Canada for well over half a century. She was also an accomplished painter, who under her married name of P.K. Irwin has pieces in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. And one of the forms of poetry for which she is best-known is the glosa. This is an early Renaissance form of tribute developed by the poets of the Spanish court: each line of the opening quatrain, which is by another poet, becomes the final line of the four following stanzas which "gloss" (or comment on) that opening quatrain, usually with the sixth, ninth, and borrowed tenth line rhyming. Page became intrigued by the challenge of this form, and in 1994 she produced a whole book of glosas entitled Hologram.

In the Foreword, she writes, "You work towards a known. I liked being controlled by those three reining rhymes—or do I mean reigning?—and gently influenced by the rhythm of the original . . . A curious marriage—two sensibilities intermingling." Page set out to use the form as "a way of paying homage to those poets whose work I fell in love with in my formative years." This proved to be much more challenging than she originally anticipated: how to find four consecutive lines which, when divided, could carry independent meaning, provide a manageable rhyme, and parallel her own poetic sensibilities? Nevertheless, she persisted, and the fourteen poems of Hologram were the result. I'd like to describe just two of these poems, both of which initially appeared in the acclaimed literary journal The Malahat Review.

"Love's Pavilion" is a glosa based on the last four lines of the first stanza of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas's "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" (1936). Thomas's poem, which he wrote at age 22, itself glosses Romans 6:9, "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him." In concrete images of sun, seashore, gulls, and stars, Thomas extends the sweep of this victory to all those who suffer, and all those who are apparently lost to death. Page's interaction with Thomas is for three of her four stanzas an interrogation, to which Thomas's lines provide the response. "Tell me the truth. How does it end? / Who will tangle their matted hair?" leads to "Though they go mad they shall be sane." "What is the hope for those who drown? / . . . Who will they be when their bones are gone? / Bodiless, are they anyone?" leads to Thomas's "Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again." And where the third stanza asks, "What of the plot and counterplot / families devise to keep apart / Romeo from Juliet?", the response comes, "Though lovers be lost love shall not." Finally, in Page's fourth stanza, she allows herself to be convinced: "Love shall not. O, love shall not. / Engrave it in stone. Carve it in rock"—for "This is the sub-text of all art." Moreover, she reminds herself at last, it is the song of divine Love:

With the Lord of the Dance we shall form a ring
and there in love's pavilion
hand in hand we shall say Amen
and we shall dance and we shall sing
with Love, with Love for companion.
And death shall have no dominion.

In this way Page dialogues with and complements Thomas, reframing his assertions for her own time and place, her own spiritual yearning.

"Planet Earth" is a glosa based on four lines from the poem "In Praise of Ironing" (1961) by Chilean writer Pablo Neruda. His brief ode is about the centrality of the work of poetry as the "skin of this planet," for which the ironing of laundry is a metaphor. Page takes four lines from the ode and riffs on them in a glorious elaboration on the very notion of the skin of the planet: "It has to be loved the way a laundress loves her linens, / the way she moves her hands caressing the fine muslins / knowing their warp and woof, / like a lover coaxing, or a mother praising." Page writes a celebration of "this great beloved world and all the creatures in it": Neruda's line is incorporated, "It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet." In her second stanza, Page considers trees and grasses and rivers and streams and pebbles and lakes and oceans: "the sheets of lake water / smoothed with the hand / and the foam of the oceans pressed into neatness." And Neruda's line to finish: "It has to be ironed, the sea in its whiteness." The third stanza celebrates the colours of the sea so famously sung by poets, "protean, wine-dark, grey, green sea," and the sky above it, which night and day "must be burnished and rubbed / by hands that are loving"—and so to Neruda's line, "and the hands keep on moving." Only in stanza four does Page suggest whose hands these might be that are doing all this work of caring for the world: "Archangels then will attend to its metals / and polish the rods of its rain," and "Seraphim will stop singing hosannas / to shower it with blessings and blisses and praises."

But that is not all. As in Psalm 103, the blessing must come from all of God's creatures—not only from his angels, his hosts, and his creation, but also from humankind: "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!" So, in Page's poem, "newly in love, / we must draw it and paint it / our pencils and brushes and loving caresses / smoothing the holy surfaces." In this final line, Neruda's words finish Page's sentence: the homage is complete.

One final and rather lovely note. In 2000, Page was singled out for a particular honour when the United Nations chose "Planet Earth" for its reading series "Dialogue Among Civilizations Through Poetry." The poem was read at places around the world which were seen as "international ground," including the United Nations building in New York, a spot on Mount Everest, and a site in Antarctica. Thus, a poet's consciously paying tribute to another poet becomes a statement about not just artistic but international dialogue. Would that our own feeble attempts to recognize the influence of others could be half as useful—and as beautiful.

Topics: Arts Literature
 

Deborah Bowen lives in Hamilton, ON, and teaches English at Redeemer University College. She has become increasingly aware of the call to live within the ancient and continuing Story, and of the impoverishment of those for whom the present is the only significant reference point. She sees postmodernity as a time of hope and new possibilities for the Kingdom Story.

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