Poetry Reading

This reading was recorded at Queen's University in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on 10 March 1966. Doug Jones, the Canadian poet, introduces Whalley. The other voice on the recording is Tom Marshall, the Canadian poet and novelist, who was the MC for the evening. Whalley reads the following poems, which are prefaced by illuminating comments about their origin and significance:

1. Night Flight (5:10)
2. Elegy (7:40)
3. Lazarus (14:10)
4. Affair of Honour (18:15)
5. Dionysiac (21:20)
6. A Minor Poet is Visited by the Muse (24:10)
7. Pig (25:30)
8. Calligrapher (27:48)


This is a complete transcription:

Tom Marshall: I’ll now call on Mr. Jones to introduce Dr. Whalley.
Doug Jones: This seems to me with this pleasant audience to be slightly unnecessary exercise, possibly. If Dr. Whalley is not known around here, there’s not much chance for any of us to be remembered. Possibly it would be useful to shake your usual image, it would be useful to shake your usual image of Dr. Whalley before reading you his poetry.
He is a rather extraordinary person and it’s rather hard to find out who Dr. Whalley is, or who the man behind that title is, and I think this is indicated to some degree by his various interests and his various writings. One never knows quite what he will be interested in next, or what he will pronounce upon with apparently expert knowledge, as far as I’m concerned as expert as a rule: whether it’s computers, or calligraphy, or Greek print, or life in the barren lands, or some of the inner secrets of poetry, or art in general. He struck me a while ago as a kind of more platonic James Bond. He’s always one jump ahead of everything else, machines and minds both. And something of the paradox, I think, of personality comes to my mind at any rate, when I think of George Whalley and Alfred Purdy, whom some of you probably heard here earlier in the year, together, one in the same. Because off-hand they strike me as the two extreme types and personalities in their general image, at any rate, in society. And yet I know they get along very well together. And I’ve spent a most fabulous evening on the shores of the Baie des Chaleur over a fire ‘til five o’clock in the morning with George Whalley and myself and Al Purdy and F.R. Scott, which is a very peculiar and very interesting mixture indeed. And even remember vaguely being on the Baie des Chaleur around four or five o’clock in the morning with George Whalley like a romantic figure, I suppose, out of the novels, somewhere on the bow while I was pulling it with a long stick. I presumed not out to sea. I wasn’t singing. Although I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. I can’t give a very adequate report. Although I know we didn’t get too far from shore, happily for everybody here this evening. And so George Whalley is still around to read some very interesting poems which I suppose looking at him as a rule in the lecture room, one doesn’t realize he has. And considering all that he does, one doesn’t think he would ever have time to write.
Mr. Whalley.


George Whalley: Ladies and gentlemen this is a rather upside down performance. I feel that your, I suggest that you doubt you’re going to get the Beethoven after the Bartok, or the Svelink after the Stravinsky. But if you can put up with the possibility of some medieval sonorities after the sharp ironies of youth I better let go. These are all poems that have been written one way or another in the last, well, while I’ve been in Queen’s. And I’ll just say a word or two about each of them as I start them. Some – I think some have been published, and they’ll already be known. But the first one is called “Night Flight” and it’s about geese, which twice a year fly over Kingston and shake our house to its foundations. I know at the corner of lower Albert Street I don’t know how they get their fix on it, but they do, twice a year. And this is to do with those birds.


Imagine the hand could trim those strident feathers
For flying rig such flimsy gear to pierce
An instant of threatening rain with an arrow of geese:
The fingers hooked to the string, hold it humming
Fiddle-taut to the ear, the shoulder surging
To flex the bow to a thought’s prophecy,
And the cosmic archer’s crow’s-foot eyes dispose
Wild wings to tread the darkness southward.
Imagine how in this solitude their beaks        
Shout open defiance to the dark sky
Where no star sets course for them—only
The tidal pitiless sun commanding them
Beyond desire or memory towards
An unforeknowable target of repose.            
And each a commander astride the creaking silence
Cries out to this pitiful grace of bones
And ragged feathers linked by hook and barb
To a crazy Icarus-venture; and each obedient
Peers unamazed at a highly improbable course         
Great-circled in octopus juice on the black air:
For each leader’s cry strikes on their ears
Familiar magic. Therefore, these Atlas necks
Are long-bows strained to a planet’s compulsion:
These birds are archer and arrow, artists
Annihilating will to discover purpose.
These wingbones are structured against the gales
Of Tierra del Fuego; the singing feathers
Are tough enough for that sorrowful region where
The Horn fractures his beak in the South ice.
But they will come to rest short of that passion
For no divined reason, dropping down
Weary some dawn by a lake where wild rice
Whispers to water.
This is a longish poem here called “Elegy.” I’m not sure that it is an elegy, but it’s a sort of reflection, and it’s to do with a place that Doug Jones knows well, and where I was at university and later lectured. 

A host of disasters may overtake a bird
On the wing, its body stricken in the middle air
By nerve-wrack, collision, bullet. Of these I know
Nothing, whatever the casual reporter
Affirms or guesses of course and trajectory.
This was a wholly different matter – a spaniel’s
Velvet jaws stopped the bird’s heart.
No tooth-ruffled breast feathers, but dead nevertheless.
A hedgesparrow, I fancy – some unremarkable
Fustian bird, not of the soaring kind.
His death more unremarkable than a song,
With no spectacular earthward plunge,
No spiring pinions frozen in spread-eagle, no
Lusterless feathers drifting like spoons down,
No light impact to snap the fragile bones.
Earth-borne, earth-bound, arrested, dead here,
The trowelled earth, mother-neutral, accepts
Whatever may be accepted – whatever may be gathered –
Beak, bone, claw, pinfeather, eye – lacking a simple
Gesture of rejection. My fingers number
Each interrupted capillary, every excruciate
Nerve and filament barbed like eyes in the loin
With spears of delight, needlepoints of terror.
Who can order and preen these feathers for flying now?
Or arch these spindle-bones to stride the morning?
Or glaze these eyes to stare the sun into pity?
Or force this mouth, crammed with silence, to empty
The light with its crying or people the desolate city?
Honed to a cutting-edge on the whetstone of frost
The pathways of air are deserted. No bird dare
Thread his flight here for fear his wings
Shiver like glass and scatter the snow with diamonds.
But we are compelled to venture, coming on foot
By a devious unmarked track to a place of stones
Where glyptic records rehearse with adroit precision
Their repetitious and inexpressible sorrow.
And being gathered, our eyes correctly reverted
Each from the other’s nakedness, let us
Commit to darkness eyes that never suffered
The first incredible shock of light; and having
Committed this last and newest testament
Turn – this is no festival for mothers –
Turn to this other man, the one companion,
Bowed with an effort of unprofessional grief.
(Far down in the valley a bird rises
Stiffly into the cruel stillness. A
Jet of affection splinters the numbness –
He should have flown South a long time ago.)
And turning find this other man is gone,
Gone underground, his tottering grief
A frozen gesture of silence.
So many dead, since and before and elsewhere,
Behind the wire, under the olivetrees,
At sea, and not a few in their beds. But here
To my knowledge these two – plenty:
A universe of dying. As for the rest,
I do not know them; let them be mourned in the best
Style. My song and sorrow are
Exhausted and overburdened by a child
Dead from her birth, and a generous voluble friend.
Not far away, in ground unsanctified,
A spaniel – clown bred in the bone, a circus
Prodigy from birth – and a hedgesparrow.
And now that I’ve started, the list spins out a little:
A boy shot through the head for a partridge
(A not uncommon error), a girl unmade
To the hardy fashion of love, and an older maid
Fearless in floodtime who ferried her new-baked bread
Across the river of death. All these
In their due seasons. Here is some bravery.
No make of mourning
Can bruise the bones of these
Who in the end must suffer
The ways of repose.
Worn to a habit of silence
The unrequited lover
Is caught in a rip-tide
Of gentleness; another
Knowing no graceful hope     
Drowns in a deep pool
Of accomplished innocence,
And being made whole
Goes forth to meet
The naked terror of vision,    
The urgency of flight,
The hard death of song.
The black flutter of a skylark            
Rising from the corn
Is a dying fall, no gage of       
His ecstasy of song.
Even the sparrow’s motley
Belies his intricate song,
Conceals how by mystery
The voice becomes vision –   
How by a surgical
Duplicity the vision
Mounts to the throat and kindles
A golden flame of song;
How the amethyst beak         
Releasing the thread of breath,
Spills from the ruby throat
The sapphires of death.
Reverting from their bold
Venture all come        
In a blaze of jewelled flame
To the city of the sun.
The shudder of cockcrow
Is heard in the phoenix’ cry;
Betrothal and betrayal           
Are equal, crucified –
Hung like a broken crow
In most cruel wise
On the horns of the heart
Or spear-points of eyes.        
The ritual silence
Commands us endow
The feathers of suffering
With power to renew
The virgin’s perplexity,         
A man’s broken oath,
The clown’s wild sorrow, and
A child’s small death.
I have another poem here, not a very new one, called “Lazarus.” Lazarus is an idea that has for a long time attracted my imagination, I don’t know why, partly from seeing wheat in Egypt growing. But this poem started from seeing that sculpture that Jacob Epstein made called "Lazarus," which you may have seen. A tall, more than life-sized figure, standing with his head arched back and still bound in the grave-bands, having appeared to have just walked out of the grave.

A simple command cuts his death to the bone.
A stiff shadow, bound, moves out of the cave
Blurred in drifting clouds of recognition.
Dappled with hot shadow of olive-leaves,
Gnarled with the ancient anguish of the vine,
He stood stone-still, carved out of the indrawn
Breath of morning, shriven, his neck arched back
Like a frozen wave.  Only the women move,
Mary and Martha rocking to and fro
Like bladderwrack in an indolent undertow.
“Come home from the dead, Lazarus” –
So the women had keened away the three nights
Never dreaming their salt and hopeless grief
Could turn their prayer to bitter affirmation.
Over the vibrant silver of the olivetrees,
Across the vine-plants and shadow, the day
Had curled in an arch of lapis lazuli.
Crisp with menace and the dawning voices,
The plumed sunlight coils its force and strikes
A hammer-blow full on the creased eyelids,
On eyeballs wrinkled by the gravebands, bruised
By the brass pennies.  Miraculous, the light
Breaks open his eyes as though his skull had split
On some relentless reef of lamentation.
His head strains back, arching his neck to the impact.
The hush of harvest on the taut skins of his ears,
The memorable feel of his own body
Bound still, the animal moanings of the women
Insistent as the fricture of cicadas –
Out of this undertow he claws his way
To a bitter beach of consciousness.
His eyes, unshrouded now, are windows looking
Inward and outward.  No eye dare meet them.
Even the women edge their shame away
Disavowing their knowledge and their prayer.
            The shrivelled heart may know
            The royal reprieve of greenness.
            But what imperial purpose,
            Infinitely gentle,
            Requires this hard penance
            Fathering an old crime
            On new innocence?
The stiff spasms of his waking overset
The calculus of grief and the cold
Merciful mechanism of forgetting.
His body’s musk and myrrh is tropical landfall,
Languid repose transfixed by arrows of regret.
Stricken by the two-edged sword of paradise,
His neck arched back, he raises stone eyes
To the blaze of a bitter vision – pity granting
Life, withholding heaven.  Nevertheless
The fluttering hands of embalming sorrow
Quicken like flowers inward, enfold and cherish
A man-child, it may be, or the seeds of a woman’s
Grief, or some more numbing, some more precious
Mystery nourished of suffering – perhaps
An alabaster box of spikenard.
            For the sword was made flesh
            And dwells among us.
This is a poem called, “Affair of Honour – Cliveden.” There is a place in an estate called Cliveden that stands just above a turn of the Thames, near the place where “The Wind and the Willows” was written about. It’s not an old house, it’s a rather ugly one, ‘cause the earlier ones were burned down, but the old gardens are still there. And in one of them, a rather small place, surrounded with hedges, there grows in the grass, in a different kind of grass, the image of crossed swords and a date to mark the occasion of a fatal duel on that spot. That’s what the poem’s about. 

The date of the year grafted in the turf
With crossed swords
Eloquent between the formal hedges
Calls back across three centuries
To this pastoral place above the sweet river
The carnal liturgy mortal in the dawn.
The principals, forthright in disaster and
Foreshortened to stone,
Gaze each other pale in the truculent light
Under the bright eyes of the hooded girlchild.
She at least is present, golden
Withdrawn a little to the company of stalking shadows,
Flattered to tears by the lion pride,
Enchanted by the horror dawning
Over the reticent formalities of the hedges.
For love’s sake a virtuoso thrust
Asserts crabbed as a syllogism
The scrupulous logic of honour.
The casual enemy clenches his plea on a gasp of silence
And gives no more evidence before the chief witness.
The agile figures
Sealed in the long stride of their companion shadows
Are startled to stone;
I see the drops of blood humbled by the girl’s gaze
Blessing the grass.
Can seed and rain mingle aloud and flower
For pity at her frock’s hem? or the eloquent blood
Spring into birdsong crying to plead stay of execution
In strictest confidence of the formal hedges?
The shadows are long as snails, the dew astonishes the spiders,
The light shivers and falters, the thin pulse ebbs into silence;
And she and the man,
Braggart in their opening of the unstaunched vein,
Complacent as vultures, sardonic as astronauts,
Cut the date of the year for joy with crossed swords
In the blessed and dishonoured earth,
Laughing to think how it turns its face to the sky for good to celebrate
A brave encounter here on the grass where the blood dropped down
Between the formal hedges
Reticent these three centuries.
There’s a poem here that I call “Dionysiac,” and it’s a poem to do with a friend of mine named Ted Pope, who was a very talented radio and television producer, a notable skier, a good rock climber, and was finally killed motor racing. This poem is connected with him and it’s called “Dionysiac.”

Aquavit and beer to chase it
On the patio, narrow between broken walls,
And a black bird from Java in a Steinberg cage
Whistling in the sun.
After the aquavit (a wedding relic), Scotch
With beer to chase it; and after the Scotch,
Meanwhile Antonia Vivaldi ran his Seasons
Hi-fi all four of them fiddling the flame to the sun’s smouldering quiet.
Then the flamenco. Whereupon
Up rose Bernardino
And shuffled a slow dance
Seagull-eyed and penguin-footed
Up and along the path in a reverie of castanets
Self-enwrapped, self-in-the-sun-enchanted.
More eloquent even the stillness of the silent girl
Whose blue unseasonable eyes and quiet hands
Incarnadined the air with the tendrilled passion.
The dreaming dance of her stillness shapes in its fingers her heart
            to a helix of flame;
Her eyes are lapis lazuli in a crystal skull.
The music will never end. Her hands, as still as birds,
Renounce all motion, enclosed in the flame of her silence
While the sun stands still and the bird pours down its indolent
            song unregarding.
Here by the brooks of desire and in the mountains
The sacrificial torches run indecorous through groves of sleep
Hounding the dainty antelopes, soft to the touch,
Till they lie dismembered, and their eyes filled with darkness.
Now while the sun is high, while the music revolves
As unregarding and blank as that bird’s bright eye,
The patio is desolate and the house empty.
If there is life still, it does not move and there is no sign of it.
The garrulous silence of an abdicated sorrow falls
Whimpering from dark to dark through the aching spaces of the mind
And the frenzy of this torrential sacrament
Is gathered into a quiet cage
Ingeniously constructed
Of blazing music, birdsong, and a grave dance
In a narrow place between broken walls.
Doug Jones mentioned an occasion when certain poets gathered at a house named for him best known for the Stanley Cup. Not all the poets present were major poets. And on one occasion I wrote these frivolous verses entitled, “A Minor Poet is Visited by the Muse.”

Abroad early among daisies
His ear caught
The surely-some-revelation murmur of
Prospective polysyllables.
Happily his clipboard was at hand, whereon
(His eyes lifted in reverence towards the sea)
He set down
This set down
Safely delivered of his song
He tethered his Pegasus
To the ambrosial coffee-bar of the dawn
And broke his fast in thanksgiving,
His eyes glazed still
By the rush of spent angels to the head.
I have two other poems here, and I’m not quite sure what order to read them in, but I think I’ll read the more frivolous of the two first. Not that the frivolous one is unserious. It’s called, “Pig,”
My household has a pig
Although otherwise well provided
With father and mother, a dog, two cats, and three children
(The parrot died years ago),
He is called “Pig” simply and fits his name well
Being made of pigskin, but his shape improvised not stuffed:
He would be too horrible stuffed.
His ears are like a sow’s ears, large pointed and pendulous, or
Like the melted blades of Swahili spears.
He stands patiently under the piano
Attentive to receive some expected command
And ready to obey with cheerful alarcrity like any Able Seaman.
His eyes are dquare buttons, neatly folded also in pigskin, not
            very securely attached, but perceptive I am sure.
I think he is not a sow, because he has never farrowed
And because he is gentle with small people and not possessive
of the cats.
I brought him under my arm from London by air
In gay defiance of all airline and government regulations
(Not strictly accurate, but that’s how I like to think it was);
I think he enjoyed the flight as much as I did, even though he was
            leaving his own country.
He was designed to be used as a footstool or to be sat on, as is
            therefore worthy of respect.
From behind he looks as confident as an alderman certain of his
From long acquaintance now, of his patient and eager aspect as he stands
            on guard under the piano
Or occasionally ventures into the open at Christmas time or driven
            there for sweeping and cleaning,
I declare that he is a noble pig, an ornament to any household, worthy
            of affectionate esteem.
My last poem is simply called “Calligrapher.” This arises from a number of things but partly it’s to do with George Johnston, a poet in Ottawa. Because we both write to each other in a rather careful style of penmanship, ‘though the style isn’t very much alike. And on one occasion he wrote and said to me, “it’s ridiculous. You and I remind me of the two Chinese sages who are to be seen in a picture in gorgeous robes, a mountain setting, presenting to each other with excellent examples of their own work.” But there is certain references to Chinese calligraphy and customs of Chinese calligraphy in this poem.

In a quiet reverie my left hand,
In a quiet reverie tracing a mortar circle on glass, my left hand
Grinds the black in while my right hand
Rests, fallen into a leopard’s grace of waiting,
Composing itself for the shaping of an ideal form
Glimpsed with a tantalus delight in the twilight of the mind’s search
            and the heart’s recognition,
A shape fluid as water, strict as a crisp enunciation
Uttered against all hazard out of the strong tradition of Hsing Shu.
The left hand dreams in its motion, the right hand rests in its stillness,
The mind, composed and quiet with the turning motion and motionless
Meditates examples of excellence and dwells (though it shouldn’t)
On the hope that my old companion will extend his wry approval –
He who in gorgeous robes – did I dream this? – in a mountain setting
(our serving men discreetly at a distance, and the air still)
Once presented to me in deference some writing of his own and asked
            me for some of mine.
Will my mind today grow quiet enough and strong enough in its
            concentrated ease
To impel from the shoulder with swashbuckling force in one lyrical sweep
The act of insolent grace, body and mind, that moves a mountain and
            makes a poem of these characters.
Springing like a shout from heart, eye, and hand, and the secret places that
            love springs from, and
Gathered into a great impetuous outburst of drunken largeness and
            biblical severity.
And what, resting and revolving, shall I compose or frame
In the mind’s eye and out of the heart’s crevices?
 Some well-turned and memorable compliment? An exercise in virtuosity?
A royal turn of phrase perhaps, touching beauty or the turning of the seasons,
Or the numb and inarticulate grief of time and the ancient hauntings of regret,
Or absence in some desolate place, or the tongue silenced by the dignity
            of the heart?
Or shall I write of the terrible stone violence done to Hui-tsung.
Though his writing Slender Gold bears witness yet to the meticulous
Eloquence of his measured movement and speech – that tall imperial
            figure, slender as his brush-strokes, a young man, learned and skillful
For time has also laid rough hands on Ikhnaton and his beautiful queen
Consigning the City of the Sun to the lizard, the painted brushes, and incised scarabs,
            and the silent mockery of stone hawks.
But there must be a moment when my right hand fully rested must venture forth, sooner
or later, time or no time.
There must be sooner or later a moment when it has composed itself into imperial or
            bombastic certitude, and can say
Something momentous and something old, as wounding as an unbroken promise, say –
Ten characters: “Wind, rain, home; a foreign place; the thought of home is fire;
A friend, a lover; wine is fire; the heart.” Shall I say this? – declaring thereby
That we grow old in the wind and rain, that home is a place we always leave,
That we suffer alone always, and come upon death alone, and tread down sorrow
            as best we can
So that the heart may flower and all desire in the end be chastened? No wonder
The right hand rests like an idle leopard, and my old writing friend is quizzical;
No wonder my left hand dreams and delays in its long circular reverie as
though the ink were stone and the water a black ice that refuses to flow.
When the spirit of Mi Fei strides silently across the still landscape of my mind,
Pot-bellied, yet sure-footed as an athlete under the towering weight or that
            high dome of his brow,
His shirt flying open throat to navel, enclosed in the splendor of his thought,
I know that the whiskers on the nose of a short-legged pony or the texture of
            rabbit fur or hawk feathers at a saddle bow
Are imperishably true, that here if nowhere else there is a possible matching
            of the hand’s perfection to the cunning duplicity of the eye.
Tom Marshall: I am sure that I express the feeling of the audience when I say that we have been privileged this evening to hear of poetry that is both tough and compassionate, of poetry of such exactly delineated feeling, of such purity and precision, that one would expect from poets writing on the Canadian landscape.