Poet argues against simple readings

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October 24, 2013

Poetry and Meaninglessness

At Gibson Auditorium, Camosun College, Lansdowne Campus

The Carol Shields Lecture

Delivered by Jan Zwicky

October 19th, 2013

Reviewed by Senica Maltese

As a writing student focusing on fiction and poetry, I had high expectations going into Jan Zwicky’s Carol Shields Lecture entitled “Poetry and Meaninglessness.” The lecture did not disappoint; however, it was not at all what I expected it to be.

The Victoria Writers Festival brochure stated that the lecture would explore how some contemporary poetry strikes us as meaningless and to what degree this assessment is correct. For this reason, I went into the lecture expecting to look at specific contemporary poems and to explore how they could be regarded as meaningless and how, perhaps, they nevertheless retained meaning. As I should have anticipated, this discussion resisted the simplicity that I predicted.

I firmly believe that we readers should engage with material that is “out of our league” and, for the most part, that’s what this lecture was for me. Jan Zwicky’s presentation, though clear, articulate and mind-blowingly intelligent, left me more dazed than enlightened. Her use of mathematical examples to explain our perception of our surroundings left me confused and grasping for the safe ground of the literature and poetry. As I was sitting in the auditorium at Camosun College listening to her speak, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only person under 30 in the room, which may have explained why others in the audience were nodding and laughing while I sat paralyzed in the stands. However, toward the end of the lecture I began to get a more solid footing on the material.

I particularly enjoyed Zwicky’s segment about the joy that we derive from obtaining meaning, and how a harder struggle can result in greater joy.  The lecture genuinely impressed me when Zwicky insightfully remarked that we have become too satisfied with the “sugar rush” of understanding simple things. Zwicky insisted that meaning needs to advance and evolve into insight into realty, and that we should forgo “superficial pops” of understanding in favour of more durable insights. Zwicky concluded by asserting that writers, particularly poets, have a great responsibility to allow readers to experience their insights—in other words, that they must show the path to their insights in order that readers experience the insight for themselves. She stressed the importance of this evolution and cultivation of meaning in our modern day world, which is rooted in ecological and economic strife. Though this seemed a rather heavy note to end on, the lecture was still deeply inspiring and received a standing ovation.

It was wonderful to have the opportunity to engage with Zwicky’s insights into poetry, philosophy and human understanding in general. I suggest that anyone passionate about or interested in poetry attend one of her lectures, even if they think it may be “out of their league.”

Senica Maltese is a BA student focusing on Honours English and Writing.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

RPM November 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm

great review! enjoyed the read.

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