Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


A Voweller’s Aspirations

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One of my discoveries on the run-up to this year’s THIN AIR writers festival was a quirky little book called A Voweller’s Bestiary by Toronto poet JonArno Lawson. The premise is a bit like a kids’ A-is-for-aardvaark, B-is-for-bumblebee book, but Lawson turns things inside out and trips on vowels instead of initial consonants.

Initially, the poems revolve around single-vowel words. “An ant’s bad karma / has blatant drawbacks” is how the first poem begins; “Stuck-Up Gulls Must Trust Dumb Ducks” is both a title and a moral-of-the-story of the fifth. As the book progresses, we travel through curious little scenes built around two- and three- and more-vowel words. “Alligator,” the a-i-o poem, closes with this economical little gem: “Florida’s champion attraction? / Alligators’ flamingo compactions.”

The pieces in this collection are funny, odd, provocative. They do something very strange to your listening ear. When JonArno read them out loud, all of us scrambled to hold onto the narrative thread, but we were all busy dissecting the aural landscape as well, trying to identify the vowel-cluster. Even when I’d solved the puzzle, I found myself listening as much to the sound-world as to the sense-world.

I love this about poetry: it is a resolutely aural literary form. It depends on readers caring enough to be aware of the aural dimension of language. If Walter Pater is to be trusted in his assertion that “all art aspires toward the condition of music,” then this sound/sense strategy is poetry’s kick at the can.

I’m delighted by JonArno’s poems because they’re jubilantly playful, and in that way they remind me of great jazz solos—you’re being invited to appreciate dexterity and wit, and to ride along on a wave of energy that makes you glad to be alive and in the presence of creative effort.

But the project here also foregrounds another of the essential characteristics of all creative enterprise: it has absolutely strict limitations. That’s the nature of the contract between artist and medium. JonArno Lawson kept lists and lists of words on the way to The Voweller’s Bestiary, and those words provoked him to find their stories. Jazz musicians keep their own kinds of lists—rhythmic shapes, harmonic structures, scale patterns—and invent elegant answers to demanding restrictions. Audiences, whether they’re solo readers or concert crowds, take pleasure in witnessing the imagination and virtuosity with which artists use those limits to outdo themselves.

The more I read books and listen to music and watch films, the more I believe that a set of rules, whether they’re broadly shared (like the blues scale or the sonnet form) or arcanely personal (like JonArno’s word families), are what releases artists to do their work. My students who insisted poetry can mean whatever you want consistently produced lax, dull poems. Saying everything is like saying nothing. Saying something? Well that’s another kind of play.

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