Zwicky, Jan

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Nationality: Canadian. Born: Calgary, Alberta, 10 May 1955. Education: University of Calgary, Alberta, 1972–76, B.A. 1976; University of Toronto, Ontario, 1976–81, M.A. 1977, Ph.D. 1981. Career: Variously employed as musician and seasonal instructor in philosophy at such institutions as Princeton University, University of Western Ontario, and University of Alberta. Since 1996 associate professor of philosophy, University of Victoria. Awards: Governor General's award, 1999.



Where Have We Been. London, Ontario, Brick Books, 1982.

Wittgenstein Elegies. London, Ontario, Brick Books, 1986.

The New Room. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1989.

Lyric Philosophy. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Songs for Relinquishing the Earth. London, Ontario, Brick Books, 1998.


Critical Studies: "Scaffoldings of Weary Words: Jan Zwicky's 'Wittgenstein Elegies'" by John Harris, in Essays on Canadian Writing (Toronto), 37, spring 1989; by J. Bruin, in History of European Ideas, 18(6), 1994; by Alex Neill, in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 52(3), summer 1994.

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Although many of her concerns have remained constant, Jan Zwicky's style has evolved in specificity and precision since her early work. Zwicky's imagery has always been unshowy and effective, but a comparison between "After Summer," from Where Have We Been, and "Recovery," from Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, shows how the language has been heightened and tightened:

Poised between summer's slack heat
and the corded knot of winter's passion, even
love lies on us lightly, and with gentleness.
High clouds at sunset. Single leaves
on still water.
And when at last grief has dried you out, nearly
weightless, like a little bone, one day,
no reason in particular, the world decides to tug:
twinge under the breastbone, the sudden thought
you might stand up, walk to the door and
keep on going...

The context within which the poems are presented has changed as well. As a book, Where Have We Been lacks many of the elements that often accompany poetry collections; there are no dedications, acknowledgments, or other peripheral personal material. But Songs for Relinquishing the Earth originated as a self-crafted book, each copy sewn by hand for a reader in response to an individual request. Word of mouth led to formal publication, and the work is dedicated to Zwicky's fellow poet Don McKay.

From beginning to end, Zwicky likes to site her reflections in gardens and open spaces amid the flight of birds and the ebb and flow of weather and the seasons. Consistent, too, has been her preoccupation with music and philosophy. The latter comes to the fore in Wittgenstein Elegies, whose point of departure is Wittgenstein's Philosophical Remarks (1930), which Zwicky notes was "an attempt to demonstrate that all things of genuine value utterly superseded the world of 'facts.'" Wittgenstein has been misunderstood, she asserts. He did not in fact banish transcendence from the realm of the discussable, only put it in its proper place. What is clear is that Zwicky finds Wittgenstein's gnomic utterances to be poetically stimulating, just as Martin Heidegger's very different style has proved to be suggestive for other poets.

Zwicky humanizes Wittgenstein by interweaving his life and tragedies with those of another Austrian, the great expressionist poet Georg Trakl. In doing so, she manipulates format, quoting from both in italicized passages and placing material in the left margin to, as she says, "give some indication of the play of voices among Wittgenstein's public personae, Trakl, Wittgenstein's interior monologue, and the narrator." In "The Death of Georg Trakl" she says,

The lovely logic, winter mornings with sunshine
Unrecoverable, buried in the background
Medium of understanding hidden
Nothing can be explained or deduced
It is all before us.

From the relatively abstract language of Wittgenstein Elegies, Zwicky moves into the imagistic music of The New Room. Among a few long poems in sections, including "Seven Elegies: Robert William Zwicky (1927–1987)," there are fine lyrics such as "Practising Bach," in which she observes

One cardinal, sweet against the snow
as candy, as a long-stemmed rose.
But it is sparrows who
are brown as bread, empty the feeder
hourly, divest us of those seeds:
smooth, striped,
unique and numberless as days.

Zwicky's intelligence and syntactic variety combine in her best book to date, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth. Her dual interests in music and philosophy complement each other here, and many of the poems involve both, including a sequence about the parallel lives of Bruckner and Kant. Composers—Brahms, Bartók, Hindemith—interpret the world for her. In "Beethoven: Op. 127, Adagio" we hear

A-flat: cream's richness,
  like a good field in April, a blackness
    you wanted to eat,
or in August, the string's breath thick
  with heat and dust, like
    being able to breathe weight...

In the note on Hindemith's Trauermusik that ends the book, Zwicky says that the composition's lack of a leading note in its closing measures "tells us, in the relinquishing that is the end of mourning, we must pass through—as through a ghost, that absence in ourselves." But one product of emerging on the other side is perception, precarious but necessary. In "March Nineteenth" from The New Room she calls it

...this fragile window
opening and opening
on small unsteady stars.

—Fraser Sutherland