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The Montreal Sound: The Suburbs

When I lived in Montreal, in the 80s and 90s, it was a semi-ruined place, with 20% unemployment - a paradise for slackers, grungy students, and layabout hipsters.  Littered with taverns, clubs, cafes, and other venues, everyone under the age of 40 who wasn't nailed down to a day job hung out and wrote movies, did spoken word, or was a dancer / musician.  My brother ran a record label.  I performed with rappers and hip-hop artists around midnight, and ran cabarets that showcased Martha and Rufus Wainwright before the acclaim. The best emcee in town was bizarro genius Jake, who wore underwear onstage and nothing else, showing off his gigantic toned skinhead body.  His lisping grandeur intro'd great young slam and other poets, including many who would go on to some sort of success.

It was a great time.  Local bands like The Kingpins and Me, Mom and Morgentaler (an infamous abortionist) rubbed shoulders with more critically-acclaimed concerns, like Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  Montreal was no stranger to excess or talent - it is the home of Lepage.  And Men Without Hats was huge (no joke) at some point.  Then came Arcade Fire.  I thought that 2004's Funeral was a great work - it captured the snowy urban feel of Quebec youth-life.  Their second was way too didactic and on-the-nose relevant, aiming at evangelism and environmental concerns like a late night cokehead or granola-head rant.  Now comes the "universally acclaimed" third album, a victory lap more than a musical event.  Compared to OK Computer, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, and name-checked as an improvement on U2 and Depeche Mode, among others, it is hard not to balk at the urge to worship.

The British press seems to think it is an "American" album, because they don't know or imagine the Canadian suburbs, which are very similar to their Southern counterparts.  I grew up in the landscape mapped by this album.  I have trouble taking the lyrics of such a "masterpiece" too seriously, because I know a dozen younger Canadian poets who have written of such things better - indeed, my own pamphlet Suburban Sublunar was exploring this world 16 years ago.  What is apparent here is that the sonic stylings aim at transcendence - total shucks and ah - but who are they kidding?  In a world of Afghanistan, what are the suburbs to a billion Chinese people?  The grandeur here is comically misplaced, but grandiosity and bands are what rock is all about.  I confess to finding this work vaguely irritating.  I think it may be because I do not love Butler's voice.  It has a bit much of Bono's deadening sincerity.  I will have to let the hour-long thing sink in, and will no doubt change my mind.  For now I remain a reluctant convert - or rather, a  lapsed AF fan.  I think I'll go hang out at the other dep.


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Wheeler Light for 'Life Jacket'.

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Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Life Jacket

summer camp shirtsI couldn’t fit in then
are half my size nowI wanted to wear
smaller and smallerarticles of clothing
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of an afterthoughtin a sinking ship body
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With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.