Three Poetic Riffs on Courage – Part Three – Jan Zwicky

Canadian Poet Jan Zwicky. Photo Credit: National Post 2012



And now you know that it won’t turn out as it should
	  that what you did was not enough,
		    that ignorance, old evil, is enforced

and willed, and loved, that it
	  is used to manufacture madness, that it is the aphrodisiac
		    of power the crutch of lassitude, you

an ordinary heart, just functional, who knows
	  that no one’s chosen by the gods, the aspens
		    and the blue-eyed grass have voices of their own,

what will you do,
	  now that you sense the path unravelling
		    beneath you?

Sky unraveling, unraveling
	  the sea, the sea that still sees everywhere
		    and looks at every thing —

not long. What will you do,
	  you, heart, who know the gods don’t flee,
		    that they can only be denied.

Who guess their vengeance.

It has been a long hill, heart.
	  But now the view is good.
		    Or don’t you still believe

the one sin is refusal, and refusal to keep seeking
	  when refused?
		    Come, step closer to the edge, then.

You must look, heart. You must look.

Jan Zwicky (1955 - ) from The Long Walk, Oskana Poetry, University of Regina Press, 2016

What to make of this gut-wrenching poem by celebrated Canadian poet Jan Zwicky.  What a strong opening opening poem in her latest collection. Zwicky, long renowned not just as a poet, through her more than a dozen books of poetry, is also celebrated as a philosopher and especially through her book Lyric Philosophy, considered a classic in its field.

But last Spring it wasn’t philosophy or just any kind of poetry on my mind when I attended a week long writer’s retreat led by Zwicky focussed on poetry of witness, especially eco-poetry of witness. It was here I first heard Courage. I was listening to a woman, late twenties, early 30’s, who without warning began to recite from memory Jan Zwicky’s poem. This poet and ardent environmental activist, radiated a special excitement as she voiced the words of the poem.

Although I have read  Courage countless times since that first hearing, I read it still through the lens of the young woman as she read it, as already, her life made it real. A woman fighting huge institutional forces in her passion to save this one earth. Her knowing, so far, it has not turned out as it should. Yet this woman has not committed the sin of refusal. She keeps seeking and inspires others by her seeking.

During this retreat we watched a film on the creation of Greenpeace, the world renowned environmental organization. There we saw lots of examples of Jack Gilbert’s dramatic acts of courage from his  he questions in his poem The Abnormal Is Not Courage. The courage of men standing in front of on-coming ice breakers. Not a useless courage but different than the less visible courage of a young woman working behind the scenes doggedly to make a change in the world. Zwicky, herself known widely as an activist eco-poet, understands this courage as her poem says so well.

Poster for a Recent Reading by Zwicky September 2017. Credit: Salt Spring Island Publicity.

In Zwicky’s poem it is notable that the only reference to courage is in the title. A great abstraction. The poem then creates with its form, its syntax and its image choices the “isness” of courage. The utter “isness” of the courage it takes to be a human being ( in the poem referred to through synodoche, as heart) especially facing the forces of ignorance, old evil, as Zwicky names it. And isn’t it that old evil that steps in the way of meaningful long term response to climate change. that old evil that wants to pull the US out of the Paris accords?

The courage of the human heart. Yes. But the even greater courage the poem asks of the heart at the end. Just when it appears the heart in the poem could take a rest. Close to the top of the mountain. The view good. But then Zwicky takes it further. The courage to look over the edge. Death, perhaps. To have the courage after all the suffering in a life to look at that old devil in the face. I feel a lurch every time I read the summons to courage in those last lines:

Come, step closer to the edge, then// you must look, heart. You must look.

Zwicky’s is a heart-breaking brave poem that shows what a certain kind of life-long courage looks like. I like all three of the courage poems featured in this series but the one that gets to the guts of me is Zwicky’s poem. And her challenge to keep seeking even when refused. to keep seeking until  death, the final refusal, comes.

But I  remain haunted and challenged by Mead and Gilbert as well. Mead’s striking question: How will you spend your courage/ her life asks my life and Gilbert’s: But I say  courage is not the abnormal./ Not the marvelous act.

Oh, however the poets grapple with it, the courage it takes to be human. The courage to keep seeking even after each refusal. I celebrate it: courage.





  1. Posted November 25, 2023 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Lovely, the discovery needed this morning, reading Bringhurst’s The Ridge, lute in my head, walking. Thank you.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted December 12, 2023 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Jim: I have The Ridge on my desk too. For an interview with Robert go to Paul nelson’s Cascadia Poetry site! He just posted it last week!

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