Introduction to Jeremy Cantor’s reading in Corte Madera

By Michael Manning, former Classical Music Critic/Arts Correspondent, The Boston Globe

It would probably not surprise many here were I to say that Jeremy Cantor is one of my oldest
friends, someone with whom I’ve shared interests and passions for much of our co-lengthy lives,
that my presence here is part and parcel of a long stretch of mutual involvements in the usual
and unusual matters comprised in friendship. The one person I’m certain would be surprised by
that assertion is Jeremy Cantor, whom I physically met only six months ago. Our actual meeting
was on Facebook, and the first interaction I recall was in a mutual group context wherein a
conversation led somehow to one of the topics about which I can’t shut up — an area of
mathematics called transfinite theory (incidentally, invented by a genius named “Cantor”,
something that didn’t escape my notice). Jeremy clearly knew something about it, and more
than a few other things, and I took note, realizing that this was someone I wanted to know. And
so I sent the perfunctory connection request which Jeremy prudently questioned then faithfully
accepted. Recalling this incident put me in mind of my favorite poem by John Donne, “The
Extasie”, Donne’s contemplation of the profundity of ordinary matters in which he makes a
beautiful observation about the complicity of sense perception:

But oh alas, so long, so far,
Our bodies why do we forbear?
They'are ours, though they'are not we; we are
The intelligences, they the spheres.
We owe them thanks, because they thus
Did us, to us, at first convey

Donne is commenting here on what a later Englishman would call “the doors of perception,”
conceding that without the senses little can advance even to incipience. He goes on to say …

Yielded their senses' force to us,
Nor are dross to us, but allay.

… thus suggesting that the metaphysical realm is privileged by the sensorial, and that the
metaphysical and physical, while perhaps distinguishable, are in fact inseparable. My point in
laying this out is to address Donne’s “But oh alas, so long, so far, our bodies, why do we
forbear.” … “…, because they thus did us, to us, at first convey.”

It was only then that I became aware of Jeremy’s poetry, which I found extremely thoughtful,
unusually tinged with science for poetry, and worldly, both like and unlike Donne. Samuel
Johnson, who’s credited with having invented the taxon “Metaphysical Poet,” for which Donne is
the poster-boy, was not atypically scornful of the movement, saying “The metaphysical poets
were men of learning, and, to show their learning was their whole endeavour” (he went on to
aim his spear directly at Donne). In this respect, Jeremy’s quite unlike Donne, at least as so
wickedly caricatured by Johnson. His erudition is not worn, but is subdued, enticingly veiled, and
that very subduction becomes an effective, almost signatory characteristic of his poetry. Things
emerge from Jeremy’s work, as I said in the foreword to his present volume, “their meaning
disguised in the plain dress of moment-to-moment experience.” Jeremy’s mastered the stealth
epiphany - the most facile metaphor is that of a figure walking toward you in a mist, becoming
gradually visible and more lately discernible, finally, fully present. But I think an equivalent
formulation is that of a figure, unseen, that has been in the frame the entire time, around which
the context subtly shifts, and with it, our attention resolves....

...What gets me is that it initiates in me its very sense of
discovery, as though the poem is but its author’s metaphor for my experience.

I want to continue for a bit with this theme of found meanings, and pivot to the other great
passion of my life, music. Much has been said about the musical qualities of poetry and the
poetic character of music, and we don’t need to rehash those. But there’s a semantic
connection they share - it’s been said of music (and poetry) that it’s the art that is capable of
telling you everything without telling you something. Particularly in modern writing, the
abandonment of description in favor of evocation has brought it even closer to that ideal in
which metaphor is dissolved of all anchored references. That, of course, is the starting position
for a musical work, which, if anything, works most unnaturally when it tries to simulate literary or
pictorial imagery, literally — think of the bleating sheep in Strauss’s Don Quixote and pity the
woodwinds. Unlike music, poetry isn’t restricted by wordlessness. Uniquely, it has the license to
draw from every other art’s toolkit. In Jeremy’s poem, “Changing Seasons,” he exercises that
license, writing:

Instead of rattling my window pane
(the way the one now letting herself out
by the back door, quietly, had done) she chose
instead to let a silver song announce
her coming, by a barely stirring brush
of scented hands against the old wind chimes
that hung on the front porch.

It’s a kind of controlled release of rhythm, image, timbre, color, place, objects, even force, its
silver song and scent-motivated chimes evoking actual synesthesia. This idea that poetry,
unbound, can be the universal art form is due, in no small part, to a musician — John Cage, who
was, after all, the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. Whatever else
Cage was, he was the most influential aesthetician of the latter 20th century and the very
embodiment of the formidable eclecticism he preached. Among the things he famously said is
that art is what we pay attention to. I thought of this immediately when first I read Jeremy’s work,
whose beauty is built of the things that win attention in their own moments, where metaphor and
anecdote, the factual and the factitious are co-morbid elements of the work; where structure and
content cross-dress; where questions asked in one realm of existence are answered in another.
Cage liked to say that he explored the mystical proposition that “all answers answer all
questions.”

Last week, I “interviewed” Jeremy in preparation for this — I wanted to get some idea about his
“process” — and what, in essence, he told me is that he really doesn’t have a process. More
often than not, he doesn’t know where his poetry comes from, even to the point that it’s
sometimes mysterious how exactly it finds form on the page. I thought immediately, again, of
Cage, who when mentoring the young composer Morton Feldman asked him where his ideas
came from. Said Morton, “I don’t know.” Cage, in his unique affect, both enthusiastic and
ethereally detached, said “Isn’t that wonderful!? It’s so beautiful and he doesn’t even know
where it came from.” Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my friend, poet Jeremy Cantor.

Book Passage
Corte Madera, California
August 1, 2015

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