By J.S. Porter

(for Marshall Soules, the most woke man I know)

What would you have if you had the playful intricacy of Mozart, the intuitive rigour of Wittengstein, and John Muir’s love of the earth? You would have the poetry of Jan Zwicky.
–Roo Borson

I first heard the word in June of 2019.  My friend Susan McCaslin and I were giving a talk on Thomas Merton at Santa Clara University in California. Towards the end of the talk a brave young woman bellowed out, “Thomas Merton is woke.” And then, correctly reading the stunned look on my face, said (I’m paraphrasing):  Woke is being aware, informed, knowing what’s happening, knowing what’s going on.  I think the word for me also has something to do with balance.

The word entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016 via African-American cultures.  It seems to be associated with justice issues now, and goes back at least as far as the 2008 song “Master Teacher” by Erykah Badu whose refrain of “stay woke” is used in the Black Lives Matter movement.

I am known to stay awake
(A beautiful world I’m trying to find)

It’s just too hard for me to find
(Dreams, dreams)

Even if yo baby ain’t got no money
To support ya baby, you
(I stay woke)
Even when the preacher tell you some lies
And cheatin’ on ya mama, you stay woke
(I stay woke)
Even though you go through struggle and strife
To keep a healthy life, I stay woke
(I stay woke)

I think of women in relation to wokeness: Jane Goodall who is well named, wishing good for people and other primates; Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand who becomes the Other (Muslims) when they are under attack; Deputy Prime Minister Christia Freeland who helped negotiate Canada’s Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and the US and bakes great apple pie; Dorothy Day: reader, writer, activist, grandmother. Jan Zwicky:  poet, philosopher, musician, teacher, and gardener.

“Q: What are you working on these days?

A: Growing food; the first violin part of Brahms’ string quintet Op. 88; environmental politics; two collections of poems and some essays.”

I think of Pope Francis, Patti Smith, and my brother-in-law Andy Martinolich who serves in his local church, volunteers in his local hospital, plays golf, cooks, follows the Leafs, and does Sudoku and crosswords to keep his mind alert. He lives a balanced life, sending out love in abundance and receiving it in kind.

Zwicky is woke in her definition of philosophy: as “thinking in love with clarity.”

And in her blazing insight into music, “Small Song: Mozart:”

What are you, music—
that in entering
undoes us? And undoing
makes us whole. (from Chamber Music: The Poetry of Jan Zwicky)

And in her deep in-seeing into how human beings come into being from “Art of Fugue,” VIII, in Forge:

So it begins.  Silence
Gathers, looks up, and becomes
a voice: the thrum, the distillate,
we call a soul. Impossible
translation, for the breath
that moves in you
is wind, the wind
that cherishes the trees and cools
the stars. You are,
you are not,
nothing, shaped
by what you love. The echo
of what’s left when everything
has been let go.

I love the line that you are “shaped by what you love.”

I first encountered Zwicky as a thinker in her large books Lyric Philosophy and Wisdom and Metaphor where one side of the page interacts, collides, and dialogues with the other side of the page – poetic insight (from others) with commentary (her own),  a collage of voices.  I return to her poetry now and her drive for wholeness that showed itself in her first major book of poetry, Wittgenstein Elegies.

But wholeness is a gift

of art, its essence transcendental.

The most that we can hope

is steadiness of soul, courage

to render with exactness what is set before us,

love what must

each time we grasp it


I read her now, even through her ventriloquism and filtering of other philosophers (Plato, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger in particular), for her wisdom and wokeness, her handmade and hard-won truths — how ordinariness coexists with the sublime, and may, on occasion, be the sublime:

The densest truths are home.
Liszt, Paganini, all the brilliant unreal
postures of intensity—nothing like
the dishes in the rack, heads raised
for the clear hot rinse, children
having their hair washed in the bath.
(from “Practising Bach” in Forge)

Holding the beauty of art in one hand and “the dishes in the rack” in the other is wokeness to me, a tense balance we live in, and by.

Jan Zwicky | The Canadian Encyclopedia

Jan Zwicky, poet, philosopher, essayist, musician, teacher (born 10 May 1955 in Calgary, AB). Winner of the Governor General’s Award and shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, Jan Zwicky is among Canada’s most innovative writers and thinkers.

Mark Dickinson has an important chapter on Zwicky in Canadian Primal: Poets, Places, and the Music of Meaning.  He also co-edited with Clare Goulet Lyric Ecology: An Appreciation of the Work of Jan Zwicky, Cormorant Books, 2010.