Poetry review – The Idea of North: Charles Rammelkamp reviews Alan Catlin’s poetic sketch of the life of pianist Glenn Gould
In The Idea of North, Alan Catlin meditates about music and noise in the way he considers art and sight in Asylum Gardens. Just as he addresses the visual through works by Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Diane Arbus, Man Ray and others, so he addresses the aural via a consideration of Glenn Gould, the eccentric Canadian pianist. “The Idea of North” is, after all, Gould’s 1967 documentary of sound, the best known work in his “Solitude Trilogy.” Gould commented on his work that “…like all but a very few Canadians I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.” Catlin writes in “Glenn Gould’s Unrealized Dream of a Winter”:
The dream of the winter above the arctic circle, transported by some extraterrestrial force to get there, weightless, bodiless, pure spirit enveloped in musical chords, descending eighths like a celestial light show of the mind.
Born with perfect pitch, a piano prodigy, Gould played in public for the first time at the age of five. At thirteen he performed with the Toronto Symphony. Renowned as an interpreter of the keyboard works of J.S. Bach, Gould toured the Soviet Union in 1957, but after a 1964 performance in Los Angeles at the age of 31, he gave up concert performances entirely, convinced that they were “a force of evil.” Instead, he turned to the studio in his search for sound. In the poem entitled, “Bless Glenn Gould for throwing the concert audience to the junkyard – Marshall McLuhan,” Catlin writes:
All night he dials, speaking to colleagues, friends, associates near and far, at absurd lengths, even rehearsing entire works in the hours before dawn, maintaining close contacts at a safe distance, in isolation. The true idea of north is contained in the studio.
Catlin highlights all of Gould’s eccentricities: his insistence on Poland Spring bottled water in his dressing room; his aversion to cold, which caused him to wear warm clothing, including gloves, all year round, even in warm temperatures; his hypochondria; his insistence on soaking his hands in hot water before performances. He writes in “Glenn Gould soaked”
his precious hands in, hot-as- the-flesh-could-bear, water, in his dressing room before each increasingly rare public performance Wore winter coats, mufflers gloves, inside & out all four seasons of the year
Gould suffered a stroke, dying at the age of 50 in a Toronto hospital. In the final poem of the collection, “Inside the studio,” Catlin writes:
anything could be changed erased purified made perfect as his body was kept perfect on a specific diet of Poland Spring Water, scrambled eggs & pills, pills, pills & more pills until death snuck into the studio & slammed the door.
The poems in The Idea of North explore ideas of composition and sound through Gould’s work, his passion, and the peculiarities that drove him and were probably responsible for his early death.