Listening to the Candle

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror (1989; see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1990), Peter Dale Scott began the projected trilogy of which Listening to the Candle: A Poem on Impulse is the second part. The poet and critic Robert Hass wrote that “Coming to Jakarta is the most important political poem to appear in the English language in a very long time. Almost everything about it is deeply unexpected.” In Listening to the Candle, Scott continues to surprise, continues to challenge preconceptions—including those formed by readers of Coming to Jakarta, for while political themes run through this sequel, Listening to the Candle is ultimately a religious poem.

The unexpected juxtapositions in Scott’s poetry reflect his heritage and his unusual range of experience. Born in Canada, Scott is the son of F. R. Scott, a distinguished constitutional scholar, statesman, and civil liberties advocate who was also one of the leading Canadian poets of his generation. Like his father, Scott for a time pursued a career in public affairs, including a stint as the Canadian member of the United Nations General Assembly (1957-1961). The influence of his mother, Marian Dale Scott, a painter, was also significant; Listening to the Candle is dedicated to her.

For many years Scott has been a professor of literature at the University of California at Berkeley, yet he has never abandoned his political concerns. Rather, he has changed roles: Once a diplomat, working “within the system,” he became a counter-historian, presenting provocative accounts of post-World War II deals between American intelligence and the Nazi SS, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the Iran-Contra affair, and the international drug trade.

If the label “conspiracy theorist” can be neutrally applied, it fits Scott. Beneath the surface of events he sees conspiratorial patterns—the complicity of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), for example, in the 1965 Indonesian massacre that is at the heart of Coming to Jakarta. Far from being alien to poetry, such revelations fulfill the poet’s traditional duty to show the hidden nature of things. (They also give a morally ambiguous pleasure; no matter how grim the revelation, one has the satisfaction of being in the know.)

Coming to Jakarta prompted comparisons to Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925-1968), William Carlos Williams’ Paterson (1946-1958), and Robert Duncan’s Ground Work (1984-1987). While not entirely off the mark, these comparisons are in one respect quite misleading; Scott’s trilogy-in-progress is less fragmented, less disjunctive, and more direct in its address to the reader than any of these predecessors. Dante, William Wordsworth, and Rainer Maria Rilke are among the presiding spirits of Listening to the Candle. In this poem, as Wordsworth did in The Prelude (1850), Scott traces the growth of a poet’s mind.

Like Coming to Jakarta, Listening to the Candle is written in tercets, the onrushing movement of which is enhanced by the complete absence of periods and the very sparing use of capitalization to indicate the beginning of a new unit of thought. As in the earlier work, Scott’s words are interwoven with quotations from a diversity of voices, with sources identified in marginal glosses.

Scott’s multilingual erudition is extraordinary; here the parallel with Pound is...

(The entire section is 1451 words.)