Michael Lista argues that John Thompson's breakthrough collection Stilt Jack gives us the "sound of a mind in its cups."
Published posthumously, Stilt Jack is a collection of 38 ghazals, a poem for every year of Thompson’s life. He includes a brief primer on the form as an introduction, where he explains the ghazal’s origin in ninth century Persia, and its formal conventions. The ghazal, he writes, “proceeds by couplets which (and here, perhaps, is the great interest in the form for Western writers) have no necessary logical, progressive, narrative, thematic (or whatever) connection.” That’s not quite right though, as the poems in Stilt Jack do have a kind of logic—alcoholic logic. Thompson ends his introduction by writing: “The ghazal has been called ‘drunken and amatory’ and I think it is.” Thompson’s interest in drinking, in other words, wasn’t strictly recreational. In 1962 he published a translation of Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat.” In 1966, he edited and helped translate a book on Paul Claudel and his “l’ivresse poetique,” which Thompson himself rendered as “poetic drunkenness.” And in Stilt Jack, he managed, more than any poet since Baudelaire, to distill the feeling—and the meaning—of being intoxicated.