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Jan Zwicky - Biography

Jan Zwicky, Ph.D., is a poet, essayist, philosopher and violinist. She was born in Northern Alberta, Canada. Professor Zwicky did her B.A. at the University of Calgary and her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, finishing it in 1981. The title of her dissertation was “A Theory of Ineffability.” Jan Zwicky has taught both philosophy and poetry but also creative writing. She has led many writing workshops and has even taught at the Banff Centre Writing Studio in Canada. Professor Jan Zwicky’s research and approach has naturally led her into the interdisciplinary humanities programs where she has taught at a number of North American universities.

Jan Zwicky has held numerous academic positions; she has taught in the United States at Princeton University, in Canada at the University of Waterloo, at the University of Western Ontario, at the University of New Brunswick, and at the University of Alberta. After that, Dr. Zwicky move to British Columbia to become an associate professor at the University of Victoria. She was in Victoria Department of Philosophy from 1996 to 2009 when she withdrew to Discovery Islands to work on her writing projects. In fact, in a 2009 interview Jan Zwicky was asked if she found it “easier to write on Quadra Island, for example, than in Toronto?” In a very real sense, her answer to this question gives a insight as to what kind of writer she is:

Yes! I find it easier to write when it’s quiet, when I am alone, and when my days are made up of a mixture of desk work (usually in the morning) and time outside, either working or walking (usually in the afternoon). Sometimes poems visit me in the city or on airplanes. But when I need to work on them, I’m more likely to be successful if I’m in the country.

And in the same interview as an answer to a question posed about writing on the computer she answered as follows:

I write everything longhand—even the answers to these questions—and then, after editing and rewriting, transcribe the result.

As an accomplished violinist, Jan Zwicky has played with many Canadian orchestras. Interestingly, when one reads her poetry one can feel the intertwined passions she holds for philosophy and music. Her lyrical nature breathes life into her poetry. In fact, her theoretical works more often than not call attention to such overlaps. Dr. Zwicky also works as an editor for Brick Books, a Canadian poetry publishers based in Ontario.

Professor Jan Zwicky was the winner of the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the 2005 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (BC Book Prizes), and was shortlisted for the 2004 Governor General's award for Poetry and the 2004 Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction.

In another interview, Jan Zwicky was asked about what it is these days that inspires her poetry. She answered in a short but revealing way: “Light, things in nature, music, sorrow, delight. Meaning, as it steps forth out of the world.” In the same interview she was also asked for some “words of wisdom for the beginning reader of poetry.” Her answer was as entertaining as helpful:

Words of wisdom? Hmm. I doubt it! Poetry's a bit like music, isn't it; if you love it, what else does anyone need to say? I guess if someone doesn't already love it, but is willing to try, I'd recommend starting with an anthology, maybe on a topic of interest (love, dogs, music, beer halls - there's an anthology for almost every taste!). And if you hit a poem you really like, stay with it a while. Re-read it. Maybe even memorize it. That'll deepen your appreciation for poetry's magic without your having to think about it; and it may mean that poetry itself, beyond any particular topic, may come to mean something to you.

In 2009 she published Plato as Artist, a new look at Plato which addresses his views on aesthetics. In her own words:

I wish to say something about his dialogue Meno. Years ago, I became convinced that it was as close to a philosophical jewel as anything was likely to get. It sparkled; it had, I sensed, a kind of geometrical perfection that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. ... Many thought it significant, some thought it central, but none, it seemed, was convinced it was a work of philosophic art – a complex ecology of argumentation, a survey of Plato’s central views in very small compass, an exquisitely nuanced report of both his idealism and his despair. And like other works of art, provocative, ambiguous, tantalizing. The purpose of this essay, then, is simply that: to record my astonishment at the beauty of this made thing; to praise; to express my delight and wonder, and my gratitude; to attempt to clarify, for myself, what continues to perplex me, and perhaps must, now that there is no one who speaks Plato’s Greek as fluently as he.

In 2010, her work was the subject matter of a book entitled “Lyric Ecology: Essays in Honour of Jan Zwicky.” There she is described as one of the most innovative intellectuals who works to give voice to the “ecology of experience.”

Other books include: Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences (2005), Robinson’s Crossing (2004) and Wisdom & Metaphor (2003). In Wisdom and Metaphor Jan Zwicky points out how “those who think metaphorically are enabled to think truly, because the shape of their thinking echoes the shape of the world.” A tour de force, this book has been critically acclaimed, James Young of the University of Victoria, whom at the time was Chair of the department of Philosophy, has said, “There's a reasonable chance that people will be reading [Zwicky's] work a century from now. This is something that one says of only a very small number of philosophers.”

Jan Zwicky had written other books prior to Wisdom & Metaphor: Songs for Relinquishing the Earth (1998), Lyric Philosophy (1992), The New Room (1989), Wittgenstein Elegies (1986), Where Have We Been (1982).

Dr. Zwicky has contributed chapters to a number of books including: “Alcibiades’ Love” in: Philosophy as a Way of Life: Ancients and Moderns (2008), “Dream Logic and the Politics of Interpretation” and “Once Upon a Time in the West: Heidegger and the Poets” both in: Thinking and Singing: Poetry & The Practice of Philosophy (2002). “Wilderness and Agriculture” in: The Eye in the Thicket: Essays at a Natural History (2002), “Integrity and Ornament” in: Crime and Ornament (2002), “Bringhurst’s Presocratics: Lyric and Ecology” in: Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays and Interviews (1995).

Jan Zwicky was invited as a guest lecturer to participate in a three day workshop with Judith Balso in 2006 at the European Graduate School.