Friday, January 1, 2010
It’s that time of year when we resolve to make ourselves better people. We all got a head start three weeks ago when two of our ablest critics attempted a correction of taste intended to make us not only better writers of poetry, but better readers, too (See The Great Cage Match: Starnino vs Bok in right hand column). I’ll say it straight up that I felt the subsequent assessments of the contest were weighted unfairly in one direction. Despite the entertaining histrionics, Christian Bok was far too glib and pleased with himself for us to take too seriously his grievance over the avant-garde's relative anonymity. Carmine Starnino’s performance got stronger as the debate progressed and he did us a favour by reminding us of a few home truths: syntax really is an extension of emotion, vowels and consonants are fundamental to sense and a poem's audio effects are vital to the creation of meaning.
Bok’s main assertion is that Canadian poetry isn’t doing its job, which should be, he says, “to provide an aesthetic of critique and surprise” and to generate knowledge “in the same way scientists do…through discovery”. A rallying cry for younger poets, then, and a plausible one, but for the fact poetry trades in more than just “information” and that it’s potential as a body of knowledge comparable to science was part of an initially seductive, finally discredited distraction from the last century (see my interview with Timothy Steele, December 18). The theory subsequently dusted off by Chris Dewdney and others has yet to produce a single poem comparable in impact to the discovery of calamine lotion, let alone Einstein’s theory of relativity or quantum physics.
Bok counterpointed his equally overworked assertion about the “mediocrity” of Canadian poetry with the success of his own book in Canada and the UK, but stumbled over other indisputable successes, among them some world class poetry by Birney, Atwood, Carson. Starnino’s rejoinder that Canadian poetry has gotten a bad wrap is not new either, of course, and his further contention that “the stories we tell about Canadian poetry don’t fit the facts” is also likely true. To say that poetry “from Pratt to Babstock” is distinguished by a “protean diversity and variety” is still subject to debate, it seems to me, and to a considerable amount of legwork by those still willing to hazard a reassessment.
Off the dime, please…
Can it be that both were right? That most Canadian poetry is deadly dull stuff, requiring an injection of new energy, fresh innovation, but also that much Canadian poetry is of the highest calibre but for our willingness to talk about it, to examine it and to observe its felicities? If so, then disagreement about the quality of Canadian poetry seems pointless. Because whether you agree or disagree a bigger problem presents itself. Both Bok and Starnino base their assertions, and by extension their agendas, upon a single, continually recycled observation: that not enough people in Canada are reading poetry, Canadian or otherwise.
Here is a truism, to put it simply, that has outworn its welcome or usefulness and that has ceased to be the impetus for change we imagined it to be decades ago. Just how irrelevant the observation has become was underscored for me recently when I read about the scores of poetry magazines in the U.S. and U.K. that lived and, yes, died in the last century on the basis of readerships not much larger than those which patronize existing Canadian poetry magazines. Despite the ups and downs, poetry in these countries went on being written and talked about in magazines that survived or started up anew. The readership though small appeared to be vibrant enough to generate continued interest and debate and to foster the production of new poetry.
How could this be possible? Perhaps poetry and criticism thrive not just upon the size of their readership, but upon the degree of their readership’s intensity and sophistication. Are readers not better served by a painstaking assessment of poems by articulate, knowledgeable critics anxious to unravel the wonderful intricacies of well written poetry instead of generalized laments about the buying habits of a larger potential audience? Is it asking too much of our poets and critics to focus on the people who already read poetry instead of fruitlessly searching for more readers from the legions of pulp novel readers that swell the nation’s transit systems? Do current readers of poetry count for nothing?
Be us resolved…
Whatever you may think of Bok and Starnino, there is little question that both are able critics. I have yet to make up my mind about their poetry, however. Bok's experiment in Eunoia, much worked up and occasionally brilliant, eventually serves to remind us how truly rich a poem can be when all five vowels are brought together to work in concert with all the other properties of language. Starnino has twice won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry and this year was nominated for the GG award for This Way Out, so obviously someone is paying attention. But what would also be helpful to understand is how they view their readers. Are Bok’s readers as stupid and lazy as he says Canadian poets are (thereby calling into question their decision to buy his book)? Or are readers simply undernourished, as Starnino seems to suggest, by a cadre of critics and reviewers given to spoon feeding us exegetical pabulum instead of providing sensitive, unalloyed analysis and hard headed judgements?
My answer for a brand new year: Perhaps all of us – poets, critics, readers - could work just a little bit harder.
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