Saturday, June 26, 2010


A few years ago an assignment for Scientific American took me “up island” as we say here in Victoria to Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s research centre near Nanaimo. My task: to explain to a general audience why they should get excited about underwater sonar detection of pink and chinook salmon. Not an easy task for someone with no formal scientific training, but the material seemed moderately accessible, the money was good and so taking my courage into both my hands I interviewed Dr. Tim Mulligan, one of the DFO's top experts on piscine behaviour.

The result: enough detail to sink a flotilla of salmon catchers: the intricacies of echo pulse soundings, transducer correlates, returning echo kurtosis as it relates to the movements of the indomitable Sockeye; somehow I had to understand it all before I could even think of putting anything to paper. Nearly as daunting was the mind numbing attention to detail of Scientific American editor Phillip Yam. Over two weeks Phil returned no fewer than six drafts, punctuating the margins of each with interminable questions about fish finders and morphology, each one an implicit challenge to my capacity for comprehending the dense material I’d begun with and my ability to turn it into readable prose.

There's an object lesson here for someone who writes about poetry. The depth of our work as we try to discover things about poetry that are fresh and interesting and true ultimately determines whether anyone reads us and takes us seriously. It may even, as some have argued, speak to the survival of poetry criticism and its importance to the health of poetry itself, a perpetual concern that gains added traction as an entire literary industry – and those who defend it - struggle to convince government funding agencies of poetry’s indispensability in the face of mounting public debt. No less august a body than NASA has to periodically fire up the public imagination to justify its existence, too. Science writers support them in this, just as we hope Canadian critics continue to lend support to the nation’s poets.

How they do this is another matter altogether. We have good critics in this country who recognize that poetry criticism lives or dies on investigative skill and clear writing and who demonstrate these qualities in their reviews. Chris Jennings’ analysis of bp Nichol’s “Doors 1” and his subsequent defence of that treatment in the face of Zachariah Wells’ objections come immediately to mind. Though I quarrelled with Wells’ own reassessment of Don McKay in May 2006 his appreciation of John Smith in last month’s CNQ Magazine rights the balance in his favour it seems to me. Despite the remaining phantom pain friends of mine feel who’ve been stung by him, I confess (if it weren’t already obvious) to being an admirer of Carmine Starnino’s general style and rigor as a critical essayist, even when I demur on his closer readings of some poems. A discussion of Canadian criticism is impossible without him, as it is without Jay Ruzesky, Anita Lahey, and Sina Queyras, each good in his or her own way despite or, some might argue, because of the absence of an easily locatable or definable Canadian critical tradition.

How well we talk about poems, though, obviously has a bearing on how well we understand them and communicate what we understand to the reader. It’s a judicious juggling act which, if you’re good, will see you wind milling several balls in midair at a single time. Too often, though, reviewers are content with only two or three. Those who focus all their energies on thematic considerations, for example, we may suspect of having little more to offer. Too hard a focus on technique, parsing associational logic, praising or quarrelling with syntactic loops and disjunctions, flooding your prose with terms like "hypotaxis", "phanopetics" and, "homolochos" are also anathema to the reader who simply wishes to cut through to the poem’s core. (Admittedly, the dangers here are few as most critics routinely shy away from close readings, in part because these aren’t as fashionable as they once were, but more likely because of the time and effort required to fully educate themselves in technique, and in past or current aesthetics.)

More prevalent among our critics and reviewers are generalized comments on technique and an enormous amount of cherry picking, i.e. reviewers who seize on some small but easily identifiable particular in a poem, such as the assonance and dissonance contained in a line or stanza, and exaggerate its significance to the whole poem or to the book in which that poem appears. This failure to cast a wider technical net and talk about other pertinent matters such as the poet’s past work and the poet’s influences, but more importantly what’s actually happening on the page, are a function of ignorance and sloth, it seems to me. Spread across our cottage industry they're oversights that enervate us all.

This critical deficit likely stems from another, more long standing one: insufficient appreciation for the roots of good Canadian poetry, in turn hobbling our capacity to talk about poetry by discouraging us from developing a critical vocabulary which discourse on tradition naturally provides us. The outcome seems inevitable: a mere handful of knowledgeable critics willing to talk clearly and boldly about the poems they read; and a remaindered population of lower level reviewers who look on with awe or horror at those few with the capacity and the cojones to declare this book good, that book lousy.

The reasons for this are many: Training in critical thinking in the universities has long since been abandoned as tenured profs consign higher level instruction to struggling, almost uniformly unprepared and unseasoned sessional workers. The race to the bottom is accelerated by an almost universal unwillingness of poets to fill the breach by studying and sharing their own traditions, an anathema only deepened by generalized contempt for poetry as a cerebral and emotional activity.

Meantime, poetry workshops on the pantoum, ghazal and glosa abound; formal or even informal critical discussion about the tools poets have at their disposal (if they would only use them) or the historical drive to overthrow or modify a particular technical practice are seldom explored in colloquia or criticism. Thus, ignorance groping around in the dark accidentally seizes upon the hand of timidity. Short of someone turning on the light, the two are wedded together forever.

The solution? Well, I’d like to imagine whole schools devoted to critical tradition and practice. Short of this, the occasional course or three-day conference on literary journalism might be helpful. Before any of this can occur, though, perhaps we need to better understand the value that readers place on criticism. Sure, a perpetual, somewhat outworn cry, but asking the question continues to present pragmatic possibilities. Because assuming we can agree that criticism has the value we believe it has the next step might be to determine if we also can agree on some basic principles or standards in poetry criticism - not just for the sake of self-examination and to see how well we measure up, but to guide us in becoming better at what we do.


Zachariah Wells said...

Great post, David; very refreshing after another recent publication on this subject, about which everyone seems to be talking, in spite of its perfect ineptness.

Your comments about my pieces on McKay and Smith are interesting to me. I can't remember if it was Randall Jarrell or Brad Leithauser writing about Randall Jarrell, but one or the other said something to the effect that a critic/reviewer of contemporary poetry has to be something of an amateur sociologist.

Now, it so happens that I believe John Smith to be a much more interesting, accomplished and intellectually acute poet than Don McKay. I don't believe McKay to be a _bad_ poet or anything so crude as that. I do, however, believe that there is an enormous gap between his stature and his actual accomplishments in poems (and indeed, a gap between his potential as an enormously talented writer and what he has done with that potential). I believe the same to be true of Smith, whose reputation has yet to catch up with his tremendous achievements.

The reasons for these gaps and the consequent chasm between McKay and Smith's respective profiles are, to my eye, more sociological than literary. I think it is a very noble goal to look at a poet's work in isolation from the messy world that surrounds it, but it isn't a goal of mine when reviewing the work of contemporary living poets. I reviewed McKay's work in the 1000 watt light of all the plaudits it has received. Likewise, I reviewed Smith's in the gloaming of his national obscurity. This isn't to say that I have a program to cut down tall poppies and pump up underdogs. (I think Karen Solie, for instance, deserves the laurels heaped upon her work.) Rather, when I review McKay sceptically, I'm reviewing his other reviewers, his fans, his editors and publishers as well as the work itself. These things are far too enmeshed with the work for me to ignore them.

Chris Banks said...

David, a very well reasoned defense of poetry criticism but I am still not convinced of its value in this country because as you say there are no basic standards for criticism anyone agrees upon in Canada. Call me cynical but I don’t imagine you are going to see any agreement on this front because I believe poetry reviewing in this country, far from being a barometer of our literary health, is a power structure and the power players will not let go. This began with the style of vigilante reviewery that Carmine Starnino ushered into Canada in the late 90s and that has prospered since. I was not surprised at all to see Zach Wells chime in here as quickly as he did after you mildly rebuked his work on McKay. For someone who considers himself one of the finest poetry critics in Canada, he is not willing to suffer even the vaguest of criticism himself. He can try to argue that but the burden of proof is all over the internet. Wells has already tangled with me on other blogs, most notably Bookninja and Steven W. Beattie’s That Shakespearian Rag, which had him attempt to paint me as a critical relativist. I am not. But I am for a fair playing field. I think when I see poetry magazines stop being mouthpieces for a few small presses in this country, then perhaps I will take a more serious look at the culture of reviewing in this country. Until then, I look towards the states for my poetry criticism because one should read and write criticism to further understand poetry and, if one is a poet, to help one write better. I understand things are bad for Canadian literary magazines right now but I also don’t think its healthy to see different small magazines “teaming-up” for different issues. No one wants to see a literary industrial complex (albeit a very, very small one) in this country. Finally, I would agree with you David that it takes cahones in this country to say the kinds of things one truly believes about the value of poetry and criticism. I have said it before but it is worth repeating. We get the critical culture we demand of our critics. The one poetry critic you have left out of your post who is to my mind someone who can always be counted on to give an accurate and detailed review with high-minded seriousness, no matter who he is reviewing, is Mark Callanan.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

David, thank you for another enjoyable article.

The trouble with Canadian poetics? Well, firstly, there's the typical rhetorical posturing of most your own pieces (as interesting and well written as they are), a style of writing that's pretty common throughout most of the Canadian poetry blogs: some general comments on Canadian literary history, covering a span of a few years at most, and then the usual sycophantic praises of personal favourites Wells and Starnino, both fairly interesting students of Can.Lit in their own right but falling far short of the national (and international) standard of excellence.

You see 'close reading' and technique as problems, seeming to want more of the usual 'easy-to-ingest' pulp literary output of mainstream (mostly government-funded)art, whereas I decry the lack of it. The last great 'Canadian' critic we had was Robin Blaser who wasn't afraid to read not just American but French authors as well: a critic very heavily indebted to close reading and the technical critical vocabulary on which it's based. A casual glance at Silliman's blog is enough to convince me of Canada's embarrassing critical deficits.

Secondly, you (and the Arc-educated) crowd seem to be ignoring (purposely it seems)the really interesting 'otherstream' media poetics that's taking shape out there (whether you like it or not). I wish you and Starnino and Wells would get your heads out of the sand and enter the post-McLuhan age: where poetic styles can range, in all their multimedia mix, from the heterogeneous, hybrid to the radically fragmented.

I get the feeling sometimes that Dudek still calls the shots around here. Even our own post-avants (like Bok) are mainly derivative, having taken their inspirations from Oulipo, Fluxus and Silliman's Language Poetry movement and thinking we're too dumb to notice. Nothing new on Canadian soil even in matters of radical poetries!

Thirdly, now I'm not saying I'm for the current antilyric ("surfing and browsing") thrust of hypertext poetry, nor am I necessarily averse to notions of coherence or beauty and searching for 'timeless values' of truth in poetry. I'm very involved myself, at the local level in the Hamilton & Toronto area, in a people's poetry style inspired by Purdy, Acorn, Plantos, et al.

As Atwood's said before, Canada has always been good at 'synthesizing' styles and recreating itself, perhaps "Tish" being the best example of a home-grown poetics inspired by Americans Olson, Creeley, Blaser, et al), and long before that the Pound-and-Williams-inspired Canadian Modernists movements of the 20s and 30s. What we desperately need today is the radical newness of a bpNichol or P.K.Page, both great modernist and postmodernist innovators and true Canadian lyricists. We have only whiners who clamor for more government money and more Griffin-prize money for mainly mediocre, heavily bureaucratized Art. Examples are too numerous to mention.

Harold Rhenisch said...

Poetry criticism? In Canada? Well, there's the thing. What's Canada? There is no such place, poetry-wise. What that means is that our poetry is written out of diverse communities, whether they are the pan-national poetry that is the child of the canada council, the centrist poetics of Starnino and the Montreal traditions he stands upon, the canlit traditions of the universities, or what people are doing out there in the field, which goes largely unremarked. Poetry is made for a variety of reasons. That there is no centre to the country means that any critical centre that is chosen will reflect current political relationships... and we will be no better off than we are already. There is just no such thing as 'Canadian" criticism, and when it shows its head I believe it must be placed into the context in which it exists (or taken apart and sent back home). This is a country of regions. Any nationalism laid on top of that is only a political manipulation of a reality with much stronger roots. Until we face facts, criticism in this country will only remain an academic game.


Zachariah Wells said...

I agree with you broadly here, Harold, and have long made similar arguments about "poetry in Canada" as opposed to "Canadian poetry," but wouldn't you say that, with increasing migration by writers between regions (and indeed between "schools" of writing), the boundaries between districts are much less distinct than they once were?

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Conrad. Glad you enjoyed the article, though I am a little puzzled about how something can be “interesting and well written” and “rhetorical posturing” at the same time. This suggests inflated style, empty of meaning, which would hardly constitute good writing. Ditto your phrase “the usual sycophantic praises” – I think most would agree good writing, involving an assessment of someone’s work, should be balanced, i.e. the opposite of sycophantism. In this instance, if you take another read you’ll see I both praise AND question reviews by Zach Wells. And just as I did in a recent review of the Best Canadian Poetry I offset my endorsement of Starnino’s work here with comment that is also critical. Having said that, I believe Starnino easily meets the standards of excellence you talk about. Apparently, so do Christian Wiman and Don Share, editors of Poetry Magazine, who frequently turn to Starnino for his take on poetry and poetry criticism.

Secondly, if you read that section of the post again you’ll realize I’m not saying “close reading and technique are problems,” only that others apparently see them that way, i.e. because, in part, close readings “aren’t as fashionable as they once were”, and because people aren’t investing the time and effort to learn more about technique. Silliman? Sorry. Whatever people may say about his poetry, his blog is a mess.

As for “getting my head out of the sand” I can only speak for myself by saying that I like a great deal of poetry, not all of it confined to either the formal or avant garde (though I confess to some unease around the mixing of poetry and other media. I like my poems fractious and fiercely independent). Is there more out there to be tasted and enjoyed? Undoubtedly; more than enough for several lifetimes. I content myself with trying to fill this lifetime.

Yeah, I like Dudek, but I don’t think he’s called the shots around here for a while. Zach believes he’s mostly an historical figure and I think there’s some truth to that. Bok? You talk like that and I’m going to start defending him, something I’ve been loath to do because my own biases (yes, I admit to having some) swing in another direction. Still Eunoia is interesting in its own right and not just as a marketing sensation courtesy of the Griffin folks.

Do we really “desperately need...the radical newness of a bp Nichol or P.K.Page”? Were they alive, I’m not sure even they would want that.



Conrad DiDiodato said...


thanks for your detailed responses.

I do enjoy most of your posts and, where they appear, expressions of mine that appear to characterize you and the writers you like as one-sided (or perhaps limited) really just reflect my own frustration with an abysmal Can.Lit scene, in general. Your "Speaking of Poems",like so many poetry Canadian blogs I've been reading, all suffer from the same myopic vision of contemporary poetry & poetics, always exclusionary, elitist in tenor and, at times, amounting to little more than a flagship for the type of mediocre poetry output I see advertised everywhere (some even finding themselves short-listed for the Griffin): always touting the same mainstream (Arc, Fiddlehead) sensibility. Every poem looks, sounds and feels the same: every damn one.

You leave out so much. The poets and critics you promote represent a small fraction of the active poetries, poetry movements and 'otherstream' styles that exist in Canada: yes, perhaps a very regionalized demographics (as Rhenisch rightly surmises), with varieties of reading and critiquing that seem to undercut any sense of a unique Canadian literary sensibility. But there is a Canadian poetry out there, much in the same way that (after Wittgenstein) family resemblances among authors refer to both individual differences and a recognizable family.

Yes, Starnino, Wells (the same ol' same ol') are promising Canadian writers—members of the same family of authors— as are so many others who choose, instead of the standard bureaucratized Art they represent, other avenues of expression, perhaps more Internet-based, perhaps more wildly experimental, more social-activist and 'small press' than you'd like. But they're out there!

Ron Silliman's blog is messy, indeed: as any forum must be that democratizes the writing process, letting individual communities of authors and differing viewpoints flourish together. Always passionately engaged and loyal to what he likes! Where's Canada's Ron Silliman: a rallying point for language experimentation, a national literature and active poetry promotion? Where are the real theorists and innovators (the "Black Bloc" of poetry) who'll put Canada on the literary map for once. Where's the spirit of bpNichol today?

It's what we desperately need.

David Kosub said...

I’m not really promoting anyone; I am saying what I like and don’t like and that some poets and critics, like some books, are more thoroughly interesting than a great many others.

Also understand that when I ask if we can establish a set of principles or standards to sharpen our critical kills I don’t imagine these to be particularly “Canadian”. Careful attention to what’s on the page, the poet’s past work, his or her influences and the tradition out of which s/he works; these transcend national boundaries it seems to me and can help critics wherever they work, whether in London, New York, Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.

Given what Harold has said, how would you characterize this “unique Canadian literary sensibility” you reference? If there is “a Canadian poetry out there” what are its principal characteristics?

You say “other avenues of expression...perhaps more Internet-based...more wildly experimental, more social-activist” are “out there” but then lament that we have no one to match Ron Silliman or bp Nichol. Which is it? Are they out there or aren’t they? And if they are, some names please.



Conrad DiDiodato said...


I have the following movements and poets in mind (to name a few):

(a) the Al Purdy 'save the A-frame' movement spearheaded by Chris Faiers, and others, something with the potential for a true Canadian literary renaissance;

(b) poet John B. Lee (of Brantford, Ontario), the unacknowledged poet laureate of Ontario;

(c) poet James Deahl (of Hamilton, Ontario) whose social activism and promotion of the arts are almost legendary in these parts;

(d) Gary Barwin, one of Canada's finest visual poets (also from Hamilton);

(e) Clifford Duffy (from Ottawa),in my opinion Canada's best Dadaist (avant-garde) poet;

(f)the Canadian Eastern writing community whose strongest exponents are Richard Vallance and perhaps Pearl Pirie;

(g) Michael Mirolla (from Montreal) whose latest Guernica Press book of poetry is among the very finest lyrical style out there;

(h) Penn Kemp (from London, Ontario) is probably Canada's greatest sound poet (in the tradition of "The Four Horsemen"), etc etc

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Conrad. Some of these people I know; Some I don't. I'll check them out.



The Ghost of F.R. Scott said...

"This suggests inflated style, empty of meaning, which would hardly constitute good writing."

I disagree! Rhetorical posturing is great fun, and good writing, too.

I think that's the thing. Critics too worried about what "good writing" is and not worried enough about what the writing is actually doing. I don't mean to be a subjective relativist or whatever, but what literary criticism does on a consistent basis is simply confuse a subjective analysis for an objective one. Even if the critic herself is not the one who is confused, everyone else who piles on afterwards is.

What does criticism do? Waste of trees. Because if you DON'T read something because of a review, you are probably missing out: why wouldn't you want to find out first hand? Well, one can't read everything, sure, but if you choose to not read something, your mind was probably made up before the review.

If you DO, then you probably didn't need the review in the first place, or at least, nothing so in depth. Just a quick synopsis of theme and style should be enough, should it not?

As for the effect on writers themselves, criticism is not a reliable source of feedback, unless you are writing for the critics, in which case, well, good luck to you!

There are enough clues out there to separate the wheat from the chaff without a need for literary criticism. The name on the book, the publisher, the ability to walk up to the bookshelf, pick up the book, flip it open, and probably read a whole poem or two and decide for yourself.

Literary libertarianism. Let's do it.

David Kosub said...

It’s curious that you invoke F.R. Scott in your stance against criticism when he is described by his alma mater, the U of T, as “a figure of extraordinary importance as a commentator on both Canadian society and Canadian literature.” What’s even more surprising, judging from the vehemence of your stance, is that you apparently have yet to come across a single review or piece of criticism that’s offered you any insight into a poem or way of thinking about poetry. So complete a confidence in your ability to gain everything required from a page of poetry suggests a remarkable self sufficiency and powers of comprehension far beyond my capacity to challenge.

The Ghost of F.R. Scott said...

Not so! Certainly something can always be gleaned, but the trick is separating the bleak from the craft...

As for F.R. Scott, I knew someone would try to figure out why I chose that name, and base their reasoning on his ideas and what was thought of him, etc. But remember he was a person, too. Just a person with ideas, like all of us. Sometimes a name is just a name.

This may be back-pedaling a bit, but I would say criticism is useful as entertainment, more than as enlightenment. I mean, you can agree or disagree with Wells and Starnino, but if you don't find them entertaining, well, I guess that's fair enough...Look at it this way, if you agree with them, you must enjoy the way they make their points. If you disagree, at least you can respect their methods. Or if you disagree with their methods, at least you can see there is some craft. And if you don't think that is so, you can at least try to do better yourself...

But in the end, isn't it more entertaining to just read the poem?

What I'm saying is, in all this, I have yet to be convinced of the usefulness of criticism, or at least, I have yet to be convinced by the reasons put forth herewith.


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