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.