Friday, February 26, 2010
More impressively, they do so while resisting the poet’s inclination to subvert an instinct most people take for granted: the simple desire to know what things mean. Critics trade in explanations, poets do not. While the poet may rightfully ignore any effort to press her about what she means in a poem the critic is under a different obligation; the only mystery is why so many settle for writing about whatever ill-defined, ephemeral effect a line of poetry has on them instead of its underlying meaning or truth.
Instead, a rough “gloss” will do, invariably made up of large, rather vague abstractions that really don’t tell us anything about anything - like the one we encountered last week when a reviewer discovered new poems “that are not only haunting for their language, but also for what they tell us about humanity.” When the writer uses the word “about” here, her failure to unpack whatever qualities of “humanity” she says exists in these poems makes it clear she doesn’t really mean it. She can’t tell you what these poems are about. She can only offer us what most reviewers offer - a gesture towards, an approximation of, truth or meaning.
Jacques Derrida tells us there’s a reason for this. Even a cursory glance at your OED reveals that talking “about” anything is hampered by basic etymology. Far from reflecting our capacity for fixed meanings the word “about” is defined variously in over a dozen entries as “around”, “circular”, “on every side", "nearly",
“approximately”, “in a circumlocutious or winding course”, and “less definitely.” Only one entry defines “about” in the sense that we’re discussing it here, as “touching”, or “concerning” the constitution of particular things. So, as much as you believe you can say what a poem is about, your ability to identify very precisely what that something might be is impeded by the imprecision of language itself. Or as a quantum theoretician might put it: you can’t fix something using tools that appear broken, unfixed, uncalibrated.
Our position is made even more precarious by the fact that most poems are themselves largely meaningless, which is only to say that they’re less concerned with providing fixed, indelible, memorable meanings than they are with producing a handful of salubrious effects, a wash of meaningfulness as in “I found that poem to be really meaningful, but what it means to say precisely, I can’t tell you.” It’s this expectation that poets now write to and to which critics have become inured.
An example of this can be found within the pages of a review by American poet and reviewer Joshua Mehigan in last month’s issue of Poetry. It’s plain to see that Mehigan likes the poems in Stephen Edgar’s History of the Day very much. He makes two very strong statements at the beginning and end of his review: Early on, he says these poems “yield meanings sharable by reader and writer...a brand of mystification that leads to some very satisfying eureka moments”; the poet, he concludes, “modulates his language in the service of meaning.”
Testing these propositions against the rest of the review you’d be forgiven for concluding that meanings are actually few and far between in Edgar’s collection. Mehigan discusses Edgar’s “radical zoom” technique, his abstractions and his use of “Thought-provoking references…to Beaumont and Fletcher.” He details Edgar’s use of science to take poetry “into territory untrodden by most poets,” a large statement mostly undercut by the science-as-poetry industry that has sprung up all around us in recent years. Edgar’s “mastery” of rhythm and meter, his irony, a veiled suggestion to his “aplomb” - it’s all there. But “meaning”? “eureka moments”? Hardly a whiff.
The closest we come to heightened feeling in the presence of newly discovered meaning is following Mehigan's partial citation of the poem “Succes de scandale”, surely the best part of the review:
The annelids, the giant dragonflies
With wings of sunlight peeled from the water’s surface
Stretched tight, incinerated sauropods
Among the ferns that saw the holocaust
Unfold and ripple like a hot aurora
Pouring from heaven and, in pits of pitch,
Attempts at deer like bottled specimens
And smiladons appended by their fangs
Deep in the black museum – all wasted effort.
The feather in the shale like a pressed flower
In a book of verse, a fetal hunch of bones
Delivered from the rocks: unshockable,
Completely ill-equipped to get the point.
The poem makes me want to go out and buy the book; the review does not. Instead, a strong, artful poem is summed up this way: “Edgar’s perspective, vast or miniscule, conveys something important about his worldview. There is nothing starker than that of nature, or more sublime.” That’s it. Forgetting that reviews are not just vehicles for carrying poems, but for explicating them, Mehigan opts for a large, overworked abstraction that far from showing his excitement about the poem pins a flat, uninspired gloss on the thing every bit as dead as the specimen on an entomologist’s wall. It’s the closest we come to the meaning Mehigan promises us is in the poem - meaning better suggested by the poem itself, than uncovered by the critic.
Some, likely poets, will say this is as it should be. Others, notably critics, will say the writer has fallen down on the job.
Coming up: an interview with one of Canada's foremost poets, Patrick Lane.
Friday, February 19, 2010
All of which mystifies most critics, given the scorn heaped on them for practicing a craft which, while admittedly minor compared to the arts, seems so indispensable to the people who complain about it the most. Still, let’s for the moment give unhappy poets their due and imagine for a moment a conversation in which a critic is brought to the bar of aesthetic justice. The poet’s simple quest: to learn why the critic has it in for him:
Critic: You want answers?
Poet: I think I'm entitled to them.
Critic: You want answers?
Poet: I want the truth!
Critic: You can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has words. And those words have to be guarded by people with sensibility. Who's gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for the negative review I qave you and you curse the critics. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that that review, while tragic, probably saved careers. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves careers...You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me at my laptop. You need me at my laptop. We use words like technique, imagination, feeling...we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a blurb on a dust jacket. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to someone who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very publicity I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I'd rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a pen and stand at post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you're entitled to!
Okay, apologies to Aaron Sorkin and Jack Nicholson. Still, the point remains that critics, the good ones at least, do believe they’re defending something, though what that something might be seems to shift with changing tastes and moods. But rather than spend too much time outlining my own preferences, I thought it might be worthwhile to ask if the poets are right - that the only thing indefensible are the standards critics apply to their work - to look at, if not the biases, than at least the practices that characterize a great deal of Canadian poetry criticism.
I have to say from the outset that it’s not all bad; in fact there are at least half a dozen reviewers in this country who do a superb job. The problem, of course, is that they can only write in so many places at one time. Which has left it to a mid-level coterie of moderately capable reviewers and a small army of discursively challenged poets to fill the breach. Consider our good fortune upon learning, for example, that a new book of poems contains imagery that is “fresh and startling in its beauty” and that the verse is “pleasing both to the eye and ear.” Or that what commends another book of poems to us is “the strength of its voice” or that a poet’s latest offerings “are not only haunting for their language, but also for what they tell us about humanity.” A poem “resonates with power”. Another speaks “directly to the reader”. Still another is “meditative”, a wonderful word which, if used well, can aptly describe a mood or tone, but which too often becomes synonymous with any soft feeling or poetic attitude that escapes the reviewer’s capacity to describe accurately.
There are other irritants, of course. One of the most common is the reviewer who heaps great praise or scorn upon a poet that is wildly disproportionate to the amount of poetry actually cited in the review. The preoccupation of at least three reviewers I’ve encountered recently was with cover art and epigraphs, with one insisting that the poet had failed to use enough epigraphs in the middle of the poem, and even going so far as to supply an epigraph himself. Or the reviewer who, not content to cite part of the epigraph at the beginning of the review, ended the review with the rest of the epigraph, ignoring whatever poetic felicities the poet herself might have offered.
One favourite recourse of reviewers unwilling or unable to discuss the work in front of them is to compare some aspect of it with the work of another poet. Often the parallel is tangential at best, with the reviewer eventually backtracking to say why it is the two poets are not alike at all. In one case, a reviewer spilled at least as much ink writing about the poet being used for comparative purposes as the poet whose work she was commissioned to write about. And the name dropping is legion: Lowell, Hopkins, Yeats, Williams and Eliot. Crane, Whitman, Pound and Bishop. It appears a great many of our poets enjoy talents to nearly match the capacity of the entire western canon, though most reviewers are cagy enough not to overstate the parallels. Simply to have drawn a connection suffices, redounding, I suppose, both to the talent of the poet being reviewed and the erudition of the critic.
Our greatest susceptibility as commentators, however, is our capacity for thinking in rhetorical tropes, i.e. ready-made phrases or sentences that sound intelligent, but which upon closer examination make us sound…well, idiotic. Consider one reviewer's comment that the poet “writes of the primal experiences of death, birth and sexuality and their intrinsic and metaphoric relation to the natural world.” While these are certainly important themes, experiences such as sex and dying don’t “relate” to the natural world; they are the natural world.
The lines in another poem, says the reviewer, are “dreamy and descriptive”, all rather vague and more reminiscent of a teenage crush than the language of critical analysis. Concision is a much sought after virtue these days. Thus, one reviewer writes endearingly of another “The brevity became him, his terseness punctuated only by his clarity.” I might have reversed that, i.e. “his clarity punctuated only by his terseness”, but I don’t think even that saves the line. And why brevity “becomes” this poet as opposed to anyone else, or some other human trait, remains a mystery, too.
Structure is always a tricky thing to talk about intelligently. Opines one scribe “The structure does, however, also yield some poems that seem formulaic, especially those in which Mierau’s propensity for juxtaposition and non-sequitur overpower the poem’s coherence.” What is more intriguing than the weasel words used here, i.e. “seem” and “propensity” (another way we have of writing without conviction) is how something “formulaic” can be made up of non-sequiturs. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but what would that actually look like? Unfortunately we can’t know because the author won’t show us.
All of which leads us to one of the more frequent problems in poetry criticism: the failure to provide evidence, though worse still is to mis-read the evidence, to see precision or rhythmic variety or sensual imagery where there is none. Nearly as bad are those among us who read into a poet’s work a philosophical or aesthetic stance that is not there. A case in point, the following:
“Zieroth is at least as concerned with the historic underpinnings of post-modern thought and perennial questions about death and dying as he is with the materials and strategies of contemporary poetry (e.g. lineation, typography, counterpoint).”
The fact is David Zieroth couldn’t give a hoot about “post-modern thought”. His philosophical thought extends principally to Marcus Aurelius and St. Thomas Aquinas, enriched by his own musings about life and death. The culprit in this case was yours truly, caught up in my own preoccupations with formal philosophy and contemporary poetics.
My only excuse is what any reviewer anxious to do a good job quickly discovers: reviewing poetry is hard. My inspiration is the critic who gets it right, who brings style and critical acumen to his or her judgments: Connolly, Jennings, Starnino, Graham and Guriel to name a few. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that only the writer who invests the same effort and imagination and linguistic skill to their analysis as the poet brings to the poem is worthy to be called critic. It’s a notion I have great sympathy with. At bottom the only truly compelling force in play, though, should be our desire to read well and convey what we read with a measure of insight and precision. All of it supported, I hope, by humility for the enormous gift of the poet.
Friday, February 12, 2010
It’s that time of year again when all but the very jaded point cupid’s arrow in the direction of their beloved, the more thoughtful attaching to the shaft a written testimonial to their undying affection. Not to be outdone this week I offer half a dozen poems about love, romantic love featured prominently, of course, but other kinds of love as well, by some of my favourite poets. I hope they strike your heart just a little, too.
Live with me on Earth among red berries and the bluebirds
And leafy young twigs whispering
Within such little spaces, between such floors of green, such
figures in the clouds
That two of us could fill our lives with delicate wanting:
Where stars past the spruce copse mingle with fireflies
Or the dayscape flings a thousand tones of light back at the
Be any one of the colours of an Earth lover;
Walk with me and sometimes cover your shadow with mine.
(Dig Up My Heart: Selected Poems 1952-83 by Milton Acorn. McClelland and Stewart, 1983)
The lovely collision of colour in the first and third lines, the delicate imagery to match the emotion underneath make Milton Acorn’s love poem “Live With Me On Earth Under the Invisible Daylight Moon” one of my favourites. I love the undulating rhythm which opens the poem, but also the way Acorn leaves lots of space after “whispering” at the end of line 2, to give the line and the reader air to breathe. The poem is sweet and brief with just enough darkness at the end to provide emotional contrast with the primary colours which dominate the opening of the poem. A lovely poem.
We’re all familiar with the next poem, unfortunately one so heavily overworked and satirized that its original beauty has been obscured. But if you re-read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnet 43" you’ll discover why it remains a model of technical virtuosity and feeling. Interestingly, the use of biblical anaphorae or repetition was supposed to have been an invention of Whitman’s, but here Browning uses it to enormous effect. Pay special attention to the wonderful rhythmic and syntactic variety that follows each repetition of the phrase “I love thee”:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
My favourite sentiment in Browning’s sonnet is the line “I love thee to the level of every day's/Most quiet need...” Curiously, the same quotidian of love gets a slightly earthier and more amusing treatment in this traditional Scots poem “Supper Isna Ready”:
Roseberry to his lady says,
“My hinnie an’ my succour, O
Shall we do the thing you ken
Or shall we take our supper?”
Wi’ modest grace, sae fu’ o’ grace
Replied the bonnie lady,
“My noble lord, do as you please
But supper isna ready.”
As I suggested earlier poems about love come in many shapes and guises. Rhona McAdam’s love for her late mother is expressed in a moment of uncanny metamorphosis in “Making Sense”. The poem demonstrates why McAdam is one of the best at supporting plain, unadorned narrative with a deep, yet playful imagination.
Fed from my mother’s hand
for a dozen years, my dog knows more than I
of my own flesh. She is watchful.
When I rise, she rises. She follows me room
to room, keeping track so one day
she can report to my mother
what I wore, who I saw, what I ate.
It is tiring work. She sighs on the square rug
at the foot of my bed, smacks her lips,
tasting sleep, and liking it.
As my mother slept her final years
so the dog sleeps on through the day
only waking at my footstep
or sensing the keys in my hand.
She sits in the car as my mother sat
in her final months, looks out
at the trees, dumb with joy,
and we walk in my mother’s
favourite park, her gait unsteady
now as my mother’s at the end,
her eyes as milky.
Evenings when I sit in my mother’s
easy chair, the dog lies beside me,
paw rising to my hand, insistent
that I take it, that I not let go,
that I stroke its soft back
with my thumb, and when I squeeze,
someone squeezes back.
(Cartography, Oolichan Books, 2006)
As many testimonials as there are to love there are at least as many devoted to unrequited love. They are not always, as you might imagine, characterized by forlorn looks and weeping. A case in point: The Daughter of K’ab Rabia in “A Curse”:
This is my curse. God send thou love
One like thyself, unkind and obdurate,
That knowing Love’s deep cautery, though mayst write
In loneliness, and know my worth too late.
Disappointment in love comes in many forms, too, as evinced by “The Kiss” by Sara Teasdale:
I hoped that he would love me more,
And he has kissed my mouth
But I am like a stricken bird
That cannot reach the south.
For though I know he loves me,
Tonight my heart is sad;
His kiss was not so wonderful
As all the dreams I had.
Is there anything more painful than unrequited love after romance or marriage? Consider this trenchant offering from Vera Pavlova’s “He marked the page with a match”:
He marked the page with a match
and fell asleep in mid-kiss,
while I, a queen bee
in a disturbed hive, stay up and buzz:
half a kingdom for a honey drop,
half a lifetime for a tender word!
His face, half turned.
Half past midnight. Half past one.
A confession. Despite his reputation for great love poetry, I struggled with Pablo Neruda. Then I stumbled upon this gem entitled “Lone Gentleman":
The gay young men and the love-sick girls,
and the abandoned widows suffering in sleepless delirium,
and the young pregnant wives of thirty hours,
and the raucous cats that cruise my garden in the shadows,
like a necklace of pulsating oysters of sex
surround my lonely residence,
like enemies lined up against my soul,
like conspirators in bedroom clothes
who exchange long deep kisses to order.
The radiant summer leads to lovers
in predictable melancholic regiments,
made of fat and skinny, sad and happy pairings:
under the elegant coconut palms, near the ocean and the moon,
goes an endless movement of trousers and dresses,
a whisper of silk stockings being caressed,
and womens breasts that sparkle like eyes.
The little employee, after it all,
after the weeks boredom, and novels read by night in bed,
has definitively seduced the girl next door,
and carried her away to a run-down movie house
where the heroes are studs or princes mad with passion,
and strokes her legs covered with soft down
with his moist and ardent hands that smell of cigarettes.
The seducers afternoons and married peoples nights
come together like the sheets and bury me,
and the hours after lunch when the young male students
and the young girl students, and the priests, masturbate,
and the creatures fornicate outright,
and the bees smell of blood, and the flies madly buzz,
and boy and girl cousins play oddly together,
and doctors stare in fury at the young patients husband,
and the morning hours in which the professor, as if to pass the time,
performs his marriage duties, and breakfasts,
and moreover, the adulterers, who love each other truly
on beds as high and deep as ocean liners:
finally, eternally surrounding me
is a gigantic forest breathing and tangled
with gigantic flowers like mouths with teeth
and black roots in the shape of hooves and shoes.
After all is said and done, the poems that linger longest are the ones that remind us of who and why we love. I could have cited any number by Donne, Herbert, Dickinson et al, just as I’m sure your own favourites come to mind. This final poem by e.e. cummings is a favourite of my wife’s and one I grow fonder of with each re-reading. Happy Valentine’s Day, Gael.
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
Friday, February 5, 2010
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
- from "Church Going" by Phillip Larkin
Is it just me or are others subjected to the same caution: Whatever you do don’t take what you do too seriously – or don’t take your self too seriously, which I gather is the very worst thing a person can do. Whenever I’m accused of this (not every day, but just enough to wince slightly when it does happen) I become a little confused about what it might really mean to be too serious about something and about the possible consequences. I suppose if you get too serious about one thing, like the family dog, for instance, you neglect other things – like the family. Or sacrifice so much time with your partner that he or she performs the inevitable and leaves – all because you spent months, perhaps years, getting your award winning manuscript on love out the door.
There are other possibilities, of course. It could be this injunction against taking things too seriously is mostly centred around fear – like the fear of assuming a great challenge, this in turn horribly mixed up with a fear of success, or worse, the fear of offending others; that last one seems to fit in with the urban myth Canadians are supposed to have about themselves. Hiding our light under a bushel for fear of bringing shame or derision down upon us from the neighbours – forgetting that light is a way of helping us pierce the darkness, to find our way.
Phillip Larkin is said to have been so serious about pursuing a life in poetry that he spurned most of the other things that constitute a normal life: Marriage, Children, Social Connections - all out the window as he focussed his entire energies on crafting not just the very best poem he could write, but the very best poem anyone could write. Among the results, “Church Going”, in which he described his subject as “A serious house on serious earth”, which might just as easily describe Larkin’s attitude towards poetry. Poetry, like religion, is serious business. Or at least that’s the way Larkin seems to have understood it.
But so did Robert Lowell apparently. Not content with understanding his significant New England literary roots, Lowell assumed nothing less than a study of the entire tradition of Classical-Anglo-American literature. To this he added a thorough re-thinking and re-working of his most well regarded poems. W.H. Auden was so serious about stemming any lessening of his poetic powers he routinely moved once a decade to a new country: first America, then Italy, finally Austria. Arguably, he gave new life to his poetry and his career.
Is it possible to be too serious? No one likes a bore after all. And being really serious suggests a capacity to deliver the goods; heaven forbid you’re serious, but also second rate. In which case you really are too serious - for your own good, or anyone else’s.
So serious, not solemn. Devoted to your calling, but not to the exclusion of the world or other ways of living or thinking. Disciplined in your work habits, but making time for Irish tenors, kids and small dogs. Unflinching in your opinions, but rigorous in how you go about developing them and equally determined to hear and understand others. Allowing yourself the luxury to get mad, to get really pissed about the world and what you think should be done to fix it, then allowing yourself a chuckle at the whole absurd mess.
At bottom, truly serious people are curious people. In their hearts they simply want to see where things lead and how they turn out. Typically, curiosity begins when you’re young and if it isn’t squished out of you by age six you go on being curious; it’s now part of your nature. That’s the curious thing about curiosity: you aren’t simply anxious to know why something is the way it is one day and then upon discovering the answer the following day find you are no longer curious. Quite the opposite: discovering why Canadian geese flying in formation routinely change positions over long flights invariably uncovers other questions beyond the aerodynamic principles that underpin the draft of a bird’s wing. Now you want to know the structure of the bird’s wing or the nature of the movements of wind or the innate homing capabilities of Canadian geese over great distances. Suddenly you’re impressed not by your capacity to answer a question, but by the sheer inexhaustibility of the universe to place more questions at your feet.
If you’re lucky and are conscious enough this last discovery presents you with another gem to put you in good stead for the future: you discover humility. Which brings us back, I suppose, to where we began, but now with a potential answer and antidote to our original dilemma. Perhaps, it really is possible to be too serious, measured not against what others may say or the limits they place on our human ingenuity and industry, but against that enormous backdrop of a cosmos that is largely indifferent to our small efforts at shaping a destiny for ourselves, but which simultaneously compels us to take it seriously, if only by virtue of its sheer magnitude, enormous beauty and infinite variety.
Christian Bok doesn’t think Canadian poets are very serious. In fact, he says, they’re downright lazy. I don’t imagine they’re lazy so much as overworked and distracted by the infinite number of things that poets are expected to do in a day, besides writing a really good poem - from manuscript prep to query letters to magazine and book publishers to the endless stream of poetry readings, competitions, and grant applications. Poets like everyone else also must earn a living, which usually means a low paying job as a teacher, librarian or baggage handler. In the midst of this is the enormous pressure to be everything we expect them to be as poets: meticulous technicians, profoundly sensitive barometers for our deepest feelings, diviners of history and culture who are, by turns, enthused, enigmatic, entertaining – and yes, deeply serious. How, you might ask, is one to keep up?
Perhaps Emily Dickinson had the right idea after all. You don’t have to read much of her work to recognize that Dickinson was deadly serious. No Canada Council or NEA grants for her. No poetry contests or quietly hysterical letters to publishers about the dearth of public readings. Dickinson published virtually nothing during her lifetime. Instead she wrote poems, a lot of poems, sharing them occasionally with a special friend, but seldom venturing beyond the door of her home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
If you’re serious about anything, poetry or the DNA structure of the fruit fly, it seems you have to focus in on the thing that matters most to you, culling the extraneous. Above all else, caring counts.
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