Po­etry Slam

Cowardly crit­ics and bad art — a Cana­dian code­pen­dency

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Michael Lista

Cowardly crit­ics and bad art — a Cana­dian code­pen­dency

Six years ago, I had it pretty good. Af­ter House of Anansi Press pub­lished my first book of po­ems in 2010, I be­came a colum­nist for the Na­tional Post and the po­etry editor for The Wal­rus . It was funny: I had dropped out of col­lege, and, at twenty-six, was be­ing mailed steady pay­cheques to do home­work. All I needed to do was not fuck it up, which I did with char­ac­ter­is­tic haste.

The crit­ics who ac­tu­ally de­served the jobs dis­qual­i­fied them­selves from gigs like mine, be­cause they’d made the mis­take of hav­ing al­ready dis­tin­guished them­selves at theirs. There was an un­spo­ken un­der­stand­ing that book re­view­ers in ­ma­jor news­pa­pers were ex­pected to pro­duce copy that was es­sen­tially ser­vice jour­nal­ism, ­de­fanged con­sumer re­ports ­in­tended for the sort of reader who, on a whim, might buy a book on an out­ing to the mall. They’d spoiled their shot at be­ing lit­er­ary crit­ics in a Cana­dian news­pa­per be­cause they were ac­tu­ally lit­er­ary crit­ics.

In my first few col­umns, I toed the party line and wrote shal­low re­views in which my mixed feel­ings were left un­sounded. I got good at spin­ning empty calo­ries, like when I gushed that Canada was in a ­golden age of po­etry, which was just the sort of ­con­fected false­hood for which ­nearly ev­ery­one who read me had a sweet tooth. Still, I couldn’t help but no­tice the dis­crep­ancy be­tween the work I was fil­ing and the crit­i­cism pro­duced by the writ­ers I most ad­mired — Ge­orge ­Or­well, Gore Vi­dal, He­len Vendler, ­Philip ­Larkin, Janet Mal­colm, Renata Adler, ­Chris­tian Wi­man, and oth­ers. Wi­man wrote that if you’re a book re­viewer who loves most of the po­etry that comes across your desk, you’re ei­ther re­ally lucky or re­ally stupid.

I was face to face with the dilemma of the Cana­dian poet-critic: bull­shit your way to the top or re­altalk your way to the bot­tom. I knew lots of peo­ple who had par­layed their col­umn inches and en­try-level editorial jobs into cushy gigs, and the temp­ta­tion to ac­cept the keys to the king­dom, which were on of­fer for the low price of my con­science, was real. I had to de­cide what kind of po­etry critic I wanted to be.

So I filed my first skep­ti­cal re­view by pass­ing judg­ment on the lat­est col­lec­tion of po­ems by a CanLit pa­tron saint, Tim Lil­burn. The book, Assini­boia , about Louis Riel and his pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment, em­bod­ied so much of what I de­spised about swaths of Cana­dian po­etry: a con­spic­u­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism that masked a deepseated mis­an­thropy; a vain self-re­gard for its own so­cial con­scious­ness; dic­tion and ca­dences that were more noisy than ­mu­si­cal. The jacket copy was so ­grandiose as to give the im­pres­sion that if the book could be ground down and snorted, it would be a panacea, but it wouldn’t get you high: “In Assini­boia , Tim Lil­burn’s whole­sale at­tempt to re­si­t­u­ate the root of hu­man sing­ing deep in the body’s core amounts to a re­sus­ci­ta­tion of sing­ing it­self.” For the first time, I won­dered aloud, “Are there ­lit­er­ate adults who ac­tu­ally dig this?”

Yes, it turns out. And, as I learned ­shortly af­ter the re­view was pub­lished, they’re in pos­ses­sion of so­cial-me­dia ac­counts. Peo­ple were fu­ri­ous. Po­etry for me was ­only one wave­length in the spectrum of con­tem­po­rary arts and cul­ture. Record and TV re­views were of­ten pointed and cen­so­ri­ous. If a new hip-hop mix­tape had lines as hi­lar­i­ously self-se­ri­ous as ­Assini­boia’s — “fog/ Goat­ishly cir­cling and sniff­ing/ The anus of Mount Baldy” — most crit­ics would make spec­tac­u­lar hay of it, and most ­dis­cern­ing read­ers would get a kick out of the copy.

But those re­view­ers have what a Cana­dian lit­er­ary critic doesn’t: an in­de­pen­dent read­er­ship. The only peo­ple who read my col­umns were Cana­dian ­writ­ers, edi­tors, pub­lish­ers, or pub­li­cists. With

ev­ery ­dis­parag­ing re­view I filed, I pissed off a hand­ful of in­ter­con­nected peo­ple, and there were only so many hand­fuls.

My editor at the Post got a lot of hate mail about my pieces. When he moved to ­an­other news­pa­per, I asked whether he’d ­con­sider mov­ing my col­umn with him. He shot me a look of pity. He was prob­a­bly right to worry that I might be im­per­illing not just my own ca­reer, but his, too. And so, as soon as I had fi­nally earned my job as a Cana­dian lit­er­ary critic, I had si­mul­ta­ne­ously dis­qual­i­fied my­self from it.

Po­etry is worth a damn be­cause it isn’t good for any­thing. It doesn’t do well as ther­apy, so­cial ad­vo­cacy, ­lin­guis­tic re­search, ha­giog­ra­phy, or gospel. ­Po­etry buck­les un­der the weight of ­oc­ca­sion, which is when most of us most ­fre­quently turn to it for guid­ance or con­so­la­tion. It’s ­al­most al­ways at its low­est when it pre­sumes to be high art. And yet nearly ev­ery­one in the Cana­dian lit­er­ary ecosys­tem is in­ter­ested pri­mar­ily in ­po­etry’s util­ity — how it can re­dress in­jus­tice (in ­Assini­boia , noth­ing less than the ­orig­i­nal sin of Canada’s found­ing), solve the prob­lems of lan­guage’s in­com­mu­ni­ca­bil­ity, and ad­vance our ca­reers.

John Keats be­moaned the faintest whiff of util­ity in a poem, writ­ing that “we hate po­etry that has a pal­pa­ble de­sign upon us.” It’s the critic’s job to de­fend po­etry from those who would in­flate its value. The sooner a poet ac­cepts Au­den’s dec­la­ra­tion that “po­etry makes noth­ing hap­pen,” the sooner their po­ems will start to do some­thing. Why? Be­cause a poem with pre­ten­sions of util­ity as­sumes that its sub­ject is the only rea­son its lan­guage mat­ters, when in fact lan­guage is the only thing of value a poem can of­fer.

But if po­ems are price­less ­pre­cisely be­cause they’re worth­less, there’s ­lit­tle in­cen­tive for the critic to ad­mit that in pub­lic. It’s much more ad­van­ta­geous for one’s ca­reer in Canada to treat the poem as use­ful — break­ing new ­lin­guis­tic ground or ad­vo­cat­ing for right­eous pub­lic pol­icy.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t good Cana­dian po­ems. It’s just im­pos­si­ble to talk about what’s good about Cana­dian po­etry with­out also talk­ing about what’s bad. There’s both too lit­tle and too much. Too lit­tle in the sense that our first de­cent English-speak­ing poet, E. J. Pratt, wasn’t born un­til 1882, and our first great one, A. M. Klein, tar­ried un­til 1909. And too much? Be­cause be­gin­ning in the 1950s, grant­ing agen­cies started dis­burs­ing tax­payer dol­lars to Cana­dian writ­ers and pub­lish­ers to make up for lost time.

A poem with pre­ten­sions of util­ity as­sumes that its sub­ject is the only rea­son its lan­guage mat­ters, when in fact lan­guage is the only thing of value a poem can of­fer.

It sud­denly be­came eas­ier to pub­lish a book of po­ems here than any­where else in the world.

This co­in­cided with a wave of lit­er­ary ­na­tion­al­ism that made Amer­i­can and ­Bri­tish in­flu­ences sus­pect. The big­gest ben­e­fi­ciary of this mind­set was Al Purdy. Imag­ine a down-mar­ket D. H. ­Lawrence mixed with the worst of Charles Bukowski. Purdy was an early for­mal­ist who broke the shack­les of for­eign tra­di­tions to em­brace an un­pre­ten­tious, ru­ral ­ver­nac­u­lar — what poet and critic David ­Sol­way called “­Stan­dard Av­er­age Cana­dian.” He may not have rep­re­sented who we were, but he ­em­bod­ied who we wanted to be. Purdy is an ­en­dur­ing ­Cana­dian poet, Sol­way ­sug­gests, not ­be­cause he sounds dif­fer­ent from ev­ery other poet, but be­cause he shows us how to all sound the same, which is what ­Cana­di­ans ­se­cretly de­sire.

Purdy’s im­i­ta­tors and heirs wouldn’t have ruled the roost for so long if our crit­ics hadn’t co-oper­ated. Northrop Frye ar­gued that since Canada hadn’t yet pro­duced a ma­jor writer, Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture should not be read eval­u­a­tively, only the­mat­i­cally. “If eval­u­a­tion is one’s guid­ing prin­ci­ple,” Frye wrote in 1965, “crit­i­cism of Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture would be­come ­only a de­bunk­ing project, leav­ing it a poor naked alou­ette plucked of ev­ery feather of ­de­cency and dig­nity.” The “the­matic crit­i­cism” that fol­lowed had the unintended con­se­quence of mak­ing a man­date out of our mis­takes, giv­ing the le­gions of well-funded, in­ward­look­ing Cana­dian po­ets the per­mis­sion

they needed to suc­ceed at be­ing se­cond rate. Cana­dian po­ets are the ketchup chips of the lit­er­ary world; they’re huge here, but you can’t get them any­where else.

As with all of our ex­ports, our best po­ets are in­ci­den­tally, not es­sen­tially, Cana­dian. If there’s any­thing that binds them ­to­gether be­sides ex­cel­lence, it may be a shared mistrust of Cana­dian na­tion­al­ism and an am­bi­tion to escape its de­cay­ing ­or­bit. So it should come as no sur­prise that many of our most in­ter­est­ing po­ets are ei­ther ­im­mi­grants (Irv­ing Lay­ton, A. M. Klein, Elise Par­tridge, Eric Ormsby, John Thomp­son, Ri­cardo Stern­berg) or ­ex­pa­tri­ates (Daryl Hine, P. K. Page, Anne Car­son).

For the same rea­son that our fan­tasy of a Cana­dian shib­bo­leth ended up man­i­fest­ing as a kind of couch-potato lin­gua franca, our most dar­ing po­ets are lin­guis­tic high fly­ers pre­cisely be­cause they’re fre­quent fly­ers. Lay­ton took us to Greece, Par­tridge and Ormsby trans­ported us to Florida, Stern­berg and Page in­vited us to Brazil. More and more, those jour­neys are imag­i­nary jour­neys, in­ward odysseys into lit­er­a­ture and myth it­self guided by Amanda Jerni­gan and Anne ­Car­son and James Pol­lock. When they re­turn with their po­ems, ­Stan­dard ­Av­er­age Cana­dian sim­ply won’t do to con­vey the mys­tery and ro­mance of the for­eign. ­In­stead, the lan­guage is torqued, deco­rous, am­bi­tious, and ­lex­i­cally tricked out with ex­otic, sci­en­tific, tech­ni­cal, and ­ar­chaic ­vo­cab­u­lar­ies. Karen Solie’s “­Thrasher” pegs the new Cana­dian poet not as a poor naked alou­ette, but as an­other bird, a kind of mag­pie with a gift for mimicry:

He car­ries on

like AM ra­dio. Like a prison rodeo. ­Re­counts loser

base­ball teams, jerry-rig­gers, part-timers, those paid in scrip,

any­one who has come out of ­re­tire­ment once

too of­ten. He is play­backs, do-overs, re­peats, re­peats

the world’s clam­orous list, makes it his, re­plete,

and fledges from per­sis­tence what he is.

Cana­dian po­ets are in­ter­est­ing ­pre­cisely when they steal the whole world for them­selves and sing it in all its use­less ­com­plex­ity. Cana­di­ans are uniquely po­si­tioned at the mo­ment — the way Derek Wal­cott was decades ago — to ­rein­vig­o­rate the ­tra­di­tional for­mal reper­toire, be­cause we’ve been ­es­tranged from it for so long. No­tice how in “Thrasher,” the bird be­comes more him­self as he be­comes more larce­nous, and that the Thrasher’s fi­nal theft is form, Solie’s rhyming cou­plet ( re­peats/ ­ re­plete) glis­sad­ing into the iambic pen­tame­ter of the clos­ing line. As Robert Frost said of Ed­win Arlington Robin­son, he’d found “the old-fash­ioned way to be new” — and that’s just what we’ve re­dis­cov­ered.

What our best po­ets share is a kind of re­nais­sance sen­si­bil­ity, a world­li­ness that sees them trade their Cana­di­an­ness for a sort of univer­sal cit­i­zen­ship. To­day, if our best po­ets keep their na­tion­al­ity on the down low — well, that’s just like us. They’re se­cretly Cana­dian, like so many Seth ­Ro­gens and tele­phones.

As for crit­ics, I hap­pen to think that our job is to write crit­i­cally and with wit and flair about books and ideas, re­gard­less of the per­sonal cost. Only in Canada does that make you ­po­lar­iz­ing; every­where else, it­sim­ply makes you com­pe­tent.

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