Archive for the ‘Praise and Polemics’ Category

Concerning Instant Delight

Maybe I’m just irritable, but Craig Raine’s recent review of Seamus Heaney’s two-volume selected poems rubs me the wrong way. It’s hardly that I take exception to Raine’s high estimation of Heaney’s poetry. My concern is with the aesthetic doctrine that underwrites Raine’s laudation and its overbearing triumphal tone.

Raine holds up what might be termed Heaney’s gift for mimesis as the poet’s singular virtue:  “He can describe things.” The “ready pleasure” and “obvious likeness” of  “A rowan like a lipsticked girl” is one example of the poet’s deft descriptions “pleasurable because they are accurate and irrefutable.” Heaney’s work displays other achievements—”an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music”—but, “[u]nless a poet can produce this ungainsayable instant delight …, the poetry is automatically of the second order.”

short ciliary nerveRaine opens his review remarking how one kind of latter-day mime, “the impersonator — Rory Bremner, Steve Coogan — speaks, in different voices, to a single primitive pleasure centre in his audience” that results in a “release of neurotransmitters, the flood of endorphins,” of a kind with that “drench of dopamine” produced by the “ungainsayable instant delight” that is the sine qua non of poetry.

However rhetorical the appeal to the brain’s  “primitive pleasure centre” might be here, it is one with Raine’s consistent affirmation of the immediacy of the well-wrought poetic image: where the description is “obvious” the delight is “ready,” “instant,” and “ungainsayable.” Happily, one need not right away allude to two centuries or so of philosophical reflection on the untenability of Raine’s assumptions here as the review itself can’t toe the line it draws.

However much “Heaney records things as they come, democratically, unaware of hierarchy” not all such things are democratically given. Raine has to expend over a quarter of the review glossing Heaney’s poems that deal with Irish or Greek myth in order to make clear how they expose what is “immovably rooted in us.” This example of overt intertextuality reveals that Heaney not so much “gives us ‘The song of the tubular steel gate in the dark / As he pulls it to’”—how could I appreciate the description if I hadn’t already heard such a gate being opened or closed?—but rather represents things whose representation is striking only if I’m already acquainted with them. Raine himself refers to how Heaney’s poetry “can describe things in a phrase…the sound a football makes when kicked — ‘it thumped / but it sang too, / a kind of dry, ringing / foreclosure of sound.’ Remember?”

It’s not just that the instant delight of poetry’s descriptions arrives only by means of a detour through other texts or experiences. Raine calls the endorphins unconsciously released by our perception of imitation “brandies of the brain,” a variety of spirit, like any, whose appreciation is hardly reflexive but must be conscientiously cultured, unless Raine is likening the pleasures of poetry to sheer inebriation. Indeed, our brains are “flooded with endorphins” only through our “connivance,” imaginably what Coleridge termed the suspension of disbelief, the mental process that mediates the seemingly natural, reflexive immediacy of the kind of poetic mimesis Raine values so highly.

It’s a moribund, simplistic empiricism that underwrites Raine’s aesthetics here and that leads him to disparage so roundly the kind of poetry that to his mind is only

an endless marathon of ambiguity, a joyless game of patience for adepts. The Cambridge School of Poetry, in fact, turning its back on pleasure, snubbing the audience, withholding the endorphins, proffering perpetual difficulty, disparaging ‘descriptive decadence’.

His own review bears witness to the schooling, shared experience, and connivance that admit one to a cognoscenti, that club of connoisseurs capable of appreciating the refined delicacy of Heaney’s phanopoeia. Indeed, this sneering dismissal of others’ pleasures tears the mask from the undisputed naturalness of his own and shows the logic of his review to be little more than an argumentum ad nauseum.

One could continue the dispute, along various lines. Leaving aside for the moment the reflections that might imaginably be offered in support or explanation of the poetic pleasures of the Cambridge School and its audience, one might wonder what value Raine’s aesthetic would place on the “endless marathon of ambiguity, [and] joyless game of patience for adepts” that is Geoffrey Hill’s poetry. (The briefest research turns up Raine’s high regard for Hill’s poetry, too). More pointedly:  is one to infer from Raine’s assumptions that the much more discursive and clearly less musically sophisticated poetry of Emily Dickinson is “second order”?

There remains, nevertheless, as there must be, an arguably truer value remarked in Raine’s review, albeit the one he esteems lower than imagery, “an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music.” The irrefutable charm of poetry’s music transcends even understanding a poem’s words. Another poet whose work can often seem a game for adepts is Dante, whose Canzone “Voi che ‘ntendendo il terzo ciel movete” testifies to the eminence of sound over sense, concluding famously

Canzone, io credo che saranno radi
color che tua ragione intendan bene,
tanto la parli faticosa e forte.
Onde, se per ventura elli adivene
che tu dinanzi da persone vadi
che non ti paian d’essa bene acorte,
allor ti priego che ti riconforte,
dicendo lor, diletta mia novella:
“Ponete mente almen com’io son bella!”

My song, I think they will be few indeed
Who’ll rightly understand your sense,
So difficult and complex is your speech.
So if by chance it comes to pass
That you should find yourself with some
Who do not grasp it well at all,
I pray you then, dear newborn song,
Take courage again and say to them:
“Consider at least how fair I am!”

Here, Dante, the learned poet he is, knows what the ancient Greeks meant by mimesis: “not only the portrayal or description of visible and tangible things, but more especially the expression of a mood or feeling, hence the (to a modern) paradox that music is the most imitative of the arts.”

The Persistence of the Resistance to Theory

Readying the week’s classes, the radio in the background, I overheard a snippet of an interview with Clive James that gave me pause for thought. Around the 18 minute mark he observes—prompted by the interviewer’s interest in James’ “scathing” judgement of contemporary academe—that “encouraged by European theorists usually French or German” the university sought “to raise or supposedly raise the study of culture to the level of philosophy” at the expense of  “plain spoken good sense.” Of course, he is referring to the advent of Literary Theory in the 1970s, but the way he words his opinion brings to mind a much older dispute whose roots still cause rifts in contemporary Anglo-Saxon poetic culture, especially in Canada.

That older dispute is the debate between René Wellek and F. R. Leavis.  Wellek had reviewed Leavis’ Revaluation in the March, 1937 number of Scrutiny, a review which prompted Leavis’ “Literary Criticism and Philosophy”, a title which, here, speaks for itself. Wellek, no slouch of a literary scholar (perhaps, tellingly, later the founder of the comparative literature department at Yale) wishes in his review that Leavis “had stated [his] assumptions more explicitly and defended them systematically.” Leavis, in his reply, suggests that Wellek makes this wish “because Dr Wellek is a philosopher” and that he himself is no philosopher but a literary critic, “[l]iterary criticism and philosophy [being] quite distinct and different kinds of discipline.” The virulence of Leavis’ distinction is summed up in the title of a later collection of essays The Critic as Anti-Philosopher. It may well be James’ opinion was formed during his studies at Cambridge, as his deployment of ‘philosophy’ to denote abstract or conceptual thought in general would suggest.

Such a distaste for or distrust of Theory, philosophy, or conceptual labour persists in certain poets and critics in Canada, the United States, and abroad. I would argue, however, that if ‘philosophy’ is used in the way I take it be used here, then James, Leavis, and the like-minded are guilty of a wilful blindness or disingenuousness. Paul de Man was hardly the first or last to observe (in his essay “The Resistance to Theory”) that “even the most intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature [make] use of a minimal set of concepts (tone, organic form, allusion, tradition, historical situation, etc. ) of at least some general import,” this list of concepts varying from writer to writer. That is, there is no reading of or reflecting on literature that is not more or less explicitly guided by and expressed in concepts and conceptual ratiocination. It does not follow, mind you, that every reader methodically follows a fully-articulated system of said concepts or that he or she need develop such a system; indeed, whether such a system can in fact be developed and applied consistently is an open question. As early as 1798 Friedrich Schlegel remarked that “it is equally fatal to have a system or not to have one at all. It will therefore be necessary to join the two” (Athenäum fragment 53).

Now, before I get automatically placed on team “Theory” let me register my agreement that much of what came to be termed Theory was and remains nonsense. The reception of especially structuralist discourse in the English-speaking world, from Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics (1975) onwards is a study in perverse misunderstanding. Despite Saussure’s emphasis that language is not a lexicon, for example, many continued to assume that language is essentially a wordhoard of names. It is hardly surprising that the attempt to assimilate technical vocabularies as diverse as those of structuralist linguistics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, hermeneutics, and, yes, even philosophy, especially while these discourses were in the process of articulating new insights, essaying new methods, and undergoing constant revision, all in questionable translation where the articulation of this new thinking was even translatable, should have led to a garbled articulation and application. The conflation of “word” and “sign” or “signifier/signified” with “word/meaning,” monstrous expressions, such as “chain of signifiers” or “deconstructionist poetry,” or the perversely Idealistic misunderstandings of Derrida’s maxim “Il n’y a rien en dehors du texte” are cases in point. The on-going controversy about “the subject” inspires winces among those whose reading is a little broader than the run-of-the-mill  grad school syllabus. The problem was compounded by the dilution and further distortion of these discourses as they were passed down by successive generations of professors and teaching assistants, few of whom seemed motivated to search out the primary texts and the context of their initial articulation and to come to terms with them for themselves. In the case of structuralism, semiology or semiotics, the problem was compounded by the incoherence of the movement’s founding text, Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, an incoherence hardly lost on the master himself or diligent scholars of Saussure, such as Boris Gasparov.  Little wonder then that intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature or even those critics who became embroiled in the the Theory Wars from the beginning, such as Harold Bloom or Christopher Norris, should express virulent impatience with the nonsense of the Schools of Resentment or certain strains of Postmodernism.

However, to dismiss conceptual reflections on poetry, recent or not-so recent, because of the muddle that most scholars make of it is analogous to dismissing poetry because of the legions of tepid versifiers whose work floods the publishers’ lists, periodicals, and internet. On the one hand, Theory (here understood as a conceptually articulated reflection on poetry, whether informed by philosophy or other disciplines), if pursued with curiosity, some solid background, and no little brow furrowing is bracing, eye-opening, and vitalizing. One quickly learns, for example, that American Deconstruction is the logical outcome of New Critical close reading, stripped of certain of its ideological underpinnings, as the critical practice of William Empson demonstrated. Less well-known is that Literature as we know it and Theory as a kind of philosophical reflection upon it are twins born at the end of the Eighteenth Century. The proof of this birth certificate and its consequences for criticism have been matters of serious research and speculation for over a generation, as the work of Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy in French, Dieter Henrich or Manfred Frank in German, or that of Andrew Bowie and others in English attests.

Anyone who would sneer at such reflection on poetry as a waste of time would do well to hunker down with the work of Friedrich Hölderlin for while and see how far their “plain spoken good sense” gets them with a poet whose deserved canonicity is beyond question and a philosopher whose thinking arguably surpasses at points that of his two room mates at the Tübingen Stift, Hegel and Schelling. And just here is no little irony. One of James’s great achievements is his translating Dante’s Commedia, but anyone with even a passing familiarity with The Divine Comedy or Dante’s corpus will know the absolutely essential importance Lady Philosophy had for Dante, how the soaring, Gothic, and technical complexities of Scholastic philosophy were his sole study for years and how that philosophy both underwrites and appears on the pages of his great poem and others of his works. With the undoubted achievements of Dante and Hölderlin testifying to the relevance and value of philosophical reflection on and for poetry how one could use ‘philosophy’ so disparagingly is difficult to understand.

Of course the accusation of Theory’s being “nonsense” springs from its breaching the decorum of  “plain spoken good sense.” The absolute value accorded “plain spoken good sense” is, as those on the Continent would say, a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon tic. This staid dogma that identifies what Wittgenstein writes in his Tractatus, that “what can be said can be said clearly,” with “plain spoken good sense” would appear blind to the fact that clarity is always contextual (think of jokes that depend upon a knowledge of chemistry or binary code for their humour) and that to obfuscate this radical contingency of clarity is also an ideological gesture that reserves “good sense” and its attendant clear-eyed perception of truth and value to one group that is then justified in ignoring all competing claims as nonsense. This division of “plain spoken good sense” from “nonsense” is the intralinguistic version of the ancient Athenians’ characterizing speakers of foreign languages as sounding like dogs barking, hoi barbaroi. Indeed, one can hardly miss the xenophobia that accents suspicious dismissals of those “European theorists usually French or German.” Such foreigners, such as Roland Barthes (in Writing Degree Zero) or Theodor Adorno (in many places), have written most trenchantly on just such “plain spoken good sense.”

Transparency occurs where understanding has become reflexive, where questions are cut and dried and the dust of controversy or that raised in the trail of exploration has long since settled. New thoughts and the process of thinking that leads to their initial expression is necessarily only ever semi-articulate. What’s new, even when it appears fully formed, is strange. The task then is perhaps to eschew the settled clarities of all existing schools and their varieties of moribund, perspicacious nonsense, to risk the anxious uncertainty that always accompanies learning or, for that matter, creating, to enter on a nomadic way whereon one is always a foreigner, never quite understanding or being understood, living by one’s wits, alive to what the next, new moment brings.

Critical Issues: an essay on the work of Robert Bringhurst

In what follows I want to attempt, from the point of view of a poeta doctus, a learned poet, to critically assess the achievements Paris, May 1994and what I discern as some of the limitations of Robert Bringhurst’s poetry, translations, essays, and talks. Such an attempt must mix humility with hubris. Bringhurst is rightly a highly-regarded creative mind, but one I’d like to argue not taken seriously enough. His admirers seem to me too easily impressed and dazzled by what they correctly perceive as a tremendous poetic talent and wide-ranging, profound intelligence. What is required, especially for those of us who share his poetic and more general cultural concerns, is to dare to submit his works to a kind of acid test, charitable and respectful at every point, but no less stringent in its aesthetic and intellectual demands. To do less would be to do a disservice to both the man and those cultural activities he has devoted his life to, poetry and thought.

It would be too easy to present a strictly personal appreciation of Robert Bringhurst’s oeuvre. I fell under the spell of his poetry when he recited “Bone Flute Breathing” at my high school. My neophyte poetic fumblings from the time found guidance in his own engagements with the tradition, Hellenic, Biblical, European, and Asian. During my graduate studies, which wrestled with the fraternal strife between poetry and philosophy, his versions of the fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers The Old in Their Knowing provided both a model and matter for thought. In fact, for a time, I read his rendering of Sophocles, “Of the Snaring of Birds,” to open readings of my own poems. His monumental translations from the Haida appeared just at the time my own pedagogical activities involved themselves with the more general movement of ethnopoetics. And which poet, critic, or scholar, awake to the centrality of the ecological crisis, cannot help but participate with him in his own ecopoetic labours?

These individual experiences that left their impress on my poetry and thinking arguably possess a more public, objective significance and worth. From his first poem, “The Beauty of the Weapons,” Bringhurst’s innate musical gift and artistic, technical conscientiousness, coupled with his insistence on reciting rather than reading his work, have been exemplary. Consistent with the mainstream of poetic modernism and postmodernism in the Twentieth century, Bringhurst’s poems and translations “paw over the ancients” and “make new” voices from the inherited European canon and expand this tradition globally. This contribution to what Goethe was the first to call Weltliteratur along with its attunement to the philosophical tradition line his poetry, essays, and talks up with that vital and on-going dialogue between poetry and philosophy inaugurated in the modern period by the Jena Romantics, a dialogue of continuing pertinence, if the conclusions of philosophers such as Dieter Henrich, Manfred Frank, Andrew Bowie, and Jason Wirth are anything to go by, not to mention those of a more widely-renowned figure, Theodor Adorno. The pertinence of Bringhurst’s ecopoetic concerns demands no justification.

Bringhurst’s prosody is remarkable on several counts. Since High Modernism “broke the pentameter,” poetry might be said to have lost its metrical bearings, resulting in a continuing if perverse struggle between traditionally-minded formalists, Neo- and otherwise, and practitioners of a wide range of free verse. Tone deafness is detectable at both extremes: practitioners of (what they see as) traditional metrics too often produce lines that are “rhythmic” in purely numeric terms, the count of syllables and their barely discernible relative stresses, while the garden-variety writer of free verse does in fact too often produce little more than the proverbial “prose chopped into lines.” Poetry composed by someone with an ear is well-defined by Louis Zukofksy’s famous function: lower limit speech, upper limit music. Anyone with ears to hear will affirm that often Bringhurst’s poems are scored to a marked, often easily-definable rhythm. The index of his natural talent and assiduous practice is readable in the way his poems’ speech-based syntax easily steps up to and in time with their more artificially musical rhythms. Indeed, Bringhurst’s achievement in this respect is so consistently polished it must surely surprise anyone familiar with currents in contemporary North American English-language poetry that those self-professed tyros of Formalism (whose manner August Kleinzahler has deliciously christened “Nobelese”) haven’t lionized Bringhurst’s obvious metrical prowess. Where Bringhurst’s prosodic gift might be said to have led him astray is in his polyphonic works, beginning with The Blue Roofs of Japan. If anything, these compositions for multiple voices make the difference between language or speech and music loud and clear: the former possesses an essential semantic dimension that the latter does not, at least not in the same way. Where the voices of a fugue complement each other, simultaneous speeches create a frustrating cacophony precisely because the listener has to attend to and untwine two or more semantic chains that interfere with each other’s reception in way that concurrent instrumental or even singing voices do not. Ironically, these polyphonic works are easier to read than hear. Although a much more extended study is necessary to come to any conclusions concerning the manner and success of these compositions, one might argue that it is precisely the power and achievement of Bringhurst’s poetic-musical abilities that suggest and tempt him to experiment in this way and contribute to the repertoire of poetic forms.

A more successful if more ordinary kind of polyphony is found in Bringhurst’s engagement with world literature. Bringhurst’s oeuvre emerges from the matrix of the Twentieth century’s dilation of tradition. Where Pound went back to Homer, the Troubadours, and (as T. S. Eliot at least would have it) invented Chinese poetry for English, Charles Olson went back to the earliest literature, that of Sumer, a limit overstepped by Gary Snyder, who has described the roots of his poetry as extending back to the Paleolithic, a temporal limit expanded spatially to include the poetries of all the peoples on the surface of the globe in Jerome Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics, a project pursued in his many anthologies or assemblages over many decades, commencing with the first edition of Technicians of the Sacred in 1967. Beginning with Deuteronomy, Bringhurst’s poetry adopts personae from the Bible, ancient Greece, India, China, and relates myths of his own making that echo those of Turtle Island. A quick survey of Selected Poems (2009) turns up translations from or references to Egyptian, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese, Danish, German,  French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Russian. The most concentrated and monumental of his efforts in this regard is his translations of the classical Haida mythtellers, primarily Ghandl and Skaay. One would be hard-pressed to name a Canadian poet whose corpus incarnates that imagining of Goethe’s whose reality blossomed this past century. On the one hand Bringhurst’s efforts have introduced or “made new” or conversed with an impressively vast amount of non-English-language material. On the other, a working poet might be tempted to reflect on the promise of this contribution: what of it lends new potentialities to poetic composition rather than merely adding another exhibit or further commentary to the museum of Weltliteratur? Of more promise than his retelling a myth, for example, in his “Leda and the Swan,” is what he seems to discover in the compositions of Ghandl and Skaay, the most condensed statement of which is perhaps at the beginning of the fifth chapter of A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Bringhurst writes that he calls Skaay’s stories poetry

because they are dense, crisp and full of lucid images whose power is not confined by cultural fences—and because they are richly patterned. But the patterns are syntactic and thematic more than rhythmical or phonemic. For all the acoustic beauty of these poems, that is not where there obvious formal order resides. They are distinguishable by a thinkable prosody of meaning more than by an audible prosody of sound. (111)

That Bringhurst often places such great emphasis and value on such syntactic and thematic patterning in his appreciations of the verbal art of Skaay and Ghandl and often that of other art, as well, must strike anyone acquainted with the tradition of Structuralist literary analysis as a little de trop. The studies of Roman Jakobson and Michel Riffaterre, for example, are characterized by their detailed and exhaustive analyses of just such syntactic and thematic symmetries as well as phonemic and prosodic patterning. Indeed, given the inescapability of just such a “prosody of meaning” in a literary text one can’t help but wonder how any poet or story teller worth study can not produce texts possessed of just such structures. One is left wondering, then, how to put to use what Bringhurst’s tremendous labours have imported into the English language. The profound and prevalent influence of Pound’s “invention of Chinese poetry” and his ideogrammic method or the way many Twentieth century avant garde poets have turned the poetics of the Western hemisphere’s autochthonous cultures to their own absolutely modern ends (e.g., Anne Waldman’s “Fast Speaking Woman” based on the syntactic symmetries of the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina’s chants) exemplify how the work of translation can vitalize a target culture’s language. Nevertheless, regardless of what Bringhurst himself or other poets have been able to make of his vast importations, the cosmopolitanism of his oeuvre remains unquestionably impressive.

Bringhurst’s translations also feed that aspect of his work that touches on and converses with thinking, a thinking that increasingly mulls over matters of ecological urgency. The philosophical content of his writings calls for and could doubtlessly sustain a painstaking study, but I want to reflect on an essential theme of that thinking, language. As a polyglot, translator, and recognized and respected authority on typography, Bringhurst in his poems, essays, and talks returns endlessly to the nature and function of language. In this fascination, his ruminations chew over a matter central to Western thought since the Eighteenth century and one painfully familiar to any graduate student in the humanities. Bringhurst’s theses on language demand a scrutiny both because of their centrality to his own work and to that of the culture at large. Bringhurst, like the post-structuralist postmodernists he disdains, participates in the general inflation of language characteristic of much of the humanities in the Twentieth century in the wake of Structuralism. In The Solid Form of Language, consistent with archaic wisdom and contemporary zoosemiotics, he first reminds us of those other, nonhuman languages, “the calls of leopard frogs and whales, the rituals of mating sandhill cranes” (11). Then, in A Story as Sharp as a Knife, he expands the linguistic beyond the communicative circuit, writing

We read the tracks and scat of animals, the depth and lustre of their coats, the set of their ears and the gait of their limbs. We read the horns of sheep, the teeth of horses. We read the weights and measures of the wind, the flight of birds, the surface of the sea, snow, fossils, broken rocks, the growth of shrubs and trees and lichens…We read the speech of jays, ravens, hawks, frogs, wolves, and in infinite detail, the voices, faces, gestures, coughs and postures of other human beings. (14)

To which we might add (as Bringhurst does) that language includes even “the chemical messages coming and going day and night within the brain” and all that is “chemically written into our genes.” As remarked, Bringhurst is hardly the first to be inspired by the compelling charm of this vision of universal semiosis. Hölderlin famously writes “Ein Zeichen sind wir” (we are a sign) in harmony with Novalis’ thoughts on the hieroglyphs of The Book of Nature, a metaphor that itself originates in the Latin Middle Ages and that Bringhurst himself affirms in his talk “The Voice in the Mirror” collected in The Tree of Meaning (2008): “The original book is, of course, the world itself” (132). However imaginatively appealing and prima facie ecologically sane this positing of nature as a book, the inflation of the linguistic that underwrites it also conflates certain conceptual distinctions whose erasure is fateful. Among others, what is lost is the genus-species distinction between understanding in general and understanding language. Whenever I perceive something as something, I understand, I interpret, as would happen whenever I “read” an ecosystem or “the tracks and scats of animals”. However, specifically linguistic understanding necessarily involves an address, a conversation. What happens when I take a non-linguistic (albeit interpretable) phenomenon as a linguistic address? I must posit a speaker, an interlocutor. In the world order that originally imagined the Book of Nature, that speaker or writer is God. But who, in the absence of God, writes what is “chemically written into our genes” for instance? The metaphor of the genetic code was criticized at the moment of its inception precisely on these grounds, that it was an inappropriate application of linguistic or information theoretical concepts. Lily E. Kay sums up these criticisms nicely in her Who Wrote the Book of Life? (2000):

Information theorists, cryptologists, linguists, and life scientists criticized the difficulties (some would say inappropriateness) of these borrowings in molecular biology, arguing that the genome’s information content cannot be assessed since the key parameters (e.g., signal, noise, message channel) cannot be properly quantified. DNA is not a natural language: it lacks phonemic features, semantics, punctuation marks, and intersymbol restrictions. So unlike any language, “letter” frequency analyses of amino acids yield only random statistical distributions. Furthermore, no natural language consists solely of three-letter words. Finally, if it were purely a formal language, then it would possess syntax only but no semantics. Thus the informational representations of the genome do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. (2)

However much “reading” natural phenomena does “not stand up to rigorous scrutiny,” it enables a grasp of what is read that empowers the reader, as present-day genetic technology undeniably demonstrates. Attributing a message or intentionality to non-linguistic, spontaneous things is an extension of the Platonic metaphysics that conceived of all things as if they were products made according to a plan or Form. This productionist metaphysics is the first chapter of the story that leads to our present technological society. The presupposition that Nature possesses a plan, whether written out in hieroglyphs or mathematics, enables us to articulate that plan and thereby order Nature to our own ends. The disastrous consequences of this instrumentalization of Nature are too-well known. Even and especially those “hunter-gatherers, who study the great book day after day, night after night (Tree, 132) do so for the sake of their own survival and flourishing, to bring the natural world under enough of their own control so they may, at least, feed themselves. The contemporary, ecologically-motivated desire to transcend the Adamic monologue that imperiously names natural things, to imagine instead what it would mean to hear, understand, and converse with Nature, gets caught up in a dialectic that reveals the character such well-intentioned listening shares with the worst excesses of scientific-technological interrogation and literally murderous exploitation.

In the preceding, I have tried to come to terms with Bringhurst’s impressive oeuvre from a “dialectical” perspective, registering only a very few of its undeniable accomplishments while simultaneously probing what I perceive to be some of their inescapable limitations. Admittedly, I have proceeded at neither the length nor detail the work calls for. Nor has the approach been sufficiently immanent, applying standards that might arguably find their orientation outside Bringhurst’s own. But what I do want to argue, finally, is for the pertinence and profound challenge of the work, one that calls upon lay readers, poets, thinkers, and scholars—citizens of the earth, all—to enter into all that Bringhurst lays before us, to take up the challenges of the work and to at the same time challenge it for the sake of those values it has sought to speak to and at best sing.

 

Works Cited
Bringhurst, Robert. A Story Sharp as a Knife. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
The Solid Form of Language. Kentville: Gaspereau, 2004.
The Tree of Meaning. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008.
Selected Poems. Kentville: Gaspereau, 2009.
Kay, Lily. Who Wrote the Book of Life? Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Rothenberg, Jerome. Technicians of the Sacred. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

 

An irritable gloss on the nearly Baroque

I’d been eavesdropping on the recent kerfuffle around Stephen Burt’s “Nearly Baroque” mainly via the Montevidayo blog and had been provoked to compose a far-reaching, involved, learned response, but then I read the definition that opens Burt’s essay:

The twenty-first-century poets of the nearly Baroque want art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first. It is art that cannot be reduced to its own explanation, that shows off its material textures, its artificiality, its descent from prior art, its location in history. These poets want an art that can always give, or could always show, more.

That “art that puts excess, invention, and ornament first” is the point of contention engaged at Montevidayo, not impertinently. But the points that follow strike me as stale and suffocating (an impression that could be articulated and defended at tiresome length).

First, no poem, no matter how close to pedestrian speech, no matter how prosaic, no matter how close to “writing degree zero” it may be is ever reducible “to its own explanation”: no discourse is even reducible to its own repetition, since no word let alone any utterance is ever reducible to a single meaning.

The concerns over the fore- or backgrounding of material texture, artificiality, descent from prior art, or location in history are much more complex and interesting and would lend themselves to lengthy excursus were I tempted to be more self-indulgent and less respectful of my reader’s learning and patience. Briefly, all poems possess a graphic or phonic dimension, an artificiality (being an artefact), a relation to if not descent from prior art (poetry or otherwise), and relation to a given constellation of historical conditions, the visibility of which is dependent on the perceiver’s sensibilities. The poem by itself cannot flaunt or foreground any of its possible aesthetic dimensions because their perceptibility is itself contingent. (This play of presence and absence and its historical contingency became the principle of late Formalist literary history, as in the work of Mukarovsky.)

At work here is a reified opposition variously expressed by pairs such as work/text, symbolic/semiotic, word/world, absorptive/antiabsorptive, readership/thinkership, etc, which are all arguably subsumable under the opposition between the Classic and Mannered (an opposition not itself undeconstructable…)—but that was the topic of the aforementioned long-winded response I here eschew for the sake of the sanity of all concerned.

In brief, every poem always gives more and can be made to show more because of the very nature of the poem as a linguistic artefact. As an example I offer a brief study of the sonic qualities of a most non-Baroque poem, here.

Carmina non grata & divination

What prompts this post is a long-simmering irritation brought to a boil that prompts me to splash the following scalding aspersions on the naked Emperors and Empresses who preside as comptrollers of the means of literary (re)production.

What dialed up the heat was actually the lucky and all-too-rare chance of having been provided some insight into the responses of a publisher’s editorial board to a manuscript I submitted and that in the end it chose to refuse. Just to be clear that the spleen I’m venting here isn’t a dyspeptic symptom brought on by chewing on a bunch of bitterly sour grapes, I hold absolutely no resentment against the editors:  they’re liking or disliking the manuscript, their electing to accept or reject it is their prerogative and theirs alone. Rather, this occasion provides me with the opportunity to call out and call up a dogmatic, blinkered, squinting aesthetic that strikes me as being at odds with (in this case) the editors’ presiding over a press explicitly devoted to what today gets called innovative poetry, an attitude, if not universal, then met with more often than not, among members of the self-styled avant-garde. I find myself, therefore, weirdly, in the position of too many other “innovative” artists, who have had to don the pedagogue’s mortarboard and undertake to educate their potential audience. Happily, a quick survey reveals my fellow faculty members include William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and John Cage, among many, many others, living and dead.

The manuscript in question was composed of two texts, Swim or Sear and Seventh Column, samples of the first being readable here. In Summer 2001, a friend made me a gift of an anarchic text,  FEHHLEHHE (Magyar Műhely, 2001) by the Hungarian musician, archivist, editor, writer, and cultural worker Zsolt Sőrés. FEHHLEHHE deploys a wide, wild range of linguistic disruption: disjunctive syntax, polyglottism, collage, sampling, homophony, and a delirious lexicon of portmanteau words, among other means. I began writing what eventually became Swim or Sear in an attempt to engage Sőrés’ text in kind, wrighting an English that would imaginably answer his Hungarian, what Erin Moure might term a gesture of echolation.

I am told the board found, essentially, that these texts repulsed more than invited the reader. Serendipitously, earning, as I do, my bread as an English instructor at a Quebec Cegep, tomorrow I am teaching a class on structuralism; our text is the most basic and introductory, Raman Selden’s Practicing Theory and Reading Literature, and what do I read on page 50?

…throughout literary history … writers have produced works which have been regarded as nonsense by readers unfamiliar with the developed reading practices demanded by innovative texts. However, the assumption remains that all literary works should be readable in principle, and that, if a work resists the reader’s efforts to make sense of it, the writer is at fault. A more sophisticated response to this problem is to say that the readers have to be patient with innovative writings and try to discover the mode of reading which the texts demand.

Now, I’d hazard a guess that my imagined interlocutors are familiar with the more canonical engagements with the hermeneutic challenges posed by the modernist or innovative work, Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language, Roland Barthes’ “From Work to Text,” The Pleasure of the Text, or S/Z, or even Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption” or Steve McCaffrey’s “Diminished Reference and the Model Reader” among many other possibilities. All these works might be said to argue that those works that resist “the reader’s efforts to make sense of” them do so, paradoxically, as a way to invite or require the reader’s active participation in the production of sense rather than a passive reception along lines so well-known as to be subliminal or reflexive. What is required of the reader is what the German Romantic philosopher and theologian Schleiermacher called (in English translation) “divination,” that positing of meaning that is a kind of educated guess or salto mortale, precisely the playful risk the infant takes to learn its mother tongue or that conversation partners take constantly in the fluid, open-ended back-and-forth of their dialogue.

But, in all seriousness, how could anyone oriented in the tradition of literary innovation be stumped by the compositional gestures of Swim or Sear? Admittedly, the waters of the text are choppy, moving between crests of writerly opacity and troughs of readerly transparency. Compositional attention varies in focus, from the word to the sentence to the passage, these units joined along a paratactic vector, arguably an archaic mode of composition (c.f. many examples in Jerome Rothenberg’s assemblage Technicians of the Sacred). In other words, the reader is asked to “swim in language” (c.f. the imperative in the text’s title) as Kerouac so famously advised the writer of spontaneous prose to do, an image played on, often, metapoetically, throughout Swim or Sear. Does the reader get out of breath, fear drowning? A distorted echo of Beethoven answers this anxiety:  “You think I care about your lousy hermeneutic when the language is speaking to me?!” But Swim or Sear is no mere paddling on the surface of textual semiosis, but, like the sea or ocean constantly evoked, it possesses a depth—of reference, to both a personal and world history, overflowing the word into the world in a gambit to overwhelm the necessary but too-often perversely scrupulous vigilance of language characteristic of much innovative poetry of the past four decades for the sake of a poetry that without a loss of reflection comes to grip with, for lack of a better word, life, the dizzying maelstrom of experience where there is no bottom to plant our feet, where “All answers will be questioned…”.

That a reader might not find this writing to his or her taste is understandable and allowed for:  perhaps the reflexive acceptance or rejection of a piece of writing based in the first instance on taste is a reflex the very compositional gestures of the text might imaginably challenge. But that a text should be rejected by “the present knowers” because it indulges, explores, retools, and complicates, if not exceeds and escapes, precisely the compositional means developed since the early, heady days of literary Modernism (among others), means whose end is to challenge,  and demand the collaborative labour of, the reader out of  social, political, and, yes, even aesthetic concerns is, frankly, jaw-dropping.

Everything you already know about poetry

A Canadian poet, whose disdain for Slam Poetry and Spoken Word is well-known, recently posted this clip on his blog under the title “‘Slam Poetry’ explained”:

Regardless whether you agree or disagree with the “pointlessness” of Slam Poetry, the clip does express a truth, but one more general, I think, than what the blogger or the clip’s writers had in mind. For what, exactly, is the clip mocking? One way of putting it would be that Spoken Word is a generic manner, one so stereotypical it is of no more importance to what is said than an accent.

However, it doesn’t take too much familiarity with contemporary poetry to realize that the same holds true for wide swaths of every school of poetic composition, whether “Official Verse Culture”, the present-day institutionalized Avant Garde, Neoformalism, or what have you. Indeed, it is precisely these characteristic, generic mannerisms around which their respective appreciative readers, reviewers, editors, publishers, and practitioners hover.

The problem is not any one empty manner but schematized production—and consumption—as such, whether of poems or Big Macs. What is rightly slammed in the clip is the vapidity cultured by the need to ingratiate oneself or one’s product, cultural or otherwise.

Maybe that’s why I HATE POETRY.

Twin Takes on Twin Takes on Canada’s Poetic Renaissance

My post on Russell Smith’s article on recent Canadian poetry seems to have a struck a nerve with Michael Lista (see his comment on the original post) and Carmine Starnino, whose remarks can be read here. I leave it to discerning readers to come to their own conclusions.

Twin Takes on Canada’s Poetic Renaissance

I’m the first to agree with Rilke, that “Rühmen, das ist’s!” (roughly, “To Praise—that’s the thing!”), but, sometimes, praise isn’t what it seems prima facie, and that is surely the case with Russell Smith’s article on recent poetry in Canada, a thinly-veiled plug for Carmine Starnino’s forthcoming volume of criticism, wherein he lauds Starnino and The Walrus poetry editor Michael Lista for their “tough-minded” editorial and critical efforts, which, Smith maintains, have helped to culture an “unlikely renaissance”. Aside from its disingenuousness, Smith’s article deploys a questionable rhetoric and a squintingly narrow view of contemporary poetry.

First, Smith eulogizes Lista and Starnino for being “tough-minded” and “stern”; The Walrus “bravely publishes poems” under the aegis of “the truculent Michael Lista”; and Starnino, in his role as a “combative tastemaker”, has helped “purge” Canadian poetry of “a certain kind of weepy folksiness” Smith blames on the baleful influence of Al Purdy. One’s unsure whether Smith is writing about editor-critics, austerity hawk finance ministers, or Jean Charest in his late showdown with Quebec’s students. In any case, such Iron Lady bluster is as tiresome as it is empty.

Even more offputting and regressive than the right wing speechifying that echoes through Smith’s prose is the swaggering machismo of his rhetoric. Just a century ago the same words were invoked to banish the effeminate, dreamy sentimentality of Romanticism. The Modernist critics demanded forceful, hard, virile poetry in a bellicose criticism whose apotheosis was their recruiting the expression “avant-garde.” One would have hoped that after the intervening history such displays of cocky braggadocio would be too ridiculous to be indulged.

Ironically, where Modernist criticism might claim salutary effects, the “dense and intellectual”, “difficult”, “highbrow” poetry Smith praises Lista and Starnino for having whipped into shape is merely, in Smith’s own words, “narrow and exclusive”. He mistakes surface gloss for sophistication. How seriously can we take Smith’s judgement when, as his example of “playful, amusing, dazzling, or simply exasperating” poetry, he quotes the rather grammatically straight-forward lines “We leap magpie flat-footed, shriek obsidian / disbelief tidings”? Smith does, it would seem, as he himself admits, “think in a frustratingly direct manner”.

The poetry Smith is so dazzled by is merely the latest version of what August Kleinzahler has dubbed “Nobelese” (an oblique contextualization of which can be read here), a poetry that springs, ultimately, from T. S. Eliot’s canonization of the Metaphysicals and the New Criticism’s consequent lionizing of “texture” and “complexity”. Anyone with the patience to scrutinize the kind of “tough-mindedness” Smith lauds will quickly find it  little more than a latter day version of the “narrow and exclusive” crotchetiness of F. R. Leavis.

How refreshing, then, to read another recent article by poet Matthew Tierney whose purpose, like Smith’s, is to share his excitement about the “fierce mojo” his contemporaries are working. Despite the ironically humble persona he adopts, the catholicity of  Tierney’s list of poets who make his “head spin” reveals him to be one of those “poets, it seems, who committed themselves early, read widely, and got down to it”. The sixteen poets he names (including Michael Lista) are mindbogglingly various, writing inventively from and out of (i.e. away from) every school of composition I know of that’s active in  North American English-language poetry, let alone Canadian.

Where Lista and Starnino, at least according to Smith, are “tough”, “stern”, and “combative”, Tierney proves himself flexible, charitable, and gregarious, qualities of mind not without their precedent praise. As one hero of American postmodern poetry and poetics, John Adams, put it:  “The Mind must be loose.” The looseness of mind Tierney exemplifies, the kind of mind I would promote, is not “narrow and exclusive”, but open to the chance community of vital makers it finds itself thrown among, quick to perceive and respect each their characteristic virtues and curious to understand and appreciate them.

Novalis, a poet/critic/thinker who worked his own “fierce mojo”, writing about the “narrow and exclusive” critics of his own day, put it well:

Reviewers are literary policemen. Doctors are policemen also. Hence there ought to be critical journals which treat authors with medical and surgical methods, and not merely find out the ailment and announce it with malicious pleasure. Methods of healing up to now have been barbaric for the most part.

A genuine police force is not merely defensive and polemical toward whatever evil exists—but it seeks to improve the sickly disposition.

—Miscellaneous Fragments, 113 (trans. Margaret Mahony Stoljar); German original here 

Notice: Norman Nawrocki’s Nightcap for Nihilists

One discouraging struggle of the writing life is getting one’s work noticed. One obstacle is that many of those who do engage in literary journalism hardly have the time for their own lives and writing, never mind wrighting a solid, sensitive review. Those with the time and energy to write intelligent criticism, something else again, have my undying respect. But, what one can do with relatively little effort is give notice of work that has appeared, like recommending a good movie to a friend, getting the word out just to share the pleasure.

Norman Nawrocki has just published Nightcap for Nihilists (Les Pages Noirs, 2012), the fourth volume in his Brain Food series that includes Breakfast for Anarchists (2007), Lunch for Insurgents (2009), and Dinner for Dissidents (2009).  This latest volume and series are just the latest addition to a very long, impressively engaged body of work that includes cabaret, spoken word, musical collaboration, theatre, and even sex education!—just check out his biography. Like the man, the work is on the front line of the struggle for social justice:  rants, anecdotes, parables, and songs, all in that long tradition of imaginative, creative, eloquent engaged art that aspires to cheer the downtrodden and horrify despots.

Here’s his contribution to a recent memorial reading held for the late Andy Suknaski:  “Homestead, 1914 (SEC. 32. TP4, RGE2, W3RD, SASK.) 1. returning”

On ‘criticism’ and ‘polemic’

I wasn’t going to comment. I don’t have the time (too busy keeping my head above the term’s end grading tsunami), and I don’t want to tempt the trolls out from under their bridges. And I know despite my most strenuous attempts at clarity I’m going to be maliciously or innocently misunderstood or dismissed. So I’m just going to speak my peace and leave it at that, for now.

The Véhicule Press blog posted an excerpt from Michael Lista’s recent review of Tim Lilburn’s most recent book of poetry (all necessary, contextualizing links can be found on/at the original post). Even the charitable reader at this point has already discerned the proportions of this controversy’s teacup. Now, my point is neither to agree or disagree with Lista nor to damn or defend Lilburn’s book. Rather, I want to take exception to Starnino’s contention that Lista’s review rises from literary journalism to the level of criticism.

I imagine Starnino so approves of Lista’s review because it is articulate, high-spirited, and, most importantly, evaluatively  polemical. That the literary values that underwrite the review are those shared by Starnino likely also plays a role in his recommendation. But the point here is not what aesthetic values one holds, but what should count as criticism.

What is lacking in Lista’s polemic is what would make it criticism, namely an autocritical moment. An illuminating literary criticism would—should, to my mind—always relativize itself, openly acknowledging the aesthetic grounds from which it makes its judgements and, as importantly, articulating the aesthetic grounds that orient the practice that it would evaluate. Anyone who understands me will also see, I think, that the kind of discourse I characterize here is inconsistent, shall we say, with the agonistic, but ultimately futile, kind of literary journalistic debate that so exhilarates a certain kind of critic, futile because it only ever sharpens divisions (not, necessarily, an exercise without value) but, worse, congeals and hardens positions, instead of opening them up to the inescapable limitations of their respective perspectives and, most importantly, expanding and quickening literary awareness. Said fault is shared by every camp I know, classicist, mainstream, or avant-garde.

But what I—and I will speak only for myself here—find tiresomely irritating about the passage Starnino quotes from Lista is how Lista’s literary aesthetics is, arguably, snugly (if not smugly) ensconced somewhere in the middle of the Eighteenth century. He would seem to argue against Lilburn that poetry is representational, “anthropomorphizing nature by transubstantiating it into the most human elements—language and metaphor” as he puts it. Well,—and here I write for “the present knowers”—such a  philosophically ignorant thesis can only make me shake my head and shudder at the length of the bibliography of suggested, or, in Starnino’s words, “required” reading needed to bring Lista and those of like opinion into even the early Nineteenth century…