Archive for the ‘Praise and Polemics’ Category

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…

Andy Suknaski, 30 July 1942 – 3 May 2012

I was very sad to learn today of the death of Andy Suknaski.

Suknaski was a profoundly important and influential—though not influential enough—poet of the Canadian prairies. His Wood Mountain Poems (1976, reprinted in 2006) is a Canlit classic;  Montage for an Interstellar Cry (1982) and Silk Trail (Nightwood, 1985) are vital extensions of the poetics of the long poem that engage the contemporary world and the story of Chinese immigration to Canada, respectively; his East of Myloona (Thistledown, 1979), among other works, gives voice to the inhabitants of Canada’s North. At present, the single most generous collection of his work is the new and selected poems edited by Stephen Scobie The Land They Gave Away (NeWest Press, 1982). Since most of his poetry, including his selected, is out of print, perhaps his passing will prompt Chaudiere Books to issue its long-awaited volume of selected poems.

So much one can gather from the various reference sites online, but I was lucky enough to have met the man. John Newlove, then patiently indulging and guiding my first, faltering poetic attempts in his role as the public library’s writer-in-residence, introduced us. I was young, younger than either of them guessed, still in high school, but Suknaski greeted me warmly in his small, cluttered Regina home one summer afternoon, offered me a coffee, and deepened my initiation into the art of poetry. The walls were covered in notes and artwork and ideograms that would compose, I guess, Montage or Silk Trail. All I can remember of that first conversation, besides his soft, respectful voice and pipe, was his asking which poets I was reading and, when I answered Pound, he remarked he’d read the Cantos three times. At that first meeting, he also learned my father’s mother-tongue was Hungarian, and from that time on, whenever we met over the years, he called me simply “Magyar”.

The last time I saw him must have been in 1989-90 when I was the administrative assistant for Grain in Regina. It was soon after, at the age of 49,   he dramatically quite Canlit, poetry and art. If any further poetry would come out of him, he said, it would come out only “as voice or to sing a song for friends around a campfire, or wedding, or a ranch party in Wood Mountain.”  And voice was the breath of his art, for Suknaski was the Projective poet par excellence, whose ear attended carefully “40 hours a day” to the talk around and whose intelligence showed in the dance of the syllables as they stepped down his pages measuring the syntagmata of what he called “normal human language” in all its infinitely various accents and cadences. But, unlike Olson’s Projective verse, that scores “the breathing of the man who writes,” Suknaski’s poems give voice not only to himself but much more, and at no small cost to himself, to those too many—Metis, immigrant farmers, Chinese coolies, and others—whose voices and very lives go unheard and unacknowledged. At this, he was and will remain an undisputed master.

photo:  University of Manitoba archives

Uh-oh-oh: my flirtation with OOO

My “learned” self, out of curiosity and for the sake of its intellectual life, always has one eye on what’s happening in poetry and theory. So Amazon’s recommendation algorithm piqued my interest when it proposed The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, an anthology of contemporary European thinkers, who “depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself.” It must have been via this recommendation I became acquainted with Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), a new philosophical movement (if not yet a school) marked by its being one of the first to come to the fore not via the traditional matrices of learned journals and conferences but on-line in what Graham Harman, who coined the movement’s name, calls the Blogopolis. Interested  but not having the time to conscientiously plunge into an immersion course in OOO I followed Harman’s lead and started to follow several blogs—Harman’s, Tim Morton’s, and Levi R. Bryant’s.

My first impressions were promising. I learned that Morton, who began his career as a scholar of British Romanticism, is the author of a widely-remarked work in ecopoetics (among others), a fan of Heidegger, and a man not unfamiliar with Buddhism in practice and theory. Harman, whose thought takes its initial impulse from Being and Time, is the author of several studies on Heidegger, both in general and more specifically. As arguably the first philosophical movement to develop its thought on-line, these thinkers have had to reflect on the writing process itself, culturing a spontaneity of formulation not dissimilar to that developed by poets with whom I am more familiar, such as William Carlos Williams, the Beats, and the Black Mountain poets (and not unimportant to my own practice, at times, as well). Finally, their work involves an explicit ecological dimension, attempting to formulate new, non-anthropocentric ways of conceiving relations and reality.

My enthusiasm began to cool, however, when Morton published  an excerpt from the conclusion of his latest book on his blog. I was troubled by Morton’s decentering the human being, grouping that “Heideggerian submarine of Da-sein” with those entities, those “objects” that “constitute all there is”, on the grounds that

[t]here is not much of a distinction between life and non-life (as there isn’t in contemporary life science). And there is not much of a distinction between intelligence and non-intelligence (as there is in contemporary artificial intelligence theory). A lot of these distinctions are made by humans, for humans (anthropocentrism).

If I understand him correctly, he is arguing against the grain of the most important insights of Being and Time, that distinguishes the being of the human being from that of all other beings and the ontological (that which explicitly raises the question of the meaning of ‘to be’) from the ontic (that which does not). It is hardly surprising that “contemporary life science” doesn’t make “much of a distinction between life and non-life” or that computer scientists and neuroscientists collapse intelligence and non-intelligence, since, in Heideggarian terms, these ontic sciences owe their  power to their presupposing that their objects are inanimate! How surprising is it that Western technoscientific culture is so lethal to other societies, organisms, and ecosystems when its worldview assumes Nature is neither living nor intelligent, that it is, as it were, dead?

One of the virtues of the early Heidegger, at least, is his project of the Destruktion of the history of ontology, the detailed, rigorous (one is tempted to write “phenomenological”) engagement with the history of Western philosophy with an eye to where, at crucial points, it has been guided by key ontological presuppositions, a project rightly renowned for Heidegger’s gift to engage the figures of the philosophical tradition as if each were a living interlocutor. When I read on Harman’s blog, then, that he agrees with Robrecht Vanderbeeken that the best way to deal with the “Berlin Wall” that stands between Anglo-American Analytic and Continental philosophy is “an agonistic pluralism” my misgivings deepened. First, anyone familiar with “Continental philosophy” will know that it is hardly a harmonious unity, because of a  long-standing mutual misunderstanding and enmity between French and German thought going back at least to the end of the Second World War. More seriously, though, even a philosophical amateur like myself is well-apprised that sincere and trenchant work has been underway for decades to articulate what these agonists—English-, French-, and German-speaking—must share in order to conflict in the first place. Here, I am thinking of the work of Dieter Henrich, Ernst Tugendhat, and especially Manfred Frank and Andrew Bowie, whose research and thought has explicitly traced the sparks that fly between the developed world’s philosophies, especially in terms of how the problems around meaning, history, and subjectivity are cast in an illuminating new light within the horizon of the epoch of their origin, i.e., the Enlightenment and its immediate critique in “Romanticism”.

It is very possible my misgivings are mistaken, based, as they are, on a perversely narrow sample of OOO thought. In my ideal library, there are shelves dedicated to the complete works of Morton, Harman, and their associates, where an avatar of mine is working diligently to register the fresh, strong, useful insights their work contains. However, as an old friend used to say when I encouraged him to look deeper into some matter not to his taste, “Life is short.” Perhaps a day will come when I, rather than my avatar, can attend more appreciatively to OOO, but, for now, my more mundane self is waiting with no little expectation for the latest additions to my Frühromantik library while taking notes on a future post on gene-tech and Poesie

Critical Paths: a meander through Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bp Nichol

[Another orphan piece, the following review was commissioned by Vallum but eventually turned down because it “stepped on” on Roy Miki’s editorial toes, however lightly, at least from a scholarly point of view. Devotees of Nichol, as I note in the review, may well take exception to my evaluation of his critical writings gathered in Meanwhile. Let me be clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Nichol’s wildly vast and varied corpus, he wrote my favourite episode of Fraggle Rock, and, when cloning technology has been perfected, I intend to subcontract a book that would study The Martryology as a key site of conflict between the so-called humanist and posthumanist tendencies in postmodern poetry!]

The more writing on poetry by poets one reads, the more likely one is, I think, to agree with Socrates, that they know not what they do. Regardless, poets review and assay each other’s work; many, especially in North America, earn their keep passing their craft on to apprentices; others teach literature or work in what one scholar has named  “poetheory”.  In Meanwhile, editor Roy Miki has collected and collated nearly five hundred pages of bp Nichol’s critical writings. Whatever the ultimate worth of Nichol’s criticism, Meanwhile as a book is a curiously incoherent volume to have issued from the hands of a professional scholar. Its content is arranged neither generically nor even according to Nichol’s own criteria, but chronologically, from 1966 to the poet’s untimely death at 44 in 1988. Whatever the virtues or vices of such a presentation, the editorial notes mysteriously reclassify this material as interviews, visual texts, and critical writing, per se, rendering the editorial apparatus needlessly, frustratingly labour-intensive. The interviews, likely like all interviews, will delight or frustrate according to how closely a reader’s curiosities match the interviewer’s. A more serious problem is that more than a quarter of the book’s nearly two-dozen “visual texts” appeared almost a decade before in Ondaatje’s and Bowering’s bp Nichol reader An H in the Heart. Given Nichol’s profligate creative output, one regrets the redundancy and wonders how the visual pieces were chosen: certainly not because Nichol refers to them in the rest of the book. At the very least, an index would have facilitated a more hypertextual reading experience. Nevertheless, overriding all these faults is that happy truth of every book that  Socrates, again, relates to Phaedrus: readers make of a book what they will.

Fortuitously, Nichol himself suggests how one might get into and get something out of Meanwhile. In 1978, reflecting over six years’ collaboration with the Canadian journal of writing and theory Open Letter Nichol observes

But what has crept up on and surprised me is my own desire to articulate for myself a way of replying to other writing that honours my awareness of it. By this i mean […] an articulation of a particular (to this writer) understanding (and i’ll take that literally as standing under or subservient to the text) which may offer a way in for others if they choose to take it. That free choice option as opposed to critical dogma strikes me as crucial. (189 – 190)

Regardless of exactly how one might subject oneself to a text in the first place, the humble, civil generosity Nichol writes he aspires to here orients his critical approach. In any case, writing that honours will be honoured, but how? In the same editorial, Nichol goes on to distinguish two aspects in another’s work that call for a response:  “My response to another writer’s work must deal not only with a response to the content of his or her words, but a response to their gestures as I see them writ large on the page with the form the pieces take” (190). A glance at the forms of gestures Meanwhile collects reveals an impressive array of critical genres:  letters, statements, notes, reviews, critical introductions, appreciations, studies, readings, panegyrics, performances, and academic papers, among others. Notwithstanding this variety, each gesture’s ready familiarity frames the content, focussing attention on what is said. Nichol, again, guides our reading: the earliest piece in the book is a letter written 3 May 1966 to Open Letter editor Frank Davey castigating him for closing his eyes to the validity of visual poetry. In the process of pointing out the blind spots in Davey’s view, Nichol writes that in “any criticism there are always key statements around which the whole thing pivots” (16).  A key pivot of Nichol’s critical writing is the notion of the open. Nichol desires to open up the poem by removing obstacles to understanding and appreciation by rendering such obstacles absent; alternatively, Nichol seeks to bring the poem’s materiality out into the open by revealing aspects normally overlooked, making them present.

The economy that determines which texts Nichol addresses is essentially hedonistic, i.e., he writes about what “honours” or excites him. Therefore, the traditional exegetical gestures of close reading and appreciation combine. Nichol’s detailed scrutiny of work by Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Dashiell Hammet, Kerouac, Proust, Birney, and especially Gertrude Stein (to whom three major pieces are devoted) exposes the workings of their writing down to the punctuation. A vivid example of this approach is Nichol’s lecture “When the Time Came” wherein he explicates the opening paragraphs of Stein’s Ida a sentence at a time, literally drawing the reader’s attention to the writing’s workings by means of arrows and underlinings. Nichol’s presentation juggles playfulness with willfulness, reading ‘Ida’ as ‘Id/e/a’ (why not, for example, as a feminization of Id?). This unruly leap shows Nichol’s practice is closer to that of Marshall McCluhan’s “probes” (which he explicitly praises in Meanwhile) than old New Critical  explication de texte. The tour de force of these by turns lucid and ludic exegeses is Nichol’s page by page reading of Shant Basmajian’s 1978 Quote Unquote, which, along with his appreciation of Earl Birney’s Solemn Doodles and explanations of seven of his own visual poems, opens concrete or visual textuality, closed to more doctrinaire, less exploratory sensibilities. Nichol’s refined attention to poetry’s material possibilities concretizes the art — and, too, how he reads, how he replies to, other writing.  Such exemplary considered and considerate reading grants Nichol’s praise for the work of Frank Davey, David McFadden, bill bisset, and Coach House Books a solid, persuasive sincerity.

This focussed attention to the letter is matched by an equally acute grasp of language as such. An early, brief manifesto “statement, november 1966”, begins

now that we have reached the point where people have finally come to see that language means communication and that communication does not just mean language, we have come up against the problem, the actual fact, of diversification, of finding as many exits as possible from the self (language / communication) in order to form as many entrances as possible for the other

and ends “i place myself there, with them, whoever they are, wherever they are, who seek to reach themselves and the other thru the poem by as many exits and entrances as possible” (18). Nichol seeks to open channels of poetic communication outside of whatever the poem might intend to “say”. To open “as many exits and entrances as possible” Nichol manipulates the artistic material under hand:  the appearance of the written language, the vocal sounds that underwrite speech, even the workings of the book. To communicate extra-linguistically  Nichol opens the borders between poetry, painting, music, and sculpture. The poem, then, unfolded and spread out, reveals otherwise unseen sides, which become means of expression and reception. As a note from the same time says:  “i come out of the poem in as many ways as possible to get back into the person in as many ways as possible. Concrete poetry, kinetic poetry, poem sculptures, poem / objects, ideopomes, journeys, postkon, sound poetry, traditional poems…” (23)

Nichol’s desire to communicate by every means possible comes not so much from a need to express — to say — something as to make something poet and reader or audience can hold in common. In a 1974 discussion with, among others,  Pierre Coupey, Nichol remarks:

The whole reason I got into concrete […] was that I thought I was being too arrogant, that I was sitting down and I was writing and I was coming to the situation obsessed that I had something to say per se: a very didactic purpose as opposed to simply giving myself up to the process of writing. And as a result, I was not learning from the language. And the fact is, the language is there before me. I’m born into the language community. The language has a history of its own. I have things I can learn, if I sit down and let myself play with it — which is more or less the motivation behind getting into concrete, getting into sound. (154)

This interrogation of an art form and its material is in step with the avant-garde assault on inherited art, its tacit conventions,  habits, reflexes, and other automatisms. In the same interview, Nichol agrees with Daphne Marlatt who, taking stream-of-consciousness as an example, observes that techniques once novel to the point of outrageous obscurity lose their paradoxical power to reveal by alienating, as they themselves become commonplace, clichéd, worn out: “by that time it’s become a habit of thought rather than a new perception” (154). To open our eyes and ears to all poetry is, Nichol refuses to write or speak, but paints and sings in language instead. For Nichol, “language is a tool” whose nature transcends our use: to reveal that nature, he must remove language’s utility, so what it is over and above its use to our blind will stands out stark naked. The entrances and exits into and out of the poem are the ways the poem’s opaque materiality comes out into the open. After all, you can open only a door that is closed.

The palpability of language increases acutely for Nichol with his introduction to poststructuralism in the early Seventies. At first, single terms and conceptual expressions, then a whole discourse inspired by the French Theory so parodied in North America comes to accent Nichol’s critical view, which eventually comes under the sway of the paranoid critical-theoretical doctrine of the Prison House of Language. Nichol invokes this hermeneutic of suspicion in 1975 when he asks “isn’t the operative premise that a man is shaped finally by the language he uses the categories his thinking gets trapped into whatever the level of language those categories operate on” and when he targets “bourgeois notions of language as commodity” (166 -167). In 1987, he explains it this way:

We live in the midst of language, surrounded by books, and, as a result, the nature of both has become transparent to us. We look thru the books to the content inside them. We learn to speed read so that the words too can be strip mined for their information. Thus are we made more ignorant. And painting, sculpture, dance, photography, etc. ALL the so-called Fine Arts, suffer, because we look but don’t see. Once the surface of the world, of its objects, inhabitants, etc. becomes transparent to us, it quickly becomes unimportant to us as well, and things that should register — political, social, ecological — don’t. (429)

Habit and reflex spontaneously close the mind to what is or could be, in part veiling the machinations of the ideology that preys on our automatism. That we stop talking when we consider our words shows that speech flows over a bed of reflexes, thus implicating language, if not spontaneity as such, in an unconscious slavery. Ironically, then, a grave political urgency charges Nichol’s work, often ungenerously dismissed as merely amusingly playful.

In the foregoing, I’ve tried to follow Nichol’s example in his appreciation of the poetry of David McFadden:  “in truth I’ve tried not to analyze […] but to deal with my responses […], what it is […] that keeps me excitedly rereading” (415). One constant response (particular to this writer) that Meanwhile excites is a melancholy over its belatedness and consequent superfluity. My reading was marked — and often marred — by my memory’s constant spontaneous glossing of nearly every passage with the antecedent, canonical expression of its ideas. Aristotle notes in his Rhetoric, for example, that the poet has to pierce the minds of a corrupted audience, and that it is through the devices of style that such an audience can be brought to hear. The “devices” referred to in Meanwhile — including concrete, sound, and performance poetry—are provisionally mapped in the first edition of Rothenberg’s 1968 gathering Technicians of the Sacred (as much a textbook as anthology, published by the University of California Press), which places avant-garde poetics within a global context whose orbit includes the Neolithic. The endless richness and plasticity of the poem’s materiality, and a fortiori that of the world, has not gone unnoticed by phenomenologists or unremarked, for example, by Blake:  “If the doors of perception were to open the world would appear as it is Infinite.” Even the strongest pieces — the close readings and appreciations — are a sorry index of literary culture in Canada, often not transcending the level of the schoolboy exercises of an Auerbach or Curtius in Gymnasium or a George Steiner in the Lycée. Nichol’s literary theory as such is a pandemonium of howlers. One could go on: suffice to say, Meanwhile is not for the overfed.

I can hear derisive hoots and denunciations from a thousand anti-Oedipal Deleuzians rooted on their respective plateaus, that no repetition is ever of the same; at least since Rimbaud, some poets have known they are inescapably absolutely modern. Nichol concurs when, in a 1979 interview with Ken Norris, he quips concerning  charges of unoriginality: “some reviewers have said, ‘Hey that was done in Berlin in 1921’; I look at it and say ‘Yeah, well I guess it was done in Berlin in 1921, but this was done in Canada in 1965 without knowing what was done in Berlin in 1921’” (238). Books can be read too early or too late, but, luckily, often books find readers ripe. If our ready reader were a young poet, he or she would benefit from the pieces touched on here: Nichol’s 1966 “statement”, his Open Letter editorial, his excurses on notating lyric and sound poetry and on the book as a unit of composition, his close readings and appreciations. Most pertinent for a young Canadian poet are Nichol’s introduction to The Last Blew Ointment Anthology Volume 2, his reminiscences and reflections of Coach House Press “Primary Days”, and his interview with Geoff Hancock. These all recount Nichol’s experiences in composing and culturing poetry in Canada, a story in which he played no minor part. Miki and Talonbooks have therefore performed a service for young poets and Canadian letters, contributing to the more main-stream, institutional publication of bp Nichol’s corpus, which has already issued his collaboration with Steve McCaffrey Rational Geomancy, Ondaatje’s and Bowering’s reader, and a selection of his drawings.

The publication of Nichol’s oeuvre is part of the process of his canonization, a process that is discovering Nichol’s work escapes a too-ready formulaic summation. Sharon Thesen reported in the penultimate number of Sulfur (44) on the battle over whether Nichol will be represented by his more approachable if more ambivalently humanistic and courageous long poem The Martyrology or his more challenging posthumanist avante-garde and as yet largely uncollected work. That Nichol’s corpus is capable of  inciting just such pointed debate (albeit at a scholarly conference on his writing) between the two major sides of Canadian English-language poetry reveals not only a fault line in our poetic culture, but that, like a coin, Nichol’s work, when flipped, shows neither monarch nor beaver, but spins on edge and rolls between the sides competing to win the toss. As Charles Olson, an early influence, put it: the poem is a high energy construct, designed to get the charge from where the writer got it all the way over to the reader. Forgetting like a good Nietzschean for a moment the Theory I’ve read: who can, plug in & turn on.

Elaine Equi’s Sound “Prescription”

(A blog, I guess, is a good spot to place homeless texts:  and what follows certainly qualifies. I queried Arc about submitting it there, but the editors never responded, twice; then I submitted it to rob mclennan’s Seventeen Seconds, which apparently rejected it by (silently) not including it in the latest on-line issue. The piece, a study of the sounds in a six-line poem by Elaine Equi, is perverse, very seriously so, which goes to explain, I guess, its reception…)

In a recent review of James Langer’s Gun Dogs (Globe and Mail, Thursday 18 June 2009) Carmine Starnino lauds Langer’s work for being “musically alert, with marvellous rhythmic and tonal variety” and the poet himself for his “knack for finding words that, placed together, crackle and pop.” Starnino goes on to lament where Langer overdoes it, citing Langer as an example of “what Newfoundland poet Patrick Warner calls ‘the School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants'”. That poets are paying attention to their vowels and consonants, and other matters of what Starnino refers to in the same review as “poetic form”, he credits to “a group of tyros who have made it impossible to talk about anything else”. Starnino’s somewhat self-congratulatory tone concerning how “poetic form has become a hot button issue” thanks to that “group of tyros” to which he himself no doubt belongs is what prompts me to join in that talk. To be fair, let me say at the outset that I am very consciously using Starnino’s and Warner’s remarks here as stalking horses (not, hopefully, as straw men) for my argument with a critical tendency that strikes me as being as narrow as it is vocal.

Patrick Warner introduces his School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants in a review of Steven Price’s Anatomy of Keys (Books in Canada, December 2006), wherein he identifies Ken Babstock, Carmine Starnino, Joe Denham, and Zach Wells as members, a class-list to which I would add Tim Bowling, among others. Warner writes that “[a]ll of these writers, at various times and to varying degrees, can be said to have fallen under the spell of Seamus Heaney”; equally all might be said to write in what August Kleinzahler has dubbed “Nobel-ese”, the mannerisms of, precisely, Heaney and, for example, Derek Walcott. Among various features that mark this kind of poetry—the feature I want to focus on here—is how it sounds. Starnino cites Langer’s “sandstone grit that girders the barrens” as an example of “sense-heightening description”, a phrase that exemplifies how Nobelese sounds, as well, with its near-Anglo-Saxon alliteration of s’s and g’s, and the n’s, t’s, and r’s that, as it were, girder the phrase’s music. In his review, Starnino praises such “formal sophistication.”

What would the like-minded make of Elaine Equi’s poem “Prescription” published in The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology?

Take Herrick

for melancholy

 

Niedecker

for clarity

 

O’Hara

for nerve

Here is a poem remarkably lacking in kennings, “sense-heightening descriptions”, overt metaphor, indeed, every mannerism of Nobelese. It is understated and wry, evoking the everyday context and instrumental language of the consulting room. Nor does it possess any of that sonority characteristic of the Englishes of a Heaney or Walcott. For all that, Equi’s poem is remarkably prosodically accomplished, all the more so for its limited means, a mere eight words. A reading of what and how the poem might mean, that would identify and develop the conceit that structures it, falls outside my concern here, which is merely the poem’s prosody, the discernible and demonstrable patterns of syllabic and phonemic elements, what is traditionally called schemes (figures of arrangement) as distinct from tropes (figures of replacement).

By prosody I mean “the articulation of the total sound of the poem” (Pound 421), a description, first, of the patterns of rhythm and rhyme, patterns of repetition at the level of the phoneme, the syllable, or even the word, line, or stanza, as these patterns occur throughout and structure and develop the poem. To facilitate my description, I have appended a transcription of the poem in the International Phonetic Alphabet. I have transcribed the poem as I hear it, following the conventions of pronunciation of Standard Canadian English. Other actualizations of the poem’s music are possible, including that of the poet herself, who resides in New York.

Equi’s poem exhibits a deft structure even before we attend to its sound. Lexically, of the eight words in the poem, only one is a finite verb, the imperative ‘take’, with six substantives (three proper and three common nouns), and the preposition ‘for’. The grammatical parallelism of the poem’s three prescriptive statements is reinforced by the poem’s versification: each statement is a couplet, each line of each couplet possessing a substantive according to a regular pattern, where the proper noun precedes the common, each on its own line. The parallelism is further reinforced by each second line’s beginning “for”. Nor should the function of the number three—three statements, three couplets, three proper and three common nouns, three instances of ‘for’—be overlooked as evidence of the poem’s rigorous if underplayed artifice.

Turning to the poem’s rhythm or metre, we note that the first line of each couplet is three (!) syllables and the second line of each decreases from five to four to two syllables. If we agree that the first lines of the first and last couplet are amphibrachic, i.e., of three syllables with the primary stress on the middle syllable, then one is tempted to hear in the relative weights of the syllables in ‘Niedecker’ a cretic rather than a dactyl, i.e., the middle of the name’s three syllables being unstressed balanced by two relatively stressed syllables, lending these three lines a metrical symmetry, i.e., a cretic bound by two amphibrachs. However debatable the rhythm of the couplets’ first lines (one might hear, for example, a dactyl framed by two palimbacchii), it seems more certain that each couplet’s second line invariably contains two stresses. The poem as whole, then, is rhythmically regular with stressed and unstressed syllables alternating on each line until the final spondee. From beginning to end, the metre becomes increasingly emphatic, with the ratio of stressed to unstressed syllables in the couplets’ second lines being two: three, two: two, and two: zero, respectively.

For such a short poem, “Prescription” is remarkably rich in syllables sharing (i.e., “rhyming”) one or more identical or similar phonemes. The second and fourth lines rhyme ‘melancholy’ and ‘clarity’, two words that share three phonemes over and above the end rhyme /li/ and /ti/, namely /ɛ/, /l/, and /k/ (melancholy, clarity), phonemes whose order is, moreover, reversed in each word. There are several internal rhymes, as well. ‘Herrick’, ‘clarity’, and ‘O’Hara’ all share the phonic cluster /ɛr/, with ‘Herrick’ and ‘O’Hara’ framing ‘clarity’, highlighted by the /h/ in each. The shared cluster /ɛr/ in these three words is echoed by the /ər/, an off-rhyme between ‘Niedecker‘ and ‘nerve’, which, in turn, share the initial phoneme /n/. Of the poem’s ten individual words, only one does not obviously rhyme with at least one other, ‘Take’, a word that, nevertheless, shares two of its three phonemes with at least one other word (/t/ with clarity and /k/ with Herrick, melancholy, Neidecker, and clarity) and whose vowel arguably off-rhymes with /ɛr/ in Herrick, clarity, and O’Hara, a trio linked also, with the pair ‘Niedecker’ and ‘nerve’, to the three instances of ‘for’ via the cluster /ɔr/, an off-rhyme with /ɛr/ and /әr/. In the progression from ‘take’ to ‘Herrick’, through ‘for’, ‘Niedecker’, ‘for’, ‘clarity’, ‘O’Hara’, ‘for’, and ‘nerve’ we might detect an instance of what Pound called “the tone leading of the vowels.” Such tonal virtuosity is underwritten by the poem’s phonic economy. Of twenty syllables, only one (/ow/ in ‘O‘Hara’) does not rhyme with at least one other phoneme in at least one other syllable; and of the remaining syllables, only one shares only one phoneme with only one other syllable, /dә/ in Niedecker, whose /ә/ rhymes with that in melancholy. All the remaining syllables share at least two phonemes with at least two other syllables.

The phonemes /f/, /n/, /r/, /ɛ/, and /ɔ/ are found in every couplet. The first two couplets share, in addition, the consonants /k/, /l/, /t/ and the vowels /i/, /ɪ/, and /ə/, i.e., in these first four lines, eleven of eighteen different phonemes  are repeated (or “rhyme”) at least once.  Strictly, of the whole poem’s total of nineteen different phonemes, seven are not repeated, /ei/ in ‘take’ (no orphan, either, as shown above), /m/ and /ɑ/ in ‘melancholy’, /d/ in ‘Niedecker’, /ow/ and /a/ in ‘O’Hara’, and /v/ in ‘nerve’ (arguably, however, a near-rhyme with its unvoiced labiodental other, /f/, in ‘for’). That is to say that the phonemes compose a densely complex pattern that at the same time constitutes a nearly subliminal euphony. One could trace the way these rhymes structure and develop the poem, relating its words, lines, and stanzas. Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that the remarkable phonic parsimony discernible at the level of the syllables extends to the phonemes, too, though I would wager that connoisseurs of the prosody of Nobelese would be unlikely to bother attending to music as self-effacing as that of “Prescription”.

Equi’s formal sophistication continues the efforts of English-language Modernist poets to clarify poetic discourse by eschewing precisely that Victorian sonority that persists in the accents of Nobelese. This effort is at its best underwritten by what Louis Zukofsky called the test for poetry, namely, the quality discernible in a poem’s sound, sense, and intellection (vii). In the addendum to canto C in Pound’s Cantos, an unidentified voice says “A pity that poets have used symbol and metaphor / and no man learned anything from them / for their speaking in figures” (ll. 34-36). One hears a not unrelated sentiment in William Carlos Williams’ call for “No ideas but in things!” (55) or the epigraph to Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1980 “Things are symbols of themselves!” This shift from the metaphorical to the metonymic at the level of the trope goes hand in hand with equal respect for the spontaneous genius of “the language really spoken,” its diction and its movement, a respect, ironically, with roots deep in nineteenth century philology and Romanticism, as anyone who recognizes the truncated quotation from Wordsworth will know (736). The notion is perhaps best expressed by Carlyle who exclaims “all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it:  not a parish in the world but has its parish accent; —the rhythm or tune to which the people there sing what they have to say!” (10). The primacy of music to language is attested by disciplines from developmental and evolutionary linguistics to philosophy. Whatever difference there is between discerning (and exploiting) the music in everyday speech and appreciating or composing the more artificial prosody of a poem, an ear for the former is more sensitive to finesses in the latter. Equi’s poem does not “crackle and pop”, sung, as it is, to a melody at once more cultured and subtle, rising, as if spontaneously, from the language as it is really spoken. An old handbook of poetics puts it best:  “Here lies the skill, the genius of the poet; and no rules can take the place of a poetic ear” (163).

Prescription”: transcription

teik   hɛrɪk       

fɔr mɛlənkɑli

 

niydəkər

fɔr klɛrɪti

 

owhɛra

fɔr nərv

Bibliography

Carlyle, Thomas. Of Great Men. New York:  Penguin, 1995.

Equi, Elaine, “Prescription” in The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology, ed. Michael Redhill. Toronto:  Anansi, 2008.

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980. New York:  Harper and Row, 1984.

Gummere, Francis. Handbook of Poetics. New York:  Ginn and Company, 1895.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot. New York:  New Directions, 1968.

The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York:  New Directions, 1970.

Starnino, Carmine. “A Spectacular Mouthful.” The Globe and Mail Daily Review, 18 June 2009. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/books/a-spectacular-mouthful/article1186921/.

Warner, Patrick. “Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants.” Books in Canada, December 2006.  http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=4653.

Williams, Williams Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume II. New York:  New Directions, 1991.

Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of Wordsworth. London:  Oxford University Press, 1951.

Zukofsky, Louis. A Test of Poetry. New York:  Jargon, 1964.