Archive for the ‘Praise and Polemics’ Category

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…

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