Archive for the ‘poetry reviews’ Tag

A Sideways Glance at Don McKay’s Angular Unconformity

Mark Dickinson’s Canadian Primal:  Poets, Places, and the Music of Meaning, a groundbreaking study of the lives and work of Dennis Lee, Don McKay, Robert Bringhurst, Jan Zwicky, and Tim Lilburn has been open in my hands since landing there only a few days ago. Having just finished the chapter on Don McKay, I’m reminded I wrote a short notice of McKay’s collected poems angularwhen it appeared in 2014 for a very good website, now defunct. Because it is a sharp, short review, I share it here, now, so it might remain on record. (The curious can read a more sweeping essay on the oeuvre of Robert Bringhurst, here).


“Hard to say this awkwardly / enough”:  a review of Don McKay’s Angular Unconformity Collected Poems 1970-2014


Angular Unconformity is hardly amenable to a short review, collecting as it does ten volumes of poetry, supplemented by a sheaf of new work, more than 500 pages, a lifetime of poetic production. Moreover, any reader acquainted with contemporary Canadian anglophone poetry can’t be unacquainted with Don McKay, a two-time winner of the Governor General’s award for Night Field (1991) and Another Gravity (2000) and the Griffin Poetry Prize for Strike/Slip (2006). He is accordingly admired and targeted for these accomplishments and for his influence as an editor and teacher.

Nevertheless, one can characterize the stylistic development of McKay’s poetry with relative ease. The poetics of the first two volumes collected here, Long Sault (1975) and Lependu (1978), are influenced not so much by Purdy or Ted Hughes (as one critic would mysteriously have it) but by the New American Poetry, specifically Olson’s Projective Verse and The Maximus Poems or William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, especially where Long Sault becomes personified in (at least) the book’s fourth section. Lependu torques up the conceit of place and person, in this case London, Ontario and Lependu, in a more focussed, dense, and documentary fashion, but one that is self-aware enough to play fast and loose with its sources for its own artistic ends.

However, with Birding, or desire (1983) McKay finds his groove. In the book’s opening poem “Field Marks” (93) one finds what might be a description of much of McKay’s work from this point on: “…a bird book full of / lavish illustrations with a text of metaphor” (7-8). While in “Adagio for a Fallen Sparrow” (125) in the same volume the poet points to his “shelf / with Keats and Shelley and The Birds of Canada” (21-22). In these lines McKay presciently parodies the reputation this and following volumes will earn him, that of the Nature (i.e. Romantic) poet whose main thematic vehicle is Canada’s birds. Like any parody, however, this one possesses a perverse truth, for a primary objective of McKay’s poetry is one shared with Novalis and Wordsworth, to render the familiar strange, to percieve the things of the world as if for the first time. As McKay writes in the essay “Baler Twine” from Vis à Vis (2001):  “in such defamiliarization…we encounter the momentary circumvention of the mind’s categories to glimpse some thing’s autonomy—its rawness, its duende, its alien being” (21). This “circumvention of the mind’s categories” is simultaneously an eschewal of the mind’s drive to dominate via knowing, a refusal of what McKay terms, following Levinas, “the primordial grasp” in favour of a “poetic attention” wherein the poem reaches for “things sensuously through the caress” (23).

The poems caress their objects with two hands:  on the one, a fluctuation of lexicon and tone, while, on the other, a protean metaphorization. The poems mix so-called High and Low culture, “lascivious as Beardsley, sweet as Shirley Temple”, the vernacular and the discourses of geology, philosophy, and (of course) ornithology, English and French, gravity and humour. McKay’s artistic drive to refresh perception by means of poetic redescription shares something with the “rosy-fingered dawn.” But his style differs from epic simile or Metaphysical conceit or even that more recent predilection for what John Crowe Ransom termed “texture” (theme developed by a consistent pattern of trope and scheme). McKay’s metaphors are more impulsive and local, often working strictly within the context of the line more than the stanza or entire poem. A map in The Muskwa Assemblage (2008) is “skewed to the diagonal….as though some formerly symmetrical design had been invaded by irresistable divinity, some Dionysus headed northwest”; the reader of the map “might have been a crime scene investigator”, the geograpy variegated “[a]s though deep form, like a medicine dream, were forcing its way up from the mantle” (480).

Readers, then, must negotiate a constantly changing linguistic landscape bent on “the circumvention of the mind’s categories”. These demands aren’t the product of a high-handed virtuousity but the humility that underwrites McKay’s species of “poetic attention” whose restless articulations stammer to admit it’s all too “[h]ard to say this awkwardly / enough” (“February Willows” 3-4, in Sanding Down this Rocking Chair on a Windy Night (1987), p. 191). McKay’s art works against a certain eloquence, against consistency, knowledge, mastery. The first two books possess more a vector of compositional means than the focussed, polished exploitation of a given set of techniques. The constant shifts in vocabulary, tone, and trope, the bad jokes, all serve to puncture the authority of the poet who must work both with and against his poetic fate, inheritor of the Romantic prophetic or vatic mode that humbles itself to take up a poetry of attention anxious to exploit every linguistic resource not for the sake of Art but perception.

Reflections on James Dunnigan’s ‘The Stained Glass Sequence’

I had the chance recently to discuss how James Dunnigan’s The Stained Glass Sequence sequence-thumbjust out from Frog Hollow Press might be received. It’s a weird poem in the context of present-day English-language poetry, with gestures and stances more reminiscent of High Modernism, intricate and allusive, than anything you might read on a visit to, say, the Poetry website….

It was the refractory complexities of just the suite’s title that made me think “How someone who reads poetry can review it is just beyond me….” which I posted on social media, which, in turn, received (among others) a telling reply:  “It is a form of reading, at best.”

Taken by itself (the thread did wind on…), this response can be taken to be representative in several ways. First, it assumes the spontaneous authority of the vulgar usage of the verb ‘to read’, an authority that in certain regards is beyond reproach but which is also constantly in danger of asymptoting to the thoughtless. More significantly it enacts precisely what my original post found problematic, since it seems either to refuse or fail to register the stress on ‘reads‘ indicated by the italics (to suggest the word twists in some way from the ordinary sense) and the claim made in the predicate (which further torques the notion of reading from its accepted sense); that is, it doesn’t read or try to understand the original post, seeming more concerned to leave everything the way it is, its complacency disturbed just enough to defend the status quo and defer reflection.

In the same way, many readers will no doubt pass over the implications of the title. If there’s one dogged misperception that has persisted since the late Eighteenth Century it’s the Baconian idea that the word is or should function as a transparent medium, a window onto the world, a notion the title troubles doubly, for stained, unlike transparent, glass, though translucent, colours what might be viewed through it, and, more importantly, its pieces are a medium to compose a design or picture the window frames rather than a view through it. To borrow a two centuries’ old terminology, the title suggests the sequence’s language not so much represents but presents. Any reading, let alone evaluation, of the sequence that fails to assiduously and consistently treat the language as refractory rather than transparent will fail to appreciate it in the first place.

Of course, such reflexivity, a gesture that goes back to Homer, is only a start to the title’s formal sophistication. Its grammar, likewise, throws light on the poem: it is composed of a substantive (‘sequence’) preceded by three modifiers (‘The Stained Glass’…). If one considers the middle two words in themselves, in the etymology that roots their adjectival function, they, too, possess the same syntax, a substantive ‘glass’ modified by ‘stained’. This is to say, the syntax of the title, in a way, is nested, or, better, framed, the way the implications of the title arguably frame, or should, the reception of the poem.

And reading the sequence, the attentive reader will remark how little stained glass or stained-glass windows actually appear in the poem. The sequence opens ekphrastically, describing a painting by Chagall, stained glass is mentioned as such in the second part, the fourth section is in four “panels”, and Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel are remarked in the fifth. That the poem makes far more consistent reference to painting than stained glass suggests all the more the formal reflexivity of the title than its naming “an important theme” that the sequence takes up and develops.

A careful, thoughtful reader may well mark, too, another complication. The title is, in a way, paradoxical, modifying a temporal noun (‘sequence’, a pattern than unfolds linearly in time) with a spatial modifier (‘stained glass’, a translucent medium that either colours light or is itself used in the composition of a design or picture, a work of art perceived spatially). There is then a tension, as the sequence is, perhaps, a series of spaces arranged in time, though the title names the sequence as a sequence, as a temporal form, as language itself is.

Any reading of Dunnigan’s book that fails to read (in the most emphatic sense) even the title will likewise falter in understanding the sequence the title frames and thereby governs. And if so much is at work even before the first word of the poem is read, let alone on every line, if this reader is a reviewer, how little weight will their judgement carry if they fail to register these first—preliminary, guiding, essential—aspects of the poem?

Two (more) solitudes

Anyone acquainted with English-language Canadian poetry will know that it’s divided into a variety of mutually uncomprehending schools, a staid-of-affairs most recently borne out in a discussion thread concerning a recent review of Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the the Present in the National Post.

The thread’s originator first took up three strands, more-or-less:  the review is “jargon crusted”, often nonsensical and stylistically repulsive. The review, however, employs little jargon: “identity formation,” “deixis,” and “deictic shifters” are the only offenders, and the last two are explained, if a little clumsily; the accusation of nonsense, meanwhile, was quickly downgraded to the charge that the review’s style would fail to excite the “intelligent yet non-specialist reader” to rush out and buy the book.

What strikes me as more curious though is what the review’s “style” indicates about the reception of avant-garde poetry. As one acute interlocutor observed “a poem whose second line is ‘You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol’ might be asking for this sort of review,” a remark that might be taken to mean that “experimental” poetry demands a particular response, in this case, one couched in the discourse developed over the past century precisely in answer to new art forms for which no existing critical vocabulary seemed fit. Indeed, ‘shifter’ is a most appropriate term in this respect, introduced by Otto Jespersen in 1923, taken up by Roman Jakobson in 1956 and, most tellingly, by Emile Benveniste, a linguist whose work deeply informs Robertson’s.

In one respect, then, the review might be said to possess a pedagogical purpose, attempting to orient the “ordinary reader” to be better able to approach a work that might otherwise seem outlandish and perplexing. Regardless of its purpose, however, the review’s “content” and “form” should be less disconcerting than its spontaneously possessing a ready fluency to articulate and appreciate an “experimental” work. How “experimental” can a work be, after all, when it is composed and readily appreciated within an already existing set of institutional, artistic-critical conventions? It would seem “experimental” only to those offended by there being more things in the heaven and earth of poetry than they read in their English classes. The review and discussion thread, then, are less indices of the alienation of the “specialist” from the “non-specialist” than of the fractious relativity of two equally well-established schools.

A number of curious implications unfold from this reconfiguration of the issue. Those defenders of the “intelligent yet non-specialist reader” come to appear disingenuous:  the criticism of poetry, already a very specific concern, is never merely a matter of intelligence, Eliot’s famous dictum notwithstanding, but is inescapably rooted in education. As Paul de Man observed (in his essay “The Resistance to Theory”):  “even the most intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature [make] use of a minimal set of concepts (tone, organic form, allusion, tradition, historical situation, etc. ) of at least some general import.” To pretend that the understanding and appreciation of poetry is not enabled and cultured by a particular schooling hides the social specificity of the language(s) of criticism, which is to pretend the language of one group is that common to all, which is to assume a commonality whose universality is merely a repression of difference. The specialized, literary critical vocabulary that sticks out as it does, however, ironically gambles an initial, potentially-alienating difference in the hopes of cashing in on the winnings of a wider understanding, all for the sake of rendering the unfamiliar familiar.

Where it appears perverse to restrict poetry reviewing to a non-technical language (even when it is explained in “layman’s terms”), while terms such as “lipids,” “stem cells,” or even “molecule” for that matter can be found in the same newspaper as the review in question, it seems equally, ironically counterproductive to anaesthetize what is uniquely lively in a work. The criticism that restricts itself to recognizable formulae reinforces the illusion that all is already right with the world and that there is nothing new under the sun that would require an effort at cognition, as true for the resolutely plain-spoken journalist-critic as for the reviewer in question, for whom Robertson’s book can hold no surprises nor upend his critico-theoretical status quo, understanding the work as he does in advance thanks to the conceptual schemata that enable his understanding and appreciation in the first place.

Robertson’s—anyone’s—poetry is surely better served by a—dare I say—”dialectical” criticism, that introduces the work without interrupting the ensuing, hopefully unending and open-ended, conversation that is the life of art and of the mind.

from the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung 13 June 2013

from the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung 13 June 2013

When was the last time you read a review of a poetry READING in a Canadian newspaper? Well, they do it in Germany! Here, of George Slobodzian launching a German-language selection of his poetry in Heidelberg.

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…