Collections of poetry criticism, dormant for a spell in Canada, have erupted in the past two years. Carmine Starnino’s Lazy Bastardism, James Pollock’s You Are Here (both reviewed on this site), and others I’ve yet to get to have provided context on, and assessment for, contemporary poets, as well as needed looking glasses into the hours-only shifting sands of poetics. Jason Guriel’s The Pigheaded Soul, published last year by The Porcupine’s Quill, is another compilation, a generous roll call of thirty poetry reviews, essays and retrospectives, journalistic “atmosphere” pieces on poetry readings, a memorial, a music review, a thematic review of two novels, a general review of poetry within prose, and a review of an essayistic compilation of poets opening up on pre-poem impulses. I’ve given my opinions on Daryl Hine, Eric Ormsby, Anne Carson, Dennis Lee, and Don Coles in the aforementioned books by Starnino and/or Pollock, so I’ll just mention in passing that Guriel’s take on those poets shares evaluative force and specific, similar criticisms with those other assessments (Hine, yes – Ormsby, yes – Carson, mostly yes – Coles, yes – Lee, “Godno”.) And because of the breadth of the compilation, the unkind math involved in the undeviating sweep of the clock’s second-hand, and other books piling up like cordwood in October, I’ll have to severely limit my engagement with the essays to several choices. But I’ll back up.
Surely Guriel’s most provocative contention in the introduction is his Kleinzahler-aligned applause of poetry as “[e]ntertainment, escapism – these are feats enough”. Rather than expanding in a joyful explication his definition would warrant (two previous quotes from poems of Sarah and Coluccio don’t support his argument, the first example clever but slight, and the second, in lockstep iambic tetrameter, a shopworn consideration of the writer’s wish for the everlasting freshness of his words), Guriel settles back into the role of scold after a momentary half-smile. His next sentence is a botched, slumberous variation which, even were it a sardonic aping of the self-appointed vatic emphatics, assumes too much – “[f]ar too many readers of poetry prefer to flatter themselves with the splendid thought that the thoughtful work they read (and write) is food for thought”. Well, I’d submit that that extreme is equally countered by its opposite: poem as joke, as cool persona, as ironic elbow-to-the-ribs before the channel change. There are several problems with Guriel’s assertion but, for time considerations, I’ll limit my response to the main one: it’s a lie. Shakespeare, of course, created mouthwatering rhythms from diction frequently his own (neologists aren’t cute, they’re ambitious). But his plays have also been hotly debated for their political meanings, their psychological and philosophical insights, their moral knots and revelations, and their emotional ambiguities. Milton was a great thinker, and not just in his urgent political tracts. Dante was no slouch, nor were Blake and D. H. Lawrence. More recent examples? Lesser lights, sure, but I learned, as a sprout, when indoors, more about human nature and grace from Layton and Gustafson than when reading historical overviews or cultural op eds. Of course great poetry doesn’t need complex thought. And thought without a joy in its encapsulated language is stillborn. But thought doesn’t, willy nilly, cancel out entertainment and delight. And at the outset, just to posit this forced choice is false. Thought, as Guriel often derides that word or procedure in poetry, means, for him, messaging, or more accurately, bald or simplistic or hectoring messaging. Get that baby out of the bathwater! But I go on so, so I’ll go on.
I’m lukewarm or cuke-cool on much of the poetry of Kay Ryan, so I was eager to read Guriel’s take on her poetry since he thinks her (I believe) North America’s greatest living practitioner. In his book’s titular essay, the conceit is ineffectual. Written from the perspective of a reviewer in the 2030s, anything said could just as easily be made clear now, especially so since the Guriel stand-in loves to praise his case study by the contrast of beating with a ruler her unworthy contemporaries. The Ryan promoter tells us all poets are now Ryan-influenced, “so much so that her concise, linear style ... is the default setting for versifiers”. Guriel, later, has fun with that “reality” when he cites a poem by a Frank Hoaks in The New Yorker (the reviewer shows a welcome consideration in tipping his hand). In its skinny lines, aphoristic ambition, gear-shifting enjambment and last-word rhyme, Guriel may be gently pummeling acolytes trying to make a name for themselves riding the jacket flaps of the great, but his exercise, though a pale imitation of a Ryan poem, nevertheless undercuts some of the limitations of the California poet. Ryan -- and Guriel surely must love this about her -- is transitional about meaning, preferring, in step and often, to shift from the concrete to the general in the closing line or three by way of ironic juxtaposition. At her best, as in “Against Gravity”, Ryan delivers the shock from a vague appreciation of perseverance to the ominous specifics of “Because we’re glad some mornings,/and buoyant, as though we had/no bombs or appointments”. In other poems, “Half A Loaf” being a good example, Ryan’s beguiling, casual metaphorical horror of “The whole loaf’s loft/is halved in profile,/like the standing side/of a bombed cathedral” ends in the deflating and unnecessary “I say do not adjust to half/unless you must”. At her worst, Ryan has the contemporary disease – no different than a legion of other versifiers filling out the requirements of one-issue-and-out litzines – of vagueness masquerading as profundity, as in “Miners’ Canaries”, where “Something is always/testing the edges/of the breathable -- /not so sweet, not so yellow,/but something is always/living at the wrong edge/of the arable; something/is always excused first”. I’m writing a bit of a review of Ryan’s The Best Of It myself, but I’d hoped that Guriel would’ve focused more on a review-proper, on the specific charms or revelations of a poet he reveres, instead of setting down a three-page biographical preamble and a concluding two-page hoax, critical history, and future speculation. The middle half deals with poems, but mostly summarily, in overview, though when he does delve into a particular poem, her “Turtle”, I couldn’t disagree more with the interpretation, in which the reptile’s movements somehow demonstrated her “advocacy of underdogs of all stripes”. This may be true of Ryan, when considering her prose and her personal life. I wouldn’t know. But the poem – the only consideration – is a different animal. Though Ted Hughes and D. H. Lawrence wrote excellent poems of beast and bird, they could also arrogantly draw thought bubbles above the heads of their illiterate studies. Ryan’s “Turtle”, unfortunately, belongs to the latter set, with its, “She lives/below luck-level, never imagining some lottery/will change her load of pottery to wings.” But change is a human hope, and hope is made possible by an awareness of past and future. Animals don’t have that capacity, which can be a curse, but in this case surely a blessing. The turtle doesn’t need the poet’s misplaced compassion – (Who knows, from the poem’s last line, not quoted in Guriel’s essay, that the turtle is “chastened”?) – but maybe the reader chancing upon Ryan for the first time, via Guriel, does.
When Guriel wants to, he can dig into the guts and grace of a particular poem with an insightful revelation and assessment. Multiple essays in The Pigheaded Soul demonstrate this. But the practice is sporadic, and one almost always gets the sense that the microscopic view is just a researcher’s required footnotes, a dispassionate accommodation to the exigencies of the reviewer’s job description. His prime passion, as I’ve made the point, is the overview, including the historical placement, the (sometimes) willful and cross-genre comparisons, the insights gleaned from an author’s life, away from and at the writer’s desk. This is all quite interesting, but (asks the reader, and certainly the author under consideration), what about the poems? Well, if you’re looking to be enlightened on the poetry of Charles Bernstein in Guriel’s essay “Words Fail Him”, on that American language poet and guru, you’re out of luck. The procedure mentioned above is amplified. Clocking in at twenty pages – the longest word count of any essay in the book – it’s apparent the topic (not, ever, just the poems) is an important one for the reviewer. Guriel instigates the attack with a bewildering medley of meta-analyses. A high school friend’s poem is endearingly mocked (“This/is/a/poem.”). Language poetry is then castigated by its very definition. Other language poets are mini-critiqued (Hejinian, Perelman) by way of one poem-fragment apiece. A reactionary and silly defense is made for poems that dare to appear unthreatening on first read: “But what’s so bad about kicking back with a poem that conjures the illusion of a speaker serving up a clear message in a linear way? (What’s so bad about a good read?) And why do these curious peoples, the Language poets, want to take the reader by the lapels and jostle her so?” To the last question: I don’t know, maybe they got (and get) tired of poems that “entertain” and have nothing to say? Guriel’s welcome to his preferences, of course. We all have them, and it’s best (and credit to Guriel) to admit them. But there is so much that is assumed in the above quotation, I’ll try to be concise with my response. There’s nothing wrong with a good read, of course. Maybe others (and I’m one) are entertained, at times, by non-linear writing as well as “clear message[s]”. (I thought Guriel was against messaging?) An antagonistic my-team-or-nothing view seems not just narrow-sighted, but narrow-minded. And in an age of exponential distraction, the poet’s initial job (essentially, to get noticed) is as hard as it’s ever been. A little lapel-shaking ain’t necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn’t always mean that a poet’s doing so in bad faith. If it seems I’m far from any Bernstein sighting, I’m just following Guriel’s lead. Nothing yet on the poet’s All the Whiskey in Heaven, Bernstein’s large Selected. But at least we’ve thrashed through the underbrush and are now within range of the perplexing, though not-so-rare, black wildebeest in the clearing. Responding to an early essay by Bernstein, Guriel asserts that “surely there are those who aren’t much startled by the [language poems’] disruptions, having encountered them before”. He fixes on this point, with minor variations, throughout this “review” of Bernstein’s 2010 Selected, his most forceful point being that the reader must first be transmitted into reverie before any startling can occur. But these words – startle, jostle, disruption -- have to be used with great care. (Bernstein – and the language poets – get sympathy, from me, here.) It’s true that in their fractured syntax, grammatical tricks and subversions, lack (at times) of referents, disjointed narratives, harsh shifts in tone, a Gurielesque prosecution of opacity and willful disdain for the reader may make sense. But each reader has to account for his own experiences. After the initial “jostling”, the effect of Bernstein’s poetry, for me, isn’t one of confusion or frustration, but of play, of seeing how it matches with meaning and emotion. I can’t do that yet, though, because the reviewer is still haranguing all language poets for the supposed sins of their forebears. All language poets are alike, apparently because one passage of a 1994 Bernstein poem is “similar in sound” (yes, that’s the finely-tuned exegesis) to that of a Jackson Mac Low 1964 fragment and a Gertrude Stein poem-snippet of 1914. But this is ridiculous. The poems are quite different in structure, rhythm, and tone (I’m not typing them all out here, and for illustrative purposes, they can’t be excised. Pp 236-7, though.) Guriel finishes his preamble with, “his gumming up of grammar, his juxtaposition of words that are a typewriter’s slip away from one another: these are reliable licks in a repertoire, the ones you play if you want to count yourself part of Official Avant-Garde Culture.” This is unfair, based, so far, on one Bernstein poem-fragment. But now, the review of the Selected itself begins.
Guriel states that Bernstein’s “subject matter is usually the opacity of words” after stating that it’s “not the transcript of a coherent voice with something on its mind”. This contradiction, amazingly, trumps itself in the next paragraph, where Guriel lists several meanings apparent throughout the Selected, including, “wary of walls and boundaries”, “looks askance at the corporate world and the myth of the self-determining individual”, and “not without a sense of humour” (the double negative here is a grudging, faint-praise nod to one of Bernstein’s strengths). I mentioned earlier that Guriel is at his best when investigating an actual poem, but even this is overstating the case. He’s most concerned with parsing poem fragments, as evidenced by his handling of a section of Ryan’s “Turtle”, already explored by me in that essay. (All Ryan’s poems are short, so a full-poem quotation would have been easy, though it also would have shown how his point was compromised.) The best demonstration, though, of Guriel’s missing the forest for a glance at a pine needle begins with his perusal of Bernstein’s first poem in All the Whiskey in Heaven, “Asylum”. It’s not an auspicious start. Bernstein’s “rooms, suites of rooms, buildings, plants//in line” is criticized by Guriel for its missed connection of not just “in line”, but “words in a line – a line of poetry!” (Italics are in the original text.) Guriel continues: “Bernstein borrows some images from Goffman, of bounded spaces. But he also cracks wise with a pun, reminding those of us bookworms who might otherwise relax into the reverie of reading that the images, far from being firm representations of the things of the world, are made of words, words, words. ... He leaves his sentences in tatters, ironically enough.//In other words, it’s hard to get a grip on “Asylum”, which is always unravelling.” Flabbergasting. Remember, this is the conclusion Guriel asserts after quoting less than two lines of a 16 page poem. Yes, those lines are also lines in poetry. Even the most representational of poets realizes (or should) that their words are just manipulations of reality, messed with, loaded with multiple or ambiguous meanings, ordered in syntactical originality, presented with an organic feel for nuanced tone within the temporal shifts of the whole poem. What is Guriel actually arguing (or arguing for) here? Bernstein’s aim, even in this small sample, is fairly easy to decipher. Guriel damns the sentence tatters as “ironic”, but it’s Guriel who’s obtusely ironic in not recognizing Bernstein’s fine mating of style with content (the disjunction – not breakdown – of language with the mental states experienced in a 1976 mental institution, as they were called in pre-politically incorrect times). If one can’t be circular, oblique, and grammatically challenging, in this context, then I’m not sure when a non-linear approach would be accepted. The further irony, though, is that most of “Asylum” is fairly easy to parse. But one wouldn’t know that with only Guriel’s essay to go by. The poem gathers in condemnatory strength and anger, convincingly so. Guriel’s introductory slam of Bernstein’s nothing “on his mind” vanishes in poem one, with “booing, tray thumping, mass food rejection/mutinies; but these/plateaus of disinvolvement/broken (as they/disciplined, moralistic, monochromatic/sponsor an ideal” and “lectures, art classes or woodworking classes, card playing//industrial alcohol, nutmeg, or ginger//of dead sea in//vivid, encapturing//outside. This//sharp smell of fresh air//pass//the loss of failure//circles from which” (The last quote closes the poem, although closes isn’t the right word.) Guriel’s attack continues, though, seemingly oblivious to the dramatic narrative: “Perhaps, then, that’s why the poem is so fragmented: it’s fomenting an uprising against the institution of grammar!” Or perhaps Bernstein is making the case for rationality transitioning into its insane paradoxical bed partner, and its use in all sorts of oppressive behaviour, backed by the state and the good housekeeping seal of approval. This is, after all, what kicked off the high-modern hijinks of a more difficult time in engaged meaning with poets, novelists, playwrights and painters. “A war to end all wars”, and the like, have a tendency to anger and disturb. Guriel continues, in his next poem-“review”, this of Bernstein’s devastating social scorch, “Standing Target”. Here, and finally, to his credit, Guriel allows for four fairly extended passages of the twelve-page offering, after which he summarizes, in part, “these creeps [are also] associated with the most criminally banal examples of language in Bernstein’s poem. If only little Charlie were left to his own devices and allowed to play freely in the muck of pure language -- instead of being harangued into ‘organized games’ where he has to side with a team – he might avoid a career in advertising or, worse, turning out like like DeMotte [the corporation man mocked earlier in the poem]. He might become a Language poet, given to explosive outbursts.” Now, this is a curious conclusion, this ad hominem sneer. First, Guriel is bending backwards to find meaning, interesting on its own for someone so averse to even care about meaning (generally) in poetry. So why he’d try even harder here is revealing. Is it because Bernstein’s politics and social concerns are antithetical to his? He references them quite a bit throughout these twenty pages, the “left-wing axe to grind”, among other biographical fixations. I have an issue, too, with much of Bernstein’s politics (not so much with the particular direction, more so its simplicity), but one needn’t care about pinpoint advocacy to feel compassion for one’s own (and others’, of course) experiences growing up in a school system rife with do-gooding half-wits, malicious drones, and other psychologically stunted stooges of administrators who get their coin by the sequestered robotic Spock-lite (not the sci-fi one) parameters of condescending report card-ese. It’s a widespread North American concern, a critical one, even one changed for the worse since 1980, if journalistic and academic and anecdotal accounts are indicators, and certainly nothing that warrants a cynical and misguided putdown on the putative petulance of a still-infantile Bernstein. But the focus on Bernstein’s insidious program continues through to the end of the long essay: “Thank You for Saying Thank You” is an “anti-poem”. I hate the too-easy, sneering anti-poem, as well. But does Bernstein’s poem qualify as one? No. It’s an anti-a-particular-kind-of poem, a different matter altogether. Guriel, through his long compilation, sneers as good as Bernstein ever gives (and if Bernstein is “a little too hot”, then Guriel is much too separated and cool) when critiquing, holus-bolus, avant-garde poetry. Why shouldn’t Bernstein get the same allowance for castigating the paint-by-numbers emotionality of a prefab lyric in fifteen precious lines? One could argue, as I’ve done, that bald poetics should remain in essays, not in poems, much like the government should stay away from the pulpit (or more accurately, the choral bench), but the sentiments expressed in “Thank You for Saying Thank You”, the target of which is poetry of positive reader-regard, “like kite/flying and fly/fishing”, are on the mark, and, ironically, something I’d think Guriel would applaud in a different form, perhaps even in a different mode. His response, immediately following the bizarre, “[i]t reads like the venting of someone who was jilted by a New Yorker poet”, which itself is deposited immediately before the following quote (though this latter is to a different poem in the book which Guriel doesn’t reference) reads, “it’s no great act of iconoclasm to snicker at some neo-Romantic who goes looking for his soul in ‘the song of a minor bird’ or who objectifies women. I mean, who doesn’t hate that guy?” It may not be iconoclastic, but it’s also not hiding behind criticisms of the dead. “Thank You for Saying Thank You” was written in 2001, and it’s a timely response to much of the most popular (and critically lauded) poetry of the 90s, both in Canada and the U.S., the poetry of sincere, inoffensive, even-tempered coffee table books. A few pages later, we’re treated to another sarcastic excuse for exposition: I don’t go for the anaphoric monotony of “Let’s Just Say”, but there are a few good lines, one of which Guriel shits on in a typically superficial phrase. Bernstein’s line? “Let’s just say that I encounter myself not in the mirror but in the manure.” Too pat? Maybe. But does it earn Guriel’s, “the speaker has shit on his face”? Even if we only interpret the line on its surface, it’s obviously figurative, emphasizing that one’s deficiencies are more instructive than one’s delusional self-regard. (One typically postures, and puts on make-up, in front of the mirror.) But “manure” also grows what we need to survive. Is that such a stretch for a critic who’s also a poet? Again, I don’t think the poem works, but the snide and empty assumptions, “Here are some of [the lines], should you care to concentrate”, don’t illuminate. Guriel is now in the homestretch. “[R]eaders have adjusted to poetry shot through with disruptions; indeed, they fairly expect them”. Which readers are these? Other avant-garde readers, perhaps. But doesn’t the opposite point hold for Bernstein, then? Don’t readers of the anecdotal or imagined lyric expect, in a history far longer and more deeply entrenched, that minor epiphanies will arrive, in the last line of the half-page, with a slightly sad or slightly smiley expression? And aren’t reader expectations, however superficial, separate from the procedures and qualities of specific poems from either camp? In other words, are poets responsible for the complacencies of their readers? This is all too easy, this macro-dumping on avant-garde poetry. I’ve expressed my disgust with a lot of it, in reviews of specific books, and in proactive poetics. But that’s the point. Books should be reviewed for what’s between the pages, not as soldiers in a long line of casualties in an ongoing war. It’d be nice if Bernstein’s poems, delightfully various and rich with sound, feeling, and sense, could’ve gotten a deliberate airing in the expanded word count. But Guriel has formed an opinion on avant-garde poetry, and has framed his argument with misconstrued examples from several poems. God knows, if that’s the route one takes, it’s easy pickings: pretentious nonsense like “Virtual Reality” won’t win Bernstein many new converts. But Guriel’s also failed to note, never mind comment on, other worthy poems, and lines of poems in All the Whiskey in Heaven. There’s the effervescent (in part) “Dark City”, with its wonderful, “She that peeps through a hole will kiss/the wave that troubled her”, which, aside from its delightful rhythm, also makes a case for following one’s obsession, not getting psychoanalyzed out of it. (An aphorism similar in sentiment comes four lines later with, “A stumble may/prevent a fall but a fall guy’s/my kind of man.”) There’s the songlike “Rivulets of the Dead Jew” ‘s “Don’t dance with me/’til I cut my tie/Cut my tie, cut my tie/Don’t fancy me ‘til/The rivers run dry/& a heh & a hi & a ho”. There’s the great success, of “Report From Liberty Street”, in balancing tones – puzzled, wondrous, rational – of (then) recent post 9/11 with its near-finish challenge (which shouldn’t need to be voiced, but is needed), “The question isn’t is art up for this but what else is art for?”. There’s the sublime poem, “Mall At Night”, which I’ll quote in full:
“There is no shade in the forest
when we beat our wings against the moss
& tear the petals off the spruce
revealing what’s never said but
spoken, companion to discordant facts
stacked three foot high above the drawers
clogging corridors. Consonance is this
world’s only comfort, stony stare of
stars on bleary night, awake enough
to lose a dozen threads, invent a baker’s
dozen more for recompense. The gravel
does not hold, the road beyond repair,
yet closer to, by far, than dusk’s approaching
None of the above plays superior tricks with “gum[med] ... grammar” and pretzel syntax on readers, so Guriel’s assertion – “whenever Bernstein appears readable, whenever he resorts to traditional devices like alliteration and rhyme, he’s likely having us on” – is pernicious, even if mistakenly formed. Guriel finally throws his hands up in a concluding biographical attack, which, again, reveals more about Guriel’s distaste for an entire poetic movement than it does in enlightening the reader on actual poems from this one card-carrying member of “Official Avant-Garde Culture”. After listing Bernstein’s accomplishments as decided on by the word community, Guriel states, “Language poets, we might conclude [we might conclude?] lead an ascetic existence early in the life cycle, but later grow fat and happy. More power to them, I say! Still, I wonder what Bernstein’s younger self would make of all that power?” This is the best howler yet. The cynical tone (and the passive-aggressive one), the assumed cynicism of Bernstein (he was a starving poet, an ascetic, with the paradoxical hope, all along, of breaching the ivy walls of ... of what, exactly? Poets have “all that power”? And if others choose to fete Bernstein with titles and fitting adjectives, that somehow, in itself, reflects poorly on Bernstein? What’s he supposed to do? Be churlish, a boor behind bad grammar? And if he does, wouldn’t he then be mocked by Guriel for chasing further notoriety as a reverse revolutionary? Words fail him, indeed.
“Kevin: Yeah, you ever hear the one about the middleclass idiots who sort of spend all their time analyzing their own emotions and writing bullshit poetry, you know, that we’re supposed to read? I mean, as if we’re fucking interested.
Band (laughs): That’s a good one.”
-- Dexys Midnight Runners
The above quote is taken from the prefatory set-up to Guriel’s essay on the novels The Anthologist by Nicholoson Baker, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. The essay itself is called “Lovable Losers”, and the top-heavy thematic approach allows its author the opportunity to make all sorts of pronouncements – some mildly sympathetic, others withering – about the psychology of little known or unappreciated poets. The conversation lead-off, from the 80s band (I assume Guriel is transferring it from a rock bio or article), is interesting in how it ties into Guriel’s thoughts. Dexys Midnight Runners were pulling in more green than what the fictional first-person narrator of The Anthologist would have seen, he of the not insubstantial debt and odd job undertakings, so I’m not sure who the “middle class” dig is aimed at. And it’s sure not aimed at any of Arturo Belano’s or Ulysses Lima’s acolytes and lovers, those who spend more time dreaming in the guts of fire hazards than combing their hair for job interviews. I also wonder which incarnation of Dexys Midnight Runners this story is taken from. A later version – 1985 – would have seen Vincent Crane on its roster, the manic-depressive and brilliant organist/lyricist who wrote many of the tunes for the underrated, early 70s Atomic Rooster. Those lyrics, embedded in powerful funk/blues workings, often dealt with suicide, alienation and social deception. One or both of the formative Kevins in DMR may have ho-hoed about losers dripping blue tears onto endless pages, but I can’t imagine Crane participating in it (he committed suicide just four years later), and when you’re chasing that “fat and happy” zone (Guriel’s assessment of latter-day Bernstein), it’s doubly rich to note DMR’s constant image and musical makeover in trying to cash in on that ever-elusive second hit. But the charming, intelligent, quirky, and passionate (about poetry) Paul Chowder, he of the fictional wordsmiths, isn’t angling for a new style, or promoting what’s he’s already written. Guriel’s introduction to The Anthologist is concise. Mildly respected, once-known poet, procrastinates while trying to start an introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry, girlfriend leaves him, mundane life details take on melancholic significance. OK, the latter isn’t mentioned by Guriel, but that’s because it doesn’t fit his theme. But let’s get to the poetry. Chowder’s an odd duck, a prosodist who disbelieves in the existence of pentameter (it’s tetrameter with a rest), and free verse. But he’s not a simple grouser of contemporary verse. Despite its apparent “unruliness”, Chowder enjoys the poetry of Robert Hass. He enthuses over lines of verse in chestnuts, sure, but his comments can’t be consigned to the bins of cheap augury and laughable vagary. Nor can his commentary of extra-poetical matters. But perhaps most endearing are the speculations on the gulf between a canonical artist’s influence and the odds an unknown has of matching it (call it fame if you like). “One day the English language is going to perish ... and it will become a language like Latin that learned people learn... American poetry will perish with the language; the sitcoms, on the other hand, are new to human evolution and therefore will be less perishable.” Like the “losers” in The Savage Detectives, the obsessive artists are depicted with more than a hint of sympathy. Guriel states that a huge reason for the popularity of The Anthologists can be understood “because it enabled that most satisfying kind of voyeurism: the prolonged peek at oneself.” But this is superficial. Yes, artists can see the broad outlines of envy, self-pity, struggle, petty jockeying for political position via movements and fads, but Chowder is a unique creation and, (once again) I find Guriel’s descent into a possible autobiographical link to be barking up the same tree long after the cat’s skedaddled, unaffected and oblivious: “It’s possible that this Paul Chowder character is little more that a special effect: the lifelike avatar of an amateur enthusiast named Nicholson Baker, who writes a stylish novel but hasn’t much of a clue about poems.” Or it’s possible that Baker knows a great deal more than he’s letting on with his fictional character, and that he’s plotted out that character consistently, painstakingly, so that his monologue matches that vision. Guriel gets a little closer to the bone with his conjecture that “Chowder may well be intended as a parody of the middle-aged curmudgeon, out of touch with recent doings, but are most readers – the ones who know little about poetry and just want to read the new Nicholson Baker novel – going to get the parody?” Why not? Despite the occasional concentration of prosodic exegesis, Baker’s narrative is of a piece, and makes a cohesive statement about individual perception, paradoxically unique while getting stuck in past resolutions. (Chowder obsesses over poets’ biographies, as well as their evaluative rankings.) The Anthologist is an enjoyable novel, a delight to read aloud for its unaffected tone and its loopy insights. And again, who cares, besides Guriel, that it misrepresents the actual poetry world? The character is not supposed to be all-knowing. In fact, the point of his misreading of the current scene, and that he’s not up to date on publications and journals other than The New York Times, is that he’s a hidebound traditionalist not just in verse but in life. Afraid of taking on new challenges, within a relationship or on the job or in the community, his cluelessness about much contemporary verse or different communities and schools can be understood in this wider context. The uplifting ending is unconvincing, too easy, after that entrenchment, but the compassionate tone of the novel makes it unsurprising. Guriel wanted muck and fire. But that’s not the character, or the novel, Nicholson wanted to create. And he didn’t need to. Others can fill in those blanks.
I don’t have a copy of Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives at the moment, but, once again, I take issue with Guriel’s view of the novel, to say nothing of his extraneous assessments, though it’s less of an issue than was the case for Baker’s study. Guriel praises the prose for “putting a lot of stock in the power of the good old human voice at its least rehearsed and most conversational.” But the welter of voices in the long, first-person, middle-section reportage, coagulate in an amorphous jello of mediocre taste and texture. I get that poets, even good ones, often flatline their speech with the best (or worst) of one’s literary-despising or literary-indifferent acquaintances, but out of the eighty?, a hundred?, different narrators, most all involved as poets, painters, editors, publishers, curators, university students, journalists, one would expect more than a few startling (there’s that word again) figures of speech, similes, syntactical felicities, slang-slinging, cussing of originality and cultural wit. (Guriel, with others, has attested to Natasha Wimmer’s excellent translation, so that excuse is off the board.) Ironically, Guriel follows up his previous quote with, “[f]ortunately, one can only imagine the purple prose a Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels, presented with the same material, would have slathered on”. But what’s wrong with using a Michaels-like voice to lampoon pretensions of some of Bolano’s characters? It’d be entirely believable: young, impressionable poets trying, through strained, overly-ambitious, high-flown diction, to create a name for themselves in the crowded din of Mexican poetastery. (Many of those young people talk with the same elevated self-importance as they write.) Not Bolano’s aim, though, apparently. There’s been much praise for Bolano for the humour in The Savage Detectives, but the overwhelming emotional residue is one of sadness. A heavy, hopeless sadness. Guriel notes the “underdog” nature of the visceral realists (as well as their counterpart in Chowder), and he “got caught up in the sheer adventure” of the realists’ quest to track and find the elusive Tinajero, a fantastically obscure poet whose one extant poem the young dreamers have elevated into a mythical document. I, unlike Guriel, don’t much care about poems or songs that may or may not have existed, but I agree that the chase itself was fun. Well, for at least a hundred pages. Now, I have to state – I often enjoy long novels. Some of our greatest canonical works, of course, cross the 500 page-plus finish line. But The Savage Detectives covers its terrain many times, then backtracks, and (despite the change in locations) takes us on similar tours. Buried underneath billowing exhaust and dust are some narrative gems, especially when Bolano allows his storyteller(s) to breathe for more than three pages. Perhaps Guriel got sidetracked, too, because he fills the middle of his review with detours into the worlds of Joyce’s Dedalus and Nabokov’s John Shade. Interesting comparisons to the core work, and Guriel’s insight is excellent – “Dedalus and Madero [SD’s introductory and concluding narrator] share a fantasy: they want to possess an oeuvre, without having to give much thought to what it might consist of” – but the exclusive focus on the poet- theme leaves out the many other concerns and obsessions of Bolano: the career-climbing word-related professionals who manipulate language to their benefit; an enlightenment fantasy of language that substitutes, ironically, for the beatific promises of organized religion (well, maybe that ties in with Guriel’s consideration); the traffic between words as charm, and sexual desire and decay; and the disagreements, even violence, between wage-earners and their poetic parasites. Guriel’s final line, as a faint damnation or faint approval of the two novels – “We’ve had a lot of fictional poets who are easy to love; we need more who actually deserve it” – is praiseworthy, but problematic. Are only successes worthy of love? And how do we account for a successful artist in fiction? By popularity, subjective evaluation (good luck with the narrative arc on that one), strength of personality?
I’ve read other works which are the focus of The Pigheaded Soul, but, as mentioned earlier, have had to limit my selection in what I’ve engaged with above. It’s certainly unrepresentative of my evaluative decision on the book as a whole. Guriel, despite my earlier condemnation, shows a deft touch when burrowing, for three pages, into one poem, “Play”, from Suzanne Buffam’s excellent 2005 Past Imperfect, patiently triggering Buffam’s word choices and sonic manoeuvring into the childrens’ psychology during the game. His fond and slight mocking of the Griffin Prize extravaganza, in the role of cultural gadabout, is amusing and occasionally noteworthy for its puncturing of subdued Canadian pomposity. (Yes, I’m aware of the oxymoron, but the tag still fits.) And it’s heartening to read about a little love shown once more for the Wordsworth-lite verse of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman who, at least, gets the occasional nod decade to decade from the academic set. Guriel’s most important attribute, however, is his writing: concise, with creative turns of phrase, surprising and apt lexical choices, skeptical, allusive, unstuffy and unafraid to stick his neck out with evaluations (Heaney’s The Human Chain doesn’t make the grade), and wide-ranging, Guriel is foremost a curious reader who’s arrogant enough to believe his opinions matter (reviewers, in general, need more of that arrogance). That I disagree with him on many of his assessments isn’t all that big a deal. At least I know where the man stands. Can a reader of criticism ask for anything more important?