Monday, November 30, 2009


Just to be clear, I'm not agreeing with everything in Knott's rant-review. His first remarks misunderstand hair-styling procedures of the 80s-90s. When I had hair -- last century -- it was commonplace to get a pre- rinse and shampoo as part of the cut. And it was cheap. So there is certainly misreading of objectives or meaning, but that in no way makes the case for there always being clearly understood intent. (Just look at all the other valid confusions of the figures in the poem, for example.)

Spread the Snark

Roughly edited (if altered at all), this single poem review eschews dispassionate "objectivity". It's a highly personal take, an exasperated unscrolling of the reviewer's thoughts on the poem's intent. But whatever the intent of a poet is, however accurately measured, the next and more important two questions become: do we care about the poem simply by recognizing its intent?; and how is that intent executed?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Further Comments on Snark

I was rather naive on the meaning of the word "snark". I'd thought it was a short, dismissive review or comment, extremely negative in tone. In other words, an honest, damning comment on what one has engaged with. But I haven't given myself enough credit. Since my several dictionaries, including the on-line versions, either have no entries, or the lone meaning is pertaining to Lewis Carroll's animal, I had to go to the "source", as it were, and discovered that it was coined (from Paul Vermeersch's link) by Heidi Julavits in her March 2003 essay. The essay itself is very unfocussed, but towards the end comes the vague, theoretical definition. Not much to base a definitive understanding on, and the subsequent discussion of the word's meaning, and hence its more serious ramifications, are problematic, and need to be entertained with a preamble on how the word is to be employed for purposes of a particular conversational framework. Those later definitions will be outlined perhaps in a later blog post, but for now let's focus on Julavits. (Bolding is mine.)

"I don't know what many critics believe when it comes to literature; at worst, I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake. This hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt is, I suspect, a bastard offspring of Orwell’s flea-weighers. I call it Snark...."(Julavits)

The bolded qualifiers shift the emphasis away from unsubstantiated emotional reaction to a hoped-for rarified aura, a virtue self-placed by easy, cherry-picked quotes and anecdotes. She ushers in this line by a fallacious and rather unseemly guise of falsely planed contrasts, the reviewers who fail to emulate Edmund Wilson, James Wood, and Lionel Trilling all made to look feeble by the logical fallacy of the call to authority. But "snark", so-called, is, even by the definition of anti-snarkers David Denby and Julavits, exclusively negative and sarcastic. The two lamentable reviewers currently under the gun from the "Save Canadian Poets From Hurt Feelings" campaign (last one in the pool is the most oppressed!) have, on more than one occasion, championed not only many individuals and many individual books of poetry, but furthermore have championed the rationale behind those positive reviews, and have even spoken in specific poetics of how and why those books made the grade while others fell short.

That's strike one, against just the definition of snark, and how it's made up from vague notions, changeably conducive to one's emotional predilection. To go on, in this vein, with more Julavistas:

"I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community, infiltrating the pages of many publications, and not only the The New York Observer, or the The New York Press, the possible laboratories of this disorder."(Julavits)

Now I realize that New Yawkers think their city's the centre of the universe, but has Julavits perused widely-known poetry and the canonical crit issueing from those books' immediate publication, as well as reaction to those (early) books centuries later? Horace, Catullus, Pope, Shakespeare (that canny Bard-- just who was Timon?), Layton, generated proof of the physics law of equal reaction to every action with those authors' critical counterparts.

David Denby (I haven't read his book, so I won't respond to its larger argument) bases his anti-snark views largely on Teh Internets and on pop-culture snipes, but of course Banks and Vermeersch are talking not only of CanLit "culture", in general, but to the specific reviewing style of Zach Wells and of this writer. This is strike two, and is a clear example of another popularly deployed logical fallacy:

a) reviewers these days write a lot of snark (however that's defined-- see strike #1)

b) Palmu and Wells write reviews expressing negative opinions

c) therefore, Palmu and Wells are snarkists

"If snark is a reaction to this sheer and insulting level of hyperbole, fine; but should the writer, who is a pawn in this system"(Julavits)

What system? Julavits has set up her strawperson with detailed cheerleading blurbs, but it has nothing to do with the motivations of her supposedly unfair snarkists. As in:

"who is a pawn in this system, who has negligible say over the design of his book jacket or even his title, who would never be so presumptuous to compare himself to Dickens, should this disdain be delivered unto him?"(Julavits)

I quoted Emily Schultz giving what I thought to be ridiculous claims for Banks' books; that's a reflection on Schultz, not Banks. Of course the author isn't responsible for blurbs, but it's useful to point out (where necessary) the discrepancy between a blurb's specific attributes for the book under review and what the reviewer's experiences of that book were. After all, many a time a reader's first found commentary on what a book might contain is on that very book-flap, and certainly not on what a relatively obscure blogger has said about it.

"(Writers also become pawns of the “call and response” reviewing that occurs between competing publications; Time magazine runs a glowing review, and Newsweek answers with a pan.)"(Julavits)

Ah, yes. Or to tweak the conspiracy just a bit: Internet "warriors" are the hoi polloi, the great unwashed plebs just trying to get a break through (over?) the walls of academe, and the publishing levers they control. (Vermeersch publishes, Banks teaches -- we're just competing for their positions. Isn't that just answering the reviewers' obvious intentions, objectively?)

"Here’s another theory about snark. Maybe snark was a critical attempt to compete, on an entertainment level."(Julavits)[bolding mine]

Objectivity. I love well-researched essays. I have a theory, too. Has Julavits perhaps been given a .... "snarky" review, too? And we can't have entertainment! (And I love the very subtle Queen's put-down-- entertainment level!)

"the giggling, minuscule minority. We also see those movies. Book reviewers who adopt this tone when reviewing literary fiction are about as humorous as cow tippers"(Julavits)

Which is it? For objectively subjective theory-based, emotionally driven disingenuous-linked argument, this is further richness. Are we bitter and angry, or just having some sporting fun? Or both? Or have those on the receiving end of this nebulous term also been by turns bitter and reactively sarcastic?

"as a result, they guarantee a book that might have sold 4,000 copies, will now sell 800. And nobody will read that book, not even the literary types, who are off watching Titanic with a knowing smirk"(Julavits)

Aha, power to the downtrodden reviewer! But Banks would have it that no one listens to us. Again, I'm confused. Are we two-handedly bringing down the House of CanLit, or are we mere annoyances?

"Most frightening is how easily snark is perpetuated by snark bytes—fragmented portions of essays, articles, interviews, taken out of context in order to make the author appear in the worst possible light— those little bonbons of malice favored by The New York Observer, New York magazine, The New York Post. Unfortunately, most readers don’t return to the source to determine what the article in question was striving to say. The snark byte supplants the original article; the author’s intent is reduced to the periodical equivalent of gossip."(Julavits)

Again, to direct this to the matter at hand (remember, it's fair game since Vermeersch linked to this article to damn Wells' and my own procedures), the opposite is overwhelmingly the reality: positive tidbits in an otherwise negative or at least mixed review will be wrenched out of context or predominant assessment in order to boost a book's perceived reception.

"Wood makes people hopping mad, yes, but despite his grumbly excoriations there’s usually room for a dialogue with Woods, which indicates there’s something to wrangle over, i.e., his claims are based on a strongly-held (and felt) belief system, and he’s an intellectual, which means he likes to be forced to defend that belief system."(Julavits)

Good for Woods. And my comment stream is always open. But when Julavits says "dialogue", I take that word seriously, not interpreted as drive-by smears, back-stage whispers as deflected sniping to "you-know-who", glossing over substantive posts or ignoring them altogether, bringing up repeated arguments to points I've already answered and which haven't been properly and directly refuted or even addressed, original thought in the debaters' own words, not cutting-and-pasting portions (sometimes out of context) of some other authority figure in lieu of the debater's own opinion. You want communication? Go for it. But it takes two.

"snark, I suspect, is a scornful, knowing tone frequently employed to mask an actual lack of information about books."(Julavits)

Scornful and knowing. My, my. And the "lack of knowledge".... yes, of course it's lack of knowledge, I suspect, when the author is getting panned, otherwise the review would have been filled with superlatives, but why is it I've never heard an author complain about a positive review if said review is misinformed or poorly written?

"This is because a lot of books are reviewed by people who don’t read books unless they’re reviewing them."(Julavits)

I wish I had a loonie for every modifier this outer of snark has composed. And a lot (including moi) of people read books because we love books, and because we hope to be surprised and delighted by every book we first encounter. But that's like having season's tickets to the Toronto Maple Leafs: you hope every game is going to be a win, but you know that's not often going to be the case. You can't celebrate, though, unless you're at the game.

"The real question then becomes: If you don’t believe in this, what do you believe in? What do you care about? What is the purpose of this destructive clear-cutting, if you don’t have anything to suggest in its place, save your own career advancement?"(Julavits)

Leaving aside, once again, the repeated ad hominem charge, from Julavits (here at the quote's end) and from others in this internet page-burner, I agree with Sessions here (generally-- again, I haven't read Denby's book)--

"When snarkers do attack, it’s not because they’re purveyors of an angry form of discourse that values cruelty as an end. Rather, it’s a means for expressing defeated idealism, for raving at the absurdity of entrenched institutions that insult our intelligence and sense of fairness."(Sessions)

If you want a positive review, read a review I've done of another's book. Ah, but it's not at all about "objectivity" and the "author's always-to-be-respected intent", is it? It's personal. Are those positive reviews similarly deformed, then , too? And if not, why not, since they issue from the same "snarky" mindset? Am I praising them out of insincerity? Is every motive so suspicious to you? And, if so, isn't that rather a joyless, rather a faithless and emotionally tainted and (wait for it) snarky approach to my work?

To be paradoxical for a moment (though the fundamentalists can't seem to hold two opposing views in mind at the same time-- Blake would have found the views ironical), one of many reasons I snark from time to time is that I agree with D H Lawrence's view that 90% of creation is first concerned with tearing down rotten edifices. Egalitarians often miss that part of the natural world, though. "If we welcome every view, respect everyone's view equally, support each others' efforts, we'll all learn and grow together." No. I'm a Nietzschean, here. As to art, it surprises me that any serious artist would take the communal common denominator view. Or is this view just held for public consumption? For oiling the public connections? Well, Vermeersch's and Banks' hypocrisies have now been exposed, put on record. But, unlike Banks, I wouldn't want to speculate on the answer to that last question above. (If Banks ever decides to post a "negative" review on a specific author on his positive-reviews-only site, someone let me know.)

"Besides, I have that three lousy cents burning a hole in my pocket—and I’m eager to place my bet on the latter horse."(Julavits)

The minimun bet in horse racing is $2. Pony up and name names, Julavits.

(More later.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chris Banks Switches From Attack to "Content"

I missed this Banksian doodle from last week, but it's no less enertaining than his previous entries.

He links to one of my earlier posts, wherein I chide the author of yellow bitchiness (is it a snark if it's a rearrangement of her preferred persona? After all, she revels in the oh-so-clever throw-it-back-in-yer-face "ironical" self-promotion of her own negativity) for her utter lack of substance in her post on her equally vapid (oops, except for one drive-by snark) contribution in the bookninja post on Packer-Danner, as well as chiding Trailing Clouds Of Glory Banks defending the poets-huddled-in-comment-stream-hovels. This is all so mature, isn't it, "high seriousness" Banks? Please continue; I notice, with increasing pleasure, the gathering tribal solidarity forming, as well. Can you always be accused of aesthetic tribalism, especially now that the writing seminar doors have been closed for the day? (I won't tell Hoaglund, I promise.)

No response at all to that post except for the linked highlight "personal prejudice".

That's it. A two-word response instead of a rebuttal.

Following that, though, as I say in the header, we have a surprising switcheroo! Banks has finally realized that embarrassing ad hominems only work in the schoolyard, and has now re-entered the "debate" with an astounding array of substantive material! Oh, wait .... he's using some other fellow's intellectual dick -- er, actually, Arnold through Burroughs, so I guess it's thrice-removed -- to make his "case". The content?

"Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? (...) 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition."(Banks, or rather, Arnold, as channel-wikipediaed through Banks)

That's it.

Thank you so much. I'd never seen this reviewer's creed before!

Just a subtle hint: I'm not a freshman creative writing seminar student, hanging on your every word so's to make the hoped-for tribal connection a year before my premature poemlets arrive on your writing desk for dissemination. Do you really want to talk about Arnold, and his incredibly complex and contradictory contributions to the literature of reviewing? Is Arnold your boy? Because you set down these three criteria as if ..... oh, I don't know, they were (to use Paul Vermeersch's word) fundamental or something. I'm just trying to follow the bouncing ball, but all I get is eye strain.

As to the Arnoldian precepts you trumpet, I've already dealt with the first two. Please pay attention. If you wish to discuss what I've already said, it helps the "debate" to become a true, give-and-take engagement with one another's material, and from becoming redundant. I'm sure you'd agree, entertainment and clarity and compression beat rounding the roller-derby floor for the hundredth time. (And what does Lemon Hound have to say about the blatant sexism contained in rule #2?!)

Reviewing, reading, writing poetry, life observation are all more simple and more complex than you and Paul Vermeersch seem to have it. And more elegant. (Don't you find it interesting, if not amusing, to read so many of Arnold's denunciatory calls on abstraction, while much of his own prose rolls on like a document missing six senses?). A person, in any of the above four roles, is simultaneously subjective and objective. Neither is ever eliminated, and never can be.

I remember a second-year English course I took on the Romantic poets. The prof handed out two poems, one by Shelley and one by Byron. The former was a demonstration of a subjective mood, the latter of objective assessment. We were given a fair amount of time to read them (all this is in-class, remember). He then asked for a show of hands on how many preferred Shelley's entry. Myself and two or three others put up our hands. Byron got the remaining 20 + votes. The prof then noted that this wasn't a surprise; Shelley's subjective slant was out of style. (Shelley's reputation has vacillated wildly these 200 years.) And if we're informed at all about literary history, we'll see that the objective/subjective see-saw has swung up-and down continually. Wyatt to Sidney to Greville to Milton to the Romantics to the Victorians to the Moderns to the Postmoderns and to the Kitchen Sink. Of course, there are many anomalies, many movements I've purposely missed, many ambivalences, many syntheses. As Chris Banks would appreciate, a Zen Master was asked for the basis on which he gave advice when in satsang: "when a pupil is too extreme one way, I say 'go left, go left!'; when (s)he is too extreme the other way, I say 'go right, go right!' ". Again, elegant (in theory, at least), while being both simple and difficult.

I'd just add that Shelley and Byron, of course, were good friends. And that I love the poetry of both. Most good poets are objective and subjective, available for alternate approaches or closed to certain ones, or to all other takes, and, thusly so, either simultaneously (with multiple meanings in ordered or singled-out diction in the same poem, e.g.) or in different poems. Ah, fundamentalism. And the Arnoldian wrenching of meaning onto a higher plane, making a prosaic two levels instead of the reversed and altered Blakean three-pronged higher third.

Rule #3? Well, Arnold struck Chaucer off the list because of this "failing". Of course, he was wrong in both assessment (so much for "understanding the author's intention") and snobbish belief. Again, a fundamental failure of imagination, a failure to balance opposites in joyous contradistinction.

Damn it, just what is that poet thinking about on line 32? Or to correctly credit Arnold in one of his astute critical notes, paraphrasing: as the complexities build, so too does (or can) the overestimation.

Gradations of Snark

Ahhh, if I only had a tenth of the talent of these blurbers. After these quotes, the legacies of these poets told of the effect.


"A pig rooting among garbage."
--on Walt Whitman

"A blandly inoffensive barns and farms poet, suitable for use in seducing blue-haired old ladies."
--on Ted Kooser

"Pinsky wants to dance with his poems. The problem is, he has a lead ass."
--on Robert Pinsky

"It's hard to say what's worse, his milquetoast attempts at "the uncanny" in his profoundly overrated "crow" poems, or his tepid early nature poems. Brother should have stuck to children's books."
--on Ted Hughes

"Like the Platte River, a mile wide and an inch deep."
--on Alfred Lord Tennyson

"A hack with a tin ear, ....should have been forgotten long ago."
--on Edgar Allan Poe

"A humorless fraud, cold and toady."
--on Seamus Heaney

"The praise she gets for [her poems] is the same kind of praise I give to my undergraduate creative writing students when they make one good word choice in a ten-page story. I cringe every time I read a Dickinson poem."
--on Emily Dickinson

"Keats. Fucking Keats and his fucking Grecian Urn."
--on .... John Keats

"This will never do."
--on William Wordsworth

"Boring conversational lines."
--on Chris Banks


And to close with a snark so damning, the unfortunate recipient has been expunged from history:

"You small and runny pile of encephalitis. "American Literature is dead." Where'd you get that insight, the LaBrea fucking tar-pits? Keep raving in your forest, pal, but you are a far, far cry from earning any love/cred from us real snarkers. Your own yawn is bored with you. God knows you're not worth the gurney they'll inevitably strap you down on."

Who says reviewers don't have influence?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Complexity Of Interpretation Is Not Optative Authorial Depth

For me, a timely piece on Wallace Stevens by that "King of Snark", William Logan.

(The prefaces here are my own subjective interpretations on the quotes that follow, in mind of the recent discussions on intent, fundamentalism, objectivity, and the reviewer's "job". I realize, and admire, that there are also many other ways to take Logan's words.)


On Robert Hilles' assessment of Chris Banks' (at the time) just-released Bonfires: "Rarely has a first book been this impressive"; and on the Globe & Mail's take on Tom Wayman, after the recent publication of High Speed Through Shoaling Water: "a contemporary 'Homer' " (he or she wasn't referring to the Simpsons, or to Canadian nationalism):

"It’s easy to underestimate this moment in American letters, when certain boundaries and stock notions about poetry were, in geological terms, erased almost overnight. Between 1909 (Personae) and 1923 (Harmonium), there was a tectonic shift in what a poem had to do to be called a poem."(Logan)


On the limits of technical antecedents and expectations when faced with a unique voice:

"In short, [Stevens'] poems are so strange, so unlikely, sometimes they don’t seem poems at all."(Logan)


On the fact that spiritual evolution has little, if anything, to do with a poet's worth:

"This is responsive observation coiled around casual racism (the black draftees are perhaps still absurd animals to him—his benevolent feelings seem provoked more by the draft)"(Logan) [italics in the original]


On the dangers of making premature cementlike canonical declaratives, pro or anti, -- or on making descriptive "objective" authoritative conclusions -- on recent publications:

"The poems are so peculiar, critics were a while catching up."(Logan)


On making a strong case for a poet even if he or she has written abysmal poems, or poems from abysmal stances (weak philosophy, in one of Logan's negative-side views of Stevens):

And on using comparisons with other poets appropriately:

"To love Stevens, you have to love his deformities and even his monstrosities, as you do the wretched, self-conscious lines in Whitman."(Logan)


On the forgiveness of those weaknesses in the case of a great poet (or a poet a reader or reviewer thinks has a chance at lasting value):

"The poems are diminished and even ruined by such oddities, but without the arterial energies they solicit and unleash, the better poems might be nothing. The license of exaggeration and exorbitance is the guilty evidence of the pressure of imagination elsewhere."(Logan)


On the unimaginative mistakes of later poets issueing from the same approaches from great forbears:

" "When this yokel comes maundering,/ Whetting his hacker” .... (The preposterousness of such lines has licensed a lot of freakish language since.)" (Logan)


On the checking of awed mystery that attends heady reviewers even when reviewing a specific poem, the latter reviewer giving it authoritative scope and depth where a (perhaps) stronger case and plaudit could be set down from a more "pedestrian" take on it:

"[Blackmur's] argument is unsatisfying in a number of ways. The poem isn’t nearly so mysterious."(Logan)


On not confusing the importance, exactitude, and heightened separateness of meaning with guessing the author's intention(s) through an affective fallacy, or through a wrong premise (consider Logan's discussion of the "loge" in this context):

"The astonishing thing is that Blackmur, as close to a genius as American criticism ever produced (excepting only Poe), gave up on meaning so easily"(Logan)


On sound (or any other device) when effectively deployed becoming the possible meaning where diction and/or syntax makes meaning difficult:

"No man writes phrases like “fubbed the girandoles” who doesn’t want to be taken as a bit of a dandy, an aesthete in yellow kid-gloves—but, unless he’s also a kook, he has something precise in mind. I’d quarrel with Blackmur that the words Stevens used in Harmonium (“diaphanes,” “pannicles,” “carked,” “ructive,” “cantilene,” “buffo,” “princox,” “funest”) were always the most exact or exacting available, but, even if so, words have an effect beyond their meaning."(Logan)

It's also a difficult topic in poetics. Does the effort justify the end? Each reader or reviewer has to make the call, alone.


I've included the following extended passage, because taken as is, or even with the rest of the essay, there are those who'll still see it as "snark". If that's the case, then Logan would be a waffler, or the intellectual equivalent of a manic-depressive, because he loves Stevens as much as most.

"Much of Stevens is tedious, refractory, pompous, or ponderous; even his masterpieces are full of bombast and puffery. As he got older, he fell into blank-verse philosophizing no less like boilerplate than the reams of legal documents that presumably issued from his office. He’s a poet whose words you want to get behind: the language is as much an obstacle as a pleasure. But, when you parse those phrases, when you go to the Palaz of Hoon and come back again, you’re often a little disappointed. The philosophy of his poems, the grand ones as well as the pleasingly trivial, are those of a freshman class in ontology, epistemology, or aesthetics. Stevens had a high opinion of his philosophical gifts—he was prickly and childish when a late lecture was rejected by the Review of Metaphysics. Eliot, who was a trained philosopher and possessed the subtlest mind among the moderns—perhaps the subtlest mind in all American poetry, if you exclude Melville—knew enough to leave the philosophy out, or to bury it deeply."(Logan)


The following is my highlight of the piece. I love it. I'm reminded of Stevens' "gloomy grammarians", and I think his wild wordplay was often a purposeful ploy to trip up those academics who pedantically stumbled and puzzled over reconciling wit and nonsense with "deep thots". Logan, though often showing humourous discrepancies between an author's lines and reach, hasn't much of a sense of play. And Stevens may be successfully playing him, too, at times self-satirizing philosophical overreach:

"The critical response to Stevens has itself so often been abstract, so full of critic’s legalese, it has made him more a great cloud of being than a man who at times played with words."(Logan)


On not trumpeting a solidified "vision", especially for poets contemporary or from the same clique or poetic school, or within a friendly relationship.

"Like Swinburne, like Hart Crane, like Ashbery, Stevens is reduced by explanation."(Logan)


On the assertion and inevitability of individual taste:

"If I prefer poems more complicated the more their effects are exposed (consider Eliot, or Lowell, or Hill—and think of Shakespeare), that is a preference armed as a prejudice."(Logan)


On a reviewer knowingly contradicting him- or herself if the context justifies it, or even if the reviewer's own mood is temporarily changed (see above: "the poems are diminished and even ruined by such oddities...."):

"It’s a pity that you have to wade through a great bog of minor work to get at poems that sharpen the responses of the imagination."(Logan)

On "oh my! more snark":

"The magnificence of Stevens comes at a cost, the same cost we pay for Whitman: logorrhea of an uncharming and embarrassing sort, absurd notions, passages too private with their own pleasure, tone-deafness, lofty ambitions insufficiently grounded, and gouts of gimcrack philosophy. The longer the poems, the more likely they were disfigured—even defeated—by these defects."(Logan)


On the curious fact that I don't see too many Canadian poets of the anecdotal lyric even attempting to review postmodernists:

"Stevens requires the condition of taste merely to begin, because he’s not well served by his weaknesses"(Logan)


On humility, when genuine and appropriate:

"But Stevens is so capacious a poet, he has room for my obtuseness."(Logan)


On evaluative audacity:

"[Stevens] remains one of our great poets."(Logan)

Jacob Mooney On Reviewing

Another perceptive post from Jacob Mooney. I like this --

"If a book review reads like a consumer report on a microwave, the reviewer has failed to take any chances, to have vision, and has let me down."(Mooney)

Or the academic-descriptive opposite: "Get it hot!"

One of only a few disagreements I have is his contention that a good review is, or should be, harder to write than a good poem.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Paul Vermeersch On Intent, Snark, and Missing the Point

A well-written and well-considered post from Paul Vermeersch on unfair reviewing practices.

"In critical discourse, engaging with "intent" has more to do with understanding how the poetry works within its given mode, understanding how a text has been assembled and reading it with an eye towards understanding its purpose, its message, and its content"(Vermeersch)

Nicely put. Unfortunately, you and Chris Banks misunderstand where I'M coming from. I agree with your broad definition above. But where do we go from there? I've stated on at least one occasion that I understand perfectly well many of the tricks of (to use just one recent tradition) postmodernism. I can understand what an author is intending when he or she substitutes one vowel in an anagram to alter the meaning at the expense of the original sloganeering author of the anagram. My questions of intent go far deeper than sussing out the procedure. What is the purpose for the rearrangement? In the case of my recent online review of Jeff Derksen's Transnational Muscle Cars, this one tiny example from it can't stir me to imagine anything deeper than to interpret it as pseudo-clever commentary on a banality. It's slight; it's easy; and, ultimately and ironically, it's witless. Did Derksen have a "deeper", more hidden meaning that needed to be ferreted out? I don't know. This is where I'm actually conceding power, as such, to the author. It would be arrogant and presumptuous of me to guess at a deeper meaning than I can realize for myself. If others are more intellectually nimble, all the more power to them. But for me, the effect is clear, but even were the intent clear, it does not mean that that's the end of the story, otherwise all criticism would be boringly descriptive (oh, wait, most of it already is). No. I get it, and it's uninteresting. But even if I don't get it, even if I say I do, it doesn't matter because it didn't speak to me. I need to be engaged and drawn in to it. The lack of communication goes both ways.

The other prism-extreme is opaque light. Many poets pride themselves on their difficulty, their multiple-voiced approach, or confusion of syntax, or missing connectives, or verbless auras, or gymnastic typographies, or fractured narratives which can't even be called narratives unless three words of a phrase can be considered a partial story. I can glean some of the clues through the poetical asides, but ultimately, the author wins the game because the expressed purpose is to frustrate expectation, story-to-meaning linear development, the authority of the lyrical "I". Again, that I can "get", but so what? There is (to me) no joy in the game, no revelation (despite it being explained to me in frequent prose splashes, which kinda defeats the game, it seems), no music in its enfolding, no elegance of voice or vision. But because so much of this is admittedly impenetrable (from the reader and author's perspective), the author gets to have the proverbial cake while eating it. Criticism, negative but also positive, is impertinent, gauche, ultimately futile. Where does intention end and "let's play 42 ambiguities", or better yet "fuck meaning", begin?

"For example, one would not (should not) measure a poem by E.E. Cummings with the same material yardstick one would use to measure a poem by Robert Frost, or whichever two dissimilar poets you might choose. The two poets have a different ethos, a different project, a different way of communicating, a different "intent" that is expressly manifest in their work."(Vermeersch)

Of course. This is elementary stuff. But you're conflating a reviewer's approach to one specific author to that of comparative and contrasting connections between different authors. I can dig up (or try to) the methodologies, devices, and meanings embedded in one author's single poem, but I would only bring another poet onto the stage in this line if similarities in those devices existed, or if the devices were similar but a curious difference in mood existed. Other reasons would also exist, obviously, but these two approaches are frequent examples in the reviewing canon. cummings used enjambments supremely, for example, whereas Frost was an increbibly subtle sound engineer. Well, obviously I'm not going to fault in Frost a staple of cummings, or vice versa. Again, you're simplifying my arguement, lopping off its limbs to fit a ready-made coffin. But I'm not yet fit to be buried.

"It's disingenuous to say a critic cannot, given a close reading, determine the functionality of a text, and from that, extrapolate its purpose and gauge that against the traditions it either draws upon or tries to subvert."(Vermeersch)

I don't have much problem with the above, but it seems as though only one side is being called to account here. Why don't we ask the author what the "intent" was? Should it always be a consensus of unambiguous clarity once the teacher-student exploration is finished with the classroom bell? And if the author has to successfully explain the dynamics where confusion once existed, is this not akin to a comic explaining an joke? If the meaning, method, and motive is transparent, is there an issue at all? The above quote, Mr Vermeersch, is rather a vague one, one lacking in context and specificity. Again, it sounds good, and I think I can agree, but it's just a starting point for conversation.

"If a critic understands the "intent" of a piece, for instance, he will not declare that a poem failed to be a sonnet when in fact it meant to be a lipogram, or vice versa."(Vermeersch)

This is blindingly obvious. None of the opponents of intentionality have made that leap.

"Only the most rigidly fundamentalist critical approaches disregard "intent" completely."(Vermeersch)


"I dislike fundamentalisms of any kind, and that includes both critical and aesthetic ones. In poetics, at both the conservative and radical ends of the spectrum, you have those modes that fetishize their own kind of formalism to the detriment of (or even to the exclusion of) concerns about content. (Vermeersch)

How do you come up with that conclusion in the very few non-ad hominem charges being made against the two reviewers on the "dismissive" side of this "debate"? I've repeatedly declared, and showed through my own criticism both on-line and in journal form, how content and form mesh, and at their best, marry. I won't dish out examples here since it'd be essay-length, but the record is there. Please feel free to peruse. (Oh, and before someone steps up and labels me with the convenient "snark" shut-up ploy, I unhesitatingly agree I've written snark when I think snark is called for. If an author insults my intelligence and good will by foisting upon me sloppy construction, banal suggestions, and muddy sonorities, I'll return the favour by expressing my displeasure for having lost a few hours or more of my time and imaginative capacity.) I've written snark; I've also written longish, finely-tuned essays. Guess which of the approaches is matched by books I like, and which is matched by what I dislike.

"When such fundamentalists bring their aesthetic ideology (their dogma?) into the critical arena, they end up measuring poetries against it that aren't compatible with their criteria. Holders of this position cannot help but commit the fallacy of saying, "the non-traditional is bad because it is not the traditional" or vice versa. They mistake the rationalization or the justification of taste with the application of reason and critical rigor."(Vermeersch)

You've successfully mounted your hobby-horse, and are now riding it out of the purview of the discussion. You're talking here in generalities. Of course there are those who are entrenched formalists. I had a Shakespearean prof at UBC who hadn't a good word to say about any poet since T S Eliot. But the brouhaha here concerns two specific reviewers, one of whom is typing these words. Everyone has preferences. It's disingenuous or hypocritical to say otherwise. How many poets or reviewers do you know who appreciate, equally, the work of Steve McCaffery and Richard Outram? I, broad-minded and semi-patient soul that I am, actually picked up a copy of one of the former's books of poetry. I stopped after 1 1/2 pages. Out of the over 100 books of poetry I read last year, it was only one of two I couldn't completely finish. At what point does big-heartedness and open-mindedness give way to masochism? I had a strong aversion, obviously an immediate one, to what I read. You're damn right it's about "taste" at that point. If that makes me narrow-minded, flame away. But I thoughtfully engage with all sorts of poetry: so-called experimental, formalist, avant-garde, free verse, anecdotal, light verse, occasional verse, epic, narrative, dramatic monologues, eclogues, plays in blank verse, prose poems, commemorations, elegies, satirical thrusts, maledictions, tributes, love poems, historical re-enactments, odes, odds and ends.

"So, according to Julavits, a refusal to engage with intent is a key ingredient in snarkiness. The critic is there to look clever and bitchy, and engagement with the books, and with literature in general, is secondary. Snarkiness is inherently self-serving, and generally at someone else’s expense. It’s selfish. I agree that this style of book reviewing has become all too prevalent in recent years. I believe that even if a reviewer dislikes a work, he can afford its author the dignity of treating it seriously."(Vermeersch)

See my comments above on why I write snark. If the author doesn't have the ability or sensitivity not to inflict ready-to-go poetry on an unsuspecting reader (reviewer, in this case), then I have the self-declared authority to return the favour by giving my honest opinion which, more and more in these days of runaway publication-distribution, involves harsh opinions on what I've just undergone.

What's really amazing about this whiny defensiveness is the differences of reactions with receivers in other artistic worlds. If someone sees a movie, no one will think anything about someone or many someones trashing the movie mercilessly. And we're talking here of huge productions: the highest paid actors, A list directors, all the budget needed, etc.... But when a reviewer snarks an obscure book of poetry, it's the big bad meanies who are to blame for not "engaging" properly with the "textual nuances and intentions". The reader has the right to express her or his honest feelings about what they've just read even if you think they're wrong. Another review will always come along, and if the book truly has worth and staying power, the snarky author will have proven him- or herself to be a petty bonehead, and the snark will be forgotten. It has nothing to do with scoring cheap points by being humourous and witty to show off. And that brings me to another beef the whiners have about reviewers. What the hell is wrong with some malicious fun? Gawd! Are we all so sensitive that wordy salvos can't be launched by readers offended by any number of reasons? Sometimes a book isn't worthy of an exhaustive negative review, and I'd think an author would rather prefer a brief snark than a detailed, damning negative assessment. The "snark is bad" crowd ask for more nuanced reviews. Well, then, find someone who's willing to (first) read the book, and then to spend the amount of time (freely given) to work laboriously to a long word-count on a book they despise. That's rarely going to happen. So positive reviews, by psychological and emotional agreement, will inevitably be more numerously linked to long, nuanced, painstakingly referenced work.

"and if he does not believe a work warrants serious critical attention, positive or negative, then why review it? Just to be bitchy?"(Vermeersch)

No. Because I read it. A snark is at times a valid response, an honest emotional response to what one has read. A general audience deserves to know what I think, even if such an audience is only largely imagined.

"This seems to go hand in hand with the fallacy that all insults are honest and all civility is phony, or that trying to hurt or demoralize people is a valid critical stance.
It isn’t."(Vermeersch)

I agree. But I'd much rather have someone call me silly names than to have my motives questioned, and incorrectly so, my emotional responses intuited in nasty and incorrect speculation, and my "careerist" propensities outlined in smug certitude. Such reactivity is hypocritical spirituality at its most nauseous.

Thank you for the chance at a more substantive discussion.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Good Evening, Parishioners!

I'd only begun to read Jacob Mooney's blog a week or so ago. He's a very perceptive reviewer, so it's been a delightful experience. And though many bloggers start out with numerous postings in their first few weeks only to write more sporadically before abandoning the project altogether, I hope he blogs in verbose variation for a long time. I'd like to respond to a few misconceptions, and from differences in perspective, from his latest above linked contribution.

"I happen to think that the offended party (Table Music’s Chris Banks) has more than ample reason to be offended by Palmu’s cursory reading, but that’s not quite the topic of this blog post."(Mooney)

I have no problem whatsoever with Chris Banks being offended by my review. I also have no problem with an alternative interpretation, one that disagrees with mine. Maybe I'd even learn something from it. But I do have a problem with the suggestion that the review was compromised by its limited word count. (And since you included this tidbit, then by definition, it is an important part of the post.) I could have written another 2, 000 words on Cold Panes, but because I'm doing this for free -- since (for example) there is one book published every one minute and forty seconds in the U.S., and since reviewing poetry books plays only one part of my fascinating gadabout multi-faceted life, which include many enjoyable endeavours not linked to the world of books at all -- I not only deferred, but positively demurred, to an extended exposition. Not all short reviews are supposed to deal in sophisticated detail. Another 2,000 words would have added more examples from the poems themselves, more nuanced observations. But the tone would have been the same. I outlined my salient impressions of the book.

"This is why following the flow of banal witticisms and counter-witticisms over the past few weeks has been so numbingly disappointing. Because it’s not really a conversation about any of the things it pretends to be about."(Mooney)

Amen! Though, from my side, I never pretended it was about intentionality vs execution, objectivity vs subjectivity. Banks started off with ad hominem, inserted the "intentionality" card as his lone dust-in-the-eyes substantive ploy, then continued with unintentionally ironic assumptions, misrepresentations, off-topic charges, contradictory assessments. Look, I'm not above sparring with someone who's upset with a negative review who then goes on a sweeping condemnatory paranoid spree. It's highly entertaining, and by my incredible mercury-spiking Stat-Counter hits, it obviously is so for others, as well.

Your heart is in the right place, Mr Mooney, when you talk of the importance of keeping to reviews of critical engagement, but my blog was virtually ignored when I wrote, for a year and a half, columns on any number of Canadian poetry collections, recent or in the past 20 years, avant-garde or formal, from celebrated poets or from those whose obscurity matched October evening slugs under a pile of swept leaves. I'm all for writing reviews and for discussing those reviews, or reading and discussing others' reviews and books. Anybody else want to join in? (And by discussing poetry, of course, I don't mean unending author profiles, chit-chat, and thematic concerns, popular on a few other Canadian blogs.)

"It’s about two groups of people with a personal dislike for one another, one that I know only bits and pieces about, but that I understand has been going on for some time."(Mooney)

I haven't met my two adversaries in this particular to-and-fro. I haven't read any of Lemon Hound's poetry. I've read Banks' two books, I've read his two polemics, and I've read Lemon Hound's .... er.... contributions (to use a charitable word) over the past two weeks. It's just words on virtual pages, Mr Mooney. When the lights go out at the end of the eve or in the early morn, the last thing on my mind is what barbs my two opponents have been busy conjuring up while I sleep, guard down and vulnerable.

"We are a slightly more evolved sub-set of the species, us poets, I honestly believe that."(Mooney)

Do you really believe that? Sorry, that's bullshit. I've lived enough decades in enough circumstances, professions, social groups, settings, relationships, and have had long and various social connections with many poets (though not with a large "poetic community", whatever that means). I've been a very lucky man in that I've met, befriended, been intimate on many levels with, fought with, reconciled with, and have had a world of treasured memories of so many different non-poets of all kinds in my life. Being a poet means you're good with words. Full stop. Spiritual sensitivity and moral virtue has never been amplified, and certainly not exclusively identified, with being a poet, in my long experience.

"What I’m tip-toeing along the edges of is a public argument, a group of people in a restaurant calling each other out on long-held animosities."(Mooney)

Again, I hadn't given Chris Banks more than a few passing thoughts after reviewing his book a year ago until the past few weeks, when he came out guns-a-blazin' on his new blog. Animosity is a harsh word for this amusement, at least I can only speak for myself. I hope he recovers from the negative review (it has been a year, after all) and goes on to delight himself and (hopefully) others with his future words.

Thank you for your concerned post, Mr Mooney. Sincerely. And I echo, underline, red star, highlight, and applaud your words to engage seriously with others' poetry. Maybe when this particular rhubarb subsides, more attention will be paid to the words on the papyrus or Microsoft screen, and not so much with the reviewer's supposed dark motivations for writing them. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Raphael Dervish's MOSQUITO COILS

The 2006 release by U.S. press Hoboken On My Mind of Raphael Dervish's Mosquito Coils fell through the proverbial reviewing cracks, it seems. I wasn't aware of this masterpiece (yes, that word is overused, but it still has force) until last month when a chance meeting with a Frank Sinatra karaoke crooner put the title on my lap. The book has nothing to do with the Mafia or waterfront politics, and that's just a small indicator of its off-beat charm and pioneering elan.

The overriding theme and mood of Dervish's third and most ambitious volume of poetry is one of sanguine somnolence, and the poem's opener (put down here in full) serves as an appropriate guide:


We left
the train of a Sunday eve
pantcuffs wagging
in the starchy breeze

fools begging for autographs
by the rusted oil cans
brimming with exploded Oxydol
and rat whiskers

O! I lay down
on a corn husk
and snored an aria
counterpointed with the ocean's hush

in a makeshift jamboree
of the night.

This is a curious entry, and the first thing that struck my mind was the nature of the union of "we". "We" simply disappears. Or does it? Is this mysterious companion the reader? Or perhaps a figment of the narrator's erratic imagination? An indistinct homeless person wandering with the enigmatic lyricist? Whatever the answer (or possible answers) we know this much: people come and go, and you don't have to have viewed a statue to realize the breathtaking possibilities on the horizon.

The next several poems abruptly shift gears, and the reader is tossed into a maelstrom, a veritable broth of churning metaphysical goo. "Hard-Ass Wisdom On Two-Fifty A Pipe" outlines the cultural miscues and misunderstandings involved when a party of three occasional acquaintances get together to celebrate the posthumous release of a K-Tel Rat Pack double DVD, only to discover that pipe tobacco and rabid anti-smokers don't parlay their desire for compromise into a happy Frankie sing-a-long. Important moral and social questions emerge, here, and in the remainder of this powerfully felt and erudite book: does our desire for ingesting chemicals outweigh the importance of campy proximate clubbiness? Do we have the right to be selfish when it endangers others' joy? Is there such an idea as "too much of a good thing"? Dervish doesn't condescend by leading the reader by the nose into a pre-fab confessional, but lets the questions hang like air from residual belches after the guilty one has scarfed the double anchovies pizza with garlic, washed down by a bean sundae.

There are too many other highlights here to properly address without taking away the surprise of what will surely be Dervish's turning point in a long but sporadic career spanning the beginning of MTV through to nerdy Tony Soprano groupies sporting bolo ties.

Buy it. Read it. Live it.

You Knew It Was Coming

It only took a week or so, but voila! the first charge of sexism has been thrust into the fray. (Are Zach Wells and I the only two reviewers who don't know that Chris Banks is a woman?) Of course, no names mentioned, again, of the power-ensconced men (wink, wink), but, hey, a broad brush makes a painting job a lot quicker. Who cares if half-a-can (whoops! sexist overtones on that one!) ends up on six members (strike that last word from the record!) of the family, plus the visiting Mormons, the woman librarian filing her pen-sword, and the matron with hands on hips?

"Dear Shameless Hussy,
I have been watching the debate about reviewing in this country with some interest. After reading several posts on the matter I did my own research. What struck me even more than the obvious bias of the reviews..."

Comprehensive evidence, please? Bias in what form and content? By whom, specifically? Which publications are "at fault"? Original works of poetry under review in evidence for a more complete picture of what the male reviewers were working with?

"is the overwhelming number of them being penned by men,"

Comprehensive facts, please? In which publications? Are all of them then included? How many years of statistics? Ratio of men's acceptance-to-rejection in those submitting reviews compared to same in women? (which is more pertinent than total reviews). Percentage of women editors compared to men in totality of journals/publications who make the call for acceptance of submissions? Evidence of all work of all women and all men among both categories (accepted and rejected reviews). Percentage of men who submit compared to women who submit? "Objective" quality of work by men with journal-accepted reviews, arrived at by a numerous group of multinational poets and editors who have written extensively about all the reviewers under study?

"usually from the center and east of it,"

Hmmm .... one of the only two pegged reviewers in the Banks-initiated foofaraw is located west of Vancouver. Since the other has moved back east, that makes it a 50-50 affirmative-action geographically distributed wet-dream. But perhaps LH's persona has included and indicted the other ..... 50? 120? other males hogging the reviewing stage (by obviously nefarious, tribal means). I look forward to seeing those other male reviewers named, and the incriminatory textual evidence put on display. Of course, the only fair thing to do is to have ALL reviews by ALL men entered onto the ledger. Again, I await and expect this minor detail to be affixed, with appropriate and lengthy, well-thought-out commentary by LH included.

"and with distinctly similar tones."

As in B-flats? Which tone is this you speak of? Rage-fueled? Petty? Dismissive? Sleepy? Incorrigible? Marsupial-like? There are so many of these fascinating tones. Which is the distinctive one you mean? Ahh, the vapid vagaries of vagueness ....

As for the rest of the "substance" in this contribution, well, as LH herself likes to say: "I think it speaks for itself". I wonder, though: is there a dress code for women poetry reviewers that isn't being maintained by those same women waiting to break down the walls of ancient Rome? (Martha and the Vandalettes?) Yes, indeed, maybe we have the answer! The tribal authorities just demand dresses of their distaff reviewers! Well, we all knew that men were simple, and easy to please.

Stories of Bute Inlet

I'm happy to pass along this note from Lannie Keller regarding the proposed Bute Inlet fast-track power project. This, though it's the largest hydropower project in Canada, is just one of many proposals for the area. It makes me wonder what some of the deeper reasons were/are for the 90% fund-cutting to BC's small-press publications, since I recall that BC Bookworld ran a thoroughly researched and damning article on the BC Liberals union with private power companies in a plan to export the benefits to the U.S. The issues and concerns are many and complex, but the call here is of a specific nature:


Our Bute: Collecting the Stories

Has Bute Inlet given you stories to tell? Do you know someone who would like to share memories about living or working in the inlet, or about an adventure up Bute? Can you provide ecological knowledge?

Home of Xwemalhkwu people – and of salmon, grizzlies and countless other creatures, Bute’s immense mountains, rivers and ocean contain memory-treasure: tales of journeys, quests, and challenge... and surely there are ghosts?

We are assembling the stories of Bute – the natural, the cultural, the ancient and modern. Our impetus is the Canadian Environmental Assessment which is seeking “local and traditional knowledge” about the area. We need to give them what we know about the spirit and the real power of Bute Inlet!

Tell what you know or tell what you want to be remembered – because Bute may change forever, but our stories can endure. And just maybe, our telling will help the CEA decide that Bute Inlet is not the place for Plutonic and GE to build the largest private power project in Canada.

Send your stories to Friends of Bute Inlet.
Post Mail: Box 570, Heriot Bay BC, V0P 1W0.

If you have questions or for help with writing your story, please email or call us at 250-285-2846. If you have any photos of Bute Inlet we would love to include them in the documentation. Contact us for help with digital scans or copying.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is the understanding about an area or species that comes from the observations and life-experiences of people on-the-ground.

The insights that emerge from accumulated human knowledge paint a picture that can add to scientific information -- or contradict it. Our Bute Inlet stories and observations will improve the environmental assessment, and should influence resource management decisions.

Please encourage your friends and acquaintences who may be able to share information. Bute Inlet’s TEK will be published online at

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yann Martel -- Torch Bearer for Literature

[edit] I've just discovered Martel is more "humane" than I'd first surmised. The set-up was a book sent every other week. Math, below, altered.

Problems posting this on Nigel Beale's Nota Bene site. I'll put it up here first. This is after listening to a podcast interview of Martel by Beale:


Wow! I'd long thought Martel's long-running stunt was all about a book set-up, as well as an excuse to flog his own political views, but this interview underlines and amplifies those suspicions. The arrogance was also multiplied. Good questions, Nigel!

The additional head-shakers from Martel were also illuminating. He cares about our political leader being literate or not, but doesn't care if the rest of the population watches TV 24/7? Really? I must have been deluded. I'd thought that a strong and engaged political and cultural society was possible here because of the ... efforts (or not) of the 33 million or so that make up our country, not just the whims of the figurehead of an institution that no one looks to for literary revelations.

His tone, especially, surprised me, only in that it exactly mirrored how I'd imagined it playing out through the stunt. Even though it was the same, I say it surprised me because I thought Martel would at least put up a veneer of humility or lightheartedness on the matter. No: strident, self-important in the name of (said with a spooky hush) literature, bizarrely exasperated and unbelieving (though I believe there's a large part of salesmanship there), Martel not only confirms but heightens my feelings that Harper did/is doing the right thing by ignoring this pest.

Imagine yourself (and Harper, for all his power, decision-making importance, etc., is first a human) receiving in the mail a novel every other week, and being asked to read it because it's good for you. The first thought is to laugh at the entire endeavour and dismiss it outright, and that's that. But then it's worth thinking about in greater detail. A novel takes (for me, at least-- I'm a fairly slow reader) between 8 hours and 20 hours to read (depending on length and complexity and readability). We're to entertain the notion that one should set aside, say, 6 hours every week to engage in an activity simply because a complete stranger tells us to-- because it's "good for us". The disconnect between Martel's idealism and his lack of understanding for another's rhythms and realities is wider than one of the great oceans.

And what, exactly, does Martel really think would come of it if Harper, teeth grinding, and reading out of a chastened duty-bound decision, somehow knocked off two or three of Martel's fave titles? Would Harper then have a revelation, and initiate decisions more in tune with those of Martel? Would he immediately cut his hockey watching from constant to that of perusing one or two playoff games only, all the while squeezing in the latest Ondaatje release on the toilet between conference calls? Is the Pope pro-abortion? What gall and naivety. Or, more likely, what a creepy way to engender a few sales of the suggestions-as-book, all while patting himself on the back for his "political engagement". (Oh, wait, that's something only important in our Prime Minister.)

The arrogance and condescension of his artistic stance, in isolation, is also nauseous. To be a supporter of art, and to be familiar with it, means that one must read novels? What, painters and sculptors who largely shun the printed word are to be belittled?

I hope someone starts a campaign to send Martel a book a week on the fine arts of diplomacy and individuation.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On Blogging Responsibility and Direct Engagement

(A special evening of poetry from Trower, Haley, Neff last Saturday. The recorded sound quality is excellent, but, being technically illiterate, it's beyond me how to link it here. My gal'll get it uploaded when she has the time.)

It started off as an amusing diversion, but now it's become a hilarious act in an Ionesco play. And I probably wouldn't have added to the fun here, but since the disingenuous Lemon Hound
has done her typical drive-by smear without having anything interesting or articulate to say on the topic she laments is getting so much play (though she constantly adds to it, and has nothing to say about friend Chris Banks' initiation of the current exchange with his 2nd or 3rd post of his new blog-- the one supposedly devoted to "positive" reviews of others' poetry), how can a born satirist and tribal regulator resist?

From the bookninja quote (funny how Lemon Hound fails to discuss the topic under consideration -- reviews of an essay about sequestered journalling in Iraq):

"But that doesn’t excuse Packer’s review, which seemed to me to be a review of Danner himself rather than the book Packer was supposed to evaluate." (bolding mine).

Well, so much for Chris Banks' lauded "objectivity". The author of this commentary on the MobyLives site has disagreements with Packer's stance. Fair enough. But that in no way compromises his motives, otherwise a Republican should never review a book by a Democrat, a Baptist by a Hindu, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan by a Montreal Canadiens supporter. (More on this two paragraphs down.)

Substance in a review is a funny notion, isn't it? When one, or one in one's own "tribe", is getting praised, there are no problems, no questions even, on the topic of objectivity. When one gets panned, even mildly rebuked in an otherwise positive review (see Donato Mancini's 140 + MA thesis on-line -- I don't have the exact page, nor am I looking it up), a humourless defense is erected at the expense of proportional succinctness and dispassionate appraisal.

I actually read the exchange between Danner and Packer. One could disagree with Packer (I don't have a strong opinion since I didn't read Danner's original journalism, and neither did any of those siding with Danner over Packer in the bookninja comments stream), but I thought Packer's opinions on Danner's fetishism of dead bodies, and connections between micro and macro war issues in Iraq, to be provocative and worthy of discussion. The beef with Packer, though, doesn't seem to be about the substantive issues at all. It descends, predictably, into the "cesspool" (Lemon Hound's word for the review culture in Canada, though what that's got to do with the price of Oil in Guatemala is beyond me) of Packer's motives for his disagreements with Danner. What, then, should be done about critical guidelines, in either the New York Times reviews, or the reviews by those covering obscure poetry books in Canada? Should a multicultural consortium of bureaucrats convene to determine, through intrusive biographical research, the histories of any and all correspondence between reviewer and author? And, if undertaken, what points systems should be assigned therefrom? Top of the pile if the two have never heard of each other? (I'll leave aside the rarity of this eventuality.) Demerits if the two have had tea, but have refrained (so far) from getting horizontal? Automatic ejection if the two have had an exchange wherein one gave a review slightly disparaging of an author who wrote 60% of his poems in traditional sonnet form, while the reviewer (in her artistic hat) wrote poems of Whitmanesque shagginess? Packer and Danner had had disagreements on the justification and procedure of the Iraq war. But their personal relations were cordial. Call the conspiracy rent-a-columnists!

"The comment stream here, well, I think it speaks for itself." (Lemon Hound)

Ah, the old damnation by innuendo tactic. "I think we all know what's up around here, pardner. The jig's up." To call this a logical fallacy would be to insult the notion of logic as at least a surface procedure. Yeah, I think the comment stream speaks volumes, too. Lucky it's still on display. Banks embarasses himself for the umpteenth time with another faulty assumption, demands (HA HA!) answers, though he's not a customer of the journals under his silly finger-pointing, and ignores the topic of the original post.

But wait. In the comment stream of LH's blog piece, we also have this nugget by Banks: "No one thinks any of these guys have any credibilty whatsoever. No one." Aw, it's touching to be given such power. I especially like the added "No one". The need to defend their coterie -- of whom, exactly? All poets? Some of the poets I've given positive reviews to, even some for whom I've given mixed reviews, have thanked me -- not that that matters greatly, but it kind of puts a kibosh on the hilarious bunker mentality/us-against-them silly dichotomies of .... an imagined tribe?

But Banks isn't finished. "What can they do to stop you? The answer is nothing and they know it. Hence the use of ad hominem attacks and defamation." Now this is a howler so rich it more than bemuses. It boggles. It keeps on giving, like a throwaway taunt from a kid who just thinks he's had his toy taken away. Hey, Banks, if "we're" so powerless( the continued passive-aggressive non-use of names, though that's hilariously transparent), why the emotional call for collective persistence in the face of unwarranted attacks? As a concerned plea in order to help lower Chris Banks' blood pressure, I assure him that I don't want to "stop" anybody-- whether or not I like their poetry-- from writing and publishing their own poetry, from applauding the poetry of their friends, and from their friends' applauding of their own poetry. As to the "ad hominem" charge, this is vintage Banks. The only ad hominems I've noted in this exchange is his petulant one-line snipe at my on-line verse, as well as the many other "softer", already-refuted character assassinations based on fantasy motivations. Go back and look at the record, Cold Panes. Anyone can see it. I harshly criticized your two books of poetry. Nowhere do I attack your person. I attack your collective assumptions. I was pissed off by your speaking for me on the subjects of love and loneliness. I attacked your boring conversational lines, your humourless tone, your spiritual self-abasement dressed up as a virtue in your poems. With many poets, the authorial "I' is ambiguous, someone else, and /or shifting. But I would be shocked to be informed that the first-person in your poems wasn't you. And I think it would be disingenuous to assert so. (But, then, like, I'm just trying to get to the author's intentions, man.) Therefore, to comment on attitudes in the poems (necessary in a subjective approach such as yours) is appropriate, In fact, it would be a cowardly puff, a bland blurb, to do otherwise. Would you object to another reviewer detailing the nature of that "I" if he or she praised the attitudes? After all, that's just as valid if lyric power can be linked to self-abasement (for example). It ennobles it. It washes it in sympathy where none, otherwise, would be possible. I've lauded many down-and-out spiritual seekers, or seekers who realize the gap between their own realization and ultimate enlightenment, but that's because they could singe a powerful metaphor in my memory, or could capture a potent image that spoke to their own sad questing. Without linking personal perspective to specific poetic qualities --many of which you and I actually agree on, to go by your own posts -- the qualities of the poems are debased by that missing link no matter what the specific attitude or personal virtue/shortcoming is.

More from the faulty understanding of Lemon Hound (she gathers more incorrect assumptions than Banks):

"Don't let these guys shift the discussion to the simplistic question of negative reviewing or not. That's a red herring. The issue is not at all about negative or positive reviewing, not at all. In fact I think I'm looking for reviews with a lot more bite than these guys can offer. I have a lot more to say about this, but not just yet. All I can say for now is that the binary of negative positive is a rhetorical trap. It's not the point at all."

Uhh ... excuuuuuuuse me (as Steve Martin would say). The "negative reviewing" canard is all on Banks' thumb-aided scale. He began this tete-a-tete with the high-falutin' call against "snark". But as Zach Wells, in typical sense-making perspective has pointed out in Brenda Schmidt's blog, about 5% of the entirety of his reviewing could be classified as snark. To me, that's astounding. That shows great restraint. Perhaps he's read a few too many clunkers, and has become bored with, and compassionate about, beating a last-place horse. But it's also being compassionate to the general reading public to give your honest opinion on what you consider to be a bad piece of writing, showing, of course, when needed, and under the constraints of time and page-space, the evidence to support the opinion. But the tender-green-shoot crowd believes that a review is for the poet first and foremost. Wrong. It's a conversation-starter to the general audience. When that audience decides (if they do) to pick up the book under review-- a book with a good, bad or indifferent judgement-- then, after reading the first several poems, they'll stop giving thirteen shits about what the reviewer thought. This is as it should be. Every person has his or her own subjective opinion. What a wonderful, diverse world! I argue with friends all the time, bless them. Arguements, disagreements, are only troubling when one side takes it all personally. And can you really call someone a friend (all this is beside the point, but I'm using the bogus negative-positive paradigm of LH) who doesn't have the guts to say to you what they really think? Tact is often welcome, but when an author (TO ME) makes egregious no-nos, so-called tact only serves to downplay the perceived faults, thereby giving an unfortunately wrongly-meant tacit pass or benefit of the doubt rather than honest condemnation.

"How convenient it has been to keep the discourse circling in that little rhetorical cesspool."(Lemon Hound)

Then quit being hypocritical by jumping in and stirring the pot. One person's cesspool is another person's clear lake.

Monday, November 9, 2009

On "Aesthetic Tribalism"

The tactic used in this finger-wagging snipe dressed up as a corrective, a plea for the possibility of serious poetry criticism, is ...... hmmm ..... tribally applauded and beneficient, a frequent ploy, one used by those on the receiving end of uncomplimentary reviews who see dark forces at play, the reviewer being mainly a frontperson for the primitive, reactionary group who must put down anything which even vaguely threatens their own power base of influence. I set down the last clause with much humour, for surely the reader can smile, even laugh, at the inflated, antagonistic presumption entailed in one who sees an isolated review through such a conspiratorial lens.

I stare at the following quote, made by Banks, in disbelief:

"a provocative essay about Dean Young and his emulators which has started me thinking about the various poetry camps we see here in Canada. In a section of his essay called “Followers”, Hoagland writes, “We are living in a time of poetic explosion; the university creative writing systems have not just trained a lot of young poets in literary craft, they have fermented these young artists in a broth of language theory, critical vocabulary and aesthetic tribalism, which the age apparently demands.” "

Let's see. I've been linked in his first polemic as a snarkist, as one who can't or won't engage with the writer's intentions (bogus arguement, which I've answered in a blog post late last year). So -- though he employs the passive-aggressive tactic of high school off-stage whispers just loud enough for everyone else to hear, including the subject of the snark within a "snark", without naming them, myself and others -- I'll answer with some facts (not petulant assumptions) which should interest anyone else who may read his words.

Banks applauds Hoaglund's essay. In his quote of Hoaglund (above), "followers" are chastised for a kind of groupthink, a tribal coterie, which arises out of the university creative writing system. A quick glance to the right sidebar informs the reader that Banks has emerged with a degree from a university creative writing program. He now teaches creative writing. Is this a super sly form of self-abasing satire? If so, well done. If not, this contradiction tops even his previous embarassing assumption of yours truly as a young gun out to create an unearned following by stepping on the necks of his elders.

Anyone who has read my blog can easily see that the aggregate opinion is one of dismissiveness towards coteries and groupthink. That's one (among many) reason(s) I take the postmodernists to task. With rare exceptions, what they're doing is third-rate Black Mountainisms and French theory. Their theory (often written directly as "poetry") accepts no "conversation" with those poets working in the lyrical vein. So the conversation is pre-emptively closed by deconstructionists, postmodernists, post-postmodernists, avante-gardists, post-avantists, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E ophiles, flarfists, and other assorted doctrinaire "new"-schoolers who, by their very foundation, are reacting against the word's (understood, obviously, here, in quotes) patriarchal aggression, linear falseness, traditional entrenchment, value-bound overview. No, when someone (or many someones) attacks my entire foundation for what not only constitutes great poetry (oh, evaluative meanie!), and for whom I see boring, in-club poetics substituting for poetry, I don't see any way of having a fruitful intermingling or "understanding" (misapplied word). But then the no-less-aggressive post-lyric "tribe" only recognize "signifiers" when coming from those they attack.

And the spiritual "progressives" complain because those not enamoured with spiritual ideas of what poetry should and should not be have their own ideological "tribes". I love spiritually saturated poetry. But only if it's poetry first, any message, if any at all, incorporated into it, not used as an excuse to mount a pulpit, unaffiliated or Presbyterian or Buddhist. But much in the direction of this conversation is unseemly, it seems. The best spiritual poetry I've read -- timeless lines about timelessness by way of timeless truths (you can immediately see the problems needed to surmount the abstractions inherent in much so-called "spiritual" poetry)-- is so because the music is there. Spiritual maturity or authority (a good word, not the oppressive accusatory outrage the "egalitarian" pomos denounce) is conferred on an author often by long, slow, doubting, thoughtful, changeable degrees. But "spiritual" poets often want to advertize their elevated status, their putative understanding, or, failing that, their wonderful sensitivity for the importance of enlightenment. I find it nauseating. And ironic, obviously. Spiritual pride is the most subtle and deceptive of sins. And by no means the most rare. By the way, my tendency is towards Advaita Vedanta, but there're no needed organizations for that, and certainly no proselytizing, which is a small part of its beauty.

But perhaps Banks was the exception, bravely (or cynically?) soldiering on in the face of closed-minded tribal association, dissociating himself from the power-groups forming themselves in his very midst during communal workshops and theory riddles. And for the record, I don't think creative writing programs are all evil (though I wouldn't know, I've never entered one). I just don't see that they're necessary. Fun, perhaps. And, maybe the best that can be said for them: I'm sure they can, at their best, save time for a budding poet by instructing her or him on what hasn't worked. My most prevalent thought on that particular subject, though, is that we already have more than enough poets on board. What sympathetic reader of contemporary poetry can read even a single poem of even a tiny corner of them? Just to be clear: I think that everyone on earth should, if they feel it strongly enough, create and try to get published as much poetry as they want. I should also have the opinion that that's often unfortunate only in that the acceptance of middling or bad verse tends to obscure, by time constraints and the leveling pell-mell effect, good poetry. But then there I go being evaluative and unaccepting, again.

The arguement that "Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet" (Banks) is unworkable and inane. I've dealt with this at some length in my post last year on "Negative Reviews of Poetry", but I'll expound since it crops up a lot lately amongst poets who feel hurt by an unkindly assessment of their own poetry. The creation of poetry is obviously highly personal, highly idiosyncratic, highly subjective. Why should the reader not be granted the same attitudes? If a poem, TO ME, lies on the page like wobbly graphite, smudged ink, or typographic epilepsy, my immediate reaction may very well be "ugh!" (TO ME). If the feeling persists through several more poems, I may start to formulate an opinion that this is bad (TO ME). If I read the entire book and find no redeeming virtues in it, I may even be so callous as to (gasp!) not even read it again, thereby losing all chance for a second-chance about-face, or at least softening. More often, though, there ARE redeeming strengths in even otherwise bad books, and I often point them out. Proportion is everything. I often point out what are (TO ME) severe faults amongst the books I rave about. Again, proportion. Another term for that is honest engagement.

Reviewing is highly subjective. It is not a soft procedure in order to find, at whatever compromising stretch, a go-between for author and reader. Such a "sensitive" approach is patronizing to both. The author can detail the most lovely sentiments, the most highly evolved spiritual truths, the most progressive social solutions, yet if those aren't set down in compelling image, metaphor, voice, syntax, narrative, sound, organic structure, passion, mood, rhythm, tone (you know, those outdated poetic "vice"-devices, according to the "revolutionaries"), the words may better be employed in a prose essay, religious tract, political speech.

"[T]he book reviewing status quo .... is about the homogenization of literary culture, and robs poetry of its natural tendencies toward innovation and change."(Banks)

That's the kind of abstract mush that sounds fine and noble, but what does it mean? I love poetry in many forms, moods, subjects, styles, voices, modes, lengths. I also become bored, even irritated, with poetry in the same forms, moods, subjects, voices, modes, lengths, styles. And whenever I encounter one of many complaints in the guise of calling out for "innovation and change", my eyes glaze over with a fine mist. Those frequently championed words need to be explained. There's nothing new. Though, thankfully, there are an infinitely fascinating array of new ways to say nothing new.

Want a better, more "engaged", review? Ask a friend, or a family member, or a poetic "superior" who can do you a favour. Isn't that, though, part of what Banks denounces in his (or Hoaglund's) silly "tribal" metaphor? I write my reviews because I love poetry. Over 90 % of them are unpaid. The ones I have been paid for have netted me somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1.89 an hour (give or take a quarter, or so). And if I wanted to kiss ass and "get ahead" in an intricately staged secret hand-shaking power-broking nod-nod-wink-wink-off, I'd say that shit was sherbet, and fashion my efforts and desires around the community and not the poem (Ursus makes that last important point in Brenda Schmidt's blog, though it shouldn't have to be said). If you want a guaranteed forgiving review of 10,000 + words, focusing on bland descriptors of psychically-intuited authorial intention, dealing with beside-the-point author profiling, thematic concerns, compositional theory and process, adjectival generalizations without textual back-up, and pro hominem non sequiturs in place of analysis of the poem(s), cough up the payola to one of those internet-review-dictators (in the secretarial sense) by giving a pre-set outline to him or her. That'll certainly get some kind of discussion going, perhaps even an understanding of sorts.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Misguided Followers Of bp Nichol

Intriguing post regarding the super-subjective post-modern wrong turn much of Canadian poetry has taken apres Nichol. The writing is at times shoddy, and I don't accept the authorial presumption of American post-modern pioneering greatness, but some of the arguements are compelling. Here are a few:

"So closely wedded is poststructuralist theory to literary practice (in not just Nichol's but Davey's, Wah's, writings) that many lines in the Martyrology, for example, can virtually pass for Derridean critique itself, not even bothering to make prosy theorizing sound poetic: "third millenium bc.../pre-diluvian pre-babel king/gilgamesh suffers disunities of language of time" (What History Teaches 122), and "given back into the drift of print/of speech/ born anew among the letters/a different tension/ different reach" (119). The one regrettable consequence of this propensity to write always according to critical theory is that Nichol dashed lyricism aside as too logocentric and perhaps too fatuously colonial for his purposes. And the results for poetry to this day have been disastrous." -- DiDiodato

"And dear old isolable (semantic) meanings also go by the wayside, dangling loosely on the tongue as slippery 'signifiers', the poem caught in the closure of language that cannot mean anything but itself. There's something self-aggrandizing in the theory that brash experimentalists were naturally drawn to. Words are ultimately signs of more possible signs in a ménage of many possible discourses where syntax, "linearity of discourse" (34) and most of the traditional figurative devices virtually dissolve." -- DiDiodato

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Peter Trower, Heather Haley, Lyle Neff


Esteemed West Coast poet Peter Trower will make his last poetry reading in Gibsons, the town in which he's long been associated. Peter has recently moved to North Vancouver, and, since he's departed the Sunshine Coast, is looking forward to a last chance personal connection with many local friends and other readers, either long-standing or new.

Respected West Coast poets Heather Haley and Lyle Neff will also be reading from their work.

Location: Chaster House Hall in Elphinstone(Gibsons), 1549 Ocean Beach Esplanade

Date/Time: November 14 at 7 p.m.

Tickets: $5 advance at Beauchamps in Molly's Lane, Lower Gibsons, as well as Windsong Gallery, 5721 Cowrie St., Sechelt.

Tickets, if seating still available, also at the door.

Any other questions, feel free to send me mail. (No ferries back to Vancouver and area after the reading -- the last sailing from here, unfortunately, is 8:20 p.m.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Blank-Blanketed Ghost For What Yales You

Money, like power, flows here and there according to the dictates of a very peculiar mix of educational and social philosophies, poltical events, community mood, student pressures, and institutional opportunism.

--John Hersey, Yale alumnus, from LETTER TO THE ALUMNI (1970).

An apologia? No, my friends, we at the Yale University Press’ human resources hadjit-prop arm of literary succinctness have, in our new editions, excavated and bulldozed discursive swatches from not only the infamous cartooneries of Mohammed, but as well the weedy superfluities of Whitman’s benchmark, the profusion of blackbirds from Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways” (now “Seven Non-Ambiguities”), and the peripatetic shenanigans of Great Expectations to a more modest, sober, and proportional Middling Fancies makeover, to name just a few cold-fusible skeleton essentialities. No more the clause-clotted Faulknerian stylized raconteur run-off. Iconography is not necessary when the Yale’s “In A Station Of The Metro”-like epiphanies supersede mug-shot impressionism. A word is worth a thousand pictures.

We don’t like to tip our dry hands, but suffice it to say that those fussy journalistic quibbles of nuance, bias, and personal stake are evaporated, the emptied lakes now puddles where drydocked boats are poised and rockerless. Effusions are for the day before the honeymoon. What’s left (no pun), in Jytte Klausen’s The Cartoons That Shook The World, out-constricts Coles notes. And drawings are for kids’ colouring books -- entertaining, yes, but a faulty diversion when considering the important issues of the day, even if those issues are engendered by drawings. But you won’t find our fearless editors hair-splitting over solipsistic infinitives. Unanimous, we march over those anachronistic nullities of “values”, “context”, “priority”, and (especially) “courage”.

We mentioned “bias” in the previous paragraph, and we’d like to expand on that thought. So much of our journalistic hot house procedure is predicated on pre-conceived -- let’s cut through the cheese, right to the chase -- rather, furiously entrenched political positioning. The Yale line of books-in-a-matchbox circumvents with finality this specious filibustering. The skinny stake of terse banality -- er, appropriateness -- is driven into the back-and-forth carnality of needless exposition and ornate detail. Yale-For-Mummies prides itself on the direct approach, a fresh alternative to those legions -- (OK, two or three broadsheets) -- of journals, newspapers, and scholarly frontline publications which depicted a bomb in a turban and a star over an eye. Not a year went by, seemingly, without one more redundant Jyllands-Posten-ism splashed across a backwater mimeographed sheet with a circulation of four.

Censorship? Ha. Simple editing for clarity and a sharp, new angle. Of course, when we say “angle”, we don’t mean egotistical subjective spin, but balanced, concise analysis. Just because Gustave Dore can amaze readers and viewers of Dante’s miracle with pictorial buttressing doesn’t mean we, the collective readership, have to submit to that wordless purgatorial dimension. Some wars end abruptly. And our goal is to put a stop to the war of words by turning every doodle frame into a lame white blank, every prolix Rasta-cut into a terse Telly Savalas-like caption in a billiard-ball bubble. War And Peace has been slashed-and-burned to the length of a TV commentary during a live putt by Tiger Woods. And the better for it.

It’s not simply that our lives are less accommodating to real-time debt-countered paginated tomes. Clarity comes from brevity. And pithiness comes from the cauterized flab. Objectivity reigns. For when arguments, facts, nettlesome discussion once rolls across the parchment freeway, we lose focus, and crash against the two-way divider. In these information-saturated times, readers just want the cutting overview deflowered in a curt, expressionless utilitarianism. Just the fact, ma’am (say our students), and I can get back to the higher twin pursuits of careerism and ass-kissing. Well, our united posteriors may be polished like genetically-modified apples, but we know our market. And with that, we three or thirty marketeers stab the playlists with what we hope to be final edits of the canon.

Michel Houellebecq’s sex tourism sprawl has been trimmed, declawed, sandblasted, sauna hotboxed, cored, sliced, spliced, and put on a grapefruit diet to reduce its bulk from a windy Platform to a single, polished tile. Postcards are read; fairy queens wait centuries for a lone, confused suitor. Terrorism, graphic sex, misanthropy: these may be realities in the over-febrile imaginations of certain authors and readers, but so too is a redundant maxim for those to whom cledonism instructs a vapid smile.

Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho may only contain several pages of horrific violence (these, of course, have been excised), but the no less shocking soak of troubling contemporary cultural references to eighties’ music and hair products dominate the text, and these have been chainsawed to a prose tanka. Inflammation protects a cut and helps the skin to heal, though in literature it can flourish into a garrisoned impetigo, reactionary scabs lobbing extraneous and hoary arguments to-and-fro. “Artistic necessity” is just another phrase for “nothing left to do”. After consulting with the U.N.’s highest ranking Muslim, Ibrahim Gambari, that title page won’t be Pandora’d to.

Finally, we’re releasing a much needed single-page quarto of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The intrigue and brutality may excite audiences, and unfortunately the poetry is intertwined -- in fact, inseparable -- with the intensity. You know, by now, which side of the street we walk on to get to the bank. Therefore, only the crucial stage directions remain. There’ll always be another poet around to turn a colourful phrase. But after talking with council chair on Middle East studies at Yale, Marcia Inhorn, it’s our firm conviction that we, all of us, must do our part in ensuring that we have no blood in our palms, only sleeping pills.