Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday Mailbag #9

Dear Tribal Hack:

We're in the midst of a hot debate in our university seminar course about which of T. S. Eliot's masterpieces was the better, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or "The Rum Tum Tugger". Any thoughts?

-- Anal Isis

Dear Anal:

Tough call. This conjures up all the old arguments about the supposed inferiority of light verse vs more respected poetry. Ralph Gustafson stated that "some believe light verse is not serious, but they are mistaken". Slightness can be more apparent in "serious" verse than what is on display in Edward Lear and .... well, Eliot's "Prufrock".

Let us turn to the great modernist's light verse caper. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" begins with the immortal lines, "Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky". It's a jaunty mood, no doubt, and the breezy tone dominates. There may not be much contrast and counterpoint, but amongst the bourgeois teacup-and-marmalade fest are profound existential conundrums. "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?". The poem, even after many reads, may happily affirm the banker's (the one reading, that is) experience, but a few nagging questions as to breakfast choices and hairstyles are voiced. This is light verse non pareil.

Eliot's "The Rum Tum Tugger", on the other hand, is all sturm und drang. "If you offer him cream then he sniffs and sneers,/For he only likes what he finds for himself;/So you'll catch him in it right up to the ears,/If you put it away on the larder shelf." This is, of course, savage, an unalterable playing out of natural encoding. And "sniffs and sneers" , in a brilliant twinning, condemns human capriciousness and cruelty, as well. Yet for all its weight, this entry from Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats effects a light rhythm to balance its terrifying content.

It's a close call, but I'll give the nod to "The Rum Tum Tugger". I guess I'm still a sucker for great themes and timeless conclusions no matter how charming and clever are worthy poems such as "Prufrock".

Thursday, March 25, 2010


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Wednesday, March 24, 2010


The Good Bacteria, Sharon Thesen's 2006 poetry compilation, visits the highs and lows of her previous efforts. There's an intimate engagement with the natural world and with friends and observed strangers. Images are used as a stimulus for quirky and startling (though sometimes annoying) personal wit only tangentially tied to the original sight. "Eclipse of the Sun", unlike much from Thesen's opus, is strong and supple start to finish, integrated in thought, trope, and construction. And I love these lines from "Oh, Hello Count, How Are You, Do Come In": "ants cart a corpse. The hourglass/of their home is a sand volume". Either this volume was rushed to print, though, or the author hasn't managed to discriminate enough to shave and shelve, because diaristic prose -- on trivial subjects, no less -- pop up like running commentary on a news feed. "The Day Lady Di Died" is only one such example. An uneven book, but an entertaining one, and occasionally memorable.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Openness Of The New Academics

"History and social science are used in a variety of ways to overcome prejudice. We should not be ethnocentric, a term drawn from anthropology, which tells us more about the meaning of openness. We should not think our way is better than others. The intention is not so much to teach the students about other times and places as to make them aware of the fact that their preferences are only that -- accidents of their time and place. Their beliefs do not entitle them as individuals, or collectively as a nation, to think that they are superior to anyone else. John Rawls is almost a parody of this tendency, writing hundreds of pages to persuade men, and proposing a scheme of government that would force them, not to despise anyone. In A Theory of Justice, he writes that the physicist or the poet should not look down on the man who spends his life counting blades of grass or performing any other frivolous or corrupt activity. Indeed, he should be esteemed, since esteem from others, as opposed to self-esteem, is a basic need of all men. So indiscriminateness is a moral imperative because its opposite is discrimination. This folly means that men are not permitted to seek for the natural human good and admire it when found, for each discovery is coeval with the discovery of the bad and contempt for it. Instinct and intellect must be suppressed by education. The natural soul is replaced with an artificial one."


"Thus there are two kinds of openness, the openness of indifference -- promoted with the twin purposes of humbling our intellectual pride and letting us be whatever we want to be, just as long as we don't want to be knowers -- and the openness that invites us to the quest for knowledge and certitude, for which history and the various cultures provide a brilliant array of examples for examination. The second kind of openness encourages the desire that animates and makes interesting every serious student -- "I want to know what is good for me, what will make me happy" -- while the former stunts that desire.

Openness, as currently conceived, is a way of making surrender to whatever is most powerful, or worship of vulgar success, look principled. It is historicism's ruse to remove all resistance to history, which in our day is public opinion, a day when public opinion already rules."


"The loss of the books has made them narrower and flatter. Narrower because they lack what is most necessary, a real basis for discontent with the present and awareness that there are alternatives to it. They are both more contented with what is and despairing of ever escaping from it. The longing for the beyond has been attenuated. The very models of admiration and contempt have vanished. Flatter, because without interpretation of things, without the poetry or the imagination's activity, their souls are like mirrors, not of nature, but of what is around. The refinement of the mind's eye that permits it to see the delicate distinctions among men, among their deeds and their motives, and constitutes real taste, is impossible without the assistance of literature in the grand style."

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday Mailbag #8

Dear Tribal Hack:

I'm deep into the composition of my first novel. Unfortunately, I've bitten off more than I can digest, assimilate and emit. There's a long, intricate plot, multi-layered and from multiple points of view. I long ago introduced the hero as naive about an infelicity pertaining to the upholding of his spouse's honour, but since then, everyone has commented, ruthlessly, upon his whereabouts and secret links to the Scientology elite, his creative culinary carelessness, and his bank account with the burgeoning right-margin zeroes while dressing in tie-dyes and puka shells. What can I do?

-- Dawn D. Layed

Dear Dawn:

Beats me. Sounds more wayward and nonsensical than intricate and interesting. Why not turn it into an uproarious, goofy romp, a post-logical send-up of expectation. If a murder mystery, fink on the real killer in chapter one, or better yet, page one. If a schmaltzy romance, make the characters unappealing in the first two descriptive sentences. If a war narrative, make the countries antagonistic in the techno-theaters Canada and the Seychelles. If a political intrigue, remember, everything hinges on the celebration of Juan Bautista's birthday. If in doubt at any time, make it a meta-commentary through the perspective of a failed TSA candidate. Good luck!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Mailbag #7

Dear Tribal Hack:

Occasional poems seem to have fallen off a cliff in contemporary CanPo ever since the project book -- whether unified narrative thread or linked sequence -- became popular. Could you display one of your favourite occasional pieces?

-- Ivan Illitch

Dear Ivan:

You're right. And the reason occasional poems -- composition and estimation -- have been neglected has to do with the faulty conception that they're only occasionally warranted, or (worse) that they're slight (in effort and importance). This is snobbish (not to be confused with "elitism", which is an identifying badge of honour), and I herewith present an example, one of many such forays into the public art, by Rat Boone:


In troubled times, Frank, when we're on our own,
when rats knock on the front door instead
of making furtive darts under the bed
to down dropped downers, dessicated dog bones,

it's good to know you're barbering the lawn
with a shiny red Deere, sitting like a Pope
on the plastic seat, singing in hope
that you'll knock over a startled rural fawn

then baptize its carcass with a wet wrench,
the soldered tool an envoy wand to announce
the end of Bambi idealism, that flounce-
fixture celluloid cartoon whose stench

of false innocence we smeared on on Sundays
on the go and whose image we discarded
when outdoor service reigned. We lorded
it over the dead and deathly. Frank, let us pray.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday Mailbag #6

Dear Tribal Hack:

What are some of your favourite slush pile similes?

-- Asa Signifier

Dear Asa:

"His disappointment was palpable as a wet egg foo yung entree slipping off the fork half an inch from his pie hole and landing on the cold and curled linoleum."

"The light permeated the meadow like a cobalt rainbow arc populated by sliding cherubim emitting diaphanous clues."

"The light permeated the meadow like an abandoned bride in the lobby of a Motel 6 showing her Pepsodent ivories to the fat, sleepy night clerk."

Dear Tribal Hack:

I work in an incredibly boring subset of the boring financial sector and unfortunately have to travel to a week-long conference where my head will be filled with abstractions, both numerical and human. I'm looking for intellectual diversion. Can you recommend a book of light-hearted, even zany, poetry as a necessary corrective?

-- Ida B. Free

Dear Ida:

Always a Reckoning, and other Poems, by Jimmy Carter.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Robin Skelton wrote more than one hundred books, including about thirty collections of poetry. Many people don't read that much in a lifetime. Many of those volumes were self-published as chapbooks or limited-edition releases, and other poems were distributed as broadsides, so much of his work must have been difficult to obtain and survey.

I found myself agreeing with many of Skelton's views in Memoirs Of A Literary Blockhead: the importance of lively poetry readings; anti-provincialism; imaginative administration ( oxymoron?). But I strongly disagree with his (and others') assertion that future critics and editors can, and should be able to, sort out the nuggets from the dirt. Even if that were possible (who has the time?), it's rather rude to expect someone or many someones to ingest a whale and spit back a few minnows (or in the case of a great poet, a freezer full of sockeye salmon). And of course, there are a lot of other thirty-plus-book authors on the go, so whale is frequently on the menu. So a tip of the hat to Harold Rhenisch for providing a remarkable postprandial buffet burp in editing from Skelton's bloated corpus.

I confess to previously dipping into the Vancouver Islander's verse in sporadic dabs, so it was fruitful to have a condensed collection spanning forty-one years. To note that Skelton is a poet of the interior (the soul, not the Chilcotin) is an understatement. He has depths to plumb when art meets experience: "We almost touch/but, swimmers pulled apart/by arbitrary tides,/are swept out on the night" (from "Night Poem, Vancouver Island"). Unfortunately, subtle movements of a soul are notoriously difficult to translate to a stranger via squiggly type. Many of the poems fade into the substratosphere when the inevitable abstract "someone", "solitude", "light", "time", "destiny", "death", "words", "thoughts", "world", "poems" or commonplace "stone", "tree", "sky", "cloud", "door" make some of their frequent visitations. And it's too bad. Because Skelton, when he wants to, can create, or recreate, a sharp and mesmerising tactile experience. Check out "Land Without Customs" and "A Ballad of Billy Barker". Still, and despite having influenced a run of West Coast poetry of aura over flora, fog over smog, I'd rather have those interior moods, however vague they may often be, than the pretentious, emotion-starved lines from those of the Vancouver academic set.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


This memoir was published in 1988, nine years before Robin Skelton's death. It's always a pleasure to read a worthy personal retrospective when the author has the patience and lack of ego to delay a self-starring script long enough to have something to say over a wide life arc. And Memoirs Of A Literary Blockhead is fascinated with others as much as, or more than, the author. Skelton was a natural raconteur, his casual anecdotes reminiscent of a good-natured ear-bender at a pub who's just as concerned and successful at being interesting -- at garnering various reactions -- as he is in entertaining himself. His comic timing is superb, his British wit biting and dry. Meetings with Robert Graves and Ezra Pound punctuate the memories, but there are also delightful excursions into the lunacy of poetry readings where assorted "puddings" (Skelton's favourite word for academic dullards or prole dilletantes) congregate, full portraits of those close to him (with warts but also love), and just enough gossip to reveal surprising peculiarities of well-regarded artists while not so much as to turn those stories into cheap exposition. Skelton wore many hats -- art critic, poetry reviewer, poet, translator, teacher, editor, publisher, scholar -- but he wanted to be remembered primarily for his poetry. More on that in my next post.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Monday Mailbag #5

Dear Tribal Hack:

The Olympic Games have been a bloated production for decades. Shouldn't there be alternative, small-scale fun games with peculiar-to-the-region contests hosted at the same time? Surely there'd be interest in organizing and attending them. And for a tie-in to poetry, why not a puncturing award-bestower for quirky or non-promoted poems/books?

-- Shirley Puzzled

Dear Shirley:

Great ideas! Actually, the former just completed its inaugural tungsten-clusters-in-a-brooch festooned medal ceremonies. Not many knew of the full slate of events since NBC didn't score us any multiple-sawbucks for advertising. But competitors were fierce, and this is my roundabout way to apologize for the late mailbag posting -- I just returned from Vancouver where I collected my top-porch tungsten for indoors elbow-bending. This will be a staple of the summer and winter Soul Limbics, the latter season a last-minute add-on with ice cubes complicating the athletic machinations.

As for a poetry parallel, I'll be organizing an award frenzy once a year, in October, as soon as sponsorship from Staples, Guinness, and Tylenol come through. Criteria for making it onto the short list will include incorporating, seamlessly, the words "marsupial" and "flaming" into the deathless text. More info at a later date.