Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Raymond Souster (1921-2012)

Raymond Souster died two weeks ago. I'm not sure how that registers with Canada's poetic community. The few words I've overheard from other contemporary poets about Souster's poetry have indicated either faint scorn or mumbled indifference. And for a poet easily positioned by the arts media as a "people's" favourite for his plain recordings of traffic -- from both street and mind -- Souster seems, like every other poet in this philistine country, to have been up against it for eager listeners. When the unofficial poet laureate the past seventy years for Canada's largest city is a literary ghost, it's a curious commentary on the poet's role in public discourse.

But the neglect among poets is a little more troubling. I suppose Souster's personality has a little something to do with it. A shy and modest man by all accounts, he not only refrained from tooting his horn and touting his lines, he actually downplayed his accomplishments and preferred the background. At the same time, he spearheaded the pre-Canada Council  mimeographed mail-outs, eventually co-founding and leading Contact Press, doing the publication and distribution, paying for all of  it, and even organizing events where he introduced some of our internationally revered figures to the game. So he was hardly invisible.

The only theory I can come up with is Souster's timing. His poetry is in line with the times,  and (indeed) one of his two best books is entitled The Colour of the Times (1964). His poetic sensibility was formed in the lean thirties, and any poet who didn't get blown away on a shifting wind was -- the same as every poet in England -- writing about deprivation, human frailty, metaphysical bafflement and/or anger, social injustice, and hidden graces. But Souster's tentative, plainspoken realism was an awkward fit since his best work was hitting the street just as postmodernism was touching down, and would also have little in common with the later Canada-Council-juiced confessional anecdotes of scores of other poets who would, at first glance, appear natural cohorts. But their sensibilities were quite different. Souster used a subtly shifting narrator as his "I", and in any event, was much more outward-looking than the other book-a-year authors. If a hobo was puking by the curb, Souster's focus was on the hobo, while the confessionalists turned the camera back on themselves in reactive fascination. (The postmodernists, in this scenario, would have doubted the veracity of any feelings attributed to the hobo, as well as to the emotions of the recorder. All three -- hobo, observer-poet, meta-observer would be subsumed by the meta-meta-theorizer as a computer algorithm kicking in at the beginning of a physics experiment with inanimate objects.)

But like those other prolific plain speech poets of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, Souster wore out his welcome just as he was hitting his stride. I finally stopped reading him altogether with 1977's painful Extra Innings. The sentimentality, always prevalent though sometimes endearing (even affecting), had hardened into a bathetic tic. The diction, narrow yet at the same time flabby, became particularly unthinking. And the bite and drama, the range of experiences once entertaining and fresh, had disappeared.

But there's another Souster in those first few books that doesn't often get discussed, at least not in a public forum. The Toronto diarist may have been mistaken for the stereotypical meek banker, but four years in the RCAF during WWII either created or gave definition to a tough, weary-wise discrimination which either leaks or declaims in a wide range of poems from this period. (Francis Mansbridge was wrong. Souster may have had a narrow stylistic range, but his cast of subjects was both wide and deep.) The Lawrencian "Old Man Leaning On A Fence", the amusing and succinct prophecy of  "Girls Playing Softball", the black and sad wisdom of "Ties" (perhaps his finest poem), the epigrammatic surprise of "Thrush", and the hilarious social jab of "Ten Elephants On Yonge Street": these and more show a poet with much to say, and a personality to make it new (in the best sense), all the more remarkable since, yes, his technical adventures were indeed limited and often clumsy.

Souster won't compete with our best in any latter 20th-century anthology, but he's much more than a community footnote. In a perverse reverse, it often seems it takes the death of a poet, even one of advanced years, to finally get others (poets and general readers alike) to revisit the used book store and the library for a thin slice of his total work (though his recent Collected will hopefully go a long way to make this an easier pursuit). It takes an enormous amount of sifting, but there're more than a few flecks of mica to be found.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Stuart Ross' You Exist. Details Follow.

I have enormous respect and admiration for Stuart Ross. When Canadian poets were churning out a volume every year or two in order to get and stay onboard the burgeoning Canada Council Grant train, Ross was getting his poems out through pamphlet and wits alone. Foregoing the prevailing poetic fashions throughout his three-decade writing life -- the pendulum swing from rational chat to overburdened professionalism -- he persisted with his vision, consolidated it, and now, with this year's You Exist. Details Follow., deepened and fine-tuned it. This is a remarkable achievement. Hyperbole? Ass-kissing? I don't know the man, never met or corresponded with him. But think about it. Even most of the surrealist fathers, for Christ sakes, -- Desnos, Char, and Aragon -- severed their ideological ties with Breton within three to ten years, and not because they were hankering after the next poetics fad (Desnos and Char in particular were as courageous and full of integrity, in work and life, as any poet at any time), but because they honestly followed their own inclinations of suiting aesthetic to public reception and political context. Surrealism, then, wasn't the bloodbrother and bloodsister bond some would have it. So I'm even more intrigued by Ross' steadfastness to surrealism, what its advantages are for his vision.

At first pass, one would think there'd today be as many surrealist poets lined up in a publication-proposal queue as there were stove inspectors to interrogate the beleaguered housewife (played by Terry Jones) in that bureaucracy-gone-mad Monty Python sketch. Surrealism's raison d'etre, an artistic revolution to engender one of similar intensity in politics, economics, religion, and the military, like any revolutionary attempt, was born of necessity. Confident, fist-thumping Reason, it was widely intuited by artists in many genres,  played a big part in the run-up to WWI. Bizarre juxtapositions, anchored images indefinitely placed, narrative vacancy, dream irresolution, all were stylized (not as automatic writing as is often misunderstood) into fugue or caprice in order to explore imaginative territory not available from (for example) the prominent French realists of the late nineteenth century.

During Rimbaud's brief brilliance through to Dadaism, European countries competed one with another for Imperial victories in Africa. The transition to surrealism, then, wasn't quite the shock one may suppose, and since those many conflicts without full-scale war track a path in some ways eerily similar to what the Western world has been undergoing since Ross began writing, where have all the surrealists been? Dali may have died in '89, but the nature of the mode suggests (though many others deny this) an ever-renewable resource, something, unfortunately, our earth-bound realities make a metaphorical impossibility. Well, anti-rational (when it suited their purposes, that is) postmodernism in all its sub-schools tried to assert itself into the picture but was so hung up and hung out on its own narcissism, lack of passion, careerism  and abstract wrangling that its collective vision amounted to scoring cheap points for fellow like-minded academics in a disgusting display of hermetic smugness.

Enter Ross. OK, fast forward to this year's Ross since the preamble has already ballooned beyond my intent. The titular poem was composed, we learn in the back notes, in several stages during his reading of a John Ashbery poem. Here are lines 19-25 (the poem runs for seven pages):

"The straggling professors of trouble
are astonished by the headlines.
They don't know who to phone.
They await further orders
from a double-parked sun.
Soon all will be rubble,
heaps of slag."

Now it would be tempting here to point to my first paragraphs with the obvious links to Reason not understanding and indeed paving the way for the "heaps of slag". But it could also be a commentary on our own imaginations which decompose in the very next moment of forgetting. Possibly of more importance, it could also gently (or not so gently) make fun of the rational reader ("the straggling professor") for trying to parse any of this. I'll take my cue from that last suggestion and speak intuitively the rest of the way.

The reader, indeed, is advised to relax. For two reasons. As I say, conclusions or meanings, if any can be set in shifting stone, should be entertained after the initial experience. As in any surrealistic verse, it's the unfiltered dream that's paramount. But for surrealist poems to work, a reader has to be able to access that REM state. I've read little in the way of others' dream anecdotes, but from my experience, dreams were much more vivid and plentiful throughout my childhood, teens, and twenties. This fascinates me here because the bulk of the poems in this (for poetry) lengthy book concern childhood dreams, visions, fictions, or memories (or, of course, all of the preceding). This suggests that Ross' intent here isn't, as is the case with so many poet-diarists, indulgent autobiography, but a comment on memory and the changing emotions those memories create, ending only with that last mahogany or marble bed.

At his worst, Ross' poems have the dashed-off pseudo-hyperkinetic feel of one hand knee-slapping (or one vocal chord laughing):

"I come as a horse,
a fragile stepping-stone
loosening my pants by the painted river.
The reservoirs hold
a god of burning roses."

The above, from "Blotter", is image run amok, or running in muck. A little goes just a bit longer into that long way, but most pinball games can become irritating even when geometrically inventive.

Ross does something commendable in this volume. Despite the fast in-play shuttlecock, and the shuttlecock feathers, he manages to transfer feelings -- sadness, ironic  insouciance, anger, affection -- to the reader without sacrificing the inevitability and charm of the dream or the sincerity of the particular emotion(s) evoked. I'd love to provide more and specific examples, but I feel like winding this up. But one last poem, a poem that hit me like a ton of feathers and bricks. It's towards the end of  You Exist. Details Follow., and the poem is "Lineage". I always hesitate to give too much away in poems I love. It's always best that readers, if my enthusiasms are echoed, discover those delights with a first, full reading, so I'll simply say that it deserves a place with many other good and great surrealist poems: visionary, surprising, imagistically alert and suggestive, nimble, coherent, dreamlike (in this case nightmarish), and unforgettable.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Debate And Switch, Part 2




We've convened inside this converted New York speakeasy in order to further fuel the indignation of the American people. I'm channeling the questions from our concerned audience for our two presidential candidates. Mr Bombney, you won the last canasta hand, so you're first. Could you give a condensed essay on the incorporating of disparate elements of job growth, Chinese competition, and personal inertia?

I'd be delighted to, Sandy. The Chinese people are hard working, and their clever satraps have tapped into a national and practical gestalt whereby the minions control their collective fates by a steady and hopeful application of elbow grease and illusion. Our procurement -- that is, the consumerist expectation of the American people -- from this exchange will help that 72 per cent chunk of our GDP rise by the trillionful. Mind boggling in its efficacy is the model, elegant in its non-variation.

Jobs grow when government grows. I'm proud of the fact that jobs have increased in every month I've been in office for the segment of the population that really needs it, multi-level bureaucracy. There's been too much of Mr Bombney's consumerist bible-school economics in our national debates. I promise to grow the [aside: apparently?] non-consumerist public payroll by leaps and bounds, or by decrees and rounds, if you will.

Energy. How can we get more of it from within? Mr President.

The jig's up. We're an apathetic lot who needs the beneficent helping hand of me and mine in our infinite capacity so we don't self-combust from that last chocolate wafer. We're one more Krispy Kreme from joining those rotund unfortunates my wife has been busy reforming. On the unrenewable front, more wind energy R & D. I'm a good source of infinite wind, but unless and until we, as a scientific carrot-and-stick paradigm follower, can discover how to milk my insincere rhetorical hubris like the swelled dugs of a Jersey derrick, I'm afraid it's a continual series of Hail Marys for crackpot start-ups in the basements of Frankenstein warriors.

Who needs R & D? We've got North American sovereignty. Canada's pipeline solves most of it. And I hear the sludge of North Dakota and the shale lodes in Colorado will keep our Hummers humming for the next two hundred years. The middle of the Earth is a caramel nougat!

We interrupt this program to rejoin CNN for its usual programming in an attempt to recapture our falling Neilsons since our instapolls have discovered massive channel-changing in the swing centers of Ohio and Pennsylvania. So -- it's a Kardashian documentary you won't want to miss. To those few who are outraged by the unexpected change of plans: it's all entertainment, folks. Thanks to our contestants, and thanks once again to the American viewers for allowing us to sell you the best in ear wax cleanser and dodgy insurance.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New Reviews -- and a World Premiere play!

My review of Ken Babstock's Methodist Hatchet is out in the newly published #62 edition of subTerrain. And since my long blogging absence, subTerrain #61 contains my review of Robert J. Wiersema's personal memoir and Bruce Springsteen odyssey, Walk Like A Man. I'd also like to put in a good word for Jon Boilard's "Storm Chaser", his terrific short story in #61.





Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We’re here at historic Denver University, where the students are as high as the altitude after discovering – post-acceptance – that their $100,000 tuition extraction won’t get them an interview as a clerk at “Organic Beans ‘R’ Us” after the four year parade of cultural sensitivity training. High on forgetting about it, that is. Speaking of forgettable, here are our two contestants tonight. A Mister Mitt Bombney  from Detroit by way of Massachusetts, and a Mister Barry Obummah, residing president of these divided States. Gentlemen, let’s begin. Mr Obummah, you won the pre-debate dwarf toss. You’ll go first. The first question is: just what is this thing we all call the economy anyway, and why should we care about it so much?

Good question, Jim. Well, the economy is largely about creating these instruments called CDOs, CDs, CDSs, reverse swaps, equity balance holdings, first issuance guarantees, golden parachute rewards, instigation perks, in-house bonuses, all based on cross-board mutual benefit printing of paper sent to the banks at zero per cent interest and which the federal government acquires at, likewise, no risk. We should care about this because – hey!  manufacturing has crossed the ocean like rats from a burning bridge, or, just to mangle metaphors even more, because the people expect coffee and sex – or failing that—food and entertainment for their daily grind. How’m I doing so far, Jim?

Instapoll on my ipad says your lead has just dwindled from 50% of committed voters to 34% of voters who’ve been committed. Mr Bombney, response?

Damn tootin’, Jim! I’ve moved up without even moving my mouth! Need I say anything? OK, here goes. Our economy is based on value of service for value of reception. Supply and demand, that is. The people supply their labor and expertise, and we, all of us, are rewarded in the collective pool. I – just to use my own contribution – set up a financial equity racket – er, market – which people invest in since they have no clue what to do with their hard-earned money, and who are worried about the future. I hire some people to my project, who pay taxes and go to church, and they do my work. Then the people, after the various marketing games, buy our products, in which they assume all risk, and we make, on average, 42% of their rolled-over bottom line on mark-ups, front- and back-end fees, administrative fees, hidden fees (I gotta eat!) advertizing expenses, breakage rates, annual fees, and volatility/adjustment fees, all at NO risk. Of course, the game has morphed into something even more awesome these years since with our wealth, we can game the system even more with the microsecond proprietary buys on sweeping trades all day long. This adds to our bottom line and makes America stronger for what makes America stronger – people who believe in the American dream and who go on to create and develop small businesses just like ours. The economy is important because without it, I wouldn’t have a chance to become president of the Unites States since even I can't turn a dollar into a billion . So it's promises made for those wonderful donors. But you can't trump being the head bureaucrat while touting one's entrepreneurial boned-up feed days.

Next question. Mr Obummah, today is your anniversary. Any message to newlyweds or to those looking to raise a family in these hard economic times?

Abortions for everyone! But seriously, anyone who wants to keep their kids, we need you. The Democrats need your future votes. Well, that’s kinda silly, I guess. I can’t really speak to those people yet, and when it’s possible, I’ll be dead or at least out of power. So who cares.

Mr Bombney, how do we reduce the deficit?

Smoke and mirrors, Jim. I will reduce it by increasing the budget for the military. I’ll also slash services to the bone while reducing the tax burden for businesses who’ll just pocket the money we give them since confidence in the economy won’t perk up by my numbers I seem to have little idea of where they come from. A trillion a year for the troops overseas is about right. And that’s why we need to develop more oil and gas right here in our backyard. Maybe there’ll be another Pennsylvania black gush, like in that Beverley Hills pre-show. Always liked granny’s grittiness. That’s what America is all about. Grannies making lye soap in the kitchen. Thrift, hard work and inventiveness. That reminds me –

Sorry, Mr Bombney, but we must move on  --

Not so fast, Jim. You know, I like you. But when elected, I’ll fire Big Bird AND you. China will not finance PBS, even if it does subsidize everything else about this country, including  my paycheck. Our phony  unemployment figures  and job future, well – those federal reports come in handy.

Mr President, anything to say?.

You  know, I may not have a teleprompter in front of me, so I’d just like to say, blah blah blah – and blah blah. It’s cool to go off-topic and converse with the American people in down home terms, unafraid of having that damn scroll get stuck mid-sentence pitch on some godforsaken dump in Louisiana where the yokels with guns are a-teeming yet quiet, and there's that one nasty camera crew who catches the slip. I’d reduce the deficit by continuing with the stagnant policies of big government that have marked my tenure here so far. Tenure – now there’s a word for you university types. When I moved up the ladder in Harvard, I got that tenure shit down straight up. Mystery grades, and no one can vouch for me, but those Chicaga connections. Man, every day was like Willie Dixon in one joint, Muddy Waters in the next, and Otis Rush across the street. It’s who you know, babe. I can organize that shit. And it’s my community. Where was I? Yeah, tenure. Kids, don’t worry about those staggering university debts. Uncle Barry gives you the out till you’re twenty-six. It’s called deferred gratification. Er, make that impossible gratification. See, those jobs are just gonna get farther into the rear view mirror. So your debt will continue to climb. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it don’t matter since I don’t care about the second term. This Jesus fawner can have my job. I can’t go out for a cigarette these days without some image flak coming up to me and telling me the next line to correct some other mistake I was supposed to have made. Hell with that shit, man. He can have it in January. I’ll chill and resume my poetry career I dropped out of in my freshman year. Obummahcare! Yeah, the insurance companies' dream. Students and patients. Etherized upon a table. Or some such.

Last question. Mr Bombney, how will you get people back to work in this country?

The American people are vigorous and full of ideas. They just need someone to convince them the entrepreneurial spirit won’t get crushed by government oversight and negligence. Of course, I have no idea how that inventiveness will be rewarded since the suburban build-out everything is predicated upon in this country is now at an end. But me? It’s great being a big part of the bureaucracy. I’m risk averse.

Thank you, gentlemen. And thank you, America, for listening, and Denver University for providing the pretense of having this cloaked as an intellectual discussion.