Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fulgurations and Fenestrations, Part Two and Final

An interview in the latest edition of subTerrain finds poet Brad Cran responding to a suggestion by Brian Kaufman that Layton was sexist, falling "short of the mark as [a] decent human being[]" with his own take on Layton's poem "Misunderstanding":

“Layton suggests a woman who he is hitting on lacks a dedication to literature because she doesn’t want to have sex with him. I’m really not outraged in the least by this poem.

In fact, I find it comic and funny in a horny old man kind of way. So I don’t find Layton’s sexism directly offensive but rather I find it anachronistic, flawed thinking and it does taint the way I view him as an intellectual. It demeans his work.”

For those unfamiliar with the poem, here is “Misunderstanding” in its entirety:

I placed
my hand
her thigh.

By the way
she moved
I could see
her devotion
to literature
was not

Cran misunderstands. But before I get back to his crass, facile, and supercilious remarks, I’d like to explore several ways to look at Layton’s poem.

Who is the woman in the poem? None of us know, including Cran, so it’s not fruitful to lock her in as an attempted pick-up, and then base everything else from that. There are several other options which are, to my mind, more intriguing, providing more intellectual depth and emotional range.

First, the woman could be Layton’s wife (and we have to take it on faith that the man in the poem is Layton. I’ll allow for that, though it, also, could be too big of an assumption.). Occam’s razor slices through fanciful suggestion. Even among philanderers, striking out often occurs with one’s spouse because of obvious mathematical data based on the propinquity of sexual seduction. If this is indeed the identity of the characters, it changes the nature of the “moved/away”. Is it a sole spurned advance? If so, the “devotion” takes on new meaning. And it’s here I’ll explore a parallel that Layton is on record as having a concern, even obsession, with. In various letters, Layton lamented the nature of creation between a childbearing woman and (in his case, and in the possible mirroring parallel in this poem) a poem-making man. A child is life itself, whereas a poem is a much more nebulous, even dubious, thing. And a poem will never be guaranteed to have an extended life; a child will assert itself, however long or memorably, into the spiritual fabric of the world. Layton’s view on this was one of sadness and sympathy for himself and other literary creators, as well as envy for the woman so blessed with her unmistakable gift. Seen in this light, “Misunderstanding” leads one to pity the first-person narrator, or Layton if you prefer, for his ineffectual attempt at physical and literary fertilization. But there’s a humorous irony. The poem was an early entry in Layton’s 1959 compilation A Red Carpet For The Sun, meaning it’s been kicking for over a half-century. Cran’s take on it is illustrative, then, in that he talks about it at all. Layton has created a notable child. (Bad poems are forgotten, not debated.) And of course, Layton had conflicting views vis-a-vis giving birth and creating poems. His wish was to have his works talked about for centuries, just as he was fond of railing on those inconsequential souls who’d be forgotten even by their “loved ones” soon after they’d died. A fascinating, contradictory parallel.

Another take on the poem, also if postulating that the woman is Layton’s wife or longer-term lover, has to do with “devotion”, or fidelity in the wider sense. Just as she spurned his advance, so too does inspiration sometimes (or often) flee the scene when one has an idea, whether it’s hot or scattered. The humour in the poem can be viewed many ways, but certainly a lot of it can be seen at the narrator’s expense.

And that leads to another way of viewing these twenty-three words. Perhaps the woman is Erato the muse. I’m curious about the choice of “thigh”. Odysseus was pierced in the thigh by a boar on Parnassus, home of all the muses, when on a hunting trip. Is his seduction attempt just a clumsy, ill-timed one? In other words, would she have offered her gifts, poem-muse or physical woman, if his advances had been more clever or subtle?

There are other interpretations to flesh out, too. I’m very interested in “By the way” in that it’s not just that she turned away, but how she turned away that matters. There are many ways to seduce, and just as many ways to reject. All are illustrative, but since this is a grandly suggestive poem, it’s enough that it’s placed on the table at all.

Brad Cran has made an arrogantly assumptive, simplistic assessment and explanation for a timeless poem. But let’s look at those assessments a little, anyway. I’m intrigued by the tone. Notice how he takes the self-protective way out by first saying that the poem was “funny and comic”. It’s supposed to soften the way the reader accepts seeing the dagger go in shortly thereafter, and it’s a typical Canadian way of criticizing anything, certainly so in the realm of lit crit. Cran then immediately begins turning the thumb down with his “in a horny old man kind of way”. Interesting, since Layton was no more than forty-six years old when composing the poem, and, as I have put forth, the sexual and literary conclusions are complex. Cran, after his non sequitur “sexism”, goes on to call Layton’s attitude in this poem “anachronistic” and “flawed”. As if there is one right way to view physical traffic between the sexes. What, Cran always does the right thing, thinks the right thoughts? Struggles, many of them selfish,  between men and women will always be with us. There is nothing anachronistic about that. It’s this, finally, that grates. Cran’s often driven by feminist issues. I admire him for many of those views. But in poetry, it comes off as unoriginal, and pressing for votes.

If Cran or any others parading their easy complaints of misogyny or sexism want to see Layton in that vein, try his "Three on a Park Bench" or "Teufelsdrockh Concerning Women". It makes "Misunderstanding" sound like a fond slap by contrast. The former two poems aren't very good, either, which, after all, is the more important concern. And there are scores, hundreds, of other poems of his that express his frank hatred of men. But pointing those out don't score any political kudos. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fulgurations and Fenestrations, Part One

Stephen Henighan and the definition of reading

I like Stephen Henighan. He's a pants kicker. In a country festooned with literary droopy drawers, steel toe inserts are occasionally necessary. But in his recent Geist article, he makes a dubious case for books being the only medium possible for a deep, resonant reading experience. He goes further, to say that reading via electronic devices is not reading at all because of the attendant distractions, hyperlinked or sidebarred or pictorial. OK. It's a gathering argument, and by now a common one, and one that seems to be gaining cachet by repetition if not persuasiveness. But I'm more and more annoyed by the broad brushes, and by the sentimental value attached to the almighty book.

I love books. Though not a fetishist, I love their feel, heft, smell, unique configurations and colours, give and strength, font shock and internal typesetting flourish and quirk. Did I say sentimental? That's my argument for books. Henighan's more experientially precise, calling on the power of the book to submerge us in a world of uninterrupted imagination, ferried along by the linear play within the pages. But that's the experiential ideal. In reality, most readers are not allowed the luxury of an uninterrupted book reading experience. We steal twenty noisy reading minutes on the bus ride to work; we're the driver of the same bus, Bob Smith, who in an interview with questioner Grant Buday circa 2000, stole a minute or two of DeLillo or Dostoyevsky, for years, between long red lights; and we're the person (me), reading about Bob Smith on the upper ferry deck, surrounded by crazed teenagers and zigzagging foot traffic. In contrast, when I read online, it's often late at night. Alone and surrounded by quiet or (presently) the actual sound of non-proverbial crickets, I can sail along uninterrupted over great stretches of the written word, whether poem or essay, political argument or news article, blog post or comment stream. "But what about the long form, the novel?" Well, I admit I don't have an eDevice yet, but if I can concentrate and even entertain creative responses to and from my late-night pixelated adventures, I don't see the problem should the novel form, eventually, be housed in the electronic hive for the majority of its output. The glorious past, I'm afraid, is of no sentimental force here. Long, uninterrupted, imaginative depth: the reading experience of the typical Dickensian page-turner? Many of Dickens' novels were first encountered in serialized form, and in newspapers alongside yesterday's equivalent of baby bum powder and floor polish hortatory pitch. And I doubt that most readers a century and two score ago had the same leisure time as us. Snatching a chapter chunk here and there, they managed to get through the entry before the next week's installment. Or am I painting a too-gloomy social supposition, the extreme of Henighan's? Well, the truth's probably somewhere in the middle, but I highly doubt that many of the non-John Jarndyce citizenry were jumping from one canon-provider to another at any time of day or night in timeless wonder.

The reality is that we read how and when we can. A new mother? Another working two or three jobs? Still another with his head stuffed with reference books who breaks the spell willingly to look up an obscure word, or to corroborate a historical setting? Just so, one who reads online, be it long-form or not, isn't at the mercy of hyperlinks, footnotes (what, David Foster Wallace didn't exist?), or advertisements (Henighan's article is, itself, bordering a windowed pitch for two different books). When one is pleasantly ensconced in a story, argument, or entertainment, the medium is not the message, as Henighan says, in support of McLuhan. The media guru set that oft-venerated quote in a specific context. Radio was hot because the act of listening was intensely concentrative and reactionary. Hence, the phone-in "hot line". TV was cool because it created what we now can corroborate scientifically as brain waves inducing passive responses. And so on. Reading is active whether by internet or book. Those who worry that the internet itself is changing the wiring of the brain strike me as alarmists. It's -- again, to use McLuhan's term -- a hot medium. The reader -- or peruser, as Henighan would have it -- is in control. TV viewers strike me as quite different from those of the internet variety. In fact, I'd guess that those who watch many hours of TV a week choose passive-type pursuits on the web, as well. (After all, there's something for just about everyone on the info/entertainment highway.) So it's people's predilections, not the medium itself that matters.

Finally, people will vote, with their wallets, for whatever transmission source they wish. I do agree with Henighan that even ten years ago there were noticeably more heads buried in books in public than there were in iphone and related gadgetry. But anecdotes don't catch the whole story. Maybe many of those same people are saving the long-form reading, whether it's a historical compendium or Russian family epic, for the quiet and monklike seclusion of the home. And my belief -- and I admit it's only a belief -- is that they'll be able to do so just as well using a book, the web, or the eReader.

Friday, September 6, 2013

John Hersey's Hiroshima

At the second hottest point of the Cold War, 1983-84, I remember talking to several friends and acquaintances who confided in me nightmares (actual) and opinions (heated) following on the accelerated rhetoric between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I sympathized, but didn’t share their fears, although anyone at the time would have been a fool to dismiss them outright. Though I was too young to understand the serious import of the Cuban missile crisis, it wouldn’t be long before the arms race intensified. Throughout the seventies and early eighties, most people paid attention to each side’s bragging advertisements for the specific technological gewgaw of the day. But fears were also tempered, at least in this scribe, by two key ideas: mutual assured destruction (or MAD) and the balance of power. In the former case, each had confidence that the other side wouldn’t be mad enough to escalate tensions to the point of an initial thermonuclear strike. A sovereign nation encompassing a large land mass and citizenry has little to gain and much to lose by dodging fire from the skies just to score a posthumous point. And the balance – and for most of those drawn-out decades of fluctuating tensions, there was a rough balance – meant that to initiate anything was counterproductive since there was no clear advantage in doing so. It’s all a faded trouble now, like trying to recall the emotional immediacy of a social spat or personal illness. Reagan outspent an economically cratering Kremlin (lucky their last oil discovery surge happened after the break-up of the Soviet Union), and the threat evaporated.

Well, for a while, anyway. Now, of course, the world isn’t populated by two equally strong superpowers in a “normal times” draw with every other nation looking on, but is beset by established nuclear players with unstable governments (Pakistan), up-and-comers, even though in initial and (variously) ineffective stages (Iran; North Korea), and proliferating radical agents motivated to get their hands on longstanding portable, or suitcase, nukes. In addition, the hostilities are infinitely complex, and ultimately unknown. Even the wisest political speculation on the current Syrian crisis admits a pocket of incomprehension at the “end game” of the various players involved. Even if the U.S. Congress votes “no” tomorrow, the subs and ships and aircraft in and around the Mediterranean will remain. Obama’s “ninety day” window (read: opportunity) to attack Syria will stretch, just like prior “temporary” wars, and there are many motivated players in the Middle East and without who are eager to forge new working relationships with other countries in order to build, secure, and operate LNG pipelines.

At that last nuclear hot point, 1983, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a long essay published in 1946 (in its entirety) as the only entry in that issue of Time. Relentlessly objective in approach, amazingly subdued in tone, Hersey told the stories of six of the survivors from three hours before, to one month after, the U.S. atom bomb detonated over their city. I just reread it less than a day ago and was even more impressed with its attention to detail, its dignified utterance, and, not least, its compositional clarity. That equanimity infuriated many readers, those who desired outrage and condemnation, theories and follow-up calls to action. But Hersey, as he did in a much different manner in his fictional masterpiece White Lotus, wanted to allow a few affected people to speak over the screaming ideological forays in newspaper op ed  and on university podium. And though I’m often irritated by self-regarding quietness in the literary world – work and  the reaction to it – when the topic is grave, it seems to me the measured voice is more than compelling, it affects a gathering force, or rather it gets out of the way to let the force of the content carry the scarred and scary emotions. (I’m reminded here of the 1984 anti-nuke BBC movie Threads. It’s up on you tube. Don’t watch it just before bedtime.)

Why so much focus on tone? Well, just remember tone during the next few days, weeks, and months. There’ll be a lot of screaming, a lot of anger. Much of it comes from people who see everything in narrow-minded, unsophisticated, ignorant partisan repetition. Ideologues. And the powers-that-be have their own ideologies, much different than those reacting. But what struck me about Miss Toshiko Sasaki, Reverend Mr Tanimoto, Mrs Nakamura, Dr Masakazu Fujii, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, and Dr Terufumi Sasaki, after their courage, was their fatalism. Now granted, that’s a cultural attitude, a deeply ingrained one nurtured through centuries (though Kleinsorge was German). But fatalism is a dirty word for us Western go-getters, us gung-ho pioneers and optimistic, idealistic war-spared citizens. I get that. But I also get that we’ve been living through a half-century of fortunate oil-soaked largesse, even if the waves have been choppy at times. Fatalism is often misunderstood. It’s not a passive attitude at all. Look at how Japan quickly rebuilt itself after the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And how they rebuilt their country with spirit, all while undergoing a rapid transition from emperor-worship to democracy. The least we can do is put aside silly, simplistic opinions of left versus right, capitalism versus socialism, personality versus personality, and go a little deeper to find, in repose, the roots to these conflicts which (in true fatalistic Japanese-intoned “it can’t be helped”) will always be with us.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Anis Shivani's The Fifth Lash and Other Stories

Reviewers, like the novelists and short story writers they judge, as well as citizens in the “real world” taking in their cars for major overhauls, need to be shrewd in going undercover. If the characters are leaking oil for two hundred-plus pages, perhaps it’s a good idea to look under the hood oneself, even if one isn’t an expert, in order to discover whether the problem is serious and systemic, or trivial though persistent. In the latter case, the book under review is a loose bolt in the oil pan, which is to say the “problem” doesn’t really exist if one is satisfied with last-minute plot resolutions while ignoring the psychological filtering between and behind the covers and metal intestines. In the first instance, one has to dig into every nook and cranny of the book to find that both crankshaft seals are defective. What to do then? Well, the reader isn’t a mechanic, that’s the author’s job. In a perfect fantasy world, the car owner would then tell the mechanic to keep the car since he (the owner) could just purchase another one that wouldn’t keep getting these strange noises every time a spin is taken.

I’ve drawn out the metaphor to make a point. Most readers are happy if the book just needs a screw tightened in the pan. But that’s only possible if they’re part-time passengers in their friends’ cars, the equivalent of romance readers plundering a book a day before throwing the year’s supply into a Guy Fawkes Day apolitical inferno. Because in a literary work, the oil leak is devastating no matter the source. And one leak – two leaks, actually – that readers keep putting off going to their mechanics about have to do with race and class, and the cultural enclaves that follow from them.

How so? Well, peruse some of the comments on GoodReads about novels and short story collections that contain or omit those two hot-button subjects. Glib melodrama, leaving its slick from carport to destination, is “colorful” or “poetic” or “romantic” or “sincere”, even though its “others” – the sapper Kip in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a good example – are more parabolical than human. And money (class)? Novels which flatter, and which are about and for, the middle class get traction for that alone. Note Carol Shields’ popularity. Then we have the otherwise exciting Martin Amis who avoids the middle class while grinding the lower and upper molars against one another, often as caricature fillings.

Earnest depictions of insular communities or romantic peripatetic excursions in various exotic settings (usually in past centuries to avoid any exposure to charges of jejune characterization) guarantees that class is either analyzed in a vacuum or outsourced to fantasy.

Enter Anis Shivani’s The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (C&R Press, 2012). Born in India, though living most of his life in Houston, Texas, Shivani’s collection of fourteen short stories burrows into the accelerating realities of mobile personae not as obtuse social document or facile moralizing, but as character-driven dilemma and existential frustration and/or reckoning and realization. Shivani’s first story collection (covered last year in this blog), Anatolia and Other Stories, was published first, though most if not all of The Fifth Lash was written earlier. The concerns are similar, though in the book currently under review, the stories are set either in Pakistan or the U.S.

Shivani’s most audacious effort is the titular story as told by an aide to Pakistan’s (then) president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It’s devilishly difficult to cram the sinuous detourings of political intrigue within a short narrative while keeping a sense of drama percolating, and Shivani sometimes is guilty of info dump overload, but at its best, the machinations are relevant, haunting, even prophetic. (At least this reader experienced an unwelcome frisson at “Bhutto’s mimicry of Zia, both in front of him and behind his back, had ceased earlier that winter.” No need to detail the twentieth-century despots Zia reminds one of, pre-ordainment. As for the "prophetic" plaudit, note how Bhutto's nationalization of various industries, and the stagnation that ensued,  reminds one of Obamacare and Detroit wheels.)

“Jealousy”, typical in a Shivani exploration, turns what is often a well-worn premise – sexually inexperienced young wife flirts with charismatic male friend and discovers new resources of power – on its head. In this story, the male friend is Asian, and isn’t just an excuse for the protagonist to work through her problems. All of these characters have their stories, and though Shivani here doesn’t always integrate the back story seamlessly into the propulsive present, the quirks and exasperations, the intelligence and guile of these people are vivid challenges to the rather pale category assertion of “round” characters as laid out by E. M. Forster.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is “Growing Up Blind in a Hotly Contested State”, which depicts the formative years of a Muslim who escaped his parents’ stultifying social expectations and intellectual inadequacies by (first) spying on his Caucasian neighbours only to be invited to their artists’ soirees and reveling in a many-sided freedom. But these artists (and artists’ friends) had pedigree. “Exiles” in their own land, the connection with Safdar may seem too easy, but it’s to Shivani’s credit that the connection has its own life, and isn’t a closed loop. This is eventually made clear in a brilliant first-person epiphany when Safdar grows up even more – (Blake’s Songs Of Experience, the higher third, comes to mind) – “I got to know the characters in the Robartses’ pantheon of heroes all too well: the minimalist poets and abstract expressionists, and their hangers-on, no longer surprised me with a well-chosen word or quotation from obscure European intellectual texts.”

“Alienation, Jihad, Burqa, Apostasy” deals with ... well, you get the barebones of it in the title. But again, Shivani goes beneath the headlines to get at the conflicting tensions that animate and confuse his characters. Similar in some ways to “Growing Up Blind in a Hotly Contested State”, this short story deals unflinchingly with the sexual awakening of a Muslim who has taken up the serious dictates of the mosque, and who grows (rather, stultifies) into an orator and strict pedagogue himself. The sexual revelations are both infuriating and funny, not an easy combination to get right. But Shivani is never about painting with a broad brush, nor about using only the centre of the canvas. Here’s Salman’s own observations as his experiences at university develop: “The Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley graduates, who had seemed so idealistic and verbally accomplished, baffled me with their hard-nosed practicality, an obsession with the nitty-gritty, particularly money matters.”

“The Rug Seller’s Daughter” is a particularly affecting story, a short one in two scenes, concentrating on the American buyer of the goods in the house of the father in Pakistan. Matchmaking stories have a long literary history. In Shakespeare, it’s all japes and folderol. Here, Shivani moves the reader on a different emotional path, again with an ending both inevitable and surprising.

Another challenging story, and perhaps the best in the book, is “What It’s Like To Be a Stranger In Your Own Home”, the deeply troubling exploration of identity post 9/11. Paranoia, downsizing, terror alerts, personal disintegration, post-marital anger, sexual expectation and fantasy image-setting by the protagonist, but also by his current lover and others: this has all the checkpoints for a maudlin outpouring, but Shivani skillfully and expansively engages the reader on all these concerns without turning the proceedings into a stump sermon. It’s his most impassioned story in the collection, and though some may find the realization a little too confident, it’s certainly hard-won and organic.

If there’s anything exotic about The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, it would reside in the gorgeous cover art by Tapu Javeri depicting two naked men (or is it one?) seemingly caught in a revolution, but in the twelve-and-six position, somewhat reminiscent of Shiva, the destroyer, in this volume, of illusion.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

James Pollock's You Are Here: Essays On the Art of Poetry in Canada

When the new normal in criticism is for a reviewer and essayist to play along with the small-stick commandment that “everyone who participates (writes poems, in this case) gets a gold star”, it’s both a relief and a delight to encounter James Pollock’s recent You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada, which puts the evaluative approach front and centre. Ultimately, it’s the critic’s job to sift and weigh, to consider, and to judge. Pollock takes great care in this sequence from reading to writing, and the force of his conclusions, always nuanced, are made plain, and backed by a hefty portion of core citation.

You Are Here kicks off with a terse preface. In the bad good-ole days, two kinds of Canadian scribbling held sway: “rough, dull, plainspoken lyric poetry in casual free verse, either autobiographical or mythically didactic: Atwood, Al Purdy, George Bowering”, and “a loopy avant-garde composition whose main qualities were tedium and incoherence: Nichol, Fred Wah, Steve McCaffery.”  Alternately depressed and furious, Pollock began to trace “the causes of that literary malaise”: a general lack of understanding and clarity about poetry whose main outlet congealed into parochial boosterism set the paces for Canadian mainstream verse and poetics.
Pollock’s collection is in three parts. Part one is a series of reviews of single poets in career retrospectives, though some focus on one book. Part two is a series of four essays on recent Canadian poetry anthologies, as well as an opening piece on a critical survey. You Are Here closes with two thematic excursions more personal in tone, and covering the concerns, in repetition and variation, touched on  throughout the book.

One of Pollock’s arguments concerns poets’ loquacious, narcissistic tendencies. Of the five causes listed for the late Daryl Hine’s neglect in Canadian verse letters, one is “our poetry’s puritanical devotion to sincerity and personal authenticity”. I agree with the view, as it’s contrasted to Hine -- and compared with contemporary poetry -- in general, but the argument is more sophisticated than that. Robert Lowell, with Sylvia Plath, spearheaded the lyric confessional booth from which ever-renewing booster shots are administered by priestly egomaniacs every publishing cycle. But Lowell was frankly manipulative with fact and,  more importantly, used it to mine ideas and emotions for which autobiography was simply a convenient wellspring of the universal. This is why his historical poetry is so remarkable, and why it fit so seamlessly into his own experiences. It’s all impersonal history, in a sense. But here I must turn it back to Hine. Hine’s best lyrics have an effective and affecting emotional resonance to them, a bewitching element of personal surprise which marries the allusive adjuncts or stratagems, ala Lowell, to a structure superseding both. I think here of  “Plain Fare” from the book under review, Hine’s Poems Recollected (1951 to 2004), (Pollock would most likely appreciate the homophone, one of Hine’s signature tricks), where the mundane topic of a bus trip is invested with a wonderfully open and searching exploration of human vulnerability and geographical circumstance. A sobering comment is made, and unobtrusively so, about fate, even in the most relaxed of circumstances. Hine’s sophistication, I find, is often featured at the expense of his other, and greater, strengths, and though the wordplay hijinks are often impressive, to support  Pollock’s  praise, it’s when Hine lets his heir down, and concentrates on a more unfiltered experience --  less allusive and intricately music-for-music’s-sake --  that I most thrill to his poems. At any rate, I agree with his criticism of Recollected Poems’ organizational problems. Why any editor or publisher thinks arranging the poems into a thematic structure, rather than a chronological one, enhances the reading experience is beyond me.

I concur with Pollock’s review of Dennis Lee’s Un and Yesno. One need not enumerate all the various ways our natural world is being depleted, plundered, polluted, and manipulated in order to get on a soap box and blow a language bubble. But that’s one trouble with Lee’s two efforts. To steal a D.H. Lawrence criticism of Freud, it’s all going to church but with no worshipping. As Pollock says, there are very few instances of actual birds, plants, animal interaction or observation to contrast with their vulnerable existence next to ... well, next to what? Lee isn’t clear on that either. At least most polemics in verse seek to be plainly didactic. Even when the poetry inevitably suffers, the reader can at least make connections, and feel some sympathy for the particular argument. But Lee’s effort to regenerate language by paradoxically reducing it to “slubtalk” is a peculiar way to get there. Perhaps it’s our regressive worship of the “natural state”. Rousseau and his noble savages. Lee’s “flux”, which Pollock quotes, is so filled with neologisms that it’s “reduced to gibberish”. In a way, the poem is fun, at least the first time around. But Pollock is quite right when he states, “[c]ould anything be more self-indulgent?” This is the kind of verse a friend and I used to make in grade nine, made-up words that sounded quirky and silly, and weren’t intended to communicate anything other than a laugh, though I suspect (I can’t quite recall) there may have been a more serious, subversive element to it, ala the Dadaists. Nothing means nothing, man, so let’s just make stuff up. Fun in a closed-loop for a while, and only with one’s friends, but what it has to do with language resuscitation, and especially as a response to the complex issues of ecological destruction, is a puzzle I can’t even begin to entertain.

Pollock next reviews Anne Carson’s Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (2006). Carson’s book is a multi-structured, complex undertaking of original poems, poetics tied to her efforts, reviews and thoughts on a wide variety of literary and saintly (if not “spiritual”) figures, librettos, plays, and essays. It’s a curious choice to include in a collection of praiseworthy (to Pollock) poets, since Carson has been wildly belaurelled here, as elsewhere. But the quality of that critique, in Canada, has been strange, and has provided supporting evidence for Pollock’s claim that our poetic culture has lacked sophistication. Elsewhere in You Are Here, Pollock states that criticism and poetry are of a piece. That is, one reinforces the other, and both are necessary. But in Canada, any praise of Carson seems to be of the elementary kind. What is needed are critics, not necessarily credentialed scholars, who can go some way to unpack Carson’s allusive links, but also to make a place for her in (to use Pollock’s term) the Romantic sublime. But Pollock wants more than that. It’s easy to get lost in theme and history when a Plato or a  Longinus, a Weil or a Beckett pop up on every page. The poems, though, especially, have to produce on their own merits. Pollock finds her original creative work a mixed bag. He praises the emotional content in some of the poems while passing over the ineffective  typographical or structural tricks of others, those tricks the failed lineation experiments in which he calls on Flannery O’Connor to admonish against, wherein “a writer is free to try and get away with whatever he wants, but that it had been her [O’Connor’s] experience that there wasn’t much one could get away with.” I’m tougher on Carson’s poetry than is Pollock, finding her images often general, her rhetoric often unconvincing, her sound patterning often clumsy or simplistic. But I side with him in applauding her choice of thematic material. Not many poets have braved a concern with God or even gods these days, nor have many classical tropes and stories been used in serious reworking as opposed to deconstruction games. And on that note, it’s her prose that shines, or at least glows. Pollock raves about her intelligent analysis of (for one example) Sappho’s poetry, her erudition combined with a personal exploration which brings life to obscure figures such as Marguerite Porete. Her prose is probing, but tentatively so. It’s notoriously difficult to write about spiritual issues, and the idea of “decreation”, annihilating the self to better access the glory of god or God, is, as Pollock points out, not a new one in the vast history of negative-approach spirituality. But Carson manages to put a sincere and personal spin on it. The plays, the oratorio? I agree, as well here, with Pollock. Warmed-over Beckett. Worse, an unconvincing reach for an Ionesco craziness. Pollock enjoyed the libretto at the end, but I haven’t read it, being allergic to opera without the singing, instrumentation, and staging.

The career review of Jeffery Donaldson is the high point in You Are Here. Both thematically relevant and exegetically astute to many points he makes throughout the volume, Pollock lavishes serious praise on another poet in the line of erudite, tradition-conscious wordmakers who nevertheless transcend the stylistic fixities of those admired poets to find their own way. Pollock brilliantly introduces key poems in the Donaldson corpus, pointing out various epistemological hints and metaphorical-personal linkages, but moreso to give a round description of an ambitious neophyte who, when a university student, “apparently kept a quotation from Goethe’s Faust tacked on the wall above his desk: ‘Settle your studies! and sound the depths/of that thou wilt profess.’ “ A sobering admonition for any student, especially so for a budding poet trying to navigate between various and conflicting influences in one’s formative creative years. Pollock identifies Donaldson’s penchant for dramatic monologues in his first volume, 1991’s Once Out Of Nature, with a reliance on the preferred mode of mentor Richard Howard. The book’s opener, “A Floating Garden at Giverny” is given a highly sympathetic explication/review, and though Pollock makes a good point that this particular voicing is freer, or more convincing, because the narrator is not the subject, it’s also true that the deflected in-poem praise comes off a little too heightened or pure in overall design and effect. I much prefer another monologue from the same book, Donaldson’s first-person majestic manoeuvring on Gustav Mahler, “At Toblach”, (which Pollock also admires). It’s not appropriate to a review of the review, here, to rave about the  poem in too much detail, but my praise has ties to what Pollock maintains: the language is faultless, and the sounds mellifluous and suggestive, here made in exquisite parallels with the difficulties of composition breaking with new power and contour. Pollock’s praise of “Bearings” is intelligent. I, for one, am convinced. And again, it ties in with a major theme of the book: worldly exploration making way over the misplaced, though smugly held, views of fixed provincial worthiness. And unlike many other first-book authors who would go on to display their wayward logorrhea in each publishing cycle, Donaldson’s next book of poetry didn’t appear until 1999, eight years after his first effort. It, too, is filled with gems, and is startlingly different in rhythm (stronger, tighter) and effect (more daringly personal). Pollock emphasizes the latter strength, especially so in his careful reading of the incredible “Feddy Doe” where the father in the poem is a substitute (or perhaps it’s the other way ‘round) for the poet’s mentor, Richard Howard, who had to be shaken off (this time for a more mature association with James Merrill). Donaldson’s third volume, Palilalia, ten years after his second book, is praised by Pollock for further development. Bold in design, and successfully personal and direct, it’s a hard-won testament to Northrop Frye’s words (in Pollock’s view) that Frye’s students should stop trying to be so willful and just let go, the latter a parallel or metaphorical tap to Donaldson’s Tourette’s syndrome. I haven’t read this volume, so won’t add any commentary to Pollock’s.

I couldn’t disagree more with Pollock’s assessment of Marlene Cookshaw’s poetry, at least with book 2 and 3 of her five efforts. (I haven’t read the others.) Pollock’s stance is that Cookshaw’s aesthetic repertoire was (pardon the pun) raw, inept in her first two volumes. Her characters were uninteresting, she couldn’t finish a poem with any structural or narrative skill, and she “linger[ed] excruciatingly over insignificant details”. I agree that the long 13-part sequence, “In the Swim”, from The Whole Elephant, matches that withering description, and it’s unfortunate it hogs so many pages. But elsewhere, Cookshaw shows promise with startling similes (“the building folded inward like soiled cloth”, from “The 410 Walker Street Blaze”), terrific sounds laced with troubling self-identity (“Made of my body an abandoned canoe”, from “That Singing Edge”), and more sound-chiming with suggestions of past and present stories (“trapped in Alf’s garage/with her collection of cobwebbed dolls/and my abandoned books”, from “Ball/bearing”). But it’s the poem “Flying Home from the Prairies” that highlights this book. It’s a wonderful poem, and shows off Cookshaw’s great strength, believable vulnerability, not sentimental in the least, and at times, metaphysically scary. It’s a rare talent that can pull this off, and she navigates with confidence from start to finish in this musing during a B.C. flight. I’m not being coy by not quoting from it; it’s simply that the strange mood, and the mature and intelligent conclusions that come with the touchdown, have to be experienced with a complete through-reading. Another intelligent summation occurs with the book’s last effort, “Sempre Amore”, a philosophical acceptance of sound for sound’s sake after listening and watching Steve Lacy play sax. That promise was destroyed for me when I read Cookshaw’s next book, Double Somersaults, an effort in which Pollock finds seventeen of the forty lyrics “very good”. Worse, the ones he pegs among those seventeen contain some of the flabbiest, most abstract, cliched, and smug and inane philosophical phrasing I’ve come across in some time. From “Blue Mexican Glass”: “This/is all there is, when will I learn that?/There is what comes, what I do/with it, what goes. What gives./No matter. No matter at all, no/substance.” From “Grays Harbor County”: “People here try hard to be/good citizens. There is no doubt//they are god-fearing folk, in/troubled times, time being//one day and then another.” From “Praise”: “breath held//before giving in/to the world’s eloquence.” One notes the presumptive first-person plural, the grand statement, the plunge into bathos. This is shocking because Cookshaw’s strength – vulnerability, particularity, wise conclusion – have mostly gone AWOL in this book, but have done so while opposite qualities (rather, defects) have emerged in their place. There’s a personal complacence in many of these poems, sadly come upon in a typical middle-class soft-tone kvetching about mild spiritual problems which arrive as self-centered inconsequentialities fit for drifting thoughts in a bored state, not poetic statement or image. The poems have added some polish, as Pollock says, but it’s at the expense of affecting emotion and an outward view that immediately stunts many lyrics. A few poems work with more good lines than bad – I’m thinking of “Holes in the Snow” and “Maybe the Body After All”, both of which Pollock also admires – but a more sophisticated Cookshaw is a turn in the wrong direction. I was so disappointed with Double Somersaults after the incredible promise of The Whole Elephant that my heart just wasn’t in it for her next volume, Shameless, a book which Pollock also enjoyed, though not as much as her last. I did make an attempt, but gave up early at the conclusion of “Outdoor Baptism”’s closing, “Keep moving./The river of your spirit has a current/stronger than you know. Let//go. Keep going. Be/shameless.” I ask the reader to take it on trust that these lines aren’t ironic, or out of the mouth of a specific character in the poem. Cookshaw, if her last book and this poem is any indication, seems to be on the fast-track to that most busy and normal projection in a poet’s career: a placating religiose syrup provider.

The next essay covers a lot of ground. Pollock does a fantastic job in detailing Karen Solie’s career range which isn’t surprising since, as the essays plainly show in You Are Here, he’s quick to signal changes or stances in thematic concern, aesthetic approach, and even spiritual wisdom. Tone, though, is another story, with his analysis of Solie’s entertaining and revelatory poem, “Anniversary”. He concludes his appraisal with, “[o]n the surface the poem is tough. Below the surface it’s soft as feathers. In short, the film noir diction is a pose”. We’re reading a different poem, then, because Solie’s tone seems to me ironic, droll, and consistently strong in sexual suggestiveness and wordplay. Pollock spends some time picking apart her lines, “I said, eyes shining/ with antihistamines, that you were potent/ as a rare bird sighting, twenty on the sidewalk,/ straight flush.”, because of its confusing syntax. But the common simile bridge, “as a”, refers to all three of “rare bird”, “twenty”, and “straight flush”. Moreover, Pollock misses one of many sexual metaphors throughout the poem when he breezes past the speaker’s realization of her lover’s wayward recognition of “rare birds” – other possible women to bed – as well as his (Pollock’s) reading of “a bank of muscled cloud above/my poisoned field” as “grandiose in this context, suggesting as they do sky god and earth goddess”. Or it could be the speaker’s compromised attempt to see her lover’s tumescence through bleary eyes. Notice, also, “bank” next to the later “twenty”. The lovers are assessing each other as commodities, but the lines are structured expertly in worldly whimsy, tired but with gentle black humour. In another poet’s hands, this kind of content is usually a quick path to stridency and witlessness. Notice, also, the wonderful word “rose”, which appears just before the four line quoted snippet above. Three meanings I’ve detected include the obvious sexual one, but also the humorous olfactory contrast as well as a daring “Easter” alliance with the poem’s last words, “my perfect match” The poem is refreshingly funny start to finish, and there’s a fair amount of wisdom put forth about the old dance of sex stepping on the toes of spiritual misalignment. Another disagreement I have is with Pollock’s reading of “Medicine Hat Calgary One-Way”. Pollock’s  “Christian ethical imperative” in the poem’s “is it not possible/to look with love upon your fellow travellers?” strikes me as too easily won or considered. It’s not exactly slumming because the speaker, even if in better straits than most of her fellow riders, has also to struggle through a spiritless journey through the grim sights of two-store whistle stops. But the empathy here, as I found in another praised bus trip poem, Richard Greene’s lengthy “Over the Border”, assumes a lot about fellow travelers (though at least Greene’s narrator is heard speaking to one or two), thereby coating those people with a monochrome assumptiveness. “Hey”, I want to say, sitting two seats ahead of her, “I’m having a hoot schlepping through the heat, and I can’t wait to get to see [fill in X here] at my destination”. I’m not saying her observations aren’t provocative, but I hesitate to heighten them to individual accuracy. I also note more pity than empathy here, not that pity is unworthy (the feeling has acquired a troubling negative association lately), but that it’s certainly a far cry from hard-won, long-lasting empathy. Pollock uses Solie’s poem to contrast it with Daryl Hine’s “Plain Fare”, a  poem I’ve earlier applauded. In Pollock’s view, Hine’s is an inferior effort because the speaker “hardly notices the landscape and fairly dismisses the passengers, preferring to spend the journey reading a novel instead.” Yes, but then I find this an honest portrayal, and a more complex and convincing one. That is, the speaker has his head buried in a novel, but one doesn’t have to note in minute detail the expressions of the surrounding people or the list-making exhaustiveness of the landscape in order to have a rapport with those people and a spiritual connection with the scene out the window. After all, just because one doesn’t wear one’s empathy outwardly doesn’t mean it’s not there. Does Hine turn inward? Yes, but what of it? And perhaps he notices, too, but keeps silent about what he sees, and that there’s a point to that, as well. Not everything has to be relived in description. Hine’s making a difficult statement, an ironical one, regarding human nature, that his fellow passengers are likewise engulfed in their own worlds, troubled with mundane (or not so mundane) problems. There is more than one path to empathy, and in any case, it’s not a sign of a poem’s worth that its speaker must have an elevated spiritual realization. I think here of yet another bus trip captured in Adam Sol’s Jeremiah, Ohio in which the titular character is studied from all sides by his vulnerable companion. This is an excellent way to attack the too-often tack of personal outsider anecdote: full-fleshed fiction within a narrative framework. Sol’s wonderful ending to his book even reminded me a touch of the powerful bus-situated conclusion to the classic Midnight Cowboy film, and though it’s unfair to stack any film against a short lyric, it’s also fair to point out, perhaps ironically so, that one of Pollock’s stances – that of the unnecessarily prevalent viewpoint of the author, explicitly autobiographical or not – can be countered in this fictional drama to greater effect than is often allowed in the personal sojourn. But this particular chapter review is sounding completely antagonistic towards Pollock’s assessment of Solie. Not so. His other judgments I find interesting, his assessment of Solie’s career arc I find convincing, and his bold evaluations of most of her other poems I’m on board with. His perceptive and allusive treatment of “Sturgeon” is a delight, and the mark of a good critic is one who sends you back to a poem you may have read at least several times only to now see a different path altogether where once were brush and brambles (even though they echoed intriguingly underfoot).

Another peak in You Are Here is the chapter on Eric Ormsby. Pollock is meticulous and convincing in his poetic biography of the man whose breakout effort “Fetish” scored the poet’s calling with assaulting image and emotional compulsion. It’s a remarkable poem, but also remarkable is Pollock’s excavation of it: “The fetish, which with its nails resembles a voodoo doll, is a kind of Blakean emanation or Frankenstein’s creature; it is the poet’s agonized and hermaphroditic spirit or daemon torn out of him and made into a work of art.” Pollock next goes on to detail how Ormsby became dissatisfied with  remaining long in any ‘egotistical sublime’, preferring instead the chameleon approach. “Shakespeare’s unrivalled capacity to imagine his way into his characters is clearly one of the qualities [Ormsby] admires most”, writes Pollock, though it needs to be said that Ormsby’s great early strength, aside from his fantastic musical skill and employment, is his attention to microscopic detail in “flora and fauna: starfish, lichens, moths, wood fungus, bee balm, spiders and so on.” And though Pollock notes the poets who influenced Ormsby in these earlier efforts – D. H. Lawrence and Marianne Moore are two obvious name checks, among others --  it needs to be emphasized that Shakespeare (again, aside from his jaw-dropping verbal dexterity and assault) concentrated on people, their motivations and dilemmas, lusts and dreams. Ormsby, to be sure, eventually assumes the masks of different people, but it’s when his justly lauded observational powers are turned to the people who surround him, rather than the recreations of tenth century Arabic poets (another Shakespearean influence, that of the parallel character angles of the Caesars et al?) , that the poet shines, as Pollock convinces the reader with his appraisal of “The Suitors of My Grandmother’s Youth”. Pollock’s exegesis, once again, has depth and nuance, and gets at the emotional centre of the poem while revealing new breakthroughs for the poet under consideration: “Ormsby is adapting his earlier methods to a new type of subject: the fireflies and lilacs are still emblems of the human, but now they stand for his characters, not himself. This gives him a new detachment, and lets a new sense of humour and dramatic irony into the poem”. Pollock next considers Ormsby’s Araby. He raves about the book, going so far as to call thirty-six of the thirty-eight poems superb. Pollock opines that “the characters are fully developed, and change over time, and feel more real than many real people, if only because Ormsby helps us enter so fully into their inner lives. Ormsby is at his most Shakespearean in this book, all but disappearing into his characters the way he nearly disappears into animals and plants in his thing-poems.” And typically, Pollock then goes on to display an entire poem (“The Junkyard Vision of Jaham”), and from there, like a master watchmaker, quickly and lovingly handling its springs and wheels, pins and arrows, while allowing the mysterious imaginative essence of the poem to beguile us with its own life. Pollock concludes his study of Ormsby by noting the poet’s cosmopolitanism, using this as a contrast to the current (and long-standing) Canadian and American obsession with local boosterism.

You Are Here, part two, contains five shorter essays on (respectively) W. J. Keith’s two-volume critical survey, Canadian Literature in English, Carmine Starnino’s The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry, Sina Queyras’ Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, the inaugural and annual The Best of Canadian Poetry, and Evan Jones’ and Todd Swift’s more recent Modern Canadian Poets. To state one’s take on the assessments of each editorial decision (and omission) would take a blue moon or two, so I’ll just note that Pollock, for the most part here, is exasperated yet hopeful, blunt yet exhaustive. He scores many passionate points throughout. I’ll just touch on a few. Keith is taken to task for his refusal to see an aesthetic lineage playing out in the best of today’s poets, and in fact, for his neglect in recognizing that fact even in Skakespeare, Racine, and Goethe: “The larger context is always precisely the aesthetic one, even for writers from nations with great literary traditions like England and France.” And I found more than a little humour in Pollock’s ironical recognition that, though Keith professes to reading for pleasure, there is little pleasure to be found in Keith’s own sentences. Pollock’s assessment of Starnino’s volume is much more sympathetic. He considers nine of Starnino’s choices to be “first-rate”, though he thinks the editor’s ambitious selection of fifty-one poets much too crowded. Still, fourteen “completely convincing” poets are a very high total, and Pollock applauds Starnino’s discoveries and assessments, especially so since many of them are (or were, at this point) either unknown or little known to the general poetry reader, even within Canada. Pollock is disappointed in Queyras’ anthology, calling it a “missed opportunity”. Molly Peacock is also taken to task in her forward, which in Pollock’s view, “immediately sets about lowering her readers’ expectations”. How typically Canadian. He then excoriates Queyras in the editor’s introduction for her title’s link to the Black Mountain school as well as her evasion of editorial intent and process. Pollock: “[I]f you read anthologies, as I do, precisely in order to get oriented, you’re out of luck”. The poems themselves are a “hodge-podge”. Poems of our most prominent practitioners are taken from just one or two books, older poets still producing are ignored, and “poets range from very good to mediocre to appallingly bad, with rather more of the latter two”. Names, and examples from poems, are included, and as Pollock states late in the piece, “[I]f I have been tough on these poets, and on Queyras for including them, it is only because there are so many better poets who deserve to be here instead.” Exactly. There will always be omissions and differences in taste, brave outlier picks and odd trumpetings, but when the weight of the negligible and atrocious buries the promising and exacting, an anthology positioned for an American audience unfamiliar with much of Canadian poetry has a stake in at least finding the ball park, never mind hitting a home run in it. The relatively new series (first published in 2008), The Best Canadian Poetry, gets some excited nods from Pollock – he discovered “no less than fifteen” fine poets in the inaugural edition – as well as some head shakes on editorial decisions which included having one hundred poets represented with a necessary limit of one poem per poet. Pollock opines, and I concur, that that’s too many poets to attach winning ribbons to, while leaving out greater multiple efforts from the best fifteen or so of the poets already included. Pollock is grateful that Jones and Swift take up the challenge of editing an anthology of Canadian poetry, the first of its kind for a British audience in fifty years, and is thrilled with the editors’ forthright direction. From those editors: “We offer poets with an interest in the wider cosmopolitan tradition and history or poetry: poets of sophistication, style, and eloquence; poets who are informed by the great poetry that came before them.” As to how the selections measure up to the stated criteria, Pollock is happy with how it played out, though he thought “it could have been even better, and in several ways”. One such reservation is how the editors have interpreted “sophistication”. It seems to mean mere biographical background as well as aesthetic accomplishment. Another problem Pollock has with the book centres on poor translations of French language poets from Quebec. The tenor overall, though, is positive, and Pollock concludes with his discovery of Robert Allen’s “Alexandria’s Waltz”, a poem new to me as well, and one that captures the “sophistication, eloquence and style” of the U.K. editors’ intentions.

You Are Here concludes with two personal investigations. The first is in the form of a self-interview while the second is a traditional summation and poetic manifesto as well as an assessment of where the “you are here” is currently positioned. The first essay’s conceit is a little strained, at times. I’m not sure what role or personality the “questioner” was supposed to play in the stylized Q & A. Pollock’s serious devil’s advocate? Or just an excuse to create a bit of drama? Whatever the reason, the “tension” is pretty low-boil, and the persona of the questioner often unconvincing, especially as the piece develops. Nonetheless, though a weak structural choice, it rarely detracts from the answers Pollock provides. As an evaluative reviewer on board with many of Pollock’s core critical principles, I could smile even while posting the entire ten pages here (though the publisher may think that a little naughty), but time is finite, alas. Instead, here’s one brief exchange which eloquently captures the nature of criticism:

“But how can such guidance and such judgments be of any use to anybody else if criticism isn’t objective?

Well, look, it’s true: there is no absolute truth in criticism. But neither is criticism merely subjective. Not all judgments are equally valid.”

Now this is where the hater of critics chimes in with, “and who’s to judge whose opinions are better than others?” There are many answers (many of which I’ve covered in other unrelated posts), but the short response is critical weight and time. I agree with Pollock that criticism isn’t an art, but it’s an art (in the minor definition of that word) for both reader and reader-critic to hold both the subjective and objective in mind, and to know when to use one, when the other, and even when to use both at the same time. There is much else here on the role and attributes of the worthy critic, but I’ll close this section with this terse passage, and though it shouldn’t have to be said, it has to be said:

“Does the critic have an ethical responsibility?

The critic must be honest.”

Pollock’s last essay, the titular subject “The Art of Poetry”, is a twenty-one page investigation into definitions as stated by canonical critics, those opinions themselves then questioned and/or supported by the author. Pollock, though, concludes by laying his cards on the table, defining himself as an aesthete who values rhetoric and prosody, canonical knowledge with creative allusive integration, and a cosmopolitan approach, one that may incorporate many styles and schools (he downplays the tired traditional vs avant-garde grousing in many quarters as superficial or misunderstood) but that, for all its necessary moral virtues, insists on aesthetic pleasure as its chief value and generative impulse.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin' (Part Two)

(Quotations are taken from links provided in my last post, directly under this one.)

"I was rejected for years, and then I published a bit and then was rejected again and didn’t publish for a long while and then I published again and I might or might not ever publish another book.  That’s the writer’s life." -- Lauren Davis

No, that's not "the writer's life", that's Lauren Davis' life. Every writer's experience is different. In fact, in today's traditional model, newbies actually have an advantage over established mid-listers in that their slate is clean. They don't have black marks with the standard tailing off of sales book-to-book, necessitating either a new pen name or a new career. The reason this happens is due to marketing agreements that traditional publishers negotiate with sophisticated data miners. The big book chains only order, at maximum for their run, the amount of books from an established author's new release which correspond to their last effort. Hard to "build a career" in that model with a built-in ceiling. The publishers note the declining sales, and all talk about "quality" writing is beside the point when sales graphs go the way of the Hindenburg.

  Nothing to do with Davis' vague school-of-hard-knocks one-size-fits-all. Self-pubbers, on the other hand, can write whatever they feel like, publish whenever they want (maybe some do wait till they get it right -- who's to say everyone's "rushing"?), and avoid the reams of rejections, the non-responses, and, if finally accepted, avoid the inevitable one or two year lag time till their novels are traditionally published.

"I think Philip Roth had it right when he told a young writer, “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.” Although, as I’ve said elsewhere, [sic] he had me a [sic] ‘torture’." -- Lauren Davis

Curious author to use as an example of failing out of the gate. Philip Roth's first work, the novelette Goodbye Columbus, a terrific book, was immediately lauded, earning him the National Book Award for fiction. Roth's admonition is more than a little tongue-in-cheek, as even the source Davis quotes from acknowledges. But whereas Roth revels in the "torture", Davis is quite capable of using hyperbole in a more serious tone.

It's an off-topic and conflicted diversion, in any event. Whether a newbie novelist is "tortured", mildly annoyed, or overjoyed is beside the point. If one is inclined towards depression, procrastination, low self-esteem, or any number of other personal issues, whatever publishing route is taken isn't going to alleviate any of that in a meaningful way. Davis is conflating happiness with the best means for getting your work out to the reading public, and the best means for eventually becoming recognized. In some cases it means going with a traditional big, in others it means going with a small press, and increasingly it means self-publishing. But Davis either has little knowledge of the many valid avenues each author uses to come to a conclusion as to the best method, or has taken a few personal examples from her students or friends, happy that they fit her confirmation bias. I'd speculate that both are in play.

"There are no short cuts, I’m afraid.  I’m grateful I didn’t publish any of my early work.  It was, frankly, pretty terrible, and people with excellent judgment told me so, although I didn’t much like it at the time.  Only the space of years and what I’ve learned about writing since has taught me to look at the work objectively and see how dreadful it was. Had self-publishing been an option, however, I probably would have done it, filled with hubris and the desperation to publish as I was." -- Lauren Davis

Once again, in Davis' world, her personal path is all anyone needs to know to form an iron-clad opinion on the matter. It's narcissistic, arrogant, and displays an amazingly complacent and proud assertion of her ignorance on the complex and ever-changing developments with authors, both new and established, getting their work out to the reading public. "No short cuts". Maybe not. But some authors are precocious. Some of the greatest have flared early, then flamed out. Bottom line -- if you've written what you think is a damn fine book, you get it out there as fast as possible. Some authors begrudge others' early success, though, if it goes against their own career trajectory. "People with excellent judgement told me so." A subtle post hoc fallacy. And, again, one that doesn't prove anything since it's limited to one author's experiences out of hundreds of thousands. Many editors and agents are terrible. That's a significant problem for traditional publishers, and for the authors who write under their umbrella. This isn't breaking news. We've all seen many examples of it. So the only thing a new author can do is take every suggestion seriously, reflect on it, get the opinions of others, especially if they contradict the first editor, and come to a conclusion yourself. Many times, of course, the editor is correct. But what irritates me here again is the assumption that the new author should take Davis' words as an unthinking given 'cuz, you know, she's a self-promoting award-winning author writing for HarperCollins legit-side imprint. The appeal to authority is seductive for many, unfortunately.

"I would have sent my brilliant darlings out into the world, where they doubtless would have been smashed beneath the heel of an uncaring public and, broken-hearted, I doubt I would have kept on." -- Lauren Davis

This kind of melodrama could work as a long-form send-up. I don't detect much winking in the tone, though. Actually, no one is going to smash the book beneath a heel. A contradiction anyway, no? If a reader purchases the book, reads all or part of it, and then smashes it, they aren't "uncaring". They care very much, even if that care takes the form of anger. It seems I'm picking on her wording a bit too much. But she's a writer. Emotional perspective matters. If no one cared about her efforts in an earlier hypothetical self-published universe, they would have read a few pages, yawned, and resumed their game of solitaire. The author's name would have been forgotten immediately.

"Oh, I might have kept writing in my journals, might even have started a wee blog, but I do not think I would have stuck my face back in the publishing fan." -- Lauren Davis

This completely contradicts what she said above about the torture of writing, and about her own long and uneven apprenticeship with her traditionally published career. And if any author is going to quit after meager  sales of their first book, self- or traditionally published, the writing life is obviously not for them, anyway

"Even with the support of good publishers and objective (by which I mean not-paid-by-me and therefore willing to be brutally honest) editors, publishing is a rough business.  To go into the coliseum as an untried, unarmored youth, carrying a sword made of twigs rather than tempered steel, is suicide." -- Lauren Davis

Whoa! Some actual content in the above. Threw me for a loop, initially.

Traditional publishers, once it gets to the stage of careful editing, are already using their person-power resources on the newbie's book. Yes, many (though certainly far from all) editors are going to be harder on an author's words if the book is going to one of the big houses. Same thing with many small presses. But they're running a business. In the "everything is shit when you're starting out" uniform world that Davis lives in, a new author, therefore, would be taking up an inordinate amount of time (= $), and in many cases corners would have to be cut, not out of "friendliness" or laziness, but from time constraints alone. They care about the book, but no one will care about it more than the author. When a self-pubber hires an editor or editors, however, the standard contract or agreement usually includes payment by words worked. If that same newbie author causes the editor to have to transform whole patches of the first chapter, the latter is not getting nearly as much as she should for her money. Good editors, then, won't come knocking. This puts the onus on the author to know what the hell they're doing at a surface level, but since editing matters, if an author isn't competent enough to produce decent self-edited copy to his or her editor, and so has to go for a crappy editor, or worse, no editor, or even no reading group, the novel's shortcomings will indeed be apparent and the book won't sell, or if it does (Dan Brown), does so for extraliterary reasons. I don't see much difference here between the two options. We've all read scores of poorly edited traditionally published novels. Novels, even, with rampant typos, formatting blunders, and typographical quirks (tiny print; funky punctuation). With self-pubbed novels, at Amazon at least, the prospective buyer can read 10% of the book's beginning for free by clicking on the cover.. Same idea as browsing at a bookstore. Annoying and time-consuming, often, for the reader. But the result is the same on-line or in shop: no sale.

"How many writers with the talent necessary to write fine books will publish too soon, before they’re ready, and be crushed or utterly ignored, which is much like being crushed?" -- Lauren Davis

What's with all the crushing and smashing? Are new authors young anorexics thrown into their first National Football League game as starting running backs? The hysteria never made it as satire. Now it's just annoying. Here's the thing. In traditional publishing, a new author's book (if very lucky) is given a bit of promotion, and picked up (often) by bookstores where it will sit, usually spine out, for a month or two (increasingly shrinking time) at which time it will be sold back to the publisher at a reduced rate. The "life cycle" of the book is effectively over. Any meaningful promotion has ended. Now the book isn't even available except (possibly) at a few second-hand bookshops, as well as the library. Word of mouth has to happen fast in this model. With self-publishing, however, the book is there forever. Now, most books, digitally, are still unknown and largely unsold. But here's the difference. In Davis' world, that first book is increasingly becoming more crucial in a publishing operation with fewer resources to spend on unproven authors. Even after getting by that initial hump, mid-listers are getting screwed with shitty contract terms and visibility. But if one has talent, and has been a victim of the lack of opportunity in the old paradigm, self-publishing has the promise of rewarding talent eventually. How so? By the author continuing even when sales are minimal. If it takes till book six for an author to find an audience, it means readers will be open to peruse that author's backlist. It's never out of print.

It seems that Davis has taken the long view -- talent will out, persistence pays off, and the like. Well, if those are the terms, it seems that opportunities are often better for new writers in self-publishing than they are in the declining conglomerate-brick-paper model. (Davis frequently leaves out any context for her words. Most digital sales come from genre novels. But literary novels will be increasingly more attractive for newbies and those who originally published traditionally, too, for reasons already mentioned, for others I'll cover in a wrap-up, and for still others for which I don't have time to go into in these two posts.)

"But the companies making money on the desperation of unpublished writers will go on making money" -- Lauren Davis

You mean like HarperCollins dirty little secret vanity press, and others of the expensive office set? Savvy self-pubbers laugh at those. Most aren't the dewy-eyed naive hopefuls that (perhaps) show up to Davis' writing classes. Confirmation bias, again.

"while small literary presses, which are the life blood of emerging writers, may very well go under" -- Lauren Davis

Some might, perhaps many.. But it has nothing to do with new authors abandoning them and everything to do with shrinking funding sources and amounts. Fascinating the publisher-centric view in Davis' wording here, too. I'd say that emerging writers are the life blood of small literary presses, but then I'm just an old time romantic who thinks that everything stems from content providers. Without someone saying something original or entertaining, nothing happens. Publishers, agents, editors, salespeople, production designers, bookstore owners (the ones that actually sell books, that is), marketers, accountants, organizers, literary reviewers and critics, and teachers -- all would be without jobs, whether volunteering or paid. Curious that this wording comes from an author, but maybe not, as she seems to be heavily involved in teaching, and at speaking at conferences.

Full disclosure: I've never submitted a novel to a traditional publisher, nor have I self-published anything. Traditionally published novels will always have a place, hopefully, in my world, and in the larger world GOING FORWARD. (Ha! That's the stupidest catchphrase in the history of catchphrases. I had to use it at least once.) But they've got to get their act together. Whatever the complaints, the digital world is where most books will be sold by 2016 or 2017. Self-publishers make up about 16% of all books sold now. In three or four years, it'll be about 38%. You don't need an advanced degree in mathematical extrapolation to see where we're going, and going in a hurry. I don't own a kindle or a kobo (or whatever they're called in Canada). Yet. I will, though, even as I was the last one on my block to own a CD player (how quaint even that seems now.) I just find it interesting that an author who professes to focus on the long view can be so short-sighted and misinformed.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin'

No, it's not a post about Bobby Zimmerman, but another chestnut could be scattered by a hard wind a-blowin' through the volatile book biz.

The smug put-downs, the arrogant and idiotic assumptions, the defensive and prideful hold-the-fort advisories from various authors and agents, both in and out of Canada, regarding authors self-publishing their work have increased in volume and emotion with a corresponding volume and excitement from the belittled works (and their authors) themselves. This is, of course, to be expected. Anyone reading this piece already knows more than a little about the quakes currently shaking the foundations of publishing houses in Toronto and New York and London. But Lauren Davis, apparently, hasn't been keeping up, thinking instead that the tremors are underground shifts, rumbling and bothersome, but nothing to be too concerned about. She doesn't understand that the emergence of self-publishing has come about for easy-to-trace reasons, having little to do with trendiness or vanity.

I'm rattling this off, it's late (or early), so I'll just post some of her thoughts (from the above links), then respond to them.

"Jonathan Bennett has written an interesting blog on the subject. In it he says, “self-publishing deletes an essential component in the writing of important literary work: time. If no one shelves a rejected novel anymore (indeed, if there no longer is such a thing as a rejected novel), if small presses all die because the do-it-yourself-craze makes them redundant, the world will have fewer great, even half-decent, works of literature. And we already have so few.”

I agree with Jonathan." -- Lauren Davis

Talk about your slippery slope, your faulty correlation, your hyperbole-for-status quo, and your incorrect blanket assumptions all rolled into one (Bennett's words).

First off, many self-published novels haven't been previously rejected by traditional publishers. For various reasons, some of which I'll no doubt touch upon later, today's author has bypassed the standard route altogether and plunked it on the various e-bookstores instead. Rejection, in this sense, then, isn't an issue. Secondly, traditonal publishers have an abysmal track record, in the aggregate, when it comes to smoking out talent and quality. No need to make a list here. But whatever the genre, there are countless examples of authors who have been rejected in no uncertain terms right out of the hopper, who have then re-submitted the work in question to another publisher (with perhaps further edits), and who have, through sheer persistence, anger, desperation, and back-breaking work, continued the merry-go-round, at last and fortunately to have another publisher (frequently of the small-press variety) see something in it and take a chance on putting it through the paces. So why is shelving a work after an initial thumbs-down verdict an automatically accepted judgement on its worth, or rather, lack thereof?

Secondly, small presses won't die because one hundred thousand crappy novels are self-published every year. I don't get the link here. If people are buying those "crappy" novels, they won't be for very long after they've been burned a few times. But since the percentage of novels sold digitally (among all novels sold, traditionally or otherwise) has increased year-by-year, it's safe to say that not all those novels are garbage. It's not just the traditionally published efforts, set to a digital version,  that readers are scooping up on their Kindles and Nooks. In fact, there are some fascinating stats coming out now that suggest the heavy-hitting authors will themselves be taking much of the near-future sales hit, one reason being that readers are fed up paying $15 dollars plus when the distribution, storage, production, and promotional costs have nosedived. Unless you're Stephen King, guess who's raking in the huge margin while keeping prices high? Why, it just may be the publishing conglomerate (among a few others) that employs Davis. (More on that in a bit.)

Bennett's last statement is hilarious in its insecurity and historical cluelessness. I'll cover that, too, in a bit, but the argument as it is assumes, then leaps out of its skin. The world will have fewer works of great literature, according to Bennett,  because a bunch of authors -- many of whom have transferred from traditional publishing (oops, they didn't note that, either) -- tossed their genre novels on to a platform in which the titles will most likely (a) be buried forever, or (b) be read by a few, then quickly forgotten, or (c) pick up steam slowly, as lone wolves emerge from the pack due to widespread word-of-mouth. In other words, the few successes, and all of the failures, will come about in the same ways, and for the same reasons, as they always have, no matter the transmission and technology. Bennett also claims that we have far too few great works of literature as it is. I don't know how he scours for quality, but I do just fine relying for the most part on former critics and reviewers who've made excellent judgements (again, in the aggregate) so that I don't have to sift through mountains of text -- digital- or pulp-based. Crap is rampant whatever road you take.

"And I know some people will say this is easy for me to say, publishing as I do with a large publishing house, getting nominated for awards and being a best-seller and all." -- Lauren Davis

Well, no harm in a little self-promotion, is there, especially as her book is just out. Speaking of promotion, that used to be the job of the publisher, so the writer could do what she was supposedly good at, writing, the job that Davis herself says, a bit later on, is what should take up the author's time instead. But even the big publishers are increasingly farming out their promotional department to the authors themselves. That's great if you like to travel, and read your work (hope you have a whack of grants or creative coverage on expenses), but not so great in reality for most authors, judging from the loud grumblings which ensue from the entire idea of public readings from novelists of their own latest works. There's also the increasing insistence from agents that authors create and maintain links with prospective readers through facebook/twitter/personal blogs. Apparently, the promotional responsibility transferred to authors is now so large -- due mainly to publishers' shrinking piece of the book pie -- that those pre-existing links the author brings with her or him is part of what factors in to whether or not many deals are cut in the first place. So much for Davis' vaunted insistence on quality of writing.

The firm that's published at least three of Davis' works is HarperCollins. That outfit has joined the ranks of the other too-big-to-fail conglomerates in providing a "leg up" to aspiring authors. The owner of HarperCollins also ministers West Bow Press, an offshoot which "helps" the beleaguered neophyte by separating him or her from copious greenbacks in return for getting the work out there. Oh, wait. That would be called a vanity press. Same as Author Solutions, the brainchild of Penguin (now apparently Penguin Random House -- it's hard to keep up, is it 2008 again?). At least self-publishers aren't forking over their money to these scams. But it must be nice being the supportive voice for one's employer, though the hypocrisy is just as shocking as the despicable terms from those players. Author Solutions: 30% of your profit raked from each book, in perpetuity, for their mechanical swipe in formatting and uploading them. Total person-hours -- less than one. (By the way, a few of those "too few great" writers started their careers with vanity presses, still others self-published. I'll let Davis and Bennett do some further research on it.)

OK, the birds are singing. More soon.


In other news, apologies to Mark Sampson and others. Day job and  various writing commitments have taken any time away from making  more commentary on James Joyce's Ulysses. Sorry about that. Too many bites, not enough chews, and all that.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

James Joyce's Ulysses #1

"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed." So begins James Joyce's masterwork. And what an opening sentence. Just roll that around your tongue and lips a few times in a faux Irish accent. But just as Joyce makes most prose poems sound like precious roadmaps to nowhere, he also embeds meaning within the tiniest aesthetic. Take the first word. We usually think of a "stately" person as having a dignified bearing, and it's true that the mocking,  dramatic Mulligan carries himself with rakish hubris. But the first syllable should be emphasized.

The opening tower scene of Ulysses was based on a six-day Joyce autobiography with university friend Oliver Gogarty, a man later to become a writer, surgeon and wit of some renown. It's in this latter capacity that he's revealed in the opening of the novel. But let's get back to the stateliness of Mulligan. It was Joyce's actual foil who wanted to transform Ireland into a new Greece through verse and gab. And the tower was the place where Gogarty/Mulligan would launch this literary offensive. (It was only one of seventy-four towers built as a lookout and defense for and from French invasion.)

It's just one of many elements of Joyce's genius that he could colour so sympathetic a character as Mulligan while personally and psychologically skewering the man. Shakespeare had that, as well. Just as one laughs or winces with the violence of Mulligan's presence, his withering digs and singing jests at Stephen Dedalus (Joyce, in at least this section), one is brought up in awe, even repentance for a virtual piling-on, when Mulligan is confounded by, and finally denounces with hurt and compassion, Stephen's small-minded slight at the other's retort at Stephen's mother's funeral. " 'Her cerebral lobes are not functioning. She calls the doctor Peter Teazle and picks buttercups off the quilt. Humour her till it's over. You crossed her last wish in death and yet you sulk with me because I don't whinge like some hired mute from Lalouette's.' ".

Yet one can't completely side with Mulligan, either. Here is the first of many amazing interiorities in the novel -- stream-of-consciousness, if it must be characterized so, and emanating from Stephen: "Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the wellfed voice beside him."

But we can't stop there. Joyce piles up the complexities with this curiously linked passage three pages later: "In the gloomy domed livingroom of the tower Buck Mulligan's gowned form moved briskly about the hearth to and fro, hiding and revealing its yellow glow."

Well, that's a tiny exploration from the first nine pages. Bear with me as I make frequent but sporadic updates for quite a while.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Notes And Quotes

Enthusiastic writer and blogger Mark Sampson has initiated a (re)read and discussion forum for James Joyce's Ulysses.

This'll be my third time through the anti-twitter novel. I first read it in the early eighties, then took a long break before a return to it some 3 or 4 years ago. And now, with much of it still burning low in my mind, I'll see if I can get more than a thumbsmudge (ah, those Joycean compounds) of stardust this go 'round. Anyone else interested is more than welcome to join in. Just contact Mark.


My review of Christopher Meades' novel, The Last Hiccup, is just out in issue 63 of subTerrain.


The following quote from overrated coach Mike D'Antoni may be one reason why the LA Lakers are not much better than the Charlotte Bobcats:

"Now you get down to brass tactics and open your heart up and let everything be raw and see if we can solve some of the problems or the issues and just go forward."

Friday, January 4, 2013

"The Absurd Man"

from "The Absurd Man" in The Myth of Sisyphus

by Albert Camus (Nov 7, 1913 - Jan 4, 1960)

"By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. Like him, he drains something and is constantly on the move."

"The Naming Of Cats"


by T. S. Eliot (Sep 26, 1888 - Jan 4, 1965)

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have three different names.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey --
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter --
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum --
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover --
But the cat himself knows, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.



by Irving Layton (Mar 12, 1912 - Jan 4, 2006)

Scourged and bleeding the Jew
stumbled into the church; he knew
the Germans, Poles, Hungarians, and French
were right behind him by their murderous stench.

The priest stopped the service
at once, smoothed down his surplice
and helped by the bandy-legged sexton
lugged to the altar the bedevilled man.

Ablaze was the kind priest
as saying, "Drink the blood of Christ"
he gave him a small carafe of wine
which the dying Jew instantly gulped down.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Response to Nigel Beale's Review of Ken Babstock's Methodist Hatchet

Nigel Beale’s recent review of Ken Babstock’s latest poetry release, Methodist Hatchet, is available online at guerilla, issue 34, vol 9 winter 2013.

Round one sees the reviewer rush to centre ring at the bell and throw a series of haymakers at his virtual opponent. This is where the analogy breaks down, of course, because it’s up to readers to decide whether or not the punches connect.

Beale believes that Babstock’s attitude is a “fuck you” to the reader. Many people, (me included, in this example) “applaud without knowing why”. But I’d just as easily turn this next analogy around and say that those shut out of Babstock's specific poetic territory are simply using the wrong key(s) in their attempt to gain entry to a different kind of house, not a prefab Canadiana block structure, not even a charming hut or an accomplished mansion (the minimalist or maximalist idiosyncrasy that leaves no influence), but an unexpected interior, a house by turns fun and haunted.

My review of Babstock’s volume was highly laudatory, and my chief argument, itself a critique of earlier reviews of the book, was that form and content were expertly merged. So when Beale claims that “[r]eaders aren’t invited into this erudite little game, and there’s scant incentive for them to join in; to make them care”, I’d counter that the mellifluous or knotted music (scaled to the particular mood or topic from which it plays off) is the first draw, as it should be of any worthy poem, or book of poetry. I don’t go directly to poetry for any of the contemporary topics Babstock explores. But, once energized and pleased by the sounds, I always look, usually on multiple re-reads, for the sense. And in Babstock, I frequently get that, too. If I’m avoiding examples here, Beale is, so far, also speaking in generalities, so that doesn’t help either side. But general statements have to be challenged on their own, too. We’ll get to some of those poem quotes soon enough.

Beale, to his credit, lays out his criteria in specific terms. “Memorability; authentic, original use of lapidary language; rhetorical power scored to important human themes; synoptic understanding of our complex human lives;  staying power … all of this seems rather quaint, slightly naïve, ridiculous even, in the face of such cool incomprehensibility.”

I’ve hunted up these passages in direct response:

Memorability: “Butane extracted/from filched Bics.//Car seat on springs/pulled up to a pit.”

Synoptic understanding of our complex human lives: “Configuring the small emptied/talismans of my own loneliness//so they stared back, hoping they’d inscribe/an identity onto what was left/after chewing away at the core for a decade.”  

Authentic, original use of lapidary language: “Wattle and Daub, a law firm of Newfoundlanders/or a crafts supply in keeping with the poultry theme,/smells weakness, softens its smuggest aspects/with miniature jingle bell over the gripey hinge.”

Staying power: “she chewed through/the fabric, a hole you could slide an arm into./Slide an arm right through/the surface of this picture,/into whatever spacial realm lies/behind the depth.”

(One can add -- when reading just these four examples and among many other qualities of good poetry not included in Beale’s list -- connective power, organic intelligence.)

The next section of Beale’s critique enlists the help of Wallace Stevens. This is a dangerous (though gutsy) ploy, since it takes a great argument to be able to plane  Stevens’ terse generalities (here) to fit Babstock’s poetry with any authority. Secondly, Stevens is a problematic example, perhaps even a contradictory one, to use in the context of clarity,  and to the “fuck you” to the house visitors. I’ve read many a Stevens poem (I think he’s the second greatest U.S. poet, by the way), and I’ve been baffled for long stretches with what can only be categorized as wilful diction, malicious connectives, philosophical speciousness and pseudo-elevation. All the things, in other words, that Beale decries here in Babstock. But – and here is, to me, a key contrast – I only persisted in reading Stevens because so many brilliant critics had done the heavy lifting (in an aesthetic sense, but to the importance of the issue at hand, in evaluative distinction) that I figured, “what the heck, I can soldier on, there’s supposed to be something to this guy”. Of course, the sound is there right away with Stevens, too, the rhythm, the crazy juxtaposition of cool anecdote with psychological suggestion. Kind of like someone else we’re talking about. It’s no surprise that Stevens was a huge influence on Babstock.

But now we finally get some quotations of the offending lines. Beale’s first choice from Babstock:

Colander, canopy, colander. Contrivance
Of green light-spots we’re leoparded by.
Wild grape ampersand.

Fine perhaps as lyrics to a psychedelic sixties song—“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” say, but nothing that sticking a microphone in front of some stoned sophomore wouldn’t produce.  

These lines sound like they come out of a random word generator. Like free association. Gibberish.”

These are the first three lines from the hilariously wonderful (except for the horrid last sentence, not quoted here) poem, “Carolinian (Crosscut With Saw)”, with Beale’s commentary behind it. The first line is not random, not like a stoned sophomore’s gushings, not gibberish, but a delightfully inventive sound pattern (a giant hint should be taken from the title) that mimics the action of the saw in its repetitive hard Cs and alternatiing vowels. And what a remarkable “sense” choice to go with that sound -- “colander” --  which conveys the moving sunspots which colour the onlookers, as well as  the dividing word which eliminates, temporarily, its effects. Then, “contrivance” is another wonderful  choice which sets up one theme of the poem. Whose contrivance is it? The walkers’, of course, but also the poet’s. And instead of the usual postmodern moan and groan about the impossibility of accurate transcription, let alone Truth (always with that capital!), Babstock’s tone affects a curious, and  complex, authenticity. Who indeed hasn’t been jolted by conflicting moods in a walk, who (if one tends to make literary associations, as do most poetry readers) then go on to wonder about the traffic between danger (note the other main meaning of the non-hyphenated title word) and artifice or wonder. I could detail more of this excellent poem, but I’m just responding to Beale’s specific quotation.

“Babstock’s poems are hyphenated by frequent references to “difficult” philosophers and artists. Their names seem sprinkled in like flavourless pepper. Used for show. Little context, just a muttering, some of it inaudible; a joke that only the poet seems to understand. High-styled, pseudo-intellectual lace seductively placed atop the stanzas. Names, gratuitously cited, bobbing on the surface, orphaned, undefined, ill-fitted to any coherent whole. Without relevance, it’s hard to see them as anything but pretentious props, the poet usurping cache, ripping off reputation.”

This is Beale’s next charge. And it’s a serious one. And with serious charges, it’s incumbent upon the accuser to be much more specific, citing many examples. Because, unlike many contemporary poets to whom I think this accusation can and should be levied against, (pretentiousness often has more to do with introducing names and artistic movements the author can't follow up on than it does with inherently difficult material) I find Babstock’s use of names either charming, intriguing (and after a follow-up, appropriate), part of an extended analogy, or the (yes) impetus for an in-joke. To those who think that that latter admission is somehow a confession of defeat, try out some of Geoffrey Hill’s name-checks, or Dante’s. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional joke for those who’ve an encyclopedic knowledge of arcana. One doesn’t have to know every reference and meaning to enjoy the rhythms and dynamics, the stresses and tempos of those names (with their surrounding sounds) read aloud. And, if it’s really important for the reader, a consultation with Monsieur Google-ectomy is a much easier way of stripping things than the (only) twenty-years-ago option of a special collections library visit to the speculative science room. I didn’t get many of the winks and tricks in Methodist Hatchet. And I’m fine with that. But the book is like a fine buffet. I don’t worry about the exotic dishes left over when my stomach’s pleasantly full from the first class palette of appetizers, entrees, desserts and aperitifs. The references, in any case, aren’t all high-and mighty. There are plenty of associations involving sports stars (Butch Goring), central figures from realms usually off-limits (for some reason) to poets (Mies van der Rohe), and central (not “showy” or pedantically-inspired) artists (Don DeLillo). When checking those three names in the contexts of the poems they’re in, one will note, with even a surface familiarity of their import, how the names are tied in with the organic content of the line, stanza, poem. It’s not, then, a pretentious book bicep-flex, it’s an allusively savvy attempt to link literary history or architectural mores with how we see the world this day, every day, both in physical space and imaginative reverie.

Beale next moves to the brilliant opener, “The Decor”. This poem is a high-water mark, even for a poet with many highlight efforts to his credit. Here’s the reviewer’s quote selection, with his brief follow-up:

“ “Slide an arm right through
the surface of this picture,
into whatever spatial realm lies
behind the illusion of depth, to hold
the hand of the person
wanting so badly to be seen precisely
as they feel themselves to be

(from “The Décor”)

The fact that depth is only an illusion makes it very difficult to want to decorticate meaning, or care about seeing this person “as they feel themselves to be.””

It’s here I wonder if Beale is paying attention to the poem as a whole. In our time of shorties – 30 lines and often less – “The Decor” covers four pages, and has to be read carefully in order to make the requisite connections. One of the main themes of the poem (by no means the only one) is how depth is perceived, now, by all of us to varying extents, in what is presented by aggressive multiple media sources with their manipulative evils, by ingrained visual cues, and (in the immediately preceding, canny passage) by persuasion over result. (Even the dog, in its clumsy way, exposes the charlatans. Why can’t we?) Against this, a real human connection is increasingly a matter of effort, sometimes heroic effort, in order to break down the cynical walls we all have in place to defend ourselves from the ubiquitous scream of the surrounding stimuli. The illusion, then, is created by those shadowy figures. It’s not a who-cares ploy by a poet enamoured of passionless pomo smugness, but a denunciation and a call to see it for what it is.

Beale’s last quotation perfectly illustrates the frequent inability of readers to understand why a poet chooses to use the sounds he or she creates in a poem. Again, here’s Beale’s response, this time preceding the poem-snippet:

“The only discernible rhythms or music in Babstock’s poems are wretched. Like a retching, gagging reflex, the words are frequently curt, abrupt, aggressive; projectile:  

Scything the new, chilled air over Moabit –
Skeletal, balletic – the cranes insist
        We graph it out
Form up in the EU yellow and blue. Cost
Of jet fuel per person, cost of Khartoum.
        Egypt at the Pergamon. Jeffs
At the Hamburger Bahnhof, again,
Koons and Wall, or walyas and the man
In Mauerpark market
Raking crop circles in crepe batter
Over a heated skillet.

(from “As Lowell on the Ringbahn”)

Are these sounds unpleasant? Of course. That’s the point. I frequently recall, with amusement and deep respect, Shostakovich’s response to the members of the Beethoven String Quartet, for whom the great composer wrote his #11 and #13. During a first rehearsal, with Shostakovich in the audience, one of the musicians paused and said to him, “this passage would sound better as arco”. Shostakovich: “I know it would sound better. But just keep it as pizzicato.” Babstock, too, knew what he was doing here. The poem deals with the inhuman, infiltrating sounds in a circumstance difficult to get out from under. The harsh c and k quick repetitions, the puking (when also quickly repeating) “blue”, “fuel”, “Khartoum”, the expertly realized confusion of the two-line “Koons .../”: this is showing, not telling, at its best (though the telling is there, “slant”, as well.

I’ll close by coming back to Stevens. Here he is, in The Necessary Angel, agreeing with this quote by Dr. Joad: “”Every quality of a body resolves itself into an enormous number of vibrations, movements, changes. What is it that vibrates, moves, is changed? There is no answer. Philosophy has long dismissed the notion of substance and modern physics has endorsed the dismissal ... How, then, does the world come to appear to us as a collection of solid, static objects extended in space? Because of the intellect, which presents us with a false view of it.””

Stevens goes on, though, to refute that “[t]here is no answer”. Imagination was his only subject, his only theme. Babstock’s use of “reality”, whether through historical figures or landscape, dialogue or reappraisals of memory, keeps Stevens’ god in view. But for the reader to take that walk with him, it’s a good idea to carry a microscope, a telescope, a kaleidoscope, sight glasses, sunglasses, a steady use of peripheral vision, and, above all, a persistent mindscape.