Twin Takes on Canada’s Poetic Renaissance
I’m the first to agree with Rilke, that “Rühmen, das ist’s!” (roughly, “To Praise—that’s the thing!”), but, sometimes, praise isn’t what it seems prima facie, and that is surely the case with Russell Smith’s article on recent poetry in Canada, a thinly-veiled plug for Carmine Starnino’s forthcoming volume of criticism, wherein he lauds Starnino and The Walrus poetry editor Michael Lista for their “tough-minded” editorial and critical efforts, which, Smith maintains, have helped to culture an “unlikely renaissance”. Aside from its disingenuousness, Smith’s article deploys a questionable rhetoric and a squintingly narrow view of contemporary poetry.
First, Smith eulogizes Lista and Starnino for being “tough-minded” and “stern”; The Walrus “bravely publishes poems” under the aegis of “the truculent Michael Lista”; and Starnino, in his role as a “combative tastemaker”, has helped “purge” Canadian poetry of “a certain kind of weepy folksiness” Smith blames on the baleful influence of Al Purdy. One’s unsure whether Smith is writing about editor-critics, austerity hawk finance ministers, or Jean Charest in his late showdown with Quebec’s students. In any case, such Iron Lady bluster is as tiresome as it is empty.
Even more offputting and regressive than the right wing speechifying that echoes through Smith’s prose is the swaggering machismo of his rhetoric. Just a century ago the same words were invoked to banish the effeminate, dreamy sentimentality of Romanticism. The Modernist critics demanded forceful, hard, virile poetry in a bellicose criticism whose apotheosis was their recruiting the expression “avant-garde.” One would have hoped that after the intervening history such displays of cocky braggadocio would be too ridiculous to be indulged.
Ironically, where Modernist criticism might claim salutary effects, the “dense and intellectual”, “difficult”, “highbrow” poetry Smith praises Lista and Starnino for having whipped into shape is merely, in Smith’s own words, “narrow and exclusive”. He mistakes surface gloss for sophistication. How seriously can we take Smith’s judgement when, as his example of “playful, amusing, dazzling, or simply exasperating” poetry, he quotes the rather grammatically straight-forward lines “We leap magpie flat-footed, shriek obsidian / disbelief tidings”? Smith does, it would seem, as he himself admits, “think in a frustratingly direct manner”.
The poetry Smith is so dazzled by is merely the latest version of what August Kleinzahler has dubbed “Nobelese” (an oblique contextualization of which can be read here), a poetry that springs, ultimately, from T. S. Eliot’s canonization of the Metaphysicals and the New Criticism’s consequent lionizing of “texture” and “complexity”. Anyone with the patience to scrutinize the kind of “tough-mindedness” Smith lauds will quickly find it little more than a latter day version of the “narrow and exclusive” crotchetiness of F. R. Leavis.
How refreshing, then, to read another recent article by poet Matthew Tierney whose purpose, like Smith’s, is to share his excitement about the “fierce mojo” his contemporaries are working. Despite the ironically humble persona he adopts, the catholicity of Tierney’s list of poets who make his “head spin” reveals him to be one of those “poets, it seems, who committed themselves early, read widely, and got down to it”. The sixteen poets he names (including Michael Lista) are mindbogglingly various, writing inventively from and out of (i.e. away from) every school of composition I know of that’s active in North American English-language poetry, let alone Canadian.
Where Lista and Starnino, at least according to Smith, are “tough”, “stern”, and “combative”, Tierney proves himself flexible, charitable, and gregarious, qualities of mind not without their precedent praise. As one hero of American postmodern poetry and poetics, John Adams, put it: “The Mind must be loose.” The looseness of mind Tierney exemplifies, the kind of mind I would promote, is not “narrow and exclusive”, but open to the chance community of vital makers it finds itself thrown among, quick to perceive and respect each their characteristic virtues and curious to understand and appreciate them.
Novalis, a poet/critic/thinker who worked his own “fierce mojo”, writing about the “narrow and exclusive” critics of his own day, put it well:
Reviewers are literary policemen. Doctors are policemen also. Hence there ought to be critical journals which treat authors with medical and surgical methods, and not merely find out the ailment and announce it with malicious pleasure. Methods of healing up to now have been barbaric for the most part.
A genuine police force is not merely defensive and polemical toward whatever evil exists—but it seeks to improve the sickly disposition.
—Miscellaneous Fragments, 113 (trans. Margaret Mahony Stoljar); German original here