Archive for the ‘Canadian poetry’ Tag
[Just over five years back, I heard tell that a collection of criticism on the work of John Newlove was in the works. I contacted the editor to offer what I could, as I had first started writing poetry under Newlove’s influence and tutelage. What follows was the result. It seems now that that collection is not forthcoming, so I share these cursory reflections here, now.]
The status of John Newlove’s poetry in Canada is curious. The consistent admiration and acclaim it received over nearly four decades, from even before the publication of his Governor General’s Award winning Lies (1972) up to and including the appearance of his latest volume of selected poems A Long Continual Argument (2007), would seem to suggest that his work would be more widely and closely studied, both by scholars and poets. His publishing only one trade edition after Lies, The Night the Dog Smiled (1986), and that the only one before his death in 2003, is surely in part to blame. Moreover, changes in taste and tendencies in academic criticism during this time, anathema to the singular pathos of his polished and laconic lyrics, surely served to only further marginalize the work of a man already famously a loner. It is perhaps reason for optimism in this regard that Jeff Derksen, a poet associated with Canada’s avant-garde, essays a postmodern sociological reading of Newlove’s poetry in his afterword to A Long Continual Argument (237ff.). As bracing as it would be to make a case for a more sustained and scrupulous critical attention to Newlove’s work, I will here follow Newlove’s own example, the one he provides at the end of Derksen’s afterword, where he invites Derksen in to show him “the careful syllabics of an Irish writer…, literally counting the syllables per line…” (245).
As is probably well-known, Newlove’s poetry first appears on the West Coast during that flowering of Canadian poetry that occurred during the Sixties and Seventies, a milieu famously (or infamously, depending on your critical predilections) in contact with what came to be called the New American Poetry, a relation most dramatically exemplified by the University of British Columbia Poetry Conference (1963) attended by Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen. The New American Poetry and its poetics were profoundly influenced by Ezra Pound, whose criticism provides useful, basic concepts for an appreciation of Newlove’s art, as well. Pound distinguishes three “kinds of poetry”: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia (25), or, as Louis Zukofsky was to reword it, the uses poetry makes of sight, sound, and intellection (Test vii). Newlove’s writing excels at all of these. On the back cover of The Fatman (1977), Frank Davey’s blurb stands out bold: Newlove’s is “[o]ne of the most direct and visually precise styles in twentieth-century poetry.” Among Newlove’s own saws is to “Read with your ears, not just your eyes.” And his enjambments and the sly suggestiveness of his (under)statements take up and hand down powers inherent in English poetry from its beginnings.
However acute a critic Davey is, it is difficult to find many examples of “visually precise” passages, if what he refers to is what Longinus termed phantasia (Russell and Winterbottom 159), that “casting of images upon the visual imagination” (Pound 25). Nevertheless, the first two stanzas of the title poem from Black Night Window (1968) present, arguably, an image, “an intellectual and emotional complex” (Pound 4):
Black night window—
rain running down
the fogged glass,
a blanched leaf
on a dead twig (11)
Rigorously and economically phanopoetic, every line but the fifth (“hanging outside”) frames a concrete noun, and all but the last adjective (“dead”) are immediately sensuous. None of the poem’s four tercets comments or states: lacking a verb, each is a phrase whose sense hangs on what each depicts. Taking the poem’s images together, Pound would say the poem is an ideogram, communicating by means of “images juxtaposed” (Ginsberg, Howl 74).
One especially intellectually complex image is found in “The Green Plain”, a long poem first published as a chapbook and later included in The Night the Dog Smiled. At the centre of the poem is the question at the heart of philosophy “Why is there something rather than nothing?” that Newlove reworks, wondering whether there is “reason / in the galaxies—Or is this all glass, / a block bubbled in a fire…?” (21). To expand on the aptness of this metaphor would demand an excursus all its own, involving, among other things, the juxtaposition of the stars and bubbles, the contrast between the solidity of glass and the emptiness of space, the condensation of mythopoetic and cosmological speculation that fuses Fire with the Big Bang, and so forth.
Newlove’s prosodic gift and mastery are discernable throughout his oeuvre. “Public Library” (in Black Night Window) is, for example, an exemplary, inimitable performance. Sitting “half in a dreamed trance half listening / to the people around” (4-5), the poet hears the library’s forced silence amplify sounds normally unnoticed, shuffling feet, shaken newspapers, and
books crackling as their backs [are] broken
the flick/flick of fingertips
and fingernails on the corners of pages
snap of shutting decisively
or accidentally plump lackadaisically
muted thump of being tossed on low tables (13-18)
The technique here—onomatopoeia—is familiar enough, but the poem goes on, by means of a deft phonemic mix, to recreate the reading room’s soundscape over an enviably easy sixty-four lines!
More subtle and sophisticated pleasures are to be gleaned between that “Lower limit speech” and “Upper limit music” (Zukofsky, “A”-12 138), where the language as spoken is moved by emotion to a rhythm and dance of the syllables that approaches song. A tender instance is “For Judith, Now About 10 Years Old” from Moving in Alone (1965). The poem edges forward hesitantly, often only three to five syllables at a time, the lines turning from completing the thoughts they would compose, that would remember a niece’s traumatic scalding and wonder about the future of her scarred body,
welt ridges also
on the not even yet
about to be
the failing grafts
were taken… (8-14)
Only in the penultimate stanza can the speaker bring himself to ask “What will [she] do / when [her] breasts come?” (30-31). The poem ends with the uncle remembering “the feel of [her] tough / rubber-laced skin / as [he] spread salve on it” (32-35). The poem’s final two lines are striking in their simple economy of presentation, mimetic to a degree that eludes full, precise explanation: the enjambment that separates the adjective “tough” from “rubber-laced”, the isolation of “rubber-laced skin” on a single line that seems to render its referent palpable to the imagination’s fingertips, the play of sibilants over the last two lines softened by that one labiodental /v/ mimics the sound of the hands salving the girl’s “red / welted scars” (1-2).
The drawing out of sense, plying syntax over a number of verses, framing a clause or phrase on a line to focus attention on associations over and above those the completed thought of the sentence demands, is a characteristic power of English blank verse, from Chaucer, through Marlowe, Milton, and Wordsworth, to Wallace Stevens and Newlove. His prosody in this regard, how he harmonizes metre and expression to build up larger musical and syntactic structures, is a study. “Doukhobor” from The Cave (1970) is exemplary, a single, 188-word question articulated over twenty-six lines, asking a farmer, a member of an immigrant Saskatchewan prairie utopian religious community, “who will ever be able to say for” him what he had thought and seen in his life, when he “lies on the chipped kitchen table / … / dumb as an ox, unable to love, / while [his] women sob and offer the visitors tea” (2, 25-26). Despite this hyper-periodic style, the questioner’s wonderings are easy to follow. The poem’s being a question, moreover, secures it from any simple-minded accusation of appropriation. In its imagination, prosodic and syntactical construction, and rhetoric the poem is a tour de force.
Who reads Newlove with an appreciative pleasure will likely agree with Margaret Atwood, too-often quoted out of context (as I quote her, here, too!), who says Newlove “is indeed a master builder”; capable of writing in “something like a grand manner, his work is often a demonstration model of how it should be done” (Second Words, p.?). Newlove’s grand manner not only exhibits stylistic excellence but suits that excellence to the presentation of certain grand themes, what Dante calls those “‘splendidly great things’ which should be written about using the best available means,…which are prowess in arms, the flames of love, and the direction of the will” (Dante 35). In his 1989 Caroline Heath Lecture, Newlove defines his thematic concerns along similar lines. He says, “I write about desire, which often means to think about right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. I praise endurance” (2). Though Newlove’s order differs from Dante’s, desire (what Dante elsewhere paraphrases as “the enjoyment of love”), right and wrong (“virtue”), and endurance (“self-preservation”) are his transformation of age-old topoi into present, vital concerns. In a word, Newlove is a classic.
These all-too cursory remarks only begin an attempt at an appreciation that would venture more complex matters, beginning with “the classic”. The literary critical use of this term goes back at least to the third century C.E. and is bound up with the notions of class, “model”, and correctness and clarity. Reflections on clarity play into theoretical concerns at least a century old, ostraneniye (Shklovsky, cf. Lemon and Reis) and the distinctions between the lisible and the scriptible (Barthes) and between the “absorptive” and “anti-absorptive” (Bernstein). To develop these considerations uncovers Newlove’s linguistic rigor: his “baring the device” (Shklovsky) in his “anti-lyrics” (Barbour), his deft and unbalancing deployment of allusion and citation, and his scrutiny of semantic complexity in his fugal poems that play out the possibilities of a set of words or a phrase, as in “The Double-headed Snake” or “The Cave”. The study of Newlove’s oeuvre in this direction would not canonize him among Canada’s post-Tish post-modern poets, as Bowering would in the introduction to his 1984 anthology of contemporary Canadian poetry: undermining and overturning such an attempted classification, Newlove’s poems elude and encompass such judgements that are at once both too general and too narrow for his world, wherein “one thing is not like another” (“Heath” 6), where “[n]ot to lose the feel of the mountains / while still retaining the prairies / is a difficult thing” (“The Double-headed Snake” 1-3).
Newlove names that “difficult thing” at the heart of his poetic labour. In his Caroline Heath lecture, he goes on to explain, “What I’m trying to be is human, without knowing what the word means” (7). Here is an endlessly open-ended theme, whose horizon swallows polemics against “Humanism”. Here, Newlove takes up a question not a doctrine, and though he may seem, at times, to “say things for the sheer pleasure of the phrase, forgetting that [he is] speaking to humans, with humans, forgetting to be human” (9), who hears or overhears him, by virtue of the dialogue understanding demands, becomes his interlocutor, which is, as it were, the last word:
All writing is saying, even in the choice of word and structure, this is what you need to know, this is what I need to know, this is the way the world is, this is the way the world should be, this is me, urgent and alive. I want to talk to you. (10)
Alighieri, Dante. Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, trans. Robert S. Haller, Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1973.
Atwood, Margaret. Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, Toronto: Anansi, 1982.
Barbour, Douglas. “Lyric / Anti-lyric: Some Notes About a Concept” in Line, Vol. I, No. 3, Spring 1984, Burnaby: Simon Fraser University, 45-63.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.
Bernstein, Charles. Artifice of Absorption, Philadelphia, Singing Horse, 1987.
Bowering, George, ed. The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology, Toronto: Couch House Press, 1984.
Dyck, Ed, ed. Essays on Saskatchewan Writing, Regina: SWG, 1986.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: original draft facsimile, transcript & variant versions, fully annotated by the author, with contemporaneous correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts & bibliography, ed. Barry Miles, New York: Harper Perennial, 1986.
Lemon, Lee T. and Ries, Marion J. Russian Formalist Essays, Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1965.
Newlove, John. Black Night Window, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968.
—, ed. Canadian Poetry: The Modern Era, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
—The Cave, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,1970.
—The Fatman: Selected Poems 1962 – 1972, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
—The Green Plain, Lantzville: Oolichan, 1981.
—Lies, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.
—Moving in Alone. Lantzville: Oolichan, 1965.
—“Moving in Alone”, Caroline Heath Lecture, 18 November 1989.
—The Night the Dog Smiled, Toronto: ECW, 1986.
—A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove, ed. Robert McTavish, Ottawa: Chaudiere, 2007.
Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays, New York: New Directions, 1968.
Russell, D. A. and Winterbottom, Dr. M., Classical Literary Criticism, Oxford: OUP, 1989.
Zukofsky, Louis. “A”, Berkeley: UCP, 1978.
—A Test of Poetry, New York: Jargon / Corinth, 1964.
Anyone who studied Philosophy or Literary Theory at a certain point will be all too familiar with the bitter and apparently insurmountable divisions between Anglo-Saxon and Continental developments in these disciplines, a conflict that extends to the literary world, where, in English-language Canadian poetry, the schools of latter-day Johnsonians and that of the Theory-inflected avant-garde eye each other warily and dismissively, when they bother to regard each other at all. Of late, some attempts at a synthesis have been attempted, under the rubrics “hybrid” or “steampunk” poetics, or the “post-Language” or “Conceptual lyric.” However, all these attempts suffer a lack of depth and conceptual resources prey as they are to the prejudices of their precursors.
Most immediately, a straw man Wordsworth has been the whipping-boy of the grad schooled avant-garde, while our latter-day practitioners of Nobelese owe their complacent modernity ultimately to the struggles of early Modernism to define itself over against its late British Romantic forerunners. Ironically, in both cases, though it seems generally unacknowledged, Romanticism was roundly defended by the Yale School, in both the Deconstructions of Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man and the Aesthetic Criticism of Harold Bloom. The former showed English Romantic poetry to be as linguistically self-aware as any L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, while, for the latter, a Romantic stance became synonymous with poetry-as-such. Nevertheless, the sentiment of trenchant materialist critiques, such as Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology, that Romanticism is firmly a thing of the past, seems the norm. Romantic poetry and poetics, in various guises, however, has given some small signs of resurgence, first, in Rothenberg’s and Robinson’s 2009 assemblage of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (Poems for the Millennium, Volume III), a welcome dilation and extension of Robert Duncan’s unapologetic if idiosyncratic High Romanticism, and in the exploration and development of kitsch carried out in the criticism and poetry of, for example, Daniel Tiffany.
In any case, past divisions or present attempts at synthesis have carried on ignorant of the groundbreaking research and thinking going in Germany. Patient scholars laboured at producing the first or new critical editions of Hölderlin and Novalis. Meanwhile, Dieter Henrich and his students pursued diligent and painstaking research in an attempt to reconstruct the post-Kantian maelstrom of literary, critical, and philosophical activity centred around Jena and the short-lived journal The Athenaeum. Henrich’s student Manfred Frank built on these studies, exploiting the conceptual and argumentative resources they provided to come to grips in new ways with questions around language and meaning, history, the subject, politics, society, and the environment. In France, Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy brought the heritage of The Athenaeum to bear on contemporary thought in The Literary Absolute, published in France in 1978 and in English translation in 1988. Finally, 1990s England produced analogous work from Richard Eldridge and Andrew Bowie, whose 1997 From Romanticism to Critical Theory: the Philosophy of German Literary Theory along with Frank’s now out-of-print What is Neostructuralism? (1989) are required reading for anyone eager to think apart from and beyond the staid, false dilemmas of present-day philosophical, literary culture. Not to be outdone, even Slavoj Žižek has contributed to the revival,development and exploitation of Schelling’s philosophical work.
It is within this horizon of preliminary scholarly and critical accomplishment that a strikingly welcome collection appears, The Relevance of Romanticism (ed. Dalia Nassar, Oxford University Press, 2014). The volume collects sixteen essays addressing history, language, sociability, poetry, painting, mythology, mathematics, and the environment within the context of the philosophy of early German Romanticism. Contributors include scholars well-known to anyone familiar with this field—Manfred Frank, Frederick Beiser, Karl Ameriks, Michael N Forster, and Richard Eldridge—as well as eleven others, all of whose work is informative, eye-opening and thought-provoking.
The first two essays by Manfred Frank and Frederick Beiser frame the debate concerning the relative Realism or Idealism of early German (or Jena) Romanticism. Offhand, the debate certainly seems esoteric, but it has its finger on the pulse not only of the most current philosophical concerns, namely those that have inspired the various “new materalisms,” object oriented ontology or speculative realism, but also the controversies about how exactly the human being (or Subject) is to be conceived. As Bruce Mathews remarks in the course of his contribution, this problematic is one whose
consequences are far from academic. As Manfred Frank has repeatedly warned, to surrender our subjectivity and free will to the deterministic vocabulary of the natural sciences will not only undermine the personal accountability that supports moral action, but it will also lead to a “political fatalism” that will destroy the legitimacy of society’s defining institutions. (202)
The next four essays explore, as their section title declares, History, Hermeneutics, and Sociability. Karl Ameriks constructs a typology for philosophies of history—circular, linear, and chaotic—in order to illuminate Friedrich Schlegel’s famous definition of Romantic poetry as “progressive” and “universal.” Michael N Forster condenses his two studies of German philosophy of language (After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition (2010) and German Philosophy of Language: from Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond (2013)) in a dense but less pointed chapter that, though informative, passes over the equally valuable if more obscure work of Novalis and more importantly fails to make as clear as need be how much de Saussure, structuralist linguistics, semiotics, and post-structuralist philosophy stem from and twist the more thorough-going and coherent contributions of Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and von Humboldt (a point well-made in detail by Frank in his What is Neostructuralism? and Boris Gasparov’s Beyond Pure Reason (2013)). The pair of essays by Kristin Gjesdal and Jane Kneller address an aspect of Jena Romanticism not widely enough surveyed (to my limited knowledge), namely the social dimension and pertinence of the movement. The Jena circle was infamously cosmopolitan and egalitarian, not only in terms of class and religion but of gender, too, values absolutely essential to the Berlin salon society within which its members moved and to Schleiermacher’s idea of sociability in his Essay on a Theory of Social Behaviour.
The five contributions of the volume’s third part address literature, art, and mythology. Richard Eldridge reads Hölderlin’s fragment “Rousseau” with attention to what it says about subjectivity and finitude. Brady Bowman and Keren Gorodeisky explore the lively pertinence of Jena Romantic thinking to reflections on the truth of art in analytic philosophy and the fragmentary form and pragmatic content of Wittgenstein’s philosophy in relation to Friedrich Schlegel’s. A real eye-opener for me is Laure Cahen-Maurel’s study of the painting and art theory of David Caspar Friedrich and its influence on Abstract Expressionism and the art of Anish Kapoor. Surely the most gripping read, however, is Bruce Mathews’ “The New Mythology: Romanticism Between Religion and Humanism” that takes up Schelling’s speculations concerning a mythology that would harmonize art and science, humankind and nature, a discourse that holds the promise of helping us avoid what Schelling already in 1804 foresaw as “the annihilation of nature.” No remark by Žižek on the environment or environmentalism or any tract on ecopoetics or ecopoetical work I can think of open such compelling vistas or place a higher or more urgent demand on the imaginative artist or thinker than these fifteen or so pages.
The book’s final section, Science and Nature, is no less surprisingly informative or pertinent to the present day. Anyone who believes the Romantic thinker is a wooly-brained dilettante will find that prejudice shattered here. One learns in the contributions from Paul Redding, John H Smith, and David W Wood that Novalis (a mining engineer by trade), Friedrich Schlegel, and Salomon Maimon (surely one of Kant’s most idiosyncratic interpreters and critics) were absolutely contemporary in their knowledge of the most advanced mathematics of the day, particularly that having to do with controversies over the then relatively new infinitesimal calculus and the nature of the infinite, notions that informed Schlegel’s definition of Romantic Poesie as “progressive.” Redding shows how Novalis’ fragmentary notes on computation remain relevant to contemporary philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and procedural, cyber- or Conceptual poetries. Regarding this aspect of Novalis’ thinking, Redding observes
We can see how the interests of the poet and the computationalist might converge…and a point of convergence can indeed be found in the strange case of the combinatorial poetics of Erycius Puteanus, a seventeenth-century humanist whose generation of multiple verses to the Virgin Mary from a single eight-word poem came to the attention of Liebniz…An eight-word, one-line Latin hexameter…formed the base from which Puteanus generated 1,022 verse permutations… (228)
Equally startling is the relation of geometry and algebra and calculus to the concepts of philosophy of Fichte and Novalis and the relevance of the former’s Wissenschaftslehre to such mathematical luminaries as Herman Weyl. Amanda Jo Goldstein’s contribution on Herder’s “irritable empiricism” complements Forster’s on Herder’s language philosophy, laying out as it does Herder’s peculiar theories concerning sensation, culture, and language and their unknottable intertwining that weaves poetic tropes into our very nerve fibres and their “irritations” two centuries in advance of similar proposals made by Canguilhem, Jacob, or Foucault and in a much more compelling way for poets and poetics. Likewise, the volume’s final piece, Dalia Nassar’s “Romantic Empiricism after the ‘End of Nature'” complements Mathews’ on Schelling’s New Mythology, setting out to clarify and legitimate Goethe’s concept of science and nature in the context of the contestations over the very idea of Nature itself.
Nassar’s collection should disturb the prejudice that Romanticism is dustily antique and that our absolute modernity is a quantum advance upon its quaint notions. As the philosophies of Kant and Hegel come to be seen to possess potentials to illuminate the present moment, so the thinking between theirs comes to the fore. Not only do we share the more general horizon with the Jena Romantics—developments in technoscience and its worldview and the attendant social and environmental predations of industrialism—but their terms define our own in advance. Indeed, the essays in this volume propose that it is our thinking that is a pale shadow of theirs and that the promise of their speculations resides in our future.
Anyone acquainted with English-language Canadian poetry will know that it’s divided into a variety of mutually uncomprehending schools, a staid-of-affairs most recently borne out in a discussion thread concerning a recent review of Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the the Present in the National Post.
The thread’s originator first took up three strands, more-or-less: the review is “jargon crusted”, often nonsensical and stylistically repulsive. The review, however, employs little jargon: “identity formation,” “deixis,” and “deictic shifters” are the only offenders, and the last two are explained, if a little clumsily; the accusation of nonsense, meanwhile, was quickly downgraded to the charge that the review’s style would fail to excite the “intelligent yet non-specialist reader” to rush out and buy the book.
What strikes me as more curious though is what the review’s “style” indicates about the reception of avant-garde poetry. As one acute interlocutor observed “a poem whose second line is ‘You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol’ might be asking for this sort of review,” a remark that might be taken to mean that “experimental” poetry demands a particular response, in this case, one couched in the discourse developed over the past century precisely in answer to new art forms for which no existing critical vocabulary seemed fit. Indeed, ‘shifter’ is a most appropriate term in this respect, introduced by Otto Jespersen in 1923, taken up by Roman Jakobson in 1956 and, most tellingly, by Emile Benveniste, a linguist whose work deeply informs Robertson’s.
In one respect, then, the review might be said to possess a pedagogical purpose, attempting to orient the “ordinary reader” to be better able to approach a work that might otherwise seem outlandish and perplexing. Regardless of its purpose, however, the review’s “content” and “form” should be less disconcerting than its spontaneously possessing a ready fluency to articulate and appreciate an “experimental” work. How “experimental” can a work be, after all, when it is composed and readily appreciated within an already existing set of institutional, artistic-critical conventions? It would seem “experimental” only to those offended by there being more things in the heaven and earth of poetry than they read in their English classes. The review and discussion thread, then, are less indices of the alienation of the “specialist” from the “non-specialist” than of the fractious relativity of two equally well-established schools.
A number of curious implications unfold from this reconfiguration of the issue. Those defenders of the “intelligent yet non-specialist reader” come to appear disingenuous: the criticism of poetry, already a very specific concern, is never merely a matter of intelligence, Eliot’s famous dictum notwithstanding, but is inescapably rooted in education. As Paul de Man observed (in his essay “The Resistance to Theory”): “even the most intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature [make] use of a minimal set of concepts (tone, organic form, allusion, tradition, historical situation, etc. ) of at least some general import.” To pretend that the understanding and appreciation of poetry is not enabled and cultured by a particular schooling hides the social specificity of the language(s) of criticism, which is to pretend the language of one group is that common to all, which is to assume a commonality whose universality is merely a repression of difference. The specialized, literary critical vocabulary that sticks out as it does, however, ironically gambles an initial, potentially-alienating difference in the hopes of cashing in on the winnings of a wider understanding, all for the sake of rendering the unfamiliar familiar.
Where it appears perverse to restrict poetry reviewing to a non-technical language (even when it is explained in “layman’s terms”), while terms such as “lipids,” “stem cells,” or even “molecule” for that matter can be found in the same newspaper as the review in question, it seems equally, ironically counterproductive to anaesthetize what is uniquely lively in a work. The criticism that restricts itself to recognizable formulae reinforces the illusion that all is already right with the world and that there is nothing new under the sun that would require an effort at cognition, as true for the resolutely plain-spoken journalist-critic as for the reviewer in question, for whom Robertson’s book can hold no surprises nor upend his critico-theoretical status quo, understanding the work as he does in advance thanks to the conceptual schemata that enable his understanding and appreciation in the first place.
Robertson’s—anyone’s—poetry is surely better served by a—dare I say—”dialectical” criticism, that introduces the work without interrupting the ensuing, hopefully unending and open-ended, conversation that is the life of art and of the mind.
In what follows I want to attempt, from the point of view of a poeta doctus, a learned poet, to critically assess the achievements and what I discern as some of the limitations of Robert Bringhurst’s poetry, translations, essays, and talks. Such an attempt must mix humility with hubris. Bringhurst is rightly a highly-regarded creative mind, but one I’d like to argue not taken seriously enough. His admirers seem to me too easily impressed and dazzled by what they correctly perceive as a tremendous poetic talent and wide-ranging, profound intelligence. What is required, especially for those of us who share his poetic and more general cultural concerns, is to dare to submit his works to a kind of acid test, charitable and respectful at every point, but no less stringent in its aesthetic and intellectual demands. To do less would be to do a disservice to both the man and those cultural activities he has devoted his life to, poetry and thought.
It would be too easy to present a strictly personal appreciation of Robert Bringhurst’s oeuvre. I fell under the spell of his poetry when he recited “Bone Flute Breathing” at my high school. My neophyte poetic fumblings from the time found guidance in his own engagements with the tradition, Hellenic, Biblical, European, and Asian. During my graduate studies, which wrestled with the fraternal strife between poetry and philosophy, his versions of the fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers The Old in Their Knowing provided both a model and matter for thought. In fact, for a time, I read his rendering of Sophocles, “Of the Snaring of Birds,” to open readings of my own poems. His monumental translations from the Haida appeared just at the time my own pedagogical activities involved themselves with the more general movement of ethnopoetics. And which poet, critic, or scholar, awake to the centrality of the ecological crisis, cannot help but participate with him in his own ecopoetic labours?
These individual experiences that left their impress on my poetry and thinking arguably possess a more public, objective significance and worth. From his first poem, “The Beauty of the Weapons,” Bringhurst’s innate musical gift and artistic, technical conscientiousness, coupled with his insistence on reciting rather than reading his work, have been exemplary. Consistent with the mainstream of poetic modernism and postmodernism in the Twentieth century, Bringhurst’s poems and translations “paw over the ancients” and “make new” voices from the inherited European canon and expand this tradition globally. This contribution to what Goethe was the first to call Weltliteratur along with its attunement to the philosophical tradition line his poetry, essays, and talks up with that vital and on-going dialogue between poetry and philosophy inaugurated in the modern period by the Jena Romantics, a dialogue of continuing pertinence, if the conclusions of philosophers such as Dieter Henrich, Manfred Frank, Andrew Bowie, and Jason Wirth are anything to go by, not to mention those of a more widely-renowned figure, Theodor Adorno. The pertinence of Bringhurst’s ecopoetic concerns demands no justification.
Bringhurst’s prosody is remarkable on several counts. Since High Modernism “broke the pentameter,” poetry might be said to have lost its metrical bearings, resulting in a continuing if perverse struggle between traditionally-minded formalists, Neo- and otherwise, and practitioners of a wide range of free verse. Tone deafness is detectable at both extremes: practitioners of (what they see as) traditional metrics too often produce lines that are “rhythmic” in purely numeric terms, the count of syllables and their barely discernible relative stresses, while the garden-variety writer of free verse does in fact too often produce little more than the proverbial “prose chopped into lines.” Poetry composed by someone with an ear is well-defined by Louis Zukofksy’s famous function: lower limit speech, upper limit music. Anyone with ears to hear will affirm that often Bringhurst’s poems are scored to a marked, often easily-definable rhythm. The index of his natural talent and assiduous practice is readable in the way his poems’ speech-based syntax easily steps up to and in time with their more artificially musical rhythms. Indeed, Bringhurst’s achievement in this respect is so consistently polished it must surely surprise anyone familiar with currents in contemporary North American English-language poetry that those self-professed tyros of Formalism (whose manner August Kleinzahler has deliciously christened “Nobelese”) haven’t lionized Bringhurst’s obvious metrical prowess. Where Bringhurst’s prosodic gift might be said to have led him astray is in his polyphonic works, beginning with The Blue Roofs of Japan. If anything, these compositions for multiple voices make the difference between language or speech and music loud and clear: the former possesses an essential semantic dimension that the latter does not, at least not in the same way. Where the voices of a fugue complement each other, simultaneous speeches create a frustrating cacophony precisely because the listener has to attend to and untwine two or more semantic chains that interfere with each other’s reception in way that concurrent instrumental or even singing voices do not. Ironically, these polyphonic works are easier to read than hear. Although a much more extended study is necessary to come to any conclusions concerning the manner and success of these compositions, one might argue that it is precisely the power and achievement of Bringhurst’s poetic-musical abilities that suggest and tempt him to experiment in this way and contribute to the repertoire of poetic forms.
A more successful if more ordinary kind of polyphony is found in Bringhurst’s engagement with world literature. Bringhurst’s oeuvre emerges from the matrix of the Twentieth century’s dilation of tradition. Where Pound went back to Homer, the Troubadours, and (as T. S. Eliot at least would have it) invented Chinese poetry for English, Charles Olson went back to the earliest literature, that of Sumer, a limit overstepped by Gary Snyder, who has described the roots of his poetry as extending back to the Paleolithic, a temporal limit expanded spatially to include the poetries of all the peoples on the surface of the globe in Jerome Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics, a project pursued in his many anthologies or assemblages over many decades, commencing with the first edition of Technicians of the Sacred in 1967. Beginning with Deuteronomy, Bringhurst’s poetry adopts personae from the Bible, ancient Greece, India, China, and relates myths of his own making that echo those of Turtle Island. A quick survey of Selected Poems (2009) turns up translations from or references to Egyptian, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese, Danish, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Russian. The most concentrated and monumental of his efforts in this regard is his translations of the classical Haida mythtellers, primarily Ghandl and Skaay. One would be hard-pressed to name a Canadian poet whose corpus incarnates that imagining of Goethe’s whose reality blossomed this past century. On the one hand Bringhurst’s efforts have introduced or “made new” or conversed with an impressively vast amount of non-English-language material. On the other, a working poet might be tempted to reflect on the promise of this contribution: what of it lends new potentialities to poetic composition rather than merely adding another exhibit or further commentary to the museum of Weltliteratur? Of more promise than his retelling a myth, for example, in his “Leda and the Swan,” is what he seems to discover in the compositions of Ghandl and Skaay, the most condensed statement of which is perhaps at the beginning of the fifth chapter of A Story as Sharp as a Knife. Bringhurst writes that he calls Skaay’s stories poetry
because they are dense, crisp and full of lucid images whose power is not confined by cultural fences—and because they are richly patterned. But the patterns are syntactic and thematic more than rhythmical or phonemic. For all the acoustic beauty of these poems, that is not where there obvious formal order resides. They are distinguishable by a thinkable prosody of meaning more than by an audible prosody of sound. (111)
That Bringhurst often places such great emphasis and value on such syntactic and thematic patterning in his appreciations of the verbal art of Skaay and Ghandl and often that of other art, as well, must strike anyone acquainted with the tradition of Structuralist literary analysis as a little de trop. The studies of Roman Jakobson and Michel Riffaterre, for example, are characterized by their detailed and exhaustive analyses of just such syntactic and thematic symmetries as well as phonemic and prosodic patterning. Indeed, given the inescapability of just such a “prosody of meaning” in a literary text one can’t help but wonder how any poet or story teller worth study can not produce texts possessed of just such structures. One is left wondering, then, how to put to use what Bringhurst’s tremendous labours have imported into the English language. The profound and prevalent influence of Pound’s “invention of Chinese poetry” and his ideogrammic method or the way many Twentieth century avant garde poets have turned the poetics of the Western hemisphere’s autochthonous cultures to their own absolutely modern ends (e.g., Anne Waldman’s “Fast Speaking Woman” based on the syntactic symmetries of the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina’s chants) exemplify how the work of translation can vitalize a target culture’s language. Nevertheless, regardless of what Bringhurst himself or other poets have been able to make of his vast importations, the cosmopolitanism of his oeuvre remains unquestionably impressive.
Bringhurst’s translations also feed that aspect of his work that touches on and converses with thinking, a thinking that increasingly mulls over matters of ecological urgency. The philosophical content of his writings calls for and could doubtlessly sustain a painstaking study, but I want to reflect on an essential theme of that thinking, language. As a polyglot, translator, and recognized and respected authority on typography, Bringhurst in his poems, essays, and talks returns endlessly to the nature and function of language. In this fascination, his ruminations chew over a matter central to Western thought since the Eighteenth century and one painfully familiar to any graduate student in the humanities. Bringhurst’s theses on language demand a scrutiny both because of their centrality to his own work and to that of the culture at large. Bringhurst, like the post-structuralist postmodernists he disdains, participates in the general inflation of language characteristic of much of the humanities in the Twentieth century in the wake of Structuralism. In The Solid Form of Language, consistent with archaic wisdom and contemporary zoosemiotics, he first reminds us of those other, nonhuman languages, “the calls of leopard frogs and whales, the rituals of mating sandhill cranes” (11). Then, in A Story as Sharp as a Knife, he expands the linguistic beyond the communicative circuit, writing
We read the tracks and scat of animals, the depth and lustre of their coats, the set of their ears and the gait of their limbs. We read the horns of sheep, the teeth of horses. We read the weights and measures of the wind, the flight of birds, the surface of the sea, snow, fossils, broken rocks, the growth of shrubs and trees and lichens…We read the speech of jays, ravens, hawks, frogs, wolves, and in infinite detail, the voices, faces, gestures, coughs and postures of other human beings. (14)
To which we might add (as Bringhurst does) that language includes even “the chemical messages coming and going day and night within the brain” and all that is “chemically written into our genes.” As remarked, Bringhurst is hardly the first to be inspired by the compelling charm of this vision of universal semiosis. Hölderlin famously writes “Ein Zeichen sind wir” (we are a sign) in harmony with Novalis’ thoughts on the hieroglyphs of The Book of Nature, a metaphor that itself originates in the Latin Middle Ages and that Bringhurst himself affirms in his talk “The Voice in the Mirror” collected in The Tree of Meaning (2008): “The original book is, of course, the world itself” (132). However imaginatively appealing and prima facie ecologically sane this positing of nature as a book, the inflation of the linguistic that underwrites it also conflates certain conceptual distinctions whose erasure is fateful. Among others, what is lost is the genus-species distinction between understanding in general and understanding language. Whenever I perceive something as something, I understand, I interpret, as would happen whenever I “read” an ecosystem or “the tracks and scats of animals”. However, specifically linguistic understanding necessarily involves an address, a conversation. What happens when I take a non-linguistic (albeit interpretable) phenomenon as a linguistic address? I must posit a speaker, an interlocutor. In the world order that originally imagined the Book of Nature, that speaker or writer is God. But who, in the absence of God, writes what is “chemically written into our genes” for instance? The metaphor of the genetic code was criticized at the moment of its inception precisely on these grounds, that it was an inappropriate application of linguistic or information theoretical concepts. Lily E. Kay sums up these criticisms nicely in her Who Wrote the Book of Life? (2000):
Information theorists, cryptologists, linguists, and life scientists criticized the difficulties (some would say inappropriateness) of these borrowings in molecular biology, arguing that the genome’s information content cannot be assessed since the key parameters (e.g., signal, noise, message channel) cannot be properly quantified. DNA is not a natural language: it lacks phonemic features, semantics, punctuation marks, and intersymbol restrictions. So unlike any language, “letter” frequency analyses of amino acids yield only random statistical distributions. Furthermore, no natural language consists solely of three-letter words. Finally, if it were purely a formal language, then it would possess syntax only but no semantics. Thus the informational representations of the genome do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. (2)
However much “reading” natural phenomena does “not stand up to rigorous scrutiny,” it enables a grasp of what is read that empowers the reader, as present-day genetic technology undeniably demonstrates. Attributing a message or intentionality to non-linguistic, spontaneous things is an extension of the Platonic metaphysics that conceived of all things as if they were products made according to a plan or Form. This productionist metaphysics is the first chapter of the story that leads to our present technological society. The presupposition that Nature possesses a plan, whether written out in hieroglyphs or mathematics, enables us to articulate that plan and thereby order Nature to our own ends. The disastrous consequences of this instrumentalization of Nature are too-well known. Even and especially those “hunter-gatherers, who study the great book day after day, night after night (Tree, 132) do so for the sake of their own survival and flourishing, to bring the natural world under enough of their own control so they may, at least, feed themselves. The contemporary, ecologically-motivated desire to transcend the Adamic monologue that imperiously names natural things, to imagine instead what it would mean to hear, understand, and converse with Nature, gets caught up in a dialectic that reveals the character such well-intentioned listening shares with the worst excesses of scientific-technological interrogation and literally murderous exploitation.
In the preceding, I have tried to come to terms with Bringhurst’s impressive oeuvre from a “dialectical” perspective, registering only a very few of its undeniable accomplishments while simultaneously probing what I perceive to be some of their inescapable limitations. Admittedly, I have proceeded at neither the length nor detail the work calls for. Nor has the approach been sufficiently immanent, applying standards that might arguably find their orientation outside Bringhurst’s own. But what I do want to argue, finally, is for the pertinence and profound challenge of the work, one that calls upon lay readers, poets, thinkers, and scholars—citizens of the earth, all—to enter into all that Bringhurst lays before us, to take up the challenges of the work and to at the same time challenge it for the sake of those values it has sought to speak to and at best sing.
Bringhurst, Robert. A Story Sharp as a Knife. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
—The Solid Form of Language. Kentville: Gaspereau, 2004.
—The Tree of Meaning. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008.
—Selected Poems. Kentville: Gaspereau, 2009.
Kay, Lily. Who Wrote the Book of Life? Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Rothenberg, Jerome. Technicians of the Sacred. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
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