Archive for the ‘criticism’ Tag

A Class of One’s Own: an all-too-brief appreciation of the poetry of John Newlove

[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

hanging outside

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

 

womanly posterior

from where

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)

 

 

Works Cited

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.

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On not disputing taste

The teapot in the tearoom of the North American poetry milieu is all aripple again and cups aclatter in their saucers. Boston Review publishes a conversation with poet, critic, and scholar Stephen Burt and (via the Véhicule Press blog via Evan Jones) one can read Adam Plunkett in the The New Republic take Burt to task—on the matter of taste. Taste? In 2013?!

I quote a supposedly well-known poet-critic:  “Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.”

This serious artist has more important things to attend before Time’s wingéd chariot kindly stops for him. Or, to quote again that well-known poet-critic:

I would much rather lie on what is left of Catullus’ parlour floor and speculate the azure beneath it and the hills off Salo and Riva with their forgotten gods moving unhindered amongst them, than discuss any…theories of [taste] whatsoever….I shall not argue.

Peter Dale Scott’s Tilting Point: “tilting at the mills of state / with a lance of paper”

Peter Dale Scott’s first full volume of poetry since Mosaic Orpheus (2009) collects ten new poems that speak from the vantage point of a lifetime and his singular interrogation of the American Empire. The first eight, short poems reflect on the eros of old age, the “drive’s decline”, a shift to “love not as acquisition but as gift”, an eros poignantly in love with living more than with any one beloved, that lifts

…once again

 

for an instant

into this abiding

awareness

of all there is

Fifty-seven of the volume’s seventy-pages are taken up by two longer works Loving America and Changing North America, the former probing the schizophrenic love-hate relationship Scott has developed over decades’ engagement with his adopted country (“the cradle of the worst and the best” as Leonard Cohen sings), the latter searching for resolutions to the country’s increasingly pathological contradictions.

The profound pertinence of Scott’s message is tuned to a style tempered to communicate it. Tellingly, at least four of the book’s poems, including many of the long poems’ sections, first appeared on “the spreading / leafwork of the Internet,” an index of Scott’s urgent desire to get the word out. His classical manner verges on the prosaic, even the pedestrian at times, guided throughout by a democratic ideal to address the widest possible audience, such as in the startling “To the Tea-Party Patriots: A Berkeley Professor says Hello!”. Often, that audience is an expressed dedicatee or interlocutor, poets or friends, including Daniel Ellsberg, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Czeslaw Milosz, and Walt Whitman, among many others.

More ruminative readers, however, will not mistake the clear surface of Scott’s language for a shallowness of thought or knowledge. Already, for example, in the volume’s first piece “Homing:  A Winter Poem,” Scott’s simplicity belies a profound complexity of reference, the tracing of which is the richly rewarding work his writing invites:  the significance of the dedication to Tomas Tranströmer, the epigraph from Genesis, the allusions to ‘Jubal’ and ‘Urthona’ and the poet speaker’s “dead parents,” among others, coupled with the intratextual references—the “tilt of the earth” nodding to the collection’s title and the “glimpse of odyssey” that winks at the poem dedicated to Milosz “Not for long”—all point to a profound  and unending network of meaningfulness, a characteristic virtue of literary art.

For all its accomplished polish Scott’s poetry is no mere aesthetic production. His manner is chosen to address matters of the utmost consequence, the character and fate of America, a topic that has inspired him to produce more than eight volumes of painstaking investigative scholarship into the machinations and abuses of power and a monumental long poem Seculum (in three volumes, Coming to Jakarta (1988), Listening to the Candle (1992), and Minding the Darkness (2000)). It is in the book’s two long poems that Scott most firmly grasps this theme that runs throughout his life’s work, work that rises to his friend Milosz’s question “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or peoples?// A connivance with official lies…” Scott’s answer to Milosz’s demand is, in part,

… to write any poem

encompassing this nation

one must have an awareness

of gratuitous murder

committed by released felons

in uniform for sport

without forgetting the grace

of a doe drinking from a forest stream

Scott’s theme, like Whitman’s before him, has vista. The periplum of this territory his work traces and this latest book continues invites and demands our attentive study.

Tilting Point, Peter Dale Scott, San Luis Obispo:  Word Palace Press, 2012

Andy Suknaski, 30 July 1942 – 3 May 2012

I was very sad to learn today of the death of Andy Suknaski.

Suknaski was a profoundly important and influential—though not influential enough—poet of the Canadian prairies. His Wood Mountain Poems (1976, reprinted in 2006) is a Canlit classic;  Montage for an Interstellar Cry (1982) and Silk Trail (Nightwood, 1985) are vital extensions of the poetics of the long poem that engage the contemporary world and the story of Chinese immigration to Canada, respectively; his East of Myloona (Thistledown, 1979), among other works, gives voice to the inhabitants of Canada’s North. At present, the single most generous collection of his work is the new and selected poems edited by Stephen Scobie The Land They Gave Away (NeWest Press, 1982). Since most of his poetry, including his selected, is out of print, perhaps his passing will prompt Chaudiere Books to issue its long-awaited volume of selected poems.

So much one can gather from the various reference sites online, but I was lucky enough to have met the man. John Newlove, then patiently indulging and guiding my first, faltering poetic attempts in his role as the public library’s writer-in-residence, introduced us. I was young, younger than either of them guessed, still in high school, but Suknaski greeted me warmly in his small, cluttered Regina home one summer afternoon, offered me a coffee, and deepened my initiation into the art of poetry. The walls were covered in notes and artwork and ideograms that would compose, I guess, Montage or Silk Trail. All I can remember of that first conversation, besides his soft, respectful voice and pipe, was his asking which poets I was reading and, when I answered Pound, he remarked he’d read the Cantos three times. At that first meeting, he also learned my father’s mother-tongue was Hungarian, and from that time on, whenever we met over the years, he called me simply “Magyar”.

The last time I saw him must have been in 1989-90 when I was the administrative assistant for Grain in Regina. It was soon after, at the age of 49,   he dramatically quite Canlit, poetry and art. If any further poetry would come out of him, he said, it would come out only “as voice or to sing a song for friends around a campfire, or wedding, or a ranch party in Wood Mountain.”  And voice was the breath of his art, for Suknaski was the Projective poet par excellence, whose ear attended carefully “40 hours a day” to the talk around and whose intelligence showed in the dance of the syllables as they stepped down his pages measuring the syntagmata of what he called “normal human language” in all its infinitely various accents and cadences. But, unlike Olson’s Projective verse, that scores “the breathing of the man who writes,” Suknaski’s poems give voice not only to himself but much more, and at no small cost to himself, to those too many—Metis, immigrant farmers, Chinese coolies, and others—whose voices and very lives go unheard and unacknowledged. At this, he was and will remain an undisputed master.

photo:  University of Manitoba archives

Critical Paths: a meander through Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bp Nichol

[Another orphan piece, the following review was commissioned by Vallum but eventually turned down because it “stepped on” on Roy Miki’s editorial toes, however lightly, at least from a scholarly point of view. Devotees of Nichol, as I note in the review, may well take exception to my evaluation of his critical writings gathered in Meanwhile. Let me be clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Nichol’s wildly vast and varied corpus, he wrote my favourite episode of Fraggle Rock, and, when cloning technology has been perfected, I intend to subcontract a book that would study The Martryology as a key site of conflict between the so-called humanist and posthumanist tendencies in postmodern poetry!]

The more writing on poetry by poets one reads, the more likely one is, I think, to agree with Socrates, that they know not what they do. Regardless, poets review and assay each other’s work; many, especially in North America, earn their keep passing their craft on to apprentices; others teach literature or work in what one scholar has named  “poetheory”.  In Meanwhile, editor Roy Miki has collected and collated nearly five hundred pages of bp Nichol’s critical writings. Whatever the ultimate worth of Nichol’s criticism, Meanwhile as a book is a curiously incoherent volume to have issued from the hands of a professional scholar. Its content is arranged neither generically nor even according to Nichol’s own criteria, but chronologically, from 1966 to the poet’s untimely death at 44 in 1988. Whatever the virtues or vices of such a presentation, the editorial notes mysteriously reclassify this material as interviews, visual texts, and critical writing, per se, rendering the editorial apparatus needlessly, frustratingly labour-intensive. The interviews, likely like all interviews, will delight or frustrate according to how closely a reader’s curiosities match the interviewer’s. A more serious problem is that more than a quarter of the book’s nearly two-dozen “visual texts” appeared almost a decade before in Ondaatje’s and Bowering’s bp Nichol reader An H in the Heart. Given Nichol’s profligate creative output, one regrets the redundancy and wonders how the visual pieces were chosen: certainly not because Nichol refers to them in the rest of the book. At the very least, an index would have facilitated a more hypertextual reading experience. Nevertheless, overriding all these faults is that happy truth of every book that  Socrates, again, relates to Phaedrus: readers make of a book what they will.

Fortuitously, Nichol himself suggests how one might get into and get something out of Meanwhile. In 1978, reflecting over six years’ collaboration with the Canadian journal of writing and theory Open Letter Nichol observes

But what has crept up on and surprised me is my own desire to articulate for myself a way of replying to other writing that honours my awareness of it. By this i mean […] an articulation of a particular (to this writer) understanding (and i’ll take that literally as standing under or subservient to the text) which may offer a way in for others if they choose to take it. That free choice option as opposed to critical dogma strikes me as crucial. (189 – 190)

Regardless of exactly how one might subject oneself to a text in the first place, the humble, civil generosity Nichol writes he aspires to here orients his critical approach. In any case, writing that honours will be honoured, but how? In the same editorial, Nichol goes on to distinguish two aspects in another’s work that call for a response:  “My response to another writer’s work must deal not only with a response to the content of his or her words, but a response to their gestures as I see them writ large on the page with the form the pieces take” (190). A glance at the forms of gestures Meanwhile collects reveals an impressive array of critical genres:  letters, statements, notes, reviews, critical introductions, appreciations, studies, readings, panegyrics, performances, and academic papers, among others. Notwithstanding this variety, each gesture’s ready familiarity frames the content, focussing attention on what is said. Nichol, again, guides our reading: the earliest piece in the book is a letter written 3 May 1966 to Open Letter editor Frank Davey castigating him for closing his eyes to the validity of visual poetry. In the process of pointing out the blind spots in Davey’s view, Nichol writes that in “any criticism there are always key statements around which the whole thing pivots” (16).  A key pivot of Nichol’s critical writing is the notion of the open. Nichol desires to open up the poem by removing obstacles to understanding and appreciation by rendering such obstacles absent; alternatively, Nichol seeks to bring the poem’s materiality out into the open by revealing aspects normally overlooked, making them present.

The economy that determines which texts Nichol addresses is essentially hedonistic, i.e., he writes about what “honours” or excites him. Therefore, the traditional exegetical gestures of close reading and appreciation combine. Nichol’s detailed scrutiny of work by Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Dashiell Hammet, Kerouac, Proust, Birney, and especially Gertrude Stein (to whom three major pieces are devoted) exposes the workings of their writing down to the punctuation. A vivid example of this approach is Nichol’s lecture “When the Time Came” wherein he explicates the opening paragraphs of Stein’s Ida a sentence at a time, literally drawing the reader’s attention to the writing’s workings by means of arrows and underlinings. Nichol’s presentation juggles playfulness with willfulness, reading ‘Ida’ as ‘Id/e/a’ (why not, for example, as a feminization of Id?). This unruly leap shows Nichol’s practice is closer to that of Marshall McCluhan’s “probes” (which he explicitly praises in Meanwhile) than old New Critical  explication de texte. The tour de force of these by turns lucid and ludic exegeses is Nichol’s page by page reading of Shant Basmajian’s 1978 Quote Unquote, which, along with his appreciation of Earl Birney’s Solemn Doodles and explanations of seven of his own visual poems, opens concrete or visual textuality, closed to more doctrinaire, less exploratory sensibilities. Nichol’s refined attention to poetry’s material possibilities concretizes the art — and, too, how he reads, how he replies to, other writing.  Such exemplary considered and considerate reading grants Nichol’s praise for the work of Frank Davey, David McFadden, bill bisset, and Coach House Books a solid, persuasive sincerity.

This focussed attention to the letter is matched by an equally acute grasp of language as such. An early, brief manifesto “statement, november 1966”, begins

now that we have reached the point where people have finally come to see that language means communication and that communication does not just mean language, we have come up against the problem, the actual fact, of diversification, of finding as many exits as possible from the self (language / communication) in order to form as many entrances as possible for the other

and ends “i place myself there, with them, whoever they are, wherever they are, who seek to reach themselves and the other thru the poem by as many exits and entrances as possible” (18). Nichol seeks to open channels of poetic communication outside of whatever the poem might intend to “say”. To open “as many exits and entrances as possible” Nichol manipulates the artistic material under hand:  the appearance of the written language, the vocal sounds that underwrite speech, even the workings of the book. To communicate extra-linguistically  Nichol opens the borders between poetry, painting, music, and sculpture. The poem, then, unfolded and spread out, reveals otherwise unseen sides, which become means of expression and reception. As a note from the same time says:  “i come out of the poem in as many ways as possible to get back into the person in as many ways as possible. Concrete poetry, kinetic poetry, poem sculptures, poem / objects, ideopomes, journeys, postkon, sound poetry, traditional poems…” (23)

Nichol’s desire to communicate by every means possible comes not so much from a need to express — to say — something as to make something poet and reader or audience can hold in common. In a 1974 discussion with, among others,  Pierre Coupey, Nichol remarks:

The whole reason I got into concrete […] was that I thought I was being too arrogant, that I was sitting down and I was writing and I was coming to the situation obsessed that I had something to say per se: a very didactic purpose as opposed to simply giving myself up to the process of writing. And as a result, I was not learning from the language. And the fact is, the language is there before me. I’m born into the language community. The language has a history of its own. I have things I can learn, if I sit down and let myself play with it — which is more or less the motivation behind getting into concrete, getting into sound. (154)

This interrogation of an art form and its material is in step with the avant-garde assault on inherited art, its tacit conventions,  habits, reflexes, and other automatisms. In the same interview, Nichol agrees with Daphne Marlatt who, taking stream-of-consciousness as an example, observes that techniques once novel to the point of outrageous obscurity lose their paradoxical power to reveal by alienating, as they themselves become commonplace, clichéd, worn out: “by that time it’s become a habit of thought rather than a new perception” (154). To open our eyes and ears to all poetry is, Nichol refuses to write or speak, but paints and sings in language instead. For Nichol, “language is a tool” whose nature transcends our use: to reveal that nature, he must remove language’s utility, so what it is over and above its use to our blind will stands out stark naked. The entrances and exits into and out of the poem are the ways the poem’s opaque materiality comes out into the open. After all, you can open only a door that is closed.

The palpability of language increases acutely for Nichol with his introduction to poststructuralism in the early Seventies. At first, single terms and conceptual expressions, then a whole discourse inspired by the French Theory so parodied in North America comes to accent Nichol’s critical view, which eventually comes under the sway of the paranoid critical-theoretical doctrine of the Prison House of Language. Nichol invokes this hermeneutic of suspicion in 1975 when he asks “isn’t the operative premise that a man is shaped finally by the language he uses the categories his thinking gets trapped into whatever the level of language those categories operate on” and when he targets “bourgeois notions of language as commodity” (166 -167). In 1987, he explains it this way:

We live in the midst of language, surrounded by books, and, as a result, the nature of both has become transparent to us. We look thru the books to the content inside them. We learn to speed read so that the words too can be strip mined for their information. Thus are we made more ignorant. And painting, sculpture, dance, photography, etc. ALL the so-called Fine Arts, suffer, because we look but don’t see. Once the surface of the world, of its objects, inhabitants, etc. becomes transparent to us, it quickly becomes unimportant to us as well, and things that should register — political, social, ecological — don’t. (429)

Habit and reflex spontaneously close the mind to what is or could be, in part veiling the machinations of the ideology that preys on our automatism. That we stop talking when we consider our words shows that speech flows over a bed of reflexes, thus implicating language, if not spontaneity as such, in an unconscious slavery. Ironically, then, a grave political urgency charges Nichol’s work, often ungenerously dismissed as merely amusingly playful.

In the foregoing, I’ve tried to follow Nichol’s example in his appreciation of the poetry of David McFadden:  “in truth I’ve tried not to analyze […] but to deal with my responses […], what it is […] that keeps me excitedly rereading” (415). One constant response (particular to this writer) that Meanwhile excites is a melancholy over its belatedness and consequent superfluity. My reading was marked — and often marred — by my memory’s constant spontaneous glossing of nearly every passage with the antecedent, canonical expression of its ideas. Aristotle notes in his Rhetoric, for example, that the poet has to pierce the minds of a corrupted audience, and that it is through the devices of style that such an audience can be brought to hear. The “devices” referred to in Meanwhile — including concrete, sound, and performance poetry—are provisionally mapped in the first edition of Rothenberg’s 1968 gathering Technicians of the Sacred (as much a textbook as anthology, published by the University of California Press), which places avant-garde poetics within a global context whose orbit includes the Neolithic. The endless richness and plasticity of the poem’s materiality, and a fortiori that of the world, has not gone unnoticed by phenomenologists or unremarked, for example, by Blake:  “If the doors of perception were to open the world would appear as it is Infinite.” Even the strongest pieces — the close readings and appreciations — are a sorry index of literary culture in Canada, often not transcending the level of the schoolboy exercises of an Auerbach or Curtius in Gymnasium or a George Steiner in the Lycée. Nichol’s literary theory as such is a pandemonium of howlers. One could go on: suffice to say, Meanwhile is not for the overfed.

I can hear derisive hoots and denunciations from a thousand anti-Oedipal Deleuzians rooted on their respective plateaus, that no repetition is ever of the same; at least since Rimbaud, some poets have known they are inescapably absolutely modern. Nichol concurs when, in a 1979 interview with Ken Norris, he quips concerning  charges of unoriginality: “some reviewers have said, ‘Hey that was done in Berlin in 1921’; I look at it and say ‘Yeah, well I guess it was done in Berlin in 1921, but this was done in Canada in 1965 without knowing what was done in Berlin in 1921’” (238). Books can be read too early or too late, but, luckily, often books find readers ripe. If our ready reader were a young poet, he or she would benefit from the pieces touched on here: Nichol’s 1966 “statement”, his Open Letter editorial, his excurses on notating lyric and sound poetry and on the book as a unit of composition, his close readings and appreciations. Most pertinent for a young Canadian poet are Nichol’s introduction to The Last Blew Ointment Anthology Volume 2, his reminiscences and reflections of Coach House Press “Primary Days”, and his interview with Geoff Hancock. These all recount Nichol’s experiences in composing and culturing poetry in Canada, a story in which he played no minor part. Miki and Talonbooks have therefore performed a service for young poets and Canadian letters, contributing to the more main-stream, institutional publication of bp Nichol’s corpus, which has already issued his collaboration with Steve McCaffrey Rational Geomancy, Ondaatje’s and Bowering’s reader, and a selection of his drawings.

The publication of Nichol’s oeuvre is part of the process of his canonization, a process that is discovering Nichol’s work escapes a too-ready formulaic summation. Sharon Thesen reported in the penultimate number of Sulfur (44) on the battle over whether Nichol will be represented by his more approachable if more ambivalently humanistic and courageous long poem The Martyrology or his more challenging posthumanist avante-garde and as yet largely uncollected work. That Nichol’s corpus is capable of  inciting just such pointed debate (albeit at a scholarly conference on his writing) between the two major sides of Canadian English-language poetry reveals not only a fault line in our poetic culture, but that, like a coin, Nichol’s work, when flipped, shows neither monarch nor beaver, but spins on edge and rolls between the sides competing to win the toss. As Charles Olson, an early influence, put it: the poem is a high energy construct, designed to get the charge from where the writer got it all the way over to the reader. Forgetting like a good Nietzschean for a moment the Theory I’ve read: who can, plug in & turn on.

Elaine Equi’s Sound “Prescription”

(A blog, I guess, is a good spot to place homeless texts:  and what follows certainly qualifies. I queried Arc about submitting it there, but the editors never responded, twice; then I submitted it to rob mclennan’s Seventeen Seconds, which apparently rejected it by (silently) not including it in the latest on-line issue. The piece, a study of the sounds in a six-line poem by Elaine Equi, is perverse, very seriously so, which goes to explain, I guess, its reception…)

In a recent review of James Langer’s Gun Dogs (Globe and Mail, Thursday 18 June 2009) Carmine Starnino lauds Langer’s work for being “musically alert, with marvellous rhythmic and tonal variety” and the poet himself for his “knack for finding words that, placed together, crackle and pop.” Starnino goes on to lament where Langer overdoes it, citing Langer as an example of “what Newfoundland poet Patrick Warner calls ‘the School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants'”. That poets are paying attention to their vowels and consonants, and other matters of what Starnino refers to in the same review as “poetic form”, he credits to “a group of tyros who have made it impossible to talk about anything else”. Starnino’s somewhat self-congratulatory tone concerning how “poetic form has become a hot button issue” thanks to that “group of tyros” to which he himself no doubt belongs is what prompts me to join in that talk. To be fair, let me say at the outset that I am very consciously using Starnino’s and Warner’s remarks here as stalking horses (not, hopefully, as straw men) for my argument with a critical tendency that strikes me as being as narrow as it is vocal.

Patrick Warner introduces his School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants in a review of Steven Price’s Anatomy of Keys (Books in Canada, December 2006), wherein he identifies Ken Babstock, Carmine Starnino, Joe Denham, and Zach Wells as members, a class-list to which I would add Tim Bowling, among others. Warner writes that “[a]ll of these writers, at various times and to varying degrees, can be said to have fallen under the spell of Seamus Heaney”; equally all might be said to write in what August Kleinzahler has dubbed “Nobel-ese”, the mannerisms of, precisely, Heaney and, for example, Derek Walcott. Among various features that mark this kind of poetry—the feature I want to focus on here—is how it sounds. Starnino cites Langer’s “sandstone grit that girders the barrens” as an example of “sense-heightening description”, a phrase that exemplifies how Nobelese sounds, as well, with its near-Anglo-Saxon alliteration of s’s and g’s, and the n’s, t’s, and r’s that, as it were, girder the phrase’s music. In his review, Starnino praises such “formal sophistication.”

What would the like-minded make of Elaine Equi’s poem “Prescription” published in The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology?

Take Herrick

for melancholy

 

Niedecker

for clarity

 

O’Hara

for nerve

Here is a poem remarkably lacking in kennings, “sense-heightening descriptions”, overt metaphor, indeed, every mannerism of Nobelese. It is understated and wry, evoking the everyday context and instrumental language of the consulting room. Nor does it possess any of that sonority characteristic of the Englishes of a Heaney or Walcott. For all that, Equi’s poem is remarkably prosodically accomplished, all the more so for its limited means, a mere eight words. A reading of what and how the poem might mean, that would identify and develop the conceit that structures it, falls outside my concern here, which is merely the poem’s prosody, the discernible and demonstrable patterns of syllabic and phonemic elements, what is traditionally called schemes (figures of arrangement) as distinct from tropes (figures of replacement).

By prosody I mean “the articulation of the total sound of the poem” (Pound 421), a description, first, of the patterns of rhythm and rhyme, patterns of repetition at the level of the phoneme, the syllable, or even the word, line, or stanza, as these patterns occur throughout and structure and develop the poem. To facilitate my description, I have appended a transcription of the poem in the International Phonetic Alphabet. I have transcribed the poem as I hear it, following the conventions of pronunciation of Standard Canadian English. Other actualizations of the poem’s music are possible, including that of the poet herself, who resides in New York.

Equi’s poem exhibits a deft structure even before we attend to its sound. Lexically, of the eight words in the poem, only one is a finite verb, the imperative ‘take’, with six substantives (three proper and three common nouns), and the preposition ‘for’. The grammatical parallelism of the poem’s three prescriptive statements is reinforced by the poem’s versification: each statement is a couplet, each line of each couplet possessing a substantive according to a regular pattern, where the proper noun precedes the common, each on its own line. The parallelism is further reinforced by each second line’s beginning “for”. Nor should the function of the number three—three statements, three couplets, three proper and three common nouns, three instances of ‘for’—be overlooked as evidence of the poem’s rigorous if underplayed artifice.

Turning to the poem’s rhythm or metre, we note that the first line of each couplet is three (!) syllables and the second line of each decreases from five to four to two syllables. If we agree that the first lines of the first and last couplet are amphibrachic, i.e., of three syllables with the primary stress on the middle syllable, then one is tempted to hear in the relative weights of the syllables in ‘Niedecker’ a cretic rather than a dactyl, i.e., the middle of the name’s three syllables being unstressed balanced by two relatively stressed syllables, lending these three lines a metrical symmetry, i.e., a cretic bound by two amphibrachs. However debatable the rhythm of the couplets’ first lines (one might hear, for example, a dactyl framed by two palimbacchii), it seems more certain that each couplet’s second line invariably contains two stresses. The poem as whole, then, is rhythmically regular with stressed and unstressed syllables alternating on each line until the final spondee. From beginning to end, the metre becomes increasingly emphatic, with the ratio of stressed to unstressed syllables in the couplets’ second lines being two: three, two: two, and two: zero, respectively.

For such a short poem, “Prescription” is remarkably rich in syllables sharing (i.e., “rhyming”) one or more identical or similar phonemes. The second and fourth lines rhyme ‘melancholy’ and ‘clarity’, two words that share three phonemes over and above the end rhyme /li/ and /ti/, namely /ɛ/, /l/, and /k/ (melancholy, clarity), phonemes whose order is, moreover, reversed in each word. There are several internal rhymes, as well. ‘Herrick’, ‘clarity’, and ‘O’Hara’ all share the phonic cluster /ɛr/, with ‘Herrick’ and ‘O’Hara’ framing ‘clarity’, highlighted by the /h/ in each. The shared cluster /ɛr/ in these three words is echoed by the /ər/, an off-rhyme between ‘Niedecker‘ and ‘nerve’, which, in turn, share the initial phoneme /n/. Of the poem’s ten individual words, only one does not obviously rhyme with at least one other, ‘Take’, a word that, nevertheless, shares two of its three phonemes with at least one other word (/t/ with clarity and /k/ with Herrick, melancholy, Neidecker, and clarity) and whose vowel arguably off-rhymes with /ɛr/ in Herrick, clarity, and O’Hara, a trio linked also, with the pair ‘Niedecker’ and ‘nerve’, to the three instances of ‘for’ via the cluster /ɔr/, an off-rhyme with /ɛr/ and /әr/. In the progression from ‘take’ to ‘Herrick’, through ‘for’, ‘Niedecker’, ‘for’, ‘clarity’, ‘O’Hara’, ‘for’, and ‘nerve’ we might detect an instance of what Pound called “the tone leading of the vowels.” Such tonal virtuosity is underwritten by the poem’s phonic economy. Of twenty syllables, only one (/ow/ in ‘O‘Hara’) does not rhyme with at least one other phoneme in at least one other syllable; and of the remaining syllables, only one shares only one phoneme with only one other syllable, /dә/ in Niedecker, whose /ә/ rhymes with that in melancholy. All the remaining syllables share at least two phonemes with at least two other syllables.

The phonemes /f/, /n/, /r/, /ɛ/, and /ɔ/ are found in every couplet. The first two couplets share, in addition, the consonants /k/, /l/, /t/ and the vowels /i/, /ɪ/, and /ə/, i.e., in these first four lines, eleven of eighteen different phonemes  are repeated (or “rhyme”) at least once.  Strictly, of the whole poem’s total of nineteen different phonemes, seven are not repeated, /ei/ in ‘take’ (no orphan, either, as shown above), /m/ and /ɑ/ in ‘melancholy’, /d/ in ‘Niedecker’, /ow/ and /a/ in ‘O’Hara’, and /v/ in ‘nerve’ (arguably, however, a near-rhyme with its unvoiced labiodental other, /f/, in ‘for’). That is to say that the phonemes compose a densely complex pattern that at the same time constitutes a nearly subliminal euphony. One could trace the way these rhymes structure and develop the poem, relating its words, lines, and stanzas. Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that the remarkable phonic parsimony discernible at the level of the syllables extends to the phonemes, too, though I would wager that connoisseurs of the prosody of Nobelese would be unlikely to bother attending to music as self-effacing as that of “Prescription”.

Equi’s formal sophistication continues the efforts of English-language Modernist poets to clarify poetic discourse by eschewing precisely that Victorian sonority that persists in the accents of Nobelese. This effort is at its best underwritten by what Louis Zukofsky called the test for poetry, namely, the quality discernible in a poem’s sound, sense, and intellection (vii). In the addendum to canto C in Pound’s Cantos, an unidentified voice says “A pity that poets have used symbol and metaphor / and no man learned anything from them / for their speaking in figures” (ll. 34-36). One hears a not unrelated sentiment in William Carlos Williams’ call for “No ideas but in things!” (55) or the epigraph to Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1980 “Things are symbols of themselves!” This shift from the metaphorical to the metonymic at the level of the trope goes hand in hand with equal respect for the spontaneous genius of “the language really spoken,” its diction and its movement, a respect, ironically, with roots deep in nineteenth century philology and Romanticism, as anyone who recognizes the truncated quotation from Wordsworth will know (736). The notion is perhaps best expressed by Carlyle who exclaims “all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it:  not a parish in the world but has its parish accent; —the rhythm or tune to which the people there sing what they have to say!” (10). The primacy of music to language is attested by disciplines from developmental and evolutionary linguistics to philosophy. Whatever difference there is between discerning (and exploiting) the music in everyday speech and appreciating or composing the more artificial prosody of a poem, an ear for the former is more sensitive to finesses in the latter. Equi’s poem does not “crackle and pop”, sung, as it is, to a melody at once more cultured and subtle, rising, as if spontaneously, from the language as it is really spoken. An old handbook of poetics puts it best:  “Here lies the skill, the genius of the poet; and no rules can take the place of a poetic ear” (163).

Prescription”: transcription

teik   hɛrɪk       

fɔr mɛlənkɑli

 

niydəkər

fɔr klɛrɪti

 

owhɛra

fɔr nərv

Bibliography

Carlyle, Thomas. Of Great Men. New York:  Penguin, 1995.

Equi, Elaine, “Prescription” in The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology, ed. Michael Redhill. Toronto:  Anansi, 2008.

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980. New York:  Harper and Row, 1984.

Gummere, Francis. Handbook of Poetics. New York:  Ginn and Company, 1895.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot. New York:  New Directions, 1968.

The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York:  New Directions, 1970.

Starnino, Carmine. “A Spectacular Mouthful.” The Globe and Mail Daily Review, 18 June 2009. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/books/a-spectacular-mouthful/article1186921/.

Warner, Patrick. “Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants.” Books in Canada, December 2006.  http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=4653.

Williams, Williams Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume II. New York:  New Directions, 1991.

Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of Wordsworth. London:  Oxford University Press, 1951.

Zukofsky, Louis. A Test of Poetry. New York:  Jargon, 1964.

Turning the table on Bernstein’s spin on Reznikoff

Recently, Jerome Rothenberg posted Charles Bernstein’s liner notes to a CD recording of Charles Reznikoff reading from his Holocaust. As much as I am very much in favour of Reznikoff and his work receiving praise and a wider readership, I must take exception to how Bernstein at points seems to characterize Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony in a sectarian way, one exemplary of much of our contemporary avant-garde.

Both Testimony and Holocaust take up documentary material, court documents from turn-of-the-century America and the Nuremberg Trials respectively, and present it in a powerfully understated manner Bernstein quite illuminatingly compares to the style of Italian neorealist cinema. However, regarding this manner, Bernstein claims

What’s most radical about Testimony is the kind of reading his method makes possible, because this work … can’t be read in traditional literary or aesthetic ways. At first reading Testimony is numbing, but this experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins. Reznikoff’s refusal to aestheticize or sentimentalize (some would say humanize) the legal cases presented is exemplary of Testimony’s ethical grounding…

The deployment of the notion of the aesthetic here is simply too blasé and, morever, subtly spun to position Reznikoff and his work on one side of North America’s poetic, ideological struggles. Who reads Testimony will, yes, likely be “numbed”, overwhelmed by the relentlessness of its material, “numbed” by an exhausting over-stimulation. I cannot count how many times I have used Reznikoff’s poetry as an example of the power of sheer presentation, unsettling classes of college-level English students by reading them the poem from Testimony that begins “Amelia was just fourteen…“. Such  poetry is indeed neither “literary” nor “aesthetic” in a “traditional” way in its resolute refusal to metaphorically develop, embellish, or otherwise “cook up” its material, boiling it down, rather, to the plainest, factual presentation, a refusal of a certain kind of (poetically mainstream) “artistry” or “technique” that would make of the poem an “aesthetic” object possessed of artistic beauty, a beauty that would be at odds with the moral repulsiveness of what the poems present. But the squinting limitation of the notion of the “aesthetic” here is betrayed by a contradiction. Bernstein observes Reznikoff refuses to aestheticize his material while at the same time the reading “experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins.” Bernstein, at best, seems to be playing two senses of “the aesthetic” off each other, claiming that the manner of Testimony and Holocaust divides one sense of the aesthetic from another, the traditional (derived originally from Alexander Baumgarten and referring strictly to theories of only artistic beauty) from the more radical, wherein “the aesthetic” denotes how something is or is made sensuously present (derived from Kant, related but not restricted to the experience of the beautiful whether in nature or art, a sense most recently and powerfully developed by Jacques Rancière). Arguably, though, a concept whose effective history can be traced back to Kant is “traditional” however much it differs from that concept found more locally ready-to-hand. It seems truer to say that Reznikoff quite literally re-presents the material that makes up Testimony and Holocaust by the mediation of his editorial labour that produces a striking, marked effect or response, which is precisely the index of its aesthetic power. Bernstein’s point here seems intended to serve interests other than to praise or illuminate Reznikoff’s accomplishment.

Regardless of exactly how Bernstein’s deployment(s) of “the aesthetic” might be taken, I find more troubling his apparent attempt to recruit Reznikoff as a “conceptual” writer. Bernstein remarks

…Reznikoff pose[s] a challenge to how we read and where we find meaning, creating conceptual works that make our initial inability to read an aesthetic challenge to read differently, read anew. As Kenneth Goldsmith remarks about conceptual poetry: it requires not a “readership” but a “thinkership.”

The argument here seems to turn on a too-easy distinction between what Barthes termed works and texts or what Bernstein himself has called in a similar vein absorptive and antiabsorptive. The absorptive work demands little conscious labour on the side of the reader, adhering to literary-aesthetic conventions whose familiarity enables them to function unconsciously and therefore ideologically; the antiabsorptive text, on the other hand, that breaks with or otherwise problematizes these conventions demands an engaged reading, whether playful or laboured, thereby inculcating an awareness of the conventionality of all discourse and the inescapable activity, and thereby collusion or power, of the reader. On the one hand, exactly how Reznikoff’s method demands more than a familiarity with the workings of metonymy to be understood and appreciated eludes me. On the other hand, the distinction apparently deployed here between the readerly and the thinkerly was one roundly and rigorously deconstructed by Barthes himself in S/Z that demonstrates in numbing detail that the readerly absorptive work is always already a writerly antiabsorptive text. More seriously, though, is the way Goldsmith’s distinction characterizes the reader of a conventional work as mindlessly passive, a characterization at odds with the de facto reception of literary and other texts. One need be no connoisseur of reader response theory or devotee of deconstruction to know that even the most prima facie literal texts are subject to an uncontrollable range of interpretation. How different (and humane) is this remark from Friedrich Schlegel’s Critical Fragments that addresses a similar distinction over two centuries ago:

112.  The analytic writer observes the reader as he is; he calculates accordingly and develops his machines in order to have the desired effect upon him. The synthetic writer constructs and creates a reader as he should be; he does not conceive of the reader as still and dead, but rather as lively and counteractive. He allows what he has invented gradually to come into being before his eyes, or he entices the reader to invent it himself. He does not want it to have a specific effect on the reader, but enters with him into the holy relationship of the tenderest symphilosophy or sympoesy.

Reznikoff, it seems to me, is precisely a “synthetic” writer, one who understands and assumes that his readers are “lively and counteractive”, thoughtful and sensitive enough to judge for themselves the facts of the case laid before them. His work doesn’t need to be ranked with an avant-garde or legitimated by its participating in the latest thing; it, like the matter it presents, might well be said to speak for itself.

On the Poetry of George Slobodzian

This past New Year’s Eve I pulled down a couple of poetry books from our host’s bookshelves and shared two favourite poems with the collected company:  William Carlos Williams’ “The Sparrow” and George Slobodzian’s “Woodlawn Excursion” from his Clinical Studies. As I flipped through this collection from 2001, I was struck by how much difficulty I was having choosing just one poem to read, every one was so different and so accomplished. I was moved, then, to try to rectify how unjustifiably unknown and undervalued Slobodzian’s poetry is. To that end, I post here a very slightly emended version of a review I wrote that appeared first in Vallum shortly after Clinical Studies was published and in answer to the dismissal, remarked below:

Gertrude Stein writes somewhere that one writes for oneself and strangers. However much today’s poet might feel he or she writes for that audience of one, the reviewer — or this reviewer, anyway — finds himself as isolated. Our literary culture is so atomized, the reviewer needs to don a pedagogical, before a critical, role to avoid being merely partisan or indulging the amateurish ad-copy that passes for so much of our critical discourse. This pedagogical demand is acutely apparent in the case of George Slobodzian’s Clinical Studies. Its publication met with a singular critical attention: one relatively immediate derisive dismissal, and belated inclusion in an omnibus review. This reception is understandable. Slobodzian’s lyrics are difficult and challenging, not because they toy with the intentional obfuscations of our latter-day avant-gardistes, but because of their hyperbolic understatement. They are so conversational, so unassuming, their wit, irony, and music are too subtle for most. Their classical clarity and lyrical euphony are balanced by their being often quite literally obscene, presenting what is conventionally “off-stage.”

A reader with time to reflect might well note this thematic harmony in the volume’s title, that of the first poem, and its subject matter. Clinical Studies and “Clinical Studies” both begin

Upstairs   among photographs

so hideous

we were not allowed

to view them…

These photographs are medical, documenting “…the single / and half-breasted women / of medical science” and “human genitalia / eaten beyond recognition”. The poem’s persona, who takes “such pleasure turning / neighborhood stomachs / with” his father’s stash of forbidden pictures, dreams of becoming a surgeon himself to lift away the photographed anonymous subjects’ censor-strips and to “give them back their eyes”. The collection’s title-track suggests an approach to the volume as a whole. The book is an album, shown us, yes, with an impish delight in our squeamish shock, but one bound by at least two sensibilities, one clinically objective, the other humane and caring, imaginably even empathetic.

This attention to the body is often itself bawdy, in the best tradition that stretches from the outrageousness of Catullus, through the scatological hilarity of Dante, Chaucer, and Rabelais, to Joyce, Gottfried Benn, and others. This ubiquitous reference to the body and its functions reminds us corporeality is the inescapable condition of human experience in the first place, regardless of the  repressive resentment against incarnation like that of Calvin “contemplating hell-stench on the shitter”. A topic as respectable as History is presented in the forms of the last Passenger Pigeon reflecting over Doughboys who “…sink deep / into their own shit / in the trenches” and a tour guide repeating his memorized spiel about a Classical “unguent basin, carved / out of solid excrement”.  Howard Hughes appears with his “bottled urine”, “fingernails / beginning to curl”, and “bedsores”, watching for the umpteenth time his favorite Cold War thriller Ice Station Zebra. Even biotechnicians make an appearance, culturing “[h]uman skin. / From the foreskins // of newborn men”.

Slobodzian’s physicality is as sanely salutary as it is satirical: twenty-three of the book’s forty-five poems concern that extended body made up of family and lovers. Slobodzian is at his funny, gentle, tender best here. The three elegies for his mother, the poem for his father’s wedding (he, an “…old bull / in his winter meadow, / balls hanging low and blue”), and Slobodzian’s trademark “Zoëms” (poems for his daughter Zoë) are at the heart of the volume. The “Prayer for Zoë” is a tour de force whose rhythms echo the Hail Mary and whose invocations reincarnate Her as the literal mother she sublimates and hypostasizes. She becomes

Our lady of excrement,

of multiple comings

and goings, generation

and decay, perpetual

motion, wholly cloacal,

mother and father of slime,

the glistening slime

rimming the fetal pool…

Of course, there would be neither mothers, fathers, family, or lyric poetry without desire, and Slobodzian’s love lyrics are as full frontal and technically adroit as those addressed to relatives. They range over the delightful play of courtship (“If I Were Your Papuan Suitor”), warm sensuality (“Nuca”), the bitter ashes of burnt-out love (“Cold Fusion”), and the softening tints of nostalgia (“À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” and most notably “Sustain”).

Of course, despite many protestations to the contrary, poetry is not merely some special subject matter, but what the German Romantics called “the mother-tongue of the race”, that — as Carlyle reminds us — whereby we “sing what we have to say”. An appreciation of the sheer linguistic craft in Slobodzian’s poetry demands an excursus all its own. Suffice to say here, it both revels in its own lithe sinewy power and in its delicious sensuousness. The former might be best exemplified by an example I do not even have to read to transcribe, it has stayed with me so over the many years I first heard Slobodzian recite it. His early poem “Suffrage” is about overhearing two young women in the bus seat ahead discussing the Cosmo they are reading. The poem’s last lines are a judgment on the debasement of the Human Form Divine and a justification of the persisting need for lyric poetry:

And listening

it occurs to me

that love must be

a stalwart beast

to haul such crap

and remain intact

The tongue of that beast that hauls the delights of love and sheer human being into the present is capable of delicate musical delight, too, such as the reflective pleasures of “Credo Tropicanum”, the first lines of which I leave with you:

Spooning papaya uterine rind

onto genital tongue

and holding it there

ripening

For those whose taste has been whetted by this review, the latest and densest sample of Slobodzian’s poetry can be found in the recently published Show Thieves 2010 anthology.

On the Poetry of Peter Dale Scott

If there’s one topic that calls out to be addressed in the first post on this blog, it’s my appreciation for the poetry of Peter Dale Scott. And the time is auspicious, as today, 11 January 2011, is his eighty-second birthday.

My familiarity with Scott’s poetry goes back more than ten years. I’d been reading Conjunctions for some time, when I picked up #33, mainly for the complete translation of Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (though the work of Yoko Tawada and Eduardo Galeano turned out delightful surprises, too). But what stood out for me were the four sections excerpted from Scott’s forthcoming Minding the Darkness (2000). Here was a poetry prima facie reminiscent of the late tercets of William Carlos Williams, but whose nearly prosaic plainness was underwritten by a complex, suggestive syntax (“language escaping / the rules of syntax // and prosody and aesthetics” as the poem itself put it, in the best reflexive, “postmodern” manner) whose difficulty, tracing the imaginative, emotional and intellectual struggle with what Dante called mala condotta, evil governance, and its relation to tradition and imagination, I found bracing, both in its challenge and its sincerity (“technique is the test of sincerity” Pound observed). As well, the poem employed that Modernist and most modern of techniques, what is loosely termed “intertextuality”, deftly weaving in italicized passages from a veritable library of culturally and historically global sources, emphasizing, with a humble honesty, the way every voice, especially a written, poetic one, is a polyphony of many voices. But what I found most compelling was how the poetry engaged the political and social world, in a way the best canonical poetry does (think of Dante, Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman, Yeats) and the way the writing most important to me did, that of Pound, Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, learnedly and in specific, concrete luminous detail. At the time, Spoken Word poets ranted and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets wrestled with Capitalism in the arena of the Sign, but here was an engagement grounded in facts, yet everywhere acutely, and sometimes painfully, aware of its own contingency.

When I learned that Scott would be reading in Montreal in the Rare Books Room of McGill University’s McClennan Library, I ordered in and read through the complete trilogy of which Minding the Darkness was the culmination. Here, my initial intuitions were confirmed. Indeed, those four excerpted sections could have served as a holograph for the virtues of the trilogy as a whole. However, the full scope of Scott’s achievement could only be apprehended within the context of the entire work. With its culmination in Minding the Darkness, the trilogy becomes one, epic work, Seculum, which brings to fruition the poetic developments of poetic Modernism in English and the poet’s formidable learning and ground-breaking research to investigate the present world order within the context of no less than much of the earth’s cultural tradition. The opening sections of Coming to Jakarta (1988) , the first volume, relate the poet’s returning home to Montreal and being reminded of boyhood days spent on the shores of Lake Massawippi, realizing now that some of his friends from those days grew up, took their place in “the CIA or perhaps / some heavier unnamed agency”, and were responsible for the installation of murderous regimes in Indonesia and, later, Chile. Scott, an ex-diplomat and member of the Free Speech and antiwar movements in Berkeley in the ‘Sixties, thereby inserts the personal into the political, grasping and following the threads that tie each of us into the social web. Nevertheless, however inextricably we might be caught up in society-at-large, we are also connected most immediately to other individual human beings. Such intimacies run as threads through the next two volumes. Listening to the Candle (1992) focuses its attention on the poet’s relationship to his father F. R. Scott (the eminent Modernist poet, politician, and constitutional lawyer) and mother Marion Dale Scott (a no-less prominent painter), each canto dedicated to a friend, acquaintance, or interlocutor, while the final volume takes as its occasion Scott’s marrying his second wife, Ronna Kabatznick. Throughout, such present, living connections are expanded to include the voices of tradition:  as Scott himself observes in Minding the Darkness, “[t]o deal with the living / we must talk more bravely with the dead”. Scott, the humble poet-hero of his own epic, is no Whitmanian simple, separate person, but a complex, connected individual, at the intersection of the personal and political, present and past, and, most germane to the present world crisis, the secular and spiritual. As he writes in Minding the Darkness, “the poet must develop / the consciousness of the past / giving depth to ecology // economics politics / and of course religion”. Uncannily, in advance of the so-called War on Terror and/or Clash of Civilizations, before the vitriol of fundamentalists of all stripes, Abrahamic or atheistic, Scott’s epic develops a syncretistic spiritual sensibility that embraces, among other traditions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Taoism, and Buddhism, especially in their ecumenical, pacifistic, and, most importantly, compassionate forms.  As Scott writes in the Afterword to the final volume, “both outer enlightenment (the current word is development) and inner enlightenment are damned, even murderous, if they do not honour each other.” Scott’s work is epic, a poem including history (or, in this case, using the term Scott himself has coined, “deep history”), a periplum of our age and predicament mapped via the course of one engaged, intensely-lived and thoughtful life. When Scott solicited questions after his reading, mine touched on this epic reach. I asked something like: “You have three books: the first that begins by invoking three desks, at one Virgil’s Nekyia, an Inferno; then Listening to the Candle, a Purgatorio; now an old man’s Paradiso: all weaving historical, luminous details, personages modern and historical, autobiography, taking up the Tradition, all written in tercets: is there a Dantescan intertext?”

Since that initial reading, I’ve had the good luck to meet and hear Scott again, and I had the honour of introducing him reading at the New York Open Center 17 March 2010, an introduction that condenses the impression his work has made on me since that fateful chancing on his poetry, before the beginning of this first, dark century of a new millennium:

“In one of the last poems from his latest book, Peter writes ‘I would go with the Tao te Ching / and aspire // to the condition of water.’ Even though this thought appears in his most recent work, it is not new to his poetry, for he writes in Coming to Jakarta, the first volume of his monumental Seculum trilogy, that it is ‘a poem of water’.

“This reference to water not only draws on the oldest sources of Chinese thought, but also refers to the beginnings of Western philosophy, for Thales, the first philosopher, is said to have said ‘All is water.’ So, just as water covers most of the surface of our planet, so Peter’s poetry might be said to be as broad and deep. It references a vast reservoir of learning:  the poetic and philosophical tradition of the West — Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Pound, Eliot,… as well as the spiritual traditions of the world — Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

“In English, we speak of salt and fresh water. But, since we’re talking about the poetry of Peter Dale Scott, it is not unfitting, I think, to go back to the Sumerian and Babylonian, that spoke of bitter and sweet water. And Peter’s work, likewise, is bitter and sweet. Bitter, because, as those of you who are familiar with his work will know, his poetry deals with the dark bitterness of death, slaughter, torture, and oppression. However, there are sweet moments, too, of love, sympathy, and tender caring.

“Over the ten years I have been reading Peter’s poetry, I have seen it begin to flow a little more clearer, given more to a few surface sparkles, though no less broad or profound.

“As many of us here will know, the coming age is the Age of Aquarius, the Age of the Water Bearer. And I hope that the coming age will belong to Peter’s poetry, as he bears us the water of his poetry.

“Aside from such a grandiose and hyperbolic image, I would draw our attention to one more important feature of water:   that it is essential, it is necessary to life. And Peter’s work, I would argue, is, likewise, as necessary to our mental and spiritual lives.

“Now, it gives me great pleasure to extend an invitation, which is a favorite among poets:  ‘Let’s have a drink!’ Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Peter Dale Scott.”

Cheers!