Essays New & Selected
by Miriam Waddington,
Post Your Opinion
|Not As I Say
by Dennis Cooley
I AM ONE of those who thinks Miriam Waddington has been wrongly overlooked as a poet. I am less sure about her skills as essayist.
There is a lot I do like in them -- 23 of them written between 1958 and 1989, many of them in the last few years. For one thing, they are informative. We learn quite a bit about modernism in Canada and Waddington`s own personal history.
The sections on Jewish culture are especially illuminating, not only as they open up that world to others, but as they help us to locate Waddington as outsider. We learn how utopian are her cultural inscriptions and those of other Jewish writers and intellectuals. We come across an excellent distinction between Jewish interest in justice and Christian fascination with good and evil. Knowing that, we shouldn`t be surprised then to discern Waddington`s concern for the cheated and silenced in this world, of her active attention (rare among Canadian writers) to the lower class.
We see, too, Waddington`s exceptional gifts as translator, her charming capacity to tell stories. The essays are often generous, as well, going out of their way to introduce or to champion writers who deserve attention.
Waddington is careful to stress the social bases of literature and to advance them in the face of other readings (mythopoeic ones in particular) that would diminish if not eliminate historical realities. She is shrewd, to my mind, in identifying a theological sanction behind myth criticism. Waddington may overstate her case, but she makes an important point, corrects the disregard political writing experiences in Canada.
In many of the briefer entries Waddington tends to proceed by advancing claims and by making generalizations. This she does in her warm, readable discussion, "Moshe Nadir: The Yiddish Stephen Leacock." Her remarks include translations that are hilarious and endearing. The same goes for her musings on Jewish utopian settlements in which she speculates on the generic distinctions between memoir and autobiography. Several of the essays read as though they are brief introductions designed as talks for a public occasion and not developed beyond that point. Still, the strategy makes for pleasant reading.
The charm in these essays -- their brevity, clarity -- comes from confidence or at least determination. They suffer for the same reasons, from settling too easily into a position. Time and again a revealing vocabulary spills out. This is what is called for in poetry, Waddington would have us believe: what is buried, sources, unity, integrity, `my whole self," "this bridging of the inner and outer," "the attainment of psychic unity and equilibrium," essence, totality, the inner, a transforming language, "an authentic poet:` "the true prophet." There is no doubt in Waddington`s mind where poetry can be found -- within the poet. In turn, the poet -- this is crucial to the argument and entirely consistent with the vocabulary -- can be known by and must proceed by the supreme measure of poetry. That touch stone is metaphor, "the essence of the language that poets use, and ... still the only means we have for articulating hitherto unarticulated experiences." Could have fooled me. Could have fooled a lot of people.
The position is essentially romantic. It centres things in the poet who brings poetry into being by firing off electrifying metaphors. Poet as god, as genius -- even without the religious trappings that Waddington has long criticized. She finds bolstering for her views in the precepts of Otto Rank. In Waddington`s poetics metaphor and the poet get elevated beyond all reason and blind her to other kinds of writing.
Sound poets, we are told, risk little and offer nothing. Archaic diction won`t cut it. Rochl Korn, Waddington reassures us, wisely despises "jumped-up" words. In another essay Waddington is even more dismissive: "So much for the inept who have pretensions to talent, and go to excessive technical lengths to avoid honest and direct language." Perhaps. But why no complaints then about the inept who do use "honest and direct language"? Why no awareness that in crucial ways there finally is no "honest and direct language`? What is this language, clear and simple, that it will be "honest, personal, yet trans parent"? What then of metaphor`s radical challenge to the obvious and known? What of the need for new form that
Waddington tells us poets need? How are they clear and direct, always?
What`s wrong here is an obliviousness to the problems her claims create, and an unwillingness to allow other forms of writing what Waddington professes to value, namely experiment with language.
As a result the essays are sprinkled with contradictions. Poets, we learn, should direct and control; they should also give themselves over to intuition. Mythopoeic sorts err in spatializing experience and in denying history; metaphor elevates because it removes us from time and delivers us into the infinite. Writing should be accessible; it should be daring and risk-taking. Simone de Beauvoir leaves us no room for tentative truths; she believes in contingent relationships. What allows these confusions is Waddington`s mix of 19th-century precept (poet as genius) and 20th- century engagement (poet as humanist). The countering claims find their most plausible reconciliation in
Poetry as Communication," in which Waddington supposes the poet touches her inner self; then finds metaphor; then projects herself through metaphor, to another inner self. Supposedly we get an "l," by way of metaphor, extended to another "I": a bearing witness, creatively, in some ethics of information and consequence.
Apartment Seven, then, is valuable in many ways but it is limited in its unawareness, its lack of self awareness. These views, which have in no way impeded Waddington from writing a strong body of poems based in image and metaphor, get in the way when she sets off as reader and explainer.