"Now of course it is perfectly true that a more or less first rate work of art is beautiful but the trouble is that when that first rate work of art becomes a classic because it is accepted the only thing that is important from then on to the majority of the acceptors, the enormous majority, the most intelligent majority of the acceptors is that it is so wonderfully beautiful. Of course it is wonderfully beautiful, only when it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it.
"Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all of the beauty in it is accepted. If everyone were not so indolent they would realise that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic."
-Gertrude Stein, "Composition as Explanation"
Gertrude Stein's description of the assimilation of experimental art by the cultural body could be an abstract for the reception of Steve McCaffery's latest collection of poetry, The Cheat of Words. Since the nomination of Theory of Sediment, his previous and most challenging book, for the 1991 Governor General's Award, McCaffery's writing has been on the verge of attaining the same degree of official acclaim at home that it has enjoyed abroad for over twenty years. As Stein acerbically observes, though, when it comes to reading, "everyone is naturally indolent," and Theory of Sediment proved to be too thorny a mouthful for at least the GG committee, if not "the most intelligent majority of the acceptors." Five years later, there seems to be a tremendous will on the parts of the publishers, critics, and readers of The Cheat of Words for it to definitively cross the line separating the "irritating and stimulating" from the "accepted and classic": to be, in effect, McCaffery Lite ("tastes great-less filling").
Initially, The Cheat of Words appears to be a slighter book than Theory of Sediment in both form and content; it is half the length and far less intimidating in its lexicon. But as its title suggests, linguistic appearances are always deceiving. Even as it slides down the critical gullet, the candy coating is already wearing off the book, revealing that for all its apparent digestibility, it is highly subversive and challenging. In the best dialogic fashion, The Cheat of Words synthesizes something new out of Stein's antithetical aesthetic categories, challenging the grounds of their constitution in the process.
Irony in postmodern culture is almost exhausted. McCaffery's writing takes a different approach, mobilizing an underused but extremely powerful trope, the Lucretian clinamen: a minimal and at times almost imperceptible swerve away from an expected trajectory. In a Lucretian poetics, lines can never be "straight":
loss of friction
with increasing length of the poem
does not occur at the same rate
in all lines and sentences
The Cheat of Words is writing as process rather than product, a text that is always moving toward apparent order without ever reaching it, because of its manifold gradual departures from normative syntax and meaning. Despite the protestations the book stages about itself ("I should have written/ elegance is now mutational/ and left it at that"), each new line relativizes, disperses, and inverts the text that has preceded it. One of the primary effects of this contextual shifting is humour. Alfred Jarry's "imaginary science" of Pataphysics, and Dada and Situationism after it, all rooted their methodologies in the use of the clinamen. As the heir to this counter-tradition, The Cheat of Words is a very funny book, but like its predecessors, it uses humour as an effective ideological tool for relativization and inversion, providing in turn "a new criterion for jocular deviance".
This is especially true of the ironically entitled "Teachable Texts", the longest and most significant poem in the collection. Juxtaposing high culture with pop culture, and the philosophical with the banal, it moves from "Dante to Donald Duck/ along a tapestry of zappings." What gives the poem its teeth is the critique it simultaneously presents of such textbook postmodernisms: "Those are the easy ways to disembowel history." A timely and useful interpretation of this text would be to read it as commentary on the proliferation of a second-generation "language" writing devoid of the explicitly Marxist politics that informs the work of McCaffery, the other members of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group, and their contemporaries. "Teachable Texts" suggests, ironically and self-reflexively, that linguistic gamesmanship for its own sake is all too easily co-opted: "my style of impotence dilutes/ then depoliticizes/ says hello then shuts up." As with all of McCaffery's work, this text refuses to see meaning-even its own-as inviolable, or vocabulary and grammar as ideologically neutral. Though the philosophical fine points of McCaffery's poetics have undergone some fine-tuning over the years, his basic project remains the same as the one he outlined in 1986 in his critical collection, North of Intention: to choose to use poetry as "a context of productive play for a repoliticization of the word as a scene for common human engagement." On these terms, "Teachable Texts" is highly successful, because it exhibits writing that is both hilarious ("the moon rising/ a Silken Laumann without teeth") and philosophically and politically astute ("nostalgia/ a semiotic radiation harping on/ about the Gulf War never happening").
Many of the poems in The Cheat of Words reassert McCaffery's Marxist poetics through an interrogation of the crucial links between politics, philosophy, and writing. "Learning Lenin" is the most obvious of these by virtue of its title and subject matter:
Words as power lines
read between two floors. Why do men
need this imaginary transposition of
their real conditions.
Traditionally, philosophy positions literature as its radical Other. By staging his writing in the shifting territory between the philosophical and the literary, McCaffery destabilizes the monolithic truths of both disciplines, poeticizing philosophy and philosophizing literature. The result is not chaos, but what McCaffery calls elsewhere "a kind of unordered order", where multiple versions of truth exist simultaneously, suspended by what "Learning Lenin" refers to as "a mutual hinge".
The Cheat of Words fuses together politics, humour, philosophy, and literature into poetry that is both irritating and beautiful. Revelling in its own contradictions, the text presents its reader with a powerful gift: a demonstration of the potential for reading and writing strategies that depart from the tepid confessional lyricism that dominates much of Canadian poetry. The last, untitled piece serves as both a statement of poetics for what The Cheat of Words has accomplished, and as a promissory note for the future: "...the written surface entering the place excluded from the start. the gift beginning to be given."
Darren Wershler-Henry is a poet and critic who is writing his doctoral dissertation on postmodern poetry at York University. His first book of concrete poetry, NICHOLODEON: a book of lowerglyphs, was forthcoming from Coach House Press when it died-the new Coach House Books has now made it available through http://www.chbooks.com.