What is it we want from writing? Some people want affirmation of a particular philosophy for which they feel attachment. Others relish technical excellence. When I pose the question to myself, however, the conclusion I reach might seem heretical in the current critical climate. Sincerity must accompany talent.
Oscar Wilde is hardly the last savant to have disparaged sincerity as a literary criterion. With such distinguished opposition in mind, one must carefully delimit what one intends by "sincerity". Certainly not nanve honestyłor even considered candour. The requisite quality is more peculiar than that. A writer must utterly believe in what he or she is doing, in a given work. Sincerity means that the writer must be the convinced cultist of his or her dream. Such dreams need not be mystical. If someone dreams, for example, of writing as a rational polymath, that pose, too, can manifest real sincerity. Dreamed in good faith, rational polymathy is noble work. The example of Voltaire proves it. But the writer must really dream his or her dream. Instead of polymaths such as Voltaire, we now have too many eclectic mediocrities, hastily laden with erudition generated from the search-engines of the Internet.
Of course, almost every form that sincerity can assume may have originated in one modish craze or another. But once the writer has absorbed a dream and worshipped it, any fashionable point of departure evanesces: sincerity prevails. Most writing now has no such quality. It belongs, formally or informally, to the great debating club of the mediała pleasant place, not a profound one, valuing rejoinders and not inventions. A dream does not necessarily win prizes; a dream is not competitive in the ordinary understanding of the term; dreams do not consciously score points; best of all, a dream cannot be stolen intact.
When Christopher Marlowe dreamed of Ovid, the act was not theft but love:
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see,
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!
Like Marlowe, Norm Sibum, in Girls and Handsome Dogs, dreams of Ovid, transporting the Roman amorist, or a contemporary avatar of his (often named Aginthorpe), into an unpretentious yet irregularly learned cafT society. Writing modernized love-elegy, Sibum is not without antecedent. His nostalgicłand usually courteousłeroticism, plainly male, recalls in programme, at least, practitioners such as Walter Savage Landor and Robert Herrick. Sibum's rhythms are often magical, and he comprehends that Ovid's is an art of conjunctions, both grammatical and otherwise:
She always knew that of love and lust
One is the hunger and one has the force.
("Crossword and Storm")
Expansive as well as epigrammatic, Sibum manages tone attractively. He has a strong sense of the possible decorums of different poems, of different passages in the same poem. Dennis Lee once called this talent for persuasive variation "polyphony." Less grandly, the faculty might simply be identified as poetic reach. Though his tetrameter can be lovely, Sibum does not belong to that poetic faction whose performance is always monotonously cast in the same mould, pressing diverse matter into prefab syllabics and ready-made forms. He juxtaposes diverse registers of expression, with an effect that may seem to marry Yeats and William Empson:
'Well, Eddie,' I addressed the parrot
Who was a picture on the cafT wall,
Who with beady eye and wicked beak
Looked half the face of God,
'Did you ever read Hobbes's Thucydides?'
("A Theme for a Saturday Afternoon")
The mixture of a sort of Bogart tonality with the disillusioned doctrine of Thomas Hobbes and Thucydides is characteristically piquant. Though patches in some of his longer sequences work less effectively than others, Sibum shows considerable finesse in rhythmic modulation:
And the oil and the vinegar, the salt and the pepper
Sang each their hosannah to the beauty of women
and the wisdom of old men.
Oil: 'How red your lips are!'
Vinegar: 'How pearly your smile!'
Salt: 'Such limpid pools, your eyes!'
("Have You Been Served?")
In the above passage, Sibum conjures a kind of biblical cumulativeness, recalling psalm and proverb and canticle: oil for the lubrication of kisses, vinegar to rinse the teeth, salt for tears, pepper for the happy shock and reciprocity of every first taste or toast.
Another sequence, "The Turcotte Woman's Letter to Aginthorpe", plays deftly with epistolary convention, reproducing an elliptical series of bitter and longing letters:
I must say no life but mine concerns me nowł
I drink lessłI read much. There is a catechism
With all its quaint Thou shalt nots
Interdictions to which Clough, in his time, appended ą
Well, it went something like this:
Thou shalt not kill except when provoked extremely ą
The nod to Arthur Hugh Clough, author of the undervalued "Amours de Voyage" (1858), a series of letters cast in hexameters, typifies Sibum's craft. They conclude with a charming compression of all erotic sentiment into its smallest possible room, one initial atop the other:
Male desire, like female, has a tendency to self-congratulation; Sibum's book is so rife with humour and variety that this unavoidable element never collapses into narcissism, the lover's vice. Nor does the tone become brutal, even when the forcefulness of lust takes its turn on stage. Brutality is the boast of the impotent; Sibum is neither cruel nor a braggart. He impersonates both the plausibly hankering Aginthorpe and the ladies of Aginthorpe's delectation, who have such good minds that they also attract the happy reader. Not the least pleasure of Women and Handsome Dogs is its mature and casual faith that every conjunction of bodies is, by preference, a mingling of intellects. A writer as worldly as he is sincere, Sibum knows, too, that mind is found everywhere, not just in the places that fashion has sanctified.
Eric Miller, author of Song of the Vulgar Starling and the forthcoming Nemesis Divina, teaches at the University of Victoria.