In the mid-1970s one critic claimed in all seriousness that there were currently 187 "major poets" writing in English. One wonders how many there must be today? In the interim, university creative writing programs have continued to proliferate-hothouses in which the established poets of one generation are paid to nurture the seedling voices of the next. Graduates pour out-in numbers the subsidized small presses could not keep up with even before cutbacks. Reviewers cannot keep up with those who do get published. (The American poet Dana Gioia, in his essay "Can Poetry Matter?", estimated in 1991 that with an average of ten poetry students in each graduate section, creative writing programs in the United States alone would produce about twenty thousand accredited professional poets over the next decade. He argues that this "poetry boom", far from signalling a golden age, has in fact helped to marginalize poetry.)
At some point, we have to ask ourselves what we mean by a "major" poet-and ultimately, what we mean by "poetry". To be called a poet, is it enough to be able-as all of these graduates are able-to turn an elegant phrase around an arresting image? Is there a difference between poetry and pottery?
In the May Books in Canada, Robert Clayton Casto, reviewing an anthology of Canada's new poets, commented that the writing was of "consistently high quality, albeit of a certain stylistic sameness: one often feels one is reading a single long poem, never quite saying what it has to say, yet saying it forever and terribly well." Such is my complaint about contemporary poetry in general, and it goes with the terrain: too many skilled, in many cases trained poets, writing too many well-turned poems-faithful to a common aesthetic-too many of which find print too easily. In the face of sheer volume, as Gioia points out, it takes "tremendous effort" to read new poems with openness and attention, and in the process one can "easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lacklustre ones." It is a situation inimical to the growth of a discerning readership for poetry-and thus inimical to the very art it would appear to foster. And what holds for individual poems holds equally for books of poems.
This may seem to be a gloomy preamble to a review of four new poetry books, all of them "firsts" for their authors. Yet this is the real world into which every new collection of poems, and every first collection of poems, makes its entrance: a world in which its chances of "mattering", except in the solipsistic terms that the poetry scene has created for itself, are slim indeed. Still, one feels poetry should matter. I'm not sure what exactly I thought I was looking for when I requested "first books only" for review: maybe just the chance, however remote, of discovering something utterly new and unexpected, galvanizing. Whatever it was I hoped to find-and I'll get back to that-I didn't find it in these four.
First, though, to what I did find. In Sherry Johnson and in Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen, something of the smoothness I've described: a clean, spare line, skilful line-breaks, a feel for the free-verse idiom in currency, ditto for the minting and the handling of image-in short, both of these poets speak the language that we recognize as "contemporary" in poetry, and speak it with some fluency, even if what they are saying is not always clear or convincingly necessary. In Jill Dalibard (whose poems have more rough edges): authentic feeling, depth of subject, accessibility-her sequence of poems woven around aging parents speaks in a voice stripped, for the most part, of pretensions. And finally, in Leef Evans, (despite unevenness and a certain elusiveness of content) sheer giddy exuberance of language, lively sound, uncurbed imagination, humour, and play.
In other words, I found in all four books some of the elements of poetry; I found glimpses and flashes of poetry; I found phrases and images and stanzas that I admired. But I did not find many whole poems that stuck in my head, even on second and third reading-and I did not find a single whole poem that I wanted to run out and xerox and tape to my fridge or tack to my wall and live with for a while.
That may make it sound as though I have rather high expectations of a first book of poems, and I guess I do. (Maybe I've known too many poets who, years later, cringe at the mention of their own first books.) One can say of a novel or short story that it is enough that it entertain (if it is "serious literature" we hope it will do more, but to reach an audience it need not)-and of non-fiction, that it inform or provoke thought. But traditionally we have expected more of poetry, which my Concise Oxford defines as "elevated expression of elevated thought or feeling..." ("in metrical form", it adds, but let's not get into that). Note the two "elevateds": not only language, but also content. Seamus Heaney speaks of the pleasure of poetry as entailing a "motion of the soul"-an upward motion, we must assume, to meet the poem on its own ground. Clearly not every poem is going to "elevate the soul" of every reader on every reading. But if a first poetry book has not appeared prematurely, then on any given day I think I should be able to find in it at least one whole poem that "does it" for me, or many that come close.
A mathematical problem: how many high-potential "soul-movers" can twenty thousand accredited professional poets, each churning out well-crafted poems at a cottage-industry rate, hope to produce in a generation? Twice as many as would ten thousand? Infinitely more than would 187? Can this "soul-moving" quality be mass-produced? Or is it, in fact, quite a rare thing, no matter how many well-crafted poems are being floated on the tide? Could overproduction of poetry cause a kind of "inflation" effect, jading readers and thereby devaluing poetry altogether? Do we need to publish so much poetry-especially when, as any publisher will tell you, "It doesn't sell?" You tell me.
Back to the books at hand:
Sherry Johnson's is a "young" collection, and it shows in the usual areas. First, obvious imitation: the Plath stamp is heavy on some poems (a breast lump addressed as "Guilt stone. Rage ruby...O my id-baby, my ego-monkey"-and, at the end, as "Black passion flower./Little stone. O little bitch."). Then, the need to speak elliptically by mythologizing the personal: Johnson does this cleverly in some poems, but in others she risks melodrama. The moon is omnipresent in Pale Grace-to the point where, when I came to "The moon is an obscure metaphor/ of what?", I wanted to ask, "What, indeed?" More serious, though, are duds that a stringent editor would have caught: lines like "...for three thousand years/ I have drank the ichor of the universe" (let's hope the "drank" was a typo) or "The pool is deep, deeper even than/ the mind's abyss." And the moon "so cold and indifferent/in all her beauty" and even "speared on the branches." That Johnson is capable of better shows in a poem like "What is Left", in the startling (if slightly forced) "The sun is a burning white onion" or-of fireweed along an unmown ditch-"Perhaps it was neglected for its beauty/ the way each head ripens into an idea of rust." I like Johnson best when she speaks most directly and simply, as she does in "The Woman from Bangladesh":
The one who made my besom.
There it stands in the corner,
an obscure offering, made of bound sticks
and unknown animal hair;
The room is filled with her
jute-braided laughter, even now
as I sweep bad spirits away
I feel the heat of her
Skin, the sound
of small brown feet entering
through the tall and open doorway.
Clay Birds is a much more even collection. Gunvaldsen Klaassen relies less for effect on the invocation of archetypes or on pretty language; her subject-matter is usually undisguised, her language assured. Childhood experience is vivid in lines like "her damp sticky/sundress strings undone/to sleep naked in the heat", or "Grampa drinking rye in the cellar. We smell sour on his breath, the milk gagging under its thick skin." I have to ask myself why no single whole poem persuaded me entirely, and can answer only that they all sound too much like poems I've read before. Still, there are many felicitous moments: "Chokecherries drop into my pail./Little hard ones, and sometimes/lucky clusters like notes/straining towards a poem," or "The water is old. An inland sea/trying to remember/something lost, a sweaty animal pacing." I like the exuberant ending of "Plains Fever: love letter":
...In this strange country
where lovers turn
lust stretching its thistles through dust,
purple and bristling-
you tumble me like a weed!
And the melancholy ending of "Silent O":
My grandfather knows
what loneliness hides, the silent O, the hole
trapped at the heart of people. Coyotes sing
in his sleep, and he sleeps and doesn't speak
to the long night of what he remembers.
Even at her best, though, I do sense Gunvaldsen Klaassen "straining towards" the poem rather than letting it overtake her.
Deed of Gift, though not presented as such, is really one long poem: a paean to childhood remembered at midlife, in the presence (and absence) of parents grown elderly while living still in the childhood home. This singleness of subject, the nostalgic and reflective tone, and the lovingly rendered English setting give Jill Dalibard's book tremendous unity, and enable the poems to achieve cumulatively what they do not rise to individually: at moments, on the weight of what has come before, one finds oneself genuinely moved.
A motion of the soul? Perhaps, but the lever is heavy. Deed of Gift is longer than it has to be. Frequently recurring lines, scenes, and images function as leitmotifs, but some just feel redundant; there's a lot of slack within individual poems; many poems could be removed without losing the cumulative effect of the sequence. (Is serious editing a lost vocation?) Dalibard sometimes borders on sentimental, or dwells too much on her interior processes; her syntactical liberties often feel more of an indulgence than a necessity; she's more rhetorical than she needs to be. But I like her book for being about something real, for not being afraid of the commonplace (gardens, teacups, pets), for its very lack of poetic slickness, and not least for its moral dignity: it honours the parents-frailties and all-when the fashion is now to expose and accuse. Love animates these pages. Nor are they without their luminous images: the dog's tail that "bounced dew/onto the red tiles/of the kitchen"; the moorhen preening his mate: "White needles of light flash from his head/he sews a soft seam under her wing." In the end this book, in its oddly stubborn simplicity and despite its flaws, convinces.
If Deed of Gift is mostly content and emotion, Thrum (aptly named) is mostly language and sound. It's the ebullience of words and wit spilling off the top of the head, baroque vocabulary riding its own energy, cut loose, high on the sound of itself. Leef Evans's jazzy stream-of-consciousness and incantatory rhythms borrow too much from the Beats and San Francisco poets to feel really new, but he is capable of wondrous moments: "Mom was made of sponge and small noises. She thrummed through the framework of our cottage like leaves.Sometimes nearly nothing but skin and vinegar; the next moment bombast-solid like ham. She was furtive as steam..." and the astonishing, "Even now, I am crocheted around her four corners." (I believe what Evans had in mind was corkwork, not crochet-but who's quibbling?) The title poem, the last of a sequence of four poems in which Jesus, among other things, "culls the bile from my bleeding spleen with pronouns and piano-wire and the whites of eggs," ends like this:
Sing Sing Sing distant Carolina seraphim-Hang
my anger on
your siren peg and dash me to stone; dash me to
me to stone; a broken rose on the stone.
and Jesus strums, on his muscle-harp, hymns of
The poems are full of sonorous surprises, are endlessly inventive, savagely irreverent, crazily careening, inexhaustible-aye, there's the rub: they get carried away with themselves, and begin to seem too much the idiot's tale-all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Which is too bad, because most of them are saying something-and of the ones that aren't, a few get close to a Stevens-esque brilliance. It's just that one gets tired and stops listening. Again, an editor went on holiday: eighty-nine pages of this kind of stuff is simply too much. It's not as though it were all equally good. Select, select.
With subsidies drying up, small presses are cutting back their lists and struggling to stay afloat. I am not sure this is entirely a bad thing. A slowdown in the production of poetry books will mean longer apprenticeships for poets and, likely, a renewal of underground and private publishing initiatives. The surviving literary presses will take on the surviving poets and edit their manuscripts with renewed rigour: fewer books, smaller books, later books. This cannot hurt poetry. It will simply allow the cream to rise.
Robyn Sarah lives in a Montreal. The Touchstone, her New and Selected Poems, was published by Anansi in 1992. A second short story collection is forthcoming from The Porcupine's Quill in 1997.