Dear Olga Stein,
I am a subscriber to Books in Canada mainly because you do not marginalize poetry. But I enjoyed your November/December issue so much, the article by Carmine Starnino and especially that by Robyn Sarah and John Unrau, that I had to say thank you.
So Thank You,
I read with interest Carmine Starnino's essay in the latest Books in Canada and have a few comments to make. I think it's good that Starnino wrote something about the "crisis" in Canadian poetry today. I agree there is a lack of real excitement, and the canon has not been revised, it seems, for a long time.
I also agree that language is a vital element of poetry and a great poet such as Hopkins used language in a wonderfully creative way, but even more important, Hopkins had a vision to communicate, and his creative language came from this divine vision.
Emerson, who is always a great source of wisdom, wrote in his essay "Poetry and the Imagination" that "The act of the imagination is ever attended by pure delight." A great Canadian poet who often used that word "delight" is Irving Layton. I was surprised Starnino doesn't consider him as having international stature because he does. He is known and appreciated in many other countries such as Italy and Greece. And there are other Canada poets who reflect with insight the experience of being "Canadian" such as Al Purdy and Gwendolyn MacEwan.
I was also very pleased to read that Starnino appreciates Charlotte Hussey's poetry so much. I think that the most important task now is to show what is positive in Canadian poetry so that readers will actually want to read it rather than feel it is not worth the effort.
St. Lambert, Quebec
Reading Robyn Sarah's pedagogical revisions of Michael Ondaatje's beautiful poetic lines from "Letters and Other Worlds" to make the questionable point that some poems could have their line breaks changed with very little difference as to their final effect, gave me a stomach ache. How can she not hear the difference between the delicate powerful emotionally resonant cadences of Ondaatje's lines with their reflective breaks in the middle of heightened moments, "each of them claimed he or she/was the injured party," and her pedestrian rewrites, with their clunky repetition of breath phrases on the one hand and erratic freneticism on the other? Is it even legal to mangle great poetry by well known poets in print this way??
John Unrau"s question about line breaks is a good one though¨an amazingly undertheorized topic, given how central a question it is to contemporary poetic practice. Phyllis Webb's celebrated essay, "On the Line," with its brilliant polemics on different approaches("Enjambment...Synactivity...Certainties..Notes...Sidelines...Sound Poetry...Poundsound") is perhaps the best existing statement we have on this subject; Dennis Cooley's "Breaking and Entering (thoughts on line breaks)" is also insightful and makes the point that there are different approaches possible, with different effects (as opposed to Sarah's notion of the poem's single "true voice"). I find asking the question in terms of the effect created releases it from a rigid (and incomprehensible, practically speaking) sense of right or wrong and offers more nuanced and politicized possibilities of reading/writing, sometimes opening into breathtaking discoveries and new alliances. So thanks John for asking the question, and reminding us that there's lots more to talk/write about on this subject.
As for Carmine Starnino's rant about the lack of "great" Canadian poets: how about going after those responsible for the strangling of our poetic infrastructure in Canada which makes it practically impossible to practice this genre in a serious longterm way, instead of attacking those among us heroic enough to try? I'm tired of these public flailings of our poets (an established convention in Canadian letters dating back at least a century), which in Starnino's case amounts to pushing aside established poets to make room for newer ones (for whom the test of long term stamina still waits). You don't have to dump on Atwood or Bowering to honour Hussey or Bolster, after all their latest literary offspring. Delineating the serious straits of poetry publishing in this country and the precarious career trajectories available to poets unless subsidized by fiction writing or academic positions, and offering remedies, would surely be more effective in addressing the question of how to nurture "great" poetry in this country.
How about many more poet laureates and writers-in-residence, at least one in every city and province, with big enough salaries and public honour attached to actually give them a chance to promote poetry in the media and elsewhere? How about much better protections for our highly threatened independent publishing and bookselling venues? How about more funding for artists-in-the-schools and university Humanities programs, traditionally strong supporters of poetry, which are gasping these days under funding cutbacks? How about stronger financial support for professional gatherings of poets so we can talk to and encourage each other as we used to do before it became too expensive? How about better public funding for professional poetic projects and the publicizing of them? How about encouraging analyses of why this genre, such a powerful and appropriate one for our time, is being so radically underfunded and undervalued? How about many more public celebrations, newspaper and journal features, media profiles, reviews, etc. of the poetic riches that do exist in this country?
Poetry could easily be the hottest sexiest most marketable, most prestigious genre, as it is in many cultures around the world: why not here?
Consider the following rewriting of prose as verse. Does the chopping of Ruskin's sentences into lines change the effect of his attack on Victorian developers? Has the prose been transformed into "poetry"? If not, why not? Answer in the genre of your choice.
Time: one hour.
There was a rocky valley
between Buxton and Bakewell,
once upon a time,
divine as the Vale of Tempe:
you might have seen the Gods there
morning and evening ¨
Apollo and all the sweet Muses of light ¨
walking in fair procession on the lawns of it,
to and fro among the pinnacles of its crags.
You cared neither for Gods
nor grass, but for cash
(which you did not know the way to get);
you thought you could get it
by what the TIMES calls
You Enterprised a Railroad
through the valley,
heaped thousands of tons of shale
into its lovely stream.
The valley is gone,
and the Gods with it;
every fool in Buxton
can be in Bakewell in half-an-hour,
and every fool in Bakewell in Buxton;
which you think a lucrative
process of exchange¨
you Fools Everywhere. (FORS CLAVIGERA)
(Carmine Starnino replies to Di Brandt)
If Robyn Sarah's letter gave Di Brandt a stomach ache, Brandt's reply made my head hurt. I found Sarah's recasting of Ondaatje's lines¨lines which were about as gripping to read as watching grass grow¨supremely instructive: they stayed trite, boring and facile no matter where they were broken. And if Sarah didn't hear what Brandt fawningly calls the poetry's "delicate powerful emotionally resonant cadences" as well as its "reflective breaks in the middle of heightened moments," that's because those qualities are nowhere to be found in Ondaatje's lines. In fact, from where I'm sitting, the real criminal act being perpetrated is Brandt's willingness to endorse such mediocrity as "great poetry." Has Brandt's fervor for Phyllis Webb and Dennis Cooley's gimcrack theorizing left her incapable of applying any independence of judgment to the poetry she reads? It's possible. After all, she's obviously forgotten how to read an essay. In disputing my piece she disregards it's basic premise, ignores every one of it's arguments¨I trust I'm not being too prideful if I assert my polemic strove to be more than merely a "rant" and I was doing more that just "dumping" on Atwood and Bowering¨instead uses the opportunity to wheel out what can only be called Brandt's Bardic Theory of Economics.
The problem, Brandt seems to imply, isn't that we have frittered away the last thirty years valorizing poets who possess feeble imaginations, meagre technical skills, and scant knowledge of the tradition they work in¨no, the true calamity is that Canadian poetry, and Canadian poets, are "underfunded." One always wants to be civil about these things, but this is such nonsense one scarcely knows where to begin. Evidently Brandt is seized by the belief¨and it must be wonderful to be so satisfied by such superstitions¨that there exists some wonderworking link between the amount of government money thrown at an objective and the outcome achieved. What she overlooks, of course, is the fact that much of the hundreds of millions of dollars already bestowed on our poets and publishers has resulted in a) dozens of subsidized regional presses who b) have kept alive a huge coterie of third-rate "professional" careers, and both have c) flooded the country with thousands of unwanted poetry books. Would more money really help? Circulation and publicity might increase, sure, but so would the rubbish. I suspect, though, that poets like Brandt could care less. They are so happy any poetry is being written and published that its poor quality and short shelf-life is a matter of indifference.
Well, it's not a matter of indifference to me. God knows, I'm not proposing subsidies be scotched. (Grants, when I've received them, have been a tremendous help.) I simply don't share Brandt optimism that we can financially kindle good poetry. Believe it or not, creativity can get along quite well without a Canada Council grant. Yes, the life of a poet is arduous. But let's get real, no one is forcing us to endure poetry's "precarious career trajectory." The notion that we deserve to be remunerated by the state for heroically "practicing" this "genre" is absurd: this country does not owe its artists a living. We've produced some of the most lackluster poetry among any of the Commonwealth nations, and no fiscal flaw¨none¨can explain this away. The only "poetic infrastructure" that should concern Brandt is the larger English tradition and our poetry's (too) small seat in it. The peril of institutional patronage, however, is that it distracts weak-willed imaginations into a sense of entitlement. Brandt is thus driven to "go after those responsible" and sees our government as the enemy. But when this is the accepted view of poetry by poets¨that poetry needs to be pegged to state policy in order to ensure its literary health¨it's no use fretting over the enemy: they are already inside the gate.
John Unrau's half of the dialogue with Robyn Sarah (Books In Canada November/December 2001) was the more honest one; in asking a variation on the eternal query, "What makes poetry poetry?" he asked a question that really can't be answered. Sarah was foolish for trying. Her contradictory benedictions are amusing¨what criteria exempt Don Coles and not Robert Hilles from "chopped prose" other than her presto-chango hand-waving? After acknowledging that the distinction between poetry and chopped prose is "mysterious", she attempts to define the difference with meaningless phrases like "rhetorical balance" and "distinctive voice". Her argument relies upon the "kind of"s, and "somehow"s of an equivocating critic, word/phrases that appear with a distressing frequency in her letter. Sarah concludes her correspondence with unconscious cognitive dissonance when she writes that she might possibly be "making claims based on what is essentially intuition." Exactly. Let's leave definitions of poetry to fools and high school students forced to write "Poetry is..." essays.
(Robyn Sarah's replies to Shane Neilson)
John Unrau's half of the dialogue
with Robyn Sarah
was the more honest one;
in asking a variation
on the eternal query, "What
makes poetry poetry?" he asked
a question that really can't
be answered. Sarah was foolish
¨ Is this a poem?
No doubt there are some
who would pass it off as such.
John Unrau's question was not "What makes poetry poetry?" but the much more nuts-and-bolts "What makes 'free verse' verse?": that is, what qualities (in the abandonment of rhyme and meter) differentiate a poem from any bit of prose chopped into lines? I don't pretend to have the last word on this or any question about poetry, but there was nothing dishonest in my attempt to answer it with reference to the examples he furnished. We have become so accustomed to free verse as an idiom that we forget the question is a real one, worth contemplating if we are poets, critics, or serious readers.
What makes poetry poetry? is also a real question¨even if no single answer will ever satisfy. If, as Mr Neilson says, it is foolish to try to answer questions that "really can't be answered", then not just this occasional critic, but all our philosophers and sages are fools.
In your review of "Broken shackles", editor John Foster is quoted as referring to Jefferson's constitutional aphorism that "all men are created equal". That phrase is from the Declaration of Independence, of which Jefferson was a principal author, not the Constitution, which came later and was drawn up when Jefferson was out of the country.
John H. Wilde
Greenwood, South Carolina
Please mail your letters to the address provided on the table of contents page or e-mail them to: