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Solway The Sad Balladeer: An Open Letter to the (Unofficial) Laureate of 'This Sucks'

In his usual high but heavy-handed style, David Solway once again decries the state of current Canadian poetry in his recent article (Wilted Laurels [or, A Sad Ballade to the Poets Inglorious. BiC September 2002)]. This time, however, he's crafted a variation on a theme: blast the idea of a poet laureateship on the grounds that Canadian poetry is bereft of literary merit. This latter subject is one that Solway prosecutes with a perpetual zealotry, and he can be depended on to produce several polemics a year relating to just how bad everything is, just how really awful Canadians are at verse, just how dishonest our literary culture is in propagating itself. David Solway is the enfant terrible of terrible, the unofficial Canadian laureate of biliousness. His latest indictment begins with:

Apart from yesterday's newspaper, there are two things that seem to age overnight: a learned footnote and a bad poemÓ. It may even be said that a bad poem is born old and dies young, sapless and etiolated.

This (excuse the pun) short list should be amended to include fundamentalism. After so many malignant salvos launched towards the edifice of Canadian poetry, it appears Solway's negative obsession will never be exhausted.Through a dogged destructiveness, he has proven the argument that 'we suck' can only be taken so far, especially by one who claims to recognize our collective "bathos" and "superannuation", yet who has done nothing to rescue us from this state. The irony is clear: the weight of the whistle Solway wears around his neck pulls him down into mediocrity¨a strange kind of complicity in the whole "self-serving and pharisaic enterprise" of Canadian poetry. The music from such a whistle can only be shrill.

At another point in his BiC invective, he declares that "Ó the members of guild and league have rarely been deterred from furthering their own interests at the obviously affordable price of their integrity as witnesses and their commitment to standards of aesthetic taste, critical judgement, and public comportment." I daresay Solway is being less than fair here, for he has pathologically practiced his own brand of reputational collusion. The names Starnino, Ormsby, and Harris are so groomed by his lips and pen, it would do an integrity-compromised member of guild and league proud.

Let me now consider his arguments contra a poet laureate, so anemically stated in his most recent article. The first is also the most tired: why laud the unworthy? It's easy to say this sucks, that sucks, everything sucks. It's much more difficult to argue the opposite. Negative assertions come easier than positive ones, for the simple reason that most things are imperfect, and pointing out their flaws is an easy task. Celebrating a piece of art¨now that's hard to do well. At the time of my writing, we have three practicing poets with international reputations (Atwood, Ondaatje, and Carson). Like it or not, these are the names that we declare as a country, and as Solway has done elsewhere, it's sport to lampoon them. It's work to appreciate them¨much less fun to be had.

His second argument is a regurgitated one in which he argues/parrots Lynn Crosbie's feelings on the Laureateship matter, quoting her to the effect that only bad poets seek it out, the good ones are (ahem) averse to state-sponsored accolades. Well, let's consider the evidence for a moment.

In England, a case can admittedly be made for underwhelming talents of late; Betjeman and Day-Lewis are two examples. And yes, Phillip Larkin was approached for the job, which he declined¨proof supporting the idea that the best poets shun laureate hemlock. But consider also the fact that Larkin was approached¨isn't this an instance of the institution working? The best man for the job was asked if he wanted it, not a crony of the "guild and league." And look at Ted Hughes's recent performance as laureate¨his case surely demolishes the idea that only hacks accept the state's laurels. Certainly the English Laureateship from a historical perspective isn't totally anti-talent¨Spenser, Jonson, Southey, Tennyson, and Wordsworth were all named.

America's more democratic system, where a new laureate is named almost every year, adds further credence to the idea of a laureateship. The names are a who's who of American literary brilliance¨Pinsky, Lowell, Frost, and Strand, to name a only few. The best argument can be made by invoking the current laureate, Billy Collins. In response to the September the eleventh attacks, he crafted "The Names", a poem that was powerful and widely praised. It did appear in "yesterday's newspaper", by the way¨the 9/11 New York Times. The creation, wide dissemination, and broad reception of this poem serves as an excellent reason to have a Poet Laureate. Poets really are there to affect, and in the affect, they can do some effect, too. Collins had the whole of America as an audience, and they listened, and they grieved¨Solway's invocation of Milosz's "rage will kindle at a poet's word" notwithstanding.

The evidence presented is convincing enough to vindicate the idea of a laureateship except amongst those obsessed with how bad Canadian poetry is. Being of this cohort, he is free to indulge his ignorance by sticking his thesaurus-drunk head in the muck of how much we suck.

The medical metaphors Solway employs in his article are amusing in light of their polemical phrasings (one can never trust a polemicist) and of their ignorance of an important medical tenet. Perhaps he has never heard of the placebo effect, the medical principle that if a treatment triggers a patient's hope, that treatment may provide benefit independent of its actual physiological therapeutics. Arguing for the creation of an institution that does honour to our craft isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. The implementation may be bungled, the practice may be corrupt, but the idea of a poet laureate is not a malignant thing, and in two significant cases, good things have come of it. I think that a Laureateship is what a country makes it, and though I concede our creative deficit¨no, we cannot claim a Yeats yet¨the fact is, we have to start somewhere. And we can build on that beginning later.

The only thing that is "born old and dies young" is a cynic. Is a critic's sole purpose to castigate, as opposed to the dual invigilation and elevation a good interlocutor of the culture deals in? A critic keeps us honest, not constantly cowering from repeated browbeatings.

Solway is a Martin Amis aficionado. But Amis has already rued in print his days as a firebreathing critic in the foreword of his collected volume of criticism The War Against ClichT:

Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they rememberÓ Admittedly there are some critics who enjoy being insulting into middle age. I have often wondered why this spectacle seems so undignified. Now I know: it's mutton dressed as lamb. I am also struck by how hard I sometimes was on writers who (I erroneously felt) were trying to influence me: Roth, Mailer, Ballard.

It's this perpetual deportment that's distasteful. In our vain struggle for posterity, we're (artists all) negotiating with our muses, some more successfully than others. Canadian poetry is either on the cusp of a breakthrough, anathema to Solway, or it is moribund as he claims. Let's hope that, in the war against composition, Solway the acidic critic loses one for the team. As an institution, the Laureateship just might be the operation Canadian Poetry needs.

Shane Neilson
Saint John, New Brunswick

Dear Editor,
(David Solway's reply to Shane Neilson)

I suppose I should feel in some way honoured that Shane Neilson has considered it worthwhile to invest so much thought, time and energy into rebutting my thesis as well as my character, both of which, to borrow from his own choice diction, apparently "suck." And I must confess that, confronting so able a defender of the status quo as he appears to be, I now realize I am up against a far more formidable apologist than I had originally assumed from some of his previous writings.

Let me address his main arguments in order of appearance. He accuses me of practicing my own "brand of reputational collusion" and trots out the names of Starnino, Ormsby and Harris. Well, yes, Mr. Neilson, these names are indeed familiar to me, and so are the names of Tim Lilburn, Norm Sibum, Ken Babstock, Peter Van Toorn, Ross Leckie, Mary Dalton, and Robyn Sarah, among others. Quality is quality, wherever one may happen to find it. With respect to Starnino, Ormsby and Harris, Mr. Neilson is obviously insinuating that friendship precedes appraisal. I can only reply that I was aware of their work as poets well before I met the poets themselves and sought them out because I felt they would be worth knowing. Nothing has happened since to change my assessment and, if anything, they have gone from strength to strength, vindicating my prior judgment. I try to call the shots as I see them. I will praise where I see fit, blow the whistle, shrill as it may sound to Mr. Neilson's ears, on inferior work and real collusion where it strikes me as appropriate. And there is a lot of the latter around. Mr. Neilson may be surprised to learn that the critic is not the poet's personal trainer but an independent observer who attempts to speak what he or she understands to be the case, for better or worse.

But when it comes to commendation, I think I've done my share. I direct Mr. Neilson's attention to some of my previous articles in Books in Canada (which he will probably have read), and to other journals such as the PN Review and The Sewanee Review, in which most of the poets mentioned above as well as others are applauded. Mr. Neilson, like many of my detractors, is merely covering one eye in order to see the side of the issue that he wishes to see, the standard tactic of the chauvinist. Curious though, considering his strictures against the ease of mounting negative critiques, how difficult it is for him to remember positive ones. And concerning Atwood, Ondaatje and Carson¨a drone, an entrepreneur and a cipher, respectively¨my correspondent is manifestly conflating reputation with reputability, celebrity with merit, a typical failing of the insecure and unaccomplished.

As for the Laureateship question, I acknowledge that excellent poets have been approached from time to time and that occasionally we do come across the anomaly of a talented office-holder. After all, Richard Wilbur was plainly no slouch. But my point was, as Mr. Neilson surely would have recognized had he actually read my article rather than simply taken exception to my ostensible motives, that the Laureateship is pretty much the kiss of death insofar as it generally works to vet received opinion and prescribe (a medical term, Mr. Nielson!) a largely inoffensive bordereau of subjects calculated to raise no hackles and illuminate no darkness. This is a contention I share with Lynn Crosbie¨whom, by the way, I am not parroting, only giving credit to.

Clearly, it is hard to avoid a creeping ideological servility as well as a profaning of aesthetic standards once one has agreed to represent things as they are. For the Laureate has no sanction to censure or reprove, neither to object to national policy nor reproach public mores, as poets have always felt free to do. Further, the need to bat out odes and commemorations on demand is a surefire recipe for poetic disaster. We would be far better advised to think seriously on a passage from a letter of Thomas Gray where the poet assures his correspondent: "if any great man would say to me 'I make you rat-catcher to his Majesty, with a salary of 300 pounds a year and two butts of the best MalagaÓ' I cannot say I should jump at it, nay, if they would drop the very name of the office, and call me Sinecure to the King's Majesty, I should still feel a little awkward, and think everybody I saw smelt a rat about me." Of one thing we can be sure. The position will rarely be filled with poets like those Shelley depicts in Adonais as "kings of thought/Who waged contention with their time's decay." And even the worthy are likely to suffer the decay of their times as they labour to fulfill their obligations.

As for the charge that I write like a dedicated cynic whose "sole purpose [is] to castigate," I can only hope this is not the case and, once again, I believe I have extolled good work sufficiently to belie the accusation. Certainly I am no more of a cynic than Andrew Waterman who writes in the PN Review for September/ October 1999: "All in all, the prospect of aspiring place-persons scrabbling for preferment to a Laureateship which is now a salaried post is grisly." Or than Frank Scott who in The Canadian Authors Meet asks:

Shall we go round the mulberry bush, or shall
We gather at the river, or shall we
Appoint a poet laureate this fall,
Or shall we have another cup of tea?

Finally, Mr Neilson informs me that I am a Martin Amis aficionado and cites his argument from The War Against ClichT that it is somehow demeaning to "enjoy being insulting into middle age." Of course, this laudable caveat did not prevent Amis from collecting and once again publicizing his youthful animadversions even as, like his own Andy Warhol, he is himself beginning to wander into "the biological desert of middle-aged graydom." The fact is, I have never cared all that much for Amis and I do not model my practice on his. The imputation is just silly.

As I said, I try to call the shots as I see them and if I happen to miss my target, it is to my advantage to be apprised of it. I accept a strong and well-reasoned refutation. But Mr. Neilson's letter, like some others I have received, seems to me a tissue of ill-reasoned claims and assumptions founded in a deep personal resentment whose effect is diagnostically suspect. Good thing he's a writer and not a doctor.

Yours sincerely,
David Solway


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