Director's Cut

by David Solway
ISBN: 0889842728

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: DirectorĘs Cut
by Steven Laird

"If literature is not a responsible activity, then action is the only course." "I believe in culture as form not spirit." Both of these quotes are from Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist who in despair over his nation's postwar loss of traditional culture, tried to incite a military coup. It failed, and he committed ritual suicide. Although it's an unfortunate association to make-few writers would want to be linked with an imperialist and fanatic like Mishima-these two quotes seem to provide a good framework for David Solway's recent books, Director's Cut (essays on poetry), and Franklin's Passage (poetry). He is both defender and practitioner of the value of a responsible literature and the need for "some sort of formal componentif a poem is not to degenerate into a mere rhapsody of impressions or ultralite reflections."
Of course, Solway is not some punctilious throwback to the warlord tradition of 15th century Japan. But he does brandish a mean blade in defense of writing that must be answerable to its readers (without whom the term literature makes no sense) and a poetry that deftly manipulates "the structure, ground and substance which are indispensible to the craft and which can only come with patience and slow deliberation." The creed of the samurai-loyal to tradition and answerable to his supporters-leads directly to action. In Solway's case that "action" is polemic. (Another recent book, a chapbook version of an essay that appeared in Books in Canada, "On Being A Jew", is further proof of Solway's delight in disputatious writing.)
In Director's Cut, his latest collection of critical essays, you'll find plenty of the resplendent Solway spleen as he takes on the state of contemporary Canadian writing. His purpose is clear. "I sense the time has arrived to take stock and engage passionately if our literature, and especially our poetry, is ever to be rescued from the swamp of second-ratedness" he shouts in the preface. (And he does shout: "I'm not mincing words here" he says.) That engagement is downright martial when it comes to the ordinariness, sameness, and dullness he finds in most Canadian writing, the "Ernie-at-the-wheel-of-the-van-driving-through-Saskatchewan syndrome." His target is typified by the work of what he calls the Big Four-Purdy, Atwood, Ondaatje and Carson-"all of whom I contend are writers of such inferior quality that in a truly literate society they would be recognized as a national embarrassment." The charges: their writing suffers from "undistinguished language," is "without music," and is "infinitely banal." Here he is, for example, on Purdy:

"What Purdy and the swelling Tribe of Al have failed to take into consideration is that poetry lives in language, not in list, incident or narrative effect-which is to say, in language that is structured, alert, robust, patterned and mettlesome, language that does not simply evaporate with the reading."

What Solway sees in a poem like Purdy's "When I Sat Down to Play the Piano" is that "the technique is that of mere narrative or reportage, the structure muddled and amorphous, the tone laid on with a troweland the language entirely unremarkable."
Solway's exemplars-they include Tim Lilburn, Robyn Sarah, Eric Ormsby, Norm Sibum-are those whose work is characterized by a poetry that is "both impeccable and footloose, absolutely precise in its diction and metrics but explosive in its impact." This isn't to say that, for Solway, if a poem doesn't rhyme or can't be counted out with toe-tapping precision, it's unworthy. His is a backlash against writing that has no respect for the native intelligence of the reader, that uses undistinguished diction to recall "half-baked domestic reflections that belong in a diary" or just simply abandoning the public reader and writing instead for other poets. As he says, he is "not lobbying for ye distant spires, ye antique towers" but to "draw the reader's attention to those poems, where they can be found, that are so verbally rich and juicy they are like peaches you have to take your shirt off to eat."
He comes too close at times to personal attacks and ad hominem argument. His essay on Anne Carson and his open letter to Lorna Crozier, while properly critical of their work, snicks the blade a bit too close to the skin, a tactic that entertains us but might have the unintended effect of winning sympathy for the person, and so, uncritically, for their work.
When he fails in these essays, it's due to sheer giddiness on his part. In the "Open Letter to Lorna Crozier" he seems to be tickled pink by a snide, patronizing tone employed more, it feels, for the exercise of it than to a real purpose. "You must surely recall those salient lines of Keats" he writes, and it comes across as both a pompous and banal way of speaking: "Poetry did not payoff' for the great Paul Celan" or "as any real writer knows.." and "as Lampman tells us" Hell, even poor Lorna could write that stuff.
Luckily there isn't much of that in this collection, however entertaining it might be. Where his strategy succeeds it does so with spirit, a clear objective in sharp focus, and a clean energized prose style: "we need, not heaps of raw syllables escorted by hyperventilation techniques, but words apt, nimble, svelte, resilient, laminar, spare, chatoyant, basilican, words simple and majestic, common and rare, words that regain their physicality because, like Lazarus, they come back to us as they once were, not decomposed into constituent bits and pieces but as integrated body rising once again to the living world of the imagination."
The long concluding essay in this collection hones his sword to its sharpest point. "The Great Disconnect" deals with the simple fact that poetry, as it is practiced in Canada, seems hell-bent on its own form of hara-kiri: it has cut itself off from its public audience. It is only, in Solway's view, the "honest and skilful treatment of the codes and materials of the discipline [of poetry]" and the expectation of "an audience of ordinary but literate readers" that can rescue poetry from being "defective, mediocre and trifling, if not for the most part entirely negligible." He goes on, in this essay, to compare the common voice' of Al Purdy with that of Wallace Stevens, Anne Michaels and Brent Maclaine for thematic depth, the language experiments of Fred Wah and Tim Lilburn, and the "power of parochial speech" of Mary Dalton with the "thesaurus-driven language" of Christian Bok. This is the book's (and Solway's) signature essay, his war cry: a "fit and vivacious" literature aware of tradition and its readers.
David Solway is often considered an artifact of an old Empire who, like some samurai in postwar Japan, covers his head with a white fan when obliged to walk under electric power lines as a protest against the abomination. His point is simple: he longs for, and in rare moments finds, a poetry that, to borrow from Louis Dudek, remains "an awakening/A pleasure in the morning light" a poetry that redeems debased words "to give back those old whores their virginity." As Solway writes, "it is possible [in our poetry] to speak candidly, engage the reader directly and at the same time lace up a poem with consummate flair and assurance, using a lightly handled complexity of means to render and evoke the most intimate and powerful of human experiences."...
After World War II, the samurai were disbanded. A new type of warrior evolved: those who wanted modernization and industrialization. David Solway's poetics and poetry declare his allegiance to the modern development of a literary tradition. It's a tradition that speaks clearly to its audience and tries to respect the reader's investment of time and effort by being anything but trivial. In the "provoking belligerence" of the essays in Director's Cut, and the patient and deliberate course of Franklin's Passage, lie a commitment to precise language, an elegance of thought, and a resistance to abandoning "technical means." Solway is always ready to confess his faith in "the tradition of forms, themes, principles and hieratic dispositions" that nevertheless manages to speak to its own time in a thoroughly contemporary voice.

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