by L. Dudek,
ISBN: 1550650327

Multiple Exposures, Promised Lands:
Essays on Canadian Poetry & Fiction

by Tom Marshall,
240 pages,
ISBN: 1550820478

Post Your Opinion
The Value of Judgement
by Michael Darling

IN CANADA we have many poets who are also critics, but very few who have contributed as much to our culture as has Louis Dudek. Not solely an artist, but a champion of the arts, Dudek has functioned as art's interpreter, spokesperson, public-relations officer, promoter, agent, and cheer-leader. The central theme of his criticism, reinforced in his latest collection, Paradise: Essays on Myth, Art, and Reality, is an elaboration of one of his most striking epigrams: "Poetry is what is still possible. Reality is the experiment that failed."

Reality, for Dudek, is the fertile muck from which art emerges and which it seeks to transcend. But Paradise is elusive, and art - a human construct - is always imperfect. We never quite get to Paradise and even if we did, we probably wouldn't recognize it anyway. But the struggle is not rendered worthless by the impossibility of its success; rather, it is ennobled by the certainty of its failure, by the human limitations of the struggler. This is the essence of tragedy, and at the same time the impetus to art. As Dudek says, poetry cannot be prevented; it's "a natural urge ... like sex or appetite."

In "The Idea of Art," the keynote essay in this volume, Dudek looks at the contemporary world's disparagement of art and blames not just the agents of pop culture - the media and entertainment industries - but also those who ought to be art's firmest supporters, the critics and artists themselves. Dudek believes strongly - and unfashionably - in the exercise of critical judgement: "In medicine," he points out, "if you do not make value judgments the patient dies." He views contemporary critical theory as the enemy of literature, thus dissociating himself from the current academic approach, and he champions classical aesthetic ideals, such as the notion of a universal and timeless beauty to which all art aspires. Academics may find Dudek's ideas theoretically naive and politically unsound, but readers fed up with the cant and rant of theory will want to join him in a resounding "Yes" to the possibilities of art, even in our debased world.

When we get down to specifics, however, Dudek's rhetoric is not as convincing. The two Canadian poets he discusses in this volume are, I think, undeserving of the extravagant praise he affords them. Ken Norris is called "the most important poet writing on the North American continent today," while the late R. J. MacSween is said to have written poems that are "far more beautiful, more finished, than any other poet in Canada ... has written in this time."

Well ... no. Neither Norris nor MacSween exhibits the linguistic inventiveness or the technical mastery of a Klein, an Avison, a Gustafson, or a Page. It's plainly thematic parallels with Dudek's own poetry that have prompted his approbation, and blinded him to the formal imperfections of their verse.

But even when we disagree with Dudek -his lifelong hostility toward archetypal criticism, for instance, leads him into a less-than-charitable description of myth as the "bad dreams of the human psyche" -we must acknowledge him to be a worthy opponent. These are essays representative of a particular, some might say eccentric, point of view at this time and place, but argued with such passion and conviction that they are likely to endure and quite possibly to inspire.

This is not the case with the poetcritic Tom Marshall's Multiple Exposures, Promised Lands: Essays on Canadian Poetry and Fiction. While I rarely find myself in disagreement with what Marshall has to say, I can't see any justification for the publication of this collection of book reviews and previously printed essays on well-known Canadian writers.

Marshall does have the gift of honest self-assessment. "Few poets" he writes, "are original thinkers and even as a critic I am usually a synthesizer...." Perhaps it's as synthesizer, then, that he should be judged, and if so, it would be difficult to quarrel with his conventional approaches to Leacock, Callaghan, Richler, and Laurence. His survey of Canadian fiction, unscathed by the revolution in contemporary critical theory, would make an excellent contribution to an anthology of Canadian critical essays published in, let's say, 1973. Unfortunately, this book appears in 1993. Unfailingly polite, appreciative, and conservative, Marshall's essays effectively conceal his artistic sensibility behind a bland professorial persona; taking Dudek as his model would have produced a far more dynamic and significant book.


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