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Dear Editor,

Those who contend that poetry is a moribund art form are not rebuffed by the popular success of Christian B¸k's Eunoia. For what they are referring to more specifically is lyric poetry, "a verbal device that will preserve and reproduce any feeling or set of feelings indefinitely," in Philip Larkin's pithy definition. And as Carmine Starnino rightly points out (and B¸k I'm sure would agree), Eunoia's single-vowel spills and thrills do nothing to restore this derelict medium. He doesn't win where his contemporaries lose, but plays a different game, substituting for his peers' fake sincerity or, what amounts to the same thing, sincere sincerity inadequately rendered (which wily readers wisely shun), not the sincere sincerity effectively rendered of a Craig Arnold or a Mary Jo Salter, but the quicker goal of merely honest lies¨-poems that do not deceive only because they do not profess to do otherwise. His success owes to the fact that it is easier to fake feeling than technique: for the outside dabbler afraid of being duped, B¸k is the safe bet. But this does nothing to alter the fact that his sentences are no more a lyric poem than Frankenstein is a man. He gives us Joe Satriani's guitar-wizard geekery, not the spooky greatness of "Strawberry Fields."

But as others have noticed before me, it might be worth asking whether B¸k even succeeds as the highbrow, experimental artist he professes to be. Picasso said, "You do something first then someone else comes along and does it pretty." B¸k's chart topper status exposes him as the avant-garde's Elvis, not its Howlin' Wolf.

Pino Coluccio,


Dear Editor,

Carmine Starnino's review of Christian B¸k's Eunoia (June/July) somewhat misses the mark.

For starters, it is not so much a review of Eunoia as a critique of Oulipo. Instead of evaluating a work of art (Eunoia) according to the standards most appropriate to it (the Oulipian), Mr. Starnino evaluates a system of standards (the Oulipian) by means of a competing system (the lyrical realist), citing Eunoia and a sonnet by David Solway as evidence for his case. He complains of Oulipo that its tenets generate diversionary but unmemorable verbal hijinks devoid of emotional vigour, intellectual force, and profundity, and that for these reasons its products fail to qualify as poetry properly speaking. But whereas various competing standards exist by which one may evaluate works of art, standards by which one may in turn evaluate these standards are notoriously absent, or arbitrary: to fault Eunoia (or all of Oulipo) for lacking profundity is to fault a Chinese restaurant for lacking fish and chips.

Moreover, to call B¸k's toil pointless and his productivity empty is simply false. For if nothing else Eunoia's sentences¨as well put together as a Porsche 911 even without their univocalic gimmickry, but for their dogged parallelism alone¨make nice noises (as the reviewer himself acknowledges). And this, even according to Mr. Starnino's own lyrical realist standards, does count for something after all.

Too much emphasis on truth leads to the absurd conclusion that Alan Greenspan is a better poet than B¸k and Solway both. Poetry's primary resource is pleasure, and all can agree that B¸k's book supplies it in abundance.

What I find most interesting about l'affaire B¸k, however, has nothing to do with poetry or poetics, but is more a matter of sociology, namely, his bestseller status. I've admired B¸k from his Crystallography days and still remember the excitement I felt on first hearing him read from Eunoia some years ago at a bar in Toronto (the Rex I think it was) when I belatedly grasped its conceit. But I never expected to find myself qua fan among 9000 others (and what is parting with twenty bucks to pick up a copy but the loudest form of cheering?). As a friend has pointed out, Eunoia's current ubiquity somewhat undermines its highbrow pretensions. But B¸k himself would, I suspect, label Eunoia stridently pomo, not modern, and reviewers would do well dub him the "Seinfeld of Poetry," not the failed continuator of Eliot.

What are Canadians telling their poets by buying B¸k's Eunoia (in both the "purchasing" and "accepting" senses of that verb)? And should Canadian poets care? What does Eunoia's success foreshadow for lyrical realism and poetry in general? It is my hope that official verse culture will gird itself and address these questions soon.

Raphael Tisserand,

New York

Dear Editor,

(Carmine Starnino replies to Raphael Tisserand)

Raphael Tisserand suggests that I should have reviewed Eunoia according "to the standards most appropriate to it." To an extent, I agree. After all, it would have been injudicious of me to try to fathom a book like Eunoia without first sounding out the body of thinking that sponsored the collection. But what happens, however, if you realize that those sponsoring theories¨those specific "standards"¨are flawed? One of the assumptions underwriting Oulipo, for example, is that there exists a canonical kinship between word games and literature. Queneau believed that recreational forms of linguistic activity were as valid an expression of literary impulse as more orthodox forms, and insisted that sonnets belonged to the same category as "les mots croises." Seen through Oulipian eyes, this makes perfect sense since all forms of writing, by virtue of the most basic constraints of genre and grammer, are word games. But once I step away from that lens, I'm compelled to disagree. And I'm compelled to disagree not because the work involved in erecting a crossword is negligible (it isn't) or because the crossword isn't an act of the imagination (it is), but because crosswords, unlike sonnets, have proven to have a poor ability to organize our emotions into an apt verbal correlative.

Mr. Tisserand will of course complain that I'm doing it again: using one set of standards to judge another set of standards. But criticism that seeks out the principles that best flatter a work of art is criticism that forgoes its authority and becomes a form of collusion. As The New Criterion's John Simon has argued, "It would be a sorry state of affairs in which, say, books on religion could be reviewed only by true believers." My point is that if judged by Oulipian standards, B¸k is a genius. But there's the rub: by Oulipian standards. Yes, Eunoia's "nice noises" are, well, nice. But certainly I am within my rights to demand that a poet's verse do more¨especially if its party-platform pledge is to enrich the modus operandi of modern writing. And there's nothing in Oulipo's bag of trick-truisms that permits me to properly judge the "less" that Eunoia contents itself with. Oulipo, don't forget, is a literary movement, and like any movement it schools its own category of certitudes. So while I have no problem studying a work from inside its respective creative domain (indeed I consider it my duty), does Mr. Tisserand seriously expect me to adopt a propagandic perspective that would hinder me from applying my suspicions?

B¸k has often written about the need to create new, innovative forms that can serve the present as effectively as the old forms served the past. But what I tried to show in my review was that, far from new, B¸k's univocalic ambitions were thoroughly plotted by those who charted the Oulipian course forty years ago. Moreover, where exactly is the innovation? I mean "official verse culture" has cherished constraints for 600 years: constraints of vocabulary, of syntax, of syllable, of diction, not to mention the often considerable constraints of standard versification and fixed forms. Rhyme, Dryden argued, "reins in the luxuriance of the imagination and gives it government." Assuming, of course, it is used with taste and true semantic flair, since rhyme is a function of meaning production. And apart from its terza rima, Dante's The Divine Comedy is structured around a highly complex Trinitarian numerology. Mr. Tisserand may by excited by its bestseller status, but Eunoia's success "foreshadows" very little¨except maybe a future in which literary tastes will run toward the pathologically eccentric. Two last points. The Greenspan example flows from Tisserand's premises, not mine, so I see no point in responding to it. And I'm not sure why Mr. Tisserand would want us to call B¸k the "Seinfeld of Poetry" since the comedian in question found fame by creating a sitcom that was, uh, about nothing.

Carmine Starnino,

Montreal, Quebec

Dear Editor,

May I congratulate you on the wonderful job you have done with a revived and revitalized Books in Canada. The scope and variety of the magazine along with the consistently high quality of the writing render it unique among Canadian literary journals. My only cavil is with the proofreading, which needs to be improved if Books in Canada is to assume its place as the best of its kind in the country. For example, some issues back an article by David Solway on Milton Acorn seemed to be attributed to Richard Lemm, whose book on Acorn Solway was considering. In the last issue, an editorial comment was mistakenly interpolated into Eric Ormsby/s superb review of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a most unfortunate distraction. And there have been a number of such troubling typos over the last year.

It is because Books in Canada adheres to such a high standard that I bring up this matter. Owing to its growing stature, it needs to be as near letter perfect as possible.

John Stockland,


Dear Mr. Stockland,

You've every right to point out the unfortunate errors in previous issues and to expect that such errors not occur. Please accept my apology as well as my thanks for the spirit with which your letter is written. I appreciate that you'd like to see our magazine put out at the highest professional level. Certainly, I'd like that too. No doubt an additional set of eyes, assisting at the proof reading stage, would make a qualitative difference. We are working to rectify this situation.

Thank you once more for taking the time to write as well as for your kind encouragement.

Olga Stein,


Dear Editor,

To Carmine Starnino's insightful review of Christian B¸k's Eunoia I wish to add the following remarks. The deficiencies of the lipogram become apparent by analogy with games. All games are governed by rules. Games without rules are not games but horseplay or what people of a certain age call shenanigans. The more play is governed by rules¨ritualized and codified¨the more it becomes a game.

To a point however. Play that is too strictly regulated loses its very playfulness, by which we mean the dips and twists that slip past the rules, or at least past a weaker player's conception of the rules, and result in delight. However numerous the rules that govern a game, the game must remain playful or it ceases to keep our interest.

Take chess and tic-tac-toe. Most would agree that chess, "the game of kings", is more fun than tic-tac-toe, which seldom survives childhood unless ironically. Which has the stricter rules? Chess is played on sixty-four squares, tic-tac-toe on nine. In chess there are pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, a king and a queen. In tic-tac-toe only x's and o's. Frequent exceptions soften the rules of chess: the pawn may move only forward¨except when attacking. It may move only one square at a time-except on its first move. No such exceptions are present in tic-tac-toe. Clearly therefore, tic-tac-toe has the stricter rules. For this very reason, it is more easily mastered¨it is harder to make moves that sneak past a weaker player's grasp of how to play. In other words, it allows for less playfulness. Once we've learned it, we find it boring and take up something else.

Traditional poetic forms (including the hardest of them all-free verse) are like chess. Lipograms are like tic-tac-toe.

Clive Staples,


Dear Editor,

I enjoyed "Vowel Movements" for its delightful title, articulate discussion of Eunoia, the arguments to distinguish between art and craft, the point that "a constraint should never be appreciated as an object of artistry in its own right," and the idea that a poetic form is pointless and empty without an "instinctive force." Your assertion that "B¸k's ingenuity banalizes itself with every new sentence" is, I think, the crux of the matter. And I would ask why someone of his obvious ingenuity should choose to spend seven years on such masochistic infliction. (Or is that affliction?)

While you (quite rightly) hold his work up to careful scrutiny and suggest that it falls short of being poetry, at the same time you give him respectful credit as a brilliant artisan. A fair assessment and a great pleasure to read (& re-read).

Yours sincerely,

Lynda Grace Philippsen,

Dear Editor,

Although Solway is eloquent, he makes it sound as though black people have been preventing white people from writing black stories. Quite the opposite is true, of course: White people have always controlled the perception of black people- in images and especially in print- and the real reason people like Solway are complaining is because black people are finally beginning to assert themselves, to carve space for themselves and their stories, which Mr. Solway immediately translates into meaning less space for him. And that's unfortunate.

Donna Nurse, Toronto

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