The Vernacular Muse:
The Eye & Ear in Contemporary Literature

by Dennis Cooley,
ISBN: 0888011245

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Dancing Feet
by Phil Hall

IS IS the best book of criticism I've read since Twentieth Century Pleasures by the poet/critic Robert Haas. I purposely mention an American tide because one of the reasons for my admiration of Cooley's criticism is that it is not blinkered by nationalism's petty, frayng harness. Though its focus is region based, it is not "regional" in the sense of being defiantly unworldly. Though some of the essays argue for a certain verbal prairie ness, they are not "provincial" but eclectically sweeping. (So, for instance, I am thrilled to see an essay about Robert Duncan, the American poet, among essays about Sinclair Ross and Michael Ondaatje ....)

For antecedents of comparable worth in Canada, I can think of only Margaret Atwood's Survival, Inside job by Tom Wayman, the various critical writings of George Woodcock, Frank Davey, Rick Salutin, and most recently, the feminist criticism coming out of the Tesseracts/Women & Words groupings.

Cooley writes extremely lively, poetic, critical prose. It jumps the way some of his subjects jump: in arguing for the vernacular muse, he lets the muse enter him, lets it speak on its own behalf. "Be half play full / half fighting serious," it says, and he lets it, lets it be that way, lets his argument move like a Robert Kroetsch poem. And this is done without any loss of seriousness, direction or scope.

I don't agree when he equates declarative, straightforward styles with the traditional forms that limit us. (Is writing "Verna/ (my sister) / cular / call her / why don't I?" more liberatingly poetic than, say "Vernacular/ always makes me think of my sister / Verna"?

But when he calls for:
A radical de centering. Away a way from
the poet as prophet. No more metaphor moses...
the migration of authority from author to reader
The end of the poem as
Private Property
a new democracy of grammar

Well, then I start waving the book at my partner and shouting because I hear in these phrases the unity I want to believe exists between social change and syntax. I thrust the book's cover under poor Jane's nose and have her read what Aritha van Herk calls these essays: "a liberation theology for the acts of poetry and criticism."

Then I call up one of my friends and describe to him Cooley's 16 ways of breaking a fine. These include "Marianne Mooring," "word play," "the bardic or oracular fine," and "syntactical ambiguity." My friend and I agree that it would have been great to have these fine possibilities explained to us in this way when we were younger. All that Ogden Nashing of teeth over fines that stank of closure...

There is also in this collection a very intelligent, subtle study of Dorothy Livesay's political poetry the first extensive one I've seen. Beginning with Livesay's lyrical tendencies as illustrated by the early, beautiful "Green Rain," Cooley proceeds to show the merits of the later political poems like "Day and Night." Without bandwagoning his support, he shows how Livesay's work in the '30s and '40s developed from "gratifying personal memories" to "the madness of urban economic life." He then shows why we mistrust collective pronouns ("we") but just love to pieces the old "I." The implications of this preference are obvious for political poems that strive to coordinate rather than privatize experience. (Keats: "We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us.")

Anyway, obviously I think this book is a winner, a teacher, a singer, and dancer. It diagrams the patterns of our breath on paper, thus adding to our (Cooley's pun, not mine) "potential."


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