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A Stroll Down a Short Street
by Carmine Starnino

I f one's love for a tradition can be measured by the fervency of one's participation in it, then I love Canadian poetry. The difficulty¨if not outright challenge¨in declaring my affection is that as a Canadian poet I belong to a confederacy that regards its official existence with a pride I can't, in good conscience, endorse. This is not simply to insist that the poems we routinely bat out are irrelevant and dispensable¨no, my protest is that by some collaborative ruse we've agreed to treat the existence of those blowsy poems as evidence of our ascendancy. Now I don't doubt that some of the material may have enough come-hither charisma to catch the eye of a graduate student or two in, say, Bologna, but the fact is that after two centuries of striving, and three decades after the first organized push in the 1970s to track down, encourage and anthologize representative poets, we have yet to serve up a single career able to guarantee worldwide attention for our verse. The question isn't where is out Yeats? But where is our Derek Walcott? Our Seamus Heaney? Our Les Murray? When one concedes the cold shoulder that greets our product internationally (Michael Schmidt, publisher of Manchester's Carcanet press, has gone on record with his scorn, dismissing Canadian poetry in his recent survey of English poetry, Lives of the Poets, as "a short street") then the basic tenet of our preening¨that we have brought into currency a tradition mature enough to comfortably compete with the major poetries of the English-speaking world¨invites a long, hard inspection.

During a lecture given in 1958, Earl Birney deplored the perception "that, though Canadian literature might indeed be something different from British or American, that difference lay in its peculiar badness" and declared that we were victims of "a widespread and fashionable cult of poetic judgment." That may be. And if we're an easy mark, it serves us right. Take a look at what's on permanent display in, for example, Margaret Atwood's Oxford Book of Canadian Poetry¨and I mean a good look¨and what you'll see is a body of verse staring back at you with all the boredom that comes from having been coddled in captivity rather than reared in the wild; what you'll see is that, in our effort to clear an imaginative space for ourselves, we've resisted the very afflatus a major poetry depends on for its legitimacy and authority; and, most importantly, what you'll see is that our practice of infantilizing ourselves, of shunning the very poets whose talent and seriousness sustain poetry-writing as an adult endeavor in this country, has hampered the international appreciation of our real achievements. In short, I'd argue we've turned out a picture of Canadian poetry¨vacuous, jejune, synthetic, bloodless, second-rate¨at odds with the thrillingly ambitious species actually stalking our shelves. And so I feel my dilemma acutely: how do I confess my gratitude for what is good in Canadian poetry (and what is good, dear reader, is of the first water) and still say what needs to be said, that our poetry is in a state of crisis?

Let me make clear at the outset that the villain isn't a superannuated academic system, nor a cadre of well-meaning but misguided critics; it isn't the faddish influence of some school, nor the baneful presence of overrated careers. These are threats, but as far as I'm concerned, the real foe¨the "idea" that actually seems to be running things¨is nothing more than an attitude towards language, a stance so habitual we no longer take notice of it. And here, of course, I'm talking about our instinctive preference for the frugal verb and the simple noun, a skittishness that has forced our imaginations to eke out their living at the subsistence level of language. The spare, the modest, the unembellished, the careful, the restrained, the quiet, the discreet, and the understated are notions that have passed so successfully into our poetic practice that Canadian poetry has¨like police thrillers, celebrity cookbooks, motivational guides, Hollywood memoirs, and romance novels¨become a specialized genre, one whose plain-speaking precepts have been franchised in every available outlet. It might be objected that this isn't unique to us, and that's true: English poetry all over the world has gone from believing in the lift of language to wincing at its ruckus. But each family is unhappy in its own way, and this is the story (as I see it) of how we have come to grief. If Joseph Brodsky can declare poetry to be humanity's anthropological destiny then Canadian poetry is possibly its evolutionary dead-end:

The explorers will come
in several minutes
and find this island.

(It is a stunted island,
rocky, with room
for only a few trees, a thin
layer of soil; hardly
bigger than a bed.
That is how
they've missed it
until now)
(Margaret Atwood, from "Explorers")

On the highway
near San Juan del Rio
we had to stop the car
for a funeral.

The whole town it was
a hundred people or
two hundred
walking slowly along the highway

toward the yellow domed church
on the top of the hill
and we pulled into the shade
of a shaggy tree.
(George Bowering, from "Esta Muy Caliente")

The cracked cedar bunkhouse
hangs behind me like a grey pueblo
in the sundown where I sit
to carve an elephant
from a hunk of brown soap
for the Indian boy who lives
in the village a mileback
in the bush.
(Patrick Lane, from "Elephants")

Even the dead reach for you
as you walk, so beautiful,
across the earth.

Their fingers turn to flowers
as they break through
the soil, touch the air.
(Lorna Crozier, from "Even the Dead")

How close you come
to innocence at this moment,
how close you come to emptiness.

Snow falls down
out of the cold sky.
It fills your narrowing hours.
(Susan Musgrave, from "Fishing On A Snowy Evening")

I'm a huge fan of the maxim that a poet's identifying presence should be instantly recognizable even in the smallest sample pruned from their oeuvre; that, as Hopkins wrote, "poetry must have, down to its least separable part, an individualizing touch." What, then, do the above parts (all separated from anthologized poems) tell us about the individualizing touches of poets who wrote them? Not much. In fact I defy anyone to scout out enough lilt and cadence in each example to be able to confidently distinguish one voice from another. A poem is, at root, the result of a poet's private, libidinous campaign to mate specific sounds and words. Yet the poets in each of the above examples have no aphrodisiac itch for those sorts of aural experiments. All of them have, instead, drawn from the same repertoire of plain-style inflections to produce similar brittle, no-energy utterances (utterances that, despite being snapped into lines, have obviously been deferred from their proper fate as prose). Five poets¨five of our "best"¨and only one voice among them. Of course, it does seem sinister of me to use such small excerpts to bully entire careers, but one really doesn't need to test much more. Take one of my favorite bits from Hopkins: "Father, what you buy me I like best." Merely eight words, yet Hopkins hasn't ghosted any of their syllables: the line has all the solidity, without losing any of the instressed spontaneity, of its sounds. Closer to home, here's part of a sonnet by Montreal poet Charlotte Hussey, written for her daughter, called "Sonnets for Zod," taken from her recent chapbook, The Head Will Continue to Sing: "Why was the ocean angry at us,?"
you ask, fingering the pebbled break
that punctures the sea wall. "Why?" you fuss.
A pocked slab, concrete flakes
and the powdery bone-smell of mishap
roughen thought: pitched by the sea,
big bad wolfing whitecaps
hurled rocks and winter debris.

I love the tidal surge of Hussey's phrasing. One reads "powdery bone-smell of mishap" and discovers how five words can free up enough room for a rhythm to churn in, or one reads "big bad wolfing whitecaps" and discovers how four words can create the necessary acoustics to bring an alliterative shout to foam-flecked life. But what's also at work in Hussey's lines is a roguish vigour that contemporary Canadian poetry, in its kittenish sensibility, has consistently shied away from. In his introduction to The Collected Poems of Yvon Winters, Donald Davie instructs us that "poems that attempt to go along with language, happily accepting the patterns that language throws up of its own accord...will always be missing precisely the tension that comes of the artificer bending his will against his medium, going against the grain of it." And this is precisely the failure that's exposed in the earlier sampler I put together. The displayed artifice is too weak to maintain an against-the-grain tension, and so, never confronted by any kind of real resolve, the language is falls back into a safe, purring complacency. Of course, many of us who should know better abet the misconception that allows readers to perceive that sort of faintheartedness as good poetry (live and let live, we now say) but when one of the consequences of the present circumstance is that Atwood, Bowering, Lane, Crozier and Musgrave are touted as important contemporary Canadian poets¨figures, that is, to model our music on¨then we have a problem.

I'm aware that to readers familiar with the scene it may seem I've been speaking in broad strokes. But I fear that if I hem and haw on too many of the issues the big point will get tactfully second-thoughted away, and it's the big point that's the priority here: that bred into the very bone of contemporary Canadian poetry is a deep skepticism of lyric license. The deliverance that we need¨will only come from those Canadian poets whose poems have arrived at the "exaggerating and exclusive faculty" that William Hazlitt defined as a condition of the art. "The principle of poetry," argued Hazlitt, "is a very anti-leveling principle. It aims at effect, it exists by contrast. It admits of no medium. It is everything by excess." The gist of this is that poetry does not extend safe passage to ordinary standards: poetry's rhythms are rhythms that, in their enthusiasm, always risk overstaying their welcome; poetry's felicities are felicities generated by the unforeseen surprise of overbidding on a word. But in a country where every rhetorical threat in a poem is sifted out by a meticulous timidity, the only question left to ask is what happens when that restraint is carried to its final debilitating conclusion. How much more hushed can our poems get? How much more astringent? How much more economical? Are we to wait until our modesty, self-effacement and unobtrusiveness make our verse diffident to the point of disappearance, as in George Bowering's "Against Description"?

I went to the blackberries
on the vine.

They were blackberries
on the vine.

They were


The implied subversiveness of this poem¨murdering its melodic life by choking to death the act of description couplet by couplet¨isn't a show of strength as much as a demonstration of Canadian poetry's reflexive revulsion of any boisterous intimacy between word and thing. I have no gripe against spare workmanship; my protest begins when the pursuit of artlessness becomes a pathology where one feverishly seeks the most inhibiting stylistic ingredients. I'm tired of all the propaganda about how far ordinary language¨language that, in the popular phrase, "does not call attention to itself"¨can carry us in our apprehension of the world. It seems to me that writing which surprises by a fine excess can quarterback a kind of expressiveness "ordinary language" can barely broach. (This is not to be confused with overwriting. Overwriting is writing that moves copiously forward but makes no progress, that squanders itself in wasteful imprecisions. What I mean is poetry that exceeds the basic register of the words it uses, that turns on each word's full acoustic properties.) Let's face facts. We are an industry that for three decades has subsidized its self-confidence by making enormous canonical investments in careers that have provided stinting pay-off in terms of accomplished, verbally charged, memorizable and rereadable work. We've become a verse culture of taciturnity, of half-utterances, of getting-the-job-done unfussiness. But any hope for a new scenario¨a scenario interesting enough for the world to take notice of¨will require us to recognize an essential truth: that a poet defines and authenticates his ardors through the freedom of his vocabulary, an idea delivered stirringly in Allen Curnow's challenge to his countrymen:

"We have the language, we have the tradition of the poetry of the language. That is an inheritance for which we did no work. Perhaps in 200 years a New Zealand poetry may be a recognized branch of the English stock. Now, however, there is only the indication that the time is here for work¨good, selfless work¨to conserve our portion of the language's energy, and to use it in building our own future."

I think this is handsomely put, and there are many in this country who have dedicated themselves to this "good, selfless work." Indeed, if the peril of the plain aesthetic (or the risk in not taking any risks) lies in its bias against decorum-breaching choices, then the satisfaction that poets like Elise Partridge, Stephanie Bolster, Don Coles, Tim Lilburn, Eric Ormsby, David Solway, Michael Harris, Richard Outram, Norm Sibum, Jeffrey Donaldson, Tim Bowling, Ricardo Sternberg, Ken Babstock, Bruce Taylor, Richard Sanger, John Steffler, and David O'Meara provide me is the satisfaction of poetry with the spunk to tease the reader's trust, to poke and prod it using approaches other poets might briefly consider but prudently decide against. In other words, I love the pungent taunt of their work, how their ambition triggers an answering fragrance in the writing, a special word-whiff that, for me, has always been part of the pleasure-principle of poetry. These poets speak out of a part of our poetic consciousness that many happily regard as defunct. ("In every work of genius," observes Emerson, "we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.") Or perhaps one can say that their sense of the diminishing possibilities in our poetry has forced their gifts to rise and meet the crisis. And really, how else can we, as Canadian poets, "conserve our portion of the language's energy" except by doing our part to keep language in a perpetual condition of forcefulness, volatility, bustle and arousal? ˛

Carmine Starnino is an associate editor at Books in Canada. This essay has been adapted from A Lover's Quarrel, a collection of essays on Canadian poetry forthcoming from Porcupine's Quill.


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