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The Book of Canadian Poetry
by David Solway

Matsuo Basho wrote in a haibun journal, The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel: "It is easy enough to say, for example, that such and such a day was rainy in the morning but fine in the afternoon, that there was a pine tree at such and such a place, or that the name of the river at a certain place was such and such, for these things are what everybody says in their diaries, although in fact they are not even worth mentioning unless there are fresh and arresting elements in them" (italics mine). And these elements are both visionary and phrasal in nature: insight into experience modulated in words both gritty and radiant, carnal and transfiguring, exact and evocative, words we do not easily forget.
Such is precisely what is lacking in the bulk of the poetry being written in this country today. According to Davis McCombs, formerly a reader at Poetry (Chicago), the central plot of the contemporary poem may be described as: "Here I am, looking out my kitchen window, and I am important." Anyone who enjoys the silliness, prosiness, preciosity or special pleading we meet in this kind of work, whether out of masochism or dementia, need only consult almost any Canadian periodical, literary feuilleton or volume of poetry. What will be found there is mainly page-turning material, not because it carries us away but because it prompts at least certain readers of a caustic persuasion to put it behind them as quickly as possible.
Both a passion for language and, as a prerequisite, having something relatively important to say or do in it have pretty well gone missing from contemporary Canadian verse. Such work appears to have invested in the mere recitation of the datum in more or less commonplace diction rather than in the stock of vivid and significant experience¨whether of the world or of the poem which qualifies and enters it¨rendered in crafted utterance. Making the right sort of linkage between the poem and the world¨that of reciprocal renewal¨depends on a hospitality for the unanticipated, the spirit of surprise which a good poem summons into existence. The trouble is that one does not find in the poems our poets customarily offer to their limited audience very much in the way of the verbally exotic or metaphorically imaginative, like the handful of bones salvaged from the eleven thousand martyred virgins of Cologne, wrapped in red sendal, that once nestled in the gilded cross of St. Paul's. Nor are they long on substance, whether that is recognized as new and unprecedented or as a reaffirmation of something we perhaps once knew but may have forgotten, dismissed or neglected. And yet the high probability that these poems possess little of value or permanence has not deterred our poets from flooding the market with their products or our reviewers from colluding in the process of vetting the ephemeral.
An easily observable casualty of our time and place is the capacity to judge and discriminate, to be able to tell the difference between something built to last and something built to be sold, between quality and simulacrum, and¨with particular respect to poetry¨between a lapidary phrase and a threadbare truism. Andoran poet Narian Morgenstaat put it well in an essay on modern poetry entitled The Age of Empowerment in which he lamented the eclipse of the grammatical comparative and its replacement by the new category of "axiological non-differentiation." "Not only can we no longer tell what is good from what is better," he writes, "but the good and the bad have themselves become indistinguishable. Witness the popular expression: 'it's all good'." In Canada the situation is even more desperate as the reading public (such as it is) has evidently joined the "intellectuals" in the new cultural game of lowering-the-bar. We don't excel at the high-jump but are doing very well at limbo. This turns out to be a godsend for the institution of Canadian poetry which might otherwise vanish instantly from sight.
A related issue would be the extent to which the reviews have influenced the poetry, so that poets find themselves unconsciously disposed or half-consciously nudged to write according to prior blueprint furnished by the commentators. I strongly suspect that such is indeed the case, at least to the degree in which poets are confirmed in their habitual practice by the unreflected approval which usually greets their work. Whether this involves the sort of mutual diddling that B.R. Myers condemns in A Reader's Manifesto is a question I'll return to later.
I have, as I write, several Canadian literary journals, prefaces and Book Pages open at random before me, in which I note little but unfounded adulation and the usual lack of discrimination. Here, for example, is Marlene Cookshaw, extravagantly praised for "enter[ing] the voice of bees," as in
We're not lost though, watch us
circle the new hiveÓ

and for "writing in the voice of a duck who tries to make sense of the loss of her mate," as in
The leaves opened my breath. The sun
went back to being above the treesÓ

A very sensitive duck, admittedly. (A reincarnation of A.J.M. Smith's famous Canadian duck who "calls/to her mate" in "The Lonely Land" or possibly A.F. Moritz's sequacious duck from¨what else¨"The Ducks"?) Double Somersaults, from which these lines are excerpted, is a standard Victorian effort in the well-worn and adiabatic usage we are becoming accustomed to, presaging the more recent Shameless. From the point of view of technique and signature, I really can't tell the difference between them. Her future is assured.
Then there is Don McKay, a competent practitioner comparatively speaking, but one haplessly given to a kind of Jar Jar Binx chattiness, who is lauded for "language enacting its sense on a high order," as in
When I comprehend the tragicomic
turns and nude scenes of their long
romance it's going to explain
plentyÓ

and in
What goes up
improvises, makes itself a shelf out of nowtÓ

(The dated Northern English dialect "nowt" isn't bad and maybe even cute, but why?) The reviewer subsequently directs us to¨and here I must quote¨"Lowell's 'I myself am hell'"¨forgetting that the phrase is not Lowell's but Milton's Satan's [Paradise Lost, Bk. IV, l. 75] and, for that matter, is the sepulchral echo of Marlowe's Faustus and Edward II¨in order to explain, somewhat mysteriously, why in McKay's Another Gravity the reader "won't immediately find the naked, plangent notes they're used to." Plangent?
Next, Patricia Young, with eight volumes in sixteen years, dreams of making love with a dog, an act which the reviewer, rehabilitating its apparent ordinariness, fits into Young's "sense of a larger ecology within which she and her family have been growing older," and goes on to quote appreciatively lines from other poems, such as
ÓI grew hair, lungs, even a heart.
Everything needed to pass for human
But my vegetable nature never leftÓ

or
By then we were sitting on the verandah, stupid
with sun and heat, lemon gelato melting in our
mouthsÓ

This, we are encouraged to believe, is poetry.
Follows Robert Kroetsch being stroked for his never-ending story, the new Completed Field Notes, which keeps expanding like a waistline, and where without even having to look very hard we can discover a trove of such ornaments as "I can no longer keep a journal. My life erases everything I write." Were it only so. A question occurs to the reviewer in the midst of his genuflections: will the Completed Field Notes in fact remain incomplete and ongoing? The reviewer comments favourably, "A joke is being told, somewhere," but I reckon the joke is on us. As Kroetsch writes, "The violation begins with the naming."
Next, I find Christian B¸k puffing Jenny Boully's stuntlike concept book, The Body, an invisible body, be it said¨nary a poem to be found¨teetering precariously on stilted footnotes. B¸k's own Eunoia, which would have made an interesting children's book had it been suitably abridged and come with pictures, is granitized in the same journal. Between B¸k and Boully falls the shadow.
And here comes Sonnet L'AbbT, herself a recognized poet, enucleating a chunk of M. NorbeSe Philip's perfectly illogical "Discourse on the Logic of Language", which reads in part:
I have no mother
tongue
no mother to tongue
no tongue to mother
to mother
tongue
meÓ
dub-tongued
damn dumb
tongue
but I have
a dumb tongue
tongue dumbÓ

"I pick dis poem cause it work different from da way y'all might expect," L'AbbT begins her explication de texte, "She wan you tuh tink aboutÓwhat kina English she got tuh talk before anyone lissenup." L'AbbT appears not to know Guyanan-born poet Grace Nichols' lovely poem that reads in part:
I have crossed an ocean
I have lost my tongue
From the root of my old one
A new one has sprung.

In any event, despite Philip's rejection of standard English ("English isÓnot a mother tongue") and a subsequent unmotivated reversal ("and english is/my mother tongue"), L'AbbT, who publishes with powerful and authoritative mainstream presses like McClelland and Stewart, seemingly has no problem justifying either the poem or her own practice: "the line between dem who say dey speak 'correct' English an dem who use any odder kina English is just da line between people wit authority¨dat is, wit power¨an people widdout." And again: "Dub-poetry often dismisst as too sing-song, too unsophisticated by da folk who got real authority, who get to pick what go in a book like Best of the Best American Poetry, fuh example." L'AbbT concludes that "Dis a brave poemÓIt like da blues, shoutin out bout powerlessness an pain, over an over." Reader, she is serious!
At least Esta Spalding is effortlessly scannable: "Lover of the world, taste the world in its going" makes a good deal of plain sense even though, as in most of The Wife's Account, the language is so flat it might have been invented by Edwin A. Abbott. But how are we expected to react to Ken Babstock's overpricing of such unrevivable lines? Can they really be described as suggesting "a rare loyalty to the mysteries of presence" or as "a summation, a sharing of suffering"? Are we living in the same world? Is there an agenda at work here?
And what are we to make of a literary mishap like Susan Musgrave being lauded by Sean Virgo as the author of "the most original work of our time" (along with many other apodictic inanities)? For both Musgrave's and Virgo's sakes, I will refrain from further comment.
Now comes Erin MourT who extols Lisa Robertson for Debbie: An Epic, an indecipherable performance in which, we are told, "feminism twangs Virgil's harp¨with disjuncts of language poetry" and which is then equated with the work of Dryden and Pope. (MourT forgets Pope's remark in the Peri Bathous that "obscurity bestows a cast of the wonderful, and throws an oracular dignity upon a piece which has no meaning.") The passage quoted is one long, syntactically mutilated sentence¨a Ron Silliman "New Sentence" par excellence¨ in which Robertson contemplates the

Óinsuperable depth
pendant in this water's green silence
as orchards explain orchards or those un
nameables made ash in the slurred twofold
heat shall as catapults of lust as dull
press of the heart's grand distanceÓ

(Robertson has just stunned the poetry loving world with a brand new sequence entitled The Men where we encounter hundreds of sparkling passages like
Sweet and men of mercy men such making men said
Has each man that sees it
Cry as men to the men sensate
Conceptual recognition the menÓ

prompting the few dissenters still around to wonder whether this is the kind of poetry that can appeal only to a jaded community of consenting adults with a taste for kinky extremities or is the unhappy consequence of a textus mutilatus.)
MourT then goes on in another text to shill Norma Cole's curiously maundy performance in Condition Maritimes ("Contrafact"),
I wash my feet
before going to bed
contrafact: one complete thought,

explicating as follows: "If the 'contrafact' is one complete thought, so the poem's 'fact' is perhaps: several and beckoning." Go figure!
MourT herself is touted for her Pessoa adaptation/ translation¨it is never clear which¨Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person, by David Helwig who seems to think that the now overworked word in the area of Pessoa scholarship, "heteronyms", is actually of MourT's own devising or application. At least one acceptation of "seems to think" is the operative phrase here.
It gets even better. Paolo da Costa, reviewing Patrick Lane's The Bare Plum of Winter Rain, affirms that Lane belongs in the company of poets such as Szymborska, Amichai and de Andrade. His poems apparently achieve "an assured and crystalline lucidity that satiates the thirst for insight and revelation" and instruct us in "all we can ever hope to understand about the beauty of human existence." As if that were not enough, we are told that this is a book whose words "percolate from the heart through a vein seemingly reaching the gist of life." The reviewer's credentials are perhaps modestly compromised by the fact that he twice lops the title of the book, which he designates as The Bare Plum of Winter, and by his defective knowledge of human anatomy, since veins convey blood to and not from the heart, but in this unhappiness he is manifestly outdone by his subject.
For a perusal of the book brings a curious kind of lucidity into our lives, considering the gems of phrasing, insight and revelation which regale us there. We are duly informed, for example, that the most beautiful women are those who don't know they're beautiful, that on the night of the poet's conception he wasn't there, that "the gesture we make with nothing" is "rare," that the poet is somehow able to nail his father's hand and arm to the planks of his eyes, that there are days when he overflows with love, that the darkness is always present, that quicksilver is sluggish, that it really hurts to be water, and that, among many other astonishing things we clearly need to know, he scrupulously "wipe[s] clean the cock and ass of me" while sitting on the throne reading the poets with "the smell of piss and shit rising around you." (The echo with the psalmist's "Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising" is doubtlessly coincidental.) The Afterword elucidates for the reader's enlightenment the source of the poet's fecund muse as we discover there that his mother "read poetry to me in her womb," a truly remarkable feat of maternal convolution.
Finally, in the last item now on my desk from the literary page of a national newspaper, Lynn Crosbie stresses Dionne Brand's "stunning facility with the lyric," adducing as evidence the rather gimpy line "She is elsewhere, by a river, the Rio Cobre, pitching stones"; Meg Walker favourably quotes Lorna Crozier's description of light's "golden spittle," invoking an unintended reciprocation; and Judith Fitzgerald praises Anne Carson's translation of Sappho, If Not, Winter, for its "chimerical freshness" when she probably means "mercurial"¨but I won't dwell any further on such blush-inducing solecisms.
What is truly "stunning" about all this is the mix of critical incompetence and programmatic flattery concerning an equally "stunning" lack of poetic accomplishment. For despite our reviewers' inclination to behave like Ecstasy-saturated ravers, these are poems in which nothing much happens, poems that provide us mainly with a host of absurd or trivial subjects devoid of metaphorical convection and recorded in language straight out of the Globe and Mail or the Montreal Gazette. (Even the so-called experimental verse of poets like Robertson addresses prosaic subjects negotiated in a perfectly uneventful diction. The presumed novelty resides almost wholly in bad grammar and mangled syntax.)
"Poor language," says Finnish poet Bo Carpelan, "means poor experience." I have no doubt that lexical debasement¨which, as Carpelan claims, goes hand in hand with thematic anorexia¨is the incontrovertible fact of contemporary poetry, of which the Canadian variant of the strain is no exception and perhaps the prime exhibit. As with certain small local vintages, you can taste the Ontario or the Okanagan in it. It is conceivable, of course, that an interesting poem may negotiate its themes without metaphorical brio, as in the later Wallace Stevens, or that a slight subject may occasionally serve as a pretext for the play of imagination, as in much of Swinburne or Carroll, but nothing worthy of readerly attention is possible without verbal spryness and vigour. Unfortunately, the words we read in the majority of today's poems are words without weight or resonance or acoustic and memorial presence, words as indistinct as a printing mackle or an airport PA system.
Indeed, I suspect that it is almost impossible to hear these poems inwardly, which is an unmistakable symptom of their inauthenticity. For as Charles Bruce said in the epigraph to the title poem of The Mulgrave Road, "Poetry must be written for the ear, but surely it is for the inner ear of a reader¨the art of silent sound." To put this in more general terms, I am beginning to suspect that our vaunted literacy among all segments of the literary community is becoming increasingly infected by an odd species of illiteracy, an unwillingness or inability to value and appraise the density, "feel," musicality and semantic reverberations of the tangible word or phrase. The poetry we are now getting is by and large a poetry that has not undergone the penitential exercise of thought and appraisal, a poetry which has not submitted to the prior rite of revisionary exorcism and has therefore failed to distill the objects of its attention into a sensory, redemptive language in which its resident symbols can move, augment, echo, transform and prosper. It reads like a poetry that has managed to come to an arrangement with the age, buying publication at the cost of formal structure, linguistic virtuosity, symbolic resonance and significant content¨all that makes poetry poetry.
How to account for this ongoing lexical and thematic prolapsus in the work of so many of our poets? Perhaps, as I have suggested, they are not entirely to blame for the adulterated condition of their art: taking the line of least resistance, they are only doing what they have been permitted to do. Review-driven and audience-preapproved from the word go, they tend to write an over-earnest, garrulous, confessional, fact-oriented, hackneyed and verbally timorous poetry calculated to tax, accost or provoke no one, much like Pope's clerks in The Dunciad who "in one lazy tone/Through the long, heavy, painful page drawl on." Yet for all their heavy-handedness, there is something disturbingly lightweight about these productions. Certainly there is little we might recognize as technical and lexical adroitness in the service of some larger meaning, none of the built-in gimbals and portolanos to help readers chart a poem's journey to a real destination. The appeal is primarily to a caste of critics, editors, fellow travelers and other poets, all sharing in the proceeds of a benign and copacetic partnership.
And that's the catch. Just as one year's jurors in our literary competitons will invariably resurface as another year's applicants, so today's reviewers are often tomorrow's poets and vice versa. (Similarly, B.R. Myers impeaches American fiction reviewers for looking chiefly after their own interests in the risky exchange of mutual assaying.) It all smacks of unspoken complicity. Thus, even those reviewers who are not themselves practising poets tend to regard themselves as having a stake in defending what is, after all, only the illusion of poetic vitality¨their job is to nourish, protect and expand a national literature lest it succumb to the devastating demands of quality. Generally speaking, our poets are not spurred by the passionate desire to write excellent verse, which takes time, labour, unsparing self-criticism, and a rigorous culling process applied to both the poems and the poets themselves. Quite the contrary. They are actuated by the need to overproduce despite the value-deficits this entails mainly in order to keep the game going, which is why so few of them are like to the Larkin at break of day arising. And this over-production is to a great extent explained by the relation of complementary incentive that holds between poets and reviewers, dealers and pones, who may be said to take their cue from one another¨even when they are not preparing to trade places the next time around.
From the standpoint of the "common reader,"however the central question is this. Apart from the cohort of immediate beneficiaries, who really cares? Why do we need to know the things these poets see fit to tell us, which are either already sounding brass or little private riffs and confessions whose phrasing and content illumine precious little in our own lives? What makes this stuff poetry and what species of privileged insistence could possibly have motivated the poet to assume the world would be interested in the first place¨unless he or she is counting on a sympathetic group of reviewers and a small but salient audience of preconditioned readers? Where is the artisanship cinched to thematic significance that makes us stop and look again with amazement, that is, with the right kind of incredulity? Not here, I'm afraid. It may still be found in the sparse handful of admirable poets improbably remaining to us who fashion their work responsibly and with an ear attuned to the music of the language, writing "solitary reaper" poems about which we can say with Wordsworth¨
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more¨

but, regrettably, echoes eventually die out or are not registered at all if the passerby is hard of hearing.
The poet would need to project an ideal audience of¨as Milton said¨fit readers though few, an audience from which the current crop of predisposed readers and amenable reviewers have been excluded, in order to effect a long-deferred revolution in sensibility. But the pop-up book of Canadian poetry, little of it retainable and almost none of it urgent or compelling, seems with us for some considerable time to come. To cite Milton again¨and always keeping those few redeeming exceptions in mind¨one would like to ding the book a coits distance. ˛
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