A Lover's Quarrel

by Carmine Starnino
ISBN: 0889842418

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A Review of: A LoverĘs Quarrel
by Asa Boxer

Opposition, we too often forget, is an important component of democratic fair play. William Blake went so far as to proclaim that "Opposition is true Friendship." The title of Montreal poet Carmine Starnino's book of selected essays and reviews, A Lover's Quarrel, bespeaks his desire to confront the establishment with serious dissent (for its own good, of course). Starnino takes such a hard line because he wants to provoke debate. In fact, he practically pleads for a rejoinder in his Introduction, and does so not to pursue a "scheme for victory", but in the hope that "a fair and open fight will produce, in one's opponent, some concession, some refinement, some modification." To be properly read, in other words, this collection of essays must be appreciated as a call to the roundtable.
The book kicks off with a title essay that broods over the problem of Canadian poetry's invisibility on the world stage, an investigation prompted by our conspicuously inconspicuous absence from a 1,300-page 1,600-poem book called World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity. Here's the premise of the piece in two sentences:

"So I'd like to begin this essay by wondering why this extraordinary book-a book that stretches from ancient Sumeria to the Bronze Age to the Ottoman Empire to translations from Sanskrit and medieval Russian, a book that spans Latin American and Native American poetry, a book that includes poetry from just about every country that has ever produced a poet, including India, Asia, Vietnam, Iceland and Finland, and a book that specializes in poets almost entirely unknown in the English-speaking world, such as the nineteenth century's Marceline Desbordes Valmore and Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli-did not have enough room to fit in a single Canadian poem? And, furthermore, why is it that no reviewer thought the absence worth mentioning?"

Starnino's best guess? Canadian poetry's rickety canon. The poets we've chosen to represent us are so worried about appearing properly "Canadian" in their attitude that their poems come off as contrived. As Starnino puts it, "poems are not creatively appraisable in terms of national identity or cultural philosophy; they are, instead, a phenomenon of language, and should be reckoned with accordingly." According to Starnino world-class Canadian poets-poets whose poems would be able to excite the international community-do exist, and he reckons that if we stop, take stock, and re-evaluate, a new, tightly bound, acid-free selection could very possibly put us on the map. But the only way we can begin to review and revise is by creating circumstances which enable writers and critics to debate the issues openly and earnestly. So far though, Canada has only (with the exception of Zach Wells in the Danforth Review and Joseph Sherman in the Montreal Gazette) responded to Starnino with a snark. Fraser Sutherland's review, in the Globe and Mail, stoops to an embarrassingly puerile ad hominem argument ("Starnino resembles nothing so much as an impressionable youth bedazzled by formalist filigree and Parnassian self-importance.") Harry Vendervlist's Quill and Quire review is fun while it lasts, but his skepticism is frustratingly void of any real point of view. And Jon Paul Fiorentino's verdict in his piece for Word is breathtakingly obnoxious. It must be lonely, I imagine, for one like Starnino to find none among his peers ready or willing to engage in a thoughtful, considerate, vigorous exchange. No one, it seems, is capable of meeting Starnino on his own ground. Why is this the case? First off, one would have to match his style. In the following quotation, Starnino debunks Canada's paranoia of colonial influences:

"Because to be a poet is to have poetry-all of it, from Clare to Hopkins to Hardy, from Housman to Stevens to Lowell-powerfully in one's memory: to use it as a word-hoard, an acoustic repertoire, a cache of lexicality one's imagination can dip into and draw on in new and unforeseen ways. The belief that we've been force-fed such a tradition by a colonial ideology, and that even the English we speak is an alien agency tyrannizing whole registers of Canadian experience, pushes the Canadian poet away from his only expressive resource and works against the possibility of his experiencing what Robert Pinsky has called a poet's good feeling about his art'."

Chew on it awhile; Starnino's style is all taste and sprezzatura. His explanations are so absolutely accessible and lucid that one cannot but give credit to the sharpness of his reasoning. His subtle way with distinctions is remarkable: "An influence exists," Starnino explains, "as a called-forth effect; it is born in contact with a mind, but has no existence as an independent intention. And this is precisely why it's wrong to treat evidence of indebtedness as evidence of living under enemy control." The precision of these two sentences, and Starnino's clear-headedness, is what sets him apart as a literary heavy-weight. This vigorous cogency is on display with each book and each poet under review, whether it's Christopher Dewdney, Richard Outram, Christian Bk, Charles Bruce (a fine discovery), Susan Musgrave, Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, A.M. Klein, or David McGimpsey. Pick any essay, and you'll find yourself face to face with a highly refined brand of logic with which there is just no arguing.
If there's no arguing, is Starnino being disingenuous-begging to argue, yet leaving no room for debate? Not quite! As he himself says about his reviews: "You can choose to refuse anything in them. Good reviewing, at any rate, doesn't demand consent, but provokes us to productive thought." I agree with the principle of launching a re-evaluation of the Canadian canon. I think it over-hopeful, however, to presume that anyone inside or outside Canada cares enough about the result. I agree with Starnino's complaint that one of the main problems with Canadian poetry is its obtuse preoccupation with its own reflection. Instead of actually feeling comfortable in Canadian gear, many of our poets have acquired the cloying habit of pointing uncomfortably to their toques. Yet I'm beginning to think that the provincial size of the country may be more responsible than anything else for perpetuating the myth that Canada is a country lacking in talent.. . .
The essays cannot be allowed to get away without a learnin'. If there is one missile to launch at A Lover's Quarrel, it's that it lacks the kind of unique and often farfetched-feeling concepts that can catch on and be easily carried into discussion. I'm thinking of stuff like Eugenio Montale's "the second life of art", or David Solway's "double-exile" theory about Montreal poets. Or, to quote one used by Starnino, F. R. Leavis's idea about reviews as the "Third Realm' or a place in which minds can meet'". Which brings me to my conclusion.
I hope that this review matches, in its sincerity, the impressive works that have unbottled it. The importance of Starnino's criticism and poetry is that it raises expectations, and by raising the expectations of the audience, you're likely to raise the performance-level of the players. There is no reason, for example, why poets should react over-sensitively to such sharp, sceptical crits. If a reviewer hasn't put in the effort and only comes up with humbugs, that, I understand, can be insulting. But when someone has taken the time to pull your work from the paper-swamp, actually probe it, and then write about it with a careful clarity that can only be the result of deep consideration, one's reaction should be, first, "thanks for the undivided attention!", and second, "thanks for the honesty." When we are mature enough to behave in this manner, and bright enough to recognise intelligent discourse, then perhaps we will have nurtured a community that can boast world-shaking artists like Yeats and Joyce. Until then, significant work like Starnino's, whether evidenced in his poetry or his criticism, deserves nothing less than our own undivided attention and honesty.

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