A Lover’s Quarrel

A LOVER’S QUARREL
By Carmine Starnino

A Lover’s Quarrel is an eloquent, opinionated response to Canada’s literary culture. What I mean by this is that as well as being a response to Canadian literature (or poetry, which is its main concern), it’s also a riff on the Canadian literary “scene”: its politics, mythologies, economics, and public face. As with many of the contrarian CanLitCrit books put out by that most prickly of small presses, Porcupine’s Quill, what Starnino is really concerned with is the question of reputation and reception. His targets are just as likely to be academics, critics, reviewers, and anthologists as poets.

There’s some justification for this. Literary criticism should be a self-regulating profession. While there’s no arguing with patterns of mass consumption – Stephen King, Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling – critics are expected to know better. Book reviewers are supposed to have standards. A sick, inverted literary culture – one that rewards mediocrity and ignores merit – can poison our national garden of verse. Bad poetry drives out good. Great poets need great critics. And every now and then the ground just has to be cleared. As Starnino puts it, it would be “criminal” not to “call the bluff” of celebrated charlatans, if only to avoid getting more of the poetry we have come to deserve.

Now non-Canadian readers, unfamiliar with the domestic drama Starnino is entering into with this book, might need a bit of a primer. So here goes:

There are two ways of looking at the Canadian literary scene. The first is the “Tallest Poppy” perspective. According to the Tallest Poppy people Canadians have a native distrust of anyone who tries to stand out from the crowd. We are great levelers, born and bred. Aside from the odd hockey player, we don’t like heroes. Pity the poor artist with aspirations. Of course if your talents lie in the way of music or film you can always go to Los Angeles to make it (many Canadians have taken this escape route), but what are poets to do? Their reputations have to be nurtured and supported, their work encouraged at home. And after all, what’s the point of being nasty anyway?

Others see these Tall Poppies as Sacred Cows. Their enemy is the CanLit “Establishment”, a somewhat conspiratorial network of cronies who have all the (public) money, media clout, and publishing power. They form a paradoxical elite of mediocrity. Of course the “talent elite” are on the outside, unknown, while praise and prestige are bestowed upon a herd of bovine bores. The Establishment is a clique of Sacred Cows, defending a tame aesthetic of dull, generic writing from a much-needed critical cull.

I should be up front and say that my sympathies tend to lie with the Sacred Cow school. Canada is a country of Establishments – political, business, cultural – and I’m sure some of the same habits are at work in the literary arena. (Indeed, the charge of cliquishness can, and occasionally has, been applied to many “outsider” voices of the anti-Establishment.) As for the power of the Family Compact, there is simply no other way to explain the continuing reputation of someone like Margaret Atwood, an author who has now been dead for at least 25 years. And since the subject here is Canadian poetry, we can find an even more striking indication that something very wrong is going on in the recent awards bestowed upon Roo Borson’s Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida. When I brought together a panel of independent judges to “jury” the 2004 Governor-General’s shortlist for poetry there was some consensus that Short Journey was the worst of the nominated books. I think we were all trying to be a bit diplomatic, but none of us liked it. And I really wanted to like it. I tried hard. But it was a very weak book of poetry – flat, obscure, and dull.

Not only did Borson’s book win the G-G., it also went on to also win the lavish Griffin Prize. And in both cases the juries were completely incapable of specifying what it was about Borson’s poetry that was supposed to be so good. You can blame it on the Establishment, networking, herd behaviour, or whatever, but there’s no excuse for this kind of shit being thrown at the winner of a prestigious literary prize:

These poems invite the reader to embark upon a contemplative journey full of imaginative encounters with death, love, beauty, creativity and the mystery of the physical world. This beautifully-crafted book is an organic whole that resonates on profound spiritual levels, juxtaposing the mundane with notions of transcendence.

 

 

To lose “North”, in some idioms, is to lose all direction. In her journey, Borson finds North. This is the work of a poet writing at the height of her powers. It is a poetic journal of mortality, of the “why be born?” and “do you still love poetry?”, of entering middle age, and of journeying through landscape, seasons, plants, pasts, to find it again. The book is a small perfection in its construction, moving deftly through seasons and forms: poetic prose for a garden of persimmons, haiku rising out of prose sequences for the autumn record, and the book’s fulcrum, the “Water Colour” poems, not haiku but poems that bear haiku’s arrested feeling and succinct observation. As for Basho, Borson’s mentor and poetic ancestor, setting off toward North – lost, loss, losing – is to find the journey itself and one’s own corporeality, out of grief and into the light of words.

The light of words. Oh yes. So, to conclude: If we’re talking about reception – who gets anthologized, who gets recognized, who wins awards, who gets praised in the media – there does seem to be a “disconnect.”

Which brings us back to Carmine Starnino, a man with some very clear ideas about what went wrong. As he points out, a lot of poets have at the back of their mind the Myth of a Fall, an event something like Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility”, after which everything started to go downhill. For Starnino things fell apart for Canadian poetry in the 1960s. Again, the Fall itself wasn’t a decline in poetry but the corruption of the literary environment that led to a decline in poetry. Here is what happened, and it’s worth quoting at length:

Controverting our doctrine of literary progress (i.e., the later the period, the richer the harvest) I’d suggest that the only real gain the subsequent generation [subsequent to the “mid-century superleague of Klein and Co.”] could claim for themselves was a savvier grasp of the market forces needed to confer value on Canadian poetry’s civic pieties. The conflagratory explosion in publishing that occurred during this time was touched off by a state-subsidized campaign to give our poetry a local habitation and name through sheer numbers. If we can trust the statistics given by the late critic George Woodcock, 1959 eked out only twenty-four books of English poetry, but the years of 1960 and 1973 were greeted by an extraordinary amount of editorial goodwill: close to 590 poets published over 1,100 books of verse. . . . The reason? Well, according to Woodcock all this activity “was assisted by a change in the infrastructure of the Canadian literary world, by the emergence of many more poet-edited magazines and poet-directed presses, which were largely encouraged and sustained by the opportune appearance of the Canada Council in 1957.” In other words, editors, critics, anthologists and publishers accelerated the process of accreditation in order to create an instant economy of young poets (and, along with that, an unearned sense of victory, one that continues to seduce us into accepting messages of our poetry’s global success with our critical faculties fast asleep.) And as the new aspirants began to claim more and more shelf space for themselves, Canadian poetry retreated to a small core of good poetry surrounded by a large pulp of disputable contemporary reputations. . . .

 
Canadian poetry found its way into the curriculum, was grist for doctoral dissertations and tenure-track university appointments, and could tap into generous government support through numerous funding agencies. The very premise of Canadian poetry – a premise briefly threatened by the modernist effort to give the poetry a cosmopolitan rootedness so as to resist any lax parochial standards – was just waiting for an opportunity like the sixties to come along. I don’t think it coincidental, in other words, that the marketing of Canadian poetry as an academic commodity came fully awake just when the liberating artlessness of the sixties was emerging into vogue. I mean, figure it out for yourself: a nationalist aesthetic incapable of candidly sizing up the poetry it mass-produces is brought back to life at the exact time the key precepts of evaluation are being fiercely contested.

There are some things here that are common ground for most of the Sacred Cow school – for example, the threat of the “masses” being published (suddenly everyone was an accredited poet), and that reference to the new generation’s savvy grasp of “market forces” – blaming the Establishment not so much for commodifying culture as for being successful at it. These are both arguable points (didn’t some good poets get published when the floodgates opened?), but what I really find interesting is the politics of it all.

Yes, politics. Starnino’s Myth of the Fall, indeed much of his aesthetic, is deeply reactionary. This isn’t to say any of it is wrong, but it does help to see it as all of a piece.

Some of the Myth is directly political. In its account of what went wrong we can see a number of right-wing touchstones: The cultural disaster that was the liberal (“liberating”) 1960s, the scorning of wrongheaded government subsidies, the disparagement of publicly-funded intellectuals (that is, academics) and bureaucracies (the Canada Council), the outrage over the manipulation of market forces which would, presumably, have never allowed for the publishing of so much bad poetry in the first place. Indeed, Starnino’s central premise, that we need to reject the idea of a nativist, national poetry (antidote for colonial victimhood) and find our place within a cosmopolitan “modernist” tradition sounds a lot like getting rid of isolationism and protectionism and hopping on the globalization bus. What our poetry really needs is a healthy dose of competition (a word that borrows more from Thomas Friedman than the theories of Harold Bloom). All of this has the unfortunate effect of making Starnino seem like some kind of literary Neo-Con, the Milton Friedman of Canadian poetry. Unfortunate, but you’d have to be blind to miss it. Hell, he even quotes Milton Friedman in his introduction!

And I’m not sure that Starnino would reject such analogies. As a critic he stands for what he calls “the radical conservatism of true poetry.” What he means, in context, is the radical conservatism of prosody and poetic form, but the choice of words is telling. While I take it as a truism that books are written out of other books, poets and critics who align themselves with values like “tradition” and “form” (poetry’s “family values”) tend to deify the backward glance. And here again Starnino’s criticism is of a piece (just as any good critic’s should be, I might add).

Note the beginning of the long passage quoted, with its rejection of the “doctrine of literary progress”. For a conservative critic it goes without saying that progress is a false Messiah. Things aren’t getting better. And so there is frequent worrying over Pound’s dictum to “Make it new”. What Pound meant can be given a conservative gloss – to bring the past into the present by making it (tradition) “new” – but it still has a whiff of revolution about it. And Starnino distrusts anything that considers itself new. He doesn’t like the “radical” Christopher Dewdney, the “experimental” and “avant-garde” Christian Bök, the “convention-flouting” Susan Musgrave, and that “literary iconoclast” Anne Carson. Judgments like these highlight Starnino’s peculiar anxieties. I don’t like the poetry of Susan Musgrave or Anne Carson either, not a bit, but the last thing I would think to call them is convention-flouting or iconoclastic. And how avant-garde and experimental is Eunoia? Oulipo has been around for nearly 50 years. Christopher Dewdney? Just a latter-day Beat (though occasionally more interesting than Starnino makes him out to be). This is the New?

And, to be fair, that’s part of Starnino’s point. The attempt to achieve some singular originality of utterance, either as individual poets or in terms of a national poetic language, is a fool’s quest. There is no new. Tradition and form cannot be avoided. The avant-garde is “ultimately, an irrelevant concept.” Bök’s experiments are finally empty and unproductive – they don’t lead anywhere. Poetry is never Canadian; it’s English because the language itself is English. And so poetry, true poetry, is always something radically conservative.

That’s the theory. In practice Starnino’s criticism is formalist. He likes poetry with language that is active, where the words do work. He has something negative to say about a lot of what’s out there, but what seems to bother him the most is the “plain style” affected by many of Canada’s leading literary lions. In plain style the words simply lie on the page without personality, energy or grace. To call it prose would be praising it too highly. It isn’t just un-poetry, it’s un-writing. And its practitioners deserve this calling out. Nothing turns me off a new book of poetry faster than the kind of laziness that plays free verse with the vocabulary of those magnet word games you stick on your refrigerator door. As I said in an essay written four years ago (“The Morning After”), “What is killing poetry today is that it is so dull.” Getting rid of the plain style would be a step toward fixing this.

Starnino likes to quote poetry that demonstrates skill and craft, but he doesn’t deal a lot with things like imagery or “themes”. I take it this is a reaction to Northrop Frye and other “non-judgmental”, taxonomic critics, but Starnino’s passion for passing judgment and his eschewing of sympathy for what a poem is trying to achieve (“a rather creepy form of collusion”) makes some of his opinions appear hasty and closed-minded, especially when he seems to have his eye on something else. To some extent, perhaps more than Starnino will allow, we have to put aside our biases and judge a poem (or any work of art) on its own terms. Sympathy isn’t always collusion, dispassion is not indifference, and reviewing isn’t just the exercise of bias.

Starnino is at its best in his various appreciations. I understand that he considers it his duty to take swipes at people like E. D. Blodgett, but his hatchet jobs didn’t speak to me as much as his encounters with Outram and Klein. Sadly, the more careful, generous essays aren’t the ones that make a reviewer’s reputation. As a critic Starnino is forthright, intelligent, and opinionated, but I didn’t always feel that enough of an effort was being made to appreciate where even bad writers might have got it right, or at least been attempting something different. Craft means different things in different contexts.

Finally, I don’t think I should leave this review without making some comment on Starnino’s writing. And I don’t want to praise it too much because I get the impression he has already heard enough of that. In his Introduction he contrasts his vibrant, combative, interesting style with what he sees as the tame, empty, lackluster, house style of the Establishment. Fair enough. He does keep it moving. But he also finds it hard to stop when he gets going. Was there no one to edit stuff like this?:

Modernism introduced whim into their practice, which is another way of saying modernism introduced ambivalence into their perspective, which is simply a way of saying modernism reconfigured their relationship with the Canadian tradition so they could feel free enough from it to begin lifting their poems from the stifling, insularizing precinct of a specific place to the “placelessness” of the English language itself.

One expects a gifted poet to be more precise, and concise, than this in prose.

Another “conservative” virtue with political and economic cache is productivity. As we’ve seen, one of the problems with Bök is that he’s unproductive. The same scale of values holds true for reviewing. “Good reviewing . . . provokes us into productive thought.” With A Lover’s Quarrel Starnino has done his part to stimulate a reaction. And if I’ve emphasized what I found provoking in this valuable collection, well . . . I’ve only been doing mine.

Notes:
Review first published online July 11, 2005.