LEFT HOOK: A SIDEWAYS LOOK AT CANADIAN WRITING
By George Bowering
Becoming a radical isn’t hard, but remaining a radical for over 40 years is next to impossible. Aesthetic positions and political attitudes that were once cutting edge either become mainstream or obsolete. The old radical can proudly stick to his guns, but over time he runs the risk of turning into one of those mythic Japanese soldiers stuck on a deserted Pacific island, still holding out for victory in World War 2.
George Bowering, super-prolific author, critic, and former Poet Laureate (Canada’s first), turned literary radical in 1963. This was when a group of American poets visited Vancouver, bringing with them the then-new gospel of postmodernism. It was a revolutionary moment, turning the west coast into the vanguard of literary production, continuing the “New World’s westward drift away from Europe,” away from cultural centres and capitals, and toward the (cutting) edge, the margin, the sea. Vancouver itself, as it is described in one of the longer essays in this collection, became a kind of postmodern poetry, infused with the spirit of the New.
Postmodernism is very important to Bowering, and it’s something he has a lot to say about in Left Hook. So it’s important to try and come up with some kind of definition of what it means, at least to him.
The essence of it is found in the split between form and content. Bowering’s position here is indeed radical. Put simply, “of course when it comes to writing . . . there is no such thing as ‘content,’ as opposed to form or even as allied with form.” Writing contains nothing. It refers to nothing outside itself but is instead entirely self-referential.
The distinction may seem a little precious and theoretical but Bowering is (surprisingly) not averse to theory, or trotting out the big names of postmodernist literary criticism to support his case. And, more to the point, it is a position that does have some practical significance.
For one thing, it means that realism, which Bowering describes himself as having battled most of his life, is an “anachronism,” the great enemy of both art and the new. “Realism,” mimesis, holding the mirror up to nature, “the hope of representation,” are all wrong. No artist “can ever put the world of nature into his text,” all he can do is “make something that resembles earlier fictions.” Even the lyric “I,” the “conventional poetry of self as phenomenal topic,” has to go. Self is content too, and has to give way to context, form, language, breath. “Reference is not as important as utterance.”
“So what can we do instead? We can try to make a text rather than trying to represent a world.” The text is all. But a poem isn’t a well-wrought urn, or anything organic, but a machine, like a hydro-electric dam or a microwave. Where modernism chose to foreground the text as something made, postmodernism focuses on its making.
Along with this rejection of the world come the more traditional postmodern corollaries. The best writing is difficult. Bowering asks of all serious writers that they develop a poetry that he has a hard time following. Postmodernism is also international and thus against regionalism, in part because place=content but also because regionalism is imperialistic and authoritarian, just like realism. If you want to be a regional writer, the region has to be a mental creation, a consciousness of place, not an actual setting with any kind of objective reality.
This is all what’s known as critical theory and it doesn’t always have a lot to do with critical practice. In practice Bowering is not a formalist, which is a conservative label these days (Bowering even calls the formalists “neocons”). When he quotes poetry, which he does quite often, it’s usually for what it says (that is, its content) rather than how it says it. One has the sense of a strong mind seduced by a lot of fashionable theory and poor critical writing. The often-quoted pseudo-oracular pronouncements of Charles Olson and Gertrude Stein are dangerous models, leading to such Stein-ese as “There can be no spot you are in unless you are in it.”
And does he really mean what he says about region? MacLeod’s Cape Breton, Richards’s Miramichi, Richler’s Montreal, Munro’s small-town Ontario, even Russell Smith’s Toronto – yes, these are all fictional creations, but are they not also descriptions of a place, a culture, a state of mind other than the author’s? To say that these voices were in some way created by their environment doesn’t make them colonial victims. As Northrop Frye once remarked, “culture has something vegetable about it, something that increasingly needs to grow from roots, something that demands a small region and a restricted locale.” Postmodern critics consider Frye to be terribly old hat, but I think he might have been right on that one.
Luckily Bowering isn’t all about the theory. He also offers some terrific close readings of classic Canadian texts, rendered in his usual “sideways,” anecdotal style. It’s impossible to read any of these essays without learning something interesting about even the most familiar subjects. But is postmodernism still radical? Is it still at “the front end of the arts”?
It’s hard to think so. Thematic critics like Frye have been out of academic grace for some time, while University of Toronto professor of postmodernism Linda Hutcheon isn’t exactly an outsider these days. And when Bowering spends whole chapters championing works of pop fiction like The English Patient and what must be the most anthologized Canadian poem ever (Margaret Atwood’s “You fit into me”), one can be forgiven for wondering when the avant garde officially turned into the ancien regime.
While some of his theoretical pronouncements have dated – literary theory is nothing if it isn’t trendy – Bowering’s perspectives on Canadian writing are still fresh and relevant. As Ezra Pound said, literature is news that stays news. It’s just that the margin has moved again. Like it or not, Bowering is in the centre now, our historian of what was once the edge.
Review first published October 8, 2005.