I Just Wrote This Five Minutes Ago . . .

By Carl Watts

The title of this collection of essays, addressing not just contemporary poetry itself but its reception and what used to be known as the scene, comes from an attitude that Carl Watts (and others) picked up on when attending open mic poetry readings. What it refers to is poets showing up claiming that what they were about to read had only been written that morning, or on the drive over to the venue, or just five minutes ago.

Such a careless attitude didn’t do much to win over other poets, with Watts flagging a “consensus that this practice implied arrogance and a lack of respect for other people’s time and attention.” One of the expectations the audience at a poetry reading might reasonably have had is that there had at least been some “work put in in advance.”

It’s that notion of work that’s central to most of what Watts has to say about poetry. One of his keynotes is the famous line from Auden that poetry makes nothing happen. Poetry doesn’t do any work, and if you’re feeling in a bad mood you might even say it’s without utility or value. When you get right down to it, these are all variations on the question of What’s poetry for?

Watts has a complicated answer to this, seeing the time we spend (or, less charitably, waste) reading poetry as having both a personal and social value:

I see contemporary poetry as a form of expenditure that forges links among disparate practices and parties, sustaining a civil society of (mostly) good-faith engagement that resists value defined as monetary, based on an end product, or instrumental in that it is socially beneficial in some directed or predetermined way.

The critic has a role to play in all this. He does work too. A big part of that work just amounts to reading: digging at the rock face of contemporary poetry. And this is where Watts stands out, as his essays are grounded in a sensitive, eclectic, and intelligent reading of various poets and poems, the majority of whom I was unfamiliar with. Among those I did know, I’ve never found much that’s interesting in the poetry of Rupi Kaur – and Watts himself is “not exactly a fan” – but the essay “recuperating” Kaur is the best analysis yet that I’ve read of her oeuvre and makes a case for her poetry’s value in a credible way, especially in terms of its broadening of poetry’s audience.

On the other hand, Kaur’s status as a celebrity and sales juggernaut – that is, a poet whose primary value is commercial – makes her sui generis. Is her popular, participatory message a poetics, I want to ask, or a brand? Watts does well reading her poetry, but I still came away wondering, as I have for a while, how much Kaur is writing social media and how much social media is writing her. This gets to a larger point about how much Watts sees poetry merely as a vehicle (or perhaps cultural lens), and how much he sees it as expressing its own message (that is, doing work).

Good poetry criticism and good poetry seem to go hand-in-hand. Great poets need great critics. Canada has been blessed with a number of the latter over the last twenty years or so, including names like Carmine Starnino, Jason Guriel, and Michael Lista (a line-up Watts refers to as the “slash-and-burn” reviewers). I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that Canadian poetry has had so many highlights during this same period, and I’m only disappointed I haven’t read more of it, knowing there are so many good Canadian poets out there.

Meanwhile, there has been very little quality criticism directed at Canadian fiction. And I suspect there is some connection here to the fact that our fiction, especially the novel, has been in such a depressing rut, with so little recognition either academically or in the media of the best that’s out there. But I digress.

Watts is doing important work (yes, work), though my own preference is for a critical voice closer to what used to be known as literary journalism, back when that was still a thing. I had the sense that Watts was being pulled in two directions, and it was noticeable when he drifted into a more academic style, with the sort of frustrating false precision typical of that kind of writing. Nevertheless, what he’s given us is a well-informed snapshot of poetry today and a vision for how it fits into a larger cultural picture that remains very much in flux. If poetry makes nothing happen, things still happen to it. It’s a story worth our attention.

Review first published online October 24, 2022.

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