Thursday, November 5, 2009

Aesthetic Tribalism in Canada

In the July/August 2009 issue of the American Poetry Review, Tony Hoagland wrote a provocative essay about Dean Young and his emulators which has started me thinking about the various poetry camps we see here in Canada. In a section of his essay called “Followers”, Hoagland writes, “We are living in a time of poetic explosion; the university creative writing systems have not just trained a lot of young poets in literary craft, they have fermented these young artists in a broth of language theory, critical vocabulary and aesthetic tribalism, which the age apparently demands.”

It was the phrase “aesthetic tribalism” which jumped out at me because we are seeing this on a number of fronts here in Canada: the new formalist movement, the experimental avant-garde set, the smart-alecky surrealists, and, of course, the shadowy cabal of lyric-narrative poets which have been apparently running everything, including the CBC, since the 1970s. I jest.

In some ways, I think aesthetic tribalism in Canada is just an outgrowth of the old garrison mentality, a catchy term first coined by Northrop Frye. Today, poets choose their “forts” not based on place but based on the like-minded people they find within them. They serve as communities and communities are necessary to all poets.

I think where the real problem lies, however, is when there is little or no interaction between these various groups. I say this for once the doors of these gated communities are thrown open, the more partisan among us panic. Seeing the world outside as either indifferent or entirely hostile towards poetry, they form a kind of press gang mentality looking for fellow initiates or sycophants, cannabalizing all those who dare not agree with their point of view.

This is especially of concern when this becomes an entrenched attitude as it has been in recent years amongst some reviewers. Most poetic forms are arbitrary and anyone who attacks or trivializes another poet’s work for not working within the same set of poetic conventions or formal restraints as themselves is either a propagandist or a pretender. Such talk simply propagates the pointless form versus content argument. Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet? How well have they used image, language, metaphor, thought, musicality, emotional sensation to embody one’s consciousness within a poem, or to unfold one’s human experience, or to manifest a desire to transcend one’s circumstances, or to break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large?

Whatever the goal is of the particular poet, I think it is the duty and responsibility of any reviewer to understand how the poetry is working before passing judgment on its merits. That way, even if a book is reviewed negatively, the review will serve as a dialogue and not merely as a shallow denouncement.

We need more honest reviewers in this country who will read poetry, all poetry, with this kind of high-minded seriousness. What we do not need is anymore influence-peddlers or favour-traders or ass-kissers. We get the critical culture we demand of our critics, and of our magazines, for that matter. Besides, there are no winners when aesthetic tribalism attaches itself to critical circles. Look at any anthology from thirty years ago and you will see how quickly literary reputations die and fade away.

Ultimately, aesthetic tribalism is a useful term to describe a series of smaller communities found within the larger poetry community in Canada, but as a nationalist pursuit found within the book reviewing status quo, it is about the homogenization of literary culture, and robs poetry of its natural tendencies toward innovation and change.


  1. Nice one. Hoagland's term really illuminates the landscape, doesn't it?

    The Oulipolice.

    The Vaudvillanelles.

    The Derridisciples.

    The Syllabullies.

    The Redundadaists.

    They all put tools in the toolbox.

  2. Which came first the attacks or the tribalism? For certainly it's a vicious circle.

  3. The tribe came first, and the tribes (plural) of poetry came later. We are all of that tribe who find messing about with language the most satisfying thing to do with one’s life, so what is the problem? Well, those who would snipe and berate and snark have always been present too, or at least since poets have been pushing the accepted boundaries of what poetry is or should be.

    Look at the Blackwood’s Magazine crowd who attacked Keats in life and in death. They marked the first anniversary of the young surgeon’s death by misspelling his name and attacking what they took to be his poetic transgressions. They attempted to take a dead man’s dignity away from him. It was aesthetic tribalism at its worst.

    We have the same crowd nowadays in Canada, those who would rob other writers of their dignity, and why? I think it is obvious that for those doing the yelling it brings attention to themselves. It is a way to stand apart from the crowd. If they cannot stand on the shoulders of giants, they are more than happy to stand on the necks of their fellow poets. I think it is really that simple.

    Noise-makers make noise and some magazine editors and publishers, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of submissions they must get and not trusting their own instincts anymore, must be swayed by such jeering. Why else wipe your feet on another poet’s poem? It is as Marvin Bell said,”Alas, the coin of the realm in the world of poetry is reputation, and there will always be those who will attempt to steal some for themselves.”

  4. A piece from my book of aphorisms, coming next spring:

    "Anyone who yells loud enough can be famous among the pigeons."

    You read it here first.


  5. He, he. I do appreciate a good laugh.

    Particularly a short one.

  6. Hi Chris. I have been thinking about this lately too, except w/r/t American tribes.

    "We are all of that tribe who find messing about with language the most satisfying thing to do with one’s life, so what is the problem?"

    is an interesting remark. Isn't that just reaffirming tribalism, only with different boundaries? As soon as you define a tribe, even so vaguely, don't you basically guarantee an invidious squabble within the tribe? Some people are always going to say, "I don't want to be a part of the same tribe that you're a part of."

    In other words, what if the problem you're describing is a product of the assumption that there is even such a thing as a Canadian poetry scene, or an American poetry scene, or a poetry scene at all?

    Not snarking or berating, just wondering.

  7. I agree with you, Corey. There will always be squabbling over different boundaries. I also agree that there is no one Canadian poetry scene or American poetry scene, but perhaps scenes within scenes, communities within communities, which is why poets who are also reviewers need to be upfront about their biases and ties to such communities. I would also like there to be more interaction between these different communities, especially between poets of both countries. I think I will address this in greater detail in a later post that I am thinking about which will explore the idea of regionalism, nationalism and internationalism in poetry. I think all poets write out of different poetic regions, geographic or otherwise, but I also think we as poets only improve our thinking and writing by studying poetry of other places too (i.e. internationalism). It is only nationalism, however, that leads to the pissing matches and border squabbling you are talking about Corey. Let me think about this some more and I'll get back to you.

  8. Tribalism isn't national, it's aesthetic and seems to me goes along with a rhetoric of elitism designed to root out, not the infidels in this case, but the inferiors...

    Nice to see you here, Corey.