Friday, July 30, 2010

The League of Extraordinary Critics

Canadian criticism is in crisis mode right now and, as always, provocateur Zach Wells is at the epi-centre of it all. Andre Alexis wrote a polemical essay entitled The Long Decline for The Walrus Magazine about all the things he sees plaguing Canadian criticism at the moment: personal attacks and collegiate vitriol standing in for “book reviews”, the incompetence of reviewers who rely on subjective opinion rather than critical thought, and he lays the lion share of the blame at critic John Metcalf’s feet for inspiring a self-aggrandizing rhetorical style in younger critics who do not possess the same depth of knowledge as him.

There is a whole lot to chew on in this essay, and I am not sure I agree with everything, but it does articulate many things my colleagues and I have been thinking about for some time.

What is perhaps not surprising is that Zach Wells, having felt stung as he always does in such circumstances, wrote a satirical rejection letter as if Andre Alexis had first submitted the essay to CNQ magazine. He posted this response on the CNQ blog where it has spawned a “casserole of ridiculousness” as Jake Mooney has rightly pronounced on his blog Vox Populism.

It is not so much that Andre Alexis is entirely right but that the Sons of Metcalf, having gathered, are now linking arms and shouting in unison “You’re entirely wrong Mr. Alexis”. You know, like a whole tribe of critics who do not want to listen to anyone but themselves. I had already written in a previous post about the inherent dangers of aesthetic tribalism attaching itself to critical culture in Canada and here we are six months later with this wonderful public squabble with the participants proving Alexis's point and my own.

People can make their own judgments but this needs to be witnessed to be believed.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Envoy at the Crossroads

Three years ago I was asked to give a speech and a one-day workshop for the Edmonton branch of the Canadian Authors Association which I felt obliged to do as a teacher and because I took a number of creative writing workshops in university that helped me along my path to becoming a poet. I don’t advertise myself as a workshop instructor because my life is such that I do no have a lot of time to conduct them, but when I am called upon I feel a duty to lead them.

I think such workshops do not necessarily help people to write better, but they do teach people how to read poetry and they can provide resources and knowledge which may inspire people to undertake the long apprenticeship to becoming a serious poet.

I suppose what I find most striking about meeting people who have taken my workshops or else showed up at one of my readings because they read one of my books is how some of them look upon me with that eager lighted look which suggests they think I might have some special knowledge to confer upon them, or perhaps it is more they think they can use me as a key to unlock something within themselves. I don’t know. All I know is that after 24 years of trying to write poetry, I find myself at a crossroads asking what have I learned about the writing of poetry? The truth is I am not sure.

Certainly, I have learned something of craft, the economy of language, the musicality of words, etc. I have absorbed a great deal of poetry and poetic influences from many countries. I know what I like and what I do not, and I can articulate reasons for these preferences.

But writing a poem is still an exhausting task for me. Where will poetry take me and in what direction in the coming years? The path, as they say, is uncertain. However, I am still hopeful, or perhaps naïve, enough to believe that wherever poetry might lead me, people will understand the language I speak.

Here is a comprehensive list of 25 books in no particular order that have helped me to learn the difficult lingua franca of poetry:

1. Reluctantly by Hayden Carruth
2. The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo
3. Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio
4. On Poetry and Craft by Theodore Roethke
5. Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns
6. The Other Voice by Octavio Paz
7. Vis a Vis by Don McKay
8. The Friendship by Adam Sisman
9. A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
10. Argument and Song by Stanley Plumly
11. Claims For Poetry edited by Donald Hall
12. Keats by Andrew Motion
13. Selected Poems and Letters by John Keats
14. The Weather of Words by Mark Strand
15. The Verse Book of Interviews edited by Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki
16. Imagination in Place by Wendell Berry
17. Off to the Side by Jim Harrison
18. The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser
19. The Secret of Poetry by Mark Jarman
20. So Ask by Philip Levine
21. The Gazer Within by Larry Levis
22. Poets Teaching Poets edited Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryan Voight
23. Hunting Men by Dave Smith
24. The Necessary Angel by Wallace Stevens
25. Poetry and Consciousness by C.K. Williams

Thursday, July 1, 2010

W.S. Merwin Appointed Poet Laureate of the United States

A hearty congratulations goes out to W.S. Merwin who has been appointed Poet Laureate of the United States by the library of congress. His latest book The Shadow of Sirius won the Pulitzer prize for Poetry and can be purchased here. If you would like to send a personal congratulations to W.S. Merwin, Copper Canyon Press has provided the following link. His appointment is exciting for me as I have been thinking a lot about something W.S. Merwin said in an essay first published in 1956 but can be found in the more recent anthology Don’t Ask What I Mean: Poets In Their Own Words edited by Clare Brown and Don Paterson. His words, written over fifty years ago, are just as relevent today here in Canada:

"I think one of the dangers of modern poetry has been a tendancy to become inbred. Its small audience enhances the danger. It even seems possible for some poets to write as though critics, even particular schools of critics, were a fit and sufficient audience for poetry. I used to read all the articles in which critics kept working out reasons to prove how necessary and useful they are; but I don’t read those articles, or indeed critics, any more, and I can’t remember what the reasons were, even if I try very hard.

The other, main roots of my dislike, I suppose, are a distrust of generalization and abstraction; and a superstitious unwillingness to dissect the goose whose eggs, whatever their metal, are vitally important to me.

Which leads me to one of the few general statements I feel safe in making about poetry. It is a mystery. It is a metaphor of the other mysteries which comprise human experience. But like some other mysteries, it gives us a feeling of illumination…..I think of it as a way of using what we know to glimpse what we do not know.

-W.S. Merwin, Green with Beasts 1956