Monday, 27 July 2015

Oh, Please

Quincy R. Lehr. delivers a stinging post-mortem on New Formalism, describing it as a spent force:
Literary references, parodies, and revisitations abounded in New Formalist poetry. The effect, though, was frequently that of reading a Fodor’s guidebook rather than living in a place, a romp though the museum of the Tradition rather than an engagement with the European past extending into the present. Many New Formalists developed a particular fondness for the Canon Poem, a slightly rejigged account of an ancient myth either done straight or folded into some scene of middle-class banality. Some poets were able to make the canon poem at least episodically interesting (notably A. E. Stallings in her first book, Archaic Smile, though the sheer number of the things got numbing at times), but at its worst, the canon poem reflected a sort of prissy preciousness. Take these lines from the poem “To Her Book” in Catherine Savage Brosman’s Breakwater:

Farewell, then. May your readers be those birds
which by an Orphic song were freely caught,
embracing as their own the poet’s words,
the very shape and countenance of thought.

Oh, please. One thinks of an amateur Renaissance music ensemble in some out-of-the-way minor university town, eking tunes out of viols and sackbuts and utterly convinced that they are somehow contributing to the preservation of the Great Western Tradition.
(Illustration by John Holcroft)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Sunday Poem

The park's trees are still green, but fall advances
pushing night ahead of it. You see it
in the faces of people still surprised
to see evening gnaw away at the afternoon.
By six o'clock—no, earlier, and earlier still,
daylight flies off over the rooftops. You say
almost in silence to yourself: "Soon,
we'll be plunged into icy gloom, Adieu,"
and the rest you know by heart. These words
twirl around the alexandrine the way
a tendril climbs a post. They come
in clusters—three, six syllables—blossom
in the rhyme's bouquet of phonemes.
Even if we could, we wouldn't dare
write today in this language of the gods.
The gods have fled into
the foliage overhead, while you
halt in the field, in the middle
of a patch of shadow, stuck there
like a boundary stone, gaping,
struck by the stupor of the elegy. Soon
We'll be treading through wet leaves,
pushing what's left of summer with a boot
in the immense twilight where we'll come to feel
that life is but a matter of a day,
that all things born must perish,
that tasks are all in vain,
that one knows nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
What am I doing in this park,
trotting out these hackneyed tropes?
Fall, evening, the end of all of it....
It's getting late, rain is on the way.
I'll catch cold if I don't go back home.
From Montreal Before Spring by Robert Mélançon (Biblioasis, 2015), translated by Donald McGrath.
(Photo by Stephane Venne)

Saturday, 25 July 2015


Susan Lindsay sheds light on Derek Mahon's competitiveness with Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney by retelling an incident where Mahon refused a 'second-place' prize:
I was listening to poet Derek Mahon’s controversial biographer, Stephen Enniss, last night—as he was interviewed by Vincent Woods on Arts Tonight on RTE Radio 1*. Savouring the pleasure of hearing Derek Mahon himself, in excerpts from previous interviews and hearing him read a few of his poems. Stephen Enniss acknowledges that Mahon and Seamus Heaney were good friends but also, inevitably, rivals. He linked the withdrawal of Derek Mahon from the public sphere of poetry, including his refusal of an OBE from the Queen of his birth-place, Northern Ireland, to the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Heaney. The wisdom of which withdrawal Enniss absolutely regrets and he hopes his book will provide a counterbalance, keeping Derek Mahon’s poetry closer to the foreground of international attention. It will be good if it achieves that although the poems speak for themselves.
(Portrait by Anthony Palliser)

Vendler Venting

Calling her criticism "condescending waffle," Daniel Swift spells out his unhappiness with Helen Vendler's new book of criticism, The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar:
This is a collection of essays and reviews from various magazines and occasions, and they apparently have not been edited for republication, so the tone varies considerably. Occasionally, Vendler sounds as though she is addressing postgraduates; occasionally, her claims are so bland that she might be composing a Wikipedia entry (on The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot: ‘it revolutionised modern verse’). Some of the pieces are superb: a powerful essay on how Robert Lowell’s poetry uses syntax to perform the feeling of depression, and an amazingly subtle account of ‘if’ and ‘but’ in the poems of Wallace Stevens. These essays have only one thing in common: they are all about poets Vendler loves. But—in contrast to the recent essay collection by the poet and translator Michael Hofmann, Where Have You Been?, which covers some of the same ground—she never makes you want to go away and read the poets she has been discussing.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Mucky Little Pond of Confusion

Brooke Clark sees Lucie Brock-Broido's poetry as an example of "High Fakery":
“It was always autumn in the paraphernalia of my laudanums.”

That’s the opening line of the poem “We Have Always Lived In The Castle,” from Stay, Illusion, and if I had to pick a single line to sum up Brock-Broido’s style, I might pick that one. It’s not that the line is obscure; obscurity happens at times in poetry, and it’s our job as readers to try to make what we can of it. And we can try: I know what laudanum is; but what are laudanums? Paraphernalia could be objects used to take the drug (like a junkie’s kit); but how is autumn in these objects? And why autumn? Just for its poetic sheen of a slow sinking into death (one of the concerns of this collection)? For the jingle the “um” ending makes with the end of “laudanum”? And why always? The effects of the laudanum make her feel like it is always autumn? This is a possible interpretation; but if that’s what you mean, there are better ways to say it.

But in trying to make sense of the line, we are following a false path, because in fact this line has been carefully constructed to have no sense. This is not a line that is trying to say something and failing, or that is saying a complex thing in a difficult way; this is a line that is trying very hard not to say anything in a very specific manner – namely, a manner that one might deem “poetic.”

This is the essence of a poetic style that I think of as High Fakery: poetry that is very self-consciously “poetic” in terms of its diction, its use of imagery and metaphor, and the way it seeks out high-sounding obscurity that could be taken for profundity but is generally just an ornate casing for vacuity. Each poem has a well-worked surface of apparent poeticism, but if you fix it with a steady critical gaze, it will crumble to dust and blow away because there is nothing inside it—no meaning, no passion, no vitality to animate the words—the language is dead and embalmed, each poem an exhibit in a silent, sepulchral museum consecrated to the poet’s idea of herself as “a poet.”
He continues:
Truly great, difficult poetry is always the result of a writer trying to communicate clearly (with perhaps a few exceptions—Lycophron?); the difficult surface is the knotty result of the writer’s struggle to convey a complex idea or emotion. Obscurity such as Brock-Broido’s is the opposite: it is an obscure surface that is applied over the top of an absence, to try to conceal that absence. Great poets write obscurely when they are trying to communicate clearly; bad poets write obscurely when they are trying to cover up the fact that they have nothing to communicate.

This is not poetry written for readers who actually love genuinely good poetry; rather it is written for readers who affect an interest in poetry without really knowing anything about it or having any desire to find out. It’s the sort of thing you can read on your couch in an afternoon without really paying it much attention, and then later, when you go out to a dinner party, you can mention that you read it, and your friends will be impressed that you are “interested in poetry”. It is all about the language on the surface, designed for those who read poetry as if they were bathing in—I was going to say an ocean of incomprehensibility, but it’s really more like a mucky little pond of confusion.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015


Derek Webster on the myth of "power" in the poetry world:
Here are things that deserve the word “power”: armies, missiles, accelerating cars, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, hydroelectric dams, prime ministers, rocket launches, black holes, and gamma rays. In the poetry world, much of what we call “power” is just rung envy in authors looking up the ladder. To the unpublished poet, magazine-poets have “power.” To the magazine-poet, those with books have “power.” Have you been asked to judge a contest? Then you must have “power.” Canadian poets will point south to their more celebrated American counterparts: they wield it. But even poets with multiple books will tell you it's the publishers who wield “real power.” Or is that the tastemakers at big-circulation newspapers, websites and magazines? Or the Canada Council, without whose support none of this vast nefarious apparatus of “power” could exist? It’s hard to keep track of all the power-lunching people with a finger in the pie. But for the word “power” to be meaningful, it helps if there’s something to lose, some counterbalancing, non-power position that shows a demonstrable drop-off or significant opportunity that someone has lost by not having, or not being favoured, by “power.” And yet for every contest winner or hired professor, there are dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of losers; and for every annual new winner, thousands of losers remain the same. Suddenly it’s very hard to tell who is winning from who is losing, because everyone is losing. Among writers, powerlessness is the general state of being. All of us are losing, almost all of the time. Back when Jon Stewart was an up-and-coming comedian in the early 1990s, half a dozen years before the success of The Daily Show, he got invited to do his comedy routine on The David Letterman Show. He was ecstatic: this was his big break! On the fast track to success! After the show, when the adrenaline wore off, back in his hole-in-the-wall illegal sublet, he realized nothing had changed. Same person, same problems, powerless as before. If Letterman didn’t change Jon Stewart, imagine how powerless a Canadian poet remains, post-publication. We are Pluto, orbiting a distant, shining sun. We aren’t even a planet anymore.
(Illustration by Guy Billout)

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sunday Poem


All afternoon wide Port Moody's schooner
baits my interest. Lithest, no schooner
clips along beside her, each schooner
daft as a flat ale, or some Moses schooner
edging out Nile-lazy. Hot gusting swells, and schooner
facile in the morning grows afternoon gauche, tho' schooner
given half a chance might schooner
half a chance redeem, I chide. Hitting Big Schooner
Island out near Halifax. Or Schooner
Joliette I imagine whale watching, tall Schooner
Kootenays, or Confederation Schooner,
legislative big bateau Senate Schooner
marking off the long territories, Schooner
northwinding runs out of breath, Arctic schooner
opposed, motion melted and defeated, Schooner
parliament won't let anyone new aboard the schooner:
quaint policy that'll bite back schooner
rather than later. I look again, blue schooner
slipping down the dime, jingling schooner
to jingling schooner, & think of old Mac, one schooner
under the flag and crown. Bowing out, schooner
veers portside at the thought. Then bright red schooner,
wagon-red, grabs the knots Schooner
X laid out, like Bell's tin cable. Schooner
yowling starboard, then flanked, schooner
zinger received, copy: never go it alone, schooner.

From Concordia University Magazine (Spring 2015) by Jacqueline Hanna. Hanna received Concordia University's 2014 Irving Layton Award for Poetry, handed out each year to an undergraduate student.