Saturday, 25 October 2014

McKaybetes, Ctd


Here's a fascinating Facebook exchange sparked by Michael Lista's review of Don McKay's Angular Unconformity.

Brian Bartlett: Zach, As you no doubt suspect, I'm guessing that 100 years from now—if there is still a human race, & poetry--as many Don McKay poems will still be read & valued as poems by any other living Canadian poet. Speaking for myself, I can say that a few poems of his inhabit my consciousness as only the most memorable poems do. Some of the grousing about his "popularity" caricatures & belittles his readers as if none of them can separate the poet from the person. Also, Lista writes as if in ignorance that the (inevitable) counter-revolution against McKay has been going on now for more than a decade, including in the prose of some of our most articulate critics.

Zach Wells: Brian, I certainly do suspect that you and others hold such views. I also know that predicting future canonicity is a rather haphazard business and ever has been. Jarrell did it for Bishop, and it seems likely that he'll be proven correct, but far more people have said the poems of X, Y or Z will endure only to be proven fools by posterity. Look at any old Untermeyer antho. And just because it happens doesn't mean it's merited. Bliss Carman, who was a truly mediocre poet, still has work in print that is taught in Canadian Literature classes. The competition was a trifle weaker in his day, however. The sheer volume of McKay fans and acolytes will ensure that his work persists until at least they're gone. After that, it's anybody's guess. But what is most popular in any given time and place very rarely overlaps with what is most durable.

Here's the thing about popularity as a topic for critical consideration. Talking about masses and statistics does not actually belittle or caricature any individual reader. I have no doubt that there are individual readers who successfully separate the personality from the poems (or are blissfully ignorant of the personality) and have an unclouded appreciation of McKay's poems. What I'm saying is that the number and distribution of such people is not sufficient to make a McKay the revered figure that he is. Peter Van Toorn has such readers. Bruce Taylor has such readers. Robyn Sarah has such readers. Peter Trower. Travis Lane. But they don't have the pyramid of lesser readers below them that a McKay does. That mass of less-detached readers is what makes the difference between neglect and celebrity. It's the difference between having a 600+ page hardcover Collected selling like hotcakes while you're still alive and having your books go out of print.

The music study and the wine studies cited by Mlodinow are illustrative of very real sociological phenomena. They're phenomena that have benefited McKay enormously. It isn't insulting to his most ardent fans to point this out. And it's naive to think that you're immune to such influences, especially when you know the guy, which is not a factor in wine tasting errors or in preference for one song over another by bands you don't know. It's a major cognitive bias and the principle reason I avoid writing essays about friends' work.

Lista makes brief mention of the "minority reports" by people like myself, Shane Neilson, Carmine Starnino, Don Coles and Richard Greene. He doesn't ignore them, but he doesn't have space in a column to digress at any length on them. So it's inaccurate to say he writes "as if in ignorance." And I, personally, do not feel slighted because he didn't mention my 7,000 word skeptical take on the McKavian oeuvre. Richard clearly isn't miffed that his review of Apparatus wasn't mentioned explicitly. Michael's not trying to steal our thunder; he's adding his voice to a very slowly growing chorus of dissent.

Brian Bartlett: Zach, I've read a bit of literary history, & know very well the risks of "predicting future canonicity." (Yet I indulge in fantasies, such as that a century from now Ashbery's reputation will be greatly diminished.) One reason reading Dr. Johnson's Lives of the English Poets is so fascinating--many of the poets he writes about now largely forgotten & unread (not that he was predicting their future readership). Still, it's a familiar human propensity to look a century ahead--maybe it's wishful thinking on my part to imagine that McKay will have future readers (after the current crop of his enthusiastic readers are "gone," as you put it).

As for being "naive," notice that "belittles his readers as if none of them..." is in 3rd person--at this point I won't be foolish enough to claim I can make a clean separation between person and poet, just as I can't with Don Coles, Bruce Taylor, Robyn Sarah, Travis Lane, Harry Thurston etc., though unlike you I'm sometimes okay writing about poetry by friends—maybe because my approach is generally more exploratory & investigative than evaluative. (Let's not get into an discussion about how all criticism is evaluative, implicitly or otherwise, okay?)

So McKay's book is "selling like hotcakes"? Goose Lane might be interested to know. It amuses me when people talk as if widely praised poets are household names. Are we talking about J. K. Rowling or John Grisham? Are we even talking about Atwood or Munro? While that dizzily poet-idolizing note you shared with us is, yes, embarrassing, a word like "cult" goes beyond hyperbole to stupidity. Even "celebrityhood" is rather funny when it comes to the relatively tiny readership that even much-appreciated poets get.

One thing we agree upon is that wonderful poets (we've both championed Van Toorn and Taylor, for instance) deserve many more readers. I agree that some of McKay's relative "popularity" could be fairly shared by other excellent poets—but he's not responsible for the fact that plenty of people like his work, & it's unfair to use the neglect of those other poets as a stick to beat him over the head with. As for the "very slowly growing body of dissent," it seems to me that among Canadian male poet-critics ("some of our most articulate critics," I referred to them in the previous message) with books or the equivalent of criticism published, attempts to concentrate on McKay's weaknesses & complaints about his readership have become de rigeur. Really nothing new in Lista's approach.

Are You at Risk of McKaybetes?


"In rooting (in both senses) for the often empty calories of [Don] McKay’s words," writes Michael Lista, "our waistlines lengthening and blood sugar spiking, too many of us have succumbed to our national disease: McKaybetes." On the occasion of McKay's collected poems, Angular Unconformity, Lista tries to unpick the mystery behind that debilitating condition:
The question is: why McKay? Why did he, and not the half-dozen or so other top poets of his generation (who I suppose are now post-eminent), become the institution? There are a couple of reasons. By the time Birding, or desire appeared in 1983, McKay, with his ear for vernacular and rural affectations, looked like a natural inheritor of Purdy’s laureateship — itself rather dubious, looking back. His ecological high-mindedness was glossed with just enough aesthetic disaffection to make him seem cool, an attribute, real or imagined, about which Canadian poets are hysterically self-conscious. And the drive of his poems, all torque and no traction, dovetailed nicely with the emerging poetics of trying to get nowhere as quickly as possible (which itself is a cliché: “It’s less about the destination than the journey”).
Of course, there are Canadian poets who, bang for buck, are much better for your intellectual health:
It has to be said: If you put McKay cheek-to-jowl with other top, but less socially influential, practitioners of his generation, his work pales. Let’s meet him on his home turf, nature writing. Here he is on flora: “Flowers begin inhaling through their roots / exhaling darkness.” Again, McKay goes in for the sonorous vagary. Here’s the ex-pat Eric Ormsby on another flora, lichens: “Far-off they’re starlike, spiky as galaxies./ Like us they clutch and grip their chilly homes/ And the wind defines their possibilities.” Not only is he more magisterial by being precise, Ormsby less anthropomorphizes the lichens as he floralizes us, and in doing so sees the natural world in the human X-ray. Here’s the exquisite Robyn Sarah on a desiccated bouquet: “Brittle, dry and brown, / it seemed to speak too plainly of a waste / of friendship, forced to flower, culled in haste.”
Zach Wells dips his toe into the debate:
Michael Lista, in one of his strongest columns to-date for the National Post, has weighed in on Don McKay's doorstopper Collected Poems. He gets it mostly right, I think, but when he says that McKay has "spent a lifetime avoiding seeing the human in the natural world," he has done little more than repeat the press kit. As I argued in my long review essay of McKay's oeuvre-in-progress seven years ago (an updated version of which can be read in my recently published prose collection), this isn't really what happens in McKay poems. Rather, I'd rephrase Lista's statement thus: "Don McKay has spent a lifetime pretending to avoid seeing the human in the natural world." In actual fact, he does it all the time, especially if you compare him with that pre-eminent observer of the non-human world, John Clare--a birdwatching poet who comes up remarkably infrequently in prose by and about McKay. What appears to be a disjunction between McKay's poetics and his poems is actually evidence that McKay's poems tend to be more versified poetics than poems in their own right. Which is another reason, I think, he has been well-received by academic readers: not only do his poems tell you what you should be observing, as Lista points out, they also tell you what you should be thinking while you observe, and they tell you what you should be thinking about the poems themselves. They are therefore very easy to write about and to package in an interpretive argument.

Monday, 13 October 2014

What's the Function of Poetry?


Troy Jollimore thinks the question is wrong.
What’s the function of a pop song? You like it; you listen to it; it sounds good. What’s the function of a good meal? You could say, anything that has nutritional value, but that’s the false virtuous answer—you can get nutrition from something that doesn’t taste good at all. You can say you get pleasure, but I don’t think that’s the function; I just think that’s what I like about poems, that they give pleasure. And I do think one of the wonderful things about poems—I mean, we’ve been talking a lot about what makes them hard to write, why they’re so hard and so on, but one good thing about poems which makes it easier to write is that there is no one thing they have to do. You can start off writing a poem you think is going to make people cry and it turns out to be really funny and it makes people laugh and you don’t have to throw it away; you can say, “Okay, great, I wrote something that makes people laugh, that works too. I wrote something that sticks in somebody’s mind for whatever reason, that makes them think about it and recite lines back to themselves and want to go back and read the poem again. Great.” There’s many different ways a poem can accomplish that and I think all of them are valid. What are poems for? They exist to enrich our lives. I mean, imagine life without music and without poetry, and no stories, no films—it would be pretty dreadful and boring. Art is here to make things more interesting.

The Church Poet


Shane Neilson wonders if M. Travis Lane's reputation as a Christian poet has harmed appreciation of her work:
[B]y choosing to write about religious themes, Lane faces a problem that any poet would face: she is often ignored. As Eliot wrote, “For the great majority of people who love poetry, ‘religious poetry’ is a variety of minor poetry.” Yet Lane is special: a major poet who bucked the trend away from religion. She stubbornly took it on, along with any number of other subjects. Stubbornly, she wrote well on topics few are disposed to read. Lane’s natural gifts with image, sound, pacing, and argument took on the challenge of writing spirit as poetry. Despite these formidable gifts and the successfully met challenge, Lane’s not received her due.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Sunday Poem

SHIP'S BISCUIT 
After mother scarpered
it was ship’s biscuit
with shrapnel sparkles. 
It was hot spurts and gristle
and cold snaps with a wet towel
for stealing a puff from dad’s fag 
or sneaking a peek at his titty mags.
But we buggers deserved no better.
It was us that made her run off, 
with our bickers and our bungles.
It was our bloody cheek.
It was his bleeding knuckles.
From Inheritance (Biblioasis, 2014) by Kerry-Lee Powell 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

This Particular Book


Writing about one of his prize possessions—a first edition of William T. Vollmann's The Rainbow Stories (1989) signed over to a pathologist named Dr. Lester Adelson—Michael Lapointe assesses the power of certain ghost-ridden objects to take over our imagination:
When I read the inscription, or hold The Rainbow Stories in my hands—in fact, when I simply see its spine on the shelf, and am reminded of it—I envision a young Vollmann and an old Adelson, the prolific emerging writer and the storied, perhaps secretive pathologist, keenly observing the dissection of a corpse. Perhaps the horrific sensibility is more important than value-neutral accuracy, because I smell formaldehyde, and see the cold, diagnostic light of the room, and the silver scalpel, and it might seem, in this moment, that I'm being drawn backward in time. But in reality—that is, in my imagination—it's the memory of this peculiar moment, a memory housed in this particular book and nowhere else, that is drawing forward, toward me.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Tweet of the Day