by David Solway
Porcupine’s Quill, 2003
A Lover’s Quarrel
by Carmine Starnino
Porcupine’s Quill, 2004
by Philip Marchand
Porcupine’s Quill, 1998
Earlier I noted that I was reading “the series of books of crotchety Canlit essays published by Porcupine's Quill in the past decade, edited by John Metcalf.” I said I would be reviewing those books in the “near future.” That time has arrived.
My first comment is, “crotchety” is unfair to all three of these authors. Of course, I had first used that word with tongue planted in cheek. These three books, more than any other commentary on Canlit in the past decade plus, are known for their strong opinions. The back cover of Marchand’s book states what we might begin by calling their common goal:
To clear the air, as it were, of boosterism, political correctness, and other attitudes which hinder the appreciation and reception of good writing.
What’s that I hear? A complaint? Are these authors not simply engaged in boosterism of a different kind? I can’t dispute that, and I don’t intend to try. What interests me about these books is their authors have attempted to write against consensus. I don’t agree with everything they say, but I don’t agree with everything that anyone says. More importantly, I want to read opinions that differ from my own. I want to read critics that show me new perspectives and force me to reconsider what I’ve previously believed.
Isn’t this what criticism should do?
By that standard, these three books are essential reading in the Canlit canon. There are few others in the past decades (!) that hold a candle to them. If anyone has suggestions about other titles to add to this short list, I’d be pleased to hear about them. I’d willingly add them to my reading list. There is, of course, also Henighan and Rigelhof. And Metcalf and Keith.
Who else? Is there a contemporary Canadian Mary McCarthy out there? Perhaps a question to another day.
For those unfamiliar with the titles under consideration here, I will begin with a short (and incomplete) summary. Marchand is generally concerned with fiction, the other two generally with poetry. The most pointed comment in Ripostes is as follows:
It does seem in some way to be an advantage for a novelist to have an interesting mind. If so, then Margaret Laurence was always writing under a certain handicap.
Marchand’s book collects 19 essays, each written with a degree of earnestness that blunts its effect. Marchand’s targets include Laurence, Atwood, Findley, Ondattje, and the Writers Union of Canada. The best essay in the collection, in my view, is simply titled, “Terry Griggs and Barbara Gowdy.” It is a comparison of what Marchand considers the Catholic and Protestant outlooks of these two writers. Lively. Unusual. An essay that cannot be reduced to a thumbs up/down conclusion. (Is that what all literary essays should do?)
Marchand’s first essay, “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” also deserves canonical consideration:
As far as I can tell, there are at least two undoubted qualifications for the job [of book reviewer]. The first is the requirement … that one be well read. Of course, this is relative. If one is Susan Sontag, it means you’ve read Kafka by age ten. If you’re the product of certain academic programs, it means that you’ve read every lesbian novelist in the Commonwealth, but not necessarily a single sentence of Dickens, Flaubert or Joyce.
The second criterion [is] more daunting. T.S. Eliot put it simply when he said the critic must be “very intelligent.” Not inspired with genius, just very intelligent.
I’m happy to report that Marchand follows this potentially self aggrandizing statement with the comment: “Every critic, then, must feel, at one time or another, a bit of a fake. … This is one reason, for decency’s sake, I call myself a ‘book reviewer,’ and not a ‘literary critic.’ The former is a statement of fact. The latter a claim best left to others to make for one.”
There has been much recent lively debate about the purpose of book reviews – and the proper approach that ought to be taken. As a topic, it seems doomed to perpetually renew. Marchand’s piece deserves to be remembered, and returned to, within this debate.
Starnino’s collection of “essays and reviews” takes Lover’s Quarrel as its title. I have not yet, however, heard Starnino praised for attempting to articulate, if not resolve, Canadian poetry’s inner conflict. In other places, I’ve called it a “civil war.”
This book is grounded by a 60-plus page introductory essay that I would recommend to anyone. Agree with it or not, Starnino presents a deeply argued survey of Canadian poetry, its movement, moments, transitions and potential. If I was to point to a single section of any of these three books as “essential reading,” it would be this essay.
It wasn’t this essay, however, that got the most attention when this book appeared. That honour (?) went to Starnino’s essay on Eunoia. However, as Starnino explained last year in Calgary, this essay wasn’t about Eunoia per se; it was about the (un)critical response to that remarkable bookish achievement. Myself, whatever. Read the book. Read the essay. Make up your own mind. In general, though, this debate is a distraction from the value of Starmino’s prose. IMHO.
Thus I quote:
- A criticism without a real interest in aesthetic failure will be incapable of recognizing aesthetic success. (p65)
- Unfortunately the enduring wish to honour what Robin Skelton called ‘passionate provincials dedicated to local mythologies’ continues to stymie our capacity to appreciate those who inhabit other traditions and influences – transformations that have always been the poet’s most important faculty, if not his natural instinct. (p87)
- Layton, Acorn and Nowlan were all lavish in the expression of their feelings, but their poetry was never an display of self since that lavishness was also an expression of style. (p89)
- We want to feel that something has been urgently translated into language rather than synthetically fabricated from language. (p209)
Marchand makes a point of letting readers know that he doesn’t buy the Canadian tradition thing. He learned about the Modernists in university, and he measures Canlit against Virginia Woolf et al, not against post-Centennial nostalgia and multicultural angst. And fair play to that. Canlit does need to prove itself on the largest possible playing field.
Starnino takes a different tack, though. He argues that Canadian poetry is often better than poetry produced elsewhere. It’s just that the poetry he celebrates isn’t the poetry that is traditionally anthologized and canonized by Canadian editors and reviewers. He makes the case for an essentially underground tradition of Canadian poetry, one he is charged to make the rest of us “see.”
Starnino doesn’t call anyone’s mind “uninteresting,” but he comes close. Here’s what he has to say about Susan Musgrave:
Like a diviner throwing bones, however, Musgrave’s prosodic procedures don’t actually work. And by ‘work’ I mean her poems aren’t the sort that force readers to give their full assent because of the inescapable verbal and emotional necessity of what is being said. Their success, instead, depends on readers willing to invest in the all-in-a-heap result with the air of infallible intuition. Or, to put it another way, Musgrave is the kind of poet who, missing the wherewithal to utter the magnificent thing, strives for the weird thing. Am I being unfair?
Among the three authors discussed here, Starnino displays the most anxiety about the force of his opinions. This is, of course, relative. I don’t mean to imply that Starnino is on the edge of apology. However, his chosen metaphor is the lover’s quarrel. He recognizes the context of debate, and his prose reinforces the legitimacy of the process.
David Solway’s Director’s Cut, however, offers a different metaphor. If T.S. Eliot said critics ought to be “very intelligent,” but not necessarily inspired by genius, Solway fashions himself as auteur. Wile E. Coyote. Super genius. If Starnino is more Isaiah Berlin liberal, Solway is more Wolfowitz neo con. (Maybe you didn’t know that Canlit had any?)
I can’t help but comment that for a man so abhorred by cliches, he chose one for the title of his book. WTF?
Of the three books reviewed here, I had the most difficulty with this one. One the one hand, I enjoyed the sharpness of its arguments. On the other, what is one to make of sentences like this:
If the poetic climate in this country is not especially notable for the consistent production of undeniable excellence, it is certainly qualified by a predilection for conflict and a passion for declamatory animadversion.
If you’re tempted to go to Google to look up “animadversion,” here’s the link.
What I liked about Solway’s book, I quoted earlier in a blog post, of all things, about Elvis Stojko:
Here's a quote from Solway's Director's Cut:
Our poets dress themselves up as renovators of the language without whom, presumably, people would be reduced to carrying out their ordinary discourse in grunts and pantomimes, like the speculators of Lagado. The contradiction here is that many of these same poets have already valorized common speech as the register in which they blithely continue to work.
A page later, he is blasting both the "simplifiers" and "complicators" (i.e., those poets who celebrate common speech and the academics who champion theory and obscurity). Neither group, says Solway, produce real poetry, as Stojko says these Winter Olympics are producing real figure skating competition.
Solway refers to sociologist Erving Goffman's study of "'selective disattention' to facts which would otherwise challenge the frame of discourse and perception we take for granted." Unfortunately, the example he provides to illustrate this point is infected with an error. He mentions "Bobby Hull" scoring a goal which won the Stanley Cup, even though his foot was in the crease, a violation of what was then an NHL rule. Of course, it was Bobby's son, Brett, who scored that goal. The point being, however, that mass delusion descends to allow us to forget the rule and accept the "reality."
Solway’s target in this book are Anne Carson, Michael Ondattje, George Elliot Clarke, Margaret Atwood, Lorna Crozier, and, perhaps most of all, Al Purdy, whom he calls “Standard Average Canadian,” thereby setting his aim on virtually the entire national culture.
I didn’t agree with his take on Purdy, but I appreciated it. If that sounds patronizing, so what? The original essay is as well.
Solway is at his best when he isn’t arguing. His survey of Montreal in the 1940s is revealing and valuable. His memories of Louis Dudek and Milton Acorn are emotionally true, resonant and historically important. I also enjoyed “Reflections on the Laureatship,” as well as Solway’s concluding long essay, “The Great Disconnect.”
To conclude, I want to highlight Solway’s fight with George Elliot Clarke, outlined in “The Colour of Literature.” The conflict centres on Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. It is taught in schools to enlighten teenagers about racism. Clarke has pointed out that it isn’t so much about racism as it is about “white guilt.” Solway says, so what? It’s well written; that’s all that matters.
This is an important argument, and Solway takes it deeper than Marchand’s dismissal about Commonwealth lesbians.
This debate hit Ontario reality in 2009 when a local school board pulled the book from a grade 10 course. The book was still available in the library, though that didn’t stop advocates from calling it “banned.” Solway’s book appeared in 2003, and his essay referencing Clarke is likely based on a similar school controversy in Nova Scotia in 2002.
Solway actually says Clarke’s argument about white guilt “may be true. And his is surely correct when he suggests that we might redress the balance by listing the works of authors who write from inside their particular worlds and dilemmas. But this is as far as his deposition should be allowed to go.” (Allowed?)
I would argue against Clarke that the history of white guilt is at least as important as the history of black oppression and that there is no viable reason why these books should not be considered as an appropriate subject of study. … Finally, and in line with the preceeding, I would argue against the facile and invidious distinctions borne by those loaded and patently absurd terms, ‘white-authored’ and ‘black-authored’ texts, which Clarke so insouciantly deploys.
Oi vey. Where has this led us? Straight to the heart of our 21st century abyss. I want to conclude here with a pox on both their houses. As Starnino said, “A criticism without a real interest in aesthetic failure will be incapable of recognizing aesthetic success.” Yet, yes, we need to talk about race, as we’ve needed to talk about gender. We just need to talk about it intelligently, and not in polarizing terms (and likely not through the media, which get just about everything wrong).
I end with this conflict, because it is a point very close to the purpose of these three critics, i.e., to highlight aesthetics above all else. Above sociology most of all.
This has seemed a losing battle in the universities for a couple of decades now (thus the relative lack of peers for these three titles), where capacity for “theory” has been a key skill for those who wish to dominate the fast tenure track. Literature (whatever that is), however, always finds its “golden mean.” The underground currents represented by these writers are vital and necessary. Read them, accommodate and/or dismiss them.
They deserve more, however, than to be ignored.
So concludes my short (incomplete) summary of these books.
Actually, a bit more. Here’s a paragraph from a review of Solway’s book:
A collection of sixteen essays, articles, and reviews, Director's Cut is presumably the author's preferred versions of writings which, except for the preface and long concluding essay, have all appeared elsewhere. Some of those writers savaged in Solway's ad hominem attacks have already hit back in print; most seem to have ignored the provocation. The public, oblivious to the poetry wars raging about them, have doubtless continued on their daily rounds, which is unfortunate, because Solway is not merely a name-caller. He is steeped in poetic tradition, practice, and scholarship; his beliefs as to what constitutes superior poetry are solidly grounded and stated frequently with various nuances throughout the book, repetition being inevitable since each of the pieces deals with essentially the same subject. Palatable or not, his arguments and judgements, such as his necessary reassessment of Al Purdy, deserve to be engaged and debated.
Let’s look for a second at that Latin phrase: ad hominem.
Here’s an extended quotation from Wikipedia:
The term ad hominem has sometimes been used more literally to describe an argument that was based on an individual, or to describe any personal attack. However, this is not how the meaning of the term is typically introduced in modern logic and rhetoric textbooks, and logicians and rhetoricians are in agreement that this use (equated with "personal attack") is incorrect.
"You claim that this man is innocent, but you cannot be trusted since you are a criminal as well."
This argument would generally be accepted as reasonable, as regards personal evidence, on the premise that criminals are likely to lie to protect each other. On the other hand, it is a valid example of ad hominem if the source making the claim is doing so on the basis of evidence independent of its own credibility.
In general, ad hominem criticism of evidence cannot prove the negative of the proposition being claimed
"Tom says the umpire made the correct call, but this can't be true because Tom is the father of the boy who was "safe" on second base."
Assuming Tom is the father of the baseball player, his viewpoint is uncritical and may therefore be scrutinized, but the umpire may nonetheless have made the right call.
Marchand, Starnino and Solway are all guilty of ad hominem attacks, if by that term we mean “personal attack.” If by personal attack we mean “diminish the importance of” or “hold in lower esteem.”
However, as cited above, “personal attack” alone is not an ad hominem argument. I am not going to absolve these writers, or rule one way or another on this question. I just raise it, and end on it. I wasn’t comfortable that what these writers said was always fair and reasonable positioned. Some of them did better than others. In this sense, “crotchety” is a fair adjective to assign to these critics. Ultimately, however, the goal of these books isn’t to destroy reputations (ahem), it’s to participate in larger arguments about literature.
We need more books like these. We need books better than these.