Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Professional Poets

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators for a reason. They haven't yet settled on a common system of governance.

Reactions to the 2008 Governor General's Award for Poetry are beginning to resemble the current dysfunctional parliament in Ottawa.

Andre Alexis brought the issue to national attention in last Saturday's Globe and Mail.

Discussion at Bookninja is robust.

Zach Wells was an early catalyst.

The winning poet's editor has weighed in.

Summary is a kind of cliche, but here it goes.

Jacob Scheier's book More To Keep Us Warm (ECW, 2007) won the big prize. This isn't controversial. What is controversial is the past relatioship between one of the three jurors who awarded the prize and the prize-winning poet.

Di Brandt is the juror who has attracted the brunt of attention.

In his book, Scheier acknowledges Brandt's "ongoing advice, support and feedback in the process of writing this book." He also credits Brandt with co-translation of a Rilke poem, the first in the collection.

Should Brandt have excused herself from the jury? Should the Canada Council have dropped her?

These questions have been debated robustly elsewhere.

I am interested in two quotes from Brandt that Alexis included in his Globe and Mail piece. They are reportedly taken from an interview with Brandt by Quill and Quire.

Brandt: "If people want to debate anything, they should at least be having a discussion on the level of poetics."

Brandt: "There is a debate going on in Canada about what is the important poetics of our time, and I think that Jacob Scheier's book demonstrates a poetic clarity ... and spiritual engagement which is in some ways unconventional in the current, neo-Dadaist fashion in some circles in Toronto."

Alexis accused Brandt here of attempting to shift the discussion from the controversy about the award to "an argument about Toronto."

I'm not unsympathetic to this complaint.

However, let's try to have a discussion on the level of poetics. What is the important poetics of our time? Is there even such a thing?

Those debating the appropriate governance structure of literary juries aren't debating poetics. Neither are the politicians plotting power tricks in Ottawa worried about the status of contemporary ghazals.

I asked my wife if she'd heard anything about the GG2008 winner for poetry, and she said, "No. What about it?"

I got halfway through an explanation, and she asked me to stop. What did I want for supper?

(We live in Toronto -- and aren't neo-Dadaists, I promise you.)

I suspect that Brandt was earnest in her explanation. I first saw her read in 1987, and she was earnest then about the power of poetry and how it opened up new opportunities for spiritual engagement. From what I have seen of her career, she has remained consistent in seeking a special place for poetry in the world -- and a special place for a special kind of poetry (at least "special" as she sees it; poetry that is "spiritually engaged").

Is this anything less than trying to grab the remnants of Shelley's unacknowledged legislative reins? Is there a poetic connection between the 2008GG award and the changing of legislative power in Ottawa?

I jest, but only lightly.

It seems to me that poets like Brandt (poets of the spiritually charmed kind, I mean; and I don't mean this as a put-down) are partisan. They are yin to the politician's yang.

There is a debate going on in Canada, but it isn't about what is the important poetics of our time. It is about how to avoid falling into a 1930s-style economic disaster. That debate has become fiercely partisan in the past week, and it may bring down the Harper government.

If you are hard-core partisan, you don't consider that the other side has an equal argument. You try to destroy them, as Harper attempted to destroy the opposition parties with a mean-spirited economic statement that proposed revoking public support for political parties.

If you are partisan, you try to build a world that nurtures the supports you need -- your friends, connections, colleagues, like-minded institutions. Publish or perish. These are not only the rules of democratic governance ... they work for professional poetry, too. Or is that too cynical?

Given the events of this past week, I think not.


I have come to distrust idealists of all stripes. Bring me not a better world, just ham and cheese sandwich.

And a good book.

Pretty please.

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