Saturday, November 20, 2010

Jim Smith, Patrick Lane

Earlier this week, I was thinking about writing a blog post called "Literature WTF."

I was despairing for a new book to read, disappointed by the gossipy coverage of the latest "Giller Scandal," and turning over again in my muddled brain for the upteenth time questions about what is literature, what isn't, and who cares.

I care, clearly, though I don't understand why I can still get so enraged by the idiocy of "book news." The Giller Prize every year seems to spark much stupidity.

Hooray, books are being given front page news.

Hooray, a book award show is on TV.

Boo, every year there seems to be more commentary about the selection process, the jurors, the conflict between large and small publishers, etc., than there is about ... what?

What is it that I'd prefer to be given prominence in the major media?

This is my muddle.

Oprah's Book Club has generated ongoing controversy for seeming to promote books as a form on therapy, the major theme of Oprah's media empire being personal redemption. And my spine stiffens when I hear people speak about liking a book because they:
  • identified with the protagnonist
  • found the characters likeable
  • related to the problem the protagonist had to covercome
Or equally if they disliked a book because of the opposite reasons: found the characters unlikeable, etc.

The shortfall here, of course, is that there is no analysis (perhaps no comprehension) of literature as language-made. That is, no arguments are often put forth about the author's use of language (complex, simple, good, poor).

Difficult language is sometimes described as "poetic" (Ondattje gets this label frequently), an oversimplication. Poetry is obscure and prose that is difficult must be good and, therefore, like poetry, is the false argument often put forward.

John Metcalf has made a career of reinforcing the need for more vigorous criticism of the language used by our writers. But there is more. There is also genre analysis. How does one book related to others similar to it. There is also ... well, all sorts of different kinds of analysis.

Depth, however, isn't what the major media are good at. They are known for the opposite.


So I don't feel betrayed (pace Andre Alexis) when the major media can't produce decent literary analysis. They never have, and they never will.

Yet it irks me.

Here are some recent links on the recent "Giller Scandal":

Stray related thoughts. A couple of weeks ago, my six-year-old step-daughter avidly explained to me the difference between fiction and non-fiction (a concept she had learned that day in school). "Non-fiction is real," she said, "and fiction is made up."

Later she asked me if Shrek was fiction or non-fiction.

"Fiction," I said. She pondered this.

"Right," she finally agreed. "Because there's no such thing as a talking donkey."

After 9/11, it was common to hear that sales of fiction were down. Sales of non-fiction were up. People wanted to make sense of the "new normal." I challenge the underlying assumption that non-fiction better explains the world (pre- or post-calamity).

For one, the other thing that people were doing post-9/11 was returning to poetry. Interest in Auden's September 1, 1939 surged (click on link to hear that poem read by Dylan Thomas).

But more generally we interpret the world through language, frame it with stories, turn sequences of events into narratives. Facts are meaningless outside of context. Context is meaningless without the movement and ordering of time.

Cause/effect, in other words, is fiction.

It is what we make it up to be.

A reader of George W. Bush's memoirs, for example, could come to no other conclusion.

Shrek is to non-fiction what the Bush White House was to the events in Kafka's TRIAL. That is, a manufactured reality that locked in its own pre-determined conclusions. It could have been different, given a different set of imaginative gifts.

Or as Bob Dylan said, "If I can think it, it can happen."

Which brings me to Jim Smith's Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems (Mansfield Press, 2009) and Patrick Lane's Witness: Selected Poems 1962-2010 (Harbour, 2010).

These two "selected" collections round up the careers of two significantly different poets. Smith's book is edited by the evil genius Stuart Ross, whom I have previous described as "Canada's leading literary surrealist." Smith shares Ross's attraction for the well chosen odd juxtaposition. Another feature of the book is an attraction to radical political positions (i.e., Sandanistas good, Ronald Reagan bad), a quality I found endearing and which ignited within me waves of nostalgia. (Where did I put that Clash CD?)

Smith and Ross have mixed old and new poems non-linearly. That is, having not read Smith before (he's been publishing since 1979) I had no idea which were "selected" poems and which ones were "new," except to infer from clues in the content (like references to the Nicaraguan class struggle). The approach means the naive reader (me) can approach all of the content fresh, and I did, and I enjoyed it. It left me, frequently, befuddled, but no more so than when I make my daily scan of CNN.

Perhaps you can see where I'm going with this.

Reality is absurd, so the absurdists are the true realists.

Patrick Lane's Witness disappointed me. Many of the poems are about animals. They seemed like Ted Hughes lite. There were poems of youth, work, hardship, violence - earnestly told, yes, but shimmering like non-fiction. They were too real; they didn't spark with imaginative weirdness.

At least, not to me.

Without imaginative weirdness, how can I trust that they are true?

Donkeys do talk, you know.


Anonymous said...

After complaining that literary criticism often avoids meaningful language-based analysis, you condemn Lane's life's work based almost solely on its content: "Witness disappointed me. Many of the poems are about animals ... There were poems of youth, work, hardship."

I'm left with these two thoughts: "They were too real" (this sounds like a compliment to me, depending hugely on the writer's intent, the school of poetry they were writing in).

"They didn't spark with imaginative weirdness." There MIGHT be an interesting point buried in this statement, but I'd have to be pretty kind to do that much work for you.

Why not show us how to do a better job, instead of doing what you've complained about?

Michael Bryson said...

Good grief, Dad. Hiding behind anonymity again to express your disappointment.

Can I never please you?

Haven't I told you a million times the pedagogical voice of the patriarch holds no truck with me?

Besides, once again you missed the point. I certainly did not "condemn Lane's life's work." What horseshit.

You condemn me of failing to write literary criticism. Well, sire, I confess. It ain't literary criticism.

It's a blog post about my admitted subjective reactions to various phenomena.

The Lane/Smith compare and contrast was only the final one.

I read the two books and was puzzled by my reactions to them. I preferred the weirder one. Why?

Clearly the fault/response lies with me. It is not something within the book/author that can be "condemned."

Interesting that the "condemn" gets attention, but the "celebrate" does not.

There's equally a lack of language analysis in my summary of the Smith book.

So thanks for the patronizing "do your own work for you" crap, but no thanks.

If you really care to understand what I'm up to, you need to do more than tell me I'm falling short of some glorified golden standard.

Once again I offer you the opportunity to look in the mirror.

Clearly, it ain't me you're looking for, babe.

Your son, eternally,

Elli D. said...

There is a couple of remarkable points you make in the article - I myself frequently wonder whether to be happy or sad when seeing that books are being criticized or talked about in a rather weird manner - most of the time omitting what is really important and babbling about cheap kitsch books. but what can u do...