Saturday, January 8, 2011

Reading TRG

One of the first reviews I wrote in the early days (1999) of The Danforth Review was the one below. I knew nothing of TRG (the Toronto Research Group), but the book had been sent to be as a review copy and I dutifully read it.

I figured I ought to have known something about them. I had an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto at that point and had been self-consciously trying to educate myself about the range of writing in Canada.

Interesting reading a decade later. The "eternal debate between the storytellers and the experimenters" (because eternal) remains. The poetry wars, in fact (largely illustrated by the Starnino/Bok polarization), heated up. Mutual mistrust, misunderstanding continues to exemplify the status quo.


ABC of Reading TRG
by Peter Jaeger
Talon Books, 1999

That literature is diverse is not news. That some literature (for example, the lyric poem, the 19th century narrative novel) is more accessible than other literature (say, Finnegan's Wake or "Howl") startles no one. Yet, there remains the eternal debate between the storytellers and the experimenters, the conservatives and the radicals, as some would like to politicize it. While the best (i.e., most daring) work does not necessarily come from the margins, it is unavoidable that some work demands explanation where other work is more able to stand on its own. Thus we have Peter Jaeger's book-length essay explicating the work of the Toronto Research Group, namely poets Steve McCaffery and bpNichol.

As Jaeger writes:

[The TRG was formed] in 1973 as a forum to investigate issues pertinent to formally imaginative writing, such as the role of the reader, the material status of the book, and the non-semantic aspects of translation and narrative. The earliest TRG reports built on theories proposed by such writers as Gertrude Stein, Jerome Rothenberg, Ilse and Pierre Garnier, and the Brazilian Noigandres group of concrete poets. After 1974, however, the Group integrated ideas drawn from French poststructuralist theory into their research reports.

In other words, approach at own risk. Like a full appreciation of Abstract Expressionism, the work of the TRG requires submersion in various schools of theory. Theirs is not poetry of the everyday, unless it is the everyday activity of the mind - thought processes deconstructed into increasingly thin layers of ephemera.

Which does not mean the work of McCaffery and Nichol is not interesting. In fact, theirs was a brave and unique project that deserves the attention Jaeger's slim book gives it. As Jaeger notes, the TRG's reports "remain critical because of [their] refusal to organize desire around such typical Canlit tropes as authentic voice, the land or Canadian identity." The popular - and often critical - conception of Canadian literature continues to be dominated by the post-Expo '67 nationalist project and "Canadian Unity" anxiety - despite the increasing international popularity of Canadian fiction - and various attempts by Canadian writers to integrate international literary movements and strategies into their work. (Stan Rogal's obvious affinity for Borgesian fictions in his 1996 short story collection What Passes for Love is only one such example.) The early 1970s was the period of Atwood's Survival and various other attempts to reduce literature in Canada to an over-simplistic thematic structure - thus aligning literature with other socio-political activities to help define "Canada" and "Canadians" and help protect "us" from cultural domination from "them" (mostly, the USA - but also the British - i.e., colonial - structures that form the core of the Canadian political identity).

In this context, it is McCaffery and Nichol - not Atwood et al - who were the true innovators. Jaeger points out that McCaffery was born in the U.S. and was once victimized by the sharp end of Dorothy Livesay's umbrella. Lisesay accused him "as a landed immigrant - of stealing publication space from more deserving (because "Canadian") writers." Jaeger quotes McCaffery: "It was a milieu obsessed with establishing a Canadian identity largely predicated upon nationalist narratives and values." It was a milieu, also, that the TRG reacted against - or at least moved away from in search of answers of a different sort.

In is on this point that this review must begin to break down, as a complete assessment of Jaeger's material depends upon a more thorough understanding of Jaeger's material than this reviewer can bring to it. That said, the book is structured as a series of chapters, each representing a letter of the alphabet and a word critical to the understanding of the TRG's project: "Alphabet," "Book-Machine," "Canadada Concrete," "Derrida." This structure, though obviously arbitrary, provides ready-made categories for the reader to gradually unpackage what the TRG was all about - still not an easy process. Ultimately, this is a book for a specialized audience - though the questions it raises about the role of nationalism in forming the public's understanding of "Canadian" literature deserve both a broader forum and deeper discussion.

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