Thursday, April 17, 2008

Brian Fawcett

Brian's turned off the poetic tap. I just came across this essay scribed quite some time ago. It's a melange of self-importance, muddled "grand statement", pomposity, and patronizing twaddle.

The link is

I first became acquainted with Fawcett's verse at a public reading in '82 or '83. There were the usual Vancouver poetry scene suspects of the time: bissett, Persky, too many others I've forgotten, as well as the only two bright spots: Norm Sibum, and an interesting poem about the author instructing his young son to release a butterfly while meditating on the widespread slaughter in the Congo war. The reader: Brian Fawcett. I have no idea, now, if the emotion was sentimental or profound, or whether the poem was moderately pleasing in its form. But I went out and bought the book in which it was encased:Aggressive Transport. The poems therein, as it turns out, were your standard contemporary fare: mildly interesting anecdotes with occasional telegraphed philosophy, and no discernible rhythmic individuality or verbal flare. After a few rereads, I promptly remaindered it at the bottom of a box where it sat, obscured and forgotten, during a series of moves.

Which brings us up to this article.

"In the early 1980s, after 15 years of publishing reasonably subtle and technically elaborate lyric poems in magazines and books that no one read, I woke up one morning to the unpleasant truth that publishing my lyric poetry in the late 20th century was equivalent to playing with my dick on a busy street corner—and having everyone ignore me. The insight was humiliating enough that I decided to stop publishing my verse and to stop giving public readings of it. I haven’t published a poem since, or at least I haven’t crossed the street to do so." -- Brian Fawcett.

Well, that's a plump handful, isn't it? Let's tiptoe through the minefield of assumptions and hilarious symbolism to try to make sense of it.

"Reasonably subtle and technically elaborate lyric poems" is highly subjective. Poets are usually the worst judges of their own poetry, often inflating their own self-worth (ah, so sorry, I mean the worth of the poems). This is why it is so wonderful to have an instant, as well as a longer-standing and considered, assessment from all sorts of people, who experience the verse at a reading as well as between the covers of a book, to compare and contrast it with what they already enjoy, as well as to be delighted (or not) with any originality which has no reference. Of course there are poets who are "misunderstood" as well as misunderstood, but time is the greatest judge. Ranking is often a mug's game, even though it's a necessary one. I'm spinning off-topic here, but any poet who quits a craft he's been working at for fifteen years and seven books simply because the audience was "unreceptive" to it is telling me that he's in it for fame, for a large following (which amounts to the same thing), and for power by way of influencing a sizeable chunk of the populace, usually with an ideology.

The "dick playing" analogy is too tempting to pass comment on, and I never pretend to be above salivating over a soft, fat slowball down the middle of the plate. Perhaps it's accurate in that: no one noticed because his dick is small? playing with one's dick in public is equivalent to giving a shamefully poor reading of good verse, a good reading of embarassing verse, or a poor reading of bad verse? or, it WAS fascinating for a small number of people, but dick-playing, like reading the same poem over and over, is only amusing for a short period of time? or, fourthly, that it's a poor analogy because passing strangers on a street corner means there's no pressing connection, no rub for the other in staying and making acquaintance, whereas at a poetry reading, there is often a common bond of artistic appreciation even if the audience, en masse, is unfamiliar with the poet.

Of course, another blindingly obvious reason for an audience ignoring one's (his) work is this: perhaps they're right to do so because the poems suck, or at least don't attract stimulating purchase on the imaginations of busy people who, justifiably, have many other competing fascinations from which to choose, and become obsessed with. Another simple and overlooked reason is provided by Fawcett himself, though he doesn't seem to be able to make the connection. (It appears later in the long essay, so I'll deal with it later.)


"There was nothing tragic in this. Ceasing to publish verse didn’t profoundly affect the quality of my life, spiritual or otherwise. My heart didn’t break, the Muses didn’t torment my sleep, nor did I slip off my edge of the so-called real world because I stopped mumbling short-line sentences to small, close-to-comatose audiences. Actually, it was more like coming up with the right insight at the right time, even if the insight had been clubbing me over the head for years." -- Brian Fawcett.

And "the right insight" is what, exactly? To Fawcett, no one reads his poetry, so he takes his ball and goes home. What, then, is the purpose of writing poetry? (In another essay, he gives six specific reasons for writing in general, in typical unintentionally funny, condescending and pompous declaratives. It reminds me of D H Lawrence's takedown of the schoolmarmish moral prescriptions of Benjamin Franklin., the latter who loved to corral the messiness and complexity of life in a tight, rule-bound list of solemn order.) I must have been mistaken; I thought that people wrote poetry because they enjoyed it, and in the case of those who published seven books over a decade-and-a-half, because they were even obsessed and driven to do so. It's clear, now, that this is wrongheaded. Plainly, one writes to further an agenda, to curry favour with a community, to scramble to the top of "the competitive shitpile" (to use Irving Layton's memorable phrase, in a different and ironic context, from the preface to his Collected Poems.)


"When I stopped being a poet, I was able to make a relatively smooth transition to being a writer, one who produced big, long sentences that turned into paragraphs and pages of prose quite easily. Soon I was writing heavily revised books, some of it fiction, but more often the metaphor-laced philosophical speculations and cultural or political commentary that had always been my secret passion. I had a lot in my mind, and a lot on it. Ceasing to publish poems opened up the length, breadth and the depths of the world to write about, and I wrote energetically and often. For a decade, I continued to write verse in private, but in steadily decreasing quantities and with a gradual but relentless decay in the attentions that provoke occasional verse. I kept thinking about that street corner, I guess." -- Brian Fawcett.

Well, things are becoming clearer. An influential impact can be made, but one must know one's desires and talents. Fawcett realized that he has a prosaic, journalistic mind, not a poetic one. No crime there. Most would identify with that. Again, though, it's up to the reader to fill in the spaces between words on the screen with the equivalent unvoiced emotions.

But isn't that last short sentence revealing? He's back playing with himself on "that street corner". The shame of having no one whom he can sufficiently influence, or rather in numbers which are insufficient to him. Because this entire matter of an audience, of accepted influential mien, of cultural cachet, is, to me, one of a personal, idiosyncratic lack, a subjective transference of passive ego onto an optative received communal glorification. If one is writing for numbers, for popular approval, even for the esteem of one's peers, certainly there are other, much better avenues than poetry, with its insular, tree-falling-in-a-forest, trade. Fawcett knew exactly why he quit publishing poetry. He's just being disingenuous. But more on that later, as he grows increasingly "macro" in his argument, elevating dubious ambition into a rude metaphysic.


"Several years after I stopped publishing verse, somewhere near the mid 1980s, I accepted an invitation from Ottawa trouble-maker and editor John Metcalfe to write an essay for one of his critical anthologies about why I’d stopped publishing verse. I wrote 3000 words on my Apple II+ within a few hours of Metcalfe’s invitation, then rethought and rejigged it fifteen or twenty times. Before long, I had a version of my street-corner trauma dressed up in the ideas that had been swirling around it, and I’d become a writer who, for the first time, felt productive rather than merely sensitive." -- Brian Fawcett.

Aha, the false dichotomies begin. Being "sensitive" is anathema to being "productive". The ersatz romanticism of the busy-bee typer, hammering the keys for an ever-widening word-count, interacting in purposeful dialogue with his reader, both eager to transcend the "feckless emotion" of the poet.


"The essay started by suggesting that verse has become a technically obsolete art form that new media has recently rendered culturally and cognitively incomprehensible to most people." -- Brian Fawcett.

One hardly knows whether to laugh or weep at this abominable statement. New media, as in fast media, exciting (and even creating) the surface reactions of unreflective mouth-breathers, as well as distracting the more thoughful of the species, away from the contemplative arts of reading, thinking, conversing, and writing. What else is this but a shameful apologia for the inundation of TV, music videos, one-week movie blitzes, cell phone jingles, text "holla" junk messaging, superficial computer link-mazes, junk newspapers and mags, commercial intrusion, and artless communication (inevitably) of the heart. Pandering to our distracted realities, Fawcett, out of either a cynical alignment with the cult of commercialism he rails against, or out of a resigned and defeated shrug, becomes another entry-point in the fifteen minute notoriety stakes, with topical footnotes on society, on politics, on "lifestyle".


"I went a long way out of my way to diss both the publishing apparatus behind its publication in Canada—along with the self-expression industry that has built itself around verse everywhere—as the product of feckless neurotics, incompetent exhibitionists, lazy, grant-sucking publishers and cyber-capitalist opiates too numerous and loathsome to name." --Brian Fawcett.

OK, lots to like there, though how it incorporates his personal involvement in poetry is, as yet, unclear.


"But I wasn’t completely bloody-minded in my condemnations. I made what felt like a slightly cute distinction between verse-making and poetry, then announced that I believed that poetry remained "the most profound manifestation of human imagination that exists, and …one of the most powerful tools human intelligence has ever devised—the act from which nearly all civilized behaviors have derived." The polemical altitude I reached with that zinger made me feel giddy, but I wanted to go higher before I sent everything crashing down to the level of common sense. So I shifted ground, rustled my priestly cassock, rubbed my hands along the edges of the pulpit, and murmured that I couldn’t "imagine living a life that does not have poetry somewhere near its centre." -- Brian Fawcett.

Bravo, Brian! Shelley would be proud, though perhaps not so self-congratulatory. After all, poetry has survived without your defense long before you were a star in the firmament of your father's cornea. It makes me wonder, again, though, as to your departure from this exacting and triumphal art, especially after writing many books of "technically elaborate" lyrics.


"After adding that that fewer people now read poetry than write it and that publication has become either a sour academic sport or a semi-obligatory response to the availability of government publishing subsidies, I concluded that I couldn’t see any acceptable reason for continuing to publish verse."-- Brian Fawcett.

I don't understand this. This is either disingenuous reactive sourness, or whiny defeatism. Did Whitman have an immediate and enthusiastic audience? Donne? Dickenson? And why stop at "precious" poetry? Even Beethoven, at the height of his powers, notoriety, and influence, couldn't get an ensemble or audience for his incomparable late string quartets, sounds which have (now) often been called the pinnacle of Western music. Shostakovich had to hide his Symphony #4 in his desk for twenty years (wisely), or else he would have been executed on Stalin's orders. So the fickle winds of the publishing climate blow from Erato's quarters to the frenzied newsroom and computer-jazzed culti-bytes. The obvious decision: blow with them. (Paul reveres: "The skittish are coming! The skittish are coming!")


(to be cont'd)

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