Tuesday, July 23, 2013

James Pollock's You Are Here: Essays On the Art of Poetry in Canada


When the new normal in criticism is for a reviewer and essayist to play along with the small-stick commandment that “everyone who participates (writes poems, in this case) gets a gold star”, it’s both a relief and a delight to encounter James Pollock’s recent You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada, which puts the evaluative approach front and centre. Ultimately, it’s the critic’s job to sift and weigh, to consider, and to judge. Pollock takes great care in this sequence from reading to writing, and the force of his conclusions, always nuanced, are made plain, and backed by a hefty portion of core citation.

You Are Here kicks off with a terse preface. In the bad good-ole days, two kinds of Canadian scribbling held sway: “rough, dull, plainspoken lyric poetry in casual free verse, either autobiographical or mythically didactic: Atwood, Al Purdy, George Bowering”, and “a loopy avant-garde composition whose main qualities were tedium and incoherence: Nichol, Fred Wah, Steve McCaffery.”  Alternately depressed and furious, Pollock began to trace “the causes of that literary malaise”: a general lack of understanding and clarity about poetry whose main outlet congealed into parochial boosterism set the paces for Canadian mainstream verse and poetics.
Pollock’s collection is in three parts. Part one is a series of reviews of single poets in career retrospectives, though some focus on one book. Part two is a series of four essays on recent Canadian poetry anthologies, as well as an opening piece on a critical survey. You Are Here closes with two thematic excursions more personal in tone, and covering the concerns, in repetition and variation, touched on  throughout the book.

One of Pollock’s arguments concerns poets’ loquacious, narcissistic tendencies. Of the five causes listed for the late Daryl Hine’s neglect in Canadian verse letters, one is “our poetry’s puritanical devotion to sincerity and personal authenticity”. I agree with the view, as it’s contrasted to Hine -- and compared with contemporary poetry -- in general, but the argument is more sophisticated than that. Robert Lowell, with Sylvia Plath, spearheaded the lyric confessional booth from which ever-renewing booster shots are administered by priestly egomaniacs every publishing cycle. But Lowell was frankly manipulative with fact and,  more importantly, used it to mine ideas and emotions for which autobiography was simply a convenient wellspring of the universal. This is why his historical poetry is so remarkable, and why it fit so seamlessly into his own experiences. It’s all impersonal history, in a sense. But here I must turn it back to Hine. Hine’s best lyrics have an effective and affecting emotional resonance to them, a bewitching element of personal surprise which marries the allusive adjuncts or stratagems, ala Lowell, to a structure superseding both. I think here of  “Plain Fare” from the book under review, Hine’s Poems Recollected (1951 to 2004), (Pollock would most likely appreciate the homophone, one of Hine’s signature tricks), where the mundane topic of a bus trip is invested with a wonderfully open and searching exploration of human vulnerability and geographical circumstance. A sobering comment is made, and unobtrusively so, about fate, even in the most relaxed of circumstances. Hine’s sophistication, I find, is often featured at the expense of his other, and greater, strengths, and though the wordplay hijinks are often impressive, to support  Pollock’s  praise, it’s when Hine lets his heir down, and concentrates on a more unfiltered experience --  less allusive and intricately music-for-music’s-sake --  that I most thrill to his poems. At any rate, I agree with his criticism of Recollected Poems’ organizational problems. Why any editor or publisher thinks arranging the poems into a thematic structure, rather than a chronological one, enhances the reading experience is beyond me.

I concur with Pollock’s review of Dennis Lee’s Un and Yesno. One need not enumerate all the various ways our natural world is being depleted, plundered, polluted, and manipulated in order to get on a soap box and blow a language bubble. But that’s one trouble with Lee’s two efforts. To steal a D.H. Lawrence criticism of Freud, it’s all going to church but with no worshipping. As Pollock says, there are very few instances of actual birds, plants, animal interaction or observation to contrast with their vulnerable existence next to ... well, next to what? Lee isn’t clear on that either. At least most polemics in verse seek to be plainly didactic. Even when the poetry inevitably suffers, the reader can at least make connections, and feel some sympathy for the particular argument. But Lee’s effort to regenerate language by paradoxically reducing it to “slubtalk” is a peculiar way to get there. Perhaps it’s our regressive worship of the “natural state”. Rousseau and his noble savages. Lee’s “flux”, which Pollock quotes, is so filled with neologisms that it’s “reduced to gibberish”. In a way, the poem is fun, at least the first time around. But Pollock is quite right when he states, “[c]ould anything be more self-indulgent?” This is the kind of verse a friend and I used to make in grade nine, made-up words that sounded quirky and silly, and weren’t intended to communicate anything other than a laugh, though I suspect (I can’t quite recall) there may have been a more serious, subversive element to it, ala the Dadaists. Nothing means nothing, man, so let’s just make stuff up. Fun in a closed-loop for a while, and only with one’s friends, but what it has to do with language resuscitation, and especially as a response to the complex issues of ecological destruction, is a puzzle I can’t even begin to entertain.

Pollock next reviews Anne Carson’s Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (2006). Carson’s book is a multi-structured, complex undertaking of original poems, poetics tied to her efforts, reviews and thoughts on a wide variety of literary and saintly (if not “spiritual”) figures, librettos, plays, and essays. It’s a curious choice to include in a collection of praiseworthy (to Pollock) poets, since Carson has been wildly belaurelled here, as elsewhere. But the quality of that critique, in Canada, has been strange, and has provided supporting evidence for Pollock’s claim that our poetic culture has lacked sophistication. Elsewhere in You Are Here, Pollock states that criticism and poetry are of a piece. That is, one reinforces the other, and both are necessary. But in Canada, any praise of Carson seems to be of the elementary kind. What is needed are critics, not necessarily credentialed scholars, who can go some way to unpack Carson’s allusive links, but also to make a place for her in (to use Pollock’s term) the Romantic sublime. But Pollock wants more than that. It’s easy to get lost in theme and history when a Plato or a  Longinus, a Weil or a Beckett pop up on every page. The poems, though, especially, have to produce on their own merits. Pollock finds her original creative work a mixed bag. He praises the emotional content in some of the poems while passing over the ineffective  typographical or structural tricks of others, those tricks the failed lineation experiments in which he calls on Flannery O’Connor to admonish against, wherein “a writer is free to try and get away with whatever he wants, but that it had been her [O’Connor’s] experience that there wasn’t much one could get away with.” I’m tougher on Carson’s poetry than is Pollock, finding her images often general, her rhetoric often unconvincing, her sound patterning often clumsy or simplistic. But I side with him in applauding her choice of thematic material. Not many poets have braved a concern with God or even gods these days, nor have many classical tropes and stories been used in serious reworking as opposed to deconstruction games. And on that note, it’s her prose that shines, or at least glows. Pollock raves about her intelligent analysis of (for one example) Sappho’s poetry, her erudition combined with a personal exploration which brings life to obscure figures such as Marguerite Porete. Her prose is probing, but tentatively so. It’s notoriously difficult to write about spiritual issues, and the idea of “decreation”, annihilating the self to better access the glory of god or God, is, as Pollock points out, not a new one in the vast history of negative-approach spirituality. But Carson manages to put a sincere and personal spin on it. The plays, the oratorio? I agree, as well here, with Pollock. Warmed-over Beckett. Worse, an unconvincing reach for an Ionesco craziness. Pollock enjoyed the libretto at the end, but I haven’t read it, being allergic to opera without the singing, instrumentation, and staging.

The career review of Jeffery Donaldson is the high point in You Are Here. Both thematically relevant and exegetically astute to many points he makes throughout the volume, Pollock lavishes serious praise on another poet in the line of erudite, tradition-conscious wordmakers who nevertheless transcend the stylistic fixities of those admired poets to find their own way. Pollock brilliantly introduces key poems in the Donaldson corpus, pointing out various epistemological hints and metaphorical-personal linkages, but moreso to give a round description of an ambitious neophyte who, when a university student, “apparently kept a quotation from Goethe’s Faust tacked on the wall above his desk: ‘Settle your studies! and sound the depths/of that thou wilt profess.’ “ A sobering admonition for any student, especially so for a budding poet trying to navigate between various and conflicting influences in one’s formative creative years. Pollock identifies Donaldson’s penchant for dramatic monologues in his first volume, 1991’s Once Out Of Nature, with a reliance on the preferred mode of mentor Richard Howard. The book’s opener, “A Floating Garden at Giverny” is given a highly sympathetic explication/review, and though Pollock makes a good point that this particular voicing is freer, or more convincing, because the narrator is not the subject, it’s also true that the deflected in-poem praise comes off a little too heightened or pure in overall design and effect. I much prefer another monologue from the same book, Donaldson’s first-person majestic manoeuvring on Gustav Mahler, “At Toblach”, (which Pollock also admires). It’s not appropriate to a review of the review, here, to rave about the  poem in too much detail, but my praise has ties to what Pollock maintains: the language is faultless, and the sounds mellifluous and suggestive, here made in exquisite parallels with the difficulties of composition breaking with new power and contour. Pollock’s praise of “Bearings” is intelligent. I, for one, am convinced. And again, it ties in with a major theme of the book: worldly exploration making way over the misplaced, though smugly held, views of fixed provincial worthiness. And unlike many other first-book authors who would go on to display their wayward logorrhea in each publishing cycle, Donaldson’s next book of poetry didn’t appear until 1999, eight years after his first effort. It, too, is filled with gems, and is startlingly different in rhythm (stronger, tighter) and effect (more daringly personal). Pollock emphasizes the latter strength, especially so in his careful reading of the incredible “Feddy Doe” where the father in the poem is a substitute (or perhaps it’s the other way ‘round) for the poet’s mentor, Richard Howard, who had to be shaken off (this time for a more mature association with James Merrill). Donaldson’s third volume, Palilalia, ten years after his second book, is praised by Pollock for further development. Bold in design, and successfully personal and direct, it’s a hard-won testament to Northrop Frye’s words (in Pollock’s view) that Frye’s students should stop trying to be so willful and just let go, the latter a parallel or metaphorical tap to Donaldson’s Tourette’s syndrome. I haven’t read this volume, so won’t add any commentary to Pollock’s.

I couldn’t disagree more with Pollock’s assessment of Marlene Cookshaw’s poetry, at least with book 2 and 3 of her five efforts. (I haven’t read the others.) Pollock’s stance is that Cookshaw’s aesthetic repertoire was (pardon the pun) raw, inept in her first two volumes. Her characters were uninteresting, she couldn’t finish a poem with any structural or narrative skill, and she “linger[ed] excruciatingly over insignificant details”. I agree that the long 13-part sequence, “In the Swim”, from The Whole Elephant, matches that withering description, and it’s unfortunate it hogs so many pages. But elsewhere, Cookshaw shows promise with startling similes (“the building folded inward like soiled cloth”, from “The 410 Walker Street Blaze”), terrific sounds laced with troubling self-identity (“Made of my body an abandoned canoe”, from “That Singing Edge”), and more sound-chiming with suggestions of past and present stories (“trapped in Alf’s garage/with her collection of cobwebbed dolls/and my abandoned books”, from “Ball/bearing”). But it’s the poem “Flying Home from the Prairies” that highlights this book. It’s a wonderful poem, and shows off Cookshaw’s great strength, believable vulnerability, not sentimental in the least, and at times, metaphysically scary. It’s a rare talent that can pull this off, and she navigates with confidence from start to finish in this musing during a B.C. flight. I’m not being coy by not quoting from it; it’s simply that the strange mood, and the mature and intelligent conclusions that come with the touchdown, have to be experienced with a complete through-reading. Another intelligent summation occurs with the book’s last effort, “Sempre Amore”, a philosophical acceptance of sound for sound’s sake after listening and watching Steve Lacy play sax. That promise was destroyed for me when I read Cookshaw’s next book, Double Somersaults, an effort in which Pollock finds seventeen of the forty lyrics “very good”. Worse, the ones he pegs among those seventeen contain some of the flabbiest, most abstract, cliched, and smug and inane philosophical phrasing I’ve come across in some time. From “Blue Mexican Glass”: “This/is all there is, when will I learn that?/There is what comes, what I do/with it, what goes. What gives./No matter. No matter at all, no/substance.” From “Grays Harbor County”: “People here try hard to be/good citizens. There is no doubt//they are god-fearing folk, in/troubled times, time being//one day and then another.” From “Praise”: “breath held//before giving in/to the world’s eloquence.” One notes the presumptive first-person plural, the grand statement, the plunge into bathos. This is shocking because Cookshaw’s strength – vulnerability, particularity, wise conclusion – have mostly gone AWOL in this book, but have done so while opposite qualities (rather, defects) have emerged in their place. There’s a personal complacence in many of these poems, sadly come upon in a typical middle-class soft-tone kvetching about mild spiritual problems which arrive as self-centered inconsequentialities fit for drifting thoughts in a bored state, not poetic statement or image. The poems have added some polish, as Pollock says, but it’s at the expense of affecting emotion and an outward view that immediately stunts many lyrics. A few poems work with more good lines than bad – I’m thinking of “Holes in the Snow” and “Maybe the Body After All”, both of which Pollock also admires – but a more sophisticated Cookshaw is a turn in the wrong direction. I was so disappointed with Double Somersaults after the incredible promise of The Whole Elephant that my heart just wasn’t in it for her next volume, Shameless, a book which Pollock also enjoyed, though not as much as her last. I did make an attempt, but gave up early at the conclusion of “Outdoor Baptism”’s closing, “Keep moving./The river of your spirit has a current/stronger than you know. Let//go. Keep going. Be/shameless.” I ask the reader to take it on trust that these lines aren’t ironic, or out of the mouth of a specific character in the poem. Cookshaw, if her last book and this poem is any indication, seems to be on the fast-track to that most busy and normal projection in a poet’s career: a placating religiose syrup provider.

The next essay covers a lot of ground. Pollock does a fantastic job in detailing Karen Solie’s career range which isn’t surprising since, as the essays plainly show in You Are Here, he’s quick to signal changes or stances in thematic concern, aesthetic approach, and even spiritual wisdom. Tone, though, is another story, with his analysis of Solie’s entertaining and revelatory poem, “Anniversary”. He concludes his appraisal with, “[o]n the surface the poem is tough. Below the surface it’s soft as feathers. In short, the film noir diction is a pose”. We’re reading a different poem, then, because Solie’s tone seems to me ironic, droll, and consistently strong in sexual suggestiveness and wordplay. Pollock spends some time picking apart her lines, “I said, eyes shining/ with antihistamines, that you were potent/ as a rare bird sighting, twenty on the sidewalk,/ straight flush.”, because of its confusing syntax. But the common simile bridge, “as a”, refers to all three of “rare bird”, “twenty”, and “straight flush”. Moreover, Pollock misses one of many sexual metaphors throughout the poem when he breezes past the speaker’s realization of her lover’s wayward recognition of “rare birds” – other possible women to bed – as well as his (Pollock’s) reading of “a bank of muscled cloud above/my poisoned field” as “grandiose in this context, suggesting as they do sky god and earth goddess”. Or it could be the speaker’s compromised attempt to see her lover’s tumescence through bleary eyes. Notice, also, “bank” next to the later “twenty”. The lovers are assessing each other as commodities, but the lines are structured expertly in worldly whimsy, tired but with gentle black humour. In another poet’s hands, this kind of content is usually a quick path to stridency and witlessness. Notice, also, the wonderful word “rose”, which appears just before the four line quoted snippet above. Three meanings I’ve detected include the obvious sexual one, but also the humorous olfactory contrast as well as a daring “Easter” alliance with the poem’s last words, “my perfect match” The poem is refreshingly funny start to finish, and there’s a fair amount of wisdom put forth about the old dance of sex stepping on the toes of spiritual misalignment. Another disagreement I have is with Pollock’s reading of “Medicine Hat Calgary One-Way”. Pollock’s  “Christian ethical imperative” in the poem’s “is it not possible/to look with love upon your fellow travellers?” strikes me as too easily won or considered. It’s not exactly slumming because the speaker, even if in better straits than most of her fellow riders, has also to struggle through a spiritless journey through the grim sights of two-store whistle stops. But the empathy here, as I found in another praised bus trip poem, Richard Greene’s lengthy “Over the Border”, assumes a lot about fellow travelers (though at least Greene’s narrator is heard speaking to one or two), thereby coating those people with a monochrome assumptiveness. “Hey”, I want to say, sitting two seats ahead of her, “I’m having a hoot schlepping through the heat, and I can’t wait to get to see [fill in X here] at my destination”. I’m not saying her observations aren’t provocative, but I hesitate to heighten them to individual accuracy. I also note more pity than empathy here, not that pity is unworthy (the feeling has acquired a troubling negative association lately), but that it’s certainly a far cry from hard-won, long-lasting empathy. Pollock uses Solie’s poem to contrast it with Daryl Hine’s “Plain Fare”, a  poem I’ve earlier applauded. In Pollock’s view, Hine’s is an inferior effort because the speaker “hardly notices the landscape and fairly dismisses the passengers, preferring to spend the journey reading a novel instead.” Yes, but then I find this an honest portrayal, and a more complex and convincing one. That is, the speaker has his head buried in a novel, but one doesn’t have to note in minute detail the expressions of the surrounding people or the list-making exhaustiveness of the landscape in order to have a rapport with those people and a spiritual connection with the scene out the window. After all, just because one doesn’t wear one’s empathy outwardly doesn’t mean it’s not there. Does Hine turn inward? Yes, but what of it? And perhaps he notices, too, but keeps silent about what he sees, and that there’s a point to that, as well. Not everything has to be relived in description. Hine’s making a difficult statement, an ironical one, regarding human nature, that his fellow passengers are likewise engulfed in their own worlds, troubled with mundane (or not so mundane) problems. There is more than one path to empathy, and in any case, it’s not a sign of a poem’s worth that its speaker must have an elevated spiritual realization. I think here of yet another bus trip captured in Adam Sol’s Jeremiah, Ohio in which the titular character is studied from all sides by his vulnerable companion. This is an excellent way to attack the too-often tack of personal outsider anecdote: full-fleshed fiction within a narrative framework. Sol’s wonderful ending to his book even reminded me a touch of the powerful bus-situated conclusion to the classic Midnight Cowboy film, and though it’s unfair to stack any film against a short lyric, it’s also fair to point out, perhaps ironically so, that one of Pollock’s stances – that of the unnecessarily prevalent viewpoint of the author, explicitly autobiographical or not – can be countered in this fictional drama to greater effect than is often allowed in the personal sojourn. But this particular chapter review is sounding completely antagonistic towards Pollock’s assessment of Solie. Not so. His other judgments I find interesting, his assessment of Solie’s career arc I find convincing, and his bold evaluations of most of her other poems I’m on board with. His perceptive and allusive treatment of “Sturgeon” is a delight, and the mark of a good critic is one who sends you back to a poem you may have read at least several times only to now see a different path altogether where once were brush and brambles (even though they echoed intriguingly underfoot).

Another peak in You Are Here is the chapter on Eric Ormsby. Pollock is meticulous and convincing in his poetic biography of the man whose breakout effort “Fetish” scored the poet’s calling with assaulting image and emotional compulsion. It’s a remarkable poem, but also remarkable is Pollock’s excavation of it: “The fetish, which with its nails resembles a voodoo doll, is a kind of Blakean emanation or Frankenstein’s creature; it is the poet’s agonized and hermaphroditic spirit or daemon torn out of him and made into a work of art.” Pollock next goes on to detail how Ormsby became dissatisfied with  remaining long in any ‘egotistical sublime’, preferring instead the chameleon approach. “Shakespeare’s unrivalled capacity to imagine his way into his characters is clearly one of the qualities [Ormsby] admires most”, writes Pollock, though it needs to be said that Ormsby’s great early strength, aside from his fantastic musical skill and employment, is his attention to microscopic detail in “flora and fauna: starfish, lichens, moths, wood fungus, bee balm, spiders and so on.” And though Pollock notes the poets who influenced Ormsby in these earlier efforts – D. H. Lawrence and Marianne Moore are two obvious name checks, among others --  it needs to be emphasized that Shakespeare (again, aside from his jaw-dropping verbal dexterity and assault) concentrated on people, their motivations and dilemmas, lusts and dreams. Ormsby, to be sure, eventually assumes the masks of different people, but it’s when his justly lauded observational powers are turned to the people who surround him, rather than the recreations of tenth century Arabic poets (another Shakespearean influence, that of the parallel character angles of the Caesars et al?) , that the poet shines, as Pollock convinces the reader with his appraisal of “The Suitors of My Grandmother’s Youth”. Pollock’s exegesis, once again, has depth and nuance, and gets at the emotional centre of the poem while revealing new breakthroughs for the poet under consideration: “Ormsby is adapting his earlier methods to a new type of subject: the fireflies and lilacs are still emblems of the human, but now they stand for his characters, not himself. This gives him a new detachment, and lets a new sense of humour and dramatic irony into the poem”. Pollock next considers Ormsby’s Araby. He raves about the book, going so far as to call thirty-six of the thirty-eight poems superb. Pollock opines that “the characters are fully developed, and change over time, and feel more real than many real people, if only because Ormsby helps us enter so fully into their inner lives. Ormsby is at his most Shakespearean in this book, all but disappearing into his characters the way he nearly disappears into animals and plants in his thing-poems.” And typically, Pollock then goes on to display an entire poem (“The Junkyard Vision of Jaham”), and from there, like a master watchmaker, quickly and lovingly handling its springs and wheels, pins and arrows, while allowing the mysterious imaginative essence of the poem to beguile us with its own life. Pollock concludes his study of Ormsby by noting the poet’s cosmopolitanism, using this as a contrast to the current (and long-standing) Canadian and American obsession with local boosterism.

You Are Here, part two, contains five shorter essays on (respectively) W. J. Keith’s two-volume critical survey, Canadian Literature in English, Carmine Starnino’s The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry, Sina Queyras’ Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, the inaugural and annual The Best of Canadian Poetry, and Evan Jones’ and Todd Swift’s more recent Modern Canadian Poets. To state one’s take on the assessments of each editorial decision (and omission) would take a blue moon or two, so I’ll just note that Pollock, for the most part here, is exasperated yet hopeful, blunt yet exhaustive. He scores many passionate points throughout. I’ll just touch on a few. Keith is taken to task for his refusal to see an aesthetic lineage playing out in the best of today’s poets, and in fact, for his neglect in recognizing that fact even in Skakespeare, Racine, and Goethe: “The larger context is always precisely the aesthetic one, even for writers from nations with great literary traditions like England and France.” And I found more than a little humour in Pollock’s ironical recognition that, though Keith professes to reading for pleasure, there is little pleasure to be found in Keith’s own sentences. Pollock’s assessment of Starnino’s volume is much more sympathetic. He considers nine of Starnino’s choices to be “first-rate”, though he thinks the editor’s ambitious selection of fifty-one poets much too crowded. Still, fourteen “completely convincing” poets are a very high total, and Pollock applauds Starnino’s discoveries and assessments, especially so since many of them are (or were, at this point) either unknown or little known to the general poetry reader, even within Canada. Pollock is disappointed in Queyras’ anthology, calling it a “missed opportunity”. Molly Peacock is also taken to task in her forward, which in Pollock’s view, “immediately sets about lowering her readers’ expectations”. How typically Canadian. He then excoriates Queyras in the editor’s introduction for her title’s link to the Black Mountain school as well as her evasion of editorial intent and process. Pollock: “[I]f you read anthologies, as I do, precisely in order to get oriented, you’re out of luck”. The poems themselves are a “hodge-podge”. Poems of our most prominent practitioners are taken from just one or two books, older poets still producing are ignored, and “poets range from very good to mediocre to appallingly bad, with rather more of the latter two”. Names, and examples from poems, are included, and as Pollock states late in the piece, “[I]f I have been tough on these poets, and on Queyras for including them, it is only because there are so many better poets who deserve to be here instead.” Exactly. There will always be omissions and differences in taste, brave outlier picks and odd trumpetings, but when the weight of the negligible and atrocious buries the promising and exacting, an anthology positioned for an American audience unfamiliar with much of Canadian poetry has a stake in at least finding the ball park, never mind hitting a home run in it. The relatively new series (first published in 2008), The Best Canadian Poetry, gets some excited nods from Pollock – he discovered “no less than fifteen” fine poets in the inaugural edition – as well as some head shakes on editorial decisions which included having one hundred poets represented with a necessary limit of one poem per poet. Pollock opines, and I concur, that that’s too many poets to attach winning ribbons to, while leaving out greater multiple efforts from the best fifteen or so of the poets already included. Pollock is grateful that Jones and Swift take up the challenge of editing an anthology of Canadian poetry, the first of its kind for a British audience in fifty years, and is thrilled with the editors’ forthright direction. From those editors: “We offer poets with an interest in the wider cosmopolitan tradition and history or poetry: poets of sophistication, style, and eloquence; poets who are informed by the great poetry that came before them.” As to how the selections measure up to the stated criteria, Pollock is happy with how it played out, though he thought “it could have been even better, and in several ways”. One such reservation is how the editors have interpreted “sophistication”. It seems to mean mere biographical background as well as aesthetic accomplishment. Another problem Pollock has with the book centres on poor translations of French language poets from Quebec. The tenor overall, though, is positive, and Pollock concludes with his discovery of Robert Allen’s “Alexandria’s Waltz”, a poem new to me as well, and one that captures the “sophistication, eloquence and style” of the U.K. editors’ intentions.

You Are Here concludes with two personal investigations. The first is in the form of a self-interview while the second is a traditional summation and poetic manifesto as well as an assessment of where the “you are here” is currently positioned. The first essay’s conceit is a little strained, at times. I’m not sure what role or personality the “questioner” was supposed to play in the stylized Q & A. Pollock’s serious devil’s advocate? Or just an excuse to create a bit of drama? Whatever the reason, the “tension” is pretty low-boil, and the persona of the questioner often unconvincing, especially as the piece develops. Nonetheless, though a weak structural choice, it rarely detracts from the answers Pollock provides. As an evaluative reviewer on board with many of Pollock’s core critical principles, I could smile even while posting the entire ten pages here (though the publisher may think that a little naughty), but time is finite, alas. Instead, here’s one brief exchange which eloquently captures the nature of criticism:

“But how can such guidance and such judgments be of any use to anybody else if criticism isn’t objective?

Well, look, it’s true: there is no absolute truth in criticism. But neither is criticism merely subjective. Not all judgments are equally valid.”

Now this is where the hater of critics chimes in with, “and who’s to judge whose opinions are better than others?” There are many answers (many of which I’ve covered in other unrelated posts), but the short response is critical weight and time. I agree with Pollock that criticism isn’t an art, but it’s an art (in the minor definition of that word) for both reader and reader-critic to hold both the subjective and objective in mind, and to know when to use one, when the other, and even when to use both at the same time. There is much else here on the role and attributes of the worthy critic, but I’ll close this section with this terse passage, and though it shouldn’t have to be said, it has to be said:

“Does the critic have an ethical responsibility?

The critic must be honest.”

Pollock’s last essay, the titular subject “The Art of Poetry”, is a twenty-one page investigation into definitions as stated by canonical critics, those opinions themselves then questioned and/or supported by the author. Pollock, though, concludes by laying his cards on the table, defining himself as an aesthete who values rhetoric and prosody, canonical knowledge with creative allusive integration, and a cosmopolitan approach, one that may incorporate many styles and schools (he downplays the tired traditional vs avant-garde grousing in many quarters as superficial or misunderstood) but that, for all its necessary moral virtues, insists on aesthetic pleasure as its chief value and generative impulse.

















1 comment:

brizo said...

Brian, what a pleasure to read your thoughts again. :-)

I agree with you on the subject of self indulgence and wordiness, I've often had the secret opinion that it's egotism and laziness to neglect to edit your thoughts into something concise and pointed.

I roll my eyes reading twelve lines that could be summed in three, with much less boredom to the reader. Or is it the writers intention to suffocate with words?