Monday, March 28, 2005

Because we must

I have been asked by quite a few people to make this review available online. It's my first "negative" review of anything. I feel the need to speak out against the current strain of conservatism in CanLit. The review is currently running in the Word (Toronto) and set to be reprinted in filling Station (Calgary). I wonder if I will be attacked or bullied for this...

The Self-Lover’s Quarry

A Lover’s Quarrel by Carmine Starnino
Erin: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2004
Reviewed by Jon Paul Fiorentino

One of the back jacket blurbs for A Lover’s Quarrel, Carmine Starnino’s first book of literary criticism, comes from Books in Canada—where Starnino holds the position of associate editor: “Whatever one thinks of his judgments, there can be little doubt that he judges the work in front of him and not the reputation of the poet or the debased laurels wreathing the book’s uncracked spine.” It’s a little like seeing a Bill O’Reilly book with a glowing blurb from Fox News. Still, I fought through the laurels and chanced it.

Starnino is the youngest and most zealous of an obscure group of neo-conservative poets from Montreal. Others include David Solway, Michael Harris and Eric Ormsby. This self-proclaimed “Jubilate Circle” of formal-minded versifiers (see David Solway’s Director’s Cut) has made inroads in the Quebec literary scene in the past few years through their antagonistic criticism of Canada’s most celebrated and best loved poets. The idea that Starnino is railing against an inferior poetics is at the heart of his “quarrel.” Starnino posits that it is his duty to speak out against the current “blandness of our literary scene.” Invoking Kingsley Amis, he argues that “a truly fresh approach demands fresh language.” However, the book is almost exclusively made up of what is commonly referred to in the world of book reviewing as “snark.” So, let’s observe some of Starnino’s snarkier moments.

At every turn, Starnino sets his sights on a CanLit icon. From the most celebrated to the most innovative, bpNichol, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Robert Kroetsch, Christopher Dewdney, Christian Bök, Erin Moure, Susan Musgrave, Al Purdy, Anne Carson, David McGimpsey, all must suffer the imprecations of the angry young traditionalist.

Starnino is continually guilty of the pure sophistry of holding up one poet’s work to another poet’s standards. For example, he criticizes David McGimpsey’s humorous collection, Lardcake, for not living up to Frank O’Hara’s example. Never mind if the work in question seeks to exemplify or emulate O’Hara. It’s similar to excoriating Lenny Bruce for not being Johnny Carson—or Carson for being no Bruce. Here, Starnino makes little effort to try to understand the book’s wisecracking, he actually writes: “I don’t get it. And I don’t think there is much to get.” Granted, there are many people in the world who have trouble understanding comedy, but few decide to write dismissive reviews of jokes they don’t get.

Starnino is at his worst when he attacks experimental poetry. He berates Christopher Dewdney’s classic The Natural History for employing difficult scientific diction because, after all, “life [is] short and books are many.” A noble sentiment for a scholar. Christian Bök’s bestselling Eunoia is slammed for not living up to Samuel Coleridge’s poetic criteria. Despite rallying for a more “formal appraisal” of Canadian poetry in his title essay, Starnino fails to see the formal accomplishment of Eunoia, and, not surprisingly, a sonnet by his colleague David Solway which manages to rhyme “kingcap” with “scrap” and “off” with “trough” is offered up as a healthier alternative to what Starnino calls Bök’s “Vowel Movements.” Clever, eh? Well, so much for an appreciation of “fresh approach” and “fresh language.”

Despite the fact that Eunoia energized poetry readers throughout Canada, exposed Canadians to vibrant literary traditions that exist outside this country and ultimately received the most prestigious award in Canadian literature, it did not do enough for Starnino or his friends. This is the unfortunate source of all of these ad hominem attacks—the sour grapes of Starnino and his writing circle. And the beat goes on for Montreal’s most celebrated and successful poetic innovators—Erin Moure and Anne Carson—who are both dismissed in A Lover’s Quarrel in favour of, well, you know.

Robert Kroetsch, one of Canada’s most influential poets and theorists, is unceremoniously brushed-off for his desire to engage in a “demythologizing” of the English language. Here, Starnino argues that Kroetsch’s desire for vernacular acuity turns “Canadian poetry’s relationship with the English tradition into a morality tale, heroes and villains neatly tagged.” This is a most depressing reduction and makes one keenly aware that Starnino’s aims are about as subtle as a hire made by Macbeth. While Starnino’s anti-theory tenor makes his subsequent stabs at literary theory somewhat amusing, the whole point of A Lover’s Quarrel is to make, as Starnino puts it, “a book of partisan criticism.” In other words, his critical framework relies, first and foremost, on “heroes and villains neatly tagged.”

As previously mentioned, the most obvious limitation of A Lover’s Quarrel is that he eschews the truly innovative and musical works of our most cherished poets, and continually props up the preciously rendered works of his cohorts: Solway, Harris, Ormsby, et al. as the alternative to all this “blandness.” And what do these unacknowledged, underappreciated scribes have to offer? Starnino offers us full poem samples of Ormsby’s “Garter Snake,” Solway’s “Stones in Water” and Harris’ “The Dolphin”—each poem, an equal exercise in the shop-worn emblem and the faux epiphany. In other words, skillful but bland.

Further, he bemoans the fact that his writers circle is not properly acknowledged in Canada and throughout the world. It’s a good thing that there is no index at the back of A Lover’s Quarrel, for it would reveal, in a most comedic way, that the names most invoked throughout the book are Solway, Harris, and Ormsby. Not Yeats, Shakespeare or Auden (as a thesis like his might suggest) but a close-knit group of local writers. While one can completely understand the need to stand up for one’s own, for this to occur in a polemic so skeptical of the incestuous circles of CanLit is just a little rich. Starnino takes every chance he gets to flog the works of his own and, in this sense, he has created the literary equivalent of an infomercial.

A Lover’s Quarrel can be summed up as a slightly less accomplished version of David Solway’s Director’s Cut. It’s Solway-Lite but when most people want their Solway, they want it full strength. It might qualify as full strength if it weren’t for some interesting diversions, including a somewhat self-effacing, but inevitably self-serving Introduction, where Starnino asks important questions of himself such as “Are my critical instincts hemmed in by my taste?” Unfortunately, the answer is always a self-gratifying inward affirmation. And so, the thrust of Starnino’s entire text is analogous to his own description of Canadian nationalism: “cultish, bullying, jingoistic.”

It should be said, perhaps in Starnino’s defense, that this book is not actually scholarship. It’s a collection of book reviews playing tigers. Lovers of Canadian literature have eclectic tastes and have enough room on their bookshelves for both Al Purdy and Christian Bök, both Margaret Atwood and Erin Moure, both Irving Layton and Anne Carson, and so on. As Malcolm Ross has noted, “we are many voices.” But eclecticism is Starnino’s neatly tagged enemy. The Canadian reader, whose bookshelf is capable of holding the unique diversity of our national literature, is really the one with whom Starnino has a quarrel, for the reader has made her/his informed decision already and Starnino is not happy. Thankfully, the Canadian reader knows better than to succumb to partisan rhetoric. With this collection of partisan reviews and salvos, Carmine Starnino establishes himself as an impressively dedicated hatchet man—the Tucker Carlson of Canadian literature.


Jeremy Stewart said...

Gets my ire up just to read about. Thank you for a much-needed negative review; it seems you have a healthy relationship with your own negativity. Negate that which is infuriating bulljive! Affirm CanLit in the face of all ignoramuses!


Anonymous said...

This is a poorly written review. So much so that I don't know where to begin. You reveal your bias from the beginning, calling Starnino "obscure." And what are you, a rock star? Your refusal to judge the book on its own merits makes your review nothing more than territorial pissing. If Starnino is not as successful as Solway at snipe, that makes his book more objective! Now if only people would discuss his ideas like adults, we'd have dialogue instead of kindergarten class.

asthma_boy said...

Dear Anon,

Yes. I am a rock star. Great question.


Anonymous said...

Dude, badly reasoned and badly argued, this review does you -- and your cause -- no favours. You may not be a fan of Starnino’s criticism but there's no doubt the guy can write. So if you're going to take him on you need to muster up more than this piss-poor effort. "The answer is always a self-gratifying inward affirmation"?!? Is that even English?

Also, get your facts right. Montrealers Harris, Ormsby and Solway are in no way the most "invoked." In fact they take up very little room in the book. He has essays on Irving Layton, A.M. Klein and Louis Dudek. In fact, two of the longest pieces are appreciations on Charles Bruce (a Maritimer) and Richard Outram (a Torontonian). His review of McGimpsey's Lard Cake is somewhat skeptical, yes, but nearly half the review is taken up with praise ("the poems are small miracles of comic timing"). How do you explain such a positive review of Erin Moure’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person coming from a "anti-theory" poet? And your superficial assessments of his very close, trenchant readings of Dewdney and Bok make me wonder if you seriously read the reviews aside from a quick skim for easy quotes. Did you even finish his title essay, where he goes in defence of E.J. Pratt, George Johnston, Milton Acorn and James Reaney among others? Sounds like Starnino has a pretty good grasp of Canadian poetry's diversity.

asthma_boy said...

Dear foot soldier,

It's scary how easily swayed people are by conservative punditry. I hope you enjoy Starnino's revisionist world of Canadian poetry that has enough room for Layton AND Dudek, Pratt AND Acorn. (Now that's diversity!)

This review does not condemn Starnino the poet, but Starnino the critic. Starnino is not a literary scholar. He's a book reviewer, and more specifically, a hatchet man. The poor rhetoric of ALQ is often embarrassing to read, and the names of his friends are invoked to the point of utter comedy. That IS a fact.

Thankfully, most of us who care about Canadian literature know better than to be converted by a collection of book reviews dressed up as literary criticism. I think I'll stay for a while in this real world of CanLit, where the likes of bpNichol, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Robert Kroetsch, Christopher Dewdney, Christian Bök, Erin Moure, Susan Musgrave, Al Purdy, are appreciated and celebrated.

G _Sica said...

I agree with Anonymous the Second. You make no sense. What makes your version of Canlit "real" and Starnino's fake? Is Pratt not real? Or Klein? And what made you the judge on what diversity means? Why does your appreciation for Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, and Robert Kroetsch make you the good guy while Starnino's appreciation for Charles Bruce, George Johnston, and Richard Outram (all currently under-appreciated poets) make him narrow-minded? It sounds like you're the one following the crowd.

asthma_boy said...

Yes. Yes. I'm following the crowd of GOOD TASTE. Sigh.

derek beaulieu said...

i completely agree with fiorentino here, i think that the starnino's reviews are narrow-minded and neo-conservative -- foregrounding a (heroically remembered but empty) geographical centre and are based on a poetic built on modernist priciples which are not expanded past a 1950's ideology ... while i am not familiar with his poetry, i find that starnino's reviews are narrow minded and overly conservative. i believe that fiorentino has taken the time to make a valid criticism of a poetic in montreal which is foregrounding the lyric and the confessional to the exclusion of any poetic exploration or radicalism -- a sort of literary xenophobia ... and i don't belive that "there's no doubt that the guy can write" is a valid response to a review like this... and do you really believe that an all-male white, conservative selection of pratt, johnston, acorn, and reaney really acurately represents a "pretty good grasp on canadian poetry's diversity"?

- derek beaulieu (calgary)

ps: anon, have the courage to sign your name to your comments.

Razovsky said...

Nice to see the courageous anonymouses step forward with their nearly identical posts!

Anyway, Monsieur Asthma, it was refreshing to see your piece in Word. It was well-reasoned, lively, thoughtful, and, as far as I'm concerned, right on the money.

I know you usual reserve your negativity for yourself, so obviously you were mighty moved to pen such a piece. And hell, it's not really all that negative -- it's simply sensible.

jason christie said...

jon this is a much needed concurrent expression to Starnino's book of criticism. it seems like conservatism necessarily suppresses its violent censures as popular opinion and common sense. the violence is always at the cost of those who have a different, tho equal opinion, and those who believe that common sense is a myth. objectivity is an illusion. anyone pretending toward objectivity has missed the last fifty years of the scientistic jargon from which the people they borrowed the term from borrowed the term from. (that sentence, and this one, are both objective statements which do not necessarily reflect the views espoused by the author, me). Can Lit diversity, eh? Wasn't diversity a small wooden ship used during civil war times... Hey are all the writers in Starnino's book white? I'm just curious. I am asking b/c I don't know... Reany, Bruce, Outram, Layton, Moure, Klein, Dudek, McGimpsey, Pratt, Johnston, Bok, Dewdney... We Canadians have Molson AND Labatt. Aren't we progressive. Vive la retrorevolution. Rhyme time. Aren't I clever. No? I agree.

Alex Parker said...

It seems to me, the most obvious gap in Starnino's work is his unwillingness or inability (I haven't determined which it is, thought probably a little of both) to critically come to terms with the Ludic-- be it Satirical, Pataphysical, or Non-sensical-- all of which point to one thing that is, generally speaking, true of Canadian poetry the likes of which he champions: its inability to locate literary influence beyond (that is, before) the high-seriousness of the Romantics, and more importantly, though often less acknowledged, the self love of American Trascendentalists. (One of the great jokes in recent Canadian poetry is all praise the playful element in "With English Subtitles" has garnered-- oh those riddles are so clever and fun!)

This leads me to affirm one more point made by asthma-boy: Starnino's oft-used rhetorical device of "false compare." When he uses Coleridge as a paradigm in reading Bok, what he's saying is, "Coleridge confirms my way of writing poetry." So, I tell you what, when Starnino publishes his next poetry collection, I'll be sure to write a review of it lamenting how it fails to follow the poetic paradigm set forth by Italian and Russian Futurists. (How's that! What's the difference?).

And, David McGimpsey and Frank O'Hara? Here, the insult is two-fold: it reveals a superficial reading of McGimpsey AND O'Hara. My guess is Starnino's line of thinking was something like this: "McGimpsey likes TV; hey, didn't Frank O'Hara like movies? It's all the same, it's all good. Let's compare." If, as mentioned earlier, Starnino could look beyond the Romantics, then--and only then-- could he understand and contextualize McGimpsey's poetics properly, as they are most favorably akin to Pope, and before that Jonson. While O'Hara is indebted to the French Tradition.

And, of course, the biggest question of all: why do people call him Carmen (that is, Car Men--a girl's name) and not Carmine (Car Mine--a dude's name). Just floating that out there.

Peace dawgs, much luv, bup bup

Alex Parker

Gary Gray said...

All the little piss-ant postmodernists love to hate Carmine because he has talent where they have only trendiness. Carmine is a beacon of brilliance in the shit storm of mediocrity called CanLit. Postmodernism is a dying joke kids. Better find a new band wagon fast, lest your careers suffer.

Andre Dovgonis said...

Alex Porker,

What do you make of Starnino's affirmation of Layton, then? And satirical verse (and prose) is one of Solway's modes, too. And what about Peter Van Toorn, whom Starnino has brought back into print after a couple of decades of neglect. With its over-reliance on cookie-cutter critical paradigms (high-seriousness of the Romantics? Byron? Clare's "The Parish" and other satirical verses?), your thesis, like all the others posted here contra-Starnino, is grossly reductive. Or is this maybe sour grapes about a rejection letter?

Maybe the O'Hara gambit was misplayed (though I see the parallel as useful, since it's not thoroughgoing, but a contrast of aspects of each poet's work), but McGimpsey and Pope/Jonson? Seems farfetched to me; Jonson and Pope's satire--like most good satire--was the product of a certain quantity and quality of moral indignation which I don't see in McGimpsey's work at all. This is not a value judgment, merely an observation.

Alex Parker said...

Um, that's Parker, not Porker.

Make no mistake, I'm not trying to be reductive contra-Starnino: I can get behind Van Toorn and I can get behind David O'Meara too; but many people have enough good sense of literary history to enjoy someone like derek beaulieu too-- hey derek, I really dig your "Calcite Gours."

To borrow from Stein, it just seems to me that what Starnino loves most is a voice is a voice is a voice is a voice.

Peace dawg, much luv

Alex Parker said...

ps. that's no typo with "David O'Meara." I didn't mix him up with Solway.

derek beaulieu said...

Gary Gray;
i would agree with you that postmodernism is a "dying joke" if your arguement didnt infer that the best way of building on the poetics formed by postmodernism was a return to modernism, or to a poetic no-longer informed by linguistic and political structures. and once agian, to repeat my earlier comment, post-modernism has created spaces for poetics which enable to voices of the marginalized, and a return to a more modernist, confessional, lyrical ouevre implicitly restricts the poet's voice to one of the majority. how is ignoring these movements adding to poetics?

and on a lighter note - i can't imagine any poet truly wanting to be a "beacon of brilliance."

as for bandwagons, well - how best to categorize the wave of neo-conservatism rolling across north america? (other than radically dangerous in its restrictions)

-- derek beaulieu (calgary)

ps: thanks for your comments on 'calcite gours' alex...

G _Sica said...

Once again, I have absolutely no idea what you’re on about Derek. You have a serious case of bafflegab. Tell me Parker -- and I want a straight answer and none of the clever-cleverness you guys seem so fond of -- why is it okay to use Pope and Jonson to confirm your reading of McGimpsey or the French Tradition confirm your reading of O’Hara. What make it okay for YOU to do it? This follows Fiorentino’s trick of saying that his version Canlit is “real”, while Starnino’s is "fake". Maybe he’s right, but I find it telling that "radicals" like Fiorentino, Razovsky, Jason, and Derek are using all these establishment names (Purdy, Musgrave, Atwood, Kroetsch) against a "neo-conservative" like Starnino. And rather than guess what Starnino’s line of thinking was why don’t you take the time to actually read the text. Here's the start of review, which I've typed in:

“With some exceptions (which I’ll talk about later), David McGimpsey’s poetry debut, Lard Cake, is a collection of slick, self-conscious parodies of TV clichés and pop-culture myths. Insofar as his mordant sendups are successful, McGimpsey manages to be wry, waggish, sublimely irreverent, and, quite simply, a hoot. Indeed, when McGimpsey gets it right, a youthful, almost picaresque spontaneity fills his lines, and the writing takes on a refreshing eccentricity. But even spontaneity can, if abused, grow wearisome, and where McGimpsey often miscalculates is with the capacities and limits of his free-associational style. The very exuberance that helps to make his voice so hip and savvy can, at a turn, become highly debilitating, forcing his poems to unspool in a string of random incidents, oblique anecdotes, and gratuitous metaphors. True, as a formal conception that kind of aimlessness might accord perfectly with McGimpsey’s breezy, uncalculating attitude––but does it pay its way on the page?

This may be the inappropriate approach to take in this review since I suspect that McGimpsey is somewhat weary of well-made poetry, or what might seem to him the overly ascetic task of reducing experience to rigorously “perfect” lines; a task against which McGimpsey’s flagrant playfulness is clearly a kind of maximalist rebuke. Yet I’m not sure playfulness, no matter how liberating, is in itself sufficent. What makes the poetry of a verbal trickster like Frank O’Hara so satisfying, for example, is the way it also aspires to be a true response—that is, an utterance which, with inescapable accuracy, captures something crucial, authentic, real. O’Hara’s poetry, in other words, isn’t just experimental or arty, but is always trying to move closer to what can convincingly be said about the world. This kind veracity is, I believe, impossible to achieve without a respect for precision, without a sense of limit or restriction, without a willingness to discriminate, when writing, between what’s essential and what’s merely superfluous.”

Tell me, does that REALLY sound like Starnino is criticizing McGimpsey “for not living up to Frank O’Hara’s example”? It sounds to me like Starnino is simply drawing on O’Hara’s achievement in a bid to find useful terms to judge McGimpsey’s successes and failures. Surely not everything McGimpsey writes succeeds. How, then, would you attempt to explain his failures?

Parker said...

g_sica, I have no problem with someone (Starnino, or whoever) contextualizing or comparing a particular poet with other poets past (in fact, it's a useful book-reviewing tool); but I do have a problem when the comparison seems incongruous because at that point it ceases to be useful: and rather than serving to elucidate the poet in question, only helps to further establish what the book reviewer believes to be "authentic." (But that's a whole other discussion on what reviewers should be doing, not for me to decide really as it's not my field). And, so, while you may be willing to ascribe a certain amount of good faith to Starnino's comparisons--and that's fine, taste is taste, there's no arguing it--I can't because, in this case as in others, I would quibble with Starnino's characterization of O'Hara; just as I would his recent Mallarme-Moritz comparison (we get it, you don't like the symolist-mystic element) and his Colergide-Bok. That said, as I mentioned in a prior entry, this isn't always the case: sometimes I do agree with his assessments; but sometimes I just wish he'd take the time to see how interesting and exhilerating something like Derek Beaulieu's "Calcite Gours," for example, truly are. Cool. At this point, I can only wait from here on in to see what he does as a critic in the future.

It's been fun.

Andre Dovgonis said...

Ok, Peter Parker, all due apologies for typos, but when and where has Starnino dismissed Derek Beaulieu's "Calcite Gours"? I'm not aware of this review. If it doesn't exist, then it's hardly admissable to this discussion, is it? Why not instead look at what he has said about Alice Burdick's book, Simple Master, a book I believe Monsieur Razovsky edited:

"A suprising new voice is hard to come by in poetry, particularly for a first book. Alice Burdick, however, has chanced on an idiom, rhythm and attitude that genuinely catch us off guard. Her debut ... somehow manages to amalgam aspects of Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith and John Ashbery into a lyricism that is unsentimentally fierce, energetically unpredictable and full of ingenious obliquities. Frankly, I'm not sure what sleight-of-hand Burdick is using to make these wily and eccentric poems work--these poems that try to "Tackle the air / with air"--but right now, it's enough that they do."

This is the problem I see with a lot of what's being argued here, is that it has more to do with schools and movements and poetics than with individual poets and poems. If Carmine Starnino doesn't like "Calcite Gours," why does it necessarily follow that the fault is his lack of awareness of "literary history"? I don't much like Wordsworth, but I can appreciate his place in literary history. But Derek Beaulieu has, for all intents and purposes, no place in literary history, a distinction he shares with 99.9% of poets now writing. This relates to what Fiorentino says about The Natural History being a "classic." For crissakes, we're talking about a book that was finished in 2002! Starnino might make hyperbolic claims for his friends (unlike, say Fiorentino, who is admirably restrained in saying nothing nice about his pals Kroetsch, Bok and McGimpsey, all of whom are white males, the horror!), but I've yet to catch him proclaiming an instant classic or engaging in the academic fallacy of mistaking a genre category for individual artistic achievement.

Anonymous said...

cleverness is more interesting than another image of a barn.

asthma_boy said...

Let's move on, ok? You're getting nasty and even more ridiculous in your charges against me. It's almost as if you are channelling the spirit of Zach Wells!

I appreciate that you are Carmine's boy and I'm sure you are rewarded for your foot soldier work. But the truth is, I have received countless emails filled with kind and intelligent words re: this review from writers across Canada who are working from very diverse traditions. Believe me, there is no unifying cause that unites them, other than maybe the case for good taste and eclectism. Hell, even Signal Editions-affiliated authors have thanked me privately for the review, because they are put off by Carmine's aesthetic myopia and mean-spirited hatchet jobs. Again, this is not about Carmine the poet or Carmine the editor, it's all about Carmine the hatchet man. He's apparently moving away from this now and that's good.

I felt the need to stand up to a book reviewing bully and I'm glad I did it. I would like to once again turn to the much more productive projects of celebrating the innovative and exciting poets I come across. No more negative reviews for Jonny. And one thing's for sure -- I will not be collecting my reviews and publishing a best of... under the delusion that this stuff is anything close to literary scholarship.

ZW said...

For the record, Jon, Zach Wells thinks Jon Paul Fiorentino's a swell guy, with whom Zach Wells has always enjoyed having a beer and/or game of eight ball and he would never make nasty or ridiculous allegations about you.

That said, I think if the best you can do to buttress your flimsy and tendentious thesis is resort to the argument from authority, the scare and smear tactics of name-calling (I fail to see how the political designation "neo-conservative" relates to anyone's poetic or critical practice), the court of (supposed) popular opinion and the hasty fugue, you're probably better off not airing your opinions in public. Either that or go into American politics.


asthma_boy said...

Starnino's neo-conservatism should be clear to anyone who can read. It's a matter of conservative taste. And this is an old argument. 20 years ago, the equally conservative Mark Abley attacked the brilliant work of Dennis Cooley. (See RePlacing and The Vernacular Muse.)

You think my thesis is flimsy and my tendentious. Fine. I think that's spin. My argument is solid--I'm standing up for eclectism. I'm standing up against shoddy criticism.

Sigh. Enough. We're all swell guys, great drinkers, decent pool players, etc.

Robert Creeley passed away today. This all seems so ridiculous right now.

Anonymous said...

ATTENTION: heavy sarcasm alert!
poetics is the equivalent of american politics. if you, Z-Dubya, fail to see how personal politics inform praxis, never mind which type of oat bran a person buys, or which movie opening she attends, or which speech he delivers as the State of the Union (universal health care, war upon terrorism, or coporate tax breaks?), then where were you in the last two decades of the twentieth century? news flash: women got the vote and language reinforces ideology! and you are absolutely correct! so does my language. gasp, shock, horror. even our most 'radical' or 'rebellious' poets cannot escape this fate. so why side with the vexed tradition of an egocentric, masculine discourse that props a unified subject atop a hierarchy of subservients and treats nature like any other capitalist practice (i.e. as fodder), instead of trying to find a less hostile means to approach otherness (i.e. other people, an image of yourself, the natural world) rather than as a commodity? jeez, i guess my politics are seeping into what i'm writing a bit here so i'd better stop. um, hey my dad used to take me fishing. and i remember how the swans would fold and break against the surface of the lake like white thunder shuddering against my ear drums. and of course the tired, red barn, stark against the violent orange sunset as someone in a quiet laboratory discovers that it is impossible to determine both the speed and spin of a particle at any one instant. goodbye Z-Dubya. welcome to the start of the 20th Century. man, those Georgian poets were awesome...

Anonymous said...

Just thought I'd point out that there's absolutely no reliable connection between being "conservative" in a formalist or aesthetic sense and being a right-winger.

Oppen communist
Olson liberal
Pound libertarian turned fascist

(Which was the most innovative and adventurous, formally-speaking?)
Or what about:

-- the currently rather trendy avant-gardist and "destroyer of syntax" Marinetti (a most noxious fascist)

-- defender of the Luddites, Lord
Byron... by far the most formally conservative of the Romantic poets

-- Steve McCaffery, a good union man (as one would hope) vs. the academic champion of American (and every other variety of) 'language' poetry Marjorie Perloff, a jingoistic windbag.

(Add your own examples...)

The world -- of politics, of poetry -- is complex, and runs in all sorts of unexpected ways.
Name-calling in the style of the American culture wars of the 90s won't get us anywhere worth going.
Unless you have a photo of Starnino out marching with a "God hates fags" placard, or having breakfast with Paul Wolfowitz, you should probably back off on the neo-con label.
I myself think Starnino would be served better by being a little more curious about some of the main currents of English language 20th c. poetry and about where they went. But his book does at least have an argument.
The reputations he tramples on aren't worth saving, I don't think.
And he excavates a number of poets' works who have been almost completely ignored (the very interesting Ricardo Sternberg, for instance, whom I'd never heard of).

J. Mark Smith

asthma_boy said...

I have never called Starnino a fiscal conservative or a right winger. The book in question, which collects his book reviews (a dubious project in the first place) is indicative of a trend toward aesthetic neo-conservatism. It's that whole "smog of tweed" thing. The thing is, the reputations of most of the poets he "tramples on" are still very much intact. It's his reputation that's in serious jeopardy.

Anyways, this thread is done. If you have questions or concerns, feel free to email me through my website.

Lee Shedden said...

Um... why close the debate? It was just getting interesting.

Jay Gamble said...


I have not read Starnino's quarrel yet, but your rendition of his efforts to take on RK has just made me want to buy it. I'd really like a good laugh. To quote (or paraphrase, or misquote, or quote second-hand) Northrop Frye (speaking of some allegedly third-rate scholar trying to take on Shakespeare): "It's like a Chiahuaha trying to throw a fuck into a Great Dane." I really hope Frye was talking about Hamlet. It would be that much funnier.

From all that I have read about this work, I can say that I do agree whole-heartedly with his argument that the CAN of CANLIT can be suffocating at times. However, the desire to be rid of nationalism (or regionalism) (a desire that I share) should not be quickly followed by (or consistently followed by) but my friends are AWESOME!!!!!111uno

Yes, I understand that poetry is, in part, defined by the community of which that poetry is a part. But, Jon, as you say, it's all one community (construct or not) on my bookshelf--it's a collection of books. Atwood, Bok, Steven Ross Smith, Gunnars, Kroetsch, Moure, [and many more who are not Canadian!!!!woot,uno111!!!] (and yes, apparently, soon, Starnino, because of your review).

In some ways, I'm glad I hear the safety switch come off in the world of CANLIT. At the same time, I think people really need to get a grip. Here's my beef:


JPF--Sometimes all we can do is sigh. We are, after all, in the middle. Best to ya'.

Few will read this; fewer will care.

Lots of love---

Jay Gamble

musemother said...

my my the boys get testy - too much testosterone? read a similar review of Starnino by a white feminist female, if it's still online at prairie

musemother said...

dear jon
thanks for directing me to your blog for this review. I thought it was very well written. But then, I share your views.

LUNAMOTH said...

As a Montrealer, I do find it odd to watch Carmine and his old boy gang moving in on the literary scene like a bunch of storm troopers. Frankly, Carmine always struck me as a throw-back to Mussolini's black shirts. He even dresses like them. I don't care much about his "poetics" -- he, Harris, Solway, and Ormsby are all possessed by some puerile revenge fantasy and I wish they would simply drop it -- it's embarrassing, and is helping to destroy the Montreal literary scene much as GW Bush's policies are wrecking America. To use a heavy handed comparison -- but these guys should win an award for heavy handedness. They won't shut up so I guess we'll just have to wait for them to die slowly, or drown in their own bile

Anonymous said...

The Montreal literary scene has long been run by a shadowy gang of old boys whose politics, inevitably, tend to be the most conservative imaginable. But then, publishing in this city is essentially Masonic, and editors are people who love to control the creative process -- like King Canute. Hence the obsession with a "New Canon" - good night and good luck! It's a lonely, dirty job deciding who's in and who's out, and constructing legitimacy for those decisions. But Montreal and McGill have particularly dark histories that need to come out in the open, in particular the mostly untold story of the mainly British medical elite, and their connections with eugenics, the military, and secret experiments that went on here in the Cold War. Without delving into those deeper, darker motives, the neo-con backlash and "wounded male" politics of our current editors make little sense in the larger world of Can Lit, and help to keep Montreal a sealed-off garrison, largely irrelevant to the rest of the country's writing. It's sad, because there are writers in this town with something to say -- but our editors and publishers have an enormous stake in keeping them from saying it.

An important part of this unspeakable, unpublishable story can be found in MY COLD WAR: -- Long live the internet, free speech, and our endangered tradition of storytelling!

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