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. This review is currently running in the Word (Toronto) and set to be reprinted in filling Station (Calgary).
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 a group of traditionalist 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.”
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, no one is safe.
Starnino is continually guilty of the fallacy 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 they generally don't decide to write about it.
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?
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 a little rich.
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 inward affirmation.
It should be said, perhaps in Starnino’s defense, that this book is not actually scholarship. It’s a collection of book reviews. 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.