A Response to James Pollock's: Choosing the Best Canadian Poetry
Sutherland, Fraser, Literary Review of Canada
I HEARTILY CONCUR WITH MANY POINTS THAT James Pollock makes. Canadian poetry desperately needs more reviews and reviewers. As an "attempt to formulate a canon of English-Canadian poetry for the common reader" Margaret Atwood's New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English appeared in 1982, to which one might add Ralph Gustafson's Penguin Book of Canadian Verse, which came out in 1984 and is now equally mildewed. The absence of recast, revised or updated survey anthologies not only defeats critical re-evaluation and cheats successive generations of poets; it also consigns poetry to the spurious present. We can't know who we are until we know where we came from.
Pollock observes that "a very few clear-eyed poet-critics are out there," including Carmine Starnino. At times I find Starnino wrongheaded, but wrongheadedness is a reviewer's privilege. What is important is that reviewers should be wrongheaded in varied ways. As Pollock suggests, critical conflict is essential: consensus can only occur over a long period of time. In any case, candid poet-reviewers show some regard for the world around them and have not disappeared down the rabbit hole of their own solipsism.
I am not as sanguine as Pollock about the excellence of current Canadian poetry. But it is certainly true that an arts council-subsidized conveyer belt dumps a production line of books into a reviewing void. I am not as jaundiced as he is about "the poetry of so much of Atwood's celebrated generation, many of whose poets turned against rhetoric and conscious craft with a vengeance." AI Purdy? John Newlove? Gwendolyn MacEwen? Pollock's tastes appear to lean toward the formalist, although I would caution that craftsmanship is no guarantee of great, or even particularly good, poetry. From time to time poetry needs a Whitman to shake it up.
The practice of poetry, like that of any other art, is both democratic and elitist. Democratic, in that anyone is, or should be, free to attempt it. Elitist, in that the better prevails, or ought to, over the bad, and that there are ways of knowing the difference between them. Intelligent popular criticism, unshackled by peer review and academic convention, is one of the chief means.
Let's briefly scan the contemporary evaluative scene, the shrinkage or disappearance of review sections in newspapers, and indeed of newspapers themselves, continues apace though, truth to tell, poetry reviews have never ranked high as a journalistic priority. Among quarterlies, the University of Toronto Quarterly annually dribbles out an overview of the past year's new books. Canadian Literature has fallen far from the days when George Woodcock made it a flexible and open-minded journal. Books in Canada is either moribund or, given its years of mismanagement, deservedly extinct. A dismal landscape, though not devoid of cloud breaks. In Windsor, the pages of CNQ (the rejuvenated Canadian Notes & Queries) offer some hope. In Ottawa, the poetry journal Arc gives reviewing prominence in somewhat the same way as, in the United States, Poetry (Chicago) has revived itself with its reviews and letters sections.
Some general features of literary culture are at best indifferent, if not actively discouraging, to evaluation. The $50,000 Griffin Prize promises a monetary reward beyond poets' dreams of avarice, but prize winning has little to do with genuine public engagement of a poet's work. Public readings flatter the poet's vanity--and ego stroking is often all the reward most poets can expect after years of effort--but infrequently provide more than the sound of one hand clapping. Workshops provide mutual moral support and networking advantages, but seldom result in manifestos or movements, which are other ways in which dialogue can occur.
One might think that, unhampered by space constraints and printers' bills, publishers on the World Wide Web would compensate for the shortfall of reviews in print. …