Culture Matters. Poetry Matters

Posted on Monday, January 16 at 08:49 by Robin Mathews
But very often the poets are comprador or simply servants of the classes with power, as are nearly all artists at times. Poets, too, are universal, quoted about the timeless, touching, ever reappearing emotions between people – what we call “the personal”. “Already it seems you haunt this cottage Tho you’ve never been here, have promised to come. Oh Rose, there are thousands of waves in the bay And every one spells ‘welcome’.” (Milton Acorn) The ‘personal’ touches everyone, for everyone must be born, must love, must exult, must suffer, and then die. And so poetry cares much for the personal – which, in turn, cares much for poetry. Poetry, however, doesn’t end there. For poets, at their very best, are loving, suffering, caring people who cross the dividing waters on stepping stones of experience – from the island of the intensely, exultantly personal – to the mainland of larger experience. Arriving there, poets continue to praise nature and loved ones, to write of the personal. “With your hands that are softer than roses, And your lips that are lighter than flowers, And that innocent brow that discloses A wisdom more lovely than ours….” (Archibald Lampman) But something else happens to the poet: a realization that the personal desire for freedom, for time to be in nature as in a dream, to live completely, and to find out the fullness of potential is shared in all humankind. Where it is denied to one, the poet finally realizes, so it is denied to me; or if not denied to me completely, the denial to others blunts my hopes, my dreams, my aspirations to fulfillment. So it is no accident that the Milton Acorn of the personal poem quoted also wrote, for instance, “They’ve Murdered Two Workers” and “On Not Being Banned by the Nazis…” Archibald Lampman (who died at thirty-eight) wrote the sweet stanza quoted above. He also wrote immemorial nature poems, the haunting, prophetic poem, “The City Of The End Of Things”, “To a Millionaire”, and “The Modern Politician”. For a generation of poets to deny “the mainland of larger experience” is a tragic matter. It is darkly revealing of the state of community and the state of the individual soul. Not only does the present anglophone generation of poets in Canada, in its largest representation, deny the mainland of larger experience but it attacks those who don’t. And it is rewarded for its work. Most of the fifty anglophone poets, for instance, in the volume, The New Canon, have won prizes, over and over. They have also been published everywhere. “They must be good, then”, you say. Would that were true. No. They must, rather, consent to the present requirements laid upon them by the gate-keepers, those who admit to the charmed circle, those who say: “You may write poems about this but not about that. And then we will give you prizes.” One of this generation’s spokespeople assures us that a quality of the present important poets is “their indifference to native chauvinism”. That comes in the book of fifty present anglophone poets (with many others mentioned) called The New Canon, An Anthology of Canadian Poetry. But wait a minute. All Canadian poets since the beginning have been indifferent to native chauvinism since “chauvinism” is bellicose patriotism – something for which Canadians as a people have little time. What is going on here is the shouting of a manifesto from people who would like us to think they are “new” and full of new ideas. The editor of the anthology, Carmine Starnino – in an endless, self-contradictory, awkwardly split-infinitive-laden “Introduction” struggles – but fails to ovecome old, old prejudice that he pushes at us as a new credo. If the poets he publishes are indifferent to native chauvinism, that means there are poets who are not or were not. Who are they? He names none. He has straw men in his mind, obviously, because he also castigates the poets (also unnamed) “uncomfortable with poems as anything more than vehicles for themes”. At the same time he insists “poems move us by their distinctly felt statements” [that don’t have themes?], by “the strength of their emotional messages” [that can’t be called themes?]. And then he adds, to complete his self-contradiction: “An innovation doesn’t fail because its politics fail. It fails because talent fails.” So why twenty-two pages of “Introduction” which are merely posturing? The answer has to be Starnino’s over-simplification of many fine Canadian poets – an over-simplification necessary if he is going to displace them and their excellence with the new shipment he wants to stuff onto the shelves. His “new” poets “see themselves less as ‘Canadian’ than as part of a total English-language culture. [Yawn] As such, they have no interest in revealing themselves through easy emoting, but instead put their personalities, if not their citizenship, into the sounds and verbal structures of their poetry.” [Yawn] Poets he doesn’t name reveal themselves through “easy emoting”. He doesn’t say who they are or were. A simple fact is that all English language poets see themselves in history and in the English language culture of hundreds of years. They see themselves, too, as Australian or New Zealand, or English, or Scottish, or (maybe) African, or West Indian, or Canadian, for instance. Only in a country ashamed of its being; only among poets who fear their own identity; only among people who fawn on others as superior do they attempt to erase their own identity in their own community and say they “see themselves less as ‘Canadian’, or ‘Australian’, or English’” than something else. The fact is, it becomes apparent, that Carmine Starnino’s prey, his goal, is something he doesn’t name. Verbally prancing like a Polonius, seeming to offer new, freshly discovered, wise saying, Starnino, instead, beats a very, very, very old, dead horse. That is a horse that lies in the way of many, many bureaucrats of culture in poetic anglophone Canada wanting to establish their “main-stream” relevance. Scenting the political air (which they pretend to abhor), they find that Canada’s ruling class is colonial, that it is embarrassed by the demands of an indigenous voice calling for self-respect, sovereignty, and attention to manners and mores that are Canadian. It fears Canadians of firm identity and undramatic conviction about the legitimacy of this place. Such people it calls those who possess “native chauvinism”. Such people stand in the way of the sell-out of the country; and so they must be discountenanced, jeered at, made fools of. They are made fools of, we are invited to believe, because they don’t understand “form”. They aren’t, we are told, subtle users of language, of rhyme and half-rhyme, of traditional stanza form and of a loving, caring dedication to le mot juste. We are invited to believe, the great Canadian poets in English have been foolish enough to be concerned with saying something, possessing the inutterable vulgarity of having something to say! Alas, too, those people have usually accepted themselves and their identity as Canadians. From A.J.M. Smith on, since Smith’s 1943 Anthology of Canadian Verse – and even before that, the bureaucrats of culture in poetic anglophone Canada have denigrated the native voice – which is, in other words – any Canadian poet writing from and about Canada with an entirely confident voice that doesn’t sound like a European or U.S. voice. Against them, the starry-eyed, hopeful-to-be-glitterati look off-shore, abroad – to the place where, they believe, real poetry is written, to the U.S.A. especially. When he despairs of the aggressive no-talent (according to him) avant-garde, Starnino takes heart. For there is a group already at work defending against them - has been at work since the 1960s. It is made up of Canadians sprung from U.S. roots. Surprise! As he says himself: “These poets make common cause with American avant-gardists like Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian and Susan Howe, who, in turn, round out a group portrait alongside pivotal experimentalists like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound as well as various French theorists….” The flail lands on the dead horse once more. A mock battle is set up between two schools – both contemptuous of the Canadian tradition. That tradition is pushed out of sight and the two “cosmopolitan” schools argue over the structure of alienated stanzas. General alienation is manifest. For instance: Writing from Montreal, writing twenty-two tedious pages about anglophone Canadian poetry, Carmine Starnino doesn’t once write of “Canadian poetry in English” or “anglophone poetry in Canada”. He doesn’t once refer to the fact that there is a tradition of francophone poetry – a great tradition – at his elbow, literally. No more needs to be said on that enormous score about alienation. Let us turn to the poets, but not for long. They are a mirror of Starnino’s execrable “Introduction”. Sounding like each other, as the trumpets in a Sousa march sound like each other, they press the correct valves over and over, and over. They are characterized by all the things Starnino likes. They write, he says, “aurally ambitious, lexically alert, and formally intelligent poems”. They care about tone, vocabulary, metaphor, and form. But they flee from passion, from intense statement, from deeply caring humanity, from captured moments of revealing love, from anger, from revelation of self or other that opens the meaning of words anew. They lock themselves in prisons of self-satisfaction, formal gymnastics, verbal sleight-of-hand, and they call those things the orphic keys to poetic illumination. Yes, Diana Brebner writes poems that tear through a reader from their simple, cleanly stated honesty. Good poems anywhere. Incandescently personal. David O’Meara, however, reveals in his “Letter to Auden”, what is wrong with most of the poets in the book. Unlike Auden, they don’t really care. And what’s more, O’Meara lets language slip like the petticoat of a dinner hostess while everyone looks away. Auden never did that; form mattered too much to him as an instrument of genuine emotion. Trying, it seems, for Auden’s apparent throw-away line, O’Meara merely throws lines away. Key to the book, for me, is Steven Heighton’s “The Machine Gunner”, a poem about a face-on attack by soldiers and a repulse, perhaps. It is, one might think, a poem which would make it to the mainland of larger experience. But the poem is set nowhere. It is an exercise. We think of the war poets who were really there, who saw the pity of war; the pity war distilled, to quote Wilfred Owen. There is none of that in the exercise here. Here there is careful, exact form; and there are excellent similies, fine diction; and there is an absence of humanity. Poets are not the unacknowledged legislators of the world. But they are signs of the time. They are, too, like the canaries miners used to take down into the mines. If the canaries were asphixiated, the miners knew their workplace might explode at any moment. As canaries, most of the poets in The New Canon are in the first stages of asphixiation. Power in the culture to which they belong has told them to dwell in the personal, to avoid crossing to the mainland of larger experience, to have contempt for allegiance, to scorn passion, to avoid the community from which they come and in which they live – to avoid it in any way which might imply belonging, “appartenance”. Power in the culture to which they belong urges them to act as if there are no great human issues in the world. Reading the 325 pages of The New Canon, I could find nothing to hint – even remotely – that any of the writers registered the first Gulf War, the later illegal and murderous invasion of Iraq, the triumph of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the destruction of the Trade Towers in New York, the Islamic reprisals in Spain and London and Africa, the Rightward shift of Canadian governments, the murder of Dudley George in Ipperwash Park, the slashing of Canadian workers rights, the new abuse of seniors and the vulnerable under Canadian reactionary governments, the rape of Canadian environment, the sell-out of Canadian resource wealth, the fouling of the world by use of nuclear weaponry, and on and on. In the words of Matthew Arnold these poets are “beautiful but ineffectual angels beating in the void their luminous wings in vain”. More than that, they are a sign of despair, or of a moment of lassitudinous indifference in an increasingly obvious state of asphixiation. I began by saying culture matters and that poetry matters. The poetry of the present “new” poets in anglophone Canada matters, but only because the banal, unaffiliated, self-regarding culture to which they give expression may mirror a similar suicidal culture possessing dominant force in the larger community which “ordinary Canadians” inhabit. [Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on January 17, 2006]

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