ABC of Reading TRG
by Peter Jaeger
Talon Books, 1999
Review by Michael Bryson
That literature is diverse is not news. That some literature (for
example, the lyric poem, the 19th century narrative novel) is more accessible
than other literature (say, Finnegan's Wake or "Howl")
startles no one. Yet, there remains the eternal debate between the storytellers
and the experimenters, the conservatives and the radicals, as some would
like to politicize it. While the best (i.e., most daring) work does not
necessarily come from the margins, it is unavoidable that some work demands
explanation where other work is more able to stand on its own. Thus we
have Peter Jaeger's book-length essay explicating the work of the Toronto
Research Group, namely poets Steve McCaffery and bpNichol.
As Jaeger writes:
[The TRG was formed]
in 1973 as a forum to investigate issues pertinent to formally imaginative
writing, such as the role of the reader, the material status of the book,
and the non-semantic aspects of translation and narrative. The earliest
TRG reports built on theories proposed by such writers as Gertrude Stein,
Jerome Rothenberg, Ilse and Pierre Garnier, and the Brazilian Noigandres
group of concrete poets. After 1974, however, the Group integrated ideas
drawn from French poststructuralist theory into their research reports.
In other words, approach at own risk. Like a full appreciation of
Abstract Expressionism, the work of the TRG requires submersion in various
schools of theory. Theirs is not poetry of the everyday, unless it is
the everyday activity of the mind - thought processes deconstructed into
increasingly thin layers of ephemera.
Which does not mean the work of McCaffery and Nichol is not interesting.
In fact, theirs was a brave and unique project that deserves the attention
Jaeger's slim book gives it. As Jaeger notes, the TRG's reports "remain
critical because of [their] refusal to organize desire around such typical
Canlit tropes as authentic voice, the land or Canadian identity."
The popular - and often critical - conception of Canadian literature continues
to be dominated by the post-Expo '67 nationalist project and "Canadian
Unity" anxiety - despite the increasing international popularity
of Canadian fiction - and various attempts by Canadian writers to integrate
international literary movements and strategies into their work. (Stan
Rogal's obvious affinity for Borgesian fictions in his 1996 short story
collection What Passes for Love is only one such example.) The
early 1970s was the period of Atwood's Survival and various other
attempts to reduce literature in Canada to an over-simplistic thematic
structure - thus aligning literature with other socio-political activities
to help define "Canada" and "Canadians" and help protect
"us" from cultural domination from "them" (mostly,
the USA - but also the British - i.e., colonial - structures that form
the core of the Canadian political identity).
In this context, it is McCaffery and Nichol - not Atwood et al -
who were the true innovators. Jaeger points out that McCaffery was born
in the U.S. and was once victimized by the sharp end of Dorothy Livesay's
umbrella. Lisesay accused him "as a landed immigrant - of stealing
publication space from more deserving (because "Canadian") writers."
Jaeger quotes McCaffery: "It was a milieu obsessed with establishing
a Canadian identity largely predicated upon nationalist narratives and
values." It was a milieu, also, that the TRG reacted against - or
at least moved away from in search of answers of a different sort.
In is on this point that this review must begin to break down, as
a complete assessment of Jaeger's material depends upon a more thorough
understanding of Jaeger's material than this reviewer can bring to it.
That said, the book is structured as a series of chapters, each representing
a letter of the alphabet and a word critical to the understanding of the
TRG's project: "Alphabet," "Book-Machine," "Canadada
Concrete," "Derrida." This structure, though obviously
arbitrary, provides ready-made categories for the reader to gradually
unpackage what the TRG was all about - still not an easy process. Ultimately,
this is a book for a specialized audience - though the questions it raises
about the role of nationalism in forming the public's understanding of
"Canadian" literature deserve both a broader forum and deeper
Michael Bryson is the editor of The