canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Lobsters and Threadworms: Canadian Poetry in the Undertow

A review of Zachariah WellsUnsettled (Insomniac 2004) with passing remarks on the work of Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Edwin Morgan, Steve McCaffery, Sina Queyras, Carmine Starnino, Anne Carson, Erin Mouré, and Fred Wah.

by J. Mark Smith

Looking to his archive of often very uncivil letters from concerned parties, the editor of TDR worries that there has been a "civil war" on for a while among this nation’s poets. Like many a well-intentioned peacekeeper, he would like hostilities to cease.

Then again, Sina Queyras, the editor of a recent anthology of Canadian poetry (Open Field: Thirty Contemporary Poets [Persea, 2005]), writes heart-warmingly of a "vast and convivial" field where traditionalists and experimentalists lie down together.

Carmine Starnino of Véhicule Press, less convivially, threatens for next year an anthology to be called, apparently without a shred of irony, The New Canon. Judging by his A Lover’s Quarrel [Porcupine’s Quill, 2003], he’ll be propounding a revisionary, but formally conservative, picture of true poetic accomplishment in this country.

Starnino’s barracuda approach to re-evaluation is, to my mind, ultimately more productive than Queyras’ group-hug. But even the latter’s mostly bland choices acknowledge that the consensus about what has been done by Canadian poets, and what might still be done, has been shifting in the last decade. Yes, there has been some ‘contestation,’ within the confines of individual minds as much as between armed camps.

But if two distinct groups really exist, they are both looking very well-fed and secure at present. On the one hand, I doubt that anybody who has ever been able to write a decent metrical poem has ever lacked a venue in this country to publish it. ‘Experimental’ poetry, on the other, has in recent years achieved academic respect and recognition (at York, at U of Calgary, and elsewhere).

As always, the quality of the poetry produced continues to be the central issue, not the entrenched but unsustainable mutual hostility of different factions.

In a little fable called "Indefinables" (from Virtual and Other Realities, Carcanet [1997]), the Glaswegian civic laureate Edwin Morgan imagines lobsters and threadworms arguing about modern poetics:

‘A thought articulated is a lie.’
The threadworm challenged lobsters prancing by.
The lobsters thought the worm wobbly and sly.
A stately scuttle may seem contradictory,
But that’s how plated jointed thoughts get victory,
Kicking all wispy things their valedictory.

The lobsters have faith in the sentence; the threadworms don’t. In his long and uneven career, Morgan has been a modernist, a translator of Montale and of Beowulf, a language poet, jokester, and inventor of lyric ‘virtualities.’ He mocks the idea of "victory" in this dispute, because in the end "Minds rest no more than seas, though they may try."

So what about the prancing lobsters and sly threadworms of Canadian poetry?

I think it can be said with confidence that both ‘avant-garde’ and ‘formalist’ poets have had enough of slack and unmusical free verse. Perhaps there could be a coalition or unified front devoted to savage ridicule where it is most needed.

Toronto’s poet laureate, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, calls out for a little of that. His latest book is The Dark Time of Angels (Mansfield Press, 2003). I saw him speak this summer, on a topic that never really became clear, though it touched on his favorite theme (greedy developers). He seems a warm, gregarious, decent man, and was no doubt from this angle the right choice for a position that involves getting out and mingling with ordinary folk around the city. Unfortunately, his writing is prolix, unfocused, and completely lacking in the virtues associated with both traditional and modernist poetry.

Something Canadian lobsters and threadworms do at least have in common with the legions of bloated free-versifiers (the tuna, we might call them) is the failure to have read, and read well, the best modernist poetry.

Starnino’s A Lover’s Quarrel is a lobster’s book. Many of its harsh judgments of this country’s fashionable poets seem right to me. Still, you would not think from reading Starnino that there were ever such poets as Pound, George Oppen, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, or, for that matter, Lorca or Celan. Working with Starnino’s assumptions, you would never be able to comprehend the wild side of a ‘conservative’ poet like Auden, the one that puts him in a continuous tradition with Paul Muldoon. You couldn’t begin to appreciate contemporary U.K. poets like Morgan or R. F. Langley.

The best-known threadworms, I have noticed, are eclectic but glancingly slight readers.

There are exceptions, and exceptions within careers, like Erin Mouré’s ‘transelations’ of Pessoa, which certainly stand out against everything else she’s done. Anne Carson, who has been known to cross into threadworm territory, executed brilliant early readings of Sappho and translation-travesties of Catullus that were hardly noticed in these parts.

But Steve McCaffery is the enduring intellectual force among the Canadian threadworms. McCaffery is not very reader-friendly. His best work, I think, has been in visual media: works like Broken Mandala or CARNIVAL (see his Seven Pages Missing, Vol. I; Coach House 2000) that explore the graphic dimension of signs and characters. His academic essays are erudite, combative, and stylistically rebarbative.

His guiding thought, which has caught on enough to become the idée-fixe of junior threadworms, is a sort of reverse Manicheism. The Manicheans believed that all matter was created by Satan (hence evil), and that spirit alone is from God. In McCaffery’s inverted version, all articulated meaning is evil, or at least politically insidious. The artist aims to liberate the innocent material dimension of the sign (whether phonic or graphic), and that can only happen when the work ‘jams’ its own meaning.

Now my own lobster-bias must show its claws. Yes, there is some high-glamour intellectual lineage behind McCaffery’s reverse Manicheism (the Frankfurt school of theorists; dadaists and surrealists and futurists behind them; Mallarmé behind them). But let’s admit that this side-branch of modernism hobbled itself from the start. Individuals and nations and languages grow older, the multitudinous world is in perpetual flux, history itself changes. Still, the threadworm knows what he knows. "A thought articulated is a lie." How, over the long term, can this be a useful credo for a poet?

To show that I’m not hopelessly prejudiced against threadworms, let me plug Fred Wah’s too-little-known Pictograms from the B.C. Interior [Talonbooks, 1975]. This is one of the few books of Canadian poetry which shows signs of sticking around for the long-term (excerpts from it appear in the above-mentioned Open Field), though it has — of course! — been out-of-print for ages. Powered by theoretical curiosity about the relation between pictures and letters and sounds, Pictograms is also a sharp, soulful, and gently irreverent series of short lyrics on loneliness and being numerous.

It was written long before the threadworms found academic shelter. Today, though, many a budding young threadworm can dream of a brilliant career.

Consider Jon Paul Fiorentino’s Hello Serotonin [2003], an MFA thesis pushed into print by Coach House. It’s a catchy title that promises some engagement with matters of interest to anyone who’s ever been melancholy, or ever worried about why twenty first century people no longer have any tolerance for melancholy.

The book, like most of Coach House’s, looks good. But it’s a vacuous collection. Rather a lot like Christopher Dewdney, this young writer builds his poems up out of a superficial acquaintance with the multi-barreled Latinisms used in scientific (here neurological and pharmacological) discourse. He also parrots a variety of literary theory-speak attainable by anyone who’s sat in on a couple of hours of graduate seminars.

Zachariah Wells (b. 1976) is about the same age as Fiorentino. His first book, Unsettled, has some of the same liabilities as Starnino’s criticism. A lobster’s stiffness, let us say. Nevertheless, he has an ear for what he’s doing. He builds colloquial rhythms and idioms into sound lyric structures.

The poems of this book represent, mostly very obliquely, the brutal impingement of the modern world on the Arctic, and in turn the impingement of the Arctic on someone (a baggage handler working for a northern airline) brought there by the modern world.

Wells’ far North is a very circumscribed place. His persona is similarly limited: a hard-nosed working-man who hates his bosses, counts small blessings, and admires the tough but vulnerable guys he labours with.

A mordant little poem ("Duck, Duck, Goose") gives the flavour of the book:

The A340 ate up the runway and blasted off
Over the bay just as a skein of Canadas
Lifted — straight into the wake
Of the great tin goose. Before they could pattern
Themselves, choreograph that famous V,
They were flattened, flapping
Hard against the downdraft uselessly,
Thudding the tarmac in salvos
Of down, blood and down.

Wells sets down this minor, unremarked disaster with disturbing precision. If like the birds themselves several words are too familiar ("skein," "choreograph," "blasted off"), the ironic integration of their sounds into larger patterns in the poem is grimly effective.

The Arctic is a hard place to make sense of, and when Wells ventures away from the air-strips the poems generally don’t get much beyond noticing the weird light and lack of vegetation and the decimated local culture. The requirement that every poem be ‘about’ the North populates the book with less memorable pieces.

Some of the best poems are about being a baggage handler. The poet, Wells suggests, is a baggage handler of experience. The rough-edged little sonnet "Small Song of Wonders" is a gem. Another, "Stacking Boxes in the Belly of a Flying Whale," is less successful, since it pushes the reader a little too hard towards an ars poetica that the poem just can’t deliver: "Everything must be flat: no curves, odd angles, gaps…" The bar of the tradition is set very high for poems that remark on their own formal perfection.

Another strong one guided by the baggage-handler conceit ("Hum Rem (Keep Cool; Handle w/ Respect))" is also a chilly reflection on the elegiac function of lyric:

On the plane,
It’s a plywood crate,
Stainless steel handled,
A little cross nailed on
To mark the head.
Like more fragile
Freight — overripe
Tomatoes, potato chips —
You’re not to stack
Heavy cargo on it,
By no means turn it
Upside down or side-
Ways, never step on it
[if you can help it]
put it near live animals.

There is a power in the blunt but ambiguous repetition of "it," which refers, as labels do, sometimes to container and sometimes to contained (in this instance, we learn, the body of a suicide). But the second line in the fourth stanza diminishes this effect.

"Death of a Bush Outfit" is a thoughtful meditation on northerners’ growing dependence on modern technology, and compares the jury-rigged, improvised practices of the last century to "the roots of old trees become liabilities / The closer they grow to foundations / Of houses built beside them, impromptu" (42). The poem is weakened, however, by an unmotivated declamatory repetition: "Thus… thus… thus…" And though weakly metrical, its structure (strongly enjambed and lacking rhyme) is not so much suggestive of improvisation as of early draft.

Wells is probably best-known to readers of TDR for his fearless reviewing. He is also a talented practitioner. What will live as poetry obeys its own fierce (underwater) economy, and good wishes only count for so much, but I look forward to more from him.

J. Mark Smith is a poet in Toronto.






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