canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Solway the Sad Balladeer: an open letter to the (Unofficial) Laureate of ‘This Sucks’

by Shane Neilson

In his usual high but heavy-handed style, David Solway once again decries the state of current Canadian poetry in his recent article (Wilted Laurels [or, A Sad Ballade to the Poets Inglorious], Books in Canada, September 2002). This time, however, he’s crafted a variation on a theme: blast the idea of a poet laureateship on the grounds that Canadian poetry is bereft of literary merit. This latter subject is one that Solway prosecutes with a perpetual zealotry, and he can be depended on to produce several polemics a year relating to just how bad everything is, just how really awful Canadians are at verse, just how dishonest our literary culture is in propagating itself. David Solway is the enfant terrible of terrible, the unofficial Canadian laureate of biliousness.

His latest indictment begins with:

“Apart from yesterday’s newspaper, there are two things that seem to age overnight: a learned footnote and a bad poem…. It may even be said that a bad poem is born old and dies young, sapless and etiolated.” (italics in original)

This (excuse the pun) short list should be amended to include fundamentalism. After so many malignant salvos launched towards the edifice of Canadian poetry, it appears Solway’s negative obsession will never be exhausted. Through a dogged destructiveness, he has proven the argument that ‘we suck’ can only be taken so far, especially by one who claims to recognize our collective “bathos” and “superannuation,” yet who has done nothing to rescue us from this state. The irony is clear: the weight of the whistle Solway wears around his neck pulls him down into mediocrity- a strange kind of complicity in the whole “self-serving and pharisaic enterprise” of Canadian poetry. The music from such a whistle can only be shrill.

At another point in his BiC invective, he declares that “… the members of guild and league have rarely been deterred from furthering their own interests at the obviously affordable price of their integrity as witnesses and their commitment to standards of aesthetic taste, critical judgement, and public comportment.” I daresay Solway is being less than fair here, for he has pathologically practiced his own brand of reputational collusion. The names Starnino, Ormsby, and Harris are so groomed by his lips and pen, it would do an integrity-compromised member of guild and league proud.

Let me now consider his arguments contra a poet laureate, so anemically stated in his most recent article. The first is also the most tired: why laud the unworthy? It’s easy to say this sucks, that sucks, everything sucks. It’s much more difficult to argue the opposite. Negative assertions come easier than positive ones, for the simple reason that most things are imperfect, and pointing out their flaws is an easy task. Celebrating a piece of art- now that’s hard to do well. At the time of my writing, we have three practicing poets with international reputations (Atwood, Ondaatje, and Carson). Like it or not, these are the names that we declare as a country, and as Solway has done elsewhere, it’s sport to lampoon them. It’s work to appreciate them- much less fun to be had.

His second argument is a regurgitated one in which he argues/parrots Lynn Crosbie’s feelings on the Laureateship matter, quoting her to the effect that only bad poets seek it out, the good ones are (ahem) averse to state-sponsored accolades. Well, let’s consider the evidence for a moment.

In England, a case can admittedly be made for underwhelming talents of late; Betjeman and Day-Lewis are two examples. And yes, Phillip Larkin was approached for the job, which he declined- proof supporting the idea that the best poets shun laureate hemlock. But consider also the fact that Larkin was approached- isn’t this an instance of the institution working? The best man for the job was asked if he wanted it, not a crony of the “guild and league.” And look at Ted Hughes’s recent performance as laureate- his case surely demolishes the idea that only hacks accept the state’s laurels. Certainly the English Laureateship from a historical perspective isn’t totally anti-talent- Spenser, Jonson, Southey, Tennyson, and Wordsworth were all named.

America’s more democratic system, where a new laureate is named almost every year, adds further credence to the idea of a laureateship. The names are a who’s who of American literary brilliance –Pinsky, Lowell, Frost, and Strand, to name a only few. The best argument can be made by invoking the current laureate, Billy Collins. In response to the September the eleventh attacks, he crafted “The Names”, a poem that was powerful and widely praised. It did appear in “yesterday’s newspaper”, by the way- the 9/11 New York Times. The creation, wide dissemination, and broad reception of this poem serves as an excellent reason to have a Poet Laureate. Poets really are there to affect, and in the affect, they can do some effect, too. Collins had the whole of America as an audience, and they listened, and they grieved- Solway’s invocation of Milosz’s “rage will kindle at a poet’s word” notwithstanding.

The evidence presented is convincing enough to vindicate the idea of a laureateship except amongst those obsessed with how bad Canadian poetry is. Being of this cohort, he is free to indulge his ignorance by sticking his thesaurus-drunk head in the muck of how much we suck.

The medical metaphors Solway employs in his article are amusing in light of their polemical phrasings (one can never trust a polemicist) and of their ignorance of an important medical tenet. Perhaps he has never heard of the placebo effect, the medical principle that if a treatment triggers a patient’s hope, that treatment may provide benefit independent of its actual physiological therapeutics. Arguing for the creation of an institution that does honour to our craft isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. The implementation may be bungled, the practice may be corrupt, but the idea of a poet laureate is not a malignant thing, and in two significant cases, good things have come of it. I think that a Laureateship is what a country makes it, and though I concede our creative deficit –no, we cannot claim a Yeats yet- the fact is, we have to start somewhere. And we can build on that beginning later.

The only thing that is “born old and dies young” is a cynic. Is a critic’s sole purpose to castigate, as opposed to the dual invigilation and elevation a good interlocutor of the culture deals in? A critic keeps us honest, not constantly cowering from repeated browbeatings.

What purpose do paragraphs like the following serve? 

“The name of the game for many of the major players on the poetry scene is neither work nor love but mutual bestowal of remuneration and place warranted by the exchange of purposeless arcane. But perhaps we should not complain since a little local celebrity may keep our poets from doing more serious harm, 'siphoning off', as Mark Steyn says in another context, 'the narcissistic and dysfunctional into an area where they can do the least societal damage.'”

I have many objections to this line of argument. All writers want to be famous. It’s our base instinct. We want to be read, we seek fame, a motivation that surely stems our sausage-factory fashioning of controversialist opinions. Accusing writers of wanting to be read –euphemistically described as a ‘celebrity’ gambit- is tenditious. Accusing writers of exchanging in the ‘purposeless arcane’ is vague in the extreme. What does such an economy trade in? Purposeless arcanity? Then there is the malicious argument that all our malcontent poets are better off composing stagnant verse than robbing banks. And that argument is supported by a quote taken ‘in another context’!

Solway is a Martin Amis aficionado. But Amis has already rued in print his days as a firebreathing critic in the foreword of his collected volume of criticism The War Against Cliché:

“Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember… Admittedly there are some critics who enjoy being insulting into middle age. I have often wondered why this spectacle seems so undignified. Now I know: it’s mutton dressed as lamb. I am also struck by how hard I sometimes was on writers who (I erroneously felt) were trying to influence me: Roth, Mailer, Ballard.”

It’s this perpetual comportment that’s distasteful. In our vain struggle for posterity, we’re (artists all) negotiating with our muses, some more successfully than others. Canadian poetry is either on the cusp of a breakthrough, anathema to Solway, or it is moribund as he claims. Let’s hope that, in the war against composition, Solway the acidic critic loses one for the team. As an institution, the Laureateship just might be the operation Canadian poetry needs.

Shane Neilson is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.






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