canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

No Impressionable Youth

A Lover’s Quarrel: Essays and Reviews
by Carmine Starnino
The Porcupine’s Quill, 2004

Reviewed by Zach Wells

Also on TDR:

Reviewer’s caveat

A Lover’s Quarrel is not only a good book—thoughtful, stylish and consistently engaging— it is also an important book because it begins to correct a reductive and largely unexamined consensus about what constitutes "Canadian Poetry" that has resulted from the well-intended but misguided literary nation-building carried out by such critics as Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee and George Woodcock. Readers who pretend to love and believe in Canadian poetry and who ignore or dismiss this book will be impoverished as a result. As Starnino says, "dissent is essential for its own sake" (italics in original).

A Lover’s Quarrel is valuable not just because of the judgments Starnino metes out, but because of the questions and challenges that he raises. This is most obvious in the sixty-page title essay, but the previously published selected reviews that follow make clear that quarrelling as a sort of critical correction (in the sense of adjusting a steering wheel to keep the car on the road) has always been a major motivating force behind Starnino’s reviews. Starnino’s quarrel is not so much with individual poets as with the critical apparatus that has elevated certain poets to iconic status while ignoring others who are arguably more skilled but harder to slot into preconceived categories. This critical apparatus has been reinforced by a sort of critical quietude (1), abetted by the increasingly bureaucratic and supposedly self-policing literary institutions (the Canada Council for the Arts being pre-eminent among them) that govern and arbitrate in matters cultural. Fear of offending—or more properly speaking, fear of the consequences of offending—their peers tends to make writers who review err on the side of caution rather than controversy. The most common rebuttal to reviewers like Starnino is that they are "self-serving" in slapping down other poets. This line of argument is difficult to sustain—"Give me a break," says Starnino— given that self-interest in our cultural climate is far better served by celebration or silence than by blunt criticism, as Starnino is well aware:

Moreover, and especially in this country, negative reviews, given the reprisals they invite, invariably bite the reviewer back, specifically in terms of whatever grants, prizes and publications the outraged poet (or sympathetic associates) will one day be in a position to dispense. These days, in other words, poets who write reviews are looking for trouble.

It’s also my feeling that this book has been the victim of some pretty gross critical mishandling to-date, from reviewers who have oversimplified Starnino’s tastes and intentions, and I hope that this review will act in some way as a corrective to the misrepresentations of others.

Starnino is transparent about the "partisan" nature of his tastes and makes his points with vigour. This has led some reviewers to respond to the tenor and tone of his book more than to the substance of his often subtly nuanced arguments. Harry Vandervlist, writing in Quill & Quire, said that "Starnino overplay[s] contrasts and tr[ies] to spook readers into choosing between false dichotomies." He goes on to call Starnino an "upholder of a narrow range of poetic values"—which statement prompted a terse retort from Starnino in Q&Qs letters page. In The Globe and Mail, Fraser Sutherland opined that "Starnino resembles nothing so much as an impressionable youth bedazzled by formalist filigree and Parnassian self-importance." These readings seem to confirm Starnino’s complaint that Canadian critics are often guilty of reading "crudely." While some of the reviews Starnino included in his book are overwhelmingly negative in their appraisals and a few unreservedly celebratory, more often they represent a fraught engagement with a given poet’s oeuvre. Sutherland tells us that Starnino praises A.M. Klein and that he "treasures the philosophically rich Tim Lilburn." This is not altogether inaccurate, but betrays a rather cursory reading of the essays on these two poets. In the Klein piece, though Starnino finds much to admire, he also makes the rather disillusioned statement that, with only two significant exceptions, "there seems to be no signature note, no inimitable inner speech that surfaces in Klein’s accomplished utterances." And the crux of the review of Lilburn’s GG-winning Kill-site is how the gifts of the poet, after his first three books, seem to decline steadily and that his "voice stops being a voice and becomes the recurring sum of its previous effects." In a review of David McGimpsey’s Lard Cake—a book that stereotyped notions of "formalist filigree and Parnassian self-importance" would insist he despise—Starnino finds much to praise. Likewise, in his now-infamous review of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, he gives Bök more than his due, saying that his lipograms possess "immense diversionary charm, and only a tin-eared fool would deny them that." And he puts the lie to Sutherland’s completely unfounded assumption that "he treasures … virtually the entire backlist of Signal Editions, the poetry imprint he edits," with a highly skeptical review of John Reibetanz’s Morning Watch, which Starnino says is characterized by "a self-conscious lyricism that, although sophisticated in its effects, strikes me as being mechanical and lifeless." Impressionable youth, indeed… That the supposedly "narrow range" of Starnino’s taste encompasses such diverse voices as Irving Layton and Charles Bruce, Richard Outram and Ricardo Sternberg, E.J. Pratt and A.M. Klein speaks to me of broadly catholic curiosity, not reactionary trench-digging. The "false dichotomies" we’ve become enamoured with in this country are those of "formal poetry vs. free verse" and "experimental vs. traditional." Far from encouraging this kind of simple bipartisan approach, Starnino seeks to explode such meaningless Manichean thinking to take a closer look at the particular flaws and virtues of our poets.

That being said, Starnino’s rhetoric, while it enlivens his prose, is often at odds with the sophistication of his knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities. To carp on this is to get caught up in quibbles—as Emerson said, "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"—; however, I’d be remiss in not pointing out what I feel to be a couple of significant chinks in Starnino’s armour. One of these is a predilection for dropping names, often in lists; on the penultimate page of the title essay, for instance, no fewer than twenty-three contemporary Canadian poets are named in an impressive act of cataloguing. Most of the names receive little or no substantial treatment—sometimes not even a second mention—elsewhere in the book. The catalogue thus becomes a sort of critical shortcut, effectively excluding the reader unfamiliar with the work of these poets and giving the impression of precisely the sort of garrison that Starnino deplores, adding fuel to the fire of critics like Sutherland and Vandervlist who see him as enamoured with a certain type of poetry, published by certain presses. (By my rough estimate, of the twenty-three named in the above-mentioned list, fourteen have published books with Signal Editions, seven with the Porcupine’s Quill and four with McGill-Queen’s, all presses with which Starnino is affiliated.) I must make it clear that I don’t think these poets are all of a type (I haven’t even read all of them), but in the absence of substantial analysis of their work by Starnino, it’s very hard for the uninitiated reader to tell otherwise.

Another big problem with A Lover’s Quarrel is Starnino’s failure to quarrel with certain poets, most notably Michael Harris, Eric Ormsby and David Solway, all three of whom are friends and mentors of Starnino. Starnino does his most painstaking close reading on poems by each of these three, and his admiration for their work is plainly sincere. But—and here I’m finally coming back to my below-stated reservations—I can’t help wondering if his friendship with these writers precludes the kind of sensible balance to be found in his evaluations of Outram, Bök, Lilburn, Layton, Dudek, Klein, McGimpsey and Reibetanz. In a review of Solway’s Chess Pieces, he excuses some weak writing in one poem as a clever setup for a later change of tone; he makes a convincing argument, but I wonder if such strategies might exhaust his patience in other writers, especially given that he’s "a huge fan of the maxim that a poet’s identifying presence should be awake in the smallest sample pruned from their oeuvre." Of the line "lithe scintillas of exuberance" in Ormsby’s poem "Garter Snake," Starnino says that it’s a "ravishing" phrase "pieced together by an ear that refuses to dim language to its lowest common denominator." It’s true that this is no dollar-store description, but it strikes me as rather more overwritten than ravishing and vaguely imprecise in its evocation. I have a hard time picturing a scintilla of an abstract noun like exuberance, particularly a lithe one; this is little better than empty verbosity. And in Harris’s poem "The Dolphin," Starnino makes much of the fact that the poet’s use of a simile in the final stanza "creates enough of an opening to allow the ending’s sprezzatura to whistle out." The ending is very strong in my opinion, but the actual simile ("the flat tail-flukes/like the wings of a solitary angel") drifts dangerously close to spiritual kitsch, especially with the use of the very romantic adjective "solitary."

Although Starnino comes down squarely against the glorification of ancestors and colonial special pleading that has led to the preservation of mediocre works by the Confederation Poets, it seems to me that in calling Pratt the "dominant Canadian poet of the twentieth century" he is indulging in his own strained quest for significant antecedents. I’ve never been a fan of Pratt, but for the sake of this review I revisited two long poems, "The Witches’ Brew" and "The Cachalot," that Starnino singles out for praise. These are fun verse thumpers alright, with some unquestionably virtuoso technique at play, but I can’t help thinking that they feel, as Starnino says of Klein’s verse, "uninhabited." I tend to agree with Al Purdy’s assessment that "the lack of a single personal human face behind E.J. Pratt’s epics … leaves me indifferent to him and them." Starnino would probably dismiss this view as the thought of "a poet who’d rather adjourn to the ease of his persona than launch into the vexations of style."

This is another sticking point for me. Purdy’s name crops up in A Lover’s Quarrel from time to time (five times by my count, three of which occur on a single page), but never for anything more than a brusque dismissal. Starnino maintains that "a poet should be judged by his best poems (not convicted by his worst)" and he extends the benefit of the doubt to the abundantly gifted but grossly overproductive Irving Layton as well as to poets like Milton Acorn and Alden Nowlan, who could also be wildly uneven and undiscriminating in their output. But he seems all too ready to accept the stereotype of Purdy (purveyed by both his fans and his foes) as the aw-shucks all-Canuck avatar of slack craft, rather than engage authentically with his oeuvre, which, though uneven and at times perfectly compatible with his critics’ worst opinions, is far more subtle and various than writers like Starnino and Solway care to admit. Like him or not, Purdy’s a figure that any serious critic of Canadian poetry—as Starnino unquestionably is—needs to deal with. His failure to do this properly is one of the biggest holes in this book.

I’ve expended quite a few words quarrelling with Carmine Starnino’s book. This might give the impression that I don’t think much of it and that I’m not much of a friend. But really, by taking issue with some primary elements, I hope that I’m honouring the book’s spirit of lively debate. As Starnino says at one point, his goal is "never to prevail, but to participate." I happen to agree with more here than I disagree with, but saying "yes, yes, that’s wonderful, how true" makes for pretty dull conversation. A Lover’s Quarrel is a book that should be read. It is both good and good for Canadian literature, which suffers from a surfeit of love and a shortage of quarrel. It will be interesting to see what kind of direction Starnino takes now that he’s passed this stage in his "discipleship in the discipline of prose." Here’s what I’m looking forward to: more essays on significant non-Canadian poets to complement his yeoman’s work on verse within our borders. It would be a shame for a critic with Starnino’s skill and insight to become too much of a specialist.

Zach Wells is the Halifax-based author of Unsettled (Insomniac Press). He is presently jobless and will do almost anything for a quick buck.


Reviewer’s caveat

Alright, alright, I can hear the knives being sharpened. So I offer the following caveats and confessions.

First off, my caveats:

  • I have been a big fan of Carmine Starnino’s prose since the fall of 2000 when I encountered his eloquently feisty reviews in the Montreal Gazette. What I liked and admired in his writing then, and now, is what I like and admire in all good critical prose: he didn’t soft-peddle anything and was refreshingly shameless about airing his opinions.
  • In 2003, the informal opinionating I was semi-pseudonymously serving up on the discussion boards caught Carmine’s eye and he contacted me, through Bookninja editor George Murray, to see if I was interested in writing reviews for Books in Canada, where Carmine is an associate editor. I accepted and have published several reviews and essays there since. Also since 2003, I have corresponded regularly with Carmine over the last year and a half and we’ve had a couple of meals together when I’ve been in Montreal for work.

My confession:

  • As a reviewer of this book I’m in a position of triple jeopardy: fan, flunky and friend. I probably shouldn’t have written this review.

In my defense, this review essay is not an assignment I sought. When TDR editor Michael Bryson asked me if I’d do it, I balked at first, giving him all the reasons I’ve listed above, but Michael said he was cool with all that, so I finally agreed, telling him I’d be making my biases clear from the get-go. If the assignment had been to review Carmine’s recent book of poems, With English Subtitles, I’d have demurred.

Why is this different from reviewing a collection of essays? For one thing, critical prose is less personal a medium than poetry, at least for those of us who practice both. I take a certain amount of pride as a reviewer in approaching a book with a more or less cool hand. Anything resembling perfect objectivity is of course impossible in such a subjective field. Nor is it even desirable; as Carmine puts it in his introduction, "corsucatory suspicion can hatch more satisfying insights than unfelt disinterest."

Nevertheless, too much personal knowledge of the poet can cloud the clarity with which one views the poems; at least, I know that I myself, however unintentionally, tend to be more forgiving of poetry when the poet is someone I know—unless it’s someone I dislike, in which case I suspect I tend to be more harshly skeptical than I might otherwise.

But a book of critical essays, while hopefully still displaying a goodly measure of style and craft, is more about ideas than art, and I find it less problematic to engage in a discussion or quarrel (and I do have my fair share of problems with what Carmine has written) with a friend and colleague’s ideas.

At any rate, I trust that if the prevaricating disclaimers above don’t convince you, that the review itself will exonerate me in this instance from any suspicions of shilling for a buddy.


(1) I realize that this sounds like paranoid conspiracy-mongering, but it’s hard to deny when you read essays like Jan Zwicky’s "The Ethics of a Negative Review," an article that Starnino objects to which posits what I have argued is an irresponsible objection to the negative review per se. I have also had the personal experience in my very short career as a book reviewer of having two different solicited reviews rejected by two different editors, both of whom assured me that the assignment was well-executed, but they couldn’t run the reviews because they came down too hard on a first-time author on the one hand and a mid-career selected poems on the other. (back to top)







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