Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Questions for the new year

Sina, do you really have to stop blogging?

Why are so many poets and 'critics' afraid of culture? Why is poetry considered by these people something outside of culture?

Why are certain conflicts of interest in the literary world HUGE news (like reviews written for the Toronto Star by people who know people or hate people) but the most blatant and obvious ones never talked about (like editing a periodical and having your own books featured and lauded)?

Why are so many poets afraid of theory and/or experimental writing? Is it REALLY that hard to do the work?


Jonathan Ball said...

Jon -- you've hit the nail on the head with your last comment. Poets are lazy. And "not doing the work" is tolerated -- in fact, encouraged.

Razovsky said...

Guess you didn't like the comment I posted yesterday.

I thought the fear of debate was just a Toronto phenomenon.



J said...


Is "jack" your alter ego? If so, I think there was a problem with the interpretation of the question. The question was:

"Why are so many poets and 'critics' afraid of culture? Why is poetry considered by these people something outside of culture?"

What I meant by this is that some people seem to think that poetry needs to be 'protected' from culture instead of participating in it. Your Heidi Fleiss letter, for instance, might be considered dubious subject matter by these folks. I think that's a problem.

The only comment I removed was from "jack" because it seemed mean spirited. Maybe I read it wrong.

Antoine Boisclair said...

Your conflict of interest accusations are interesting. Because my pet peeve are anthologists who include their own work, as you did in Post-Prairie and (as did the editors of Switch & Shift). But I guess you can file that under The Pot Calling the Kettle Black.

J said...

I haven't made any conflict of interest accusations. I noted that some are acceptable and others which are more blatant go unchallenged. I actually didn't want to include my own work in Post-Prairie. And second-last draft of the anthology did not have my work in it. Mr. Kroetsch insisted and made a strong argument for a particular piece to be included. It's hard to argue with Robert Kroetsch. I lost the argument.

But I wouldn't be so unethical as to have a featured story or rave review of that anthology or any of my other books in Matrix. That is just too transparent.

Including your work in your own book is much less of a conflict (if it even is a conflict) than having paying people to praise your book in the magazine or periodical you run.

Antoine Boisclair said...

You know, Jon, you're really something else. I don't know what "magazine" you're talking about, and it doesn't matter. I just find it telling the way you always imput the ugly motives to everyone else, but never fail to remind us that your own are clean as a whistle. The fact is including your own work in an anthology is one of the most transparent bid's for attention around. And claiming that co-editor(s) "insisted" your work be included is the oldest trick in the editor playbook. Look, I don't care. You can put yourself in as many anthologies as you want. But this smug, high-hand, bruised-nobility shtick just gets a little tired.

J said...

you have no position, you make no valid points, you have no identity -- you are anonymous. my question re: conflict of interest is valid. you are clearly a troll. why conceal your identity if you want to debate?

Anonymous said...

A serious question: Please explain what you mean by "experimental writing"? Who, what, how? Until there is clarification, to be "experimental" is to be a brand like any other.

(I ask because your post ended with a question of being afraid of "experimental writing" and theory).

Razovsky said...

Hi, Jon --

No, I'm not Jack, though I believe I know who is. Perhaps my note just didn't "take," as is sometimes the case with blogger. Sorry for my mistaken accusation.

I don't recall exactly what I said, but it was in response to this from your post: "Why are so many poets afraid of theory and/or experimental writing? Is it REALLY that hard to do the work?"

What bugs me is you attribute "fear" when the case may be "non-interest," "dislike," etc.

Theory: I find so much of it convoluted, and so much of it has been written so that someone can maintain a career path at a university. The jargon isn't my language, either, so I often find it impenetrable.

I'd much rather put my time and energy into the "primary texts" and perhaps biographical or cultural backstory. I'm simply not particularly interested in theory.

Experimental: I agree with one of the posters above: the term needs to be defined. For example, I find little in S&S experimental, though I find much of it out of the mainstream, and much of it riffing off things that were experimental back in the 60s and 70s. Also, it may not be that someone "fears" experimental work; it may just be that they prefer traditional forms.

I think "experiment" is a personal thing. If I try something that bpNichol tried in the 60s, it's not experimental per se, but it's an experiment for me personally.

As for including oneself in an anthology, I've done it several times. I generally don't see a problem with it. What's wrong with standing behind your own work? Nothing to be ashamed of, Jon. An exception might be Oscar Williams, who put together all those bloated anthologies of "great verse" in the 40s and 50s, and included himself alongside Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Emily Dickinson, etc.

And while I think it's a problem that Starnino had his own anthology reviewed in a magazine for which he is reviews editor, I gotta hand it to him about CN&Q: he allowed an opposing voice to appear in the *same* issue as his trashing of S&S. Especially amazing because Katherine Parrish made such a fool of him.


J said...

Hey Stu,

Your other note didn't register. Your argument for one's own inclusion in an anthol is very similar to Kroetsch's. And I lost that argument and I changed my mind.

The reason I use the word "fear" is because the thing is unknown to the people I refer to yet they spend years and years of their lives dismissing or mocking the thing in public forums. I think it's fear behind that.

Now, experiment. I think experimental poetry requires experimentation by both the creator and reader of the poem. It's sort of an artistic deployment of the scientific method isn't it? I don't mean this in the lazy "it can mean anything you want!" way, but in the sense that it may take some work and/or research on the part of the reader to parse out the meanings.

In non-experimental poetry, the rusty old bucket always means what the rusty old bucket is supposed to mean. And further, if you don't have a rusty old bucket in the poem, it's not a poem.

Razovsky said...

OK, so if you have to really think about it or do some research -- as with the works of Chaucer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Ashbery -- then it's experimental.

What worries me about your definition of experimental is that it focuses on "meaning."

Oh, and my guess about Jack is that it's Gustave Morin.


J said...

Yeah, that worries me too. But I did purposefully say meanings instead of meaning. So, I'm thinkng about it. There's something about the scientific method; there's something about personal experimentation too; there is most definitely something about tradition.

Wallace Stevens said that all poetry is experimental. He also said that poetry is the scholar's art. I find people who FIERCELY resist these ideas to be suspect. But I think it's fine to disagree if you've conducted your own reading and writing experiments and have different findings. It's the attack dogs I am concerned about.

Anonymous said...

Jon, the broadstroke caricatures you draw with your questions are the opposite of the scholarship you supposedly espouse. Employing the exact same logic you use, one could just as easily say that you fear the people who you say fear the poetry that you say is experimental. And then one could say that I fear you because I think you fear the people you think fear the poetry you say is experimental. And so on, ad absurdum.

I don't know who Antoine Boisclair is, but it doesn't matter, because he makes a good point--your I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I response only proves that you have no good answer to it--when he points out that the walls of your glass house are getting hard to see thru for all the cracks. Appropriate, since it seems that it's not hypocrisy itself but the degree of its opacity that seems most important to you. I happen to agree with both you and Boisclair: bad to have your own books reviewed in your own mag and bad to put yourself in your own antho--no matter who said it was okay, no matter how good and worthy your own writing is (Stuart's argument doesn't really work, because like him, I'm sure Oscar Williams honestly thought his stuff should be included, too, which means that it's only okay if you're good enough, but since you're the one deciding what's good enough...) it compromises the authority of the thing. But if you're more into group hugs than editorial rigour, that's up to you, I guess, since you're the editor.

Stuart, for me Hopkins doesn't require research and study to love. I was blown away when I first read Hopkins and continue to be blown away by his poems. Subsequent reading of criticism of his work and biographical stuff has added a dimension to that appreciation, but it's a surplus, not a prerequesite pleasure. And Chaucer only needs background work because his dialect has been made unfamiliar to us by time. It would not have been so for his contemporaries. Ashbery I don't find any harder than anyone else; I do find him generally too glib (in all senses of the word) for my liking. Generally. As far as I'm concerned, any self-styled poetry that requires you to read something other than itself to like it--especially if that something else is full of pretentious jargon--is something other than poetry--most often something inferior. And this applies equally to a good chunk of Richard Outram's poetry as it does to, say, Erin Moure's.

Also, I agree that Carmine deserves credit for making space for debate--tho I disagree that Parrish got the better of him in that particular exchange. Not because I agree more with Carmine, but because Parrish's argument boiled itself down to "quit pissing in our end of the pool," which isn't an argument at all, it's a plea for no more arguments. And that's a pretty close paraphrase of her actual words, for anyone who hasn't already read the piece. At any rate, this is something he's done consistently as an editor. He got Abou Farman, who trashed his poetry collection in Arc, to review his anthology in BiC--Farman trashed it and Carmine ran the review. He also made room for two rebuttals of his Al Moritz review in BiC, not to mention several column feet of letters to the editor. These are some of the facts that complicate Jon's distorted manichean picture of CanPo world.

If you don't like conflict, Jon, you should avoid it. Because you're really not very good at it. Hope that doesn't seem too meanspirited--or fearful--to post.

J said...

Hi Zach,

Happy New Year!

I am concerned about the reductive and dismissive actions of some who refuse to be well-informed about the art they dismiss. I don't fear them or their work because I am well-informed about them and their practices. Your logic is depressingly inept.

The more I think about it, there is no conflict of interest in including your work in your own book. My work in Post-Prairie is my work. And it's Robert's book and it's my book. It's much different than the glorified infomercials that happen in certain periodicals. That's about blurring the lines between criticism and advertisement. That's conflict of interest.

Most people in the poetry world I've talked to (who have read the piece, because let's face it, CNQ is not a widely read zine) agree that Parrish made Carmine look pretty foolish in her piece. So credit where credit is due.

It isn't mean-spirited to claim that I am not good at conflict. I am good at conflict resolution. Why would anyone want to be good at conflict? And I am always up for a debate with a worthy opponent.

Antoine Boisclair said...

You can look elsewhere for your trolls, Jon. I DO exist.

Give it up. There's just no way around it. Including yourself in a "representative" anthology is a clear conflict of interest. It's like being part of a jury of one and awarding yourself first prize. It is, at first blush, very far from above board.

That said, I'm prepared to entertain the idea that, under certain circumstances, one might deserve to be in an anthology one is editing. (Atwood, for example, including herself in the Oxford book). If you feel you are such a poet, then more power to you. Though I'm assuming that this is the reason Carmine Starnino didn't include himself in his anthology. He wasn't prepared to stake that claim. (Which frankly is always a wiser move.)

But really, I'm not judging you. Posterity will. All I'm saying is that it's only Christian to extent to others the same benefit of the doubt you lavish on yourself. Reviewing one's one books in a periodical one is editing seems dodgy, I agree. Now I haven't seen this BiC review ZW is talking about, but if he's right about the lengths Starnino went to to preserve the magazine's critical integrity, then I myself don't see the problem. It sounds like it was very far from an "infomercial".

Just please stop pointing fingers at everyone. You're delusional if you think your motives are less compromised than anyone else's.

And why the dig at CNQ? How many readers can Matrix honestly boast? CNQ -- unlike Matrix -- is read in the Quebecois lit community, I can tell you that much.

And I side with ZW. Carmine's CNQ piece was heads and shoulders above Parrish. I've just learned that the Toronto critic Philip Marchand singled out his review for praise, and he was right to do so. But maybe I'm just biased. After all, I like my criticism witty and well-written.

J said...

Wow. Blog drama.

Antoine, I'm sure you exist and I'm sure that's going very well for you.

But here's the thing: I am not awarding myself first prize in the Post-Prairie competition. In fact, there is no competition. Kroetsch's argument was that a representative anthology of Post-Prairie poetry would have been incomplete without my work. I accepted the argument. I don't care if you think that's 'the oldest trick in the book' because it's not a trick. It's how it went down. And the collection of poetry that is Post-Prairie is not an advertisement or anything disguised as an advertisement. It is an art project, an experiment if you will, and it succeeds and it fails. I'm sure for some, the inclusion of my work is one of its failures. I accepted the argument of my co-editor, and I will live with that. In the end, people may say that I was wrong to include my work. So be it. I think it's a much different issue than the one raised by my initial question.

Matrix can honestly boast a diverse and rapidly growing readership. We are continuing the work of Rob Allen who had a vision of eclectism and intellectual curiosity that was very unique and refreshing. We would (and will) publish Erin Moure, Nicole Brossard, David Solway, Robert Kroetsch. bill bissett, Stephanie Bolster, etc. Matrix is a magazine for those who have enough room on their bookshelves for everyone worth reading. We are very serious about ethics at Matrix. We have a strict policy regarding not publishing any critical work or reviews about our editors. It's a simple matter of not giving in to conflict of interest. I know it's difficult in the small world of CanLit but that is our policy. It was Rob's and it is mine.

You will also note that I have not pointed my finger at anyone specifically. I simply asked a question regarding a dodgy practice (which many people are guilty of) that has gone unchallenged. I have not named names and I don't want to. that's not the point.

I'm not interested in being Christian, Antoine. I'm interested in the idea of ethics as it pertains to the dissemination of literature. And I'm asking these questions not out of a spirit of accusation, but because I am interested in real answers.

And I must stress that the majority of people I have encountered who have seen the two pieces in CNQ think that Katherine Parrish's piece was clever, insightful and completely free of vitriol. It was the superior piece. And I applaud the publishers and editors of CNQ for running it.

Razovsky said...

I'm not interested in being Christian either. What the fuck kind of an argument is "It's only Christian..."?

Anyway, Parrish very astutely pointed out what seemed to be deliberate blindnesses on Starnino's part — blindnesses that that spilled over into dishonesty.

Incidentally, I neither entirely agree nor entirely disagree with either of those essays: I just think that Parrish made Starnino look like an ass, and she did it articulately and with class.

I hope you enjoyed my little rhyme.

I found myself in the same quandary as Jon with my Surreal Estate anthology: to create an anthology of surrealist-influenced Canadian writing and not include myself would have been an odd omission. And I wasn't giving myself a prize, or putting myself in a Top 10, or paying myself. Just presenting readers some of the range of surrealist influence.

Also, since my practice as a writer has always included a good deal of self-publication, I barely flinched.


Alex Boyd said...

Jon, I hope all is well with you, but I have to say I don't think I'll be visiting your blog anymore. I don't really need the negativity, and I've based that opinion on your original post, 48 hours into the new year, that seemed designed (whether you meant it or not, and look, it worked) to crank up the bickering and posturing.

And, hey, an ancient ice shelf the size of eleven thousand football fields broke off Ellesmere Island, and Polar Bears and now officially a threatened species. Is that out of left field? Well, yes. But the point is, I sincerely hope you'll write about some other issues here this year. A blog is just a tool, after all.

As far as the Canadian poetry community is concerned, I've discussed poetry with many people, and I've never known more traditional poets (who are, I think, experimental too in more subtle ways) and more overtly experimental poets to convince each other to change their ways. All we can do is follow our instincts, and try not to disparage others. By all means, write an essay about the amount of work you think goes into experimental writing, or an article on conflict of interest, but offhand remarks in a blog (that imply no real work goes into non-experimental poetry, for example) are going to do this every time. I suspect you don't enjoy it.

J said...


i'm sorry you won't be visiting my blog. maybe it's for the best. maybe this answers my question: "sina, do you really have to stop blogging?" because the questions i asked were simply questions. the bitterness and posturing and irrational behaviour that followed cannot be blamed entirely on the questions.

the comments and 'answers' are very telling. I never suggested in at all that no real work goes into non-experimental poetry. I was asking why some poets and critics blindly dismiss experimental poetry. this question has nothing to do with their own poetry or the poetry they embrace. there is no doubt a great deal of work that goes into that. I have many formal and traditional poets in my bookshelf and i turn to them often.

don't tell me that i am guilty of any specific negativity. i was asking general questions. there may have been a negative undertone to some of the questions, i concede that. but the specificity came from the answers.

and it wasn't all negative. stuart had some concerns about what i said and we were able to discuss these concerns and have a healthy discussion.

read sina's post about reviewing practices. it's one of her last posts and it's very well done. see, i have this possibly foolish belief that we can convince each other to change our ways and perhaps that might be healthy. i don't think it's enough to follow our instincts. i think we should challenge ourselves to a higher standard than instinct. I owe so much to people like Rob Allen who suggested that i should not rely on instinct alone, and i should read critically and carefully despite my preconceptions.

anyways, alex, i thought the post might provoke debate and dialogue but i did not intend to facilitate or celebrate a spirit of negativity. but you are right. it worked. my traffic is off the scales. it tripled. it's a little strange because i am much more proud of my holiday mixed tape than i am of these questions.

but i must insist that the questions are valid. when the stakes are low, as they are in Canlit, then it seems that questions of ethics are out of the question. obviously i'm no angel and i have found myself in conflicts of interest in my life and i haven't always made the right decisions. but i remain curious how others handle these problems. or if they even acknowledge them as problems.

Anonymous said...

The following quote is the opening of the Sina Queyras blog post Jon refers to:

"At the risk of getting nothing but negative reviews for the rest of my life I have to comment on the terrible state of reviewing....thinking of course, of the recent slaughter of Nathalie Stephens in the Globe & Mail versus the glowing, gloss of a review such as the recent one of Paul Muldoon by Ken Babstock. Let me just say up front that I don't have a problem with glowing reviews, or Ken Babstock, or Paul Muldoon for that matter, but don't these extremes point to an inconsistency of editorial policy at what is probably the only national venue for poetry reviews in the country?"

The answer: not necessarily. There was, let's not forget, also a "glowing review" of Lisa Robertson's recent Coach House book in the Globe. Just because a book one loves gets a negative review in a prominent publication doesn't mean there's some kind of conspiracy or a major problem of "editorial inconsistency." There are problems with the Globe book section, as everyone knows, but I don't think the one Queyras identifies is one of the bigger ones. Queyras' desire for an "unbiased" book review is naively utopian, and, as the history of utopian visions tells us, not something we should wish for. Book reviewing is an inherently biased practice. As a book review editor, I look for articulate and cogent expressions of the reviewer's bias--pro or con. Sometimes this means I'll be publishing reviews I don't agree with, even reviews that run a sword thru a favourite book of mine. It's the risk one takes. To have a blanket editorial policy regarding positivity-quotient or tone is to deny the legitimacy of the reviewer's p.o.v.--unless that p.o.v. jibes with the editor's of course, or worse, with some kind of abstract standard of manners and decorum--which is tantamount to censorship; gentle censorship, but censorship nevertheless. And there's nothing to me more tediously insipid, more tepidly bland, in public discourse than a bunch of people saying nice things and agreeing with each other. It's also disingenuous, because it belies the nature of the cafe conversations happening. People express opinions strongly in private conversation all the time; I think it's healthy to have that reflected in our public dialogues as well. One is always free to disagree, privately or publicly, with a published review, as Ms. Queyras has. This is good, this is healthy, this is interesting. A fake consensus of yea-sayers isn't. It's advertising.

I guess, contra Jon's original questions, I'd ask, "Why are some poets afraid of negative reviews?" Clearly, Jon and others feel marginalised by perceived attacks on the praxis and theory of what they call "experimental" poets. I would say that those of us who value honest reviewing (and pray tell, Stuart, where you find Carmine's essay becomes "dishonest," because this is a serious accusation of ethical misconduct) also feel marginalised by the constant sniping against what has been lazily labelled "snark." My practice as a writer and editor of reviews is based on a carefully-considered ethical and aesthetic platform. To have it cursorily dismissed as reflexive negativity is deeply insulting. I know, I know, you're not naming names, Jon, but I'm saying that you have to--unless you're content with the demolition of strawpersons--if you want your arguments to carry any weight, or if, at a bare minimum, you want them to be clear and not so open to misinterpretation. You need to be minutely, forensically specific, in my opinion, if you want anyone who doesn't already share your convictions to take you seriously.

Questions of ethics have never been "out of the question" for me, Jon. In several pieces of journalism, I've pointed them out. And I've had many other private conversations about them. Regarding the question of reviews of Carmine's books in BiC, I and others have expressed concern. I haven't done so in public--until now I suppose--because Carmine and I work together and are friends, so I'm able to, and find it more appropriate, to talk about these problems offstage. But believe me, I don't ignore them.

Regarding M. Boisclair's unfortunate choice of metaphor--I too have no interest in being Christian about anything--can we please chalk it up to cultural difference and be modern tolerant people about it--i.e. translate it into whatever metaphor we deem more appropriate. Stuart, would you be pissed if he said that one should be a mensch instead? It's ironic that the very point he was making--mutual tolerance--led to his whole post being dismissed.

Razovsky said...

Hi, Zach --

A "mensch" doesn't refer to any religious standards or qualities. It's just a good person. Just because it's a Yiddish word doesn't make it a parallel to "Christian."

You also asked, and it's a good question, " (and pray tell, Stuart, where you find Carmine's essay becomes "dishonest," because this is a serious accusation of ethical misconduct)":

I referred to a deliberate blindness that spilled over into dishonesty, I think. Starnino asks, "Is it so unreasonable to want to know why James Hilder's use of a photograph earns the right to be called a poem?" As Parrish points out, "Surely it depends on what is being photographed. But Starnino's question grossly misrepresents Jamie Hilder's work. The poems are not photographs. They are installations of banners displayed on a highway."

The fact that Starnino doesn't mention that the photograph is of a banner bearing text, to me, is dishonest. It's a pretty big omission.


Anonymous said...

Okay, but either way, it's a figure of speech meaning roughly "to be a decent person," each one rooted in the specifics of a cultural value set.

I haven't read the anthology, so a question: is it made explicit in the book that the banners are Hilder's creation? If not, it could easily be confusing, since the text is more sloganesque (isn't one actually the English translation of the Nazi deathcamp motto "Freedom Through Work"?) than poetic. Regardless, I think it's reasonable to question at what point such an installation, whether seen in person or in a photographic reproduction, starts being poetry as opposed to something else. Just because something has text in it and has been produced by someone who calls himself a poet doesn't mean it's a poem, much less poetry. This was I thought a rather weak point of Parrish's argument. She says something about how EBB's sonnets wouldn't be regarded as poetry if they were spraypainted on highway overpasses. But this is a fatuous analogy, since a)the text would still be the same as if they were printed in a book and b)No one driving by would have time to read the whole thing--unless maybe they were on horseback... There is so little generic relation to the two cases compared that it makes the analogy risible. It's no less "dishonest" than Carmine's question.

Honestly, stuff like this is so close to parodies of art school pretensiousness (such as can be found in the essays of David Sedaris and on Six Feet Under) that I'm amazed anyone can take it seriously. Carmine didn't have to "misrepresent Hilder's work" to discredit it as poetry, so I can only assume the book didn't make clear what was "text" and what was "paratext," to borrow some dubious jargon. Stuff like this is, at best, a clever prank. Poems can contain clever pranks, certainly,--as a number of Stuart Ross poems do--but a clever prank does not a self-sufficient poem make. There's no range, no complexity, at best a kind of hamfisted ambiguity. So even if you can call it, generically, a poem, I balk at the idea of calling it, qualitatively, poetry.

Jonathan Ball said...

I love blog drama, and am jealous of Jon's ability to stir it up. I never get drama on my blog. I suppose that's largely because I'm a relative nobody.

I find Starnino a frustrating person to read. Often he will make points with which I agree. But then he will totally fail in his application of his own ideas. He will say "I hate poets that do X" and I will say "Yeah! I hate X too!" and then he will say "derek beaulieu does X" and I will say "What the fuck are you talking about? He's doing B! He's nowhere near X!" I find that Starnino makes more good points than he is given credit for making. However, he fundamentally appears to be unable to read formally difficult writing. He refuses to analyze this kind of poetry and dismisses it, sometimes for good reasons -- but for reasons that do not often apply to the poems that he singles out, though they may reasonably apply to other poems.

There is a lot of lousy poetry trying to pass itself off as "experimental" and it should be attacked with as rabid an attack as that which Starnino mounts. But there is also some very strong work which is being dismissed along with the weak junk. The same goes the other way... a lot of very good lyric poets are being shat upon by the "avant-garde" for being lyric poets, and find themselves lumped together with lesser poets.

however, Jon, I do not agree with you that "the stakes are low" in CanLit. I think the stakes are very high, and that art is (for better or worse) extremely important and the only thing that can help us as human beings understand ourselves and our world and gain the necessary analytical skill and emotional maturity to respond with complexity to complex issues. I think that what is wrong with CanLit is that it does not take itself seriously enough... what sickens me the most about a book that i do not enjoy, whether avant-garde or lyrical, is when it lacks ambition, and is content to simply wallow in its "canadianness" as if to "be canadian" was somehow to advance culture --- the "good enough" school of poetry. what i hate about avant-garde work is when it is so in love with its theory that it does not seek to develop itself and add to culture but merely rehearses theoretical concepts. and what i hate about traditional lyric poetry is when it attempts to communicate but does not communicate anything worth communicating.

And in terms of the "is it poetry?" question... i can't believe people are still debating this insipid non-issue. i fall back upon the words of John Stuart Mill, who as far back as 1833 provided the definite answer to the "can a ____ be poetry" question:

"It has often been asked, What is Poetry? And many and various are the answers which have been returned. The vulgarest one of all — one with which no person possessed of the faculties to which poetry addresses itself can ever have been satisfied — is that which confounds poetry with metrical composition; yet to this wretched mockery of a definition many have been led back by the failure of all their attempts to find any other ... the word ‘poetry’ imports something quite peculiar in its nature; something which may exist in what is called prose as well as in verse; something which does not even require the instrument of words, but can speak through the other audible symbols called musical sounds, and even through the visible ones which are the language of sculpture, painting, and architecture"

Jonathan Ball said...

I should also add that I was very disappointed with the pieces by Hilder... certainly, it is poetry. but it is poetry that is not particularly interesting, and technically less impressive than graffiti.

Jonathan Ball said...

graffiti also being (generally) uninteresting.

Antoine Boisclair said...

"Christian" was a figure of speech. I'm very sorry if I offended anyone (though a smug circle-jerk blog is the last place I'd think to find that sort of pro-secular sensitivity). Anyhow my plea was, as ZW suggests, for mutual tolerance.

I've looked at the S&S anthology and there's very little to suggest that Hilder photographs were documenting the unorthodox publication and dissemination of a poem. It seemed that the banner text (which weren't always the easiest things to spot) were background details for a photograph that was itself being offered up as a poem. Starnino got it wrong, obviously, though surely the difficulty of solving that sort of puzzle is the lesson here rather than Starnino's "dishonesty".

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ball,

You might be a "relative nobody," but I like the cut of your jib. For the record, I wouldn't disagree with JSMill in the least; his statement echoes previous such anti-definitions by no less luminous minds than Aristotle and Sir Philip Sidney. I'm not arguing that text on a banner can't be a poem, just taking your dislike for Hilder's banners one step further and saying that they, specifically, are not poetry, even if he and the editors of the antho call them poems. Just as poetry can inhere in powerful prose and in beautiful, challenging visual art (including some grafitti, sure) and architecture, in music and human movement, and in the forms of nature for that matter, as Robert Bringhurst argues eloquently and as Richard Dawkins argues implicitly--just as it can be in all these things, poetry is not necessarily inherent in every piece of text that calls itself a poem, whether that text is a turgid piece of pomo theory-speak or a limp piece of lyrical vomit, a sonnet or a novel. In fact, it is inherent, to my eye and ear, in very few of such texts. Carmine isn't arguing that avant-garde methods are always wrong, he's saying that the stuff on offer in S&S is disappointing--and he's not the only person to say so. He included Christian Bok in The New Canon and subsequently indicated in an interview that if he were putting the book together now, he'd seriously consider including Lisa Robertson. This isn't someone who has closed his ears to "experimental poetry"; it's someone who isn't prepared to buy every piece of experimental self-congratulation published. His criticism of avant-garde poets no more constitutes an attack on everything avant-garde than his criticism of "good-enough" Canadian lyrics constitutes an attack on lyricism writ large. Just as JPF and others are saying he should "do the work," he's saying the poets in S&S haven't "done the work." And Parrish unwittingly agrees with him when she says that "these are very old questions" and invokes Duchamp's urinal as defense for Hilder's genre-challenging highway slogans. But Duchamp's urinal was an unrepeatable stunt (if it had any fructifying possibility it would only be in the form of someone walking up to it, unzipping, and relieving himself). Dada was a dead end, which he realized (hence his retreat into chess), but his idolaters fail to acknowledge.

The work in Stuart's Surreal Estate, by contrast, suggests that surrealism is a far more fertile field for continued experimentation. I say this because not much of the poetry I've read in it seems like repetitions of the original surrealists. There's influence at work, not just imitation; poetry, not just the working out of a theory or three.

Antoine, after defending your plea for mutual tolerance, I'm disappointed by the cheapshot about the "smug circle-jerk blog." Those who have pled for keeping it above the belt have the right idea, so could you please, um, turn the other cheek? We're on the verge of salvaging a mud-slinging fest and having some fruitful discussion here.

Razovsky said...

Antoine & Zach:

You have taken on Hilder's piece in a way that Carmine didn't. At least you acknowledge there is text involved, and that perhaps it is documentation, before you go on to legimately question whether it's any good or whether it's even poetry. Starnino didn't bother. He just slagged it on the basis that it was a photograph.


I wasn't offended by the use of the word "Christian." I just think it's a pretty loaded word to use, as it evokes Christian morality and standards. It is *not* the same as saying "good guy," as Zach suggests.


While I like the idea of putting thought-provoking text in unexpected public places, I don't think Hilder's piece is a poem. I think it's an interest art intervention, though.


Why is it necessary to "rabidly attack" art that you don't like? It seems like a George W. Bush way to approach things.


Antoine Boisclair said...

You're right, ZW. I apologize about the "circle jerk" comment. I am after all a guest here, and some good manners is in order.

Starnino did NOT "slag" the Hilder photograph "on the basis that it was a photograph". He very CLEARlY asked what was the basis upon which such a photograph, offered up in poetry anthology, was to be considered a poem. His larger point was that the introductions were absolutely useless in helping us read work that seemed to need some help in being properly read. To put this another way: if you have an anthology of poems that purports to radically break exisiting rules to unforeseen results , then it might not be a bad idea to point out what the rules being broken are, why they deserve to be broken, and why the result needs to be respected as literature. The anthology, as Starnino pointed out, completely failed to do this. And as ZW has pointed out, he's not the only one to say so.

Razovsky it's usually not a good idea to attack a critic, known for his close readings, in such a slipshod manner. You're obviously not very good at this sort of polemic (which is fine, not everyone is), though it does explain -- to me at least -- why you're so sentimentally attached to Parrish's very poor reply.

Jonathan Ball said...

you're right Stu, it's not necessary to "rabidly attack" things... I am simply prone to making such grandiose claims. though i do feel that it's more fruitful to engage in critical debate than to pretend that "everyone can get along." certainly, everyone CAN get along, but that would be boring. i do share Jon's oft-repeated frustration with the seemingly fruitless division in Canadian letters between the "lyric" and the "avant-garde" .... neither of which ACTUALLY constitutes a coherent movement and both of which contains their fair share of good and bad poets. I should also mention that my personal tastes are more partial to the so-called "avant-garde" ... I would rather read a book by Jon Paul Fiorentino or Christian Bok than one by, I don't know, George Elliott Clarke or Margaret Avison any day. Also, for the record, I quite enjoyed both Shift & Switch and Post-Prairie, though as (I think) Jon implied somewhere up above, they contain their hits and their misses. I was also relatively unimpressed with BOTH Starnino and Parrish. I don't think Starnino can read closely where the "avant-garde" is concerned, though he may be a good close reader of other poems, and I think Parrish spent too much time defending experimental poetry in terms of what constitutes a poem and not enough time actually examining the language of the poems and their particular effects. I was somewhat disappointed with the introductions to Shift & Switch as well, especially when beaulieu's own book (Fractal Economies) contains such a lucid and intelligent essay on concrete poetry, and in many respects provides an excellent model for people who insist that "such poems" NEED such introductions/afterwords. (I don't necessarily believe that they do, but beaulieu provides an excellent afterword in any case.)

Razovsky said...

Antoine --

Easier to attack me than actually take on my arguments, I guess, eh?

Starnino did not question how "such a photograph" could be a poem ("such a photograph" would imply that he explained that the photograph depicted a banner containing text). He questioned how "a photograph" could be called a poem.

Language is important: "such a photograph" is entirely different from "a photograph." In defending Starnino, both you and Zach seem to be evolving his original words into something far more than the sloppy volley they were.

I think your own arguments are interesting and valid; but they're not Starnino's.


Jonathan Ball said...

Parrish does come out "on top" in a sense, but perhaps more because Starnino simply does not know what he is talking about in reference to specific poems. My favourite part of the Parrish article:

"Starnino’s vision of this group of poets and editors as a unified vanguard is a laughable myth. The only thing that this bunch of poets can agree on, perhaps, is their disregard for Starnino. But not because they don’t want a debate. They’d just like a new debate, (preferably with someone who has taken the time to properly read the work.) The “how dare you call that poetry” question is getting tiresome"

Antoine Boisclair said...

Razovsky, are you for real? I'll repeat. The Starnino's question was on what basis THE EDITORS OF THE ANTHOLOGY considered hilder's photograph a poem. The sentence is as follows "It is so unreasonable to know why James Hilder's use of a photograph earns the right to be called a poem?" AND IN CONTEXT it clearly wasn't not an open question -- ie. can photographs be poems -- but directed to the intentionality of the editorial policy: why makes THIS photograph, Hilder's photograph a poem.

There is a difference, and in explaining it, permit me to say, I am attacking your ARGUMENT and not attacking you.

What is actually "tiresome," Jon, is how completely incapable the group of you are in taking responsibility for your destinies. You are represented in poorly-assembled anthologies, are defended by poets who are very poor apologists for your ideas and are psychologically unable to close the gap between your craving to be read and your disdain for those who don't do it "properly."

Antoine Boisclair said...

forgive the typos: english is not my first language.

Razovsky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Mark, your question is a very good one and a complicated one, so the answer must likewise be elaborate.

First of all, a distinction. When it comes to poetry, there are a couple of basic umbrella meanings. One of these is encapsulated by statements such as Mill's and those made by Aristotle, Sidney and very recently by Robert Bringhurst in his new collection of lectures. According to this view, poetry is a broad state of manufactured or evolved excellence/beauty/sublimity/achievement (recall Hopkins' "the achieve of, the mastery of the thing") and it can be attained in all fields of endeavour and might even be seen to exist in natural phenomena.

Secondly, there is poetry as literary genre. At one point, this might have been more or less coterminous with metrical verse, tho even the most ancient of critics insist that this is not necessarily so. So let's just say it's "literary writing." We can include the non-fiction of Nietzsche, the sonnets of Shakespeare, the novels of Nabokov, the short stories of Kafka, etc., etc. But we exclude the novels of Grisham, the poems of Maya Angelou, the song lyrics of Def Leppard, etc. etc. There's of course a shitload of grey area in between, but that's where critics, and arguments like this one, come in, and this is where it gets fun from time to time.

For my purposes as a critic, I limit myself almost exclusively to commenting on the written word--and within that limitation, I have also mostly restricted myself to commenting on poems (prose or verse) or to prose related to poems and the writers of poems. I do this for a few reasons. One is that poetry qua genre is the artform I know the most about; I don't have the technical knowledge or vocabulary to identify and delineate poetry in the fields of, say, painting or dance. I'm pretty much an ignoramus when it comes to other artforms and am hard pressed to be more sophisticated in talking about them than "I know what I like." I am somewhat more qualified to talk about narrative prose fiction, but I generally don't because a)I'm a slow-reader and it takes a lot longer to read a novel I don't like than a book of poems I don't like; b)because of reason "a)" I don't read a whole lot of contemporary fiction, so can't talk knowledgeably about the context in which a given novel appears; c)I like to leave some areas of my reading for pleasure only, which is difficult to do when you're engaged in minute critical examinations; and d)not many people ask me to review fiction, and most of the reviews and essays I write are written because someone's asked me to do it. My "project" (a word I dislike intensely because it belies the piecemeal, scattershot way I go about things and suggests some kind of pre-meditation that doesn't really exist) is largely journalistic; the only reviews I turn down, generally, are those in which I have too close a relationship with the author in question to read the book without the interference of my personal, off-page knowledge of the person who wrote it. I review books for pin money and to keep myself abreast of what's going on out there. When I have a choice of which books to review, I tend to steer clear of ones that I think I'd find dull. But one never knows until one actually reads the book.

Now, some might say that I don't have the requisite knowledge and vocabulary to comment on "difficult" or "experimental" poetry. But I say this is bogus. If it's words on the page and it calls itself poetry, then it is not, generically, different from anything else that is words on the page and calls itself poetry and I will read it as such and respond to it as such. I've read avant-garde poetry, I've studied avant-garde poetry and I've read criticism of avant-garde poetry. Ultimately, how it relates to other avant-garde poetry is irrelevant and anthologies like S&S do little more than build walls around a ghetto. How it relates to poetry as a genre more broadly is the question. We don't continue to read Pound and Eliot, Woolf and Joyce, Kafka and Hopkins, Borges and Celan, because they were experimental. We continue to read them because of the originality and artistic force of their books, the keenness of their minds, the indelible imprint they've left on the literary landscape.

While I would never argue that metrical verse and/or regular structures of alliteration or rhyme are necessary preconditions for poetry, nor that their presence is any kind of guarantee of poetry, I find that most writing that displays little or no awareness of the broad range of established prosodic techniques is, shall we say, significantly less than accomplished. It's like trying to build a house with trees and scrap iron for materials and a screwdriver for tools. There's a maxim of Lao Tze's that goes something like, "He who innovates while ignorant of the constant is lost." Peter Van Toorn quotes it as the preface to a poem in Mountain Tea. Van Toorn, to my mind, is an infinitely more innovative and inventive poet than such heroes of the avant-garde as George Bowering and Frank Davey, and it's largely because he has a more sophisticated understanding of what true innovation entails. True innovation tends to be the product of eccentric individuals with genius -level talent. It doesn't happen in communities and schools. The only thing that can be reliably perpetrated in communities and schools is convention. And the point that Carmine is making about S&S, I think, is that a lot of it is conventionally innovative. I don't really have a strong opinion on this question. I have only read excerpts of the book and tend to steer clear of anything that announces itself as "experimental" or "innovative" or "avant-garde" because I find such self-styling pretentious and have rarely found what I feel is genuine art in the company of pretentiousness. Similarly, I am averse to the preciousness of little bardlings of the inconsequential who go around calling themselves poets and having meetings in which they affirm to each other that yes, indeed, we are poets and hear us mewl. Leonard Cohen had it right in a recent interview when he said that he doesn't call himself a poet because that's for someone else to determine. I've long felt the same way.

No, I'm not particularly interested in drawing genre boundaries. But as a critic, I respond to what I read in an evaluative way. Everything I read as a poem in a book, whether it's a free-verse lyric, a metred sonnet, or a slogan on a banner affixed to an overpass, has to answer the question, "Is this poetry? If so, how and why? If not, how and why not?" I do give marks for perceived effort. If someone is trying to make a poem, some credit is due. But if it seems to me that someone is merely taking the idea of poetry apart and displaying one piece or another as a poem in and of itself, I lose patience. It's too easy, there's too little ventured and even when one "does the work," there's way too little payoff. This is what irked me about, for example, Brian Joseph Davis' Portable Altamont: not that it wasn't poetry, but that it wasn't even trying to be poetry, that it pissed all over the very idea of poetry (in a way far less interesting than say Pietro Aretino, Villon, Rochester or Bukowski have) and that it was every bit as formulaic as a potboiler novel--only less work to assemble--and that it was, in the end, a very boring book. Naturally, I don't expect everyone to agree with me. I don't want everyone to agree with me. That would be dull, and dullness is the only thing I'm dogmatically opposed to.

Anonymous said...

Stuart, I know your comment's gone now, but I would just say that any piece of writing is open to interpretation and writing about writing is open to levels of interpretation. I don't disagree that Carmine was unclear and perhaps "sloppy" in making his point about Hilder, but this is a markedly different thing from being "dishonest." Which is bosh, because his argument had nothing to gain from dishonesty; clearly you didn't need to be convinced that the text on the banners wasn't poetry.

Anonymous said...

Antoine, c'est correcte; j'imagine que votre anglais est plus bon que le fran├žais de nous autres.

Razovsky said...

Zach --

Alrighty, on the subject of the Hilder banner, after reflecting on Starnino's essay during this debate, I'll withdraw the charge of "dishonesty." I'll stick with sloppy, perhaps as a result of his being so eager to piss on his hydrant and get around to calling Mark Truscott "weak-minded."

As for your calling George Bowering and Frank Davey "heroes of the avant-garde" ... wow. I'd say not even heroes of the Canadian avant-garde.

In the spirit of the thing,


Anonymous said...

Perhaps "granddaddies" would've been more apposite... Given the love-in for Davey at UWO, central Canada's high seat of high theory, a couple of years ago, I'd say his standing's still pretty, well, high. Either way, those two get a lot of press for the way they changed Canadian poetry, whereas a poet like Van Toorn, who leaves them in the dust, has been rather widely ignored.

And c'mon, that was a funny line in the essay. You left out the part about him being like a feather pillow who "bears the marks of the last theory that sat on him." It's mock gentility; it's a joke. Lighten up, man.

Anonymous said...

Thinking about it further, I mentioned Bowering and Davey because I was looking for poets roughly of the same vintage as Van Toorn, but who followed the stream of the New Americans. Funny, hard to think of any others, besides Nichol, who had probably the good fortune of dying young, who haven't either outright disappeared, drifted into obscurity (e.g. Victor Coleman), or who submerged and reappeared doing work completely different, such as Wayne Clifford. I've had a number of conversations with Wayne about this sort of thing actually. He was a collaborator of Nichol's back in the day and was CH's first acquistions editor. But he had a revelation one night how empty, pointless, dead-end a deconstructivist approach to poetry was and quit writing for several years. When he started again, it was in rhyme and metre, mostly sonnets, but not in any dusty Victorian way, in a way very much informed by his quirky contemporaneity. He was kind of reborn as a poet and is doing his part in turning over the compost heap of verse technique. He's stayed true to the spirit of innovation, which has basically always been that of renovation, whereas so many others of his generation seem to have calcified into pseudo-experimental habit-tics. Anyone read Davey's Back to the War? Don't bother.

Speaking of Nichol, Jonathan Ball, I don't know if you're aware of it, but he and Avison had a very fruitful artistic friendship. I'm not a huge Avison fan either--the god-y stuff always brings me up short--but she could be wildly innovative, particularly in her syntax. There's not much orthodoxy in her prosody, if you're paying attention.

Razovsky said...

Zach, you wrote:

"Funny, hard to think of any others, besides Nichol, who had probably the good fortune of dying young"

What exactly is that supposed to mean?


I Love You said...

Dear people,

I know you're all writers, and maybe I'm stating the obvious, but

words mean things.

If you get caught up in your own rhetoric and find yourself saying nasty things like someone had "the good fortune to die young," you CAN'T fall back the following defences:

1.It was just thoughtful criticism. Are you against thoughtful criticism?
2.The comment was made in the spirit of art.
3.I don't want to be boring.
4.I got carried away -- gee, doesn't it show how much I care about this debate?
5. Aren't I quite a curmudgeon? Poor me. Please feel sorry for my tortured soul. I am such a genius, but can't figure out to carry on a conversation. The world is an unfair place, so maybe you should just worship me.

I've had the recent experience of having my home address posted on one of Toronto's busiest websites, with a call to "trash" my house. Boy, that guy must have really felt passionate about the issue at hand. What a hero.

I'd really prefer people to be boring rather than act aggressively. Actually, aggressive behaviour IS boring.

Sharon Harris

Jonathan Ball said...

It's true that Avison was much better in her younger days. However, I would prefer Nichol any day. Nichol had a real sense of humour that I find regrettably lacking in both the "avant-garde" and the "not avant-garde" --- far too many writers fall prey to the delusion that one must be serious at all times in order to produce quality work. Jason Christie and Ryan Fitzpatrick are two very clever writers who are excellent at being smart and fun while still being intelligent. And Christie's i-Robot book is a great book to read if one is perhaps interested in the "experimental" but intimidated by the apparent inaccessibility of it (though I would never say "experimental = inaccessible" that is nonetheless the stereotype --- Christie's i-Robot book is incredibly fun and accessible, however).

I believe that the songs of Def Leppard are definitely poetry.

Razovsky said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...



just to be very clear, i am not jack.

gustave m.


Razovsky said...


To compare my challenging you on issues of journalism or criticism (as I did elsewhere, for those not familiar with her references) to someone expressing pleasure that someone else died young, or to someone posting your personal info in a public place (which is disgraceful) ... well, to me that's absurd. And manipulative.


bpNichol was a friend of mine. I wept off and on for days when he died. His writing didn't always interest me, but he was consistently one of the most generous, encouraging, good-humoured, decent people I've ever met. If you think that Poetry is more important than a person's life, I think that is pathetic.


melmoth said...

To quote zw: "besides Nichol, who had probably the good fortune of dying young"

Barrie Nichol was a dear friend of mine, and had he lived he would have further enriched our lives as a person and an artist.

I take offense at the insensitive remark.