Sunday, October 31, 2004


Today I spent a couple of hours at the Double Hook (Montreal's Canadian Literature bookstore, located in Westmount) looking through Canadian poetry magazines like Fiddlehead, Event, ARC, CV2 (contemporary verse 2)… as well as some of the poets on the shelves there. (Two copies of my own book are still there after ten years! Amazing!)
I even bought ARC (which subtitles itself Canada's National Poetry Magazine), to bring home with me, since it is about the size of a thick poetry book itself, and a number widely-published poets, including editors of other magazines, are published there.
After all that reading, my mind is taxed. I hate to say it - be "negative", grouse. But … agh! so much flat, forgettable stuff. I think I dimly remember one or two poems in all that I read that afternoon. It's not that I could find any major fault with word choice. There was certainly no triteness, excess (definitely no obvious excess here, unless the whole poem was excess)… it all has the concentrated quality one associates with poetry. But it is all safe safe, quiet, pedestrian, etc. Etiolated. Yeilding strangely little. (At least to me.) No wonder my mind is taxed. When I read say Neruda, Bly, Plath, Ted Hughes, Vallejo, Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski, Billy Collins (whatever some may say, he has panache!), Mary Oliver, Duncan - I'm not ranking these people, just mentioning people off the top of my head - I find them refreshing, no matter how tired I am. But these...

The first poem in this issue of ARC I serve up as an example. It's by Alison Pick, a Bronwen Wallace and National Magazine Award winner.

Horseshoe Cliff

The silence of the field is made up of silence: silence
of time running out. Final light coming down off the cliffs.
Balsamic moon, tight-lipped. You want to go to the land and learn it
like Simone Weil went to the factory. You want more than gesture
but only kneeling will tell you where the rock gives. Several prayer-books
down from the silence, the hymn of particular language. You are there
with ten-thousand words. Your heart a cup with a leak. Each of your offerings
flawed, flawed, and you still fear giving them up. If sin exists it's speech without
listening, listening with only the ears: a wide, wild hush of wind through the grass,
land letting down long hair. Lonely land, and if you go there
you will become more lonely. Out the back door: goldenrod, cattails,
later the ocean like unstudied Latin. You'll need to stay longer than you imagined, to hold your tongue in your palm. You'll need to wait in the longer quiet before writing anything down. Your smooth dry heart is quick to ignite, though not hot enough to boil water. Further back, the little spark
from your porch-light, light-years away. When language comes
from the mouth of the moon you'll know
you're safe to return.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just insensitive. In all this writing, the only thing I find at all fresh or arresting is "Your heart a cup with a leak." - and even it seems unsubstantiated, arbitrary in this context (I say, why is Your heart a cup with a leak, my dear lady? What punctured it?). I find the whole You rhetoric is both presumptuous and very quickly tiresome…I mean it wears me out. Several poems in this volume make similar use of it…. it seems to me the poets are talking about themselves but are ashamed to use the first person… indeed the whole thing would lose any semblance of universality if the poem were written in the first person…For Instance, do I want to go to the land and learn it like Simone Weil? (First, let me look up Simone Weil… sorry, ignoramus that I am, I don't know her story, let alone want to learn that land like her…) Do I want "more than a gesture?" What gesture, and why the connective but, and if this follows, how can only kneeling tell me where the rock gives? (Maybe lying down would be better) There are several abstruse hintings which could be seen as "quite good"… the silence made up of silence (like a rose is a rose is a rose). Time running out … evening/death suggestions, with that "final light"! Then there is this kind of religious sensibility which I find rather peculiar, suggested in the kneeling, the several prayerbooks down from the silence, the hymn of "particular language" (as contrasted with general language?)… the implied guilt in the mention of sin, the flawed offerings, oh how touching, all our offerings are so flawed, it is true, they are flawed. And then these little arty touches of pathetic fallacy… why is the moon "tight-lipped" (I think the poet is being tight-lipped, and projecting it on the moon). The last time I saw the man in the moon, he was looked quite looselipped & toothy. But maybe for me, language comes from the mouth of the moon already, so I'm "safe" (or perhaps too dull a reader to appreciate the profound atmospheres of this poem.) The lonely land, well, this is true. That touches me. It is very lonely out there. The poem is about loneliness, it's all projections from loneliness, that's what it is! Now I get it! The porchlight light-years away… well, that's effective sense of distance, considering this journey through obscurity we've made. And the language, the particular language, that must be spirit, joy, or something like that!

Again, maybe it's just me… yes, I see it now, this has some profoundity, there is evidence of wisdom here, but such effortful reading! So little delight … all the language so menopausal, as I said, etiolated. My own heart has become smooth and quite dry. I couldn't imagine a duller ocean than one like unstudied Latin. Unless it's Latin already studied. For the Exam. Oh well…

Here's another one by one Mark Sinnett:


And on the second floor, dead centre
of a stone damp room in which all
the windows are distant and frame
a sky otherworldly and bleached,

a woman flags, slumps over
the dumb idea that this is something
else entirely. She recalls stomping
foot impressions into tidal mud,

Well, maybe I'm not being fair to this fellow by cutting him off, but you get an idea. Or slump over it. (When was the last time you slumped over an idea?) The sky otherworldly and bleached, contrasted with the stone-damp room, that's interesting, sort of.

This, by the way, is more typical of the shape and form of the ARC poems. Little four-line stanzas, all starting from the left side, with four iambic beats, and with the occasional three, and enjambing all over the place, but actually pretty prosy, really… if you wrote it out as prose, you would have a hard time saying it was poetry…. or even all that compelling prose. But that seems to be the style these days.

There are poets who I like who have published in poems like ARC. Robyn Sarah is one, and probably Irving Layton & Milton Acorn in earlier days.

I think if I send to them - after all, it is Canada's National Poetry Magazine -- I'll have to send something that looks the same. Little four-line stanzas, or all the lines starting from the left side. For there's a monolithic sameness about it all... Quiet poems… all starting from the left side, or with little regular indentations. Just sneak 'em in there… maybe by virtue of it looking the same, but having my stamp, my verve, my work will stand out, & I'll do my bit to change the corporation from the inside... or mayb will it change me? Maybe it's time to look elsewhere... where?

I can't help thinking, though, of Fresh Air by Kenneth Koch. Fresh air! How I need it!


Charles said...

Interesting criticism of these poems—and I see what you mean. But I also think that when you go to the "national standard" publication, you get the least experimental, least boundary-breaking work, which it seems you prefer....I think it's the same on this side of the border, too: safety in bland numbers...

Brian Campbell said...

Thanks for the feedback, CR. Actually, no, I'm interested in anything that breaks boundaries. But shocks me to see the same old, same old done so poorly and "getting away with it". Can you recommend a few names? (Artists as well as publications?)