Friday, January 11, 2008

When Fellow Poets Pan Our Poetry

Oh the pressure of being an ikon! Once you're written something (or a series of somethings) termed "brilliant", broken new ground, so to speak, gained a worldwide audience, your books have been made into films, and you've become a household word (at least in writers' households), any subsequent publications will inevitably be measured against past glories. And if they're not perceived as being of the same calibre, you sometimes hear the equivalent of: "Hey, what happened? You're not YOU anymore!"

Margaret Atwood has published over 40 books of fiction, poetry and literary criticism. Her thirteenth book of poetry and first collection of poems in over a decade, The Door, was recently reviewed by Montreal poet Carmine Starnino in ARC #59 Winter 2008. Atwood is one of my favorite writers, and I admit I've read more of her fiction than her poetry. But the very title of this review jarred me a bit: "Knock, Knock, Is the Real Atwood Still There?"

The "real" Atwood? What Starnino seems to be saying, at least to this reader, is: "She doesn't sound like Margaret Atwood anymore." Hmmm. But his criticisms seem more personal than that:

Workaholic tendencies, merchandising savvyness, nagging status anxiety: whatever her reasons for publishing a new collection, Atwood’s expectation of a large audience has caused her voice to move far up into her head. Her words sound official, high-minded, free of complexity—where, wanting to show us something, Babbittlike nouns and verbs are used to precisely track our sightlines.


Given what we see when the The Door first swings open—curt descriptiveness, sharp-cut diction, in extremis narratives—it would be easy to think we’re in store for the usual Atwoodian magic. Passages still carry the old bite .... but too often the heart of the matter turns out to be some tough-sounding boiler plate.

Double ouch. Sounds like a bit of "the usual Atwoodian magic" has somehow worn off here.

Starnino admits, in an interview given at Concordia, that "I am, at heart, simply a reader of Canadian poetry who is unhappy with the chronic overestimation of certain poets." (Could Atwood be one of them?) He further added that he hoped the reviews he writes "are able to persuasively advocate their bias", and that "poetry criticism is, principally and overridingly, an exercise in skepticism." He further opines that what "real" poetry is or how one recognizes it is "ultimately unanswerable."

In all fairness, I only read a portion of Starnino's review, on line (you have to buy the printed version to get the complete review), and I have not yet had the opportunity to read The Door, so I can't comment on whether Atwood has indeed, in this, her latest book, lost her usual magic. But I'm always uneasy when one poet criticizes another. Especially one who admits to writing reviews that advocate a bias.

Rob McClennan, author of 12 books of poetry, reviewed Starnino's book Credo in
The Antigonish Review , stated: "I haven't yet decided if his [Starnino's] writing is strong enough to support the kinds of arguments he makes about other people's work. I'd lean towards not."

Not to play the "critique the critic" game, but Geoffrey Cook in The Danforth Review, in assessing Starnino's Credo, says it speaks of "a talent centering itself", and of Starnino's "maturation" as a poet; it's largely a positive review. Well, then I got sidetracked a bit. Because what Cook said (in quite another context) struck me as more in line with my earlier comments about poets being who they are (or not) ( "Knock, Knock, Is the Real You Still There?"):

Every serious artist has, I suspect, the sense that their art is ahead of them, impatiently awaiting the artist to catch up, to drag life into line and up-to-date with the art, which has always already achieved an ethical clarity and coherence usually denied experience. For the committed artist, art seems to know where it is going, and because the artist identifies his/her own destiny with that of art, art seems to have a prophetic power.

While the artist must begin, as the truism says, with what he or she knows and strive for “self-knowledge”, that “self” is, at the very and at every moment of recognition, obliterated again before the larger picture: what the art has brought into focus, what art wants known. And so, because the gap is never closed but the artist can only attempt such closure, the self is constantly re-written and art sets out again on a new bend in a old road...

The successful work of art is Art’s insight, not the individual artist’s (who has merely caught up for the moment), and the vision is universal and impersonal. That an audience (the reader, viewer or listener, AND the artist) can identify with the emotions or characters of an aesthetic work is a paradoxical and graceful act of the educated imagination - we are admiring aesthetic and ethical coherence: meaning.

There appears to be a genuine disconnect in how we view one another's writings. (This goes for fiction, as well as poetry.) "It's brilliant! It lacks meaning. It's insightful! It's Babbittlike. It's lucid and stunningly lyrical! It lacks complexity. It's magical. It's shit." Take your pick.

What one finds uplifting and meaningful, another considers saccharine or irrelevant. What one finds shocking, another sees as innovating. A book you read 20 years ago with relish and amazement now bores you beyond comprehension. The same can be applied to things you wrote decades ago and now want to disavow. Who wants their earlier self to be compared to their current self? But Cook hit the nail on the head, I think. What we should be looking for in each other's poetry is "aesthetic and ethical coherence." What we should be looking for is MEANING.

The operative word here is meaning. It's the single most important element--for me at least--in reading, writing, or assessing a poem, including my own. Does it MEAN something, does a window of insight open up for whoever reads it, do the words resonate?

What utter power words have! I think we should stop analyzing each other's methods and motives and imperfections and idiosyncracies and stop hurling ad hominums and look at the words. Only the words. Either they are "poetry" or they are not. And what we call a thing may be so far distant from what the thing is in itself, that this whole matter may never be resolved.

So I take most poetic reviews with a grain of salt and leave the slingers and accoladers to bash it out amongst themselves. The point is, poetry still matters. We constantly argue about what poetry IS and what it's NOT and endlessly pour our souls into the crafting of it. Which is how it should be. That means it'll still be around a hell of a lot longer than we will. In the crunch and chaos of our current collective disenchantment and the desire to transcend the prevailing mediocrity--that's somehow a comforting thought.

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