Reviews

You Are Here

Stephen Osborne

A generation ago, Canadian poetry was dominated by two alternative fashions, all of them equally dreary in the eyes of a young writer seeking a literary milieu, writes James Pollock in You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada (Porcupine’s Quill): “One was a rough, dull, plainspoken lyric poetry in casual free verse, either autobiographical or mythically didactic: Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, George Bowering. The other was a loopy avant-garde composition whose main qualities were tedium and incoherence: bpNichol, Fred Wah, Steve McCaffery.”

Pollock recalls that while “sitting in the audience listening to Atwood’s mildly amusing monotone wit, and Nicol’s grunting and snarling and endless puns, it began to dawn on me that something was terribly wrong.” Since then the challenge for young poets, “many of whose predecessors once wandered around lost in the forest of nationalist ideology,” has been to make a poetry rooted in grammar and prosody, a poetry freed from the burden of the foregone conclusion, the faked innovation; to engage in “the struggle to find the ethical emerging from the formal, a challenge that when well met, produces great art in any age.”

The poetry celebrated in the pages of You Are Here includes the work of Jeffrey Donaldson, Karen Solie, Anne Carson, Daryl Hine, Eric Ormsby and Marlene Cruikshank, each of whom receive illuminating and often brilliant close readings. Pollock situates these poets within the world of poetry rather than merely the world of Canada; the result inspires readers to think along similar lines. Attempts to define a Canadian canon, more or less (mostly less) successful in anthologies of several decades, are also considered, and only two recent publications are recommended: The New Canon, edited by Carmine Starnino (Véhicule Press), which he calls “a revelation,” and Modern Canadian Poets, edited by Evan Jones and Todd Swift (Carcanet Press), “the best general anthology we have.” “Poems talk to each other,” Pollock writes, “they move over in bed when a new one climbs in. And it helps everyone if a critic can demonstrate which poems are sleeping with which. It helps readers know how to read them… Like people, poems left alone for too long go crazy and die. They need the company of other poems, especially their families, to survive.”

Pollock’s critical writing echoes Wittgenstein, who writes of his paradigmatic “language games” that they “form a family the members of which have family likenesses. Some of them have the same nose, others the same eyebrows and others again the same way of walking; and these likenesses overlap.” Wittgenstein’s proposition that “ethics and aesthetics are one” is illustrated implicitly by Pollock when he quotes Rilke’s wonderful sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which begins: “We cannot know his legendary head,” and ends: “You must change your life.”

The ethical value of poetry, its real moral strength, Pollock writes, is its power to offer us “new languages of personal resonance.”

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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