Inside the Whale

 An apostate's notes on poetry
by Derek Webster
 

 Derek Webster.

Derek Webster.

WHEN I WAS an undergrad, I still believed in literature. I loved and hated The Waste Land. I struggled with the question of whether Lolita or Ulysses was the greatest novel ever written. I considered George Orwell a modern saint. But after a dozen or more years working in the publishing industry—as writer, editor, publisher, part-time ad salesman, publicist—I can’t see literature the way I used to. The problem is that I now know how the sausage is made. Published texts strike me not so much as art, but as ground-up ideas wrapped in imperfect phrasings with the string of their revisions still showing. Wonder and awe are harder to come by. But what a shame more professors, then and now, didn’t intern at magazines and publishing houses. They might have learned cautionary lessons about their Art-as-Religion devotion and realized, for example, how fragile and contingent creative acts can be. But also how common they are; realized it is possible to love literature without making a cult of it; realized how Pound’s impulsive cuts to The Waste Land are just one excellent example of the lucky accidents that all artists are grateful for, from Mozart, Emily Carr, and Yeats to Monty Python and Radiohead. When you start seeing things on a more human scale, and realize how arduous and provisional the creation of literature is, you start to notice the thousands of artists who don’t succeed. And you stop putting the ones who do succeed on pedestals. You realize “great art” is an immense social process not unlike the creation of global weather, a complex evolving pattern of reactions that can continue long after the author has passed away. The love-hate mindset, which I felt as an undergrad, is gone. I no longer believe in “literature.” I simply admire excellence and the people who work hard to achieve it, against the odds.

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Published texts strike me not so much as art, but as ground-up ideas wrapped in imperfect phrasings with the string of their revisions still showing.

“Poetry," said Ezra Pound, "must be as well written as prose.” What exactly does this mean? Since when was the entire category of prose deserving of the compliment “well written?” A little digging reveals that Pound, a furiously busy editor of others’ poetry manuscripts in London, was constantly reading half-baked poems. The zany emperor of Imagism was deeply tired of Victorian convention—florid language, euphemism, stock inversions, stale rhyme-fillers, etc.—and wanted poetry to exhibit the hardness and clarity he admired in story writers like Stendhal and de Maupassant. Yet Pound’s comparison today feels invidious, like the prosody is always greener in other genres. I think poets who are too obsessed with the kind of thing prose can provide usually leave poetry behind for more power-based, mass-action pursuits where language does make something happen. Pursuits like giving radio orations or political speeches.

In the 100 years since Pound’s famous dictum was published in Poetry magazine, the newborn Imagist lyric that he and others fought so hard to establish has triumphed; gone is the rambling Victorian windbaggery of yore. Still, a different kind of frustration has taken hold. Much of what we read today doesn’t use grammar or syntax in ways comparable to prose at all. Slippery subject-object referents are common, as are open and multiple (perhaps wishful) meanings, and it’s often impossible to distinguish between conscious dissonance and poor construction. My friend and fellow poet James Pollock says that when you inspect good poems, regardless of style, grammatical clarity still underlies their successful effects. But in my experience many poetic effects take place in the mental air above the grammar, particularly in long and experimental poems with no syntax where momentum and matrices of meaning play invisible explanatory roles. In the end, maybe it’s enough that poetry be well written.

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In the poetry world, much of what we call ‘power’ is just rung envy in authors looking up the ladder. To the unpublished poet, magazine-poets have ‘power.’ To the magazine-poet, those with books have ‘power.’ Have you been asked to judge a contest? Then you must have ‘power.’

Here are things that deserve the word “power”: armies, missiles, accelerating cars, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, hydroelectric dams, prime ministers, rocket launches, black holes, and gamma rays. In the poetry world, much of what we call “power” is just rung envy in authors looking up the ladder. To the unpublished poet, magazine-poets have “power.” To the magazine-poet, those with books have “power.” Have you been asked to judge a contest? Then you must have “power.” Canadian poets will point south to their more celebrated American counterparts: they wield it. But even poets with multiple books will tell you it's the publishers who wield “real power.” Or is that the tastemakers at big-circulation newspapers, websites and magazines? Or the Canada Council, without whose support none of this vast nefarious apparatus of “power” could exist? It’s hard to keep track of all the power-lunching people with a finger in the pie. But for the word “power” to be meaningful, it helps if there’s something to lose, some counterbalancing, non-power position that shows a demonstrable drop-off or significant opportunity that someone has lost by not having, or not being favoured, by “power.” And yet for every contest winner or hired professor, there are dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of losers; and for every annual new winner, thousands of losers remain the same. Suddenly it’s very hard to tell who is winning from who is losing, because everyone is losing. Among writers, powerlessness is the general state of being. All of us are losing, almost all of the time. Back when Jon Stewart was an up-and-coming comedian in the early 1990s, half a dozen years before the success of The Daily Show, he got invited to do his comedy routine on The David Letterman Show. He was ecstatic: this was his big break! On the fast track to success! After the show, when the adrenaline wore off, back in his hole-in-the-wall illegal sublet, he realized nothing had changed. Same person, same problems, powerless as before. If Letterman didn’t change Jon Stewart, imagine how powerless a Canadian poet remains, post-publication. We are Pluto, orbiting a distant, shining sun. We aren’t even a planet anymore.

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When we write poetry, we find out who we are on the page. We meet that voice which is ours and not ourselves. Whether you enjoy the sound of that voice, or dislike that implied person, is very much an open question. Whether you want to further that voice by continuing to write is another question. Only your future self can answer it.

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Is the history of poetry a search for new forms? Are old forms like the sonnet a sure-fire receipt for backwardness? For me, the answer to these questions is no. There is no such thing as progress in poetry; there is only change, some marked difference from what has come immediately before. Progress implies improvement, betterment, even some limned moral higher ground; change implies nothing more than novelty with no promise of betterment. We are the great-grandchildren of modernism. Yet we continue to debate its questions of revolutionary aesthetics as if those debates were our own. But they aren’t. These debates confused social change and aesthetic change, and we continue the muddle today. Why? Perhaps because Victorian social and moral improvement, minus the sexual repression, still lies at the heart of our Western social experiments. It’s the grand metaphor that underlies all our technological values today, and it seeps into everything, even the way we perceive art. Twitter is our Society for Moral Betterment, complete with its own shaming forums, well-meaning witch-hunts, and hatred of inequality. Belief in literary progress quickly turns into endorsing morally and socially progressive art—and casting down art that is not so morally progressive. We may be better than our ancestors at observing the pain of others and expanding the moral circle to let them in, but we are no “better” at poetry than the best poets of the past.

Take the sonnet. Great sonnets have been written in every age since the form was invented in 13th-century Provence: not just by Donne and Milton, but during the 18th-century Enlightenment by Pope and Goethe, and during the heyday of modernism itself, the early 20th century. Frost’s “The Silken Tent,” Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (I like the Stephen Mitchell translation), works by Yeats, Hardy, and, a century later, Heaney and Walcott, show that styles change but we are no better or worse at producing art. If these writers took literary progress to heart, none of these great works would have been written.

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We live in a world where evaluation and re-evaluation of all our beliefs, even our aesthetic likes and dislikes, is one of the greatest opportunities and obligations we have. The fact that constant self-examination can be exhausting is no reason to refuse the gift.

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Twitter is our Society for Moral Betterment, complete with its own shaming forums, well-meaning witch-hunts, and hatred of inequality. Belief in literary progress quickly turns into endorsing morally and socially progressive art—and casting down art that is not so morally progressive. We may be better than our ancestors at observing the pain of others and expanding the moral circle to let them in, but we are no “better” at poetry than the best poets of the past.

We all dig the lyrics of our favourite bands, and it’s sometimes tempting to describe those lyrics as “poetry.” That’s alright; “poetry” functions as a synonym for excellence. We seek out language like this to articulate the grandeur of our own feelings. But when the assertion crosses over into “No, these lyrics are real poetry—they should be published in a book”—well, that’s not borrowed grandeur, that’s impersonation, stolen identity. Poetry is the music of words. Pop songs are actual music and words. Poetry’s relationship is figurative here, nothing more. Pop music is its own art, a synthesis of music and words into a new, astonishingly versatile third thing. But this new thing wasn’t meant to be retroactively separated, back to its formative agents: that kills it. Even the best pop lyrics often read as dead on the page. Try Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top,” The Beatles “Eleanor Rigby,” R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming,” The National’s “Pink Rabbits”: once you mentally silence the music’s controlling rhythms and interpretive emotion, you start drowning in trite rhymes, non-sequiturs, forced repetitions (a.k.a. the chorus) and unexplained nonsense. Turn the music back on, suddenly they’re alive again. Musicians and music fans who want to borrow poetry’s old glory are aesthetic tourists in an impoverished land.

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In the other direction, maybe I’m equally guilty of loose talk when I speak about the “music of words.” I’m borrowing a metaphor across the arts to enhance my love of the art. It doesn’t matter if well-educated, successful poets say that poetry and music started out together, way back in the way back, when we lived in caves or strummed lyres and shouted magic words that could split rocks (“Muad-dib!”), or that Apollo is the god of poetry and music, etc. There is music, and magic, in words. But we have to recognize that these are still metaphors for the basic activity: words on paper, revised, read mentally and aloud, sometimes to great effect. We aspire to the figurative raptures of music, magic, and art. We achieve that state only in our hearts and minds.

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One of my favourite sayings is, “The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully,” by Wallace Stevens, from his collection of aphorisms Adagia (Stevens also uses the line in his poem “Man Carrying Thing”). For me, it’s the word “almost” that helps capture the balancing act at the heart of poetry, the way that a poem must be literal and metaphorical simultaneously, must talk and dance, be at once poetic and ordinary, give in to nonsense and give out information—all the while gathering resources toward its own end, a final line which ties and unties the poetic mind, over and over again.

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Musicians and music fans who want to borrow poetry’s old glory are aesthetic tourists in an impoverished land.

When you read other people’s poetry, often you’ll find yourself disliking what you are reading. In those moments, maintain an inner equipoise. You cannot start building a case against a poem in your mind as you are reading it. That defeats to a great extent the purpose of reading: to feel the shape of another mind at work, to encounter something outside yourself. There’s an important difference between reading critically and mental entrapment. Critical reading strives to see the work fairly, with all its strengths and weaknesses; mental entrapment is a kind of self-deception that uses the critical faculties to create the conditions for harsh judgment. In this mindset, no learning occurs, just the pyromaniacal joy of burning the author. It’s difficult to tell when you’ve left one path and are moving quietly down the other. You have to be aware of subtle resentments you may be harbouring, consciously or not, that the work could be triggering. Don’t like those line breaks? Tired of that stereotypical subject? Do you expect the same on the next page? When I find myself reading in this direction—overreacting to faults in the work, building a case to justify my own hostility—I try to reset: go back to accepting, as a first step, what a poem is trying to say (and how).

Make no mistake: most books are flawed and we have to see things for what they are. This is no prescription for muzzled criticism. It’s an internal check at the pre-critical moment, an attempt to get at the roots of one’s own aesthetic preferences as they are forming, whether you’re a reader or a critic about to put pen to paper. It’s an entirely voluntary act; critics who work with outrage (Dale Peck and the late Thomas Disch come to mind) probably won’t have much use for it. And in any case, “mental entrapment” is not a throw-around term to chastise someone who gave your book a bad review: how could one know what internal debates the critic had before writing a review?

The point is to remind oneself that powerful magnets reel us around the fountain as we read, and we cannot control them entirely. When the pull of frustration becomes too strong—I don’t like these line breaks, what is this idiot saying?—you have to acknowledge it in yourself and allow that awareness to shape your perception of the work at hand. For critics on deadline who don’t have the luxury of multiple paths into a book, it’s not always possible to let that awareness into the piece; but it’s worth considering nonetheless. An angry mind, roving across a barren landscape that it has itself made barren, is just another rough beast slumping toward Bethlehem. But sometimes a modicum of love can turn a beast into a prince.

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Interestingly, the same process applies in the very opposite direction: an obsessive, narcissistic love can overtake the balanced critical mind, and blind you to a work’s (often glaring) faults. You have to see the thing as it is in itself—successful effects, flawed intents, etc.—before you can start to speak wisely of it. Loving something over-protectively, not allowing it to grow in the wide, wide world, does it no service. Every day, criticism across the arts achieves and fails to achieve this balance. Canadian poetry criticism is no exception, and may be more susceptible to both mental entrapment and blinding love because of the smallness of the community.

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Make no mistake: most books are flawed and we have to see things for what they are. This is no prescription for muzzled criticism.

A good review is several things: a performance by the reviewer, an attempt at insight into the book being reviewed, and a judgment of its merit—that is, an implicit service for readers. There are all kinds of reviews—polemical, snarky, scared, fawning, passive-aggressive, clueless. I think it’s worth recognizing that, whatever you think of the quality of the final product, the effort and time it takes to bring a book to fruition deserves some respect. As a reviewer, though, you don’t usually have the space to make this point, and it becomes pointless to make the same point in every review—so a better approach is to employ tone as a way of recognizing the hard work of the creators, as an implied thank you. If the book is really good, that tone can be admiring, i.e. I’m so glad this person wrote this book. If the work is inferior, there is a tone to reflect that, too, disappointment: I see missed opportunities, I wish these poems were better. In the case of writers whose reputations precede them, who are perceived as having some literary currency (or “power” as we like to say), this can be an appropriate place for reviewers to flex more rhetorical muscle, to match the reaction and controversy that even a middling review of well-loved figures can create.

But there are other approaches, limited only by the creativity of the critic. One can skirt anticipated controversy, for example, by staying focused on the writer’s work and not their reputation. Stick to the facts, avoid careless, unsupported statements: your piece may still create controversy, but if you’ve provided a fair, clear-minded assessment of the book at hand, that won’t be your doing. Some editors may egg you on, and want you to be as outspoken as possible. Others may encourage you to be as anodyne in your judgments as possible. Whatever approach you take, remember that’s it’s your choice to be a tool for controversy, or not; your choice how meekly or loudly you want to let your critical judgments to sound.

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When writers die and their stars fade into the darkness of library shelves, there will only be the work, naked, easily misunderstood, prey to the zeitgeist of another time. The easy praise of one’s contemporaries, which carried so much of the critical weight, is a ghost-ship; your friends are gone, and all the people who either loved you or preferred not to speak of your works’ faults—they are gone too. Even your enemies have disappeared, replaced by a vast glacier of indifference, miles high around your thin little books. Of course, you can always hope for the kind of ideal readers sketched out above, fair-minded people who won’t engage in mental entrapment. But you can’t count on that. If your books cannot create their own strange-languaged heat, what does your process, your publicity, your self-regard matter? Future readers will come to your pages unafraid, unseduced, curious but impatient. So don’t waste their time; their time is all you have.

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Despairing coda to the previous point: literary history shows that the terms of what constitutes good writing change so much over time as to call into question the very idea of “good writing.” So long as something is not incomprehensible, future readers will probably think your sentences and line breaks are just fine, and notice not your specialness but your similarity to all other writing penned in your century. We’re inside the whale. We can’t get out.

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One should cultivate omnivorousness in poetry. It’s the only way to find things that push you beyond the boundaries of your own aesthetic preconceptions. Years ago, now, I found Christian Bök’s Eunoia both a challenge and a delight to read. There is much to admire in these poems. They seem to have been written very painstakingly, with great care for the flow between ideas within poems and the ongoing presence of a governing aesthetic. This aesthetic structure forms in the reader’s mind like a kind of steel scaffolding rising out of cold water: a shared understanding starts to guide one’s reading, making further sense of things, inspiring further engagement. Read piecemeal, you might not enjoy individual poems; but read together, the book holds a key that unlocks your understanding.

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When writers die and their stars fade into the darkness of library shelves, there will only be the work, naked, easily misunderstood, prey to the zeitgeist of another time. The easy praise of one’s contemporaries, which carried so much of the critical weight, is a ghost-ship; your friends are gone, and all the people who either loved you or preferred not to speak of your works’ faults—they are gone too.

We say it privately among friends, rarely in public. The truth is much of the poetry that’s been lauded in our past—a surprisingly large amount of the Canadian tradition to date—is just plain boring. Heavysege, Sangster, Roberts, Crawford, Carman, Lampman, Campbell, much of E.J. Pratt, Earl Birney—the list goes on. Celebrated athletes, writers, and leaders in miscellaneous fields sometimes say, “Without my mother / father / Gretzky / Jordan / inspirational figure, I wouldn’t be here today,” or “They taught me everything I know.” Does ancestral gratitude apply to Canadian poetry? Without the Confederation Poets, I think we would still be here, writing pretty much the same poems, as well as we can.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be using “we.” Many (former) students of Canadian literature feel sentimental about specific early works of Canadian literature. I feel that way myself: certain poems by Lampman, Carman, Crawford and Roberts gave me a nationalistic and geographic charge as an undergraduate. Interest generates itself eternally in the minds of engaged readers. But when I go back and look at those poems again, their limitations are painfully clear. And I recall the root of my own attraction, in those first encounters, was not aesthetic. We read these earlier poets because they are our poets, I think, not because they are good poets. But most readers, when they seek out Canadian poetry at all, continue to overlook this distinction.

Perhaps young countries like Canada, where the literary canon has been so recently and narrowly manufactured, have special problems of revaluation that longer-standing British and American traditions do not. No one is losing sleep in London and New York, for example, over their own failure to read Melville’s “Clarel,” Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” or whole libraries of British Victoriana by Swinburne or a dozen lesser Rossettis. Yet in Canada, legacies of colonialism, nationalism and earnestness have kept readers stuck in increasingly absurd cycles of lip service to the past—still praising the penny-farthing as a brilliant means of transportation, while airplanes launch into the sky overhead.

So while it’s important to show respect for what has come before us, it’s also important to seek out and celebrate that which enlivens us today. This lesson applies no matter where you live and what you read. Poets in young countries should embrace the opportunity to shape their traditions and see themselves not as latecomers to the scene but as the progenitors that they are. Canada is not a dead country, with everything already determined—quite the opposite. We are free to find for ourselves what our colonial forebears found for themselves: a tradition that means something to the living. There is still much work to be done.

 

DEREK WEBSTER is the founding editor of Maisonneuve magazine. His first book of poems, Mockingbird, will be published this fall by Véhicule Press. He lives in Montreal.