Sounding the New Poetry
w]here? The Other Canadian Poetry. Edited and with an introduction by Eldon Garnet. Erin: Press Porcepic, 1974. 188 pp.
When A.J.M. Smith published The Book of Canadian Poetry in 1943, he made the mistake of simplifying Canadian literary history into the 'native' and the 'cosmopolitan' traditions. He erred further in excluding poets whom John Sutherland, his most vocal critic, would later anthologize as Other Canadians (1947). Sutherland's volume begins with an essay which is both an attack on the establishment as represented by Smith himself, and a manifesto for a new movement in Canadian poetry, as represented by Souster, Dudek, and Layton. These three figures have lost most of their 'otherness,' but 'other' Canadian poets are still around. They are still suf fering neglect from most editors but they do have advocates like Eldon Garnett. Some of the contemporary new movement in Canadian poetry appears in Garnet's appropriately entitled where] the other canadian poetry and appropriate, too, that in his Introduction Garnet claims that "the Contact Press Poets are the Canadian forbears of the poetry represented in this anthology." Other aspects of Garnet's introduction are less commendable.
At the risk of sounding like a schoolboy preaching to his master, I suggest that Garnet either should have remained editorially silent, like bp Nicol in The Cosmic Chef, or should have prepared his lesson better. At times he seems to favor a bifurcation as simplistic as Smith's. I object in particular to his facile directive, "Call the old, tradition or imitation; call the new, experimentation or creation." While much of the writing in this volume i. new as a phenomenon in Canada, much of it is old, even cliche, on the international scene. bp Nichol's "Dada Lama," for example, has its ultimate source in the work of Hugo Ball and in the poetry of revolt which Ball began to repudiate as early as 1918. Similarly, the selections from Nichol's ABO (1971) bear a striking resemblance to Hansjorg Mayer's "alphabet" (alphabetenquadratbuch, 1963). Nichol's alphabet figures are more rigidly symmetrical than Mayer's, and Nichol prefers an open gothic type face to Mayer's bold condensed akzidenz grotesk, but in conception they are alike. With the other poets in this anthology the resemblances to earlier writers in Europe, South America, and the United States vary in intensity, but the echoes are persistent enough to make me wonder why Garnet makes such extravagant claims for their revolutionary achievement. I am not suggesting that these poets are slavishly imitative or that they are without unique imaginative dimensions. It would be truer to say that some Canadian poets have been attracted by revolutionary experimentation abroad and have succeeded in becoming involved in the international poetry scene. But, to begin at the beginning.
Eldon Garnet's opening remarks are not so much an introduction as a lecture on Canadian literary history and a manifesto of post-modernist belief and practice. The lecture begins with the native Romantic movement and its prolonged tenability in view of the advent of Dada in art and poetry and Igor Stravinsky in music. The failure of Arthur Stringer and Frank Oliver Call in gaining currency for vers libre is attributed to a general faint-heartedness in the literary audience, the natural (or unnatural) consequence of an ingrained colonialism. With the Montreal group of Smith, Scott, Kennedy, and Klein, the "order-preserving garrison" of the tradition-bound pioneers is replaced by "a new garrison of contemporary British poetic rationalism," symbolized by T.S. Eliot. This oppressive cult is not really challenged until the 1940's, when the Contact Press poets "began the first vigorous steps toward opening the gates of the garrison." The result, we are told, is that our poetry "began to go mad and move wholeheartedly into the wilderness," a metaphor for "irrationality, spontaneity and freedom." The outlines of this literary history are not news to anyone who has not been living on the moon, but I have reservations about some of the specifics. Into the wilderness. Souster? Spontaneity. Dudek? Mad. Layton perhaps.
Rather than reinterpreting for us the history we already know, I think Garnet would have been better employed in tracing the less familiar history of poetic and artistic experimentation which is the real aesthetic (and sometimes deliberately anti-aesthetic) foundation of the poets represented in this volume. We are told about Duchamp's urinal at the Armory Show in New York in 1913, and about Hugo Ball's outlandish entry onto the stage of the Dada Gallery in 1917, but more to be amused by Canadian conservation and timidity than to be enlightened about the predecessors of contemporary experimental writing.
The purpose and value of an anthology such as w]here is presumably to make this poetry available to a wider audience. This requires that it be made accessible to the uninitiated reader and this, I think, is Garnet's major failing. No mention is made of milestone works like Fenollosa's essay on "The Chinese Written Character," Hugo Ball's extensive writings on Dada, or the second De Stijl manifesto, "The Word Is Dead." Hans Arp's Constellations, Mondrian's space structures, Calder's mobiles, and Webern's Klangfarbenmelod ie are also major and influential works in the history of visual and sound poetry. Less esoteric but germane to an informed discussion of contemporary experimental writing are the pioneering efforts of Carlos Belloli, Eugen Gomringer, and Henri Chopin in Europe, the almost simultaneous experiments in concrete and sound poetry by Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos, and Decio Pignatari in Brazil, and the work of their mentors, Ezra Pound and e.e. Cummings in Britain and America. The names of Joyce, Appolinaire, and Mallarme also come to mind. This list is by no means exhaustive, and though my choices may be seen as arbitrary, they are not obscurantist. And I am not suggesting that Garnet should have anticipated this or any other review, and should have mentioned them all. But by failing to draw attention to the impressive intellectual history which underlies current experimentation in arts, Garnet inadvertently encourages the view that these poets are odd-balls and freaks with little if anything to say to most readers. He also encourages the premise that John Canaday warns against in Embattled Critic: Views on Modern Art, "that wild unintelligibility alone places the contemporary artist in line with great men who were misunderstood by their contemporaries." Garnet does little to dispel such misunderstanding when he states that "most of the poets included here build up a barrier between themselves and public consciousness." One expects experimental poets to challenge established public taste, but this challenge is issued in an attempt to communicate, albeit on a different level from what most of us are accustomed to.
While many contemporary artists are suspicious of easy acceptance and public acclaim, and while some may agree with Gertrude Stein that a poet's usefulness ends with public recognition, few writers I can think of willingly and deliberately "alienate themselves from the cheering crowd." The impetus behind much contemporary art is remarkably democratic, considerably less elitist and intellectual than that of A.J.M. Smith, for example, and considerably less alienated and alienating than much of the early Layton. Garnet is right when he says that public acclaim did not come early to any of these poets because of the strangeness of their sound. In tlie 1960's and 1970's most of them were publishing in small presses, notably Weed/Flower, Blewointment, Ganglia and Coach House, and so reached small audiences. But they were reaching out to, not withdrawing from, the public. It seems to me that one of the tasks that falls to the editor of an anthology is to help poets reach that public, to provide a context for what might otherwise be seen as wild unintelligibility.
Such context as Garnet does provide occurs in the second half of his introduction, and consists of an amalgam of existentialism, Heraclitean philosophy and the writings of Charles Olson. Categorization and classification, typical of the medieval mind and Northrop Frye, is rejected in favor of Pre-Socratic immersion in the inevitable flux. This leads to the recognition that "there is no such thing as anti-art, all the world is art and every object is a poem." Garnet clarifies this doctrine by referring to and interpreting the theories of Charles Olson, particularly as they are articulated in the essay on projectivist verse. Garnet states, "In his role as object in the physical environment and in his search for new areas of sensibility in the complex life of flux, the poet perceives himself as an infinitessimal fragment in a massive world of fragments." As participant in the flux of experience, the poet celebrates the particulars, the often random phenomena which engage his senses, and this, in Olson's words, gives the poet "secrets objects share." For Olson, poetry is "energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader." Associated to his notion of the poem as, "at all points . . . a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy discharge," is his view of the poet as an essentially vatic voice, "rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego." Reduced to its simplest formation, this means that the poet's voice should be the voice of nature rather than nurture; for "lyrical interference" read "poetic diction" or "tradition." Along with Pound, Williams, and others, Olson is directing us to "make it new."
Curiously, Garnet does not pursue Olson to this conclusion but manages somehow to give Olson's theorizing a sinister bent. Whereas Olson insists upon the poet as participant in a larger force, Garnet sees him as alienated. In Garnet's view, "the apocalyptic vision of life ending in the blackness of nothing runs strongly throughout modern poetry;" he states further that "the human voice struggling against the blankness of meaningless is shouted down by a dehumanized physical world and finds itself reduced to a state of incoherence." Existentialist despair of this sort is certainly a factor in the nihilism of Tristan Tzara and in other iconoclastic movements after Dada. It may have played some role in the amorphous existentialist zen of Kerouac and the Beats, and in the deaths of Plath and Berryman. But I very strongly question whether it can be said to be a major force in contemporary experimentation. The notion of the poet as a participant in the world of flux and as a vatic voice is at the diametric pole from the attitude which regards the universe as a meaningless silence. In Canada, at least, American Transcendentalism and its offspring (among whom I count Olson) have had far greater impact than Sartre and European existentialism.
In 1920, the journal De Stijl published a manifesto entitled "The Word is Dead "
What this and other manifestoes from the avante garde demonstrate is that experimentation in this century is primarily formal, concerned with the means of expression whatever the content. No verse is really free, Pound says. When Creeley tells us that "Form is never more than an extension of content" he is not abolishing form but demonstrating his preoccupation with it. This preoccupation, rather than any discernable existentialist reaction to nothingness, is what seems to motivate the poets in this anthology.
Despite what I consider to be the shortcomings of Garnet's introduction, w]here is still the best available anthology of experimental poetry in Canada. It includes selections from poets who have become widely known Davey, Nichol, Rosenblatt, Marlatt, Bissett, Coleman and from poets who deserve to be more widely known Copithorne, Gilbert, Gadd, U.U., Ball, Cull, Dawson. Selections from each of these poets are interspersed with Garnet's commentary on the poet's aims and techniques. While some readers may find these commentaries intrusive and disruptive, others will be grateful for the fingerholds that they provide. I think they are particularly useful to readers who have had little previous exposure to poetry as highly individualistic as that of the poets included here, but with that in mind I wish Garnet had been a little more scrupulous in avoiding the kind of jargon that tells us, for example, that in Gerry Gilbert's Phone Book "each part is another constituent of the non-whole." Some of the selections might have been better chosen, but I understand that there is a special place in hell for those who quibble with editor's choices. Garnet's choices are generally good ones and one of the most praiseworthy features of this anthology is the inclusion of graphics and visual poems by David UU, bill bissett, bp Nichol and Judith Copithorne. Except for an error in the transcription of the passage from Marlett's Frames, the volume is free of printing errors, and has an attractive layout. Garnet's hope for experimental poets in Canada is that they "will pass through the sound barrier from unsounded to sounded when the Canadian reader opens up, catches up and meets the new poetry." w]here is a start in the right direction