Inside (or Around? or Outside?) the Poem
Inside the Poem: Essays and Poems in Honour of Donald Stephens. Ed. and introd. W.H. New. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992. xv + 304 pp.
A few days before Professor Bentley invited me to review this book, a sales representative from Oxford University Press had urged me to adopt it as a set-text in my Canadian Poetry course. Moreover, I am writing this review while at the same time reading and marking a batch of essays written by the current members of that senior-level undergraduate class. I mention all this to provide the context for my remarks and also to indicate one possible audience for which Inside the Poem is presumably intended.
The book itself is not clear on this point. The sub-title, referring to a now-retired professor at the University of British Columbia, complicates the issue -- has a college-text ever before served double duty as a Festschrift? It consists of four parts: "Texts," containing twenty-four Canadian poems (or extracts therefrom), ranging in time from Lampman's "The City at the End of Things" to various specimens of the hot-off-the-press contemporary; "Discussions of the Texts," a series of essays in which scholars or critics (ex-students, colleagues, and friends of Stephens) comment on one of these poems; "New Poems," a mini-anthology of twenty-eight new pieces (which appear without comment or commentary); and "Epilogue," in which novelist David Watmough (but why not a poet?) presents a warm portrait of Stephens as an obviously nice man, but includes an interview that unfortunately contains little more than superficial critical banalities ("Munro is good but could be better" ) and says absolutely nothing about poetry. A curious but hardly cohesive mixture.
W.H. New's introduction quotes numerous definitions of poetry that have accumulated over the years, and discusses the equally numerous critical approaches that can be made to individual poems. Indeed, "variety" seems to be the order of the day: he is careful not to appear to be advocating one kind of approach over others. Here, it would seem, is a smorgasbord of scholarly and literary-critical delights -- we may take our pick. New's own phrase is "a lively range of possibilities" (xiv), but can you satisfy anyone by trying desperately to alienate no one? I must state that, in my capacity as teacher of a course in Canadian poetry, I don't want to give my students the impression that all approaches are equally valid -- even in themselves, let alone when a particular poem is concerned.
But is New's anthology as all-welcoming and egalitarian as it seems? I think not. What I miss in this introduction is a clear statement concerning his editorial role. Why were these poets selected rather than others? Why these poems rather than others? And as for the commentators, yes, they may all be associated with Donald Stephens in some way, but why were they selected and what instructions (if any) were they given? Did they choose the poems they wished to discuss? Were they urged to write for a specific readership? Were they encouraged to take one approach rather than another, in the interests either of the poem or of the variety of the volume as a whole? If we had been given answers to these questions, we would be much clearer about the intentions -- and, dare I say, the ideology? -- of the book.
Let us begin with the selection of poets. Many of the best-known poets of the past century are represented, but there are some notable omissions. Conspicuous by their absence are (among others) D.C. Scott, Pratt, Johnston, LePan, Dudek, Souster, Lochhead, Reaney, Coles, Macpherson, Lee, Nowlan, Cohen, George Bowering, Newlove, MacEwen, Ondaatje, Nichol, Wallace -- to stop at reasonably well established names. When it comes to younger contemporaries, the gaps are even more obvious. Is this explained (at least in the main) by the B.C. emphasis? Perhaps, but one would like to know. Of course, no such book could possibly consider all the poets I have named, but what were the principles of selection?
Again, why are a few of the poets represented more than once? Phyllis Webb, for example, has two poems in Part One and one in Part Three. Earle Birney has two in Part One. Patrick Lane, Dorothy Livesay, P.K. Page, Al Purdy, and Fred Wah have one poem in each part. (It's worth noting that all of these -- even, for some months in every year, Purdy -- are B.C. residents. Is this coincidental?) Is some kind of hierarchy being initiated? Am I being suspicious, or even paranoid, in sniffing a "hidden agenda" here?
Then there is the matter of ordering. In each section, the poets are listed in alphabetical order. No favouritism hereand one remembers the contentious nature of the two-level distinction in Dennis Lee's The New Canadian Poets some years back. Fair enough -- but a historically ordered list would have been useful in Part One -- unless, of course, it is part of the plan to be a-historical. I am thinking here of students using this anthology. Might they not be confused when invited to move from Klein to Kroetsch and then on to Lampman? Doesn't Coral Shields's poem look rather odd sandwiched between work by F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith? I can imagine some teachers revelling in this kind of effect, but it wouldn't suit my approach.
It is time now to consider more centrally the student-users of such a book. What do contemporary students need in a poetic-and-critical set-text? If mine are at all typical, a very small percentage (the straight A students) might well benefit from being exposed to a book like New's. But most of the rest would be lost -- hopelessly. With a few notable exceptions, the commentators here write for a very sophisticated readership indeed. Speaking for myself, I confess to have felt uncomfortable on several occasions in such rarefied academic air. What about students who have had little or no training in approaches to poetry at high school, students who find the imaginative flights of even fairly traditional poets an awesome intellectual challenge, students who (I'm thinking now of the weaker ones) believe they have done all that is required of them if they have isolated a message and spotted some alliteration?
What, in my experience, such students desperately need are some good examples of how to read poems intelligently and sensitively -- as poems. They need to be shown how the movement of a line, the rhythm of a phrase, the positioning of a word, even the presence or absence of a comma, can affect the full experience of a poem. They need evidence that certain people care about such things and why. They need both information and practical demonstration of how poetry can be appreciated as an art. This, I take it, is what getting "inside the poem" should mean.
Do they receive this kind of assistance in Inside the Poem? Only occasionally, I think. The best instance is certainly to be found in Geoffrey Durrant's essay entitled, simply, "P.K. Page's 'Portrait of Marina.'" This is a well-chosen specimen upon which to concentrate since it is a poem of high quality that (though not infrequently anthologized) has never received its deserved share of appreciative analysis. Durrant begins by quoting Coleridge's remark about "the sense of musical delight" and goes on to demonstrate the "grounding of imagery and thought" within Page's "unifying verbal textures" (174). It is a short essay, less than three pages long. There are no flourishes, no jargon, no shadow-boxing with previous commentators, no scholarly pretensions, no kowtowing to Derrida, no excess critical baggage. Just a clear, informed discussion of what the poem is about, how it works, and how the order of words that Page creates produces cleanly and precisely the effect she desires.
I know, of course, the response of a certain kind of reader to that last paragraph: "Keith is still advocating 'practical criticism'! He hasn't kept up with the latest trends in scholarly discourse. He hasn't awakened to the postmodernist mode." I am no longer impressed by or even interested in such reactions. I am prepared to acknowledge that "Portrait of Marina" is a poem that responds with particular readiness to a traditionalist approach of this kind (not because it is "easy" but because it is an efficiently, even exquisitely crafted whole). I realize that poems dedicated to "process" need to be discussed in a different way. I am neither offering Page's poem as what a poem ought to be nor hailing Durrant's critique as an example of how commentators should respond to other poems. But I am insisting that, in this particular instance, he is placing a proper emphasis in the right way and drawing attention to the appropriate poetic qualities: to that extent, his essay is exemplary.
Let me now take another example. New himself contributes an essay on Eli Mandel's "The Madwomen of the Plaza de Mayo." This is a poem making special reference to a historical and political situation in Argentina. New begins with a succinct and extremely helpful account of the basic background necessary for an adequate understanding of the poem. Much was unfamiliar to me, and I am grateful to New for having provided it. This is precisely the kind of external information that any reader needs. (I'm not a "New Critic," you see, and never was.) Here New writes out of a clear awareness of the needs of his readers, whether students or anyone else who is interested. He then goes on to "place" the poem within the context of Mandel's Life Sentence, another useful procedure though not of immediate relevance to readers of the anthology who are endeavouring to get "inside the poem." What I do not find is commentary on how Mandel employs words. There is no discussion of the tight-lipped tone, no comment on the curious exception in the "romantic" lines,
No comment either on the significance (if any) of the word-order in the penultimate stanza -- why "where are they" for the expected "where they are." Details? Perhaps, but they are details that interest poets, that poets take seriously. And if anyone claims that the answers are obvious, I would reply that, in my experience with students reading and interpreting poems, such an assumption would be mistaken.
Before proceeding to examples of literary-critical commentary to which I object, it is convenient here to comment on two aspects of the book that can make it, in the fashionable argot, the reverse of "user-friendly." First, although the anthology boldly addresses the problem of the long poem (instead of pretending that it doesn't exist), an adequate solution is not forthcoming. Extracts are offered from long poems by Kroetsch, Livesay, Marlatt, Wah, and Watson, but the commentaries frequently refer to the whole poems (and in other instances, representative poems are related to their larger context within a particular volume). Thus, although New announces enthusiastically that readers "can read along with the critics, poems in hand, engaging in a constructive dialogue . . . "(xii), this is often not really possible.
Another oddity involves Part Three, the anthology of recent poems presented without notes or discussion. Because here, as in Part One, authors are arranged alphabetically, readers are confronted at the outset with a concrete poem by bill bissett entitled "th inevitabilitee uv tossd salads dictating plesur" (256). Now it so happens -- rather curiously when one comes to think of it -- that no concrete poem has been discussed in the previous sections. As a result, beginning readers encounter a bewildering pattern of mathematical signs and letters and asterisks and other shapes that is likely to prove impenetrable. In theory, I suppose, their minds will have been so stimulated by the earlier literary-critical demonstrations that they will plunge ecstatically into a new verbal and imaginative freedom. Perhaps, but -- forgive my pessimism -- I doubt it.
I must now turn my attention to an embarrassing matter rarely discussed by critics and teachers. An instance occurred only a day or two ago. I was reading a not-very-impressive student-essay and had been drawing attention by means of marginal annotation to examples of imprecise facts and woolly arguments. At the end of the paragraph I encountered a footnote that directed me to a critical study by a well-known Canadian writer (represented, as it happens, in Inside the Poem). Checking the page-reference, I discovered that the student's whole paragraph was a (perfectly fair) summary of the secondary source, which contained all the imprecise facts and woolly arguments I had faulted. What does one do in such a situation? Personally, I always try to turn the liability to advantage by citing it as proof that one must read secondary sources with the same scrupulous rigour that one should bring to primary materials. All this by way of introduction to a section that will take issue with a number of statements made by contributors to this bookstatements representing critical practice that I would not find acceptable in the work of my students. I know that one is not supposed to make this sort of comment, that I am, in a sense, breaking ranks in revealing one of the scandals of the profession -- especially since, in the nature of the case, I must name names. Realities must, however, be faced. So be it.
I am particularly embarrassed because, as I work my way through the book, the first example to come to my attention is the work of a friend and colleague. Elspeth Cameron offers a source study of Birney's "David," which she believes to be influenced by the medieval Song of Roland. I had better state at once that I am unconvinced by this argument, not least because, even if one acknowledges a few possible resemblances (and I'm doubtful about that), they lead away from rather than towards the significant poetic qualities in Birney's poem. What most disturbs me, however, are the desperate lengths to which Cameron has to go in order to buttress her thesis -- for example: "Like the Song of Roland, too, `David' focuses on a single hero" (64). A short story I was reading last night involved a love affair between a young man and a young woman; does it follow that the writer was using Romeo and Juliet as a source? I would not accept this kind of logic from my students, and I see no reason why I should do so from a professional scholar.
My next example is very different in character. Diana Brydon discusses Dionne Brand's "Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater." This is a poem with which I was not familiar; it seems to me a moving and successful poem, and I'm grateful for having it pointed out to me. It encapsulates the poet's responses, to quote the poem's subtitle, "On looking at 'the photograph of Mammy Prater an ex-slave, 115 years old when her photograph was taken'" (13). Brydon writes informatively about how she teaches the poem within a course entitled "Reading Women in the Postcolonial Context" to students "who may once have seen a poem as an object foreign to their lives" (81). Brydon has some interesting things to say about perspectives on the poem -- especially the inevitable difference between black and white perspectives -- and again I am grateful. But one of the first comments she offers about the actual words on the page makes me pause. After insisting that Mammy Prater was "a real person," she writes: "The name Mammy Prater, itself, carries symbolic resonances. Prater suggests `prating,' a form of speech usually associated with women and children, designating chatter, idle talk to little purpose. A prater, then, is a chatterer. It seems an ironic name . . . " (82). I am, frankly, shocked. I find myself brooding over Diana Brydon's own name. Suppose I were to observe that Diana suggests the Roman goddess as protector of women but also the many-breasted Diana of the Ephesians, and then went on to speculate on the relation between "Brydon" and "bride," would she not rightly accuse me of being offensive as well as vulgar? Surely one does not write about the name of "a real person" in this way? Surely this is, to say the least, a dubious -- perhaps "politically incorrect" -- way of approaching Brand's poem? Is not Professor Brydon, as a white commentator, being (again, to say the least) condescending in commenting on the name of a black ex-slave? And did those students of "Reading Women in the Postcolonial Context" notice? I would expect my own students to be up in arms.
Manina Jones writes on Kroetsch's "Seed Catalogue." She feels the need, therefore, to be verbally playful in the best postmodern way. One of her sub-sections is entitled "An S-Catalogue-ical Poetics" (118). Very amusing, I'm sure, but I don't want to give my students the impression that they can get away with that sort of thing!
In the course of discussing Livesay's "Call My People Home," Dick Harrison writes: "A striking parallel to the pattern in Livesay's poem can be found, for example, in W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind, published about the same time. There, young Brian O'Connal also moves from a world of innocence to one of experience" (157). I have pondered that argument for several days now, but it still means nothing to me. Were I ever to detect such a pattern, I doubt if I would find it illuminating for either text. Would I let such a comment pass unchallenged in a student essay? No.
In all honesty, I have to admit that I have not read through the whole of Lilita Rodman's "Boldness, Audacity, Insolence: A Reading of F.R. Scott's 'Audacity.'" I have started at least four times, but invariably get bogged down. I copy out a paragraph that seems reasonably representative:
And so on -- and on. It is possible, I suppose, that grammarians get excited by this kind of tabulation. I can only assert that such an approach would be likely to prevent any reader from appreciating what is distinctive in Scott's poem. (I am reminded of Raymond Souster's squib about his first introduction to poetry at school when he was required to break up Wilfred Campbell's "August Reverie" into principal and subordinate clauses.)
Another admission may be in order before commenting on Lorraine Weir's "Meaning in Numbers: Wilfred Watson's Gramsci x 3": I have never been able to generate any interest in Watson's experimental poetry. When, therefore, I read in New's introduction that "Lorraine Weir explains the 'number grids' of Wilfred Watson's work" (xiii), I thought I might learn something. Unfortunately, this is precisely what Weir does not do. She quotes Watson's own statement to the effect that "Number grid verse counts words" (225) -- a principle I had been able to work out for myself -- and observes that he attributes "two 'slots' to each numeral except nine" (225), but offers no explanation as to why "nine" should be an exception. Nor does she explain why we have to read the arrangements of words in different ways in different poems -- in a left-to-right, downwards, right-to-left pattern for the Gramsci poem. And she certainly never anticipates the question: does this lay-out on the page convert what seems rather banal prose into absorbing poetry?
But there is another reason why I have doubts about recommending this essay to inexperienced students. The first quotation from Watson's poetry on p. 225 contains a typographical error that makes nonsense of the text and would certainly bring a beginner to an abrupt halt. This may not, of course, be Weir's fault. The quotation on the top of p. 227, however, is puzzling for a different reason. Just as one thinks that one has learnt how to make sense of it, it suddenly breaks off with one of the sentences left incomplete. For myself, I had to check a library copy of the original to discover what had gone wrong. I am continually berating my students for beginning and ending quotations at random, and insisting that they must quote in coherent grammatical units. These are both examples of how not to quote. (In addition, Weir never considers it necessary to explain who Gramsci was; if her own students don't need to be told, they are unusually well informed.)
Finally, here is a sentence from John Hulcoop's essay on Phyllis Webb:
(Just to complicate matters, by the way, most of the quotations in Hulcoop's sentence are from poems not reproduced in Inside the Poem.) Webb's poetry is difficult, but not as difficult as that. If students were to take Hulcoop as a stylistic model . . . !
I have, of course, been somewhat unfair. There are a number of valuable essays in this book (though how many are essential for students is open to doubt), and I have spent most of my space on the less satisfactory. My point is, however, that, if one regards this as a possible class-text (and I don't see much point to considering it in any other way), it contains too many examples of critical practices to be condemned rather than recommended.
No, I shall not be adopting Inside the Poem for my Canadian Poetry course.