Friday, 7 June 2013

Street View

Michael Schmidt became briefly infamous in Canada in 1998 for two words that appeared in his 900-page book on the history of English-language poetry Lives of the Poets. In that study—which included mention of only a couple of Canadian poets—the Manchester-based poet and critic dismissed Canadian poetry as a "short street." An interview with Schmidt appears in CNQ 87 which revisits that controversy and covers other aspects of Schmidt's thoughts on Canadian literature. The interview, conducted by Evan Jones, isn't available online, but here are some highlights.

On the dearth of Canadian poets from his 1998 study:
I’m afraid that when you are doing an international historical survey a lot of local darlings get neglected because in that context they are invisible. Lives of the Poets started from a hypothesis of continuities, between poems and between poets, between seemingly discrete literatures. There are major poets who work well beyond borders, and there are those who don’t. Ashbery versus Ammons, for example, or Larkin versus Betjeman. This doesn’t mean that a local or national poetry is necessarily enervated or lacking in shape and even distinction; but the absence of substantial figures to appeal to a visiting reader (I was not the first to stand at Seven Dials and reach such a conclusion) with a very large wave of poetry carrying me forward from the fourteenth century, is what I was experiencing. Much as I admired Margaret Atwood as a wry presence and novelist, her poetry did not seem very good to me. Anne Carson was not at that time where she is today. Mark Strand and Elizabeth Bishop had shaken the dust of Canada off their feet. Earle Birney seemed a colossal joke, a product of Arts Council policy. I have long admired Klein, as you know. So I was a traveller from an antique land and I was looking for mountains or monuments or at least enormous feet of stone
On Earle Birney:
I think I heard him at a Poetry International back in the 1960s or early 1970s. He was the Canadian poet everyone had heard of, the one Canada promoted as the Voice of the Nation. It is possible that I enjoyed his reading. Someone, a publisher or the Canada Council, sent me a very heavy and substantial two volume edition of his poems, hardback and boxed like a Folio Society classic. There was his ‘David’, carried away by its sounds. The problem is that they are, many of them, especially the thick alliterations and assonances, overdone. The effect is achieved and then overwritten again and again. In this case Poe’s prescription is right about the extent of poems, and the treachery of narrative when the impulse is, as I take it to be here, essentially lyrical-elegiac. There were also many poems about his travels for representing Canada. Poetry as diplomacy, poetry as outreach, poetry not as journalism—it did not have that kind of precision—but as enthusiasm, with descriptions of things or of how things affected the travelling bard. My sense was that the whole thing was too easy: the writing, the editing, the publishing, the binding, the privileging. The man was a living monument, but not like A.D. Hope a poet of formal and thematic substance, or like James K. Baxter a volatile genius. It didn’t seem serious.
On hybridity:
Hybridity nowadays is deliberate, a matter of choice and design, treating the genetic chain like rosary beads. Formal choices seem often to be preceded by political calculations.
On anthologies:
You mention anthologies, a subject dear to my heart. Anthologies of poetry needn’t be indiscriminate. They may be bigger because the anthologist rebels against the Golden Treasury approach and feels that if a poet is worth including s/he is worth reading in extenso. For my part, I subscribe as a reader and as an editor to Thom Gunn’s ‘spectrum’ argument which he proposed eloquently in an essay in PN Review, demonstrating a continuity in American poetry from the work of Edgar Bowers at one extreme to that of Michael Palmer at the other, with gradations between. It is this sense not of oppositions, cliques, encampments or interest groups, but of contiguous and interdependent strata. It’s the sort of approach that leads to [Carmine] Starnino’s kind of anthology (which I do find a little too optimistic in its harvest of fifty poets from two decades, but still compelling in its intelligence), but not to [Roddy] Lumsden’s. There are borders, of course, but they are permeable. Note that Starnino’s title proposes a canon, which implies the creation of a diverse, common and authoritative poetry; Lumsden’s proposes a triumphal parade of discreet identities, marching obediently forward. A generational victory parade.
How he would revise Live of the Poets today;
If I was to be revising LotP, of course, I would be under various constraints, not least that of space, and I am not sure how long the comparative street would be, or how Canadian with a Capital C it could be given that so many Canadian poets are Canadian more because of the deliberate erasure of another nationality, or by nurture not nature… I wonder how many Canadian poets insist on Canadianness, and how many are marshalled into that category by those who want to consolidate the notion of a distinctive and definable Canadian poetry? 
On prizes:
On the whole, prize culture, like performance culture, seems to me a distorting thing. Many poets can’t perform and most poets don’t win prizes. The creation of a culture of plausibility becomes restrictive. The fruits are obedience, writers writing for toffee apples, as in fiction the presence of the big screen and its rewards actually impacted on the pacing and texturing of novels. Odd how many novelists, for two long generations, made some of their money from script writing, and the lucky ones from film deals. Performance and prize culture are aspects of the commodification of poetry and the dumbing down, the decorum of relevance and accessibility.

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