Sunday, 19 August 2012

Wedding in Fire Country

Stewart Cole is back with his second installment of his monthly reviewing project, The Urge. This time he writes about Darren Bifford's debut, Wedding in Fire Country. The following passage caught my eye:
Many Canadian poets of Bifford’s generation and younger (it's my generation too—he was born in 1977, I in 1978) have been tending to favour a kind of surrealism-lite: wry, off-kilter, never too serious, clever rather than strictly intelligent, favouring associative leaps over sustained development, often wedded to sonic strategies that virtually fetishize a Hopkinsesque coiled sonic tension, and rarely favouring a common word when a baroque one can be rooted out. This line of development has produced some excellent work (and will doubtless continue to do so), but we’re approaching the point where what may have once been innovation risks ossifying into mere fashion.


Zachariah Wells said...

That's a mildly provocative statement and there's likely some truth to it, but the problem is that it's intellectually laz--and none too bold--favouring a broadstroke swipe over specificity. Whenever I see a statement like this in a review, I want to see the reviewer at least name a few poets, poems and/or books where one can find this "mere fashion." But even better, I'd like to see him quote liberally from several examples to show how they are similar to each other, and from an example or two of the "excellent work" to show how it's different from the rest. Otherwise, this is just a strawman rhetorical fallacy. "The rest of the crowd does _this_, but Bifford does _that_."

Zachariah Wells said...

Speaking of "laz," that should be "lazy," natch.

Stewart Cole said...

Here’s a selection of generalizations from reviews by Zachariah Wells. (I’m sure one could find many more; this took about five minutes):

“Whereas foregrounded technique and verbal razzle-dazzle characterize much new poetry, Bruck favours a plain style in her free-verse lyrics, the prime virtues of which are clarity and subtlety.”

[Can you please specify which poets foreground technique and employ razzle-dazzle?]

“Victoria-based poet, professor, essayist, and translator Eric Miller is a rare thing in a literary culture dominated by cynicism and irony: a poet of baroque extravagance, soaring vision, and sonorous rhetoric.”

[Which writers are you referring to when you when you cite the dominant cynicism and irony of our literary culture?]

“This book is perhaps symptomatic of the bad news about Canadian poetry. McOrmond’s third publication in six years seems to be evidence that, far from facing apocalyptic extinction, Poeta Canadensis is a touch too well-fed by publishers hungry for content.”

[Can you please offer more examples of books that exist merely to overfeed Poeta Canadensis?]

“Lilburn sets himself against the plain-prose norms of contemporary poetry, favouring instead a baroque verbal splurge in kinetic, long-breathed lines.”

[If plain prose is the norm, perhaps you could offer some examples?]

For the record, I think that all the instances above are perfectly acceptable (and the reviews that contain them are well written and mostly on point). What I’ve done in the passage Mr. Starnino cites is simply make a series of generalizations, much as you’ve done above, only at greater length. Part of being a good critic, as you well know, is the courage to make apt generalizations. My point was not to single out certain poets for censure – this is a review of Bifford’s book, after all, undertaken in my “spare” time with a necessary self-imposed word limit – but to draw readers’ attention to certain traits and tendencies that are coming to seem almost reflexively adopted by much of the younger generation of poets. I don’t even entirely exempt my own work from this. In other words, I want to urge a greater consciousness of what I see as the prevalence of these traits, not just among poets with published books, but in our journal culture too, in the hope of urging further innovation. (And yes I realize the literary culture doesn’t need my help or anyone’s; it’ll innovate whether I write or not.) To dismiss my statement (and by implication my review, since it’s the only thing you say about it) as “intellectually lazy” is markedly ungenerous given both the specificity of the list and the rigour with which I substantiate my judgments about Bifford’s book throughout.

Zachariah Wells said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zachariah Wells said...

Heh. Something you neglect to note here is that your self-imposed word limit is several times the limit given in each of the reviews of mine you've quoted from, all of which were published in a trade magazine whose target audience is booksellers and librarians. You see, context _is_ rather important. In 300 word reviews, in which quotation is discouraged by the magazine, you have no room for examples. There's lots in yours; as I said, even naming a name or two would have given the statement more weight. Also, what you quote from mine actually are generalizations. Your list of characteristic qualities is so long and specific in its particulars that it really does make a reader wonder who it is you could be talking about. It seems a tad hard to believe that any multiplicity of poets could share all these things. So, since we're now outside your word count: Who ya talkin' 'bout?

And I was responding to Carmine singling out your statement, I was not responding to your entire review. I have no opinion about your review as a whole, not having read the book.

Zachariah Wells said...

I would add that the McOrmond example is poorly chosen, since it is the number of books published--which I do cite--which is the problem, not any specific books. I have written on this subject at some length elsewhere, tho the link appears to be dead.

Stewart Cole said...

Let me say this another way: I intended that list of traits to be _suggestive_, or as you (backhandedly) put it, “mildly provocative.” It arose out of my observation, born of wide reading in books and journals over the past several years, that relative combinations of such traits are coming to seem a little too prevalent to be only the result of authentic artistic exploration and _may_ be becoming reflexively fashionable – in other words, possessive of cachet, hip, and thus, perhaps, easy to choose. Note my language here: “coming to seem,” “little too,” “may,” “perhaps.” I carefully chose such language in the cited passage as well: “have been tending,” “often,” “rarely favouring,” “approaching the point,” “risks.”

Of course, in choosing such language I open myself to charges of “hedging” – or better yet to capture the pseudo-heroic mindset such charges arise from – lacking critical “courage,” not being “bold” enough, making statements of insufficient “weight.” But it’s partly because I do not subscribe to this ethic of relentless self-assertion that I started The Urge in the first place (though I do acknowledge its seductiveness: it was me, after all, who used the word “courage” in my last comment). I claim the freedom – and in this case it was a freedom calculatedly exercised – to cast such suggestions into the critical wind, in the hope that fellow poets and readers (and again I emphasize, including _myself_), might ask themselves in going forward into the bibliosphere, “Is this combination of traits really becoming so prevalent?” or “What _is_ in fashion, and how does it affect my writing and/or reading habits?” I want readers to wonder (as you have) who I might mean. Is it them? You? Me? Negative examples cited in such a tangential context would not only come across as uncivil sideswipes, but would actually detract from the suggestiveness I aimed at, while foisting upon me burdens of substantiation my focused review of Bifford’s book or (especially) this Blogger comment box wouldn’t bear.

But then you’ll argue that the list itself has already foisted such a burden on me. To which I say: says who? If you don’t agree that this relative combination of traits is becoming prevalent among younger poets, that’s fine. But don’t dismiss a carefully wrought and deliberately suggestive list as “intellectually lazy” simply because the critic doesn’t offer examples exactly where you might prefer to have them – especially when your own writing contains many such gaps.

(The argument of context is of dubious relevance here for two reasons: first, the “crowd does this, X does that” formula to which you reduced my considerably more nuanced paragraph – and then labelled (with I assume unintentional irony) a “strawman rhetorical fallacy” – frequently occurs much more directly in your own writing, as I’ve pointed out; and second, your criticism of me distinctly implied that arguments that take such a form ought to be substantiated – i.e., regardless of context – and many of yours aren’t. Yes I had more space, but I also had a distinct focus. On the other hand, no one forced you to make half-sentence generalizations you had no space to substantiate, so why not just leave them out? I’ll tell you why: because you hoped they’d prove suggestive. In any case, I was responding to the terms you set out in your initial dismissal, according to which you’ve spent a fair bit of time building strawmen yourself.)

I’ve said what I’m going to say on this subject. I respect your opinion, Mr. Wells – and in all sincerity I’m grateful at being driven to consider issues of critical proof and permissable generalization here (issues on which I’m by no means settled) – but I have little desire (and more urgently, no time in my life right now) to prolong this discussion.