Saturday, 25 October 2014

McKaybetes, Ctd

Here's a fascinating Facebook exchange sparked by Michael Lista's review of Don McKay's Angular Unconformity.

Brian Bartlett: Zach, As you no doubt suspect, I'm guessing that 100 years from now—if there is still a human race, & poetry--as many Don McKay poems will still be read & valued as poems by any other living Canadian poet. Speaking for myself, I can say that a few poems of his inhabit my consciousness as only the most memorable poems do. Some of the grousing about his "popularity" caricatures & belittles his readers as if none of them can separate the poet from the person. Also, Lista writes as if in ignorance that the (inevitable) counter-revolution against McKay has been going on now for more than a decade, including in the prose of some of our most articulate critics.

Zach Wells: Brian, I certainly do suspect that you and others hold such views. I also know that predicting future canonicity is a rather haphazard business and ever has been. Jarrell did it for Bishop, and it seems likely that he'll be proven correct, but far more people have said the poems of X, Y or Z will endure only to be proven fools by posterity. Look at any old Untermeyer antho. And just because it happens doesn't mean it's merited. Bliss Carman, who was a truly mediocre poet, still has work in print that is taught in Canadian Literature classes. The competition was a trifle weaker in his day, however. The sheer volume of McKay fans and acolytes will ensure that his work persists until at least they're gone. After that, it's anybody's guess. But what is most popular in any given time and place very rarely overlaps with what is most durable.

Here's the thing about popularity as a topic for critical consideration. Talking about masses and statistics does not actually belittle or caricature any individual reader. I have no doubt that there are individual readers who successfully separate the personality from the poems (or are blissfully ignorant of the personality) and have an unclouded appreciation of McKay's poems. What I'm saying is that the number and distribution of such people is not sufficient to make a McKay the revered figure that he is. Peter Van Toorn has such readers. Bruce Taylor has such readers. Robyn Sarah has such readers. Peter Trower. Travis Lane. But they don't have the pyramid of lesser readers below them that a McKay does. That mass of less-detached readers is what makes the difference between neglect and celebrity. It's the difference between having a 600+ page hardcover Collected selling like hotcakes while you're still alive and having your books go out of print.

The music study and the wine studies cited by Mlodinow are illustrative of very real sociological phenomena. They're phenomena that have benefited McKay enormously. It isn't insulting to his most ardent fans to point this out. And it's naive to think that you're immune to such influences, especially when you know the guy, which is not a factor in wine tasting errors or in preference for one song over another by bands you don't know. It's a major cognitive bias and the principle reason I avoid writing essays about friends' work.

Lista makes brief mention of the "minority reports" by people like myself, Shane Neilson, Carmine Starnino, Don Coles and Richard Greene. He doesn't ignore them, but he doesn't have space in a column to digress at any length on them. So it's inaccurate to say he writes "as if in ignorance." And I, personally, do not feel slighted because he didn't mention my 7,000 word skeptical take on the McKavian oeuvre. Richard clearly isn't miffed that his review of Apparatus wasn't mentioned explicitly. Michael's not trying to steal our thunder; he's adding his voice to a very slowly growing chorus of dissent.

Brian Bartlett: Zach, I've read a bit of literary history, & know very well the risks of "predicting future canonicity." (Yet I indulge in fantasies, such as that a century from now Ashbery's reputation will be greatly diminished.) One reason reading Dr. Johnson's Lives of the English Poets is so fascinating--many of the poets he writes about now largely forgotten & unread (not that he was predicting their future readership). Still, it's a familiar human propensity to look a century ahead--maybe it's wishful thinking on my part to imagine that McKay will have future readers (after the current crop of his enthusiastic readers are "gone," as you put it).

As for being "naive," notice that "belittles his readers as if none of them..." is in 3rd person--at this point I won't be foolish enough to claim I can make a clean separation between person and poet, just as I can't with Don Coles, Bruce Taylor, Robyn Sarah, Travis Lane, Harry Thurston etc., though unlike you I'm sometimes okay writing about poetry by friends—maybe because my approach is generally more exploratory & investigative than evaluative. (Let's not get into an discussion about how all criticism is evaluative, implicitly or otherwise, okay?)

So McKay's book is "selling like hotcakes"? Goose Lane might be interested to know. It amuses me when people talk as if widely praised poets are household names. Are we talking about J. K. Rowling or John Grisham? Are we even talking about Atwood or Munro? While that dizzily poet-idolizing note you shared with us is, yes, embarrassing, a word like "cult" goes beyond hyperbole to stupidity. Even "celebrityhood" is rather funny when it comes to the relatively tiny readership that even much-appreciated poets get.

One thing we agree upon is that wonderful poets (we've both championed Van Toorn and Taylor, for instance) deserve many more readers. I agree that some of McKay's relative "popularity" could be fairly shared by other excellent poets—but he's not responsible for the fact that plenty of people like his work, & it's unfair to use the neglect of those other poets as a stick to beat him over the head with. As for the "very slowly growing body of dissent," it seems to me that among Canadian male poet-critics ("some of our most articulate critics," I referred to them in the previous message) with books or the equivalent of criticism published, attempts to concentrate on McKay's weaknesses & complaints about his readership have become de rigeur. Really nothing new in Lista's approach.

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