Saturday 1 March 2008

Globe and Mail books section today: Newlove, Skelton and Sutherland

My review of A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove, In This Poem I Am: Selected Poetry of Robin Skelton, and Manual for Emigrants by Fraser Sutherland is in the Globe and Mail books section today. Here is a sample:

A good volume of selected poems should be more than a gathering of popular favourites. It should be a discerning encapsulation of a poet's career to date, a book that considers all the poet's aims, aesthetics and advancements. When such a selection is made posthumously, the importance of choosing and arranging the poems is amplified. It is a kind of monument-building, and it can be a harrowing experience for the editor charged with the task.

John Newlove was a major poet whose life's work has long deserved such careful attention, and thanks to editor Robert McTavish, it has finally received it. A Long Continual Argument, the first comprehensive edition of Newlove's poems to be published since his death in 2003, is a fitting monument to the poet's consummate craftsmanship, and a cause for national celebration.

In its time, not long ago, Newlove's poetry was among the most commanding work being written in Canada. It is stark, brutally honest and deceptively complex. As such, it is a lot like the man who created it. In his introduction, McTavish describes his first impression of that man: "I found him self-deprecating and sly, his low tone punctuated with cigarette pauses." The same could be said for a great many of Newlove's poems, like the fretful Blue Cow Phrases: "If I'm disgusted with my life I'm disgusted with yours too./ All we do is invent blue cow phrases dripping thin vapid milk."

Newlove never attempted to hide his disappointment with the world, at least not in his poetry. He often expressed an antipathy that many people feel but lack the nerve to express themselves. He was the pinch-hitter for our secret bitterness, the darker and more forthright part of our conscience. His raw material was the ugly truth; from it he forged poems that demonstrate the intrinsic beauty of all human emotions, not just the comfortable ones, and he understood, as Aristotle and Shakespeare did, that the grandest of them all, the most poetic, is our melancholy. Few have given voice to human sadness as eloquently as Newlove did, as he demonstrates in his poem She:

She starts to grow tears, chemical beast
shut in a dark room with the walls closing
behind her eyelids, all touches hateful,
the white sweep of clean snow death to her,
the grey naked trees death to her.

You can read the whole review here, but this link will only work temporarily, as the Globe and Mail archives its material on a paid subscription basis.

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