Tuesday 20 July 2010

The false dichotomy of the Canadian poetry conversation

It seems to me as though the public conversation about Canadian poetry these days is dominated by a false dichotomy: are you a practitioner of the avant garde, or are you a lyrical traditionalist? The only two aesthetic possibilities on offer are extremes: radicalism or conservatism. Both are more concerned with the progression or integrity of poetic form(s) than with poetry's function, and the most vocal champions at either extreme often seem anxious to claim sole legitimacy for their own camp.

But it's a fallacious dilemma from the start. There's a wide, wonderful spectrum of different approaches to poetry between these two wintry poles, any of which might produce work that could be called innovative, experimental, or difficult -- words that certain branches of the avant garde usually claim to have a trademark on, though many of Geoffrey Hill's lyrical poems could be called difficult, for example, and Tony Hoagland's approach to the narrative poem as an exponent of American cultural commentary is certainly innovative, etc. And I notice that, more and more, younger poets are quite rightly disinterested in band wagons and pigeon holes. Such things might provide some poets with a shortcut to recognition within their circle, but not necessarily to a practice of good writing. 

And what does it mean to be avant garde, anyway? It's a good question, and one that this year's Scream Festival and now the TNSOW have both raised. Some other poets have jumped in with questions of their own. There's even some dissension within the avantesque ranks over who's more avantish (and I'm sure the answer is it doesn't matter). But in artistic parlance, the term simply means "at the very forefront of the art." To me, it seems a little arrogant and presumptuous to claim this territory for oneself, but in a more general way of speaking the expression has come to be used as a blanket term or brand name for a whole host of post-modern and theoretical approaches to writing that may actually have little in common beyond an aversion to established poetical tools like narrative syntax or a lyrical sensibility. I prefer the term "post-modern" to describe these approaches to poetry for the reasons mentioned above.

To be fair we must also ask what does it mean to be a traditional lyrical poet? Surely no one is actually interested in repeating the same themes in the same styles as Tennyson or Hopkins or Petrarch. Even traditionalists need to experiment in order to be relevant in their time. But to what extent must traditional poetics be abandoned in order to experiment? To what extent must tradition be observed at the expense of innovation? There is only fallacy in positions that offer only black and white answers to these questions.

All poems, in their writing, are experiments. Their outcomes are never assured. There is always some risk, some possibility of failure. Or there should be. I love poetry for these reasons and more. I love to read it. I love to read about it, talk about it. I think about it almost constantly, and I enjoy a wide array of different approaches to the writing of it. Sure, not all poetries are to everyone's tastes, but having personal preferences doesn't have to narrow the mind. In a very general way I love what poetry is, and I love what it does. I love the possibilities of poetry, and I became a poet because I am fascinated with the bounty of its history and the promise of its future, in all its mesmerizing, inimitable manifestations. I think most people who come to poetry humbly and sincerely have that in common. Why else would anyone devote a life to it? 

Furthermore it seems ridiculous to me that so much hot air is vented in a spurious contest between the two most diametric camps: the stubbornly newfangled and the intractably fusty. Both camps have their merits and make their contributions to poetry at large, but poetry at large is much larger than both camps. If there was less evangelizing in the aesthetic fringes, less defending of camp-like mentalities, the art form would be better for it. In the meantime, I would encourage the majordomos of poetry's most terminal outposts to spend more time prospecting the vast, fruitful grounds between their ideological citadels. There's so much to explore out there in the open.


Daniel Zomparelli said...

Great post! I have this conversation with a lot of poets, and I think it is just a matter of the extremists of each side getting too much coverage and attention.

Chris Banks said...

I love this post Paul. Good stuff.

Michael Bryson said...

Thank you.

Pearl said...

ah, beautiful to hear a voice of reason!