Sunday, July 29, 2007

Starnino on McKay

Picked up the new Books in Canada today. In it is Carmine Starnino's bracing evaluation of Don McKay's latest, and Griffin-winning, book--a review that places the book within the context not only of McKay's oeuvre, but also of the school of poetry populated by McKay's ephebes and mentees.

Not surprisingly, Carmine's not on the McKay bandwagon and he has some pretty blunt words for those who are:

His popularity operates on the principle that anyone who doesn't venerate his work hasn't really understood it. Perhaps that's true. And perhaps his popularity reveals us to be a country of astonishingly easy graders.

No doubt the choir will be up in arms--even if only in decorously quiescent private conversation--over this assault on the high priest of contemporary CanPo, but the number of dissenting opinions vis-a-vis McKay's putative greatness is growing to an unignorable critical mass. Carmine adds his voice, as he points out, to Richard Greene's, Shane Neilson's, my own and, more surprisingly perhaps, Don Coles', in wishing that McKay's ample talents were not so often prodigally squandered and that his half-arsed verses weren't held in such veneration. None of us argues that McKay is a "bad poet" per se, just that he could be much better and that he is nowhere near as good as his champions like to think.

I've long suspected that McKay's inflated reputation has a lot to do with his personal charm. I run into the odd person who says some version of "I'm not crazy about his poetry, but he's such a nice guy." These folks, able to tease the poetry and the person who wrote it apart, seem to be in the minority. Perhaps on some level McKay's fans are moved to overestimate his importance because it makes them more special, too: not only is Don McKay one of the best poets writing in English today, but he edited my manuscript. Where would apostles be, without a messiah?

McKay has certainly done what a Canadian poet needs to do to find an audience in this country of big spaces and small population: travel and teach. He's from Ontario, has lived in BC, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, has strong links to Alberta and Saskatchewan, is connected to both the literary and academic communities, and has made many friends in the process. Almost everyone who writes glowingly of him knows him and has worked with him in his capacities as mentor, professor and editor. And when you know someone and love them--this side idolatry in some instances--it's only natural to gloss over their faults and shortcomings, or even to see them as positive virtues: "Oh, there's Don being Don again, isn't he just too much?"

I attended a reading he gave in Halifax a couple of years ago and certainly found him charming. But that's the extent of my contact with him. Maybe if I'd done a workshop at Banff I'd be more inclined to sing with the choir, but not having come under Big Bird's (wish I could say I came up with that nickname on my own) wing, it seems to me that he is not so much a choral conductor as someone waving his arms erratically, counting on the fact that the singers will get his drift.


Nick Thran said...

I don’t think people will be as up in arms over Starnino’s review as you would like to believe. For all of the points in the piece with which I may disagree, it is a sober and thorough evaluation from an extremely persuasive critic. What people might have a problem with, Zach, is your argument that anyone who comes into close contact with the man himself are somehow put under a magic spell that renders their positive impressions of his work dismissible. Really? Ken Babstock? Bringhurst? Are they really to be discounted because they might have shared a few beers, letters or poems? That seems a little na├»ve and deluded to me. I was personally thrilled to find out, at Banff, that McKay was as kind and generous as he is. But I would just like to point out the fact that I’d applied to go there in the first place because I’d been pouring over Another Gravity and Apparatus for the previous five years—because I loved, and still love, the poems. I think you’ll find people with similar stories. But if it shores up your own interpretations of his oeuvre to dismiss me as some dumbstruck apostle, well, you go on and do what you have to do-- all in the spirit of CLM.

Zachariah Wells said...

Thanks for the comments, Nick.

While I acknowledge the sarcastic hyperbole in my post, I don't mean to suggest that everyone who finds something to like in McKay is deluded or brainwashed. Like you, I was enamoured of Another Gravity and Apparatus when I first read them several years ago, and I totally understand the appeal of his work.

I also found that appeal, on rereading, to be disappointingly ephemeral. The issue isn't so much that people like his work, it's that they seem, in talking and writing about it, to overlook the problems with it. And even the best of his work is grossly overrated in comparison with better work by other poets.

Which certainly isn't the case with someone like Ken Babstock. His work is evidence, I think, of a fraught negotiation with that particular influence, taking from McKay some of his improvisatory verve, but doing more than McKay to give his utterance shape. And your own work, if you don't me saying it here, isn't the sort of McKay-imitation that Carmine perceptively sees everywhere and that I've pointed out in a number of recent reviews of younger poets' books. Since you mention him, Bringhurst, in my opinion, is the sort of writer McKay could be if he wasn't chronically sloppy and prone to what-the-heck shrugs, if he pursued his big ideas more diligently and sanded his poems as assiduously as he does his rocking chair.

nick thran said...

The point of contention is not with your interpretation of McKay. Personally, I find his free verse, by in large, extremely well-crafted, a calculated and necessary break into flight and wilderness that his metaphors demand. I see his pursuit of "..what to/ fall for, gracefully,/ and without too much/ deliberation, how to mix/ the mysticism with the ash and live/ next door to nothing,/ and with art" as, and I know I'm painting broad strokes here, one pursued rather vigorously. I think there's a refreshing vulnerability in poems from his new book like "Look at Me World," "Solo," and "Some Last Requests" that may have been underdeveloped in previous books. They seem to me the sort of "stand-out" poems some critics seem to feel are missing from his body of work, and the sort of poems that finally earned him the Griffin Prize. But that's all, as Starnino's article is evidence of, open to discussion.

The problem I have is the crude strokes with which you're painting the man outside the work, and the people whom both love his poems and, by virtue of the generous time he spends as an editor, have come into contact with him personally. That doesn't count them out of the debate. There may be nobody in the next fifty years who convinces you, in a critical analysis, that Don's work will stand the test of time. That's fine. You're a smart guy and you certainly have your opinions. But perpetuating the idea that personal relationships automatically discredit critical analysis is a problem- because poets in this country will inevitably bump into one another in some capacity. Alot of this bumping into each other is predicated on attending workshops and going to readings because we've already read, formed some opinion on, and perhaps fallen in love with the poems themselves. I know you're big on maintaining a climate where we can freely grapple with a text, whether we think it good or bad. I respect that. But when you take it out into the realm of the personal (and I know this is a blog, but, as you know, people actually read this) it's a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, no?

That's probably it from my end. You got me riled up and spoiled my entire morning! Cheers.

Zachariah Wells said...

My last word on this, Nick, is that there's a widespread misconception that only negative reviewing is ad hominem. That's not true; in fact, the opposite is probably more accurate.

I've said nothing negative about McKay's person, but when I see what is to me an otherwise unaccountable gap between his reputation and that of, say, Peter Sanger or Peter Van Toorn or Richard Outram, I'm moved to look for the cause of that discrepancy. Randall Jarrell said that a reviewer of contemporary poetry has to be something of a sociologist (to paraphrase, since my Jarrell book's in storage) and I agree completely. You can say it's bad form to point out McKay's social status, but I say it's disingenuous to ignore it. You say that you were rapt with the poems before meeting the man, and I believe you. But this raises another question: why did these particular books land in your lap and not Earth Moth, Hiram and Jenny or Mountain Tea? There are strong extra-literary causes for this, I think, and I don't find it fruitful to ignore them.

Unfortunately, it won't be possible to evaluate the poems in perfect isolation from the person until long after the person's reunited with geology.

I appreciate the dialogue, Nick, thanks.


Brenda Schmidt said...

Which Randall Jarrell book do you have?

Zachariah Wells said...

I have No Other Book, Brenda.

Zachariah Wells said...

It's brilliant, by the way, if you've never read Jarrell's prose. A titan of a critic.