Thursday, January 17, 2008

The best of times, the worst of times, blah, blah, blah

In a post on the Guardian UK blog, recent TS Eliot Award-winning poet Sean O'Brien engages in a rousing bit of tub-thumping in defense of British and Irish Poetry in General.

He makes the odd good point, particularly against those who see "mainstream poetry" as a homogeneous thing. O'Brien's post is a response to a statement in the Guardian that it has been a bad decade for poetry, a generalisation so sweeping as to be completely useless, hardly needing discrediting. If anyone said this about, say, an ethnic group, they'd be justly decried as a bigot. O'Brien's on solid ground in so far as he opposes such generalisations.

Unfortunately, he mostly opposes them with ... more generalisations. For an argument, he substitutes inventories of poets and books. Probably because "it's been a great decade for poetry" is as uselessly general a summary as "it's been a bad decade for poetry." What he doesn't do is name a single exceptional poem. Which, in a piece that is arguing that it's a good time to be a poetry reader, is a glaring omission.

If you will indulge me in a generalisation of my own, one of the problems with poetry of the post-Romantic era is that very little of it displays any actual interest in the general reader. Some self-consciously modernist and post-modernist poets have sublimated this kind of narcissism into a positive quality. Their neglect of a public audience could be characterised as active and aggressive. Most other poets are less self-aware, their neglect of the reader more passive, writing to and for their peers in a closed shop. This kind of audience neglect is more a failure of imagination than anything, an argument made persuasively by the Scots poet Edwin Muir in his 1955 lectures The Estate of Poetry.

O'Brien's post, in a public forum, displays the latter sort of fault. O'Brien clearly cares about having an audience, but fails to distinguish his professional interest in the work of his peers from what general readers of poetry care about: great poems. In the sift of time, no one remembers individual poetry collections; the greatest poets' works get winnowed down to a shockingly small number of poems. The quality of a decade can only be measured by the number of great poems written in that ten-year span. And that can't be determined, with any accuracy or authority, as early in the game as O'Brien would have it. Consider the decade 1865-1875, during which both Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, two of the greatest and most loved poets of the time, were writing their signature works in near-total obscurity. Anyone looking at the run of the mill of Victorian verse would certainly groan that it was a bad decade for poetry.

I find I need to constantly check my professional enthusiasm for poetry in general against the bedrock of poetic quality. I know I'm generally regarded as a being a blunt critic, a quality that some people seem to like and others despise. But, as I've said in other posts, I often suspect I'm not harsh enough by half in my judgments. Which isn't to say that I'm disingenuous in praising a book, but that many of the pleasures of contemporary work prove over time to be fleeting. Looking over the last four-odd years, during which time I've reviewed over a hundred books and read many others besides, I can only think of a very small number of poems that seem to me indispensable, even while I firmly believe that there's quite a lot of generally high quality verse being written. I question my judgment on some of these because I know the authors too well, so I won't mention them here, but here are my confident picks for the best poems published in Canada over the last ten or so years:

Ken Babstock: "Palindromic" (from Airstream Land Yacht)

Mary Dalton: "Gallous" (from Red Ledger)

David Manicom: "Reading Anglo-Saxon When Spring Comes Early" (from The Burning Eaves)

David O'Meara: "Letter to Auden" (from The Vicinity)

Richard Outram: "Barbed Wire" (from Dove Legend)

Karen Solie: "Sturgeon" (from Short Haul Engine)

Patrick Warner: "The Bacon Company of Northern Ireland" (from There, There)

These are poems whose images and/or lines often enter my mind unbidden. I think they're great poems, but time will likely prove me foolish.

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