Friday, March 7, 2008

Rita Wong Forage Launch: an Evening of Good Intentions and Bad Verse

It was a full house at Café Rhizome last night for the launch of Rita Wong's Dorothy Livesay Award-nominated collection Forage. She started out reading a piece called Powell St., requested by Liz Bachinsky (who lives on Powell). Good piece for a reading, driven by the anaphoric repetition of "pride." There were good things in terms of wordplay and soundplay in many of the poems, but pretty much all of the work she read was undercut by a streak of naive, yet heavy-handed didacticism. Wong is a political activist and that aspect of her life doesn't so much inform her writing as overwhelm it. Not that I don't sympathise with the causes she was espousing last night--albeit with less enthusiasm or optimism--, just that I don't see the point of using poetry--rather, attempting to use it--to promulgate a definitive political stance, if only because the only people likely to read it are those who already agree with you and who are by and large already pretty well-informed about the issues.

Information and ideology don't fit well in poems and putting them there certainly limits the exposure they'll get; neither poetry nor ideology is good for the other. Putting the stance front and centre in the poems, wearing it like a badge, therefore becomes little better than an act of self-affirmation and a demonstration of solidarity with comrades.

An interesting thing Wong said was that, as a life-long city dweller, she didn't really know much about "nature." Well, if you're going to write poems about ecology, you should really make it your business to learn about nature in something other than an abstract, theoretical manner. Like the proto-ecologist John Clare, who does far more to win the sympathy of an indifferent reader with a few lines of exact, immediate description in a poem like "The Nightingale's Nest" than could ever be accomplished with whole books of politically correct attitudinizing. This is a political poem because it asserts, urgently but obliquely, that the life of this bird is a sacred thing and that violating it needlessly and heedlessly would be shameful. This is how poetry can be, in Auden's phrase, "a way of happening, a mouth," and not just empty hectoring.


Brian Palmu said...

Political poetry is extremely hard to write, because even if it doesn't hit the reader over the head with condescension and simplified moralism, and is crafted well, the music and metaphorical patterning is often glossed over,anyway, by the reader in a hurry to get the message, in the habit of most who read journalistic hot topic punch-ups for entrenched opinion.

As to opinion in poetry, I could care less what one's politics are: does the poem sing? is all that matters. I'd rather read someone who sympathizes with anarchy or feel-good unthinking socialism, if the images are arresting and the lines are tight, rather than someone whose views are admirable but can't produce a striking metaphor or whose language is flat.And though a moral imperative is important, Mao's poetry is better than Lincoln's.

To those who want to convince me of an ideological point: write a letter to the editor instead of parading your stance in ragged lines.

Steven said...

If I had just read this blog post and not the poems I might have agreed with this post. Most overtly ideological poems are, overt, another word for boring. But I have read the book and many of the poems work for me. They open my mind and throat, sent me back into the words, or off to a dictionary of Chinese characters. They rock. So read the book.

Pat Chan said...

Well said Brian!

Although another kind of politics can come through from art that pays attention to form. The fear of using formalism as political tool is brought on by a handful of academics who are afraid to question the current overly sensitive and politically correct art scene in Vancouver. The same academics (most often art lecturers) reinforce this status quo.