Monday, January 28, 2008


Dylan Thomas is of course famous not only for what he wrote, but for how he read it. I've done a foolish thing and recorded myself reading his "Lament." You can hear me read it here. You can hear Thomas read it here.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Rachel in Event

The other day, Rachel got her contributor's copies of the new issue of Event, which has four of her prose poems about Industrial Revolution Manchester in it (their website has the new cover up, but not the content). Lately, I've been making a point of checking out Event, even when my wife's work--or my own--isn't in it. Under the stewardship of Elizabeth Bachinsky, their poetry section has become pretty interesting. I don't like all the work she takes, of course, but she chooses a broader mix than you get with most committees, and the best stuff she takes is often quite remarkable. Besides Rachel's excellent work in this issue, highlights are Matt Rader's virtuoso adaptation of Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre," "The Ocean Voyager"; Paul Tyler's lexically luscious "In Praise of the Banana Slug; Al Moritz's parabolic "The Butterfly". Also included are seven odd 18-line poems in ABBACC sestets by David Zieroth, a poet I'm surprised to see working in form; I quite like a couple of them. I also like John Donlan's "Lily Pond Margin," a nature poem that transcends mere contemplation of beauty, and some tight little riddles by Elise Partridge. A pretty high score for any magazine--actually worth checking out!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

David Helwig

Found out today that David Helwig has replaced Frank Ledwell as PEI's new poet laureate, as announced by my neighbour and former classmate, Carolyn Bertram, who is now Minister of Communities, Cultural Affairs and Labour. She always was an over-achiever!

David's of course a very well-established writer of prose and verse and has been an active member of the Island arts and letters scene for many years. He was involved, along with Hugh MacDonald and the late Joe Sherman, with Saturday Morning Chapbooks, which published my Fool's Errand in 2004. (It's now out of print, but if you're foolish and desperate for a copy, check it out here.)

Not living on the Island, I have no real idea of what Ledwell--who's had serious health problems over the last few years--did in his tenure, but David's already got plans for promoting PEI poetry through the official laureate's website. (He's just added my poem, "Skunk.") I reckon he's a damn good pick for the job.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Thanks to Brenda for pointing out this wonderful article on science's need for the arts. Seeing the two endeavours as non-overlapping fields is simply wrongheaded. So much of the reading I do these days is popular science, including many of the folks Lehrer names (Pinker, Dawkins, Oliver Sacks, Brian Greene, etc.). I read these books because, as much as any novelist or poet, these scientists help me to understand what and where I am and they do it with style. It's no coincidence, I think, that such fine writers are also leaders in their fields; it takes imagination and inspiration, not just observation and data-processing, to do great innovative science. As Brian Greene says:

Broad knowledge, technical facility, flexibility of thought, openness to unanticipated connections, immersion in the free flow of ideas world-wide, hard work, and significant luck are all critical parts of scientific discovery.

You could replace those last two words with "artistic excellence" and the statement would be just as true. And for poets and other artists, major currents in the "free flow of ideas" are scientific.

In his new collection of essays, Robert Bringhurst makes the sharp observation that physics has its own myths. Indeed, it has its own saints and superheroes, not to mention martyrs. The dichotomies of myth and truth, science and fiction, are, like most dichotomies, false ones. Pace Stephen Jay Gould, science and religion are not "non-overlapping magisteria"; as Daniel Dennett has pointed out, if they are non-overlapping, then not a whole helluva lot is left in religion's purview. Is there a more fascinating conflict these days than the titanomachia between organized religion (a faded purveyor of calcified myths) and science (a formidably strong purveyor of vitally fecund myths)? These are the myths of our era and artists simply can't afford to ignore them.

As Jonah Lehrer says, the arts need to pay attention to the discoveries of science as much as science can't afford to ignore art. If, for example, poets go on singing the songs of themselves without paying attention to the discoveries in neuroscience that enrich our notions of what makes up a self, their poems will be the poorer for it.

This doesn't necessarily mean writing a book of poems based on the periodic table of the elements or a novel about the love affair between two neurons. (Rumor has it that Christian Bok is making "poems" using DNA code, which strikes me more as alchemy than science.) There seems to be a lot of gimmicky use of scientific tropes in poems these days, resulting in a kind of superficial cleverness, but no real depth. As with everything else, making science a significant part of art takes a lot of hard work, a lot of reading and a lot of thinking, in order to integrate the material fully. Unless science is something lived and loved, the art will almost inevitably be glib.

For someone naturally more inclined towards poetry and narrative fiction, like myself, this is a real struggle. The only science I pursued past grade 10 in school was biology and I only took math to grade 12 (when I was in high school in Ottawa, there was still grade 13 and my school offered three separate grade 13 math curricula). I've been reading Brian Greene's mercifully lucid book The Fabric of the Cosmos for over a year now, in very small increments, because I have a damn hard time processing what he's talking about. It's something of a comfort to know that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don't understand it. But what I'm learning from the book is just how rich a field of inquiry cosmological physics is. I hear people say all the time that they prefer mystery to knowledge. What a stupid choice, when you can have both at once.

UPDATE (Jan. 24): A lovely coincidence: so soon after reading the above mentioned article by Jonah Lehrer (whom I'd not heard of before), I encounter a reference to his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist in a footnote in Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia. I love shit like that. It's all, like, cosmic and stuff.

Review on-line

My very short reviews of new books by Stephen Brockwell, George Ellenbogen, Monica Kidd and Sarah Lang are now on-line. In keeping with my earlier post about poems being more important than poets or books, I do highly recommend checking out Brockwell's The Real Made Up, for three poems in particular: "Helium," "The Bay of Fundy" and especially the virtuoso performance piece "Certain Ingredients for Poems by Al Purdy." There are several other fine poems in it, too. Brockwell's a pretty underrated poet, and I was disappointed that he was left out of The New Canon. I have the feeling that if Carmine had seen some of the work from this book, it might've been otherwise.

Bringin' it to the Burbs

At the gracious invitation of Lynda Grace Phillippsen, I spent Friday talking and reading to her English classes at Seaquam High School in Delta. Two of the classes were grade 9's two were grade 12's. The grade 12 sessions went pretty well, got some pretty good discussion going. Grade nine might be just a bit too junior for me, tho I could tell at least one or two in each group were mentally present. Also, they hadn't done any poetry yet in their class and hadn't looked at any of my stuff before I came, so they weren't really prepared.

Something that struck me is how little knowledge the students have of things that I take for granted as being common knowledge. One girl asked me if I knew any famous writers. I said I didn't know anyone really famous, then tried to think of the most famous writer I knew. I threw out George Elliott Clarke's name. Blank stares. Then, to get some idea of their frame of reference, I asked who had heard of Margaret Atwood. One person. Michael Ondaatje? None, tho one kid thought he'd heard of the English Patient movie. This probably means that their parents don't know the names either. Kind of puts things in perspective.

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.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Interview Online

Finn Harvor has posted an interview with me on his blog, Conversations in the Book Trade.

Our Child as a 12 Week Foetus

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Postscript: The Idea of Order at Key West

For shits and giggles, and because August said how into the poem he is, I thought I'd paste up my old undergrad essay on "The Idea of Order at Key West." This paper was in many ways my academic swan song (contemporaneous with the publication of those early poems I posted the other day); not hard to pick up on my disillusionment with the whole scholarship thing. I expect very few people to get thru this without falling asleep. But I've been kind and only pasted the first of the essay's three parts...



"The Idea of Order at Key West" is one of Wallace Stevens' most talked-about poems, and has become an automatic anthology piece. Since its publication, in Ideas of Order, in 1935, just what has been written of the poem has varied considerably. Early reviewers of Ideas of Order tend to pay little attention to the book's title poem; those who do refer to "Key West" are complimentary on the whole, but rather vague and epigrammatic when it comes to the poem's actual merits. Since those early reviews, the depth and sophistication of analysis has increased dramatically. Some critics have written of "Key West" in terms of a refiguration of the Genesis myth. Others regard the poem as a sort of anti-Genesis statement that strips God of his generative prerogative. Some of these critics see the poem as being about the creative power of general humanity. Others narrow their focus on the poem, seeing it as being specifically about the creative power of the poet; the poem is about writing poetry, and about the associated activities of reading and criticising poetry. Within the context of meta-poetry, certain critics narrow the focus further yet by writing of the poem in terms of its relation to a Romantic heritage; "Key West" is either a transfiguration of, or a response to, the Romantics, particularly Wordsworth. Some of the most enlightening criticism of "Key West" has been as much a response to other schools of criticism, as it has been to the poem itself. Harold Bloom and Peter McCormick, for example, fuse various elements of the critical heritage and develop their own syntheses. What is remarkable about "Key West" is not so much the variety of readings it has provoked, but how bold the demarcations have been between readings. It is a testament to Stevens' art that criticism of the poem has often said far more about the critics than it has about the poet or his work; it is McCormick who gets at the root of this phenomenon. One has little difficulty imagining the eminently playful poet looking down on the scene and smiling faintly and inscrutably.

Many of the contemporary reviews of Ideas of Order do not mention "The Idea of Order at Key West" at all, but focus on the work as a whole, or on other specific poems. Those who do write of "Key West" in the early reviews do not do so at any length. William Rose Benét seems more concerned with quantity than quality, as he focuses primarily on "Academic Discourse at Havana." He states that "Key West" is "one of the best" poems of the voume, that it "is almost pure music," and that it is "longish"(Benét 154). Apparently, though, "Key West" is not long enough to merit more than one line.

Howard Baker compliments the poem in a similar fashion. He quotes the last ten lines of "Key West," but all he has to say about the poem is that it contains an "excellent sense of the power of music"(Baker 135). Oddly, these closing lines contain no references to music, of which there are plenty in earlier sections of the poem. F. O. Matthiessen is slightly more verbose in his evaluation of "Key West." He comments that "in the complex "The Idea of Order at Key West," which has music for its subject as well as for its effect, Mr. Stevens has brought his talents to an expression that is at once precise and opulent" (Matthiessen 149). Thus, all the early reviewers who tackle "Key West" do so very gingerly. They seem content to deal with the poem's superficies, without diving into the depths of Stevens' sea. "Key West" is for them a good poem that sounds pretty--all three refer to its musicality--but does not seem to warrant further analysis.

Later critics prove far more adventurous, although in defense of the early reviewers, they had very little Stevensian context with which to work--Ideas of Order was only Stevens' second book--whereas most later criticism has come after the publication of Stevens' Collected Poems, critical works, and correspondence. At any rate, "Key West" has inspired a number of different, and often opposite, critical readings over the past three decades.

One trend has been towards an interpretation of the poem as a refiguration of the biblical Genesis myth. Kinereth Meuer makes a good case for this view. He states that the singer's song "is a paradigm of the ordering process, a pattern of the ideal creative act ... indeed, a new genesis"(Meuer 41). He further cites the diction of the poem as evocative of "a Biblical analogy"(Meuer 41): Stevens' use of "maker" instead of "poet" or "artist," and his description of the landscape, which is "strongly reminiscent of the second verse of Genesis"(Meuer 41). Meuer also points to the poem's rhetorical structure as support for a biblical reading:

Only after the word has been uttered can one perceive the order ... In the creation story, God commands: "Let there be light" (Genesis, 1:3), and later, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the water from the waters" (1:6). Similarly, the singer's song has the effect of "mastering" the night by "fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles," thus "portioning out the sea."(Meuer 41-2)

Thus, for Meuer, the singer takes the place of God in this neo-genesis.

Raymond Younis objects to this interpretation and others like it. Citing Meuer's article as one example, Younis states that "attempts to draw parallels between the processes of creation in Genesis and the processes of creativity in Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West ... are not convincing"(Younis 89). To support his argument, Younis cites Nietzsche's influence on Stevens, and the fact that "in the poem creative acts are not divine but, on the contrary, thoroughly human"(Younis 89). This human process is characterised by "unrest, struggle, limitation--frustration, perhaps, intense desire, certainly--all of which are implicit or suggested in the "rage" to order"(Younis 90). Younis' Nietzschean analysis is well taken, but he seems to be quibbling. Meuer never actually claims that the creative process enacted by the singer is a divine one, but stresses that Stevens' perspective is "anthropocentric"(Meuer 41). Like Younis, Meuer stresses that the human creative process is an ongoing, or eternal, one. The only substantial difference between their arguments is that Meuer depends on biblical language and themes, whereas Younis relies on the doctrines of Nietzsche. In spite of the apparent contradictoriness of these perspectives, the poem seems more than able to contain both of them.

It is the strictly anthropocentric view, however, that is taken up, in one way or another, by the majority of critics. Merle Brown finds fault with the sort of approach that leads to analyses like Meuer's and Younis'. She maintains that "Key West" "has been inadequately interpreted mainly because ... [t]oo much of the meaning of the poem has been heaped upon the woman who walked by the sea"(Brown 65). By over-emphasizing the role of the singer, it is easy to mislabel her as divine or as an ubermensch. Brown claims that the poem is about the general human condition:

"The Idea of Order at Key West" is the first of Stevens's poems which is truly "The poem of the mind in the act," in the precise sense given the phrase in "Of Modern Poetry." The act itself, in the present, the immediate rage for order, is the spirit that dominates the poem, and it belongs to all who participate in it. (Brown 65, emphasis added)

Thus, Brown would likely side with Younis against Meuer's inflation of the singer. She does not see the need for a Nietzschean reading either, however, relying more closely on Stevens' own poetic theories. Her focus is not on any particular feature of any of the poem's characters, but on their shared humanity.

Helen Vendler, on the other hand, re-asserts the role of the singer. The maker's importance is not so much as a character, however, than as a symbol. As Vendler puts it, the singer is "[t]he linking mechanism between sailboats and planets" and the different "orders of magnitude"(Vendler 67) that they represent. Vendler points to the poem's "conceptual"(Vendler 68) title as evidence of the subordination of the individual person to a larger concept. It is through the figure of the singer that "Stevens decides ... that the human voice, given its powerful effects, is of a greater order of magnitude than the voice of the ocean"(Vendler 68). Thus, "Key West" represents the relationship of humankind to its natural environment. According to Vendler, Stevens asserts that the human order is of greater magnitude than the inhuman. This is somewhat reminiscent of Younis, as it sounds like the human will to power asserting its dominance over the random chaos of the natural world. Vendler's treatment of the poem, however, is not quite so unproblematic. She maintains that Stevens is not altogether comfortable with his own assertion, that by the overuse of superlatives betrays his "uneasiness with his own establishing of difference in those orders ... Stevens' powers of representation are being strained, in praising here the order of putatively superior magnitude"(Vendler 68-9). Vendler acknowledges a tension that belies the speaker's apparent confidence. This tension is entirely absent from the interpretations of the poem discussed heretofore. Vendler transcends what she wishes to see in the poem in a way that many critics fail to do, and thereby gets beyond, or beneath as it were, the issue of human power to that of human insecurity.

Daniel Schwarz also finds uncertainty in "Key West." He states that the poem "depends on a dialogue between diverse aspects of the self. Stevens's poem becomes an analogy, or fiction that represents the imaginative process it describes"(Schwarz 76). Thus, the singer, although she appears to have an objective existence, is internalised by the speaker; she is, for Schwarz, "the embodiment of [Stevens'] imagination, but also of our creative capacity"(Schwarz 77). She is a universal figure, not a superior maker, but a participant in the eminently human activity of creation. Her song is a response to the ocean's "meaningless plungings." Schwarz says that through her Stevens describes "a process by which the objective world insistently requires the subjective imagination to do its work"(Schwarz 77). What is interesting in this analysis is that it is the inhuman world of the ocean that "insists" and the world of the human imagination must simply respond. Schwarz asserts a hierarchy opposite to that of the Genesis and Nietzsche critics. He maintains that "Key West" is "about loneliness and the desperate need to find plenitude by creating an alternative"(Schwarz 79). The poem represents not an assertion or imposition of meaning, but a staving off of meaninglessness. It depicts "the process of building fictions to forestall the probability of emotional and historical chaos"(Schwarz 82). Thus, Schwarz's analysis is in line with Vendler's. He takes it a step further, however, by claiming that the speaker/poet is not merely uncertain or insecure, but actually afraid; the idea of order is a defensive response to the fear of disorder.

Other critics have stayed away from such psychological readings and incline more towards an interpretation of the poem in a purely poetic context. David LaGuardia is one such critic. His reading of the poem is opposed to Schwarz's, as LaGuardia claims that "Key West" "reveals the procedure by which the imagination creates from the world without reducing it to sterile fixity"(LaGuardia 61). Unlike Schwarz, LaGuardia seems to believe that the human mind is capable of reducing the inhuman world. In fact, it takes a great mind not to reduce it to "sterile fixity" while creating from it--the mind of a poet. The crux of LaGuardia's argument is that "Key West"

portrays an allegory of the poetic process, depicting poet, poem, and reader of poem. With the woman as poet and the sea as reality, the narrator as witness becomes a figure for the reader of poems, one who benefits from the poet's formative power and who shares directly in the poet's vision.(LaGuardia 61)

Thus, LaGuardia asserts the presence of confidence reminiscent of Meuer and Younis' readings. LaGuardia rejects the Genesis analogy, adopting a point of view more akin to Younis', as he states that the singer "replaces the deity as the emerging force of the universe"(LaGuardia 62). LaGuardia stops short, however, of granting the poet complete creative license, as the singer "does not create from nothing"(LaGuardia 62). Rather, her song "changes according to the variations of the naked reality pulsing through it"(LaGuardia 62). This view is somewhat similar to Schwarz's assertion that the mind responds to the natural world. For LaGuardia, however, this response is an active, conscious choice spurred by creative intent, rather than an automatic response generated by unease and fear.

Robert Rehder also reads "Key West" as a treatise on poetry. In much the same way as Benét calls the poem "pure music," Rehder asserts that "Key West" "show[s] Stevens on his way to the major discovery of 'The Man with the Blue Guitar': 'Poetry is the subject of the poem'"(Rehder 138). Unlike LaGuardia, Rehder does not take the singer to be a figure of the poet. Rather, it is the speaker who represents the poet, as "[t]he poet's function in this poem is to listen rather than create, a version of the old (inescapable) notion that the muse sings within the poet and that poetry is the notation of that song"(Rehder 143). Rehder's analysis places the speaker in between the two poles of confident creativity and anxious uncertainty. His reading is closest to Vendler's, as he states that

the poet discovers the nature of the self in the interrelation between the person in the world. ... Here [Stevens] asserts that, the ghostlier the distinctions, the sharper, the more exact and the more poignant: grey words embody the truth of a black and white world, but combining and merging its antithetical elements as well as indicating that much of the power of this world is in its mystery.(Rehder 144)

Like Vendler, Rehder deals with the speaker in relation to his surroundings. Unlike Vendler, however, he does not insist on discrepancies and hierarchies of "orders of magnitude," but places emphasis on "combining and merging." The poet and the ocean are not worlds unto themselves, but parts of one world, which cannot be dominated by the imagination, but remains sublimely mysterious. The poet is the chronicler of that mystery.

Whereas LaGuardia and Rehder focus on the singer and the speaker respectively in their interpretations of "Key West" as meta-poetry, Mary Arensberg turns her eye towards Ramon Fernandez. There is much scholarly debate as to whether the Ramon Fernandez of the poem is intended to be Ramon Fernandez the French formalist critic. Stevens himself insisted that he merely chose a Spanish name at random. Arensberg disagrees, however; she maintains that Ramon's "presence within the text points towards the entire range of critics and critical reading" (Arensberg 39). In this interpretive mould, "Key West" is a criticism of criticism; it is a poem that reads the critic. Arensberg writes that the effect of including the critic in the poem is twofold: "it is both a silencing of the interpretative act and a textualization of criticism that precludes the possibility of a world outside the borders of the text"(Arensberg 39). By co-opting the critic into his text, Stevens anticipates and discredits the response of Ramon and his ilk. Ramon only has a voice outside the text; when he is transported into the poem, he is markedly silent.

If Arensberg's reading of the poem is accurate, then one can only surmise that Stevens fails in his attempts to silence criticism, just as he fails to disarm the identification of the fictional Ramon with his real-life counterpart. Another area in which Stevens was tight-lipped was his influences, and what place his poetry occupies in the poetical tradition. Although Stevens himself denied it, many have placed him in the Romantic tradition, usually as a successor to Wordsworth. "The Idea of Order at Key West" in particular has received a good deal of attention as a high Romantic piece.

Alan Chavkin is one critic who sees "Key West" as partaking of the Romantic heritage. Chavkin calls the poem a "modern version of [Wordsworth's] 'The Solitary Reaper,'" and says it "also bears a resemblance to 'Tintern Abbey,' and [Stevens] might well have had both poems in mind when he composed his own work"(Chavkin 2). Chavkin does not regard the poem as straight Romanticism, however, but as a "transformation of the romantic landscape meditation"(Chavkin 2). Certain aspects of "Key West," according to Chavkin, are romantic; for instance, he calls the singer a "romantic metaphor ... symbolic of the act of the imagination and the heightened consciousness of the spot of time"(Chavkin 2). But, he argues, Stevens utilizes traditional romantic tropes to modernise traditional romantic themes, particularly that of "the imagination's relationship to nature"(Chavkin 2). Stevens uses Wordsworth as a springboard, but moves beyond his predecessor: "'The Idea of Order at Key West' is more complex than 'The Solitary Reaper' because the consciousness of the passerby and the singing woman merge in Stevens' meditation"(Chavkin 2). Chavkin does not claim that the imagination does not attempt to order reality out of anxiety, nor does "the mind ... completely manipulate naked, formless reality but only dresses it with meaning ... What the mind accomplishes in its spot of time is a humanization of 'inhuman' reality"(Chavkin 3). Thus, in summary, Chavkin believes that Stevens establishes a harmony between what Vendler has called the two "orders of magnitude." He concludes that "passionate imagination" is the central operative force of the poem, and the only thing upon which one "can place hope on ... to transform an alien (ghostly) modern world into some kind of home for man"(Chavkin 4). The neo-romantic imagination of Stevens is neither dominant nor submissive, but accommodating and receptive.

Like Chavkin, Brian Barbour also claims that "Key West" "celebrates the power of the imagination"(Barbour 48) in a manner characteristic of the Romantics: "Stevens' ideas were his own, but they came to him from within a Romantic tradition of which he was a late and brilliant development"(Barbour 49). Barbour does not see the poem as an elaboration of Worsdworthian poetry, however, so much as a development of Colridgean poetics. In particular, Barbour maintains that Stevens is working with Coleridge's "distinction between the Primary and Secondary Imaginations" in mind, the primary being perception and the secondary creative power(Barbour 49). Barbour explains that Coleridge sets up the following hierarchy:


The Primary Imagination (repeats)

The Secondary Imagination (echoes)

Objects(fixed, dead).(Barbour 50)

This schema is Coleridge's attempt "to restore order to his world"(Barbour 49), and Barbour maintains that Stevens has it in mind when he writes of his own "rage to order." Like Chavkin, Barbour does not claim that Stevens is simply reiterating Romanticism, but that he is "wittily playing with ... Coleridge's ... distinction"(Barbour 49). Barbour explains that in the first four sections of the poem, Stevens

carefully preserves Coleridge's hierarchy. The sea is "inhuman" (l. 7) and what Coleridge would call essentially fixed and dead ... in contrast with the woman whose human power and supremacy is closely identified with language ... as the manifestation of the essentially human, the spirit[.](Barbour 50-1)

Stevens does not stick with Coleridge's model, however. In the fifth section, Stevens diverges radically from Coleridge's idea of order:

For here Stevens shifts from celebrating the imagination's transcendence over reality to describing the effect of the song. ... This stands Coleridge's hierarchy on end and makes the secondary imagination primary.(Barbour 51)

As for God's presence in the hierarchy, Stevens the Nietzschean would say that He is still dead. Consequently, as Barbour puts it, "Stevens puts the bottom rail on top" and "the creative ... imagination ... is presented as wholly autonomous, a power unto itself, the maker of the world"(Barbour 53). This analysis puts Barbour in line with critics such as Younis, who see unbridled confidence in the poem. Barbour's reading is certainly more extreme than Chavkin's. Chavkin sees Stevens as tinkering with Romanticism, while leaving Wordsworth's model largely intact. Barbour, on the other hand, claims that Stevens deconstructs and re-orders a principle tenet of Romanticism; "Key West" is not so much a continuance of the Romantic movement, as it is a reaction to it. If Stevens evokes the Romantics, it is not to ally himself with them.

Eleanor Cook pursues a similar tack in her reading of "The Idea of Order at Key West." Like Chavkin, she claims that the poem contains certain phrases and tropes that resonate with Wordsworth. Also like Chavkin, Cook cites a relationship between "Key West" and "Tintern Abbey"(Cook 131). Cook states that "Ideas of Order is full of ghosts and angels and spirits, some inimical,"(Cook 131) one of which is Wordsworth. The ghosts of the Romantics do not haunt Key West, however. Cook asserts that Stevens "will have nothing to do with [Wordsworth's] 'a motion and a spirit that impels all things,'" and that he "avoids the word 'creator,' going back to the older words, 'maker' and 'artificer.' He avoids all the language of the inspired poet-prophet or bard"(Cook 131). If Stevens builds upon the structure of "Tintern Abbey," it is to undermine its substance. For Stevens, according to Cook, the poet's genius is not tied down to the "genius loci" in the way that Wordsworth's is to Tintern Abbey(Cook 131). She compares Stevens' sea to Matthew Arnold's "late Romantic sea," and concludes that it is "anti-Romantic, withdrawing from even the cadences of Arnold's sea, while still recalling their 'gr-' force"(Cook 132). This is a sea that has lost its grip on the human imagination. Cook concludes that Stevens' rage for order is "[n]either romantic rage nor classical order, ... [but] becomes, godlike, a rage to order"(Cook 133-34). For Cook "Key West" "suggests a way of going on"(Cook 134), of moving beyond old poetic paradigms into a truly modern poesy. Her analysis, like Barbour's, views "Key West" as a response to Romantic ideas of order. Stronger than Barbour's, however, she sees the poem as an exorcism, "a triumph over ghosts"(131) that haunt modern poetics. She asserts the same sort of "godlike" confidence present in Genesis and Nietzschean analyses, with none of the problematic hesitancy seen in other readings.

A few critics avoid such polemical arguments, favouring rather a sort of meta-critical, inclusive evaluation of the poem. Harold Bloom is one such critic. Bloom does not feel confident in taking any one single line in his approach to the poem, because of its sheer difficulty: "In some respects, it is an impossible text to interpret, and its rhetoric may be at variance with its deepest intentionalities"(Bloom 93). Such a discrepancy is useful to have in mind, as it helps to account for the polar extremes of confidence and anxiety perceived in the tone of the poem by different critics. The discrepancy seems to be implicit in the readings of some critics (particularly Vendler and Schwarz), but Bloom is the only one to spell it out explicitly.

Having once stated his reservations, Bloom does go on to elucidate what he believes to be the crucial elements of the poem. He responds to Nietzschean readings of "Key West" by allying the poem's message more closely to Schopenhauer:

In his discussion of lyric poetry, Schopenhauer presents it as an art never completely realized, a view that Nietzsche protested in The Birth of Tragedy. ... Schopenhauer's will is close to Stevens' solitude, even as Schopenhauer's pure contemplation is close to Stevens' idea of order.(Bloom 95)

Bloom uses Shopenhaurean theory to illustrate the lack of confidence on the part of the speaker/Stevens, a lack that stems from the incompleteness of his art form. The speaker is divided between desire for a silent solitude and a verbose rage for order; this tension underlies the whole of the poem. Such a conclusion could not be reached if one were to use Nietzsche as an interpretive lens for the poem, because he posits transcendence as the chief achievement of the poet.

Bloom does not stop with a philosophical reading of the poem. He also attempts to place "Key West" in relation to its Romantic heritage. He calls the poem "High Romantic"(Bloom 96), and claims that it "faithfully ... follows the model of the Wordsworthian crisis poem"(Bloom 93). Bloom further allies Stevens' coda with Shelley for the "rage to order words of the sea in ghostlier demarcations and in keener sounds," Keats "in the aspiration to order words of the fragrant portals," and to Wordsworth in "the third rage to order ... recalling Wordsworth's ambition to speak of nothing more than what we are"(Bloom 103-04). Bloom clearly does see "Key West" as the heir to a Romantic heritage, and he goes further in saying so, allying Stevens with more dead poets, than other critics. He does qualify this assertion, however, by stating that the "Romantic topos [of the poem] appears in its drastic American version, the Emersonian-Whitmanian dialectic of Fate, Power, and Freedom"(Bloom 96). Bloom also maintains that the Wordsworthian rage to order that appears in the coda is also Whitmanian, "since no better description of Whitman could be made than to name his ambition as a rage to order words of himself, and of his origins, in ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds"(Bloom 104). Thus, like Chavkin, Bloom concludes that Stevens modifies Romanticism to make it fit a twentieth century American perspective. "The Idea of Order at Key West" marks the fusion of Stevens' Romantic and American influences; hence, this facet of the poem also expresses the poet's attempt to deal with tension and a divided will.

Peter McCormick also explores tensions in and--more importantly--outside of the poem. He takes a highly philosophical approach in his analysis of "Key West":

[O]ne of the central issues which continues to vex philosophers comes under the heading of disputes about realism and antirealism ... I propose to try to bring the notion of a fictional world into clearer view by investigating a contemporary philosophical disagreement about the nature of such a world in the light of Stevens's meditative poetry.(McCormick 259)

Much of McCormick's article is highly recondite, and requires reading and study far beyond the text of "Key West" to be understood properly. The philosophical debate of which he writes is not pertinent to the present discussion. That said, however, there is much of interest to the layman in his analysis.

What is interesting about McCormick's approach is that he takes up a variety of the perspectives examined heretofore. McCormick looks at the poem in terms of the contexts that it invokes, contexts which are derived from settings that are "at once natural, historical, and cultural"(McCormick 265). The natural setting is the most readily apparent, as the sea is a constant presence in the poem. The theme of man in nature, or man against nature, is taken up by Vendler, Schwarz, and LaGuardia as the primary thrust of "The Idea of Order at Key West." McCormick states that there is in the poem "a fusion between the horizons of the natural world and those of [the singer's] own artistic activity"(McCormick 263). The worlds are distinct and separate, but at some points they touch and conjoin. Thus, both sides of the "man/nature debate" are accommodated by the framework of the poem.

McCormick also cites the historical context of the poem, claiming that it is "evoked ... in the name 'Ramon Fernandez,' which is at once a name for any new world cosmopolitan (a Spanish name but most likely that of a South American who is in Key West) and yet also the name of a once-prominent literary critic of the 1930s and 1940s"(McCormick 265). McCormick does not take sides in the Ramon Fernandez debate, but simply points out that both sides exist. It is this historical context which critics such as Mary Arensberg take up in their discussions of Ramon's role in the poem.

Ramon Fernandez is also part of a cultural context of the poem. McCormick explains:

the context is also a cultural one as well ... especially in the suggestive descriptions of the sea in an imagery reminiscent of Genesis, the evocation of a spirit, and in the Arnoldian image of a movement down a darkened beach to the sea.(McCormick 265)

Thus, according to McCormick, there is plenty of cultural room in the poem to accommodate the readings of Meuer and Younis, as well as those of Barbour, Chavkin, and Cook, and of course for the simple statements about the poem's musicality made by the early reviewers. The poem is not a world unto itself, but one which refers to a variety of other "worlds" or contexts.

The presence of a meta-poetical framework is also fundamental to McCormick's argument. He explains that "the speaker's ... horizon intersects with that of the singer to yield a restructuring of their own represented experience ... each interacts with a set of phenomena in such a way as to make an order by creating a dynamic and partial totalization whether in the act of a song or in that of a poem"(McCormick 263). Thus, McCormick legitimates the sort of meta-poetry analyses given by Rehder and LaGuardia. The poem is as much about poetry, about the interactions of reader and text, as it is about anything else within its structure.

Because of the way McCormick approaches the text of "The Idea of Order at Key West," one can hardly help but find his article disappointing. He only deals with "Key West" as one example of a greater philosophical proposition, and thereby avoids intimate contact with the text. He seems to take the easy way out, by sitting on the fence and saying to other critics, "You've all got it right--to a point." On the other hand, however, having once read any amount of critical material on "Key West," McCormick's analysis is the most satisfying work on the subject, as it is holistic and gets at the root of the critical debate; he explains why and how there can be so many varying points of view on the poem. In so doing, McCormick pays greatest homage of all the critics to Stevens' artistry. In essence, he tells us that the poet creates a world which is complex and cannot therefore be reduced by any one mode of interpretation. If one attempts a simple approach, one fails to sing beyond his or her own genius loci; such a strategy tells us more about the person attempting it than it does about the poem.

"The Idea of Order at Key West" has sparked much and varied critical debate in the years since Wallace Stevens' death. The sheer variety of readings testifies to the complexity of the poem. A number of critics have written of just how difficult the poem is to interpret. This difficulty resides in the almost active, willful ignorance necessary to insist upon a single reading of the poem. Stevens presents in "Key West" a generative process, of which the cultural and literary paradigm is the Genesis myth. It is also about how humanity responds to, and re-creates, the world in a Nietzschean, post-God era. More specifically, it depicts how a poet undergoes such a process. It demonstrates how a poet comes to terms with his influences and predecessors--in Stevens' case the Romantics and nineteenth century American poets--adopting, adapting, and rejecting as he sees fit. But the poem is also about how we read poems, and ironically, most critics fail to pick up on this aspect of the text. Peter McCormick takes a detached, aloof approach to "Key West" and succeeds where all others fail, in getting at the root of the poem, and at the root of critical debate over its meaning. In "The Idea of Order at Key West," Wallace Stevens has crafted a text which reads its reader. The varying interpretations of Stevens' words tells us what kind of world these critics wish to fashion for themselves out of the poem. "Key West" is, in a sense, the sea beside which they walk and sing.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Idea of Order at Key West

For several weeks in the last year of my undergrad, Wallace Stevens' poem "The Idea of Order at Key West" pretty much took over my conscious life, while I wrote an epic essay on it (and I will forever associate it with Cream's Greatest Hits, since I listened to nothing else whilst writing said paper--weird, huh?). When I told my prof how much I'd gone over the word limit, he sighed and said, "It better be good, Zach."

While I do believe that he was a genius, Stevens isn't really my kinda poet. Harold Bloom thinks he's the best Yank of the 20th C. and I can see why an academic critic would get all soppy for him (my prof was a huge fan, too). But I find most of his work leans too far, for my tastes, from the visceral into the cerebral. Still, TIoOaKW is a pretty damn incredible piece of writing. Hear me read it.


Looks like you can pre-order my forthcoming sonnet anthology on Amazon. (Unfortunately, they have the old title, which has been shortened to Jailbreaks.) The book's in the final editorial stages now and is due for release in March or April. I'm extremely proud of it, which I can say since most of the content was written by other people. Be the first to get one! (Or order it from your local.)


Oy. I just learned that Dalhousie University's undergrad English journal Fathom has digitized and archived its back issues online--including the 1999 issue in which two early versions of poems from Unsettled appear. Bad early versions (tho one was good enough for second prize in their contest...); I'd only started writing poems the previous year (when, in fact, these poems were written, as you can tell by the handy date tags I thoughtfully provided). If I was publishing the book this year, I'd probably cut both poems; even in their revised versions, they're far from the strongest work. But for those CLM readers with a copy of Unsettled ready to hand, it might be of interest to see the differences. Most of the book's poems were written post-2000. 99% of what I wrote prior to that, Arctic or otherwise, has been scrapped or completely re-written. Which is a very good thing.


Because I grew up far from town (tho I still taught myself baseball, somehow) and because I'm weary of considerations, I thought I'd read Robert Frost's "Birches" for you. Hear the audio.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Some Well-Deserved Recognition

I was over at the Vehicule Press blog last night and found there a link to this lengthy overview of Carmine Starnino's work by Bill Coyle. It's very interesting to see an American's perspective on Carmine's writing, since objectivity about it is a preciously rare commodity this side of the border. It should be noted that Coyle is associated with the New Formalist movement (he makes his aesthetic biases pretty plain in the piece), which means anyone reading the piece in the States might be tempted to lump Carmine in with that school, much as critics here have done. That would be unfortunate, since New Formalism, like any school or loose group of poets, harbours more than its fair share of negligible writers, and Carmine's the last person to praise a poem simply because it scans and rhymes (as Coyle observes in talking about Carmine's essay on AM Klein), and his tastes extend well beyond the stereotypes that his detractors routinely try to pin on him. Regardless, this is a perceptive, well-written essay.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


It's time to announce a piece of news that will strike fear in the hearts of poets across the country: your humble correspondent is reproducing. The good news is that half of the clone is coming from Rachel. Yes, that's right, sportsfans, we're havin' a baby! Now that the first trimester is over, it's officially safe to say it, and yesterday, with the help of a Doppler, we heard the little critter's heartbeat, which was really freakin cool. Our baby is officially due July 21. Expect sappy baby poems to follow.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

My Last Duchess

The dramatic monologue's one of my favourite poetic forms and Robert Browning's one of the acknowledged masters of it. Hear me read his great poem, "My Last Duchess."

A lovely surprise

A few weeks ago, I sent a copy of my broadside poem "Achromatope" (hear me read it) to Oliver Sacks. I did so because the poem is based on a case study he wrote up in his book An Anthropologist on Mars, and because I'm a big fan of Dr. Sacks' books.

The other day, I went to the post office to pick up a parcel. I was thrilled to see Sacks' name and address stamped on the bubble-pack envelope, which I tore open before even leaving the post-office. Inside was an inscribed copy of his new book, Musicophilia, into which was folded a short letter, written with a fountain pen on heavy paper, thanking me for the poem, which he called "quite wonderful." I was planning to buy the book anyway, but this is so much cooler.

Signs of the Apocalypse?

So, not only has Alex Good announced he's taking a year off, but now it appears that Phil Marchand is quitting books altogether (on a note of exhaustion similar to Alex's) . It's very true, what he quotes Arnold Bennett saying about reviews being too benevolent. I often find my perspective skewed by the number of dull or just plain lousy books I read; it makes a decent book seem excellent, the same way grading a series of C or D essays will make a teacher whoop for joy when she gets to a B. I've only been reviewing for four years, but I'm already embarrassed by the sheer number of books I've praised, from which I can now remember next-to-nothing--and I'm someone who's supposed to be a harsh critic. Can a book really be that good if it has so little purchase on a reader's memory, especially a reader examining it more closely for purposes of reviewing than a casual reader would? This isn't an occupational hazard restricted to reviewers, but to CW professors and publishers, too; a great deal of delusive thinking is required to keep all these funded institutions afloat. A whole lot of "culture" gets made, but the recipe for perdurable remains elusive.

In other news, Raincoast is getting out of publishing anything but Harry Potter books. This came as no surprise to me at all; it's been clear for some time that they found publishing to be more burden than profit and they've jumped on the strong dollar as a handy excuse to pull the pin. They're also cutting a number of their Canadian distribution clients. Which ones is yet to be announced. Insomniac Press, the publisher of my book, is a Raincoast client. I've been pretty pleased with the distribution of it to-date, which is to say that I've heard no complaints from people having trouble getting a hold of the book. I wonder how it'll be if/when Raincoast drops Insomniac. And I wonder what's going to happen to their backlist.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Arc etc.

It's been a while. I've been away for a bit and generally disinclined to be public in any way, shape or form, which often happens to me around this time of year. But I'm coming round, eh.

Spent a couple days on Lasqueti Island at New Year's with Rachel and her mum, doing what I like doing best at New Year's: nothing special. I usually find New Year's disappointing; there's too much expectation that it's going to be a fantastic time.

Got the new issue of Arc the other day, which includes three short reviews by yours truly. But the highlight is Carmine Starnino's longer review of Margaret Atwood's The Door. As anyone who read the "Runaway Jury" at (sadly, but understandably, on hiatus for this year) knows, Carmine doesn't think much of the book. But he also is quite generous in his praise for Atwood's much better early work and uses it as a very effective foil to demonstrate the shoddiness of her latest. Another highlight is a poem by Matthew Tierney called "Love Triangle." Very witty piece of work in abab quatrains, a lot of fun. I'm a bit surprised. I've met Matthew on a few occasions and he's a super nice guy; up till now I've always wanted to like his poetry more than I have. Another good one is the issue is Margaret Avison's "Death," reprinted from her collected poems; presumably it's in here as a memorial gesture, but it's not explained.

"The Poem of the Year" falls, as usual, far short of being the poem of the year. The first prize winner isn't bad, but I find Elmslie makes things more explicit and explained than they should be. The second prize poem stinks. The third one has some okay lines, but doesn't add up to much. The first honourable mention I quit reading as it was just going on and on in a prosy drone. The second hon mention was alright, but nothing special. The third h.m. ended well, but I thought it could've started on the tenth of its fourteen lines and been a better poem for it; also, it has very long lines the length of which seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with rhythm, just some purposeless visual effect. The only poem in the magazine I would've picked for a prize is Peter Norman's mesmeric "Up Near Wawa," chosen by Rob Winger as an "Editor's Choice."

Arc is one of my favourite publications to work for because they're very well-run and the editors don't try to interfere with a reviewer's judgments. They've also got the best website of any Canadian lit-mag. But, especially considering it comes out only twice a year, I'm usually nonplussed by the poems in it. I wonder what the result might be if this journal and others like it put one critically minded editor in charge of poem selection instead of doing it by volunteer committee. Maybe they just don't get enough submissions and they really do go with the best they get. I kinda doubt it, tho. And I have to wonder if any good poems get cut out of the contest in the pre-screening for the POTY. Maybe two good poems is all one can reasonably expect in a lit mag. Maybe one issue a year is all a poetry-exclusive magazine should do.