Friday, June 19, 2009

Craft Fatigue?

Carmine Starnino on James Langer's Gun Dogs in The Globe:

Poetic form has become a hot-button issue thanks to a group of tyros who have made it impossible to talk about anything else. The upside is that it's an exciting time for serious readers of Canadian poetry, here and abroad. The downside is that an admirable book like Gun Dogs – which might have emerged as a triumph when fewer such books existed – trails the herd. In fact, it's worse than a herd: a sub-genre. Gun Dogs is a prize example of what Newfoundland poet Patrick Warner calls “the School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants.”

Warner coined that phrase in a review of Steven Price's Anatomy of Keys. Members of that school he identified were myself, Carmine, Ken Babstock and Joe Denham. What struck me at the time was that each of us arrived at the style we were writing in pretty much independently. The only one who might have had a modicum of influence on me was Babstock, since Carmine's earlier works were quite a bit more muted in their effects than his With English Subtitles. I can't speak for anyone else, but I picked up a great deal of my prosody from Clare, Hopkins, Hardy, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. I know UK and Irish poets were important to Babstock, Carmine and Steven, too.

What Carmine identifies in the Langer review is something that's been bugging me of late (by which I mean, for a few years now): how to decompress my style and still write poems that feel like my poems and that don't fall into the too-looseness of the still-typical and utterly exhausted free-verse anecdote/lyric mode or the even looser structures of the "long poem" (I often have ideas for extended sequences, but never get very far with them; something there is in me that doesn't love a sprawl). I guess I've been subliminally aware that there's a growing vogue for the kind of verse I've written and have no interest in being part of a school or movement. Nor, I think, have I ever consistently written in one style or mode. Most of the poems in my new book bear scant resemblance to anything in Unsettled, even tho much of the two books' content was written during the same span of years (1998-2004). And even in Unsettled, Jeramy Dodds noted in a review that in many of the poems there was "no sign of [my] typical cadence, alliteration, or poignant compounds and kennings." This was a complaint from someone whom Mark Callanan recently identified as a new member of Warner's SSV&CC; indeed, Jeramy is probably the most thoroughgoing stacker and clusterer out there at the moment. His response to the increasing prevalence of such techniques may have been to ratchet it up. I think there's only so far one can go with this; as spectacular a book as Crabwise to the Hounds is, I think it's a formal cul-de-sac: if he keeps writing that way, courting too-muchness at every turn, I don't see how he can avoid a descent into self-imitation or even self-parody. I'm certainly interested in seeing what kind of direction Jeramy takes after the runaway success of Crabwise.

I'm likewise very keen to see what Joe Denham's been up to. Looks like his second book--following his highly acclaimed, but wildly uneven debut, Flux--is coming out this fall. It's been six years since Flux was published and I know Denham has said in an interview in CV2 that he probably published it too early (a statement that sparked a letter of protest to CV2 from his publisher, who probably didn't appreciate Denham undermining his own book), so I think we can look forward to a pretty thoughtful re-purposing.

Carmine's response, as I suggested the other day, seems to have been to get more plain and direct, as in the closing sequence of This Way Out. I don't know if those poems were written later than the others in the book, but it certainly feels that way.

But one should be wary of making too-confident statements about poetic development. When I saw Carmine a few weeks ago in Montreal, he mentioned my poem "What He Found Growing in the Woods" as a signpost of a marked departure, a leap forward, from the poems in Unsettled. Which is funny because, as I pointed out to Carmine, that poem was first published in my chapbook Fool's Errand, nearly six months before Unsettled went to press, and was written a couple of years prior to that. Narratives of progress in poetry are almost always suspect, it seems to me, since the whole game is, as Randall Jarrell said and as I like to tell students when I visit classrooms, rather like playing pin the tail on the donkey, only there's no tail and no donkey.

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