Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Ugly Big Toe of Essentialism

Thanks to Simon at the Vehicule blog for pointing out this review, by Paul Vermeersch, of Carmine Starnino's latest book, This Way Out.

Paul and Carmine are both friends of mine. Paul published and edited my first collection of poems and Carmine's editing my new one, so I read this with particular interest. In the review, Paul tries to square the "the starchy and strait-laced critic" with the free-wheeling flights of Carmine's poems. One reason he fails to see a connection between the criticism and the verse is that he clearly hasn't been reading Carmine's prose as closely as he did the poems in TWO; there's a great deal more to it than "formalist orthodoxy"--examples of which aren't to be found in Paul's review, so we'll just have to take his word for it. All we get in this review is a caricature of Carmine the Critic. I'll ask the same question Paul poses in the first paragraph of his review: Is this as it should be? If you're going to bring the criticism into a review of the poems, you should do better than accepting the received wisdom and regurgitating the usual stereotype.

It's too bad that Paul didn't mention the closing sequence of TWO, "The Strangest Things." The plain speech and confessional directness of these poems represent the real departure from Carmine's critical positions, as I see it, and as such represent the riskiest gambit in the book. And the risk pays bigtime dividends; it's a beautifully moving suite, probably the best part of the collection. And it shows what Paul either doesn't recognize or acknowledge: that Carmine (the critic and the poet who aren't different guys after all) isn't a flat-footed writer, but is always ready to change directions, evolve, and surprise. Which is probably why the arrows on the cover of his book point four different ways.

I think the last poem of the book, "Hairline Wall Crack, Study, Parc Ex Flat," goes a long way towards resolving Paul's puzzlement (and maybe explains why I haven't got any edits from Carmine yet, nudge-nudge):

It takes me so long
to get up to speed,
I'm sometimes left asking
whether the job was worth starting. Afraid a foot set down
will be a foot put wrong,
I hem and haw,
think twice, weigh one direction
against another, ignore the can't-put-my-finger-on-it feeling
come undone. Momentum, a work-in-progress.
I eye my options.
Eye them again. It takes time.
It can take all day.


Michael Lista said...

This was pure strawman. "As anyone in the world of Canadian Poetry knows, Starnino is a Republican brick-batter, a mouthpiece-automaton for formalist clap-trap, so how is it that he can write anything other than a sonnet?" All caricature. Carmine only ever attacks what he argues to be shitty writing; as a critic, he isn't the partisan people would prefer him to be. His essay from a couple of years ago in CNQ about Solie's second book is one of the most laudatory in his oeuvre, and there's no way you can call Solie a formalist or traditionalist. Plus it's just so...Canadian to frame the review of a poet's new book with the broad-brush specter of his criticism; Who Do You Think You Are rears its reductive head again.

Michael Lista said...

And as far as I'm concerned, the bit about Carmine being a traditionalist can only be read in the context of the Post-Colonial Literary National-building of the 1960s; that's the only time Carmine pushes the imperative of tradition, in response to the work of Lee and Atwood and others to divorce ourselves from British and American poetics and create a Canadian Literature sui generis. People think he's telling us to all write like Sir Thomas Wyatt; all Carmine is saying is that we can still read him.

Zachariah Wells said...

Ah, but Michael, orthodox formalists tried to "fix" Wyatt's verse because it didn't scan right...

Razovsky said...

Hmm. All Zach seems to be pointing out here is that Paul is one book too late in making his observation about the seeming disconnect between Carmine's criticism and his own poetry.

Starnino has also praised the work of Alice Burdick, who also is certainly not a traditionalist. Now, he did this via a blurb on a book cover, and not, so far as I know, in an essay or review. But still.

I enjoyed Paul's review. It was a piece of journalism in a daily newspaper, and hence the convenient device of setting up a little dichotomy in the first few sentences. Seems to me like a fair point of view to take.

But the response on this blog, by two who presumably are fans of Starnino, is to eclipse Paul's effusive praise of Starnino's poetry by attacking Paul's comments on Starnino's criticism. Too bad, because, as Paul suggests, Starnino is far better known for this criticism than for his poetry.

Razovsky said...

Sorry, that should be "his criticism," not "this criticism," in my last sentence.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

I think what everyone is losing in the mix here is that it was a positive review. The tone was almost one of surprise, I don't think Vermeersch thought he'd like No Way Out as much as he did. And the wide brush paints both reviewer and poet equally, as his own reading biases based on Starnino's critical work are tested and eventually overcome by the quality of the poems. That's the reviews major narrative. Also, when we complain about simplification, we forget that it was a positive, 700 word review. To assign any more than 100 of those words to something that isn't in the text of the book is like robbing from the starved. You mention the critical history with as much efficiency as possible, and then you move on.

And Michael, due respect for sure, but if you're going to get on someone's case for using caricature, don't begin your counter-argument by using one yourself. "Pure strawman"? C'mon man. You weren't even working with a word limit....

Razovsky said...

Hey, Jake -

I *did* mention that it was a positive review!


Zachariah Wells said...

I haven't lost sight of anything. Given that I'm complaining about things being too black 'n' white, the "positivity" or "negativity" of the review is a non-issue, as far as I'm concerned. Too often, this is the sludge that criticism of criticism boils down to. I chose to criticise one aspect of this review because I thought it was wrong. The rest of it's fine.

Jacob, you're saying that Paul seemed surprised. I'm saying that there's no cause for surprise, that the book isn't at some sort of sharp angle to his criticism. Nor is it an unheralded departure from Carmine's past poetry collections, which don't get talked about at all in the review. Again, no cause for surprise. You say "You mention the critical history with as much efficiency as possible, and then you move on." But it's a choice to mention the critical history instead of the poetic history; it's not a neutral thing.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

"But it's a choice to mention the critical history instead of the poetic history;"

As a fan of both, I'd be disappointed to learn that Carmen saw those two things as such distinct pursuits. Surely his critical preferences should inform the choices he's been making as a poet. Otherwise, why would he prefer them?

With someone whose critical work is so iconic, it would be irresponsible to look at the book as something made beyond the world of its creator's many other literary concerns. That's my point. It's not a choice. It's journalism.

And Razovsky, I know you're not the REAL Razovsky, so I don't have to listen to you ;-)

Zachariah Wells said...

I never said Carmine sees them as distinct pursuits. I certainly didn't say I did. I said the opposite. Paul, on the other hand, seems to see a disjunction. I also never said he shouldn't have mentioned the criticism. I said he shouldn't have caricatured it if he was going to mention it. I said he chose to mention one thing and not mention another. That's a fact. Facts are kind of important in journalism.

Paul Vermeersch said...

I only had 600 words, guys. Chill.

Carmine's reputation as a poet verses his reputation as a critic was the subject of my review. Nothing more. Carmine himself once characterized his critical work as partisan. His publisher gladly refers to him as an attack dog. I didn't make any of this stuff up. I'm saying that Carmine's poetry should not be overshadowed by his stuffy, bad-boy critical reputation... which by the way is not entirely uncultivated. And I repeat...

I only had 600 words, guys. If I left something out, I'll put in the unauthorized biography I'm writing on spec. So chill.

Paul Vermeersch said...

And will someone fix my f'n typos!

Zachariah Wells said...

Yeah, and I think that choosing to focus on the reputation instead of on the actual work was a mistake. So, like, chill, eh, cause I gave myself way less than 600 words. And since no one else was privy to the exchange you and I had back-channel, I'll repeat what I said then: the "attack dog" appears in quotation marks on PQL's website. It appears in quotation marks because it's not what the publisher "gladly [calls] him"--but because it's what other people, who don't bother to engage seriously with his arguments, call him. You chose to give the stereotype more air time. Live with it. And chill. Peace. Love. Etc.

Paul Vermeersch said...

You call it a mistake. Fine. You're entitled to write your journalism your way. I call it an interesting angle, one that might get people talking about Carmine's book. Guess what?

Paul Vermeersch said...

And the publisher chose that quote for what reason exactly? Because they disagreed with it so much? Because there were protests not to use it? Or because it feeds into cultivating the reputation? I think the latter. No?

Zachariah Wells said...

You'd have to ask Tim, but I rather suspect it was in the hopes it might help sell a few books. That tends to be a publisher's motivation for writing things about their books.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Tomato/to-MAH-to... sell books / build a profile / make a name / cultivate a reputation... And still, Zach, the point you are either missing, or stubbornly refusing to see, is that, and I repeat, I'm saying that Carmine's poetry should not be overshadowed by his stuffy, bad-boy critical reputation... which whether you like it or not exists, and it exists for very clearly definable reasons, most of which have to do with things Carmine has written and said over the past 12 years that directly foster that reputation.

Chris Banks said...

Starnino has built up his profile over the last decade as a poet-critic by reviewing books of poetry and not through his editing or publishing of books of poetry. That is a matter of public record. From the same interview published in the New Quarterly, Carmine writes, “This is why reviewing is so attractive. It is very easy to build a profile writing reviews, you can do it in a number of years. It would take you a lifetime to build that profile as a poet”. That is very telling. Lucky for Carmine, he also writes some very good poems and I believe him when he says he began to write articles about various things because “that would force me to go and learn about them, and then to think carefully about them, and to read poetry really closely”.

If you are a poet, I think that is the only sensible reason for writing criticism. In order to better yourself as a poet.

However, there are those others who write reviews only for that larger public profile and I think this is where we still have some growing up to do as a country in terms of reviewing. Is the review “a shield of righteousness” to smite one’s enemies and to publicly laud one’s friends? Is so, then I can only think one’s poetry will suffer for it. Or is it a conversation with the work in question as Carmine suggests is the true role of criticism? I like to think the latter but you do not see many poet-critics in Canada writing tough fair-minded criticism of each other. Except for perhaps Paul here. I think it would be a sad day if we make the criticism of critics off-limits in a discussion of their poetry.

Zachariah Wells said...

Paul: The point YOU keep missing, the one I've been making ever since I typed the title of this post, is that, by focusing on the ugly big toe of Carmine's critical oeuvre, all you are doing is helping to perpetuate the stereotype. If you look at the whole body of that critical enterprise, what you see is someone earning--not cultivating--a reputation as probably the most articulate, insightful and independent-minded critic of poetry in this country. Possibly on this continent, as Bill Coyle has suggested. Oooh, but look at that ugly motherfuckin' toe!

Chris: Thanks for chipping in, and for quoting something a bit more context-aware from that panel discussion. But Paul isn't really criticising Carmine's criticism in his review. That would be welcome, and should by no means be off limits. However, all he's doing is dredging up the bogeyman of Carmine's reputation for one more flogging.

As for mutual criticism amongst the poet-critics, I'd like to point out that I reviewed Carmine's prose book for The Danforth Review--at Mike Bryson's insistence--and pointed out several of what appeared to me shortcomings, including what I saw as inflationary praise of people he knows very well.

Speaking of which, regular readers of this blog know I've been none too gentle with David Solway--who isn't half the critic that Carmine is because he actually is rigidly doctrinaire more often than not, and has of late extended this practise from poetry to politics, where his views might conceivably do real damage--on more than one occasion. (Just type his name in the search bar.)

But if there is indeed a general lack of mutual criticism, it's probably because people with similar outlooks and dispositions tend to gravitate towards each other. I can't really write a detached piece of criticism about Carmine, or Jason Guriel, or Mark Callanan or James Pollock or Amanda Jernigan because I'm either friends with them or I've done work for them or they've done work for me. In the case of my review of A Lover's Quarrel, like I said, Bryson insisted he wanted me to write it after I declined. In most instances, I think steering clear the wisest course. Which is kind of sad, because I'd like nothing more than to have my work evaluated by any one of those I've named, but I know it's not likely to happen.