Monday, June 29, 2009

There Is No Such Thing As "New Formalism" in Canada

I don't mean to keep picking on Paul Vermeersch, but if he keeps making erroneous statements, I have little choice. In a recent blog post, he opines:

[James] Langer is a poet clearly energized by the present-day Canadian renaissance
of New Formalism in lyric poetry (which is the hot topic in CanPo according to its champions ...and only 25 years behind the Americans who have long since moved on to more interesting discussions).

Where to start? First of all, saying that there is a "present-day ... renaissance of New Formalism" implies that the movement had some kind of prior life in Canada. It didn't. New Formalism as such is an exclusively American phenomenon. As the entry in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics opens: "A reaction, in late 20th-c. Am. poetry, against free verse and a return to metrical and fixed stanza forms." There were magazines, particularly The Formalist, and anthologies associated with the movement and there were poets who identified --and who continue to identify--with it explicitly. As the Encyclopedia entry makes clear: "This is not to say that poetry in traditional forms was not being written in America in the 1940s, '50s, '60s, and '70s." Of course it was, mostly by people little concerned with being part of a school or movement (the Encyclopedia cites Lowell, Hecht, Merrill and Berryman as prominent examples). The movement was, as movements tend to be, more an attempt to consolidate a share of lit-political power, than a reflection of the practice of poets.

In Canada, there has been a similar continuity in the writing of metrical poems, even while free verse has been, and continues to be, the predominant mode--and while anthologists have systematically ignored most of the strongest metrical verse being written here. Unlike the US, there has been nothing resembling a movement here to enshrine the practice. Small clusters perhaps, but no magazines, no manifestoes, no CW programs dedicated to it or biased towards it. There was an anthology, In Fine Form, a few years ago, but its editors, while clearly interested in the possibilities of traditional verse structures, can't seriously be considered as "formalists." Also, the anthology is historical and not contemporary, unlike Jarman and Mason's provocatively titled Rebel Angels.

So, if there's no movement, there are also no champions. Presumably alluded to by Paul is Carmine Starnino, since the former recently asserted that the latter is a promulgator of "formalist orthodoxy." So, if Langer is a product of the "New Formalism" "championed" by Carmine, he should be overjoyed about Langer's book, right? Oh, but wait. In the Globe and Mail review of Gun Dogs I linked to and discussed a little while ago, Carmine said that the arrival Langer's very good book is ill-timed because it slots too neatly in with a constellation of other books published in the years preceding it. So much for "fashionable" being favoured by the fashion's "champions."

Getting back to Langer's book, which I don't think should be seen as an avatar of the retarded New Formalism of Canada--whether or not you think that's a good thing: if you engage with the actual poems of the book, you'll have a hard time seeing much influence from Langer's contemporaries, who are supposedly "energizing" him. Frost is a touchstone of the book, but Langer's translation of the opening lines of the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Seafarer" shows that he has sent his taproot deep into a line of poetry beginning in the Middle Ages and moving into the present thru Wyatt, Coleridge, Clare, Hopkins, Hardy, Frost (of course), Hughes and Heaney. That's where the prosody is coming from, not from some ephemeral--which is not to say imaginary--present-day movement.

What we're seeing in Canada right now is more an exhaustion of the possibilities of loosely structured vers libre than a concentrated and deliberate reaction against it. Rhyme and metre have always been a part of poetry written in English and, as resources, they are no less relevant to the present moment than they ever were. The way these resources are employed differs considerably from their use in past ages; if it didn't, it truly would be retrograde. Very few of the poets who use metre and rhyme do so exclusively, making the designation of "formalist" even more dubious. I've appended an incomplete list of living Canadian poets who use metrical and stanzaic devices below. Very few of them do so near-exclusively. Daryl Hine and Wayne Clifford are exceptions. Hine, who sensibly rejects the label of "formalist," has been doing it, quite against the grain of fashion, since the '50s. Wayne Clifford's turn to "form" (one really has to put it in quotation marks because the notion that form pertains only to metrical poetry is ridiculous) came in the middle of his publishing silence, in the 1980s, when it really wasn't fashionable to be writing extended sonnet sequences.

As for the supposed fashionability of metre and rhyme, these days, I don't really see it, for all the interesting work being produced. As "Murray Citron" points out, as a response to Arc's ads for the Poem of the Year contest, in a recent letter to the editor:

There have now been 12 Poem of the Year contests, with three prizes each year. No rhyming poem has won first or second prize. In 2001, a partly rhymed poem took third prize. The rhymes were subdued, and may have escaped notice. Twenty-two poems have been printed with Honourable Mention. One, in 2005, rhymed violion, skin, and within. In 2001 there was a sestina [CLM: almost never a rhyming form]. There have been 78 Editor's Choices. Two, in 2004 and 2009, had rhymes. The rhymes were unconventional. As with the 2001 third prize winner, they may have slipped under the radar. That is 136 poems, four with rhymes, and a sestina. Who says rhyme doesn't pay?

If there's any impression of fashionability, it's because several editors not hostile to metre and rhyme are ensuring that the books get published, despite their continued unfashionability. Most notably, these editors are Starnino, Babstock, Clifford and Ormsby.


An incomplete list of living Canadian poets who use or have used metre and/or patterned rhyme with some regularity (please let me know who I've forgotten). I think the list shows that the common denominator of "formalism" is trivial at best.

George Amabile
Ken Babstock
Elizabeth Bachinsky
Mike Barnes
Brian Bartlett
Walid Bitar
J.D. Black
Christian Bok
Tim Bowling
Stephen Brockwell
Suzanne Buffam
Mark Callanan
Jason Camlot
Colin Carberry
George Elliott Clarke
Wayne Clifford
Don Coles
Pino Coluccio
Geoffrey Cook
Mary Dalton
Jeffery Donaldson
George Ellenbogen
Adam Getty
Catherine Graham
Richard Greene
Jason Guriel
Jen Hadfield
Steven Heighton
David Helwig
David Hickey
Daryl Hine
Michael Holmes
Nancy Holmes
Troy Jollimore
Sonnet L'Abbe
Anita Lahey
James Langer
Ross Leckie
Ian Letourneau
Michael Lista
David McFadden
David McGimpsey
Don McGrath
George McWhirter
Robert Moore
AF Moritz
George Murray
Shane Neilson
Barbara Nickel
Peter Norman
David O'Meara
Eric Ormsby
Catherine Owen
PK Page
Brian Palmu
Elise Partridge
Christopher Patton
Molly Peacock
Craig Poile
James Pollock
Alessandro Porco
Steven Price
Matt Rader
John Reibetanz
Peter Sanger
Richard Sanger
Robyn Sarah
Sandy Shreve
Goran Simic
Anne Simpson
Adam Sol
Karen Solie
David Solway
Carmine Starnino
Ricardo Sternberg
Shannon Stewart
Todd Swift
Brenda Tate
Bruce Taylor
Harry Thurston
Joshua Trotter
Peter Trower
Peter Van Toorn
Patrick Warner
George Whipple
Alan R. Wilson
Carleton Wilson
Christopher Wiseman
David Zieroth

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dinah won't you blow

The railroad gods continue to smile on me, as once again I've been called to work a trip to Montreal. And I'll be training a student "Learning Coordinator"--junior to me in service, but senior where it counts, due to my transfers--to take trips away from me. O cruel irony! Oh well, it'll be a pretty sweet, easy ride letting him do all my work.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In Which I Am Posed 20 Questions...

...and manage, in the course of answering them, to pull my tongue out of my cheek once or twice.


I just found out that my poem "Operation Surname" from Unsettled is being taught in a pretty cool-looking history course at Western. Neat. "Operation Surname" is a pretty atypical poem in Unsettled, more gnomic and based on historical events than the lyrical/narrative firsthand experience poems that predominate.

Have you seen...

...the new CNQ site yet?

Friday, June 19, 2009


Well, despite being laid off with no immediate prospect of recall, I've got another railroad assignment tomorrow. If I keep getting one a week, and the government actually reforms EI, I might just make it thru to next year without having to take grossly underpaid temp work. O, my ambition is endless!

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.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Guest Poem

George Meredith

What say you, critic, now you have become
An author and maternal?--in this trap
(To quote you) of poor hollow folk who rap
On instruments as like as drum to drum.
You snarled tut-tut for welcome to tum-tum,
So like the nose fly-teased in its noon's nap.
You scratched an insect-slaughtering thunder-clap
With that between the fingers and the thumb.
It seemeth mad to quit the Olympian couch,
Which bade our public gobble or reject.
O spectacle of Peter, shrewdly pecked,
Piper, by his own pepper from his pouch!
What of the sneer, the jeer, the voice austere,
You dealt?--the voice austere, the jeer, the sneer.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sucker Punned

1. The roundest knight at King A rthur's round table was -- -- Sir Cumference. He acquired his size from too much pi.

2. I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island -- -- but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.

3. She was only a whisky maker -- -- but he loved her still.

4. A rubber band pistol was confiscated from algebra class -- -- because it was a weapon of math disruption. ;

5. The butcher backed into the meat grinder -- -- and got a little behind in his work.

6. No matter how much you push the envelope, -- -- it'll still be stationery.

7. A dog gave birth to puppies near the road -- -- and was cited for littering.

8. A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France -- -- would result in Linoleum Blownapart.

9. Two silk worms had a race -- -- they ended up in a tie.

10. Time flies like an arrow -- -- fruit flies like a banana.

11. A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall -- -- the police are looking into it.

12. Atheism --- is a non-prophet organisation.

13. Two hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway -- -- One hat said to the other, 'You stay here, I'll go on a head.'

14. I wondered why the baseball kept getting bigger -- -- then, it hit me

15. A sign on the lawn at a drug rehab centre said -- -- ‘Keep off the Grass.'

16. A small boy swallowed some coins and was taken to a hospital -- -- his grandmother telephoned to ask how he was, a nurse said, 'No change yet.'

17. A chicken crossing the road -- -- is poultry in motion.

18. The short fortune-teller who escaped from prison -- -- was a small medium at large.

19. The man who survived mustard gas and pepper spray -- -- is now a seasoned veteran.

20. A backward poet -- -- writes inverse.

21. In democracy, it's your vote that counts. -- -- in feudalism, it's your count that votes..

22. When cannibals ate a missionary -- -- they got a taste of religion..

23. Don't join dangerous cults -- -- practice safe sects!

This Way Out

Unencumbered by bothersome word counts and two-dimensional prejudices, Brian Palmu reviews Carmine Starnino's new book, poem by poem.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tramping thru the Trilliums

Big congrats to Pasha Malla and Jeramy Dodds on winning Trillium prizes. Always nice to see good people and good writers, moreover, doing well in these lotteries. Pasha says that the pot, to a poor fellah like him, feels like a fortune, but I'm always struck by how little money is involved, compared with, say, CC grants. A writer with a couple of books under the belt can take home two $20K grants in four years--and stands a much better chance of winning the grants than a prize. Even the Griffin seems not so ritzy--one wonders just how much gets spent on all the hoopla surrounding that one-- when put in this perspective.

Speaking of Jeramy Dodds, after some Canada Post misadventures I've finally got my copy of Riddle Fence #3, which features a snappy Norse translation by Mr. Dodds. Mark Callanan and co. have done a very nice job with RF. I can't think of many mags with as much interesting content as this little east coast upstart. Besides Jeramy's translation and two poems by yours truly, #3 features a couple of poems each by Starnino, Guriel (if you haven't read his new book, Pure Product, you really should; it's delightful) and Babstock, an excellent trio by James Langer and very good reviews by Patrick Warner and James Pollock. There's some fiction and non-fiction, too, which I've not yet got to.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I'll be working...

...on the railroad!

Yes, that's right. Just as I was getting ready to blow the dust off my sad-ass c.v. to look for 10 buck an hour temp work, I got a call to work a trip to Montreal. I'm still not recalled from layoff, but if this happens with some regularity, I won't have to look for something else. Here's hoping. Choo. Choo.

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.


For all you addicts out there jonesing for your next fix of Wellsian verse, you can get hooked up in the new issue of Event, in which appears my anaphoric litany in falling rhyme, "Ego Sum." That should help keep my creditors at bay.

Speaking of which, my unemployment benefits seem to have expired, so Monday I'll be sending out resumes to temp agencies, oh joy. I'm not averse to doing a bit of freelance editing, if anyone feels like hiring me.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why Do People Hate James Wood?

Steven Beattie weighs in with a post about a post about people loving and hating poetry.

For the record, I agree with Wood that poetry doesn't need to justify itself in the terms of another discourse, be it evolutionary psychology's or neuro-aesthetics'. I'm just saying that the leading figures speaking those discourses aren't saying what Wood says they're saying. I'm saying that everything's connected and poetry isn't some special thing that floats above the world on a magenta cloud.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

More Love for Sonneto Canadensis

Reviews for Jailbreaks have been coming in fast 'n' furious. I got an email the other day from a hotel manager in Kingston telling me that Jailbreaks had inspired him to write his own sonnets. And this morning, this enthusiastic piece penned by Micheline Maylor for Freefall Magazine came across my desk. Please, do as she says, if you haven't already! Last I talked to Dan at Biblioasis, sales were somewhat lower than hoped; because of all the contributor fees that had to be paid, it's harder to break even on this sort of book than on an individual poet's collection. Obviously no one's in this racket for the money, but I hate to see my publisher in the red for a book of such obvious appeal!

More Ritz

Big congrats to Al Moritz on winning the poetry jackpot (aka, the Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry). I'm reading with Al in Toronto in November. Maybe he'll buy me a beer...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


A Polish man wanders the airport.
He has no English.
His mother's been sent home.

A Polish man wanders the airport.
He has no polish.
He is iron, not chrome.

A Polish man wanders the airport.
He has anguish.
He wants to go home.

A Polish man wanders the airport.
He is finished.
His ductile bones chant Ohm, Ohm, Ohm.

More bright ideas from the neo-liberal goons calling themselves Conservatives

Sounds like, surprise-surprise, Harper would like to privatize the CBC and Via Rail. If it happens, I'll be permanently out of a job, as there's no way a for-profit private company would continue running year-round trans-continental rail service. Which would be a Bad Thing for the country, never mind me and my colleagues. I hope this isn't something they can do ex-Parliament.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Gay Scientists Isolate Christian Gene

I don't know that this is quite what Nietzsche had in mind, but it's about time!


There's an incisively critical review of the Rocksalt anthology up at The Danforth Review (which, sadly, will be closing shop indefinitely). The review's by Catherine Owen and is written from the perspective of someone arbitrarily excluded from the book because she'd moved to Alberta from her home province of BC a couple of years previously. She mentions me as a contributor who benefitted from the eligibility criteria, since I'd moved to BC shortly after she'd moved away. The argument is, and I think it's totally legitimate, that she has more business being in the book than I do. She does go on to say that my poem is one of the strongest in the anthology, and I'm one of the 33 contributors--by her count--whose poem is squarely located in a specific BC locale. Catherine thinks this is how the book should be oriented, but I'm not so sure. Tilting an anthology towards site-specific poems usually results in a) a lot of second-rate poems being included because they're thematically appropriate (tho, as she points out, insisting on new, unpublished poems is at least as likely to dilute the brew) and b) an overall picture of the culture of a place that is misleadingly provincial because it excludes poets who don't give a hoot about birds, bears, mountains or forests.

Speaking from the anthologist's side of the fence, I sympathise with the editors because some kind of arbitrary criteria simply have to imposed if you're going to make your job a manageable one. Figuring out what those criteria are--and how flexible you're going to be about them--is a crucial task, on which the aesthetic success or failure of the anthology depends. My anthology had one very obvious pre-set limit: each poem had to be a sonnet. This is trickier than it might seem at a glance, since the sonnet in the 21st century is not necessarily a 14-line poem in a set rhyme scheme (nor has it been in past centuries, but the exceptions to the rule are far more normal now than when Milton was caudating or Hopkins was curtailing). A second limit I set myself was that all the poems had to have been published in book form--essentially the opposite of the Rocksalt rule. Rhenisch and Fertig didn't want to deal with permissions, I didn't want to deal with an open call; in retrospect, sifting thru a pile of submissions would have been much easier than the countless hours I spent spelunking in the Special Collections at the Killam Library, but I highly doubt I'd have received many, if any, poems to supercede those I'd found in my digs. So the work would have been easier, but the yield much lower; I think Catherine's right to criticize the Rocksalt editors on that score.

I did exercise my judgment in making a few exceptions to the book-published rule, pace the criticism of Sarah Neville that I ignored literary journals; for example, I included Catherine Owen's collaboration with Joe Rosenblatt, which I first encountered in an issue of Prairie Fire, before they had secured a deal for the book in which it now appears. As far as nationality goes, a number of the poets in the book are ambiguously--or perhaps amphibiously--Canadian. My rule on this was to err on the side of inclusiveness, which Owen is--correctly, I think--arguing Rhenisch and Fertig should have. As readers of Jailbreaks are aware, I was frustrated by the close-minded refusal of Elizabeth Bishop's publisher to let me consider her as a Canadian poet.

It's hard to imagine editors of a PEI anthology excluding me or, say, Steve McOrmond or David Hickey on the basis of present-day non-residence; this would be no more reasonable than excluding Richard Lemm for being born in the US or John Smith, PEI's former laureate, because he's from Ontario. I think maybe British Columbians take it more for granted that if someone has defected from their most sublime of provinces, it's because they don't want to be there--instead of because it's a prohibitively expensive place to live, especially if you prefer the sort of lifestyle most writers do.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Goin' Fishing

It's so funny when publishers pull "praise" from less than praiseful reviews. For example this, which says nothing about the book in question, and which you'd never know came from this. It's one thing to quote disingenuously, but couldn't they at least do it right? "... one of the most gifted poets in the country" perhaps?