Thursday, April 1, 2010

Soaked in a Heart of Sapphire, Delicate as an Origami Bird

Further to my last post, thanks to Alessandro for pointing out the judges' citations to the Lampert-shortlisted books. At its best the citation is a rather unfortunate genre of para-literary prose, consisting often of boilerplate (to the point that the same citations were actually recycled verbatim for different books in consecutive years (2003-4) for the Danuta Gleed award) and abstract purple gushes of hyperbole. Because of this, I was glad to see when Track & Trace was shortlisted for the Atlantic Poetry Prize that the anonymous jury remained silent, letting their choices speak for themselves.

It would seem, reading the six citations for the Lampert list, that rather than being group compositions, they are the product of three different jurors, each responsible for two books. The citations for James Langer and Robert Earl Stewart are solid, creditable pieces of prose, dealing with specific, concrete elements of the books and demonstrating reasonable adjectival restraint. There are a couple of "awk" moments in the Peerbaye and Hall citations, but nothing terribly awful.

A couple of the Lampert citations, however, transcend the mediocrity intrinsic to the genre, making the leap to incredibad. Here's what "the jury" had to say about Marcus McCann's Soft Where:

Soft Where by Marcus McCann is a hard-hitting cutting edge poetic expose of a world filled with experimentation and valour. This stunning book explores the possibilities of bringing image to life, written in the language of the people and soaked in a heart of sapphire. The jury was intoxicated by this book, and feels this young writer should be encouraged in every and all ways - to the full extent of poetic promise. The language in Soft Where is as stark and meaningful as the images which express a lifestyle hard-lived and yet as delicate as an origami bird.

This is a brilliant piece of anti-genius. It starts off alright, but goes downhill in a hurry when the writer uses two rather stale compound adjectives. Okay, so this is some kind of journalistic take on something? On what? On a world of corruption and depravity? Graft and buggery? Nope. Of "a world filled with experimentation and valour." Phew. Good thing there are hard-working young poets out there digging up all that experimentation and valour for us to see in the clear light of day. Next, we have the cliche of a "stunning book"--the effects are evident on the blurb-writer--exploring something. What's this remarkably motile tome spelunkin'? Why, "the possibilities of bringing image to life"; presumably, this means that, unlike Dr. Frankenstein, the book doesn't actually succeed in animating its monsters. Pity; because that's a book someone might want to read. Not only that, but, after negotiating a rather tortured bit of syntax, we learn that the book is "written in the language of the people." Which language of which people? It's in English, right? Probably not, because then we learn that the book--presumably, though subject-object relationships in this sentence are rather hard to parse--is "soaked in a heart of sapphire." Near as I can tell, this makes no sense in my native tongue, so the book must be written in some other lingo. The explanation for this obscurity probably lies in the next sentence, in which we learn that "the jury was intoxicated by this book." Must be some kind of funky glue in the binding; I refer you back to the earlier mention of the book's "stunning" properties. The next sentence suggests perhaps that McCann has not won the prize. The blurb writer insists that "this young writer should be encouraged in every and all ways." Sic. And sic. Should be, but hasn't been? I guess we'll have to wait and see. The concluding clause of this sentence is priceless, "to the full extent" conjuring up the legal phrase "prosecuted to the full extent of the law." Perhaps encouraging young writers "in every and all ways" is tantamount to a prison sentence--I mean, that's a lot of ways, eh. What "the jury" means by "poetic promise" is bemusingly vague--is this some kind of grand parnassian ideal, or is McCann's promise as a writer intended? The anti-genius of it is that it's impossible to say! The brilliance continues in the blurb's last sentence, in which we are told that the language of this book--we're still not sure which language, but no matter--is not only "stark and meaningful" (which, as a phrase, is neither), but that its starkness and meaningfulness are equal to "the images [those poor stillborn things who weren't quite brought to life, recall] which express a lifestyle." Whether these images are to be found in McCann's book is by no means clear. Nor is it clear to whom the lifestyle belongs, but we do learn that it is simultaneously "hard-lived and yet as delicate as an origami bird." So, not a life hard-lived, but a lifestyle, which manages to make the book sound profound and shallow--AT THE SAME TIME! How a lifestyle can be "delicate as an origami bird" is equally baffling--unless something like this is intended...

It's not nearly as egregious as the McCann citation, but the paragraph dealing with Marguerite Pigeon's Inventory is pretty awesome, too. Apparently, this intrepid little volume does a whole lot of exploring. I especially like the blurb's last two sentences:

The jury loved this book and would like to gesture a large congratulations to Marguerite. All the best in the future.

Never mind the pure oddity of this kind of address to the author in a text meant for an audience of everyone but the author. And never mind the "better luck next time" intimation. That's weird enough, but when I read "gesture a large congratulations," I had to wonder if the juror's mother tongue was something other than English, or if perhaps the blurb had been, in the name of poetic innovation, translated into Estonian using Babelfish and then returned to English. Because I don't know how a literate English speaker could come up with that phrase unassisted.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I have never joined the League of Canadian Poets. Tho I've been taking the piss--because these citations are so badly written as to be hilarious, when considered out of context--I think that allowing this crap to be published is incredibly disrespectful to the shortlisted authors and makes the prize itself look like a joke. Which it probably is, but it shouldn't be. It should be a mark of distinction, the recognition that all of the author's years of apprenticeship have been well spent.

But when a juror appears to use words at random, it isn't much of a leap to think that the books s/he chose to honour were picked just as haphazardly. Can a juror who writes this ineptly possibly be qualified to choose the best books? Probably not, but their dubious skills are clearly enough to be a published, accredited poet in Canada, good enough to be appointed a "peer" to bona fide poets like Langer and Stewart and Hall. In a Q&A session following a recent reading, Langer told an eager young writer that publishing is not a brass ring. Shit like this is proof-positive of his assertion.


Brian Campbell said...

Yes, stunning. And your commentary, I must say, is filled with, if not experimentation, valour (verve, vigour, vim to boot). Boileplate, boilerplate...ach du!

Wherever we find large numbers -- the league has 600+ members -- we find lots of mediocrity. Self-justification being the mania of poets these days, well, here is the self-congratulatory result. Thank goodness, though, that there are fine poets among them (a few, but are there ever more than a few?). Otherwise, I wouldn't be a member myself.

Razovsky said...

Just about everything about this award is stupid.

It's not as, um, hard-hitting and cutting-edge as they'd like to think.

Good analysis, Zach.

Alex said...

I live a lifestyle delicate as an origami bird.

I also have a pet tortoise with a jewel-encrusted shell.

Anonymous said...


Way to take a blowtorch to a housefly, boss.

Zachariah Wells said...

Heh. Against a league of housefliers?

Anonymous said...

I don't think I know very many league members, and I don't have much interest in joining myself.

Still, 1500 words on bad jury bumf? A misdeployment of your resources, methinks.


Zachariah Wells said...

You worry 'bout yoah reso'ces, J. Mosca Mooney, I'll worry 'bout mahn.

Anonymous said...

Yup, that was pretty bad. Does anyone vet this nonsense?