Friday, October 24, 2014

Lista on McKay

Michael Lista, in one of his strongest columns to-date for the National Post, has weighed in on Don McKay's doorstopper Collected Poems. He gets it mostly right, I think, but when he says that McKay has "spent a lifetime avoiding seeing the human in the natural world," he has done little more than repeat the press kit. As I argued in my long review essay of McKay's oeuvre-in-progress seven years ago (an updated version of which can be read in my recently published prose collection), this isn't really what happens in McKay poems. Rather, I'd rephrase Lista's statement thus: "Don McKay has spent a lifetime pretending to avoid seeing the human in the natural world." In actual fact, he does it all the time, especially if you compare him with that pre-eminent observer of the non-human world, John Clare--a birdwatching poet who comes up remarkably infrequently in prose by and about McKay. What appears to be a disjunction between McKay's poetics and his poems is actually evidence that McKay's poems tend to be more versified poetics than poems in their own right. Which is another reason, I think, he has been well-received by academic readers: not only do his poems tell you what you should be observing, as Lista points out, they also tell you what you should be thinking while you observe, and they tell you what you should be thinking about the poems themselves. They are therefore very easy to write about and to package in an interpretive argument.

I've just finished reading, as it happens, a book that is very useful in shedding light on the popularity of a poet versus that of his or her peers. In The Drunkard's Walk, mathematician Leonard Mlodinow helps to account for variations in subjective evaluations. He explains, for instance, why a $60 bottle of Bordeaux might be rated more highly by experts than a bargain-bin screwtop that beats the highbrow vintage in blind taste tests:

Expectations also affect your perception of taste. In 1963 three researchers secretly added a bit of red food colour to white wine to give it the blush of a rosé. They then asked a group of experts to rate its sweetness in comparison with the untinted wine. The experts perceived the fake rosé as sweeter than the white, according to their expectation. Another group of researchers gave a group of oenology students two wine samples. Both samples contained the same white wine, but to one was added a tasteless grape anthocyanin dye that made it appear to be red wine. The students also perceived differences between the red and the white according to their expectations. And in a 2008 study a group of volunteers asked to rate five wines rated a bottle labeled $90 higher than another bottle labeled $10, even though the sneaky researchers had filled both bottles with the same wine.
It isn't hard to translate these results into poetry world terms; it's no stretch to imagine showing a group of Canadian poetry lovers the latest "Don McKay" poem (actually written by someone else) and then to watch them finding six ways from Sunday to praise its virtuosity. Or, conversely, to imagine McKay sending his own new poems off to magazines under a pseudonym and getting most of them back with polite rejection notes. We don't have to imagine it, because similar sociological experiments have been performed. In a later section of his book, Mlodinow writes of an experiment with pop music:

The popularity of individual songs varied widely among the different worlds [the experiment involved dividing 14,341 participants into nine "worlds," each of which was given different popularity data for a selection of forty-eight songs by bands unknown to the participants; the ninth group received no popularity data at all], and different songs of similar intrinsic quality [as defined by the ninth world's rankings of the songs] also varied widely in their popularity. For example, a song called "Lockdown" by a band called 52metro ranked twenty-six out of forty-eight in intrinsic quality but was the number-1 song in one world and the number-40 song in another. In this experiment, as one song or another by chance got an early edge in downloads, its seeming popularity influenced the shoppers. It's a phenomenon that is well-known in the movie industry: moviegoers will report liking a movie more when they hear beforehand how good it is. In this example, small chance influences created a snowball effect and made a huge difference in the future of the song.

I see all kinds of evidence for this kind of social dynamics in the popularity of McKay. Just the other day, this idolatrous blog post came up on my Facebook feed. I sent the link in an email to a few critic colleagues under the subject heading "Sociology." One wrote back "That reads like the missive of someone who has found meaning through a cult." Which is hyperbolic, but the post certainly is evidence of how social capital accrues, compounds and ramifies in the rarefied atmosphere of the poetry business. In other words, a significant reason that people love Don McKay is that people love Don McKay. Humans, however much they may be aware of the arbitrariness of prestige and wealth, still defer to prestige and wealth, another point elaborated by Mlodinow:

I was watching late-night television recently when another star ... appeared for an interview. His name is Bill Gates. Though the interviewer is known for his sarcastic approach, toward Gates he seemed unusually deferential. Even the audience seemed to ogle Gates. The reason, of course, is that for thirteen years straight Gates was named the richest man in the world by Forbes magazine. In fact, since founding Microsoft, Gates has earned more than $100 a second. And so when he was asked about his vision for interactive television, everyone waited with great anticipation to hear what he had to say. But his answer was ordinary, no more creative, ingenious, or insightful than anything I've heard from a dozen other computer professionals. Which brings us to this question: does Gates earn $100 per second because he is godlike, or is he godlike because he earns $100 per second?

Mlodinow then goes on to show that the development of DOS and Gates' subsequent meteoric rise hinged on seemingly insignificant, chance events. Such random events, combined with charisma, explain why McKay is rated so much more highly than a host of contemporaries who are at least as good at writing poems as he is. Lista is bang-on that it's no "sinister plot or top-down conspiracy." It's far more banal than that.

1 comment:

Zachariah Wells said...

I had an exchange with Brian Bartlett on Facebook, which I wanted to import here for anyone who doesn't use the Facebook.

Brian: Zach, As you no doubt suspect, I'm guessing that 100 years from now--if there is still a human race, & poetry--as many Don McKay poems will still be read & valued as poems by any other living Canadian poet. Speaking for myself, I can say that a few poems of his inhabit my consciousness as only the most memorable poems do. Some of the grousing about his "popularity" caricatures & belittles his readers as if none of them can separate the poet from the person. Also, Lista writes as if in ignorance that the (inevitable) counter-revolution against McKay has been going on now for more than a decade, including in the prose of some of our most articulate critics.

Zach: Brian, I certainly do suspect that you and others hold such views. I also know that predicting future canonicity is a rather haphazard business and ever has been. Jarrell did it for Bishop, and it seems likely that he'll be proven correct, but far more people have said the poems of X, Y or Z will endure only to be proven fools by posterity. Look at any old Untermeyer antho. And just because it happens doesn't mean it's merited. Bliss Carman, who was a truly mediocre poet, still has work in print that is taught in Canadian Literature classes. The competition was a trifle weaker in his day, however. The sheer volume of McKay fans and acolytes will ensure that his work persists until at least they're gone. After that, it's anybody's guess. But what is most popular in any given time and place very rarely overlaps with what is most durable.

Here's the thing about popularity as a topic for critical consideration. Talking about masses and statistics does not actually belittle or caricature any individual reader. I have no doubt that there are individual readers who successfully separate the personality from the poems (or are blissfully ignorant of the personality) and have an unclouded appreciation of McKay's poems. What I'm saying is that the number and distribution of such people is not sufficient to make a McKay the revered figure that he is. Peter Van Toorn has such readers. Bruce Taylor has such readers. Robyn Sarah has such readers. Peter Trower. Travis Lane. But they don't have the pyramid of lesser readers below them that a McKay does. That mass of less-detached readers is what makes the difference between neglect and celebrity. It's the difference between having a 600+ page hardcover Collected selling like hotcakes while you're still alive and having your books go out of print.

The music study and the wine studies cited by Mlodinow are illustrative of very real sociological phenomena. They're phenomena that have benefited McKay enormously. It isn't insulting to his most ardent fans to point this out. And it's naive to think that you're immune to such influences, especially when you know the guy, which is not a factor in wine tasting errors or in preference for one song over another by bands you don't know. It's a major cognitive bias and the principle reason I avoid writing essays about friends' work.

Lista makes brief mention of the "minority reports" by people like myself, Shane Neilson, Carmine Starnino, Don Coles and Richard Greene. He doesn't ignore them, but he doesn't have space in a column to digress at any length on them. So it's inaccurate to say he writes "as if in ignorance." And I, personally, do not feel slighted because he didn't mention my 7,000 word skeptical take on the McKavian oeuvre. Richard clearly isn't miffed that his review of Apparatus wasn't mentioned explicitly. Michael's not trying to steal our thunder; he's adding his voice to a very slowly growing chorus of dissent.