Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Ongoing Education of Erin Mouré

I went to a reading by Erin Moure last night. It was a most illuminating evening. I've met Erin a couple of times now and I like her quite a bit; she's an engaging person, very smart, very funny. (And if nothing else, we can commiserate about working for Via Rail.) I can't say I'm much into her writing, but this is the second time I've seen her read and I appreciate her work much more when I hear her speak it than when I meet it on the page. But I also have to say that I find her extemporisings much more interesting than her poems, which I've found to be the case with quite a few writers whose work is heavily theory-inflected.

A few things that came up in her remarks and in a Q&A session after the reading struck me. For all her braininess, and considering that she's in her fifties and has spent most of her adult life working as a poet, she displays remarkable ignorance, or at least highly selective awareness, of prosodic technique and poetic heritage.

She read some poems from a forthcoming book that are inspired largely by her recent trawls through medieval Portuguese troubadour verse. In her preamble she said that these poets had a sense of the "lyric I" as a construct. I turned immediately to my friend and asked her, "Who the hell doesn't?" One runs into this sort of ignorant, self-congratulatory condescension amongst members of the avant-garde intelligentsia shockingly often. Who are these poor benighted sods who think the person speaking in their poem is actually them? Erin said later that there was something very postmodern about the troubadours, as if ironic subjectivity was a postmodern invention and any rogue evidence of it prior to 1979 was some kind of prefiguration of the Messiah's arrival. I kind of know what she's talking about, poets who write earnest, poorly examined poems in the first person. Only problem is, these are BAD POETS. As such, they should not be seen as representative, no matter how many of them are crawling about; they're easy strawmen to demolish, if you're looking for something to make your own search procedures look better and smarter.

She also talked about the conventional formulae of subject matter and the tight formal constraints employed by the troubadours, and how most of the poems consequently sounded the same. But then there were the "Masters" who, against all odds, managed to impart some kind of individual eccentricity to their verses, often by bending or breaking the rules. This is interesting to me, but not suprising. Erin, however, was talking about it as though it was some sort of stunning revelation. But really, it's metrics 101. Any decent introductory text on prosody will tell you this sort of thing; that metre, for instance, is not something that should be slavishly followed because it becomes monotonous; that poets' (again, real poets, not hack versifiers) pentameters are as individual as their faces and fingerprints. And you don't have to look back into the gloom of the Middle Ages to find this stuff. It's going on all around us. The challenge of making a French troubadour form like a triolet, for example, sound like something other than a mechanical exercise continues to stimulate efforts from good poets. Christopher Patton talks about this at the beginning of this review of In Fine Form. The triolet he analyses is Elise Partridge's. She lives here in Vancouver and published her book with a press in Montreal, where Erin lives, and has a new book coming out with Anansi, Erin's publisher. Not hard stuff to find. If you're looking, that is, and not just buffing your own prejudices to a bright burnished glow to better sell them as wisdom.

Erin also talked about a bunch of Spanish sonnets she'd read and how struck she was by the individuality that could be achieved within the form. Now the sonnet is a particular favourite form of mine, precisely because of its combination of compactness and expansive flexibility. I'm editing an anthology of sonnets right now, and the variety of experiments with the form just within Canada is quite amazing. These innovatory explorations are very much in keeping with the history of the form, as, in the course of its heterogeneous seven-century existence, it has travelled across borders and into different languages; as it's been curtailed and caudated, compressed and widened. So when Erin said this, I piped up and said, "Yeah, it's a very plastic form." Her response to this was what a pity it was that some people insisted on blowing the trumpets of poetic conservatism, insisting on traditional forms, when their own work was actually often quite innovative. More than one person in the audience saw this as a direct dig at me. If it wasn't directed at me, I'm not sure who exactly it could have been directed against. Maybe David Solway, whose more intemperate statements sometimes resemble the sort of caricature Erin was drawing. But this seemed to me another strategically set-up, anonymous strawman. For the record, here's what I said about this debate almost three years ago. Maybe she was referring more to my review of her last book... At any rate, I've never insisted on formal orthodoxy in poetry. I do believe that it's stupid--and politically fatuous--for anyone to limit themselves by dismissing traditional methods entirely. And Erin did say that prior to reading these Spanish sonnets, she'd tended to "dismiss" the form. A bit disingenuous to blame the rhetoric of imaginary critics for her own close-mindedness. But to her credit, she is at least open-minded enough to be filling in some of the significant gaps in her poetic education now, which can't be said of very many new-school poets.

One of the great ironies of the evening came up in the Q&A (which was stiltedly confined to questions that had been submitted to Erin prior to the event), when she talked about her concepts of "signal" and "noise." A signal is the voice of authority (political leaders, corporate CEOs, mass media, etc.), whereas noise is the hubbub of the rabble (us citizens, in short). I wonder to what extent Erin is aware of her status as signal--at least within the context of poetry and academics. Postmodernism, as delineated by J-F Lyotard, is iconoclastic, characterised by skepticism vis-a-vis the "grand narratives." Humans are funny critters, in that they don't seem to be able to do without such narratives, at least not for long. The story that I think a lot of postmodern artists of Erin's generation are telling themselves--and the world, insofar as it's listening--is that they have broken the false idols. This tearing down of big stories thus becomes a Big Story in its own right, much along the lines--albeit more modest in scale, a "little theatre" of war--of Zeus's defeat of Cronus in the Titanomachy, or Luther nailing his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. I get the impression that Erin still thinks of herself--or at least wants to think of herself--as a subversive noisemaker (a feminist and a lesbian "reinventing" poetic modes of saying) when for a long time, and to an increasing degree, she has become a signal-sender (a multiple-award-winning poet--including 5 GG nominations and 2 for the Griffin--to whom a lot of people look for artistic and political answers, or at least roadmaps): she has crossed the Rubicon, taken the passage from iconoclast to icon. (There are even myths surrounding her: in her introduction, Pauline Butling stated that Erin has won the GG three times, when she has in fact only won it once.) She was very much The Voice last night, whereas I and perhaps a couple of other less than worshipful attendees, supposedly advocates of the Conservative Signal, were noise--and less than welcome noise at that, as her shoutdown of my rather modest comment testifies. Ah those perning gyres...

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