Wednesday, October 17, 2007

GG Poetry Shortlist Grumblings

When I got home yesterday, I heard about the Governor General's poetry list. As usual, it's pretty damn disappointing.

First, there's the presence on the list of Margaret Atwood's The Door. A friend of mine wrote me a one-line email complaining about Atwood and Dennis Lee being on the list, because it's not as if they need the attention. True enough, but this isn't why they shouldn't be on the list. Atwood's is one of the worst poetry collections I've read in recent memory; it's extremely dull, badly edited and self-indulgent. It's nowhere near as good as the early collections that made her name as a poet (not that I'm wildly enthusiastic about that work, but I recognize its merits). That hasn't stopped reviewers like Jay Parini and Molly Peacock from fawning all over it (note that both reviews use the same cliched phrase for their headlines...). Why? Because, to borrow and modify slightly a refrain from an Al Purdy poem, she's Margaret Atwood. I happen to know that a negative review of The Door was quashed by Globe & Mail books editor Martin Levin. Why? Well, you know. It was replaced with this (read it quick before the Globe makes you pay for the privilege!). The phrase "sometimes too predictably" stands out in this sticky paean to Atwood's Atwoodiness. It stands out because Peacock makes no effort to pursue this thread (Why? Guess.), because it's pretty much the only thing resembling a cavil, and because it's a huge understatement. How huge? Atwood huge.

Dennis Lee's book is much more deserving, but it's still problematic. Basically, Yesno is half a book, since it starts at section VI, where its predecessor, Un, ended on section V. Should half a book be nominated for a major (even more major now the purse has been increased from $15K to $25K, finally making the award worth more than a mid-career writing grant...) award? I don't think so, but I'm sure this is good news to all those who hued and cried when Un was passed over for the GG, Trillium and Griffin. But even if it should, I don't think it's a good pick. I reviewed the book fairly warmly, but I've been questioning that assessment for a while now, nudged along by a couple of extremely incisive critiques of the book by James Pollock (forthcoming in the next issue of CNQ) and Jason Guriel (in the most recent number of Books in Canada). Actually, I think most of my review's fine, but I don't stand by its final paragraph and would re-write it if I were publishing the review tomorrow. The Un/Yesno combo is ultimately, I think, an ambitious and interesting failure as poetry--it should be commended, but not too highly.

The other three nominees I haven't read. Don Domanski's someone I hear a lot of good things about and I've been meaning to find out if they're merited for some time. There's a very short poem of his that I quite like in an anthology we're both in. But then hearing that his book is "a personal, spiritual meditation" doesn't exactly make me eager to dig in. That's two bad poetry adjectives and one bad poetry noun in one summary sentence. And this "Ars Poetica" is pretty darned awful; reads like Don McKay on lithium. This is Domanski's third nomination for the GG, so while he's not as high profile as Atwood and Lee, he's far from a dangerous or surprising pick.

Next up are the darkhorses. Brian Henderson's been around for a while, but I know very little of his work. Nerve Language has an interesting-sounding subject, but subject matter's secondary in poetry and the publisher's blurb--written by Henderson?--, these stellar highlights of his past work, and the samples on his site from the book don't augur well. There's also a big fat conflict-of-interest footnote on Henderson. He's the director of Wilfrid Laurier UP, which recently published a selection of poems by Christopher Dewdney, one of this year's jurors. Hm.

Finally, there's the requisite first book, rounding out this predictable, pedestrian and patronage-tainted list. Last year, Liz Bachinsky's Home of Sudden Service filled the first-book roster spot (technically, it was her second book, but it came out in the same year as her Curio, so which was first is an academic question); a pretty damn solid pick. This year it's another Nightwood Editions title, Muybridge's Horse, by Rob Winger. I haven't read it, but I did peruse it at some length a couple months back and decided I didn't want to read it. An ambitious book-length sequence, but the bits I read were pretty prosy; my impression was that it's part of that CanPo subgenre, the Doggedly Pursued Poetry Project.

Admittedly, I don't have particularly valid objections to the last three inclusions, since I haven't, unlike the jury, taken the trouble to read all of them. But my disappointments are more for what's not on this list than what is on it:

1) Time's Covenant by Eric Ormsby. Ormsby's not my favourite poet, and I'm not as high on his work as others are, but he is an internationally renowned poet of enormous virtuosity and this book gathers most of his career-to-date--which, if his previous collection Daybreak at the Straits is any indication, is far from declining-- in one volume. He has not been as successful a figure in Canadian poetry as Atwood, Lee or even Domanski, but this has more to do with the vagaries and vicissitudes of tastemaking and po-world politics (it helps none that Ormsby's an American expat now resident in England) than with his ability.

2) Recollected Poems 1951-2004 by Daryl Hine. Again, this is a retrospective selection of the best work of a very significant poet. Hine, another virtuoso verse master, is in the opposite quandary to Ormsby, being a Canadian-born lad who left for the States. He has a significant reputation abroad, but is mostly ignored in his home country.

3) Red Ledger by Mary Dalton. As I said in my review of it, this book's a bit uneven, but Dalton at her best is as good as anyone, and RL contains a lot of Dalton at her best. It would appear, too, that Dalton's regional verse travels very well. See this review by American poet and critic Stephen Burt.

4) Domain by Barbara Nickel. This is a book I was sorely disappointed to see passed over, one of the best single collections I've read lately. Coming ten years after her last collection, it shows every sign of having been carefully put together, with no sacrifice of emotional intensity in the bargain.

5) The Rush to Here by George Murray. Okay, so George is a friend of mine, so I can't be objective, but I think this is probably his best book and it's an exceptionally tight sequence of formally innovative poems.

A good darkhorse candidate would have been K.I. Press's Types of Canadian Women, Vol. II, which I found wickedly witty and sharp. There's a case to be made, too, for Fraser Sutherland's The Matuschka Case--tho not as strong a case as for the other retrospective selections above. Kenneth Sherman's Black River was also a strong book.

A couple of first books that could've held their own on this year's list are In the Lights of a Midnight Plow by David Hickey (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I know Dave and that I had a hand in finding a publisher for his book) and the formally dazzling Ox by Christopher Patton. (And then there's Rachel's Hannus, already shortlisted for a BC Book Prize, but for some reason her publisher submitted it in the Non-Fiction category of the GGs. The jurors in that category must've scratched their heads when they came to it.) Nick Thran's Every Inadequate Name and JD Black's Black Velvet Elvis wouldn't have been bad either.

Now, obviously it's highly unlikely that any shortlist is going to match my ideal lineup--and I've read only a fraction of the 136 (groan) titles submitted--but a list that contains none of the above books, while allowing a total dud like The Door in the, um, door, is appalling. That neither Ormsby nor Hine made the cut is, frankly, fucking ridiculous. But then, so's a jury composed of Christian Bok, Christoper Dewdney and Lillian Allen. So are most of the Canada Council's procedures. You'd think, given a jury like that, there'd be some real surprise picks, but it seems the CC jury system itself is designed to prevent the possibility of individual taste becoming manifest in the shortlist. So yeah, disappointing and irritating, but no big surprise.

1 comment:

Brian Campbell said...

Thanks for pointing out all these interesting poets, on my home turf. You're doing a great service here.