Saturday, May 31, 2008

Delusions, Fallacies, Misrepresentations

I read this review of David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion (an obvious potshot at Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion) today. I haven't read the book, so can't say how well this review represents it--when it actually talks about the book, which isn't often--but reviewer John Gray is himself guilty of so many fallacies and misrepresentations, I scarcely know where to start. Well, I guess the first paragraph's a good place.

In the 18th century, the philosophers of the French Enlightenment argued that science is the voice of reason while religion is little more than blind faith.
A)This is a simplistic reduction of a rather varied and sophisticated set of objections to religion. B)Such objections are hardly limited to 18th C France. Calling something "French" is a rather crude backhanded way of dismissing it out of hand. Maybe this wasn't Gray's intention, but it seems rather too pointed to be accidental.

Doubt has been an integral part of religion at least since the Book of Job, while science has often gone with credulity. The doctrines of dialectical materialism and "scientific racism" promoted by communists and Nazis, respectively, during the 20th century were as irrational as anything in the history of religion. Yet in the 20th century, millions of people embraced these pernicious ideologies as scientific truth.
In the narratives of religion (Job, Augustine, Donne, etc.), doubt is invariably defeated. In science pursued as science is supposed to be pursued, on the other hand, scepticism is foundational. In the Wikipedia article on the scientific method, this is addressed directly:

Belief can alter observations; those with a particular belief will often see things as reinforcing their belief, even if they do not. Needham's Science and Civilization in China uses the 'flying horse' image as an example of observation: in it, a horse's legs are depicted as splayed, when the stop-action picture by Eadweard Muybridge shows otherwise. Note that at the moment that no hoof is touching the ground, the horse's legs are gathered together and are not splayed.

Earlier paintings depict the incorrect flying horse observation. This demonstrates Ludwik Fleck's caution that people observe what they expect to observe, until shown otherwise; our beliefs will affect our observations (and therefore our subsequent actions). The purpose of the scientific method is to test a hypothesis, a belief about how things are, via repeatable experimental observations which can contradict the hypothesis so as to fight this observer bias.
That the pseudo-scientific hypotheses and policies of totalitarian regimes are "irrational" is therefore no discredit to the scientific method, but to charlatans pretending to practice science (and probably convinced by their own faith that they were doing legitimate science). That "millions of people" embraced these forgeries has far more to do with the credulity of the ignorant--millions of people also believe that Jesus Christ not only died for our sins, but was brought back to life and will return to earth again. People are irrational. Science isn't. People tend to believe what they want to believe; scientists, on good days, believe what hasn't been disproven. Science deals with falsifiable hypotheses; religion with unverifiable and unfalsifiable ones. Which is why many scientists will say that faith in God "isn't even wrong."

Writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have popularized the Enlightenment view that a reductive type of materialism is the only picture of the world compatible with the results of scientific inquiry. Promoting Darwinism as an intellectual orthodoxy - a creed rather than a provisional hypothesis - these writers renew the old quarrel between science and religion. Though controversy has been intense, it can hardly be described as having made any large intellectual advance on the debate that raged in Victorian times.

Anyone who claims that Dawkins, especially, promotes "a reductive type of materialism" should read his book The Ancestor's Tale, if they haven't already. There is nothing reductive in Dawkins' worldview; there is, arguably, a great deal more room for wonder, doubt and awe than in any religious writer's work. "Darwinism"--by which I assume Gray means the theory of natural selection, as there are facets of Darwin's work that no latter day evolutionary scientists accept (because they've been proven incorrect!)--is no "creed," nor indeed is it any longer a "provisional hypothesis" because natural selection has yet to be broadly proven incorrect. If there's been little "advance on the debate that raged in Victorian times," it's precisely because the loudest religious opponents of natural selection's explanatory powers refuse to recognise an increasingly large amount of evidence supporting the detested theory. One of the parties in the debate has stood still. Guess which?

There is actually very little that is new in the so-called new atheism, whose claim to be based on science is as dubious today as it has ever been.
Well, to the best of my knowledge, the label "new atheism" has been applied by others, not by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or Harris. And even if it has been, they're not interested in novelty--I fail to understand how not being new is a damning critique--evidence of which is to be found in Hitchens' anthology The Portable Atheist.

Berlinski - a mathematician and well-known critic of evolutionary theory, though not a proponent of "intelligent design" - has two targets in his sights: the conventional belief that religious thought is intrinsically superstitious and the materialist philosophy that Dawkins and his fellow "brights" - as members of the atheist community fondly describe themselves - mistakenly identify with science.
A)There's no such thing as "the atheist community." B)I've never known an atheist who uses Dawkins' rather embarrassing term to describe him or herself. Dawkins suggested it as an alternative to the negatively-defined term atheism--which suggests not believing in something, rather than believing something for good reason--but I don't think the self-congratulatory and condescending label has caught on. C)The identification of a materialist philosophy with science is not "mistaken," but very well established.

The first of these targets is dispatched with in a barrage of devastating arguments. Berlinski quotes Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg as declaring "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." Berlinski comments on this, forcefully and unanswerably: "Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons? If memory serves, not the Vatican."

A)Weinberg was almost right. Replace "religion" with "the conviction of moral rectitude" and the statement's bang-on. Religion is just one very common cause of this error. McCarthyism was another. Marxist-Leninism and Nazism are other examples. B)Berlinski's comment is hardly "unanswerable"; for one thing, he does not establish that these terrible inventions are the products of good people. For another, weapons, defences and murder (mass or otherwise) have existed since humans started walking upright. That those weapons have become more technologically sophisticated over the last century says nothing about science's capacity for evil, but rather about humans' capacity to use scientific knowledge for (arguably) malign purposes. Again, the term "pseudo-scientific" makes it quite clear that real science has not been, and cannot be, used to justify genocide. And, "if memory serves," the Vatican signed a treaty with Hitler.

Nothing infuriates atheists more than the observation that people who scorned traditional religion in all its varieties were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the last century.

If it's true that this is infuriating, it's because it stupidly elides the point that is embedded in the phrase "traditional religion": viz., that totalitarian leaders have made cults of themselves and appropriated the trappings of traditional religions in order to form new ones, complete with iconography, worship, catechism, dogma and immortality.

Atheism was - according to the founders of the Soviet state, and in fact - always an integral part of the communist project. Despite the vehement denials of Dawkins and Hitchens, terror in communist Russia - and Mao's China - was also meant to bring about a utopian society in which religion would no longer exist.

Atheism was definitely a central tenet of Marx's philosophy. However, a state that preserves a dead body in a glass case so that people might come and pay homage to it cannot honestly claim to be atheistic. Nor can a state in which the leader is said not to produce human waste. The desire of totalitarian regimes to control and eradicate religion stems from the political competition provided by churches. (This is why Constantine first converted to Christianity, after all, a religion which, at the time, was widely regarded as atheistic for its repudiation of all other gods.) It's impossible to have total control over society when institutions independent of the government, with large popular followings, exist.

Berlinski is right to focus on the fact that 20th-century atheist states were as complicit in crimes against humanity as any religion has been in the past. He weakens his case when he argues that "The twentieth century was not an age of faith, and it was awful." Quite to the contrary, the 20th century was an age of faith - the secular faith in Utopia that produced the atrocities Berlinski rightly condemns.

Here, some scientific data would be very useful. Even with all its atrocities, the 20th C was far from the bloodiest epoch in human civilization, as Steven Pinker, another godless heathen, has pointed out repeatedly.

Lenin's Bolsheviks were not a bunch of skeptics. They were fanatical believers in a vision of a future world, more fantastic than any religious myth, which they claimed was based on science.

Exactly, they weren't skeptics, they were fanatics. Is Gray trying to make the opposition's argument for it? As for the dictatorship of the proletariat being "more fantastic than any religious myth"--wishful thinking, yes, but hardly on a par with the universe being created out of nothing and human beings from clay--to say nothing of the entire world being inundated. Again "claimed was based on science" means that it wasn't actually based on science, but on pseudo-science (which by another name one might call doctrine).

The same is true of the Nazis, who in claiming that race was a scientific category, opened the way to history's supreme crime. The atrocities perpetrated by atheist regimes during the 20th century did not come from believing in nothing. They are testimonies to the destructive ferocity of faith when it is detached from traditional religions and invested in pseudo-science.

That would be an accurate statement, but for "when it is detached from traditional religions." The "destructive ferocity of faith" has had ample play within the moral barricades of one churchyard or another and the Bible is full of genocidal cleansings.

No doubt correctly, Berlinski argues that Darwin's account of natural selection and current theories of cosmology leave a good deal that is not adequately explained. More contentiously, he suggests that these gaps in understanding may give support to ideas of intelligent design. Here Berlinski follows atheists such as Dawkins in thinking of religion as a type of explanatory theory, different from that which is presented in prevailing science.

Of course "correctly," otherwise there'd be no work for present-day evolutionary biologists, none of whom claim that all has been explained. And wait a minute, didn't Gray say earlier that Berlinski is "not a proponent of 'intelligent design'"... Richard Dawkins didn't come up with the idea that "religion [is] a type of explanatory theory"; the founders of religions did! The whole purpose of myth is to explain to people where they came from and what they're doing here. It's blatant revisionism to pretend otherwise.

The truth of the matter is that religion and science are not competitors, but fundamentally different responses to the human situation. Religion begins where science leaves off.

Wrong! They are fundamentally similar responses to the human situation. Without the religious impulse--the need to answer vexing questions about ourselves and our origins--there would be no science, just as there would be no literature. Religion is an important early step in attempting to fill the void of ignorance. However, once that impulse leads us to discover certain facts about the universe that are in blatant contradiction of the dogmas of religion and the assumptions of faith, it behooves us to abandon the dogmas as truth (while still recognizing their historical and metaphorical values) and pursue knowledge where it might actually be obtained. Science begins where religion leaves off.

Religion expresses the human need for meaning, not a demand for explanation. For those who have it, faith entails understanding the limits of the human mind and an acceptance of mystery. Even if all the problems of science are some day solved, humans will still be searching for purpose in their lives, and for that reason alone they will need religion.

Explanation leads to meaning. An abstract "need for meaning" that can be satisfied by a rote adherence to millenia-old doctrine is a pretty feeble need. I'd say it's more a need for comfort. An understandable need, but one that is too easily satisfied. I have a young nephew who drags around a dirty threadbare blanket and can't bear to be parted from it. If that blanket were to disappear tomorrow, he'd no doubt suffer some anxiety from it. But he'd get over it. If you can't find purpose in your life without religion, maybe you should, as Rilke said, change your life.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Jailbreaks Toronto Launch

Good news: I'll be able to attend the launch of Jailbreaks on June 11 (see details in the post previous to this one). I'm flying in from Vancouver the day of and leaving dull and early the next morning. I continue to receive enthusiastic responses from the book's contributors, which is very heartening. I know from my own experience that an anthologization is worth a great deal more in writers' esteem if they respect the company they're keeping.

Back on the railroad this evening; two sleeps till I'm home for a rest.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

It's okay to hate the British because it's not racism, is it?

After a quick turnaround in Vancouver, I find myself back at the Radisson in downtown Winnipeg, once again ordering room service because I'm too tired--and sick of Other People--to go out for supper. It wasn't a bad trip here, but I wasn't in top form. Whenever I do too many consecutive days of railroading, I start to develop a real hate-on for people in general, which is not conducive to playing host. I'm also a bit miffed about non-tipping Brits. I understand that the concept of a gratuity is foreign to them, but when you're in a country in which it's customary to reward good service (even mediocre service) with a little extra money, it's extremely bad manners not to tip. My experience with British tour groups is that this is only one manifestation of bad manners; they also tend to be swinishly messy and thoughtlessly rude. For example, this morning, while I was on my meal-break in the dining car, a woman came and asked me if I could get her a pillow. I guess this was a real pressing concern, but why she thought she should ask the bartender on his break to get it for her only she knows. That said, some of the people in the tour groups were quite lovely and observed local customs, and most of the people outside of the groups were similarly decent human beings.

Thanks to the efforts of Colin Carberry and Alex Boyd, there is now a Toronto launch scheduled for Jailbreaks:

Wednesday, June 11
I.V. Lounge
326 Dundas St. W. (across from the AGO)

with readings by

Colin Carberry

Evie Christie

Pino Coluccio

E.A. Lacey (read by Fraser Sutherland)

Other readers to be confirmed.

I may well be one of those readers, but I've yet to figure out if I can make it or not.

I've also got something in the works for Winnipeg, but I'm waiting to hear back from the lone Winnipeg contributor before I can say for sure.

And now I'm going to watch a ballgame and rest up for the return trip. I'm really looking forward to my days off.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Where'd that damn horseshoe go?

My railroading luck ran out on Tuesday. It turns out that the crew-caller made a mistake and I should have been called to work as an "SSA" and not for the dome car, so I got demoted at the last minute and wound up waiting tables in the diner, for the first time since the spring of '05. This is by far the physically hardest job on the train, and I'm far from in top railroading shape. That, combined with my greenness as a waiter, made for a taxing trip, tho it went pretty well, all things considered, and I didn't screw up any orders, which amazes me. I haven't left the hotel room since getting in yesterday afternoon--too weary and worn. Fortunately, I'll be working in the dome--for sure!--on the return to Vancouver. Unfortunately, a few hours after I get back in, assuming the train's reasonably on time, I have to go back out again. I got my summer schedule two days ago, and my first run starts on Sunday; if I don't pick it up, then I'd have to stay on the spareboard until the next run starts on June 6. Given the unpredictability of spareboard work, doing back-to-back trips seems the lesser of two evils to me now.

In other news, looks like there will be a Jailbreaks launch in Toronto on June 4 at the IV Lounge. Colin Carberry is graciously organizing it for us, since I'm incommunicado much of the time. Stay tuned for details.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A pleasant surprise

Opened the mailbox just now to find in it a package from littlefishcartpress. Inside: 8 copies of After the Blizzard, the much anticipated (by me!) chipbook publication of my sonnet corona about the record blizzard that hit Halifax in the winter of '03/'04. So, if you've ordered a copy and have been patiently waiting, I reckon you should receive it soon. If you haven't, then what are you waiting for? The production is lovely, as I've come to expect from the fishcarters. (If you're unfamilar with the chipbook, it's a miniature chapbook.)

Yet Another Cry of Dismay

I was wondering, while reading this post on the Guardian Blog, when the term "tall poppies" might come up. Glad the blogger saved it for her stirring finale, where it confirms what anyone who's read any number of these earnest pleas for greater lenience knows: that it's impossible to criticise harsh criticism without resorting to amateur ad hominem psychologising. Constructive criticism has a time and place, for sure: before the book's published. "Kindness" on the other hand, is completely irrelevant, since it implies not saying what you think if what you think might hurt someone's feelings. Just maybe there's more wit to be found in the reviews of sharp-tongued critics because they're smarter and better writers than the namby-pamby feel-good crowd. It's been my experience that the most interesting praiseful reviews are often written by those reviewers willing and able to ruthlessly dismember a book.

Monday, May 19, 2008

At The Quinte Hotel

Tomorrow, Al Purdy becomes a statue, for better or for worse.


The eye, they say, look at the eye, nothing
That complex could’ve occurred by chance,
It’d be like a tornado blowing
Through a boneyard, building a Boeing from scraps.

Well sir, I never yet seen God devise jets
And as for optics, I’ve made better goggles
For robots. If what we got’s good as it gets,
How come half ‘em needs corrective lenses?

Shortsighted, longsighted, astigmatic,
Crosseyed, walleyed, colour blind, macular
Degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts—
That the suckers ever work’s miraculous,

Considering they got put in upside-down!
And don’t get me started on the wiring,
So cockeyed and crufty, it’d take a town
Of neurologists to map its misfiring

Matrix of circuits and switches. And let’s
Not forget the extra bits: appendix,
Gall bladder, supernumerary digits—
You’d swear a committee of idiots

Drew up this blueprint. But give credit
Where credit’s due: two kidneys and two lungs
Make uncommon sense in the event
Of malfunction, and you’d not want one tongue

More in your head, but Christ, why only one
Pump to move blood and one filter to clean it?
A single engine’s fine for a half-tonne
Pickup, but you need at least two on a jet!

And then there’s the sinus and spine,
Chronic pain wherein’s a constant reminder
They’d much rather their maker’d aligned
Them with the ground. You’ve got to wear blinders

To see enough evidence of sense
To impute this bloody botch to design.
If I’d assembled this unholy mess,
My son—well sir, I’d just have to resign!

Back at 'er

I'm off to Winnipeg tomorrow, working the dome car. I'll be there overnight on Thursday. I should also find out tomorrow what crew I'll be on this summer. The assignments start soon, so this should be my last trip off the spareboard until October or November. Looking forward to having a schedule.

Paul Vermeersch on Spoken Word

...and why it sucks. It's hard to disagree with most of what Paul says--banal clichés bad? check; naive political browbeating bad? check--but it should be noted that there are quite a few gifted practitioners out there--including Wakefield Brewster, Tanya Davis, Ian Ferrier, Shauntay Grant, Catherine Kidd--whose writing and whose performances are quite free of the generic clichés Paul enumerates.

Paul says at the end of his rant

My message to any aspiring poets out there is this: if you want to read your poem to an audience, read your poem the way it is written. If it is well written, it will sound just fine, and if it has something to say, it will be said. And if it isn't well written, then I recommend you keep working on your writing. "Performing" a shitty poem, no matter how well you "perform" it, isn't going to make the poem less shitty.

Okay, I know what he means, but the advice given is actually impossible to follow. If ten people read a piece "the way it is written," you will still get ten different readings because of the accent and other less readily identifiable qualities peculiar to any given speaker. The oral performance of a poem is perforce an interpretation. Coaching people to "let the words stand for themselves" is most apt to result in the dreaded deadened-affect "poet voice" that is as big a bane as any hip-hoppery. Dylan Thomas didn't read his poems the way they were written and G.M. Hopkins put accents in the text of his poems where accents wouldn't normally be expected. Sprung rhythm, hip-hop... Better advice would be: if you're going to read your work, know the damn text. This at least can be said of even the worst spoken wordsters.

The problem isn't generic; it has to do with reading hosts who lack either the guts or the native discrimination to say no to bad writers and readers. Spoken word is not the only genre rife with hacks and hams, sentimental effusions and unsubtle political aperçus. So Paul's terminology "legitimate poetry readings" makes me cringe a bit.

I remember talking to a patron at the Victory Café in Toronto one night. He said he'd been upstairs, but had to leave because there was a poetry reading and he hated the precious lyricism of it all. In the words of Marianne Moore, I too dislike it...

Friday, May 16, 2008

From the Department of Incorrectly Used Quotation Marks

I'm wondering if "Eczema" means leprosy...

"Lebowitz gets it."

Rachel's book Hannus gets a very nice review from Evie Christie.

book launch 2.0

Via Thirsty, via Russell Smith. Fucking funny.

Horseshoe up my ass

I lucked out again in the job-pick for the run home from Winnipeg, as I got promoted to work my usual job in the dome car. Had a pretty good trip back, steady, at times busy (thanks mostly to a rambunctious bunch of Aussies travelling from Jasper to Vancouver). Met quite a few nice folks and very few jerks. Tho I'm reminded again of one reason this job is a good one for a writer: it provides constant reminders of both the general disgusting bestial crassness of humanity-in-general and of the singular virtues and charms of many individual humans.

Started reading As I Lay Dying on the way home. So far, it's blowing my mind. Had a fine literary chat in the dome at one point with a couple from Austin, Texas, a Canadian English degree holder (working as a dozer operator in Fort McMurray) and another Canadian woman. I came out of the conversation with the impression that I really have to read some Richard Russo.

I "booked rest" on arrival in Vancouver, so the earliest I'll be working again is Tuesday. Monday, the results of the General Bid should be posted and I'll find out my schedule for the next few months.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Aqua Books

I went out for lunch today and decided to check out the eatery at the new Aqua Books store around the corner on Garry St. I had a nice cheap lunch, which I attempted to pay for with my credit card. While waiting for the bill, reading As I Lay Dying, I heard someone say to my right, "Are you Zach?" I looked up at a woman I didn't recognize, who said, "Are you Zach Wells?" I said I was and she introduced herself as Ariel Gordon, whose name I knew from various online sites, but I'd never met her in person. Turns out she's the events coordinator at Aqua. She gave me a tour of the facilities, which are still very much a work-in-progress. Great space, tho, with two event rooms (complete with fainting couches and skylit angel statue) and writers' studios upstairs, huge space for books downstairs and the bistro at the rear. When it's done, it'll be one of the nicest bookstores going.

Back on the road this aft. Fingers crossed for a job I like working. Looks like fine weather all the way west.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"original" "creative" "smart" "artistic"

The google search "original" "creative" "smart" "artistic" will bring you to this site in short order, I just learned. These search engines--it's incredible how intuitive they are!

Lucky Me

By some extraordinary fluke, I managed to avoid working in the dining car on the way to Winnipeg. Management added two extra jobs on the train, "sanitizing" surfaces in public areas of the train as a prophylactic measure against the spread of infectious illness, and I got to pick one of those jobs. All this, no doubt, because of the death on the train the other day in Northern Ontario--a death not caused by an infectious illness, but management clearly wants to make it clear that the company does all it can to prevent bad things from happening. Which is a-okay with me. My sanitizing partner and I had to do a sweep of the train every two hours, wiping down surfaces with disinfectant. This took about 30 or 40 minutes each time, with each of us doing half the train. Which meant that I had almost enough down-time to read all of All The Pretty Horses--which is a pretty damn good novel. I should only be so lucky on the return voyage!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Reductio Ad Hitlerum

Ron Silliman is often silly. But sometimes he's just plain fucking stupid.

Back on the Rails

Well, it was bound to happen. After six-plus months of unemployment, I'm making my first trip to Winnipeg in 2008 tomorrow. I'm going as an SSA (Senior Service Attendant, which is jargon for entry-level monkey), which means that I could be working in the sleeping cars, I could be working in the coaches or the coach takeout, but I'll probably, due to my pathetically low seniority number (336), be waiting tables in the dining car. This is my least favourite train job and the one I have the least experience doing (I haven't worked a waiter shift since spring 2005), so I'm not looking forward to five days of it in the least.

But tomorrow, I'm bidding for a regular assignment that starts late May-early June. Unless I'm outbid by someone senior to me, I'll be doing the same job as last summer, working as "Activity Coordinator" in the dome car. If I'm outbid, it's going to be a long summer. But for some reason, not too many of the senior people qualified for Activity Coordinator like the job. Which works for me.

Met up for lunch with Stuart Ross this afternoon. First time we'd met in person. Had a very enjoyable bull session at Cafe Rhizome. I gave him his Jailbreaks contributor copies and we traded books. I'm looking forward to digging into his new book Dead Cars in Managua, edited by my old prof and pal Jason Camlot, and listening to the CD An Orphan's Song, Ben Walker's musical adaptations of Stuart's poems.

I'll be in Winnipeg overnight on Tuesday, then back in Vancouver on Friday. Choo. Choo.

Friday, May 9, 2008


Glad I wasn't on this train. A little tip for travellers: if you're feeling really sick, a train crossing the barren wildernesses of Canada ain't such a shit-hot place to be.


I read today that someone who has yet to see Jailbreaks is "curious to see if it's actually representative of Canadian poetry." This person will no doubt be disappointed.

A) That was not a goal of mine.

B) This is an impossible-to-satisfy desideratum.

Further to A: this is not a comprehensive anthology, as the title (viz. "99"; viz. "sonnets") suggests. It is meant to be a sampler, and the sample is taken from an already very narrow slice --a sliver, even--of Canadian poetry. The selection is meant to be eclectic and is unapologetically eccentric. I.e. these are poems chosen by me because I find them fascinating for one reason or another, which reasons I attempt to elucidate briefly in the notes section. My goal is to shine a light into some obscure corners of "Canadian Poetry," not to be broadly representative of it. The emphasis is squarely on small individual poems and not on anything so gargantuan and amorphous as "Canadian Poetry."

Further to B: Even if I had wanted to be broadly representative (and in a very limited sense, the book couldn't be otherwise, since it contains work by no fewer than 100 poets spanning over 100 years), that noble ambition would have been bound to frustration. The only anthology that could possibly be "representative of Canadian poetry" would contain every poem ever published by a poet connected to Canada. Needless to say, this would be a highly unreadable, not to mention unliftable, book. The anthologist's only alternative to this Babel-model is to choose a minority of poems and reject the overwhelmingly vast majority. As Carmine Starnino has put it, "anthologies arbitrate. The genre, by definition, is about making a statement through selection." Idealistic notions of "fairness" or "objectivity" or "representativeness" cannot but be disappointed; any belief that an anthology is representative of anything other than the anthologist's taste and judgment is delusional. Some poems and poets will be left out no matter how broad the anthology's scope, and some criteria, arbitrary and otherwise, must have been applied in making that decision (I've yet to hear of an anthology produced in a purely aleatory, names-from-a-hat fashion). Thus, if you're going to set out to make an anthology, you'd better have your criteria fairly straight in your head before you make your choices. One of the most important things for an anthologist, I think, is to know what she is leaving out and why; anthologies cannot be comprehensive, but an anthologist's knowledge base should be. More or less.

I find representativeness a dubious goal to begin with, not only because it is impossible to achieve, but because it is hopelessly relativist. Even if it could be realized to some degree, the result would be a book bound to please almost no one--except I suppose those who value abstract notions of "fairness" over values of critical discrimination. (Tho I suspect even these folks merely pay lip service to their ideals in public, because it's the least offensive position one can possibly assume, and has the benefit of making one appear magnanimously progressive in the Liberal mindset in which "tolerance" is seen to be a virtue and "discrimination" a sin.) Really, if you're going to be "representative," it doesn't matter which poems you choose for your book, so long as they're somehow vaguely illustrative of what a given poet has produced; and it doesn't matter what poets you choose, so long as they're somehow vaguely representative of a certain style, school, or demographic cohort. Why bother?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


I just learned that my poem "Duck, Duck, Goose" from Unsettled will be included in a forthcoming anthology, Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems, edited by Nancy Holmes and published by Wilfrid Laurier UP.

For those unfamiliar with it, the poem in question can be seen quoted entire in this review (with formatting mistakes; it's supposed to have three tercets). I've always thought of it as an anti-nature-poem poem, so this perhaps bodes well for the anthology on the whole having a little bitter irony to go along with the usual reverence and awe of nature verse. No big surprise if you're familiar with Ms. Holmes' own penchant for ironic humour. Not that reverence and awe are bad things--some of my best friends are reverent and awful!--but they very often come off sounding hollow.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Linda Besner, Ken Babstock and a putter

Long-time readers of this blog might remember an interactive, insecticidal interview I did with Linda Besner a while back.

This time Linda goes mini-golfing with Ken Babstock. Well worth a listen.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

A couple of thoughts on memorability

Memorability is a term often applied to great works of art to distinguish them, presumably, from the great mass of forgettable ones. For poetry, in particular, it's held by many to be a sine qua non of achievement. But isn't this little better than a banal tautology? Anything that is great must be memorable, no? Presumably so. The question is more: what leads to memorability in a poem? In what does memorability inhere? And is memorability itself a sufficient pre-condition for great poetry?

I've come across a couple of things recently in which the topic of memorable poetry is addressed.

First, in the April issue of the Literary Review of Canada. This isn't a mag I pay much attention to, but I picked up a copy of this one for its first installment of "Canada's Most Memorable Poems," in which past LRC contributors make an argument for a poem of their choice. This first part featured, alphabetically, poems from "Atwood to Lowry, plus Anonymous." Some of the choices are drably predictable (Jane Munro choosing "Death of a Young Son Drowning" by Atwood); some very fine (Stephanie Bolster's choice of Margaret Avison's "Thaw" and Rachel Vigier's nomination of Bishop's "The Moose"--another person with the temerity to think of EB as Canadian!); A.M. Klein's "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" was chosen by both Priscilla Uppal and Jason Guriel (not a bad choice, tho if I had to pick one of AMK's for immortality, it would by "Heirloom", a poem less magisterial, but far more intimate); Susan Musgrave's choice of a short unpublished verse by an anonymous young offender proves again that she thinks biography is more important than artistic achievement when it comes to making yourself hard to forget (or ignore). At least Musgrave reprinted the poem; seems odd to run a feature on unforgettable poems without reprinting the poems themselves, for the benefit of those who don't have the requisite books ready to hand. (Tho I note that the web version of the article has links at least to those poems available on-line.)

There were, no surprise, many poems absent from this A-L list that should be there. Milton Acorn's "I've Tasted My Blood" with its unforgettable closing lines "I've tasted my blood too much / to abide what I was born to." Irving Layton's "For Mao Tse-Tung, a Meditation on Flies and Kings": "Those who dance best, / dance with desire, lifting feet of fire from fire / and weave before they lie down / a red carpet for the sun." (Line breaks are probably off, because this is from memory.) George Johnston's "War on the Periphery" (scroll down to the Nov. 11 entry): "the violent, obedient ones / Guarding my family with guns." These are just three that pop immediately to mind.

Mark Abley makes the valuable point that ""Most memorable" is not a synonym for best," citing the unforgettable awfulness of James McIntyre's "Ode on the Mammoth Cheese," one of my own favourite bad poems. It seems obvious that what makes something, whether it's a poem or a face or an event, memorable is that it's somehow apart from the routine, the average, the mediocre.

But in poetry, memorability is often used, unhelpfully, as a synonym for memorisability. Which brings me to the other piece on poetry's memorability I stumbled upon recently, this interview with David Solway. At some points, Solway does very well to point out that poetic greatness is not the product of technical facility alone, citing Swinburne as an example of an extremely talented poet who fell shy of greatness for want of something important to say. But at other points, he makes the case for poems being great because of how effortlessly he could memorize them.*

This, in my view, is a weak argument. One of the things, besides the rigidity of Victorian verse-writing conventions, that led to the widespread abandonment of, and even hostility towards, rhyming metrical verse, has to be the even more widespread use of such forms in popular music and advertising jingles. Anyone who's got a crappy top 40 song stuck in her skull or found himself involuntarily humming the banal theme of the local tire shop understands the insidious and undesirable memorisability of these "earworms." But not many people would cite this as evidence of artistic excellence.

Before it was ever used as an artistic medium, and before there was written language and ledgers in which to record it, verse was employed as a mnemonic device, to keep catalogues of things in the head. This survives today in such forms as "Thirty days hath November," originally composed by an anonymous versifier in the Middle Ages. Must be a great poem then, eh, to have lived so long in the minds of men and women? Of course not. But the more regular the metre and the more predictable the rhymes, the easier a thing is to remember. Perfectly regular metre and predictable rhymes, however, far more often result in wretched doggerel than in great poetry; very few significant poets have adhered rigidly to the prosodic dogmas that predominated in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The memorability of great poetry is usually far more elusive than the no-brainer retention of jingling rhymes. The mnemonics of metre and rhyme are tools that many skilled poets (and over the course of poetic history, it's safe to say most really great poets) have used to make immortal verse. But a magnificent cathedral ain't the product of strong hammers and sharp saws, necessary tho they may be for the construction. What makes a poem memorably great and not just synaptically gluey has everything to do with the individual genius (both inborn and acquired or reinforced thru reading and thought) of the poet, the moment in spacetime s/he occupies when the poem is conceived and completed--and a whole lot of luck.

*Solway uses John Ashbery as an example of a bad poet, because his poems are impossible to recall (and because, improbably, he has an agenda; kudos to anyone who can pinpoint something so amorphous as the Ashberian agenda...). But champs of Ashbery are fully aware of this bugbear. As Stephen Burt wrote recently in the TLS:

The same anything-goes, anything-could-come-next qualities that make his verse so hard to memorize give the same verse its peculiar mimetic virtues. Our thought includes both remembering and forgetting, both concentration and distraction, and Ashbery’s poems get closer to the moment-by-moment way that our minds work (at least to the way that we now believe they work) than earlier poets have ever come. If we find ourselves holding a firm belief, Ashbery says, it’s not because we have found solid proof: rather, a belief, like a memory, “gets worn into the mind like a crease in a road map that has been folded up the wrong way too many times”. If his poems work as our minds do, can we understand them any better than we understand ourselves? “I don’t understand myself”, Ashbery writes, “only segments / of myself that misunderstand each other.” His readers may feel the same way, even though (perhaps because) his poems tell us over and over how much he wants to reach us: “I need your disapproval, / can’t live without your churlish ways”.

I'm not a big Ashbery fan, but it takes a pretty churlish reader to find nothing wonderful in his work, particularly in a poem like "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," with such an undislodgeable aphorism as "The surface is everything":

And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything.

Those last three lines quoted above, in particular, strike me as very hard to forget; a perfectly apt and fluently phrased paradox. But part of what makes them memorable is not the glib easiness of committing them to memory, but the way the paradox forces you to process what's being said, to tussle with it and think about it before you assent to or quarrel with what's being argued.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Mixing Day-job and Vocation

Had a very nice conversation on the phone today with Anne Chudobiak, a writer in Montreal. Anne writes for Via Rail's onboard magazine, Destinations, and wanted to interview me for a piece in the magazine's literary issue, which is apparently due out in September. She figured a writer who works on the rails would make for an interesting story. I hope it does! If the piece does indeed come out in September, I'll still be working on the train, so no doubt it will be of interest to the passengers I'm serving. Too bad I'm not allowed to sell my books on the train... It'll be weird to have these two major aspects of my life, which I tend to keep separate, intersect this way.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Anything But Hank

I just saw that our kids' book, Anything But Hank!, is now available for purchase on and The official publication date is September 15th, but I'm told it'll be printed a couple of months earlier than that--very close to the arrival of our child! It's going to be a beautiful book, and would make a real sweet Christmas gift...