Knotting-Off the Aughts: #9, Sue Goyette’s Undone

Year of Release: 2004
Place of Creation: Halifax, for the most part
Press: Brick Books (London)

Mode of Acquisition: A gift, from the fairy-godmother of Canadian poetry, Ms. Kitty Lewis. Kitty has been tracking down college creative writing classes for years and sending them boxes of books from her house (aka Brick’s international offices). I’ve been treated to her largesse twice, in this instance as a part of Mary Dalton’s intermediate poetry seminar at good ol’ Memorial University in maybe the winter of 2004. You’re wonderful, Kitty. Thanks for all the great books!

Status of Personal Copy: Somewhere in the massive book-eating vat that is my old sailor’s chest, currently positioned in my mother’s basement outside Wolfville, NS. Every time I go home I take armfuls of books from said chest and bring them back to Toronto, but said chest never looks any less full. Curious.

If I had to do it again, I’d place a stethoscope on the heart of us
Sooner. I’d prescribe Neruda, not the despair but the slow blossom of 20 kisses.
-from “A Version of Courage”

I know I said I’d avoid canonical interpretations when I set out the ground rules for this little exercise, but I’d like to make a small suggestion. I think that, when the winds of Canadian poetic history pass through the ten years discussed herein, the major drama they find will be that of a lyrical necessity that was challenged (occasionally creatively, but more often through criticism) by a rising school of formalist orthodoxy. This school will be rightfully seen as more broad-minded and thoughtful than its predecessors, and it will be agreed that they made some really powerful arguments. However, despite this wall of rhetorical insistence, the lyrical tradition will be seen to have adapted, and even flourished, with few effectively expressed counterargument or no organized resurgence. It survived, instead, on poems—on a thick supply of books by poets who found new life in well-fished waters, who wrote free lyrics about things that free lyrics have been written about for years, and who did so in ways that were new, specific, and rich.

I say all that as someone who quite happily identifies as a lyrical poet (though I try, often at great personal discomfort, to read everything). And I’m comfortable spilling the beans enough to say that, by my count, there are eight books of lyrics in this top ten. It’s a list of favourites, after all. I don’t have any better sense of the best-ness of books than I have the best-ness of colours. Except, and this is a broad exception, I don’t paint things, I write them.

Sue Goyette, the author of Undone, my 9th favourite Can-Poem collection of the decade, is known as one of the regular instructors at the heaving poem-factory that is the Banff Centre for the Arts. She also worked for some time for the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia, is hilarious, and seems to have put poetry on hiatus to write a novel that has become something of a tooth-and-nail struggle with the muse, but one I know will reward its readers well when they finally get to see it. That being said, she did poke her head up long enough to win the 2008 edition of the CBC Literary Contest in English poetry for a dense and often heartbreaking little collection called “Outskirts”.

If our #10 book (Camlot’s The Debaucher) was a tribute and lament for both masculinity and irresponsibility, then Goyette’s assorted mothers, sisters, and best friends strike a pose for femininity, and interdependence. Keep in mind, of course, that the placement of Undone at #9 does not suggest a specific preference for the latter. The ordering of the titles is done for reasons that have nothing to do with perceived “quality”, as we talked about in the intro.

Goyette’s poems bristle the weight of human attachment and the complicated self-politics of being simultaneously a mother and a human being. Her poems stretch out in long, polyrhythmic lines, giving way naturally to the occasional flights of prosaic writing and centred meditation. Her sense of music is subtle, and rarely at the focus, but there is always the invitation to an entirely different reading of Undone, and it’s there that the book really announces its brilliance. There’s a whole technical architecture to how Goyette’s often-roomy poems hang together, and that architecture supports itself gracefully while still allowing space for the dozens of other little musical flourishes that pop up from moment to moment.

In Undone, Goyette has written with incredible honesty, but she also knows that honesty is, sad to say, something of a deadening force for the millions of confessional lyrics it has been allowed to drive headfirst into the ground. Sue Goyette is a poet in full control of her honesty, both in the sense of a diligent personal inventory and an impeccable gift for recollection, but she uses it to move her work forward. At no point in Undone does she give in to the temptation to let her honesty conquer her poetry. She prods her honesty, kicks it in the ass, and uses the full toolkit of what we call “craft” (which is the same for all poets: music, timbre, rhythm, cadence…) to turn her honesty into a thing of such agility and grace that its liveliness often takes my breath away.

Bonus Points: Sorry, no video today. When Sue Goyette starts a rock band, I’ll be sure to update this section.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Poems in the Wider World, Top Ten of the 2000s

23 Comments on “Knotting-Off the Aughts: #9, Sue Goyette’s Undone”


  1. Red herring alert: it makes no sense at all to speak of the “lyric” and the “formal” as tho they’re opposed or even discrete categories of poetry. A paragraph from the substantial entry for “Lyric” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics sheds light on this:

    “To speak of the “musical” qualities of l. poetry is not to say that such poetry is written always to be sung. Neither does the appellation of “musical” indicate that l. possesses such attributes as pitch, harmony, syncopation, counterpoint, and other structural characteristics of a tonal, musical line or sequence … To define the quality of lyricism in this way is to limit a l. to the manner of its presentation or to its architectonic aspects. This is largely the approach which Cl. critics have taken in their treatment of l. poetry. On the other hand, equating poetic lyricism with the nonarchitectural or “emotional” qualities of music is even less profitable, because it leads to such question-begging definitions of the l. as “the essence of poetry,” “pure poetry,” or, most vaguely, “poetry.” To declare that “the characteristic of the l. is that it is the product of the pure poetic energy unassociated with other energies, and that l. and poetry are synonymous terms” (Drinkwater) is as extreme a definition of lyricism as the converse claim that a passage is lyrical simply because it possesses “the quality of metrical construction or architecture” (Murray). Both are extreme.”

    In other words, I don’t know of very many poets typically labeled “formalist” who don’t write lyrically. It’s a bogus distinction.

  2. voxpopulism Says:

    Hi Zach,

    I don’t disagree with any part of that definition. I would say, however, that contemporary usage of both terms assigns them different approaches to the same ambition (that ambition, essentially, is musicality, which doesn’t have to involve song, per se, but is an undeniable cousin to music). And whereas a critic should take into account some element of a poem’s ambition, even if they dislike the end result, the division is fair.

    I think that you may disagree with that last sentence (that a critic should try to read a poem’s ambitions as much as its product). I don’t expect to change your mind about that, but it’s something I see as a complete necessity when agreeing to communicate with a text, especially one that (unlike this Goyette book) I don’t necessarily like.

    What’s your take on this Goyette book, anyway?

    -J


  3. Okay, but the “lyric” is not an approach per se–except insofar as it’s distinct from epic/narrative or dramatic poetry–it’s a result, so using the term the way you have invites misreading.

    I haven’t read Undone. After reading her first book about eight years ago–which I bought after hearing her read, thinking I must be missing something–I have to say I was cured of any desire to read anything more by her. I found the poems verbally sloppy, formally arbitrary, cliche-ridden, sentimental and often trivial (which isn’t a problem of subject matter, but rather the constellation of the aforementioned problems). I was astounded at its success in the prize lotteries.

    This has nothing to do with me being unattuned to the poems’ ambitions. There are plenty of vers libre lyricists whose work I find moving and formally accomplished. I have written and continue to write a fair bit of lyric verse without metrical or stanzaic constraints myself, so the goals aren’t foreign to me. I have also enjoyed quite a lot of explicitly feminine and feminist writing, so that aspect of her work didn’t bring me up short either. (See recent reviews of L. Robertson and S. Thammavongsa.) I just thought the poems were egregiously, spectacularly bad. Again, not the book you’ve nominated, so I acknowledge that Undone could conceivably be much better. It certainly couldn’t have been much worse.

    As for the general question of appreciating where a poet’s coming from, no, I actually don’t disagree with you. But I think it’s only worth taking into account if I think the poet has got to where s/he’s going and that the destination was worth a visit. It’s absurd to try and appreciate the intentions behind bad poems.


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