Comfort and Commitment
“I maintain that, if poetry is as difficult as everybody purports it to be, then no poet is going to be doing it–hence, my joke is designed to demystify poetry for my students, many of whom feel intimidated by work that is, at base, a whole lot of fun…”-Christian Bok, on this blog, while disagreeing with me.
“It would also be much easier to find trivial poems by foreign poets were it not the case that only the best of them are translated and distributed here.”-Alex Boyd, on his blog
I was taken aback by this recent blog post from Lampert Award-winning poet and essayist Alex Boyd. It comes from a 2002 essay in the Danforth Review, an essay I had read before I met Alex in person and had chocked up to a young poet trying to make a name for himself by being outlandish, before moving on to more considered opinions. I always assumed that the author was a little ashamed of it, so I was quite surprised to see it unearthed, polished up, and placed on his blog.
You should read the post, as it makes some interesting points, turns some good phrases, and is often well-argued, but I also think that, having read it, you should give your head a bit of a shake if it’s your intention to go on reading and/or writing poetry for pleasure and you happen to live in Canada. If I can paraphrase (and I can’t, normally, so you should really just read the essay yourself), Boyd takes issue with the notably Canadian reliance on “trivial themes and topics” in contemporary poetry. He suggests, for possible root causes, “overconfidence, a certain lack of dedication, or [insert ominous tones] something else entirely.” There’s much more than that, but there’s your starting point. Read the blog for more. Anyway, my two cents to follow.
1. The poet held up as the exception to this trend is Goran Simic. Simic is introduced thusly “the Bosnian Serb now living in Canada who writes, in From Sarajevo with Sorrow, about his experiences during the siege of Sarajevo.” The decision to introduce Simic through his nationality and as firstly a vessel for the expression of the horror of war is a telling one, and points to a sort of cultural naivete that is, unfortunately, notably Canadian. The poem that Boyd quotes from is moving, well-crafted and, more than anything, deeply specific and personal. It is the poem of someone who has live through the poem’s terror. But far more importantly, it is the poem of someone who is talented and practiced at the craft of writing poems.
Boyd picks David Donnell as the counterweight to Simic’s gravitas, and that’s fine. I don’t like the Donnell poem either. Boyd dismisses it as irrelevant and says “It’s impossible to find an irrelevant poem in From Sarajevo with Sorrow, in which every poem is tightly woven and important, contributing to an astonishing and powerful book.” Let’s assume here that A. the expression “tightly woven” is an ancient cliché of poetry reviewing, and is meaningless, and that B. the remaining adjectives, relevant and important, speak to the content of the Simic book, not the nuts and bolts of their engineering, as those nuts and bolts are never referenced. Among these two poets attempting to express their specific life experience in their work, the immediacy and unquestioned importance (or relevance) of a recent Civil War is available only to Simic, and not to Donnell.
Thus, Simic is left as a stand-in for his time and place. This is something Western culture tends to do to its immigrant geniuses, and a valid reason for them to continue to be suspicious of our appreciation. There’s an awesome quote from Rawi Hage out there somewhere (I’m still looking for it) about being concerned that he was seen, after the succes of De Niro’s Game as only a “great witness” to his specific place in history, and not a great writer. The same thing happened to Derek Walcott in mid-century England, and Dionne Brand in late-century Toronto. But not all the “Bosnian Serb(s) now living in Canada” are created equal, and Simic’s poem is a very good one because he takes his craft seriously, knows his audience, works very hard, is talented, and is diligent in his practice. But let’s not forget that he is a poet of the personal tradition, that same tradition that gives us little old ladies writing about gardens, and teenagers writing about hating their parents. What makes him special is his cultivation of a voice, not our fetishizing pompousness with regards to his status as an “other”. The thing good poems have in common is that they are all well-written, not that are all written about important subjects. I’m comfortable saying that and letting all those adjectives (good, well-written, important) mean different things to different people.
2. I think good poems are about expanding and contracting the reader’s world, making the miniscule (or, to borrow Boyd’s word, “trivial”) seem massive, and the massive seem small and intimate. A civil war is a massive thing. In all ways we can think of a topic as expansive, it qualifies. However, the individual experience of surviving a civil war is a smaller thing, and this is Simic’s true topic. His poem is not about the post-Yugoslavian conflict as a multinational study in the sociology of grief, it’s about rats, “At night they crept out of /the sewer and occupied the empires of the trash /heap” he writes. That these rats have metaphorical or even allegorical connotations is true, but they are also brought to corporeal existence through the strength of the writing. Simic succeeds in his poem because he makes the mice large, barbaric, and universal. He makes a big thing (a war) into a small thing (a mouse), and then turns that mouse into the largest mouse imaginable.
This is also, for the record, a major concern of Canadian poets like Don McKay, Al Purdy, Elizabeth Bachinksy, and not for nothing, Alex Boyd. I’m reading the new book of essays on David McGimpsey (in proofs form, it’s out soon though in stores). McGimpsey meets all of Boyd’s trivialist qualifiers, and does so without shame or guilt. I can’t help but think that if Boyd, in his reverence for “important” content, could come close to approaching the maturity of McGimpsey’s social or political understanding of his “trivial” content (TV, sports, American pop ephemera) we could possibly have a real argument on the topic. But we can’t. Not yet, at least. For now, let me just say this: McGimpsey and Simic are both poets who can make me cry, make me scared, make me smile, and make me wonder. They are capable of doing this for reasons that exist far beyond what they’ve chosen to write about, because they are two Really, Really, Really Good Fucking Poets. And they work hard. While we can drown the internet in discussions about what makes a R.R.R.G.F.P., I think that, allowing for variables, that equation will stand up as a general guideline.
3. Large sections of Boyd’s essay are given over to that great red herring of poetry discussions, relevance to some undefined general public. The argument is that Simic’s poems stand a better chance at being accepted as worth reading because they are about large things, whereas Donnell’s are doomed to obscurity because they are about small things. I don’t know if this is true, but neither does Boyd (or Donnell, or Simic, or McGimpsey). We will never be able to expand poetry’s impact on the rest of the world until we understand that said world is not populated by a single homogenous hoard of like-minded hive zombies. People enjoy different things. There is room for everything. If I’m certain of anything, it’s that the first step into the light for our underground art form is not the drafting of a list of things poetry should and should not be about. As our tent gets bigger, more people will be able to fit under it. Let’s let them.
4. Reading over Boyd’s essay again, it might benefit me to edit my paraphrasing a bit. Perhaps Boyd’s concern is less with the triviality of some poets’ preferred content (as expressed at the top of both his essay and this rebuttal) but rather the triviality of their tone. He says “It isn’t my intention to suggest that there is no place for humour in poetry, only that Canadians need to remember that humour, like anything else, can be relevant and more than just a winking inside joke, or a demonstration of the cleverness of the poet.” I agree completely. Most things can be relevant or irrelevant, and the difference, as novelists say, is all in the telling. As Boyd’s essay goes on, like this rebuttal,it grows more and more considered and plural.
What readers of poetry really need is the tools to detect the difference between quirk and its matured, benevolent sibling, the sublime. A good poem about NASCAR racing or hockey or ABBA expands its subject matter, stretches and grows it, until it achieves the sublime. A bad one stays mired in quirk. I like to think of these two end results as neighbouring towns on a long road. You can use similar means to get to either (humour, openness, wit, even irony), but to get to the good town, you need to go a little further. If you’re unwilling to do this, quirk is eager to offer you a comfortable, but ultimately forgettable, bed. When I speak of poems that make it to Sublime Town, examples like Kevin Connolly’s “Plenty” come to mind. “Plenty” is literally an ode to triviality, yet few poems written in this country this past decade have stuck in my mind for so long.
Goran Simic’s poem about wartime Sarajevo never had to worry about quirk (or, to use an alternate word, mere pettiness) in the same way that the David Donnell poem about eating waffles did. The Town of Quirk is nowhere on the map for Simic. On the contrary, the poems in, say, David McGimpsey’s Sitcom awake surrounded by it on all sides, and the fact that they leap this obstacle with an apparent effortlessness is part of their magic.
I want to close with the following prediction: The next great critical necessity facing readers of Canadian (and, as always, American) literature will be the ability to tell the difference between quirk and the sublime, and to clearly explain that difference as it applies to each successive book that lives somewhere on this spectrum. If we cannot do this, we run the risk of having people telling us what we should and should not write about. As Boyd says in his essay, “We are sometimes blissfully unaware that even the best poem about a crappy day (or a nice day with waffles and chocolate, a celebration of “something”) won’t compare with a less conventional experience or something of real insight and value.” I don’t care if we can compare the two or not, only that both have a warm and comfortable home in the house of poetry. Or the tent. Or whatever.