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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Canadian Literature, Fellow Bloggers, Poems in the Wider World, Reviewing, Toronto Poetry Cult

62 Comments on “Comfort and Commitment”

  1. Alex Boyd Says:

    Glad to read your thoughts, Jacob. My essay approaches polemic at the beginning to make the point, and grab the attention of the reader, not because I love to be outlandish. And I don’t mean to suggest everything by Donnell should be buried in a pit, and do remark that I’m obviously not catching him at his best.

    When you remark “the thing good poems have in common is that they are all well-written,” not that they’re “all written about important subjects,” I agree. I’ve mentioned Frankenstein, Superman and Captain Kirk in poems, but they’re all poems that are ultimately about something larger than how much I enjoy the occasional Star Trek episode, etc. I’m not against using trivia in poems, just against trivial poems. It isn’t entirely fair to assume I don’t approve of various other poets based on my essay.

    When you suggest “There’s room for everything,” I’m less inclined to agree. I’ve never been able to take a poem that refers to some other poet and read it aloud to a friend outside the literary world without them rolling their eyes. And poems that manage cleverness but not content get the same reaction. There’s the comfort I refer to when talking about the standard of living Canadians enjoy, but maybe I should have emphasized the kind of comfort we’re experiencing — and should really be jolted out of — when we start writing for an audience of other poets and literary types. Of all the art forms, I think poetry needs to redouble its efforts to get more people on board, and reading.

    All best,


  2. Brian Palmu Says:

    The issue Alex Boyd brings up in his essay is an important one, and I think Jacob misrepresents Boyd’s argument, reduces it to a simplistic attack against trivia, notwithstanding his distinction between quirk and sublimity.

    I’ve praised some of McGimpsey’s work, and denounced other poems by him, and the distinction has nothing to do with the foregrounding of pop culture, but at how successfully he transcends the banal content (though McGimpsey would likely think the content worthy on its surface) to speak to a larger argument, which is, itself, tied fast to how well the poem is written.

    The problem — and here I agree with Boyd — is that there are an overabundance of trivial poems which exist solely for the sake of praising the unimportant, the self-conscious, the trifling (or, just as bad, the opposite — mocking its prevalence in our throwaway, diversionary daily activities).

    One doesn’t have to write about grand themes in serious rhetoric to sidestep ephemera. “Little” poems can be large in profundity, if not in scope. But even “serious” poems are often comfortable (love Boyd’s use of that word in his essay) in contemporary verse. Conflict, such as it is, is often mildly metaphysical and claustrophobically personal.

    Many fine poets and critics have maintained that politically unstable times have provided us with the best poetry. Whitman, of course, said that great poetry needs a great audience. Perhaps poets obsessed with trivia are merely reflecting the unseriousness of society writ large (I confess to my own participation here in the larger community). But, historically, financial and political comfort is the exception, not the norm. When the bell curve drops, we’ll see different concerns, urgencies, and different methods for enacting them.

  3. Jeff Latosik Says:

    Alex and Brian,

    It just seems that the original essay “Comfort and Candian Poetry” is overly focused on subject matter as a determinant for artistic worth.

    I think Jake’s point is that we discount actually how good Simic is when we explain his goodness in some biographical or thematic way.

    The idea of comfort as a problem is right. That’s the spirit of the essay, which I like. It’s a very difficult argument to make, though. Poetry can’t be shell-collecting, but I’ve loved a lot of poems about trivial things. If something seems unimportant in a poem, it’s not always the thing’s fault. In another author’s hands, it comes alive.

    Thanks to Alex, Brian and Jake for getting this conversation off the ground. Best, – j

  4. voxpopulism Says:

    Cheers, everyone. Some responses:

    Alex: We are both fans of poems that can make something trivial into something profound. I’m somewhat confused by the expression in the essay, however, of “trivial themes and topics”. What are the trivial themes? What if the author’s trivial themes are thrust on her/him by the reader? I think what you’re attacking in the essay is useless poetry, and, in need of a legitimizing argumentative hook, you’ve affixed that uselessness to “the trivial”. But you don’t need an excuse for what you dislike, and you’ve thrown a lot of good stuff under the bus by giving into this urge.

    I can’t comprehend any poetics that isn’t willing to take the whole world as its subject, and move forward from there. The moral of your story about reading a poem that mentions another poet is that your friend just didn’t like that poem. Not to be a jerk, but maybe they didn’t think it was very good. Another friend might think differently. This is why we need to be open, be democratic. Because nothing is as democratic as the sum result of everyone else’s taste.

    Brian: I disagree that I’m simplifying the argument. I’m restating the argument using simpler words, surely, but that’s just to underline its weaknesses. And as said, I agree with Alex that a good poem of celebration for a trivial thing is rare. I would suggest that the rarity makes it very valuable, when it occurs, though. But this moderate, somewhat self-evident, statement isn’t consistently made in the essay, and it’s forgotten completely in his comment above, where he volunteers the removal of the ekphrastic tradition, as it applies to poet-on-poet allusions.

    Thanks for the thumbs up on the quirk/sublime thing though. Methinks that needs another blog post’s worth of unpacking.

  5. Michael Lista Says:

    There are a bunch of flaws that we can find in Boyd’s essay, most of which have been pointed out. But now’s a good time to reconsider The Most Misunderstood Phrase in Poetry:

    “Poetry makes nothing happen.”

    Most people, even really good readers, don’t get this. They think it means that poetry is ineffectual, that it has no purchase on the world. It doesn’t mean that at all–quite the opposite. It’s the Genesis moment, the Big Bang. It sets moving the inert. It makes the nothing that had just been nothing HAPPEN. That’s what a great poet does; every trifle lesser poets see as unimportant is for her the void over which the face of a god moves. And that’s where we have to disagree most forcefully with Boyd; the failure of the poetry he mentions isn’t its subject–trivia, nothing–but its author.

    The kind of poet we should worry about isn’t Donnell–who worries about Donnell anyway?–it’s the Ernest Canadian Elegist, who quacks on, book after book, in his easily ecclesiastical tone about The Grand Subjects; death, cancer, homelessness, The Old Ennui, lazily reaching for the low-hanging fruit of the ripely poetical. Any asshole can make something happen; it’s making nothing happen that matters.

  6. voxpopulism Says:

    Gadzooks, that’s a good comment!

  7. GM Says:

    Nice, Michael. Very well said. I respect Boyd and his opinion, though I do agree with some of it there are some sticking points. I don’t have the energy or time to go into what I think, and most of you don’t care anyway, but I wanted to say that it’s nice to see the debate being framed so well, and handled civilly, both there and here.

  8. Brian Palmu Says:

    Jacob, thanks for the clarification. Actually, rereading your initial post, you separated trivia writ large from trivia as a means to something else quite well. I’d overlooked it, my fault.

    Michael’s point is an excellent one. The mild metaphysical pseudo-sophistication I’d already noted’s a problem since it has the veneer of respectability, is therefore more influential, and is harder (for many) to separate from similar “subjects” which actually have something to say.

    Perhaps this topic could also fruitfully segue into the topic of motivation: the poet’s personal stake in, or compulsion for, writing the poem in the first place.

  9. Brian Tallet's Moustache Says:

    Given the other comments, especially Jeff and Michael’s point that ‘trivial’ subject matter can be anything but, Boyd’s argument seems to be false attribution. A poems isn’t bad because it’s trivial, it’s trivial because it’s bad.

  10. I had this very argument the other night. (See what happens when you leave early, Jake? Michael? You miss all kinds of drunken dumbness.) A very intelligent poet, whose work and opinion I respect, dissed another very intelligent poet whose work and opinion I respect, by saying that he writes poems about ironing. I said that subject matter was irrelevant, to which she responded that it clearly wasn’t for me, evidence being the subject matter of my poems. Well, okay, I’ve written poems about social inequities, class warfare, environmental degradation. Aren’t I swell? But I’ve also written poems about silverfish and kittens and lyrebirds and yes, about my feelings. Any one of those poems could as surely be used to tear me down as the aforementioned acts of poetic righteousness could be used to put me on a pedestal. Anyway, poets don’t generally choose subject matter. It runs into them. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t discriminate between poets and posers.

  11. Brian Palmu Says:

    Zach, that’s where I disagree. Ormsby’s poem is only about ironing in as much as Neruda’s “In Praise Of Oil” is about, well, oil. The “trivial” subject or image may stimulate a pleasant anecdote, but those poems are after more … (here it comes) … pressing concerns than that. And wonderfully accomplished in that tack.

  12. Alex Boyd Says:

    Good to see a thoughtful and intelligent discussion.

    Jake, I don’t want to dwell on this forever, but I don’t see anything undemocratic in suggesting to poets that they take it upon themselves to have heightened awareness, and ultimately try to write less self-centered, self-satisfied work. We’ll potentially open ourselves up to a wider readership in the process. We must all be aware poetry is, for various reasons, a remarkably marginalized art form.

  13. Brian, I don’t think we’re disagreeing. Like I said, the matter of a poem’s surface-level subject is irrelevant.

    And Alex, poetry isn’t marginalized. It’s marginal. No one has done this to poetry. That said, I agree with what you’re saying, in the main.

  14. voxpopulism Says:

    Alex, neither you nor I know the first thing about what might expand poetry’s wingspan over the world. If we did, we’d both have bestselling books of verse. We’re both making assumptions about what MIGHT work, while also working for us, with our specific interests and styles. Knowing nothing else, I’ll choose the assumption that opens as many doors as possible, and closes the fewest. That, simplified, is my issue with your essay.

    And I agree that poets should have heightened awareness. About wars and social inequities, and about dog collars and the ecology of bee stings and whatever else happens upon their attention, and becomes thus becomes our subject. Just as that heightened attention was placed, in the past, on Grecian Urns and torsos of Apollo, and the Trojan War. And, not to mention, old men who wear hats, as you have done quite well with yourself.

    Brian: Motivation and personal stake is worth talking about. I’ve seen, in my own work, the strain of “too much” personal stake appearing in the final product of certain poems. Poems we feel we MUST EXPRESS, because of personal subject matter, or political necessity, often buckle under our ambitions and become our worst. Though sometimes they’re done well, as in the Heaney poem I posted a few days back.

  15. Alex Boyd Says:

    I suspect we’ll need to agree to disagree here, Jacob. It’s my feeling there are a number of plainly obvious things that could be done to increase the amount of attention poetry enjoys.

    My compliments to you on a blog that links to such a variety of writer blogs and articles, which is a valuable thing to do, in itself.

  16. James Langer Says:

    Jake, this comes a little late, and it might not really pertain to the discussion, so forgive me. I simply want to take issue with what I consider to be Michael Lista’s mistreatment of Auden’s “Poetry makes nothing happen” line. While we can’t deny the validity of Lista’s interpretation (“The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living,” after all), his is, at best, the B-side reading. The A-side reading takes into consideration the fact that, at the time the line was written, Auden was grappling with the idea of poetry’s public uses (see The Prolific and the Devourer, see “Musee des Beaux Arts”, published in the same collection). The line occurs in a poem in which Auden is trying to distance himself from the politics of William Yeats (who very much believed that poetry made things happen, i.e. social/political revolution). Auden also made this statement in America after being labelled nothing less than a traitor to the British cause on the eve of war.
    The main thrust of Auden’s proclamation is that poetry doesn’t make anything happen. That is to say, poetry can’t stop a war. Why do you think all the dogs of Europe are barking? To deny this reading does an injustice to Auden, his time, his place, and the thrust of his work (he was arguably the greatest anti-romantic poet of the century). But the brilliance of the line rests in the different ways it can be read: the clear expression of mixed feelings. If you’re really desperate to spin this into something positive, think of it this way: poetry can’t stop a war, but because poetry makes nothing happen, it can’t start a war either. For Auden, here, poetry is benign. Too many people take that line out of context and forget what Auden went on to write: “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” In much of Auden, we see that poetry is an intimate conversation between individuals. It is a “private face” in a “public space,” to paraphrase one of Auden’s dedicatory verses, and only a small number of people listen in. Poetry’s power rests in intimacy and quality of expression not in its ability to create or support mass movements or large scale changes. Auden believed and stated that poetry is a part of history and not a historical motivator. If you read ALL of the versions of “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” and the collection in which it appeared, Another Time, that single line becomes less of an indictment and comes close to something of a celebration.

  17. voxpopulism Says:

    Nice to have you commenting here, James.

    I’ll leave a response to the Auden stuff to Michael when he next stops by.

  18. While I think what you’re saying is important, James, in defense of Michael’s B-side reading, I’d like to point out that one of Auden’s most significant contributions to poetry criticism are his lectures on Shakespeare. I don’t think WHA could possibly have penned that line without hearing the echo of Shakespeare’s famous words from Midsummer Night’s Dream: “as imagination bodies forth/ The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/ Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name.” Been a while since I read those lectures and I’m not at home right now, but it would be interesting to see if he has anything explicit to say about AMND in them.

  19. James Langer Says:

    Zach, there’s no doubt that Auden considered his own poetry to be Ariel dominated. No argument there. But “Poetry makes nothing happen” is not “the most misunderstood phrase in poetry.” It is one of the most ‘controversial’ lines of poetry ever written. That’s basically the gist of what I wanted to say, which doesn’t amount to much.
    I actually think there is great power behind Lista’s B-side reading. The Yeats elegy reveals that Auden was on to the whole ‘death of the author’ thing almost 30 years before Barthes got around to naming it. So when that “nothing happens,” it happens for each individual subjectively, each individual is free within the poem. That’s why Auden wrote, I can’t remember where, that every poem (trifling or “important”) is a utopia. All I’m saying is that I disagree with twisting that line too far in one direction. That’s an “insincerity of reasoning on behalf of one’s sincere convictions” (Ashbery).

  20. Michael Lista Says:

    Aw shucks, come on James; I haven’t “mistreated” the line have I really? I think it’s hale enough that come tomorrow, we’ll still be able to say its “gift survived it all.”

    I think you’ve misunderstood me. I never meant that that line had anything to do with poetry’s “ability to create or support mass movements or large scale changes.” Not at all. The “nothing” that happens isn’t an historical event; it’s an aesthetic event.

    Moreover, James’s reading, besides being a little tight laced and unimaginative, is contradictory. Why would Auden be “trying to distance himself from the politics of William Yeats” with a poem that insists that “poetry doesn’t make anything happen” and “is an intimate conversation between individuals”? In other words, why would a poet as smart as Auden employ poetry–and a poem convinced of its own public inefficacy–to function in the utilitarian service of the statement of policy? There’s more here than James’s “A-side” biographical pragmatism.

    If the nothing really is nothing, as James would have us believe, why then does it do so much? Auden tells “it survives/ In the valley of its making” but then it moves too, as it “flows on south/ From ranches of isolation.” That nothing’s pretty busy! For a second time, Auden tells us “it survives.” And then–and I’m not sure why you quoted this part, James, because I think it more supports my reading than yours—he tells us that it is “A way of happening.” The nothing has become a way.

    But hell, ever since Abbey Road I’ve preferred b-sides anyway.

  21. James Langer Says:

    See, I knew I should have let it go. Okay, Okay, a double A-sided reading like “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane.” And yes Michael, you can be “Strawberry Fields,” and I’ll be the much less interesting, much less challenging “Penny Lane.” As for contradicting myself: you’re welcome. And I think my note about Auden’s line being somewhat celebratory can be used to make your case, as well. You’re welcome again.
    I don’t really mind the contradiction, though. I really don’t disagree with your reading. It’s all there. My reading of that poem is pretty volatile and unsettled. I tend to flip it over quite a bit. Let’s hope it stays that way, since it’s far too good a poem to petrify. What really drew me out is that you started your comment from such a shitty premise. I mean, come on, is it really the most misunderstood phrase in poetry? Are people who read it the other way really misunderstanding it? I think that approach mistreats the line. When I said “A-side reading”, I meant that the first thing people hear when they read Auden’s line is that poetry doesn’t make anything happen. That’s why it draws so much attention. Not because it’s misunderstood, but because it’s just there. If Auden had written that poetry makes “a nothing happen,” would anyone care? The first time I discovered your way of reading the line, I immediately recoiled from it, thinking that I had willfully misread it because I couldn’t agree with the statement any other way. I know better now, but that note of uncertainty is still there for me. And I still have to consider the situation in which Auden was writing and the fact that he knew how much weight that comment would carry. So no, I would not “have us believe” anything. Don’t bait me like that. I’m too accident prone.
    You know as well as I do that your reading and the one I offered in rebuttal are parts of a whole. Now I understand that you were going for emphasis and that in the world of blog commentary certain allowances have to be made for the sake of brevity and entertainment value. But I barreled in despite my better judgment. So, jump on the fence with me here, Lista. It isn’t always comfortable, but they’ve got this great view.

  22. sq Says:

    What’s missing from this discussion is experience, time, context, distance…who is to say what is making a thing, or nothing happen? Who is to say what is making meaning? Who or what will hold up? Who is to say what comfort is? Who is to say? It seems everyone is too close to the mirror to have any real sense of the bigger picture.

    My two cents for what it’s worth.

  23. Brian Palmu Says:

    Ah, yes, “who is to say?”, LH. “Who is to say?” is diplomatic code for “how dare you have an opinion!”.

    Who is to say what is a stance of comfort, even complacency, in a poem? Me. How’s that for shameless. But I think one more “who” — the sixth repetition of that rhetorical trick — may have been the powerful push that convinced me. Alas.

    All of us are living in comfort — financial and political — when compared to most others in other countries, and others in previous eras. Great. I prefer a comfortable life to a desperate one myself. The question is: is it cool for poets to relax and churn out personal, self-satisfied anecdotes? Joy, celebration, praise are all worthy feelings and means in a poem, but when a narrow focus on trifling events and observations — for their own sake — are touted, who else cares but the writer and the specific addressee?

    Though this conversation has taken an interesting, sophisticated turn lately, Alex Boyd’s original post is fairly straightforward.

  24. voxpopulism Says:

    Straightforward, perhaps. But surely you wouldn’t join the original author in making lists of “poetic” and “non-poetic” or “extra-poetic” content, would you Brian?

    And no, that’s not in the essay. But it is in this comments thread.

  25. voxpopulism Says:

    And Sina was soliciting opinions, not refusing them. But you knew that….

  26. LH Says:

    Actually, it’s not diplomatic code for anything. It’s what it is, that’s all.

    We all have our rhetorical styles. Rhetoric is style.

    But you know that.

  27. LH Says:

    Babstock, from his post on interviewing today gets at what I’m saying above:

    Approach: trepidation. Method: effort. I’m keenly aware of my own shifting opinions and deficiencies in critical thought/practice, so I come to every book with a sense of climbing up toward it lacking the proper gear and training. I want to be affected by the book under consideration and will try hard to make that happen on some level. Space constraints begin to close in around what wants to find expression.

  28. Brian Palmu Says:

    No, LH and Jacob. Whenever the phrase “who’s to say?” pops up, it translates — certainly to me — into “NO one can say, so your opinion has no merit since the poem belongs in that relativistic ether where the author’s intentions are far more important than those of any dubious reader’s assessment”. If LH wanted to solicit opinions, she could have added something specific to the discussion to counter what’s been said. But speaking of content, she’s now weighed in with a post from someone else which has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Reviewing approaches? How does that contradict Boyd’s stance? Is she saying that Boyd is being dismissive — on this issue — because he isn’t as compassionate and patient as Babstock? This is just more passive-aggressive shift and switcheroo. One can survey a “text”, (as the common parlance now has it), and damn the result in just as informed, and worthy, of an opinion as one who agonizes over putting forth anything resembling a cavil.


    No, there are no non-poetic topics or off-limit meta-poetic concerns. It’s what one does with them that matters. We’ve already agreed on this.

  29. Brian Palmu Says:

    Hmm, thanks for your non-dickheaded contribution, George. You’re the only one persuing ad hominems.

  30. GM Says:

    The blogger software is not letting me remove my comment for some reason, so I’ll qualify it with an apology to Jacob for swearing on his site. I’m just very frustrated by seeing progress interrupted by personal vendetta and bullying. Jacob, can you remove my freak out to clean up the general quality of things here?

  31. voxpopulism Says:

    Done. And thank you, George. You know how I feel about that stuff.

  32. LH Says:

    Who’s to say? Who’s to say? It’s interesting what one does with difference. Welcome or no? Treat it as hostile or no? The question is certainly a terrifying gesture. Downright hostile.

    My clarity is clearly not your clarity.

    You can pounce on that or query it.

    Either way I suppose I don’t need to come back. So as you were. More comfortable that way.

  33. James Langer Says:

    One of the things that comes up in Boyd’s essay is that “poetry is fighting to be consumed alongside so many other forms of expression.” And whenever we start lamenting poetry’s lack of popular appeal, we start suggesting that it is somehow in competition with television, movies, YouTube, whatever. But to drag McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” into this: the message I get from television, YouTube, and the website link is “consume and dispose, consume and forget, consume and move on.” I don’t think poetry has much of a chance competing with that kind of conditioning, especially when good verse is about creating something memorable and, sometimes, about creating something so challenging that you have to return. I mean, how many collections of poetry are on your shelf right now that you would say are in a perpetual state of being consumed? How many episodes of CSI would someone watch more than once (that is if they can stomach the first 5 minutes)?
    I don’t really see one kind of content being any more or any less democratic than another. I think if poetry has a democratic side it resides somewhere in the music, the rhythm. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the most seemingly impenetrable Ashbery poem or “There once was a man from Nantucket.” Rhythm is democratic and, yeah, entertaining. The rest is patience and commitment, two qualities that don’t really scream “buy me!”
    Of course, we could spike the water supply with Ritalin. We could set off a continent wide EMP. Then again, that wouldn’t create a greater demand for poets, just a greater demand for electricians.

  34. voxpopulism Says:

    Excellent, James.

    Moreover, many of the calls for (this is going to sound like a plug for this blog, but it’s not) poetic populism model patterns of consumption that are inspired by consumer economics. This being the sort of “bums in seats, books in hands” model where the volume of product you can get out to a number people is the only way of charting your success as a cultural commodity. TV shows (Neilsen Ratings) and movies (box office) are displayed this way.

    But poetry has a different user model, doesn’t it? Like you said about returned, cyclical engagements, the means of cultural devotion are tuned more to depth of impact, than breadth of impact. A single reader, who is revolutionized by an interaction, is preferable to fifty glimpsing looks. This doesn’t do us any good with the economic model that cultural impact is measured by. It also doesn’t do poets many favours w.r.t. actual economics, as that revolutionized reader is still only going to buy that book once, not fifty times.

    This goes back to my original points about breadth of content, breadth of style, breadth of everything…The only way to find perfect readers is to try and have something for everybody.

  35. James Langer Says:

    Jake, this won’t be coherent, but just a couple thoughts:
    What about Seidel? All of the implications in Seidel’s work emerge from what appears to be an extreme level of comfort. His standard of living seems to permit a kind of aristocratic disdain, an approach Baudelaire discusses in his writings on the dandy. Again, Seidel’s is an extreme example, but an example nonetheless.
    There’s the poem “A Trifle” by Paul Muldoon. In that poem, there’s a bomb-scare that threatens the speaker’s Belfast office building, and Muldoon spends the poem writing about a piece of sponge cake. It’s hard to tell which is the trifle — the bomb-scare or the sponge cake? So irreverence, maybe even quirk, is capable of taking on political dimensions. Of course, Muldoon had a pretty serious backdrop. But we have our backdrops too. They just don’t qualify as immediate physical threats.

  36. LH Says:

    The only way to find perfect readers is to try and have something for everybody.

    You think?

    I’m not sure what a perfect reader is, nor a perfect poem, nor a perfect outcome to an experience of poetry. I like what Lisa Robertson has to say about this however, that writing disturbs the air and as we all know, one can’t trace the air. Or, one puts one’s work out into the world…all one has control over is the writing. Reception, that’s a whole other matter.

    What we discuss in these fields, these comments boxes, is 1 1/100th of what is being engaged with (I am always aware of the silent readers in other words, whose comments as above, might not slot so easily into the discourse followed here).

    It seems to me going deeply into one’s work is the way to speak to the most people…but as I asked myself earlier, who is to say what deeply into one’s work is? Or honest, or sincere, or showing real insight?

  37. voxpopulism Says:

    James: I’ll definitely give you irreverence as a tool that can have political dimensions (after all, what more is satire than irreverence, weaponized?) but I think quirk is a harder sell. It’s one of those fad-words that’s hard to get a real, lasting, definition for, but to my eye it applies to the fetishized fascination with the self, and specifically the self’s least exploratory, most navel-gazey components. Quirk doesn’t look beyond itself enough to be political. It’s distracted by the bright shiny lights of its author’s behavior. The only thing quirk successfully satirizes is its author, and it does so unwittingly.

    Again, to go back to the Boyd essay, this is a condemnation of style and structure, not of content. It’s on that, and really only that, that I find myself agreeing with him.

    LH: I agree with all of that. Except to say that just because “perfection”, like “greatness”, “mediocrity” and others, isn’t always specifically definable, doesn’t mean its not useful to talk about, as a sort of personalized variable injected into a sentence in much the same way a mathematician allows for the unknown when constructing an equation. And your silent majority is always welcome to stop being silent.

  38. LH Says:

    Sure, but how to talk about it? There is hostility to a point of view that isn’t expressed the way people assume points of view should be expressed. How do people find their voices here when any tonal differences are perceived first as hostile?

    And even when difference shows up there is little attempt to engage with it.

    My point is there are many more ways of discussing…that doesn’t a hierarchy make either.

  39. LH Says:

    One more thing before I sign off in favor of the weather…it’s not so much about a poetry for everyone, as a way of hearing.

    I do appreciate your desire to create such an environment Jacob.

    Opinions are messy. I would love to see a real diversity of opinion and in ways of expressing those opinions…

  40. James Langer Says:

    The following is Rated A for Academic.

    I’m sorry to see this thread come to an end, because I found it engaging, and because so many questions have been left in the air. But I thought I would reply to LH’s question of “Who is to say?” Even though it may be too late for anyone to read it.

    LH: I don’t think your comment was hostile, but I would understand if someone found it insulting. This is not just a question of tone, but in the way you used the imagery of the mirror it is possible to perceive an expression of liberal superiority. What follows should in no way be taken as a personal attack, but simply as a statement of philosophical disagreement.

    “Who is to say,” when asked in this context, seems to me to be an incredibly ironic question. It is clear that you understand that the only way to overcome difference and reach understanding is through open public discussion and some kind of desire for solidarity. And yet, the question itself reinforces the binds of contingency and reduces each person involved in the public discussion to little more than an inchoate subjectivity. In short, it is a silencing question.

    The question “Who is to say,” for my money, locates its authority in what Jurgen Habermas has defined as the philosophy of subjectivity. That is, the philosophy that traces its lineage through Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida. This is a very important question for individuals to remember as they struggle to deal with difference and the question of the other in their private lives. But the philosophy of subjectivity is almost entirely pointless when it comes to how we can usefully engage with one another in our public lives, when questions of difference and the bounds of subjectivity are superseded, in my opinion, by the ethical quest for similarities, agreements, and practical truths.

    A discussion like the one above constitutes a search for statements that a specific group of individuals, following the proper rules of engagement, can agree upon. Those agreements can then be held as practical truths which each individual can adopt for their own understanding of a subject and in their own practice. By practical truth I mean a statement that has no metaphysical twin. And so, without a metaphysical twin, this truth, authorized by collective agreement, can change as the discussion evolves and as more voices are heard. Or it can be discarded once new and better resources are found.

    The problem with the question “who is to say?” when it appears as it did here, is that it undermines the very real possibilities of intersubjective communication (the discovery of practical truths). The question reminds each individual that they are a restricted subjectivity and utterly fails to admit that every individual has a right to express their opinion, while respecting the opinions of others.

    Who is to say? After finding common ground, we all are.

  41. LH Says:

    Well, that’s a lot to chew on, and I thank you for the thoughtful response. I’ll post more on my use of “who is to say,” another time. But briefly, I question what the proper rules of engagement are, of course. Certain points of reference agreed upon? Assumptions of subject positions? Reading? Background? Many, many assumptions in these comment streams…tones, gestures that don’t comply aren’t included, or are ignored, or pounced on.

    This is a quasi-public space, right? Hoping for new voices to chime in? Well, fact is, one needs to make space for those voices…

    I see it all the time. Difference gets erased. Or quashed under so much ramped up response it dissuades any further engagement…which seems to be the point…it proves a “lack” of critical rigor in the “weaker” party, doesn’t it? And then all the rhetoric of the comment stream gets trotted out and slathered over the offending party.

    It isn’t pleasant.

    On the other hand, your direct and honest question was very pleasant. And I hope you’ll find it a direct and honest reply.

  42. James Langer Says:

    There’s a pile of work grumbling for attention, so this will have to be my last comment for some time. I’ll always come back to read though.

    LH: Wow, you’ve been writing with a lot of question marks. That’s probably a very healthy way to think and a good way to demand the same of others. Still, I can’t help but feel as though, rhetorically, they’re having a kind of sling-shot effect. I mean, even trying to approach them seems to fling me off into the vastness of space. The problem with space is that it’s a vacuum, and I feel like I’m left alone with your questions and only myself to agree with. I’d like to hear some of your answers to those same questions.

    Here’s just one simple thought on the rules of engagement, and then I’m out. I think one of the problems with the blogosphere is that everyone seems to treat it as if it constitutes one massive amorphous space, and all threads are treated as if they’re a part of the same fabric. But what flies on one blog shouldn’t necessarily fly on another. So the rules of engagement should, in some way, depend on the venue. While mutual respect between commentators is a no-brainer, I think people really need to respect their host. Jake works very hard trying to set a balanced, considerate tone for this project, and it would be great if everyone commenting here would simply follow his lead.

    In other words, it’s all on you Jake. No pressure.

    Take care.

  43. LH Says:

    Yes, and most blog commentors speak with a lot of authority. Much better that way. Maybe there should simply be a template? Wait. There should be a template. Other rhetorical styles that demand different ways of thinking are a waste of time. Let’s be clear, we all learned how to write an effect sentence. Make statements. Bold ones.

    Hope you can handle all the pressure Jake.

    After I leave this comment will slowly crumble into a vacuum with all the other quirky people.

  44. 7th Shade Says:


    I’m a lurker in forums like this one. Why lurk? Because the conversation can be intimidating. So why visit? Because of a passionate interest in the subject. In other words, I am one of the “new voices” you mention.

    I certainly hear you regarding tone & approach. Battles erupt on this sort of field. Big guns get hauled out. The displays of erudition often strike me as tinged with machismo.

    Let’s take this comment stream. I read the original post, then the back and forth between its subject and its author, and think: if I’m going to cast off my lurker cloak and wade in, I can expect any shortfalls in my reasoning to be brought to light.

    I read Langer’s penultimate post above, and I think: better not weigh in bombastically as if I know a lot, because people around here are far better read than I am on much of the pertinent subject matter.

    I read some of the nastier stuff, and I think: yikes! And stay silent.

    Intimidating? Yes. And I agree that the tone could be more accommodating. (On the other hand, when a specific dialogue emerges between people with similar levels of knowledge, I wouldn’t want them to pull their punches or dumb it down for me.)

    If I do decide to jump in, I’ll think quite hard beforehand, try to make sure my statement is reasonable and well-supported. (Lamentable self-censorship or beneficial refinement? Not sure.)

    But here’s the thing. All of these types of comment (except mere nastiness) leave me with the impression that if I think things through, I can actually engage with them. By their very assertiveness–laying down opinions and showing the work, math-class-style–they leave themselves open to counter-argument. They’re science, not religion.

    Then I get to the question-based, “Who’s to say?” comment. Whatever its intentions, I’m afraid this intimidates me far more than the other stuff. It seems to shut down, with the irrefutability of a priest intoning Latin, any contribution.

    Like Langer, I feel myself slingshot into a vacuum of sheer subjectivity, with nothing objectively useful in what I could contribute, no shared stepping stones upon which I could advance my own views.

    At least that’s how it comes across to this “new voice.” Admittedly, this could be a problem with the environment–perhaps I’m just conditioned to be intimidated. But, amid the crackle of gunfire, this non-volley is to me the most forbidding comment of all.

    It says: no matter how thoughtfully, how earnestly and vulnerably, I make my point, this one voice will be a constant, shooting it down no matter how careful its construction. Because who’s to say anything?

    (Which, come to think of it, is probably a useful voice for mortals to hear in the backs of their minds at all times. Effective counterweight to vanity!)

    I realize that’s the exact opposite of what you intended, which is why I piped up: at least for this one “new voice,” the question-based comments work against themselves.

  45. James Langer Says:

    Say it isn’t so, LH. Say it isn’t so.

    No, I mean, really, tell me I’m reading you wrong, because I’m finding it difficult to read this last comment as anything other than sarcasm.

    First off, I wrote that your questions were flinging me into a vacuum. That makes YOU the center of gravity. And I also took the time to explain how your questions were making me “feel,” which is relationship building 101. And that’s met with sarcasm?

    If that’s true, it reduces everything you’ve written about respecting other rhetorical styles and differences to hypocrisy.

    So, I’m going to assume that I’m at fault, that I’m reading you wrong, because when I said “mutual respect,” I meant “mutual.”

  46. voxpopulism Says:

    Dear Lurker,

    Well said, lurker.

    I think I agree with you. Part of the evolution of these kinds of converstations is towards a sort of step-by-step, “here’s why I’m right”, empiricism. But if I had to choose,I’d want it to stay that way, because, like you said, this invites counterargument. And the dirty secret to places like this is that the comment authors WANT counterargument, they want people to disagree with them. Respectfully, openly, and consistently. At least I do.

    Subjectivity is a strange duck. On one side, it’s necessary to embrace it if you’re going to enjoy the p.o.v. regarding arguments described above. But subjectivity can also breed the kind of inarguability that is the antithesis of this blog’s raison d’etre. Subjectivity, taken to its end, is the death of any argument. So is there a line somewhere that can be drawn? Is there a third way? I’m not sure. In the interim, I’m willing to accept that some subjective arguments are better than others, and that this can be seen through the testing procedures of informal rhetoric.

    As for the machismo stuff. Well, we’re mostly guys, unfortunately. Only you and I know your gender at this point (I saw your email address when you commented, and deduced). I’d recommend keeping it that way, as I would for all new posters, if you’re going to stick around. And I hope you do. Because clearly, you’re a smart person. And more importantly, you seem to know how other smart people think.

    Hoping LH responds to James’s comment above…

  47. “Subjectivity, taken to its end, is the death of any argument.”

    You’re wrong, Mooney! How’s that for a subjective statement? But seriously, I think relativity is far more of a conversational killjoy than subjectivity could ever be. Because it’s relativity that posits that my subjectivity has nothing to do with your subjectivity. Which is silly. Objectively.

  48. Alan King Says:

    Here’s an essay on a young poet’s journey and lessons along the way. Please read it here at

  49. […] a recent post over at Vox Populism, reacting to an essay by Alex Boyd, whose rip cord was trivial v. non-trivial subjects in CanPo. […]

  50. […] March 15th, 2010 Comfort and Commitment. In which our hero takes issue with fellow blogger Alex Boyd’s essay on content in Canadian […]

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