Photo credit: Terry Byrnes
In preparation for an interview I plan to conduct with poet/professor David Solway next week, I’m reading Random Walks, a collection of his essays. One in particular “Pronominal Debris” struck me, as much for it’s directness, as for this coincidence: Last week, before reading the essay, I proposed that David select two poems, one ‘good’ one ‘bad’ for us to compare and discuss. This is exactly what he does in “Debris.” He takes a ‘bad’ poem into one of his classes and uses it to discriminate ‘merit from mediocrity’ by providing “clear examples of infringement and omission.”
Following this practice, students quickly discover principle features of the bad:cliché, (the verbal reflex of sentimentality or laziness) or flat, prosaic, hydrogenated, forgettable language; inconsistency in the development of idea or image; willful or needless obscurity (obscuring its own obscurity as rare insight); banalization (in terms of both attitude and subject); an haut gout of arch self-consciousness or self infatuation; and derivativeness.
Erin Moure’s “Pronouns on the Main” is the unfortunate exemplar chosen for the colluseum. Uniform and unrelieved ‘deadness’ is the crowd consensus. Few understand clearly what’s going on in the poem. It lacks cohesive theme,content and narrative; it’s filled with uncompromising trivia. Its rhythm is jerky, ‘out of breath’, its cadence in need of a respirator. The subject is boring, ditto the writing. The language is unmemorizable, ‘loose,’ like jotted diary entries, early scribblings, far from resembling a finished poem. Far from “a unified structure of significant ideas and feelings in sprightly, powerful sonorous and memorable language” that genuinely seeks cohesion, “substantive experience, reflected in the masterly control of the versification.”
Unlike Auden’s poem Lullaby, which by virtue of its charged, tensile, economic use of language, a cunning rhyme scheme and a strict metrical syllabic count, tends almost to memorize itself, Moure’s work is forgettable.
According to Solway, her Governor General’s Award winning feminist verse lacks poetic distinction, vitality, imagery, and metaphorical coherence, in large part because, as he puts it “ a decline in poetic power inevitably follows whenever poetry becomes a displaced form of politics or of any sort of partisan agitation."
What I find refreshing about Solway’s criticism is its opinionated, demanding, severe, specific, precise, humorous erudition. So very unusual in Canada. His work reminds me, in its intolerance of mediocrity and disgust with misplaced celebration of same, in his bold naming of what is ‘bad’, of John Metcalf, whose latest, Shut up he Explained, I’m currently dipping in to with pleasure. Of Wyndham Lewis too.