rob mclennan, in this querulous little post, worries that my profile of him in Guerilla magazine focuses on the writer instead of the writing.
Hello? rob: the piece is a P-R-O-F-I-L-E, not a review…and how it manages to constitute ‘sour grapes,’ or ‘diva behavior’, as you suggest, I really don’t know.
What I do know, since you ask, is that I don’t think, from what I’ve read of it, that your writing is very good.
Jack Kerouac typed all of On the Road using a single ream of tracing paper so as not to have to waste time or energy changing sheets. The book I think shares with mclennan’s work an unedited brain dumped-like quality.
Take this, from a poem written by mclennan ten years ago entitled ‘fire, newspaper, cigarettes, etc.’
I cant imagine loving anymore. Some of us
Just take up space on this planet until we leave.
& the others, well, I don’t know.
She doesn’t love me, black smoke the dark night
& an explosion + fire in my neighbourhood.
Her letters drop me to my knees.
John puts out his cigarette & goes back into his house.
Susan stands on the sidewalk a few minutes more.
Nothing remains of the red brick building.
Or this, ten years later, from mclennan’s recent collection Gifts, called ‘Smoke’:
Stride confident, calmly through maps and
Be spectacle, bespectacled.
I am rumi; removed.
would sit there and static; or a record of
flax on a seahorse; the sink and the swim?
is interesting uncle, pull back or the arm.
The room smokes from within. smokes.
This poetry has no momentum…no building expectation…there is little rhythm, or music. No motion that pushes the reader or the text forward. The language is pedestrian. In fact, it stands still, goes nowhere. All we get are games with letter cases and punctuation and meaningless ‘&’ symbols. It’s as if mclennan has written a prose piece, dropped every third or fourth word, laid out what remains on the page to look like a poem for the reader to marvel at; to dwell on its ‘free structure’; ponder its deep mystery; squint at its inscrutability. There is, at least for this reader, no sensuous delight or charm independent of the meaning of these words. There is nothing extraordinary to sit with; or to admire. Words have not been used in any exceptional or unusual way.
Sticking with the heat theme, compare the above with Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s ‘Feeding the Fire’
Some hard half eaten logs lie
Drifting in ash;
Black in the flocculent smother of grey.
Just a puttering flame,
The occasional spat of cinder.
Holding a sheet of the Times
Up against it, though,
The lung of paper sucked in
And suddenly lit from behind:
A roaring diorama;
The long throat of fire, feasting,
Hungry for news. The page is read,
Then reddened, then consumed.
There is originality here. Evident craftsmanship. The words dance; they sound like fire. They rub against each other, resonate with heat. There lies a primitive pleasure in reciting them. Mouth and listen, for example, to ‘hard, half eaten logs lie Drifting in ash.’ I, at least, experience a delight in voicing these words.
‘Lung’ is given new life. ‘Flame’ is now ‘throat,’ which lends strength and meaning to the alliterative fire, feasting; we’re engorged with a powerful, provoking metaphor linking worth and consumption.
During the past twelve years Robertson has produced perhaps five volumes of poetry, two of which are translations…
Here’s what mclennan says about his novels: “They’re very condensed…boiled down…I’m not fan of the English novel of 400 pages. English novels including a page and a half description of a tree…I’m more interested in the dense emotionally descriptive novel that doesn’t have a single wasted word.”
Tell me if this, contained in his latest prose doesn’t contradict what has just been said:
For what it’s worth, I’m more partial to mclennan’s prose than his poetry, despite the solecisms. Beneath its somewhat flowery surface, there is buried, I admit, a soft, pleasing, pleasant lyricism.
Soft is perhaps the apt word to use for mclennan’s criticism. subverting the lyric doesn’t contain a harsh judgment or critical statement on any one of its 237 pages. It does, however, list the names and works of literally hundreds of Canadian poets. As such it might more accurately be described as bibliography; a telephone directory. How many poets’ names can I fit into one book? Similarly, in an early collection of poems, Richard Brautigan Ahhhhhhhhhhh, mclennan manages to thank, on the acknowledgments page, no less than 36 people. As Edward Thomas once said of Ezra Pound, ‘too much noise about Pound and not enough substance; too much referring and not enough originality.’ During one essay ‘Yes I have published a lot of stuff’ mclennan interviews himself, asking: why do you have to be such a jerk?’ There is no answer to the question. It looks as if there’s been an error made in the text. What we get is: ’2. I write at my own speed.’ When I asked the book’s editor Michael Helm for an explanation, he told me that this was ‘exactly how rob wanted it to appear.’ When I asked mclennan for the same, he said that the editors had removed his answer. Either way, one suspects that, because he poses the question to himself, there might be some owning up to the fact that he is more about performance than he is art.